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As I stood at full draw for the second time in less than 5 minutes, I finally made out the silhouette of antlers, 20 yards away, slowly coming into view, on the hillside above me. With the buck’s body obscured by the hillside, I watched as he scanned intently for the “rival buck”, and I prayed he wouldn’t spot me on the edge of the juniper thicket. My South Dakota public land whitetail hunt hung in the balance!
My buddy Joel and I have been hunting out of state for a few years. We didn’t draw our preferred state in 2019, so we decided to buy South Dakota archery tags and see how bad we could get our butts kicked in a totally new area. Initially, we planned to meet up on November 7th, 2019 and hunt for a week. I live a little closer (9-hour drive) than Joel (14-hour drive), and by the evening of November 5th, I couldn’t wait any longer. I finished loading my gear and hit the road just before sunset on a South Dakota public land whitetail hunting adventure! Sometime, in the wee hours of the morning, I caught a catnap in the passenger seat of my Toyota Tacoma. I awoke around 5 a.m., in the middle of an ice storm, proceeded to heavily caffeinate myself, and hit the road for the final stretch of highway. I arrived in South Dakota at dawn on November 6th, 2019, in the heart of the pre-rut. It was now around 9 or 10 a.m., and I hadn’t seen a single deer in several hours of driving during primetime…not one. “Where are all the deer at?,” I thought to myself. I started to question this trip less than four hours into the state, not the best sign. I had already hunted North Dakota twice in 2019, and that had been extremely humbling. Now, I expected more of the same in South Dakota. About an hour from the final destination and I finally saw my first deer. “There is hope!,” I thought.
Over the years, Joel and I have developed a system for breaking down new hunting areas. First, we invest a lot of time cyber scouting the new area in the off-season. Second, we spend at least one or two days in the truck investigating the cyber scouted areas from a distance, glassing heavily, taking careful note of food sources, potential bedding areas, and any deer activity observed. Third, we speed scout through the areas that look promising based on our cyber scouting and initial field observations from days one and two. Only then do we move in and start hunting.
My vacation had started a day earlier than Joel’s. Combine that with the shorter drive, and I had the better part of a day before Joel would arrive. We agreed that I would get a jump start on step two, investigating the cyber scouted areas from a distance. I drove around checking out parking areas, access routes and crops at a few pieces of public land that looked promising on aerial and topographical maps. When I arrived at the third or fourth piece, I spotted two great muley bucks (pictured below) standing 30 yards off the road…on public! I drove by the muleys and quickly double checked the property boundaries on OnX Maps. I wanted to be 100% certain the bucks were actually on the public land and not on the adjacent piece of private land. I couldn’t decipher the property lines that quickly, so I decided to settle for a photo, rather than a possible violation. Plus, shooting a deer just off the road on day one didn’t seem very sporting.
When the muleys crossed the road, they went onto private land, but they paralleled the private/public fence line about 100 yards onto the private side. I had an hour or so of legal shooting light left, so I grabbed my bow, binos, and rangefinder and started hoofing it up the hill. I made it about 1/4 mile in when I heard a familiar but unwelcome sound, a whitetail doe blowing the alarm only 70 yards away. Then, a tall, tight-racked, buck jumped up, and the pair bounded off into the soon to be setting sun. I got a decent look at the buck, and he looked like a shooter by my standards. I really noticed the tall rack and long brow tines.
With light fading quickly, I decided to hike back to the truck. I never did get eyes on the muleys again that night. I called my buddy Joel and filled him in on the night’s action. “There is hope!,” I said. I told him about the sightings of the two muley bucks and the nice whitetail buck. I told him I planned to revisit the same area in the morning. Joel said he would be at the destination by noon the next day (November 7th, 2019). I joked around a little, “I will have one down by the time you get here,” I said with a laugh.
The next morning, I parked at the same spot as the night before. It was a brisk 5-degree morning, almost perfectly still, with a 0-2 mph northwest wind. I accessed the public land from the south and worked north into the quartering wind. Based on the previous nights observations, I felt optimistic. However, I entertained the reality that my burgeoning adventure would likely consist of 90% scouting and 10% hunting. In the back of my mind, I thought, “Maybe you will spot a deer or two on the hoof.” I planned to hunt until 9:30-10:00 a.m. and then return to the core plan of more road scouting. My #1 rule on any out of state hunting trip is scouting, scouting, and more scouting until I find the deer.
I covered the first 250 to 300 yards pretty quickly, as it consisted of a mostly uphill climb through CRP grass, dotted with a few scattered junipers. As I made my way, I noted the tall, frosty, brittle, and crunchy CRP grass. “Absolutely terrible conditions for spot and stalk,” I thought. As I approached the area where I jumped the whitetail buck the night before, I slowed down to a still hunting pace, glassing ahead while tucked tight to junipers. I thought about the whitetail buck bedded with the doe from the previous night. I assumed he may have been locked down with the doe, and I hoped they could still be close. I tucked tight against a juniper, glassing the area for a solid five minutes. I didn’t see any movement, and I didn’t hear anything on an unusually quiet morning on the prairie.
I never blind called in my former home State of Michigan, but with the lack of wind and the frosty CRP grass giving away any forward progress, I didn’t like my chances of a stealth approach to within bow range. I thought, “What the heck.” I let out 2 grunts, and, surprise!…nothing. I poked around the area the buck bolted from the night before and found a light trail in the skiff of snow on the ground. I started following the trail, which lead downhill into a steep, thick, juniper draw. I had to crouch down to get through the tangle of tightly packed junipers–really thick stuff. I found a scrape in a small opening at the bottom of the draw, but it looked like it hadn’t been hit in at least three or four days. When I came up the other side of the draw, I saw a few taller rubs, but on small trees, and they also looked at least a week or more old.
After exiting the draw, I arrived in a small clearing of waist-high CRP grass on a fairly steep side hill. I had a wall of junipers behind me, another wall of junipers to my immediate right, and a third wall of junipers about 20 yards in front of me. To my left, up the hill, grew a few scattered junipers and more CRP grass. I tucked tight against the junipers on my right side, and consulted OnX maps on my phone. Just beyond the junipers in front of me, I would have to navigate another really thick draw, probably by crouching and crawling again. I thought “What the heck” again, as I nocked an arrow. I proceeded to make three punctuated grunts, the kind a chasing buck makes, through the grunt call. To my absolute shock and amazement, a buck immediately grunted back three times…and he was close! For a split second, I contemplated whether the return grunts came from another hunter, but they sounded unmistakably frenzied and real. Then, in the same instant, I heard the buck on a steady walk below me at my 2 o’clock. When the buck let out the first grunt, I guessed him to be within 60 yards. By the second and third grunts, he had to be closer to 40 yards. I couldn’t see anything through the wall of junipers. I clipped my release on to the d-loop, came to full draw and readied to shoot in the direction where I thought he might exit the wall of junipers. If he breached the junipers, I would have a shot of less than 20 yards from the ground. Due to the abrupt change from heavy cover to open hillside, I knew I’d never be able to draw if the buck made it into the open before I reached full draw. Then, just after reaching full draw, I didn’t hear anything…silence. I held my bow at full draw for approximately 2 1/2 minutes, listening intently, my eyes darting nervously hoping to catch sight of the phantom buck. The combination of cold, adrenaline and full draw fatigue caused my arms to start shaking, and I thought, “I need to let down.” Then I thought, “As soon as you let down, he’s going to pop out of the junipers and bust you, game over.” I found myself in a real quandary. At this point, I don’t know if the buck sports 2″ spikes or a 200″ 20-point rack. Another 15 to 20 seconds pass, and I have to let the bow down. Of course, as soon as I let the bow down, I hear the buck start walking again.
At this point, the buck has worked to a position at my 12 o’clock, approximately 23 yards away, just on the other side of the junipers, but, it is so thick, I still can’t even see any part of him moving. In a split second decision, I decide to unclip my release, slide the grunt call out of my chest pocket and give a single short grunt. Before I can even slide the grunt call back in my pocket, I could tell he immediately turned again and headed directly towards me. At this point, the buck has worked up the hillside in front of me from my 2 o’clock to my 10 o’clock, and he is now 10 to 15 feet higher up the hillside than my position. Suddenly, I see the silhouette of antlers start to come into view, and I draw my bow before the buck’s head becomes fully visible through the CRP. He stops at 20 yards with only his antlers, head, and the upper portion of his neck visible. He is facing me, almost head-on. I’m not sure if he is staring at me and the complete lack of cover in front of my position, scanning for the “rival buck,” or just listening, but he stands motionless for at least another full minute.
At this point, what I can see of the buck is obscured by the early morning shadows, and I can’t really make out the headgear all that well. The thought of “How long can I hold the bow before I have to let down again?” creeps into my mind. “Is he going to bust right here?” I have way too much time to think and time seems like its standing still. Miraculously, he starts moving again, still above me, but now paralleling my position. For the first time, I get a good glimpse of the rack. I can see a long main beam and at least 2 points up on the near side. I’m pretty sure its a 3.5+ year old buck just by the length of the beam, and, in that instant, I decide I am definitely shooting, if given the chance. A few more steps and the top of his back comes in to view. A few more steps and five more yards, and I can see the whole body, but not the legs. The buck’s vitals clear a small, 5-foot, and mostly leafless tree (between the two red arrows in the photo below). He’s almost perfectly broadside now, and he’s at a distance of 18 yards, confirmed after the shot by my rangefinder. I let out a soft “meeehhh,” and he stops in his tracks. I’ve messed up chip shots before, so I settle the pin, take an extra second to really aim, center the sight guard in the peep, level the bubble, squeezzzzzeeeeee….CRACK! 480 grains of Easton Axis and Slick Trick have found the mark. He bounds straight up the hill, and, almost immediately, I think I hear gurgling, a second later and he is out of sight…I think I hear a crash and thrashing.
The previous two seasons, I’ve had a bad run of making shots count, so I am second guessing what happened from the moment I released the arrow. Did I make a good shot? Did I really hear gurgling? Did he really crash? Did I really grunt in a buck on the first morning hunt and get an arrow in him from the ground at 18 yards? My mind is racing! I decide I am going to wait at least 30 to 45 minutes without moving, before I inch up to inspect the arrow.
In the interim, I texted my buddy Joel to let him know I had an arrow in what I thought was a 120″-ish 8-point, but I wasn’t 100% sure about the shot, or even the size of the rack. After 30 minutes, I ended up calling my buddy Joel and my other buddy Ryan. After hearing the story, Joel and Ryan each convinced me to look for the arrow and first blood. I told Joel about the gurgling and he said “Dude, you smoked him!” I wanted to believe him, but I couldn’t shake the feelings of doubt. I moved up to the shot location, and I couldn’t locate the arrow in the tall grass. I started down the trail I thought the buck had ran down. I made it 25 yards without a single drop of blood. That terrible sinking feeling started to take hold, and I thought to myself, “You blew it.” I returned to the shot location for a second time, and I still couldn’t find the arrow. However, this time I spotted another faint trail going almost straight up the hill. Less than 7 yards down that trail and I picked up a really good blood trail. I nocked another arrow and took plenty of time following the trail. 30 yards from the shot location, the blood trail took a hard left. I cleared a juniper and spotted him piled up, 45 yards from the shot! What a relief!
When I look him over, I am surprised in a good way! The buck sports a main frame 9-point rack with a 1″+ sticker at the base of his right antler and holy brow tines batman! I definitely didn’t realize the length of the browtines when I shot him. The main beams have great length like I had thought. I was pumped!!! I started sending out the BBD (Big Buck Down) texts and taking in the ridiculousness of the whole hunt. Counting the hour of hunting the night before, my South Dakota season lasted about 2.25 hours. I ended up arrowing this buck less than 200 yards from the location where I jumped the buck the night before, and I’m about 80% sure it is the same deer.
Hero pics courtesy of my buddy, Joel. Joel is such a great guy, he managed to show up right after I finished a 2.5 hour deer drag to do the hard work of taking the photos.
After the mandatory 60-day drying period, I had this buck officially scored. It grossed 140 7/8″ and netted 132 6/8″ Pope and Young. My biggest buck to date and my second net Pope and Young. This hunt made my whole season, and it’s one I will remember forever.
I hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoyed telling it.