Turkeys elusive during hunt in Black Hills

5/5/04 Article in the Sioux City Journal paper

HILL CITY, S.D. - Some things are just not to be. That's how it was one morning last week in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
John Geiman and I were perched on the edge of a ridge about an hour after dawn sending echoing turkey yelps up the canyon. It had been dead quiet as far as gobbles were concerned for about the past hour. Before that several toms were making their presence known all around us as the big birds shifted restlessly on the limbs of Ponderosa pine trees.
It sounded good, those ratcheting gobbles echoing across the granite faces of the canyon walls. But then they went silent at fly-down time and apparently walked to the top of the rim.
We had just changed positions when we heard them once again. Double and triple gobbles announced the presence of birds just over the rim above our position. I shifted around and pointed the gun uphill. Then a bird walked out on the edge and stood there, intently studying the scene below. I couldn't tell if it was a tom so I held fire. The bird turned, showing me his beard and then walked behind two trees which effectively blocked my shot.   Then he ducked back. Shortly after then entire group of six toms flew across the valley to the ridge on the other side.
I looked at John, my guide, and smiled before explaining why I had not filled my tag an hour into our hunt.
That was the opening round of a four-day hunt for the elusive Black Hills Merriam turkeys. I was there with Gary Howey and his cameraman Scott Bonertz. We were making a video for Gary's Outdoorsman Adventures television show and had enlisted the help of John and his brother Jeremy Geiman. John operates G-Man Outdoor Adventure guide service based in Rapid City. The Hills City native had proven his game plan for the dawn hunt was good and except for poor light a tom would have been collected early.
But the Black Hills National Forest is filled with turkeys and I was confident I'd get another chance before long.
The hard facts of the matter, however, were that the turkeys saw it differently.
A cold front had wrapped itself around the Black Hills the day before and refused to let go. Nighttime temperatures fell into the low 30s and the daytime highs only rose to the 50s and strong winds blasted the whispering pines into a crescendo which ebbed and flowed throughout the days. The turkeys were nervous and didn't move much. Their gobbling was shut down. Most of the toms had hens with them.
As any turkey hunter will tell you, that's when hunting gets tough.
We hunted hard right up till dark, but aside from having a couple hens striding among our decoys we couldn't get close to another tom. Gary and Jeremy reported the same kind of results. Lots of birds early, then they disappeared like smoke from the two-year-old burn that had swept through parts of the areas we had hunted.
The Black Hills are a hunter's paradise and one of the great things about it is most of it is public ground open to hunting. John guides deer, turkey and elk hunters. The areas are laced with logging and fire trails and suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles. Some of the roads are closed during the hunting seasons with the only access by walking.
John and I hunted such an area on the second day. We walked in about three miles and then left the main trail to follow another which looped around through several grassy valleys edged with Ponderosa pine and granite outcroppings and cliffs. On the way in we stopped to observe about a dozen elk grazing on a hillside about 500 yards away. A bunch of mule deer were scattered around them.
When we came in through the trees behind that hill we spooked about a dozen more elk which thundered through the timber crossing the trail about 50 yards ahead of us. The musky smell of elk hung in the air as we walked through.
Turkey sign was everywhere along that trail and we set up in several places but couldn't lure in a tom. A small stream meandering through the valley was still edged in ice in places and a sudden snow squall covered the ground in white at one point. Minutes later it all melted.
It was back in here that a found a mountain lion track, made probably four days earlier during the warmer weather. The track was sunken deeply in the now hard ground and was made by a big male lion.
Gary and his group enticed a tom into their setup that day only to have it fade away when another gunshot sounded somewhere in the timber. They also reported seeing several mountain goats, some right on the trail they were traveling. Whitetail and mule deer were everywhere.
That's probably why John can advertise that he will refund your money if you don't see the game species you are hunting the first day out. The Black Hills are loaded with game.
John's been guiding in the hills since 2000 and grew up in Hill City. His rates are the most reasonable I've found anywhere. A three-day hunt for deer or turkey is $300 for three days with lodging at reduced rates at nearby motels or $450 including lodging and meals. He prides himself on offering quality hunts at reasonable rates and even has reduced rates for youths, handicapped and females. To learn more about his services, see his website at: www.gmanoutdooradventure.com.
Both Gary and I had several close opportunities to bag turkeys but things just didn't work out. One tom came right in surrounded by hens and didn't offer a clear shot. Gary waited and then the bird stepped behind a tree, peeked out and for no explainable reason just bolted for the timber.
And, on the final morning, I hesitate to report, I missed.
John and I had climbed to the top of a ridge where we had heard birds gobbling earlier. We yelped and purred but could get no response. I fished out a slate call that was operating poorly but in desperation I tried it again. It has made reluctant gobblers, especially Merriams, respond on many other hunts so I couldn't resist trying it again.
I sent out a couple of squirrely, squeaky purrs and a tom bellowed out a gobble. We guessed he was just over the hill and within a hundred yards away.
We sat under a pine tree and I purred again. The turkey gobbled.
I waited a couple of minutes and then scratched a couple of very quiet yelps. It was as much as I dared to do on the faulty slate. The turkey answered and was clearly walking our way. I kept up the low yelps intermittently and listened as the bird made his way in gobbling in response. We saw his fan broach the crest of the hill and then he walked into view in full strut. I gave one more quiet call and then let the call slip down beside me.
The tom was looking directly at our tree. It never ceases to amaze me how turkeys can pinpoint sound. He was cautious and getting more so all the time. He began walking parallel to us and then putted.
"Shoot him," John whispered.
I brought the gun up and fired but the pattern struck in front of him.
A miss.
As the turkey flew across the gorge, I turned to John and shrugged.
Neither Gary nor I harvested a tom but you can't hunt in the fabled Black Hills and not have a good time. It's an historic place, roughly 100 miles long and 40 miles wide jutting out of the high plains. Much of the time we were hunting, Mount Rushmore was visible in the background. Modern day prospectors still pan for gold in the tiny rippling streams coursing through the wooded gorges. Mule and whitetail deer are so commonplace you take them for granted. We will return to experience more of the adventure of hunting "the hills."

Larry Myhre is editor of the Journal. Reach him at (712) 293-4201 or e-mail at: larrymyhre@siouxcityjournal.com.REPRINTED OKED BY LARRY

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