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ROGER WILTZ: No game in bag, but still a great hunt

Have you ever gone off by yourself -- like giving yourself a chance to reflect, think things out? Last Thursday morning, I climbed into my pickup and headed west. In the back were clothes for three days, simple breakfast and sandwich fixings, a crossbow, shotgun, varmint rifle, sleeping bag and pillow.

As I rumbled by Thunder Butte, the radio blasted Johnny Cash's "Ghost Riders." "Yipee I Ooh!" This was my South Dakota. Western South Dakota's landscape along Highway 212 and Highway 20 had made a subtle adjustment since my last visit. It thought it was farm country -- not antelope pasture. Field after field of 150 bushel corn paralleled the long lonesome. Do cowboys own combines?

Now it was miles of gravel road. "Open Range" the signs said. Just before I pulled into the yard, I had to stop my Dodge. Rooster pheasants were all over the road. It had been like that for miles wherever there were buildings. Didn't any pheasant hunters know about these western ringnecks?

For two years I've had my crossbow, but I've yet to let an arrow fly. I was getting anxious, but not enough to end my archery season prematurely. As the sun settled into an apricot-colored ribbon of stark buttes, I sat on the gray trunk of a long forgotten cottonwood. I hoped I could become one with the whitened, gnarled deadfalls around me.

Two white-tailed does -- fawns in tow -- stopped 15 yards in front of me. They looked hard, stomped their hooves, wheezed and bolted. Then they returned! A fawn looked back, but no bucks followed. I let them walk.

Friday evening, I stood in some round bales on the northwest corner of an alfalfa field. Along the west fence about 300 yards out a steady stream of deer entered the alfalfa. Could I somehow hide there? I'd check it out tomorrow. That same night, I passed on a 10-yard shot at a white-tailed doe.

Late Saturday morning, I examined the place where the deer had entered the field the previous evening. A small drainage that ran into a larger draw began under the fence. Tracks revealed a deer thoroughfare. I built a nest of tumbleweed around nearby sagebrush and planned to return around 4 p.m. In the meantime, I'd get my shotgun and hunt sharp-tailed grouse.

All efforts to find grouse were in vain. Perhaps, there were no grouse. But now it was time to go to my new deer blind. The earlier northwest wind had shifted. Now, it blew from the east -- a wind that would carry my scent into the stream of deer traffic. Even though I knew better, I maintained my post until dusk. No deer showed, but I did discover something else.

About an hour before sundown, grouse -- with wings set -- buzzed just over the top of my head. They flew that draw and landed for the night in the alfalfa just yards from where I hid. They cooed and cackled back and forth, and eventually fell into total silence. Hundreds had flown over. Now, they appeared to be asleep. I had learned something very important about grouse. In the future, I'll use this knowledge with restraint.

- As of this past weekend, I have an idea for Game, Fish and Parks. My West-River deer firearms license contains two "antlerless" deer tags. In an effort to see more antlerless deer killed, GF&P opened the season on those antlerless deer when the rifle antelope season opened the first weekend of October. They closed the season when the antelope season ended in mid-October. This early season was a good idea!

The way I understand it, I can use my archery gear to fill a "rifle" tag, but I can't use my rifle to fill an "archery" tag. This makes good sense. However, if I had been able to use my archery equipment to fill an anterless rifle tag this past weekend, a surplus deer might have been tagged -- a good deal for the landowner as well as the food pantry. What would it have hurt to allow the early antlerless rifle season to run nonstop through the coming rifle season? I know what I'm going to hear: "If you want to take a doe, use your archery tag and don't be so selfish."

- About 25 years ago, the headline on my column read, "Real men visit their doctor." I was talking about how quick it was, and how little it hurt, to bend over at an annual checkup. Since I turned 40, I've had an annual examination for colon and prostate cancer.

I'm hurting right now. I recently lost a friend, and on the little western tour mentioned here, I learned a dear friend is courageously battling prostate cancer. I'd give everything I own to see that friend healthy, and to bring back my other friend, but it doesn't work that way. Guys, you love your wives, kids and grandkids. Do it for them. Pay your doctor or P.A. a visit.

See you next week.