WILTZ: A Dakota wildlife paradise
Since October 1968, I've been privileged to hunt the same Corson County ranch. Land forms vary within the ranch's boundaries with cottonwoods embracing the Grand River bottom. Badlands hell's canyon formations, walls, rims, buttes, and cultivated...
Since October 1968, I've been privileged to hunt the same Corson County ranch. Land forms vary within the ranch's boundaries with cottonwoods embracing the Grand River bottom. Badlands hell's canyon formations, walls, rims, buttes, and cultivated land on the flats grace the remainder of the ranch. I've never before witnessed the abundance of wildlife we observed on our recent Corson County West River deer hunt. I must conclude that weather conditions, including twice the annual average rainfall, brought about this explosion of life forms.
As Mike turned off Highway 20 and onto the northbound gravel, I asked him when he had last seen Hungarian partridge. Strange that I had mentioned it. A large covey exploded from the roadside as I spoke. We were to see many partridge coveys during the next four days. But that wasn't all.
Singles, pairs and flocks of sharptail grouse were flushing continuously as we headed north. At any place we chose to sit while deer hunting, we could have pass shot grouse without much waiting. We experienced a taste of market hunter days when the railroads bought sharptails by the barrelful.
And pheasants? I thought that ringnecks hatched in a more or less even ratio when talking rooster birds and hens. When we approached ranch yards or drove alongside fields of alfalfa or oats, we saw concentrations of rooster pheasants, 10 to 15, gathered in the ditches. We had to honk them off the roads. Ringnecks ran around ranch yards like chickens. Long-tailed and tame is the only way to describe them. The hens were no doubt there, but we didn't see them.
We frequently encountered a large herd of pronghorns. Antelope bunch up for the winter, and seeing herds of 50 isn't uncommon. On one occasion they ran toward the road and crossed directly in front of us. Their white rump patches dazzled, making us wonder if they, like jackrabbits, turned even whiter in the winter. Buck faces were coal black, their pointed horn bases protruding above their eyes where hooked horns, now shed, once rose above their ears.
I can't say that I've ever seen more mule deer. We didn't try to get into mulies as we didn't have tags, but if we had had "any deer" tags, both Mike Hall and I would have come home with high and wide mule deer racks. I sincerely hope that both our Game, Fish and Parks people, along with the Standing Rock Reservation authorities, protect this herd. I'll credit the Standing Rock tribe as they have placed a four-point-per-side minimum on both mule deer and whitetails.
On the down side, we saw few whitetails. I'm certain that part of this related to low numbers as a result of the serious Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease epidemic during the summer of 2013. A second reason relates to abundant thick cover. On the river bottom land we usually hunt, standing whitetails would be well concealed by fireweed-like clover that stood six to seven feet tall. Had we walked the heavy cover, we still wouldn't have been able to shoot. Instead, we manned various stands throughout our hunt.
Neither Mike nor I had a shot at a good whitetail buck. I killed a scrawny-antlered, big-bodied 4-by-4 buck that needed to be taken from the gene pool. I don't know that his antlers are big enough for a jackalope mount. Mike passed on small bucks and does. In spite of our poor luck, we had a great time.
In spite of 2014's limited number of deer licenses, we are experiencing a phenomenal year for big bucks around the state. Our Missouri River flows within its original banks from the Randall tailwaters at Pickstown to Springfield. This same corridor may be home to S.D.'s largest deer, and I'm lucky enough to live in the area. You won't get an argument from Bailey Zacharias, a senior at Wagner High School, or her father, Chuck, about the size of the deer that reside on their home turf.
Nov. 22, the opening day of the 2014 South Dakota East River deer season, Bailey was in a river bottom treestand long before the pink ribbons of early dawn tugged at the total darkness. It was flat-out cold. Chuck was in another tree stand 200 yards away. Bailey would be making her own decision about whether a buck was big enough or not.
The morning was slow, but there's something about hunting. Things can and do turn around right now. It was 9 a.m. when Bailey detected movement coming her way. She silently brought up her Thompson Center single-shot in .270 Winchester caliber. And then she saw antlers - big, wide antlers! A buck, totally bent on destroying every tree, every growth of brush, was on some seemingly mindless mission. In some bizarre way, this behavior relates to a buck's love life, and he was smitten.
Now he was under her tree. The thrashing continued oblivious to Bailey's presence. At 10 yards Bailey touched the trigger. The slug passed through him diagonally from above. He was down.
Minutes later a very proud Chuck was at his daughter's tree. He helped a trembling Bailey from her stand. I hope she never outgrows that euphoric feeling. The buck wore a wide and high 5-by-5 main frame with three impressive kickers. He would look good on the Zacharias wall with his late fathers' and grandfathers' - as impressive a trophy collection as I've ever seen. I asked Bailey if she had put on her makeup before the hunt like those TV lady hunters. No, what would be the point? Good answer.
What if a talented hunter like Chuck Zacharias guided his shaky old high school principal on a whitetail hunt on this same river bottom? Tune in next week.