It is an absurd coincidence that you ended up in the Blacks Hills in the first place. A business trip and days off just kinda inexplicably aligned. People will question the honesty of this tale, as few will ever believe your purposeful luck.
That C. Hart Merriam preceded you in birth by exactly 100 years and was honored by the naming of the chosen quarry, Meleagris gallopavo merriami, might be the most ironic aspect of this adventure. Obviously, he earned the accolade by his devotion to wildlife research and astute management of the U.S. Biological Survey, transformed into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940.
Your first foray into the pungent coniferous forests of western South Dakota, dominated by the “heavy pine,” or as David Douglas named it in 1826, Pinus ponderosa, might as well have put you on a foreign planet. So unfamiliar to what you were used to, with robust patchworks of diverse species of plants and animals living amongst craggy elevations, boasting grand vistas worthy of talented pioneer painters. These giants with trunks eclipsing eight feet in diameter, rising 20 stories and existing for more than 800 years, were intimidating to stroll under in daylight and utterly terrifying to navigate through in soupy dawn.
You knew that the probabilities for bagging a wary Merriam turkey in these vast public lands on a self-guided hunt were, at best, improbable. But your quest for this species was on the bucket list and had to be undertaken while wobbly knees could still handle the strain.
You’d have done more thorough homework if there would have been time. There should have been more discussions with the locals and thus a better understanding of the topography and challenges of the rocky, stubby mountains. But, being proud of doing it yourself, it would not have mattered anyway. A stab at an “X” on a map supplied by a stranger was as good as it was gonna get.
Once you had inhaled a few deep breaths of crisp, thin air and accumulated a mile or so of caked mud on your boots, acclimatization had begun. The straining of ears for turkey sounds and piercing eyes for signs of turkey happenings were the same as in Texas or Kansas. Was that a gobble or your imagination?
After you broached three granite strewn ridges with lungs clamoring for more oxygen, unmistakable turkey speak was detected and clearly translated into one hot gobbler. As you carefully, stealthily set up the ambush with your back against an ancient ponderosa pine, you almost fainted as gobbles erupted way too close. Did you stumble into a mating party in your human greed? Your pump nearly exploded, potentially sending blood expelling from your ears, but you forced a mantra through your brain: “Patience, patience, patience.”
The scratchy, ribbed, cinnamon-scented bark of the pine that dug into your spine reminded you that this was one thrill to savor now, but remember always.
After only two twitched purrs from your custom box call, the excited long beard boastfully betrayed his immoral intentions. For 30 minutes booming gobbles resonated off the truck-sized, lichen-stained boulders at arm’s reach, but the turkeys declining decibels reveal the bird has migrated quickly to a more secure vantage. Your subconscious mind admitted he was long gone.
In desperation, you initiated one more pleading, lustful purr, and in mere seconds a bright red head warily peeked from behind an ancient pine bole, just 10 short yards directly in front of your muzzle. One soft squeeze of the scattergun’s trigger and WHAM! A mature tom flopped down the slope, graveyard dead. The GPS indicated a strenuous 3.7-mile return trek to the rented truck with a 26-pound feathered trophy in tow, so the obligatory toil was then well-defined.
Soon released from these endless woods, you shall be reabsorbed into the stressful realm that you have tried so desperately to escape. Soon another boring conference call or meeting room would become your world. But the heavy pine that concealed your presence to the gobbler has stood watch in this wonderful place for 300 years; it will still be rooted on this needle-strewn slope, watching over all things wild for countless sunsets to come.
And henceforth, no one will ever take you off this mountain, either.
Photos courtesy of the author.