The afternoon sun burned as my brother and I crested yet another in a seemingly endless succession of ridge tops.
We stopped for a moment. Our hats and shirts were damp with sweat after a few hours spent hiking under a canopy of ponderosa pines near the southern end of the Black Hills National Forest in western South Dakota.
Already miles from camp, we shed a layer of clothing, gulped from our water bottles and contemplated our next move.
"I can't believe we haven't heard a gobble yet," I said, as I laid my shotgun on a bed of pine needles and stuffed my sweatshirt into the back of my turkey vest.
"It's a bit windy," Levi responded. "We're going to have to be right next to them if we're going to hear them at all."
I picked up my gun, gave Levi a shrug, and the two of us continued side-hilling it westward.
After a couple hundred yards, I stopped, grabbed my trusty old box call and let out a loud yelp.
A tom let loose across the canyon.
Without saying a word, my brother and I picked up speed, making sure not to silhouette ourselves on the ridge top, and at the same time staying behind the thickest foliage to disguise our movements. When we thought we were even with the bird, we hit our butts and started sliding down toward the valley floor below.
Halfway down, Levi half-whispered, "There he is!"
He pointed across the way and, sure enough, the bird was sprinting down the side of the opposite ridge. With the bird closing the distance so rapidly, we wondered if we should try to call him up our ridge, or continue on our descent.
I grabbed my box call and yelped.
We slid further down the ridge, and I yelped again.
We slid all the way to the bottom and crawled to the edge of the timber. I yelped once more.
"What in the hell?" I asked softly, as the two of us sat there, metaphorically scratching our heads in disbelief.
We scanned the open meadow for any movement. We looked across at the ridge where the tom had just been. We strained our ears to pick up the slightest sound.
Eventually, we stood up and snuck forward out into the meadow and realized it wasn't much of a meadow at all. Instead, we reached a wide ditch, bordered by 6-foot sheer rock faces on each side, located just before a two-track dirt road.
"No wonder that didn't work out," Levi said. "There's no way that bird was going to fly all the way across that ditch to get to us."
We carefully climbed down one side of the ditch, back up the other, and hit the road. We stood there for maybe a minute.
From several hundred yards away, up the ridge that we'd just slid down, we heard the unmistakable — and unprovoked — gobble of a Merriam's tom.
And the chase was on again.
A VALUABLE LESSON
For any Midwesterner used to hunting turkeys in ag fields and narrow strips of river bottom hardwoods, the greatest challenge of chasing Black Hills birds is undoubtedly the terrain. Rough and unpredictable, the landscape of western South Dakota has foiled many a turkey hunter's day.
More times than I'd like to admit, I've run into the exact scenario that I recounted earlier: A hard-charging turkey hung up by an unforeseen ditch, cliff face or creek. This isn't like hunting turkeys on your neighbor's back 40, where you know every fence line, timber stand and cow pasture. It requires miles of hiking into large expanses of territory you're lucky to have even a slight knowledge of.
On that same trip, from the top of the highest ridge around, my brother and I spotted a tom in the bottom of the valley. We called to him, and he started strutting up to us. We watched him strut and listened to him gobble all the way up the ridge to within 70 yards of our location. Then, he disappeared behind a rocky outcrop. He gobbled once more and vanished. The only thing we could figure was he didn't want to walk around the slight obstruction, and he just quietly walked back the way that he came, and out of our lives for good.
Those things are going to happen. You've just got to stick with it.
While there's no amount of money that can make up for understanding the terrain, there's plenty of gear you can purchase that will make your time in the Black Hills more enjoyable, and hopefully more productive.
Boots – You're going to want to purchase a good pair of light-weight hunting boots and spend time breaking them in before you even think about heading west. We averaged 10-15 miles a day on our latest trip, which may not sound like much, but most of those miles are straight up and straight down, stopping in-between to work birds. I have a two-year-old pair of Danner Pronghorns that are about the best boots I've ever owned. My brother made the mistake of packing nothing but knee-high Muck boots last year. His feet and ankles paid the price.
Clothing – In one day in the Black Hills, you might wake up to below freezing temps and snow, and by noon it will be 75 and sunny. The weather is unpredictable, to say the least, and you'll want clothing that stands up to anything Mother Nature can throw at you. Layers will be your friend. I'll typically wear a base layer and follow that with a mid-weight top and pants. Merino wool is unbeatable in these conditions because it keeps you warm when it's cold and wicks away moisture to keep you cool when it's warm. Be sure to pack some lightweight rain gear too, just in case.
Vest – A good vest is crucial for long days hiking in the hills. But my best advice is to go light and be mobile. Take only the essentials. Leave the decoys at home. The majority of your vest's room should be used for water and snacks, but I'll cover that later.
Electronics – Since you're covering a bunch of ground, a GPS unit will be your best friend. On top of being able to make your way back to camp safely, you can use base maps to help navigate around tough terrain and you can use waypoints to mark the location of birds on the roost. Cellphone service can be sketchy in certain areas, but you should be able to find a signal somewhere. I'll bring it along in case of an emergency.
Calls – A good box call is a must for locating birds at a distance and cutting through stiff winds. Other than that, I'll grab a couple of variations of diaphragm calls, since they weigh next to nothing, and off I go. It all depends on your ability to call, though. Maybe you're really good with a slate or "pot and peg" call. Maybe you can only use a push-button yelper. The point being, take a box call and whatever else you're comfortable with, but don't bring the kitchen sink.
Accessories – Fit your shotgun with a sling. On our first trip to the Black Hills several years ago, my dad didn't have a sling on his gun. After toting it by hand up and down ridges for a week, that was his first purchase when we got back home.
Probably the most important — and enjoyable — aspect of any hunting trip is toting along plenty of good food.
Hiking around the hills can put you in a calorie deficit in a hurry. While I wouldn't consider hunting in the Black Hills as a true "backcountry" experience, it is important to bring food that packs well and provides plenty of calories. Jerky is a good choice. Nuts and energy bars are also hiking staples.
Each morning, I'll start out with a couple of breakfast bars and water. Depending on how far we get from camp, lunch might consist of little more than some jerky and cheese, or we might make the trip back for something more substantial. Supper is our big meal. Once the sun dips down, we'll typically grill some meat and veggies. Last year, my mom sent us with a spaghetti bake that we threw on the grill one night. It was dynamite and all those carbs made a huge difference on the trail the next day.
The key is to keep eating and hydrating throughout the day. Keep your vest loaded with snacks and water. Once you fall behind, it's tough to catch back up.
ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE
While turkey hunting in the Black Hills can be incredible, don't go into your trip expecting to fill all of your tags in short order.
Tags are plentiful and the hunting is often boom or bust. There are lots of birds. But those birds see lots of hunters.
Black Hills toms can be incredibly frustrating. One day they'll march right into you and the next day you won't be able to buy a gobble. Instead, focus on enjoying the rare experience of hunting turkeys in vast expanses of beautiful wilderness.
Wrapping your tag on a tom is just the icing on the cake.