As a South Dakota resident, Im blessed with a good amount of public land to hunt, fish and hike. And I find that it’s my duty to encourage others to get out and enjoy these beautiful places that belong to all of us. However, on this season’s particular 2017 West River rifle hunt I gained a new perspective on encouraging others to get out and hunt these treasured public lands.
I have been hunting public lands for as long as I can remember and have been fairly successful. I have hunted large national forest chasing deer and small 40 acre plots for upland birds. Growing up in Nebraska, where only 2% of the land is public, most the areas I hunted were fairly small in nature. My friends and I gathered for our annual deer hunt on a piece of federal ground in Nebraska (approximately 16,000 acres) and even though it has become more and more crowded each year the deer numbers are through the roof and our success rate has been great. I moved to South Dakota a few years ago and each year is a learning experience trying to figure out the permitting process and access to what appeared to me to be A LOT more land to hunt then I had in Nebraska.
My first year hunting deer in South Dakota did not go near as well as I anticipated. My family and I had scouted some great public land on the Missouri River in Southeast South Dakota and had fairly high expectations. Unfortunately, after several days of hunting with no luck we had tag soup for dinner. We didn’t encounter a lot of other hunters so this was encouraging to me for future hunts on public land. The following year I discovered a new area where the deer numbers were much better however I received my 2nd choice draw and it was for a whitetail only, which in western SD, Mule deer are most prominent. Nonetheless we ventured out to western SD.
My 11yr old step son had a mentor tag which meant he could only take a doe but he could hunt the whole state and had a much longer season. We scouted some ground the day before the official West River rifle season opened and during the process stumbled on to some mule deer grazing near what I would call a public land pocket. We set up and watched these deer until they lined up in single file and headed our way. My boy successfully harvested his first deer that evening and it made for what looked like a great weekend afield with the family chasing whitetails. It took us coming back the following weekend to fill my whitetail tag as finding deer wasn’t a problem but finding a good whitetail was. I spent hours watching whitetails just waiting for them to take that fatal step on to the public land and once they did then it was over and we had two deer in the freezer for the year.
That brings us to the 2017 season. This year I had drawn an “any deer” tag, so I was pretty stoked to go after one of the many monster muleys I had seen the previous year. Now that my stepson had completed the hunter safety program, along with his mother, he was eligible to draw for a tag that allowed him to take a buck. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the same unit but the units were next to each other. However, this year he drew a whitetail only tag which meant our options were limited. I decided to focus opening morning on his tag as I could come back anytime during the week for my hunt. We scouted some promising river bottom the afternoon before opener and found a load of scrapes and rubs and even spotted a smaller muley buck. We had noticed the increased traffic in this particular area but it was a very large area that you could hunt for the entire weekend and not cover all the ground so the anticipation of maybe 10 or so other hunters wasn’t a concern.</p>
After a good nights rest and a very early rise to make the hour drive to my sons area, we were blown away by the 23 other trucks that were parked in this small parking area when we arrived. This was very disheartening for us but we didn’t waste much time dwelling on it as that is what happens on public land occasionally. We ventured up the road a little way. It was lined with trucks and hunters for the next few miles.
Eventually we found an opening amongst the plethora of hunters in this area. Or at least we thought we did, the kids were getting restless and ready to hit the woods so we headed out to spot from high points of the many ridges where we were at only to find another hunter sitting on every ridge we ventured on to. It’s still very early in the morning at this point but we had already lost hope. You could see it in the kids face as they look forward to the morning sit and watching the sun come up which we totally missed while driving to plan B and plan C.
After some reevaluating the situation we ventured off to what would hopefully be some less congested areas (smaller) and we put on some miles on the truck as well as the kids little feet. Nothing changed as the day went on. We continued to encounter more people every where we went and the only deer we were seeing were muleys. After taking a lunch break we realized that even though there were all of these hunters around, we had yet to hear a gun shot or see a deer taken. This led me to believe these deer are smart and moved off that public land and/or are held up in some deep cover. We ventured into a deep river bottom where our two units came together for the evening set up. It looked perfect. Soon after getting the kids in place for a 2 plus hour sit we watched a small muley buck wander around, however, at this point the kids were struggling to sit patiently after this long disappointing day.
We called it quits for that day and headed back to the cabin where we all went to sleep very early that night. The kids were so discouraged they didn’t want to even go out the next day and I didn’t blame them one bit. Unfortunately a trip like this, if not monitored closely, can make them loose interest so mom did a great job of entertaining them Sunday morning while I ventured out into my area to see if we could get one of the tags filled.
Feeling very optimistic with my “Any Deer” tag, I arrived at the same location my stepson shot his muley the previous year. My plan was to take a different approach that I have had success with before. Instead of hunting the large plots of public land where you can spend most of the day on foot, I was going to focus on little plots that are used as transitions between corn fields and the deep ravines where most of these deer were holding up. You see, every evening and morning I would drive to or from locations where I’d see corn fields and pastures loaded with deer, both muleys and Whitetails, but soon after day break they were making their way back into the ravine, out of site and probably too far for some hunters to want to walk.
I set up about 45 minutes before shooting hrs. However, around 10 minutes before shooting hours a nice big muley buck chasing a doe came across me at about 70 yrds. It was unfortunate that it was too early to shoot but it was promising to see. Right at shooting hrs, I noticed another hunter just off the road.
He was unloading on a deer. I saw one doe take off and he must have dropped the other while his partner drove up and down the road. Unfortunately while these two guys were messing around with their deer for hours, talking and standing up on top the small ridge, I was glassing several dozen deer and a few 200” + muleys that weren’t to far away. These deer that I were watching weren’t coming any closer as they watched these other hunters make a racket. So I decided to move to another small area just up the road. Sure enough, as soon as I crossed the fence I spotted a small buck walking toward me and another good size one laying down on a hill side with a doe standing over him. This hunt, to me, in Western South Dakota was all about getting a big muley as I knew there were plenty of them out here and I could be a little picky the first weekend. And I did just that not realizing how big the muley I spotted laying down was until he stood up and shook his head. At that moment, I decided I would take it but he never stopped moving long enough for me to get a shot as he was chasing the doe in circles and eventually over the ridge to never be seen again. I only had a few hours this morning to hunt before we needed to hit the road back to Sioux Falls, so I headed back to the cabin to load up and plan for the following weeks hunt.
The following weekend had great weather as the wife and I headed out to fill this tag. Instead of hitting the same spot I left the previous week I starting the morning off at a different location that I had been wanting to hunt. Unfortunately that spot yielded nothing but a beautiful sunrise and a good walk that morning. Our Saturday quickly came to be as disappointing as our previous Saturday with the kids. We did see some very big muleys but they weren’t on public land. I told the wife that Sunday’s have alway’s been the best for me out here and tomorrow is the day.
We made it out early and were set up in the same location my stepson got his doe the previous year and where I had been seeing plenty of deer on the property adjacent. This particular piece of public land (140 acres) looks like nothing from a map or the road but if you look at the surrounding area you will see the only corn field even close to this ravine is adjacent to the property. Once you walk in a few hundred yards there is a large depression that goes from one end to the other where the deer can move to the corn without being seen by passing traffic, or any other hunters. Just as the sun began to rise, I noticed several deer on the horizon and at least one was a very big muley buck.
While watching these deer in the distance, a doe and an average size whitetail buck, that were bedding down in this small depression, stood up. This buck wasn’t leaving the doe’s side and he gave me plenty of time to assess the situation. I initially shook him off as I was after a big muley. After about 10 minutes, I realized those mule deer weren’t coming off the private and this whitetail was getting closer to me and my truck making the pack out much easier. The opportunity just kept getting better and since you can’t eat the antlers, I told the wife I was going to take the whitetail buck.
I moved up a bit closer and creeped up to the ridge as they now were on the top side of the depression. Setting up in a prone position, I ranged him at 320yrds. Utilizing my Nikon BDC scope to make the adjustment over 200yrds and with one shot, I dropped him. We now have food on the table and the pressure is off.
Much of the good public land gets over looked and the public land that looks really good gets a lot more attention. I can’t count how many times the biggest bucks I have ever seen were behind someone’s house or in small areas that most people tend to overlook. As frustrating as it was to see such large numbers of hunters on opening weekend in my stepson’s area, it is also a great sight to see so many getting out chasing their own dinner. With hunters seeing less and less access, overcrowding on public lands is just something we will have to learn to deal with in some cases.
Be kind and courteous to the other hunters and don’t mess up their hunt if you stumble upon them. Share info with them as you leave the field or cross paths, especially if they have a youth hunter with them. Success for any hunter means success for all us hunters. Think small when you have young kids along on your hunt as those little legs can’t hike over hills for miles like many of us do; another great reason to hit those public land pockets.
Try not to get so caught up in the size of the antlers over the experience. Of course we all want a wall hanger and you will get that opportunity over time if you stick with it. Don’t be afraid to take a doe to feed your family and be proud to share that hero shot on social media as it is a hero shot for the amount of food you will provide. And if people just don’t understand that, then take a hero shot in the grocery store isle with a Butterball Turkey and then maybe they will see your perspective.