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Tough Black Hills turkey hunt more than satisfies

By: By Paul Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

HERMOSA, S.D. (MCT) - The valley glows in early morning light, the bright, new day a perfect setting for - and the cause of - the reunion taking place below.

Peering between trunks of ponderosa pines on an adjacent ridge, Dave Oyler and I strain to see the action. "Thirty-eight," Oyler says, squinting into binoculars and trying to inventory the teeming flock. "And lots of big gobblers. But how to get there from here, my friend?"

I've joined Oyler, 58, of Rapid City, S.D., on a turkey hunt in the Black Hills near Hermosa, S.D. We're guests on the ranch of Alan and Shirley Mielke, 1,800 acres of pines, high ridges and meadows that teem with wildlife.

After days of May weather more suited to February, the turkeys are out in force, like kids on spring break, meeting and greeting. The day has dawned clear and calm at 24 degrees. But with no wind and the rising sun, the turkeys are vocal and social. Their calls pull Oyler and myself a half-mile from the east to view the spectacle below.

Against a green, grassy background, toms face off in twos and threes, red heads and white tail fans shimmering as they pirouette in the yellow light. Dozens of hens forage about, and at least 15 jakes - 1-year-old males - join the mix.

As rewarding as the scene is, Oyler and I are intent on filling a couple of tags that will require getting a bearded turkey within about 30 yards, not the 800 that currently separate us from the flock. Oyler is especially excited about preparing "Turkey Strips" for dinner one evening in camp.

But closing the distance on nearly 40 sets of turkey eyes is difficult, particularly when they are in the middle of an open, 20-acre field. Oyler has an idea, though.

"You ever have a hunch?" Oyler says, motioning for me to crouch behind an outcropping and drop back over the ridge. "Most of mine turn out to be gas, but let's try something."

We're into our fourth day of hunting, and all of the previous hunches - Oyler's and mine - have yielded adventure and laughs and grand views of the Black Hills, but no turkeys.

We slip down a side canyon that angles toward the turkey-rich valley, dodging boulders and cactus and keeping our profiles below the ridge-top. Oyler's plan is to set up toward the end of this draw and call one of the subdominant toms. The plan is great - but once again, the turkeys don't cooperate.

A heavy snow had blanketed the area in early May. Oyler fears many - if not all - of the hens lost their nests. The turkeys are behaving like it's late winter, reshuffling the flock and re-establishing dominance. We haven't called to a receptive tom in the previous three days.

As we walk back to our truck, Oyler feels the need for honesty. "You're going to think I'm a bad hunter," he says. "We just saw those gobblers and all I can think about is carrot cake."

Turkey-hunting exhaustion and uncooperative birds often lead to cravings. Luckily for Oyler, we have a 9 a.m. breakfast invitation from the Mielkes, and Shirley serves up eggs and bacon - both from animals raised on the ranch - and some carrot cake.

I've known Oyler and the Mielkes since 2003 when, in the depths of a turkey-hunting addiction, I sought treatment in the Black Hills. With lots of birds, few hunters and stalwart role models, the ranch provided just the right tonic.

This spring was time for my 5-year check-up and my old friends were kind enough to extend an invitation.

"There are probably more birds than ever," said Alan Mielke, who runs beef cattle on the ranch but is careful to leave plenty of acres for wildlife. "Just keep after `em, I guess, and you should be all right."

To a Wisconsi n resident, the Black Hills offer a serious shift in landscape. The Mielke ranch is covered with thick stands of ponderosa pine and dozens of grassy parks dotted with pasqueflowers and prickly pear cactus.

The vistas from the ranch are epic: from the top of one ridge, Oyler points north to a white bump on the horizon (Mount Rushmore) and south to a jagged outline (the start of the Badlands). Both features are more than 20 miles distant.

Higher and drier than Wisconsin, deciduous trees are relatively rare in the Black Hills. It's a land of mule deer, elk and mountain lion. Even the turkeys are different.

There are five subspecies of the North American wild turkey: Eastern (found in Wisconsin), Rio Grande, Gould's, Osceola and the bird found in South Dakota and other parts of the western U.S., the Merriam's.

Named after C. Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, the Merriam's is characterized by the nearly white feathers on its lower back and tail.

After our break, Oyler and I set out on a hike. The day is warming, and though we don't hear any gobbling, we decide to do some "blind calling from the prone position." Translation: take a nap.

Oyler easily makes time over the hills, his 6 foot 3 inch frame and long stride giving him the appearance of a camo-clad John Wayne. As we near the top of a ridge, he crow calls. Improbably, we hear two gobbles, one east and one west.

"Which one do you want to screw up?" Oyler says, laughing.

We set up in the middle, but an hour passes and no gobbler makes an appearance.

"If only we moved one way," Oyler says. "Name me a sport that has more `ifs' than turkey hunting."

The hunt has been eventful, if frustrating. Over the previous days, we've experienced high winds, rain, nose-numbing cold and, like today, gorgeous blue skies and warm temperatures. We've seen a fanned-out gobbler struggle to hold its ground - and retain its pride - in a fierce wind, at times collapsing like an umbrella in a downtown gale. We've rounded a sandstone outcropping and surprised a golden eagle, which quickly hoisted itself away on wide, black wings.

The weather begins to turn about noon, with clouds and a rain shower. Oyler and I wait it out under some pines, then set out to a western valley.

We don't really have a hunch - no "head west, middle-aged man" premonition - just the need to change location. What a difference a mile and an hour can make.

As we round an outcropping, we spy a group of ten birds, all sporting red heads. "Jakes," Oyler says, ducking and breaking out his box call.

In minutes, the birds come within range and Oyler shoots the closest one. And an hour later, immediately after another light rain has ceased, we set up at the edge of a meadow, just as a gobbler and four hens come into view. Without making a call, we watch the birds angle to our right, eventually coming into shotgun range.

The 22-pound tom falls at my shot. It has a 9-inch beard and five-eighths inch spurs.

Oyler can hardly contain his excitement - the jake will provide dinner tonight, the tom a meal for me later in Wisconsin. We breast the jake and cut the meat into strips, which are coated with egg, bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, then deep fried.

That evening, Oyler and I soak in the satisfaction of a tough hunt and give proper thanks to the birds and the Mielkes for sharing their bounty.

"Sometimes, you have to make treatment a lifestyle," Oyler says. "Until next time."

© 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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