When you are hunting in new country, it’s wise to tag along with a local hunter to learn the lay of the land. I did just that on the snowy first morning of a recent turkey-hunting trip to the Black Hills. Heading into the ponderosa pines at first light, I walked about an hour in falling snow without cutting a track of any sort or hearing a turkey gobble.
Talk about being alone in the woods. The previous evening, we’d seen dozens of white-tailed deer, some elk and a turkey while driving backroads and scouting in the woods. Surely some critters would be on the move. It was a snow day, but by no means a storm or blizzard. The weather seemed unlikely to deter the turkeys.
I started out on a logging road, then cut away along a hillside where I could call and listen for gobbles. My path led to a logged over area with a mixture of openings and clusters of young pines. I called, waited awhile, then walked a couple of hundred yards and tried it again. And again, nothing responded.
Now I was on a second logging road, which appeared to lead back to my starting point. Finally, I came upon some fresh tracks in the snow, which looked like wolf prints to this northern Minnesotan. That was odd, because to my knowledge there are no wolves in the Black Hills. The tracks were too large to have been left by a coyote and showed no claw marks.
That left one other possibility. The tracks were from a Black Hills mountain lion. Even though the snow was falling fast, none had accumulated in the tracks. It was likely the lion had heard, and perhaps been attracted to, the yelps from my turkey call. If so, it had listened and then continued on its way. Since I’d never before seen lion tracks, I decided to follow it for a while. Perhaps this fellow hunter would lead me to game.
Wolves, Minnesota’s large predator, move through the woods with purpose, meandering little as they go about their business. The cat was much the same, crossing a ravine and then starting directly up the slope on the other side. It climbed to the crest of the hill and then, from the story told in tracks, behaved in a very catlike fashion.
The hilltop was crowned with a formation of jagged rocks and the lion went into them in the way a housecat explores one of those carpeted jungle gyms their human keepers use to keep the felines from destroying the furniture. I don’t know if the lion expected to find something to eat or was just being a cat as it explored all the nooks and crannies before heading down the other side of the hill. Reaching the bottom, it started up the next hill, perhaps to find more rocks. I went another direction to find turkeys.
To make a long story short, we spent the next three days in snow and wind and cold looking for turkeys, but didn’t bring gobblers any home with us. I suppose we could blame the mountain lions, which from our little contact with the locals, seemed to get blamed for lots of things in the Black Hills. I was told they’ve eaten all the turkeys, wiped out the elk and are now working their way through the whitetails. Maybe so, but judging from the abundant game we encountered in the Hills, the lions still have a lot of eating to do.
Then again, blaming the lions is an easy way to explain why we were skunked. Of course, it may also have had something to do with steep learning curve we climbed while there. My friend Alan Lutkevich was on his first turkey hunt. All but one of the small handful of turkeys I’ve killed were prim and proper Minnesota birds, not mountain gobblers. My only experience in the Black Hills was a guided hunt 10 years ago, where the gobbler I shot came to the guide’s call.
One of the first things we figured out was that turkeys may be numerous in the Black Hills, but you won’t find large numbers of them everywhere. The snow provided an advantage, because we could see turkey tracks, learn what kind of cover they prefer and focus our hunts accordingly. We also learned they will travel a long way in response to a call. In fresh snow I found the tracks of a gobbler making a beeline to my calling location, only to be spooked away when I, hearing no responding gobbles nor seeing a bird, became impatient after waiting for a few minutes and moved on—discovering its tracks running away less than 100 yards from my calling position. In hunting, you win some and lose some, but learn from all of them.
I was patient enough to call in four hen turkeys in three days and sneaky enough to happen upon a flock of nine birds well within shotgun range. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell if any of them had a “beard” protruding from its breast to identify it as a legal-to-shoot male turkey. Rookie Al didn’t call in any turkeys, but he did draw in a coyote while yelping to an interested gobbler on that first snowy morning. At least he knows his call works, which is important when you are starting out.
Neither of us ever did see a mountain lion. Just after dawn on our last morning, I was walking along a snow-covered logging road when I came upon fresh turkey tracks. But another hunter had found them before me. Beside the turkey tracks were those of a trailing lion. I‘m not sure if it scented the bird or was following its tracks.
Around the next bend I heard a clatter as a cow and calf elk climbed the ridge to get out of my way. They paused on the hillside to look back and I savored the moment. Continuing down the road, I heard a nearby yelp and called in a lone hen. And around the next bend of the road I came upon three camouflaged hunters coming from the other direction. We talked for a while. They were Minnesotans on the first day of their hunt, hunting with a Minnesota friend who retired to the Black Hills. Their vehicle was nearby and, showing a respect for the hunt rarely encountered these days, said they would drive off and leave this place to me. Their gesture was much appreciated.
I suppose I could blame the turkey tracking mountain lion or the other hunters—the only ones we encountered in the Black Hills—for spoiling my hunt. Such excuses might rationalize returning home without a turkey dinner, but they wouldn’t be true. The bottom line was that despite our best efforts, neither of us killed a gobbler and that’s just hunting. Nevertheless, we had lots of fun. And that’s just hunting, too.
Airdate: May 14, 2010