Finally, I made my long-awaited journey to the Black Hills of South Dakota for a “true” Merriam’s wild turkey hunt. My close friend and fellow NAHC member, Branigan Weber, and I drove straight through from the Twin Cities and arrived in the parking lot of a Custer, South Dakota, gas station before we even realized Wall Drug was in the rearview mirror. We suited up—sleepless—and began our 4-day hunt in Hell.
No, literally … North American Hunter Editor Gordy Krahn recommended we give Hell Canyon a try if we were planning to hunt in the Custer area. He had hunted there successfully with Mark Kayser a number of years ago. (Important: He didn't know how long ago.) I took his word for it, so that’s where we headed for our first day’s hunt. When we arrived there it was still pitch black, but the weather great, our spirits were high and the fresh air had a hint of dead gobbler lingering in it.
Neither of us had hunted the Black Hills before, and it was Branigan’s first turkey hunt. As the canyon walls grew with the sunrise, so did our grins. We proceeded deeper and deeper into the canyon, each step of the inner-canyon landscape looking more “turkey” than the last. I started with some owl calls to see if I could ignite a shock gobble, but heard nothing. I then began with some light hen yelps as the songbirds came to life ... and not a turkey was stirring.
Finally, we chased a sound that had the exact rhythm of a hen yelp around several canyon corners; we couldn’t quite identify it. We quickly realized the canyon’s potential for deception as we closed in on a woodpecker. (Talk about anticipation mixed with sleep deprivation.)
Having not heard a gobble for more than an hour into the morning, we decided to make our way for the top of the canyon. We hiked up a steep, jagged, rock-infested washout and staggered breathlessly to the top. When we finally got there, we could see for miles. It quickly became obvious that we were literally in Hell.
The entire surrounding area was deader than a doornail. It was clear that a massive wildfire had claimed Hell Canyon and the surrounding area some time ago. After a steep descent and several miles of hiking, we were back at the truck. It was then we keyed in on a sign explaining the “Jasper Fire” of 2000.
Eleven years and 83,508 burnt acres later, there we stood: Two turkey hunters who didn’t do enough homework for their first day in the Black Hills.
More on my Black Hills hunt to come!
P.S. Better late than never: I’d like to take this time to—among thousands of others—thank the woman who decided to light a cigarette and carelessly drop her lit match in a wildfire danger zone outside Jasper Cave in 2000.
P.S.S. It's OK, Gordy. You didn't know.