For many hunters, the act of remembering a hunt can be almost as engaging as the hunt itself.
Moments of joy and satisfaction over a quality hunt are long preserved in the soul. Family traditions and relationships are cemented, and friendships are strengthened. The respect and honor associated with taking a great animal can reside deep in the mind for decades.
Amid that backdrop, the Rapid City Journal approached several South Dakota hunters and asked them to recall a special hunt or moment afield that has lingered long after their gun is in the case and their coat is on the rack. Here are some of their stories, in their own words.
Dads and sons a hunting tradition
Like most "SoDakers," or residents of South Dakota, I learned my love for the outdoors from my father. Unfortunately, our time in the field was cut short. By the time I was 14, my dad was unable to hunt due to neurological problems.
Growing up in Sisseton, he taught me a love for diver duck hunting. Places like Dry Run and Halborough’s pass kept me awake at night. I continued with my hunting adventures with new partners, but my dad always came out to look at our ducks, or shake his head when we came home with little, regaling my friends with stories of hunting bluebills on Lake of the Woods.
When I was 26, dad told me he wanted to take a crack at hunting diver ducks again. I took a couple days off to scout and found a place that not only had an unbelievable population of local divers, but which was easy to get to.
With hunting partner Lee Harstad, and dogs in tow, we awoke to a bluebird forecast. Undeterred, we drove out on our point (literally), dropped dad off and set decoys.
At legal shooting time, squadrons of redheads and bluebills buzzed our blind. Dad didn’t shoot at the first two bunches. Frankly I am pretty certain he was hesitant to shoot, but the third flock saw the J and bombed the spread. My dad confidently stood up, shot twice and downed two drake bluebills.
Dad didn’t pull the trigger the rest of the morning.
Later, him telling me that it was “a good hunt,” just that simple phrase, is the only compliment I will ever need as a hunter.
— Chris Hull, spokesman for the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department
Grizzly needed to feed
A grizzly bear gave me quite a scare while on an elk hunt in October, 2014. I had traveled by horse about 10 miles into a wilderness area between Cody and Yellowstone, Wyo. At the time, I was hunting with Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn and his son, KJ.
I had shot an elk across a canyon late in the day, so the group camped about 600 yards away so we could retrieve it in the morning. We slept under the stars in sleeping bags.
The next morning, myself and KJ went to retrieve the elk. Starting up the mountain, we heard a shot and Ken yelled, “bear!” An adult grizzly had come out of the willows within 20 yards of where our horses were tied, growling and snapping its jaws. Ken fired a warning shot from his pistol and unfortunately the grizzly ran up the hill towards me, but safely past myself and KJ.
When our group finally got back to the elk it was obvious the bear had been feeding on it. We salvaged what we could and packed it out to the horses, then packed it via horse to the trailhead.
I was excited at the opportunity to shoot my first elk, and the grizzly encounter only added to a great experience deep in the wilderness on horseback. It was quite an adventure.
— Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom
Dog proves an important point
It was the second day of the 2016 grouse season, and I was fuming. My young English pointer proceeded to run through the middle of two groups of prairie chickens in the first 20 minutes. I swear he had the smuggest look you’ve ever seen on a dog.
I’m a pretty patient person; you have to be if you have pointers. But after all the work we did during the spring and summer months, I had hoped for a better start. I figured ending his hunt immediately might teach him a lesson. Apparently it did.
The next weekend, I decided to give him another chance. My expectations were low, considering his earlier performance. Forty-five minutes into the hunt, he went on point. He was about 250 yards away, and it took us a few minutes to get there. We found him pointing, still as a statue. I figured it was way too good to be true.
I had another hunter go in first, so I could catch the dog in the act of bumping birds. “I’ll show him,” I thought.
As the hunter approached, a group of 30 prairie chickens got up. The dog was steady to flush, and we managed to drop four birds out of that group. I was amazed! Big groups of prairie chickens don’t usually hold very well. And I could hardly believe that this renegade pointer could show such restraint.
That was the day everything clicked for him. I was now certain: Patience really is a virtue.
— Hilary Meyer, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks fisheries biologist
Bear-ly safe in Montana
My most memorable hunt came in 2010 in northwest Montana. I was hunting black bear with my father near Thompson Falls, Mont. On each grueling day of the hunt we hiked an average of 15 miles, walking on old forest service roads and scrambling up steep slopes.
On the fourth day, while hunting by myself, I saw a young boar roughly 200 yards in the distance. I readied my rifle to size up the animal but to my surprise a different, much larger, brown-phase male black bear rounded the corner only 100 yards from me and was facing straight toward me.
I aimed for the heart and fired my first shot. The bear reared up and ran straight toward me — not because he wanted to attack me but most likely because he didn't know where the shot had come from. In a panic I chambered a second bullet and squeezed the trigger on my .270 rifle. This time the bear dropped in his tracks 50 yards from me. After the fear subsided, a rush of emotions swept over me and I'm not afraid to say I smiled wide and cried all at once.
As I walked up to the bear I realized the smaller first bear I had saw was still coming closer to me. I chambered another bullet and kept my rifle at my side. He continued to advance, watching me closely for what must have been 15 minutes but which felt like hours. As I field dressed the bear my gaze shifted up and down, keeping an eye on the younger bear. I hooted and hollered for the bear to leave but he continued to advance. He came into a distance of 30 yards before he finally sauntered away into the forest.
I breathed a sigh of relief as a finished field dressing the bear but continued to look over my shoulder the entire time. That day provided a mix of emotions I will never forget.
— Rapid City Journal Managing Editor Chris Huber
Daughter's buck makes dad proud
When my daughter, Alyssa, was 15, her hunting goal that fall was to harvest her first deer with archery equipment. Alyssa wanted to harvest a mature deer, but was not going to be picky about whether it was a buck or a doe. She had already harvested several does and one nice buck with a rifle over the past five years.
On that December day, the weather was crisp and cold, but not too bitter to spend the evening in one of our favorite stands where we had seen a good buck. Our family had spent the late morning and early afternoon partaking in our tradition of cutting the perfect Christmas tree and then having lunch at the Sugar Shack. We finished early enough for a 2-hour tree stand sit before dark. Alyssa and I had been settled into our stands for about 30 minutes when she whispered she could see a deer coming down a trail from the ridge above us. I was very impressed with how carefully and quietly she moved and how calm she was. I heard Alyssa whisper “it’s a buck, a really good one,” and I could tell by her voice she was getting very excited.
As the buck came within 30 yards, I could see that Alyssa had calmed herself down and was extremely focused. I, on the other hand, was still a bit of a wreck watching this all come together. As the buck walked behind a tree 15 yards in front of our stands, I whispered to Alyssa to draw her bow and she did. The buck stepped out from behind the tree, veered to the left of the trail, and walked broadside to Alyssa at less than 7 yards. A beautiful 5-by-5 whitetail, definitely a mature animal. Alyssa let the arrow fly and made a great shot, breaking the silence as the buck jumped and made a few quick steps forward, then a stumble, then a fall to its final resting place. We sat there for over five minutes trying to get ourselves calmed down so we could safely climb down to get our hands on that beautiful animal. I will never forget the smile on Alyssa’s face as we sat next to that magnificent animal and thanked God for what he had provided to our family that day.
— Brian Mueller, chief deputy, Pennington County Sheriff's Office
Deer lost, but lessons learned
I've had a few memorable hunting experiences, including bagging my first deer and also making a perfect placement with a shotgun slug 100 yards down a ridge to take a big buck with a perfectly symmetrical rack. But my most memorable hunt was my very first, which ended in a less-than-magnanimous way.
I was 12, and hunting on lumber company public land near Tigerton, Wisc., and had taken up a stand on a tree stump along a ridge prior to dark. I had barely slept the night before, so after a boring morning and a dry turkey sandwich, I felt slumber calling to me as I sat on my stump in the late afternoon.
Not long before dusk, I was fully engulfed in dreamland, unaware that a nice buck was trudging up my ridge right at me. Suddenly, I awoke, and he was only a few yards away. In the throes of excitement and shock, I made a hapless effort to aim and popped off a shot with my single-shot 20-guage shotgun. The buck bolted from the clean miss and ran full tilt and broadside across the area where my brother had taken a stand. He fired three times, and still the bolting buck ran off into the fading sunlight.
But then we found blood, and that set off a three-hour, flashlight-aided search that never turned up the animal and almost got us lost.
We made it back to the car, and before I fell asleep once again with my head against the back seat window, I thought of the agony that buck must have been in — wounded, bleeding, sure to die slowly.
I then made a vow that sticks with me to this day: I would never again put any animal through that terror, that anguish. Since then, I have hunted in a very safe, conservative way, only firing when conditions are perfect and a clean kill is virtually assured. Yes, I've let a few big bucks pass and simply go on their way, but I've not since endured the feeling that I needlessly caused an animal to suffer.
— Journal Editor Bart Pfankuch