by Jeff Johnston - Monday, August 23, 2010
Joe was a die-hard goose hunter who hunted deer once a year to prove he could. Deer just didn’t do it for him. But like most of us, he had a healthy penchant for pride and socializing, and so he was a member of our deer lease.
Before the dawn of another opening day all the guys met up near the gate to ingest the requisite dose of pre-vigil camaraderie and caffeine.
“Yep, boys, only a trophy buck for me this year, or I’m not shooting. Outside the ears, ten points or better,” said Joe as he smeared a fresh film of essence de’ skunk about his face. His blaze orange blinded us when someone swept him with a flashlight.
I was 14 and hadn’t claimed any buck yet, so I appreciated this bid of sportsmanship because I knew it upped my chances at a 9-point or lesser.
Two mornings later we met again. By then the ranks had dwindled, having been vacated by the good and the lucky. Overall, the enthusiasm had waned slightly, but the various shades of red eyes were yet un-muddled by the whites of surrender.
“Well, boys, any racked buck and I’m tagging out,” said Joe, rubbing his tender backside. His duds were now dingy, his brow furled with purpose. Just then a gaggle of geese honked overhead in the darkness as it raced the cold air south to the Tishomingo refuge where he often killed them. He looked up longingly.
A couple long mornings later, as I closed the gate, I spied Joe racing his own dust down the road, so I held it open. He looked like Merle Haggard at tour’s end.
“I figured you tagged one yesterday when you weren’t here early, Joe,” I said as he wheeled inside the gate and groped for his gun.
“Hell no,” he said, as another wave of geese flew over us in the darkness, “but the first @*!&#% animal I see is going down!”
Then, with a deranged look in his eye, he pointed his rifle skyward toward the sound of the geese. Then he eyeballed me and said, “We could be hunting them!” I was disappointed when he held his fire.
As I walked in the dark to my 2x6-in-a-tree domicile, a flicker of thought pestered me. I wondered, Why was it always either deer or birds? Why couldn’t we hunt deer in the mornings, then ducks or quail in the afternoon? It took me 15 years of sitting in trees during the almightly deer season, tromping miles for birds after it ended, and listening to the nit-picky squabble among hunting acquaintances in between seasons to figure out this mystery.
Come to find out, there are deer hunters who think nothing of perching high on a limb in freezing weather for hours on end. They endure to succeed. Some of the sickest hunters sit motionless without a cell phone, a snack or even a good view from dawn till dusk and claim it’s fun.
Then there are those who’d rather have their toes hammered flat than subject themselves to this type of mindless boredom. Why would they wait for a hairy beast to happen by when they could traipse through wet grass and briars all day for a chance to shoot a bird?
The stereotypes have some basis: Deer hunters are egotistical, selfish, adrenaline-addicted rednecks. Bird hunters are snobbish, hyperactive, dog-worshipping freaks.
The two types of hunters seldom mix in anything except Waffle Houses. But what do you call the rare breed who likes to hunt deer and birds with equal passion? And what do you call a hunt where you can do both and still have a good time with both sets of friends? I call it “The Best Little Hunt In America.” I discovered it, of course, on the Internet.
The web link read: Dallas, South Dakota: Pheasant Mecca. I’m aware that several enterprising towns make this claim, but because Dallas was the name of my favorite retriever (her blessed ashes rest upon my mantel) and I’d always wanted to go to a place where wild roosters are kicked up like rocks on a dirt road, I clicked it.
I’m always interested in the prospect of bird hunting in November. The problem is that the season coincides with the deer rut, and I, like ol’ Joe, feel I must take a respectable rutting buck each year or risk being booted from my social circles. When the page from www.doublekguides.com loaded, it all became clear: COMBINATION DEER & PHEASANT HUNT. From somewhere high above, I heard Gregorian chanting.
I surmised from the verbiage that for $2,800 hunters could hunt whitetails or mule deer in the mornings, chase pheasants by midday and hunt deer again in the evenings. After the daily hunting, the bird hunters and deer hunters would be free to fight each other or argue or whatever in the provided lodges warmly named “The Frat House” or “The Remington House” among others. Granted, these were no five-star hotels, but they’d be acceptable for all but the most tweedish of pigeon shooters. It also indicated that grub would be provided, and all the game would be cleaned or stuffed to eat or admire later. The hunting would be on tribal land and walk-in areas, so this operation was not a bird-and-buck enclosure. Nope, The Best Little Hunt In America was a real hunt for wild pheasants and deer in Dallas, S.D., and if I wasn’t sold already, I was after reading the testimonials from happy hunters. One in particular said: “A great hunt. ... The perfect destination for a bachelor party.”
I phoned an ex-girlfriend and left a message begging her to reconsider. When she didn’t return my call, I dialed up some rednecks and a freaky friend from New York. Surely one of them would take one for the team and propose. But Tater, Mike and T.J. reminded me they were already married. So I suggested they renew their vows.
By the time I skipped past the “Welcome Hunters” sign and high-fived my immortalized idol, Joe Foss, at the Sioux Falls airport and arrived in Dallas, Mike had already shot at a deer. I wasn’t irreconcilably mad at him for purposely arriving ahead of us to hawk the best spot—because he missed. If it’s camaraderie you desire, a missed deer among friends in deer camp is what it’s all about. We patted Mike on the back and then hounded him unmercifully. To this day, why his bullet found no fur remains an enigma despite our wildest theories, but whateverhappened isn’t nearly as baffling as why he told us he missed.
I should’ve known better than to pile on him, however, because the next day, after I failed to see a decent buck in the morning, I duffed the easiest shot in South Dakota’s storied history of pheasant hunting. I was the postman of a pincher movement that would’ve prompted Rommel to take notes, and despite watching intently while holding my loaded shotgun, I wasn’t quite ready when the birds flew directly over my face. But I unloaded on them anyway. To the delight of all except the dog and I, not a pheasant fell. Nothing even flinched.
I wouldn’t be telling you this, of course, if Tater hadn’t broken the number one rule and brought a camera to a bachelor party. It was one of those professional-grade units where you can see every unscathed feather in high-def.
We put up rooster after rooster amid vast fields of corn, as Pheasant Mecca yielded limits to even my most devout Buckmaster buddies who think a shotgun handles better if it wears a sling. But by the last night when they bragged while stuffing their faces with fresh fried pheasant, they only mentioned the number of birds bagged, and not the number of shells fired per bird, which at least indicated that the rednecks were capable of learning proper etiquette. And judging by the way they stayed still for more than three minutes at a time without submitting to the overwhelming urge to kick a clump of grass, even the bird freaks enjoyed themselves.
And that’s another great thing about The Best Little Hunt In America; its style of deer hunting is gentlemanly. A hunter can sneak to the edge of a deep coulee then employ treestand-borne patience while glassing and rattling. But unlike in a treestand, a hunter can afford to stretch out and not fear falling out of a tree if he or she happens to fall asleep. Because of the vast amount of scrub-oak ravines surrounded by cornfields on the Rosebud reservation, you see a ton of deer, and you don’t have to fret much about your scent—or bathe regularly—because you are up so high. If you snore or simply must whisper a joke to your buddy, that’s fine too.
The deer herd is not micro-managed, but its quality is coming on. A 130-class buck is common if you shop around and a 160-class is not unheard of. If you go during the rut, expect to see a dozen bucks per day. The trick is judging it before it scoots into another thicket, then, when you determine it’s worthy of your lofty standards, you must make the shot—often 200 yards or better, in high wind. I’m talking some of the nation’s consistently stiffest wind, the type of wind on which excuses fly.
By the third day of deer hunting, I recalled the lesson from Joe, which is: Hold out for a trophy early, let your standards drop rapidly and never pass up a shot at a bird. Thus, I was ready to shoot just about any buck—and this was when the weather was pleasant. On the fourth morning, however, the wind became the fiercest with which I’ve ever dealt. Keep in mind I’m from Oklahoma where even the songs about the wind drive men insane. On this day it sliced straight from the north at 40 mph. I used my heavy coat’s hood to keep my hat from becoming a Frisbee. I can’t recall a time, nor would I admit to ever quitting a hunt early due to being cold, but brother, with the prospect of generating heat via walking up some pheasants by merely swapping guns, I was close to it.
Lucky for me, a couple minutes after first light, a buck walked from a shallow draw in front on me, not hundreds of yards down in the coulee, but 75 yards ahead. The sun illuminated its antlers and at once I noticed its rearward-sweeping, 12-inch droptine that forked off its left main beam. Hastily I made my mental field calculations: 4th day, foot-long droptine, I’m freezing, hot soup waiting, birds getting away …. Boom!
Was I a little surprised when I walked up to the dead buck and noticed that it was a youngish, basket-racked 8-point that had a now-flaccid piece of bailing twine drooping from its mainbeam where its droptine was supposed to be? Yes. But rest assured, dear reader, I was not upset at misjudging the deer, for my hunt was far from concluded—alas, quite the contrary. In one of the best days I can recall, I dropped the deer off at the processor’s, stopped by to ogle the work of the finest taxidermist in the world then I went back to the frat house to eat soup, make fun of my friends and take a nap before going back out to shoot at more birds.
And that, my friends, is all I will reveal about the Best Little Hunt In America. I strongly recommend that you check it out for yourself. If you are not convinced, you must be a sheep hunter. You guys are just plain weird. But I will tell you, if you’re still curious, what you call a freaky redneck who’s passionate about both bucks and birds: Single.
But my standards are rapidly waning.
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