Turkey Hunting The Black Hills

Turkey Hunting The Black Hills

A sudden winter storm makes an already challenging public-land hunt even harder—and more rewarding

I was on my way to check one last piece of public ground for my evening hunt, when something out of place on the trail, covered with fresh snow, caught my eye: a set of turkey tracks. I hopped out of my truck for a closer look. They were small, but I hoped they belonged to a jake, rather than a hen. I grabbed my shotgun and set off to follow the footsteps like mountain lion hunters in the area had been doing a few months earlier after their quarry.

It had been a grueling day in the snow and cold of the Black Hills, but this line of prints took the bite out of the air. I crept alongside the tracks, making some quiet yelps along the way. At any moment, I expected a gobble back but didn’t hear a sound. I kept going.

Change in the Weather

I’d already had a successful spring turkey season, with an Eastern that I shot in early April and the new state-record Rio Grande that I killed with my bow not long after. To complete my South Dakota slam, I just needed a ­Merriam’s, and the Black Hills offered the best chance to get one.

As this is one of the few places in North America where all three species are found, I was in a unique position to take each bird in the same state and season. This would be my toughest turkey hunt yet, though, tackling unfamiliar public ground. The Hills are known for their abundance of birds and rough topography, both of which allow South Dakota to be liberal with its unlimited resident and nonresident tag allocation: There might be a lot of turkeys here, but they’re all hard-earned.

The Black Hills are also known for moody weather. According to the National Weather Service, Spear­fish experienced one of the most remarkable weather events in history with a 49-­degree temperature change in Dec. 1943, when the mercury jumped from minus 4 to 45 degrees in two minutes. The Köppen climate map tells a similar story, with a humid subtropic climate and a subarctic climate existing within just 50 miles of each other inside the Black Hills. On my hunt, I’d have both.

The day prior, it had been 70 degrees with clear skies. But that morning, I sat in my truck with the glow of my rearview mirror reading 25 degrees as a bland radio host warned that a foot of snow was on its way. I got out of the vehicle and stepped into total darkness. Tall pines cloaked the lights of Rapid City, and dense clouds eclipsed the moon and stars. As I started up an old logging road, the forest was dead silent. No wind, no footsteps, no songbirds and, worst of all, no turkeys. I could hear only the snow—now trending closer to ice—pelting off my hood before it began to collect in my beard. When the sun finally rose, the hills felt emptier than they did in the dark.

For two hours, I hiked the trail without hearing or seeing a turkey. I’d stop on tall ridges to glass the vast mountains, and call with hopes of coaxing a gobble. It was a fruitless hunt, and a march that only a desperate turkey hunter would make.

With these conditions, the birds were in survival mode. The blizzard drove the turkeys to bunch up and seek shelter and food near bird feeders and feedlots. With 1.2 million acres of public land at my disposal, though, the last place I wanted to see a bird was within eyesight of someone’s patio.

I stuck to the logging roads all morning and afternoon. When I’d get cold or tired, which usually took just a couple miles of hiking, I’d head back to my pickup and relocate to a new piece of ground. I did this three times, dreading the next time I’d have to get out of my truck to take my shotgun for a walk. I took the scenic route to the last trailhead, consciously getting behind schedule so I’d have more time to stay in my dry and warm vehicle. That’s when I spotted the turkey tracks.

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Spencer Neuharth hunting bearded hen Spencer Neuharth

Bearded Lady

After a quarter mile, I arrived at a steep cliff face where the tracks temporarily ended. If the turkey wasn’t on the other side of this, I figured, I’d start my descent back to the trail. Just over the crest, there stood my Merriam’s. I raised my shotgun—only to realize it was trained on the blue head of a hen. I brought the gun to my side, mumbling something about my luck with the unknowing bird at 30 yards. Accepting that this hunt was over, I kneeled in the snow and watched the hen. Then the bird turned broadside to me, exposing a 6-inch beard, making her legal to shoot with a male turkey tag. After I was absolutely certain the beard wasn’t a mirage that my greedy brain was projecting, I reshouldered my gun and touched off a concluding shot.

As I stood over the bird, I took a mental picture of the scene. This rare bird was a fitting reward to a demanding day afield—a salve for my aching feet, numb fingers, and chapped face. I’d do it all over again in a second.

Gear Tip: Shock Treatment

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HS mega hoot owl call H.S.

Shock-gobbling is a weakness in the turkey’s armor, since it gives away a tom’s location on the roost. Hunters can use this to their advantage in areas they’ve never hunted; the technique is great in big woods like the Black Hills. The most common locator calls mimic an owl or crow and are most effective just before daylight. I like the H.S. Mega Hoot Owl Call ($12; hunterspec.com), which takes some practice but makes lifelike calls. If you’re able to get a tom to answer, move in on his turf and surprise him with a couple of hen yelps at daylight.

Written by chillman for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

Tip of the Spur: New Cutting-Edge Turkey Tactics

Tip of the Spur: New Cutting-Edge Turkey Tactics

The tips, gear, and hunting strategies you need to have your most successful and wildest turkey season ever

On the cutting edge of turkey hunting, the most obsessed gobbler fanatics are pushing the boundaries to be more successful and have more fun. Today’s trendsetters are toting crossbows and .410s, pressing their own mouth calls, tackling tough public birds by choice, busting birds on purpose, and generally doing whatever they can to make the madness of spring last a little longer. If you want in, these are the hot tactics, tricks, and gear you need to try.

Game Changer: Carry a .410

Yes, carrying a .410 to the turkey woods is now a thing. Guys do it to prove they’re good, and the successful ones can teach you a thing or two about getting super-close to gobblers.

Even with quality loads, a .410 shotgun forces you to get pretty tight to a tom. But a couple of springs ago, Realtree’s Phillip Culpepper took the small-bore trend to the extreme and set the online turkey crowd abuzz when he killed an Osceola longbeard on camera with a Taurus Judge .410 revolver. “Shooting at a pie plate, the pattern started getting sketchy at seven steps,” he says. “So I knew I’d have to get close.” For that, he used a specialized reaping tactic. All the usual open-field safety rules apply.

Beat It

Culpepper uses a Flextone Thunder Chicken, which is a compact reaper-style decoy. In addition to a real fan, he zip-ties dried turkey wings to the fake. They provide extra concealment—but they also allow Culpepper to employ another trick.

“Michael Waddell showed me this,” he says. “If you’re crawling in close but the gobbler’s not breaking, you can pop the decoy stake hard against the ground. It makes those wings beat against the decoy, and it sounds just like turkeys flogging in a fight. Do that while making a fighting purr, and it’ll drive him nuts.”

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OnX Hunting App OnX Hunt

Get Ready

When the bird does break, Culpepper stakes the deke in front of him, sits back, and pokes the barrel through the tail fan or eases it over the top of a wing. “When a tom is locked in, he won’t notice that movement.”

Culpepper killed his Osceola at two steps. “I love to see how close I can get to them,” he says. That’s the whole appeal of the small-bore trend. “Still, I think I’ll leave the Judge home and go with a shotgun from now on.”

Trending: Breeder Hens

Decoy companies have been making “breeding pairs” for some 20 years. After all, if a jake decoy just standing there upsets old gob, then the sight of one on top of his girlfriend should really create issues. Problem is, those decoys have historically looked so fake that I doubt some manufacturers have ever witnessed a real round of turkey coitus.

Today’s top makers must be more voyeuristic because they are now making highly realistic breeder-hen decoys that can be used with or without a jake. Late in the season, I leave the jake home and add a breeder to several feeding and alert hen dekes. I position the breeder for my best shot. The other decoys help draw gobblers in from a distance, and when they finally spot that hen on her belly, they’ll strut right in to do God knows what. Be ready to shoot—or cover your eyes.

Game Changer: Go Public (On Purpose)

Believe it or not, some top gobbler killers hunt public land because it’s harder. On some pressured Tennessee public land that I hunt, the seasoned locals swear that all the gobblers wired to go to hen calls have been culled out of the flock. I’m not sure I believe that, but I know these toms are tough. Here’s how I’ve managed to bag a few.

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Brian Grossenbacher

Fools Rush In

Most public-land hunters hear a gobbler and rush to sit down, eager to make the first yelps and “claim” the bird for themselves. But pressured birds learn that a hen calling from one spot means trouble. Instead, I call occasionally while sneaking ever closer. You’ll bump some turkeys, but you’ll kill some too, if you still-hunt along at the speed of fungus. Use your binoculars to glass constantly for a fan. Don’t be afraid to make him gobble with aggressive yelps and cutts, but keep them infrequent. Be safe, of course. And never utter so much as a cluck without a setup tree and shooting lane in mind. know when to Shut Up

Once the turkey gobbles at you inside 50 or 60 yards, sit down and be quiet. Don’t bother with a decoy, and put your call in your pocket. The bird assumes that he’s about to see a hen walking to him, and when he doesn’t, he’ll get anxious. Don’t scratch in the leaves. Don’t cluck. Make him think his hen is gone. Keep watch with your gun on your shoulder, and if he quits gobbling, don’t move for a full 30 minutes. Odds are, he’ll sneak in silently before then.

Trending: D.I.Y. Mouth Calls

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Kerry B. Wix

“A serious flyfisherman doesn’t want to buy flies at Walmart. He wants to fool a trout with a fly he tied himself,” says Tennessee turkey nut Kerry B. Wix, who’s been pressing his own diaphragm calls for the past five seasons. Wix says the first yelper he ever made sounded awful. But the learning process has paid off.

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Robert Harding / Alamy

Virtually all mouth calls consist of just an aluminum frame, latex reeds, and tape. “The big differences in sound come from the call’s side and back tension, layering, and reed cuts,” Wix says. “Increasing side tension by a ten-­thousandth of an inch can completely change the sound. Everyone blows a call a little differently, so finding your perfect combination of reed cut and stretch off the shelf is random. But when you’re making your own, you can tweak the numbers to get them just right, and then build your perfect call over and over again.”

Wix says that his calling improved dramatically once he learned to build his own calls. “I enjoy making them for myself and my hunting buddies,” he says. “When they choose my call to kill a gobbler—well, there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

Game Changer: Carry a Cross

If you’re one of the many hunters who’s jumped on the crossbow train recently, take it turkey hunting. A crossbow provides the point-blank thrill of bowhunting with the run-and-gun capability of shotgun hunting. And in some states with archery-only seasons, like Nebraska and Kansas, it’ll get you extra time in the woods too. I’ve killed a slew of gobblers with a crossbow. Here’s what I’ve learned.

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Kerry B. Wix

Set a Ruse

To kill a turkey with an arrow, you want the bird standing still inside 25 yards. Good decoys are the name of the game. I place a DSD 3/4 Strut Jake or Avian-X 1/2 Strut Jake 15 yards out and quartering to me. Then I stake a hen deke at 18 yards. Aggressive gobblers will walk past the hen and square off with the jake head-on, giving you a 12-yard shot. Passive birds that strut just beyond the hen are still easy pickings for a crossbow.

Rest Easy

When you fidget, the wide limbs of a crossbow will move enough to spook any turkey. A rest, like the Primos Trigger Stick ­Monopod, is essential for keeping comfortable and still while working a bird, and for 10-ringing a turkey’s small vital area.

Cut Big

I’ve killed a bunch of birds with fixed-blade broadheads, but I’ve come to prefer hybrid heads with a fixed bleeder blade and two big mechanical blades, like the Bloodsport Gravedigger or Muzzy Trocar HB. Even the slowest crossbows have the oomph to push those heads through a gobbler, and they open devastating holes.

Wild Tactic: Bust a Move

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pack of pesky jakes Donald M. Jones

There are days, often late in the season, when we promise to spend the rest of the year becoming a better person if only we can get a shot at a turkey. A jake with a beard just long enough for the game warden to see would work fine. Problem is, jakes and even 2-year-old gobblers tend to bunch up late and can be surprisingly difficult to kill. Unless you bust them up first.

The key is to actually scatter them, not just spook them. You need individuals to fly away in multiple directions. I’ve had my best luck by getting within 100 yards of a flock and then running at them head-on. Yelling and cussing, a lot, seems to help.

Next, sit as close to the break site as you can and stake out a single jake decoy. Give the woods 10 minutes to settle down, and then make long, loud strings of jake yelps, kee-kee runs, and gobbles. And when that turkey is finally flopping at your feet, remember your promise about the rest of the year.

Written by Will Brantley for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

For Turkey Hunters, 70 Yards Is the New 40

For Turkey Hunters, 70 Yards Is the New 40

Actually, that’s an obvious lie. But now that we have your attention, let’s discuss the effective range of today’s ground-breaking turkey ammunition.

Coming up with blog post topics every week is a struggle sometimes. So I Googled “great blog posts” and found a list of “101 topics that will make your blog hot.” For obvious reasons, number 80 was my favorite: “Abandon your blog for a week and make others think what happened to you. It’s pretty risky, but if you are famous blogger—this will get you a lot of buzz.”

I loved that suggestion for so many reasons, but ultimately I decided getting paid and keeping my job was preferable to a week off and the slim possibility that my absence would generate buzz. Besides, I recalled that turkey season is open in some places and I have already been hearing about 50-, 60- and 70-yard turkey kills. I am going with hot-blog suggestion No. 43: “Tell an obvious lie.”

And that lie is: 70 yards is the new 40.

New turkey loads—notably Winchester Longbeard, but now Federal, Apex, and Nitro Co. have all introduce Tungsten Super Shot loads (more about TSS in an upcoming column, it’s insane)—make turkey guns lethal to 70 yards. To put that in perspective, when I started in 1987, my Browning Double Auto loaded with Remington short magnum 5s would and did kill a turkey at 35 yards. Full-choke 3-inch magnums might kill to 40. Effective turkey gun range has almost doubled in 30 years. A turkey at 50 yards could just as well have been on Mars when I started hunting. Now it’s a dead bird, and while I’m not proud of taking 50-yard shots, I’ve made four or five, and believe they are totally ethical and within the killing power of my gun, which I have patterned a lot.

The new ammo pushes that maximum distance out to 60 to 70 yards, or more. One outfitter told me he made a 98-yard shot on an injured Osceola with TSS, backing up a client. Does that mean we should all let fly at 70-yard turkeys as if they were standing 40 yards away?

Uh, no.

First, recognize that even a shot as basic as hitting a stationary turkey with a shot pattern gets harder with every yard, and 70 is a lot of yards.

Second, you need to spend a lot of time at the range with your gun, fooling with chokes, sights, and ammo to come up with a combination that is reliable at 70. The rigs capable of 70-yard kills are out there, but it’s not just a question of putting expensive shells in your gun.

Third, you’ll want a rangefinder, because who’s to say the turkey standing at 70 isn’t actually at 78? Not many of us can eyeball 70 yards accurately.

Finally, I hope we can all agree that a hunt that ends at 20 yards is much more exciting than one that ends at 70.

There’s no denying the effectiveness of Longbeard and TSS, and I’m not going to pretend we can’t kill turkeys a lot farther away than we used to. Should we? That’s an ethical question up to each one of us.

Written by Phil Bourjaily for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream