Points North: Mountain lions tip the scale for Black Hills hunt

The Black Hills/photo from backpackphotography at flickr
The Black Hills/photo from backpackphotography at flickr

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Maybe it was the mountain lions.

For years, I've tried to cajole my friend Alan Lutkevich of Duluth into trying turkey hunting, only to be met with steadfast refusal. His reason was sound-his vacation time is already spent chasing deer, steelhead and pheasants. Turkey hunting was an additional time commitment and happened at about the same time as spring steelhead fishing. Working for a living, he only has so much time to have fun.

This spring was different. Warm and dry weather along Lake Superior's North Shore sapped tributary rivers of their spring runoff flows and sapped our desire to catch steelhead from the droughty trickles. So we considered alternatives to our annual Ontario fishing trip. Hunting turkeys in the Black Hills--where you can buy a license without applying for a lottery and hunt on public, national forest land-was suddenly under consideration.

To learn more, I called Dean Bortz, the editor of Wisconsin Outdoor News, who has made numerous spring pilgrimages to the Black Hills. His enthusiasm for the Hills was contagious. He gave advice on places to hunt and where to stay and assured me there were turkeys aplenty.

"But what I really like is all of the other wildlife you see, even bighorn sheep and mountain goats," Bortz said. "Oh, and make sure you have your back against a big tree when you call turkeys, because you might bring in a mountain lion."

Now that sounded interesting. But when Dean told he could drive from his northern Wisconsin home to his hunting destination in about 13 hours, I was really interested. From my perspective, a drive of that length is within reason for a five-day trip. A longer drive requires more days away.

 
When I reported what Dean had said to Al, he seemed to perk up most at the mention of the mountain lions. This was understandable. We do much of our hunting in wild country populated with wolves, bears and moose. Any place wild enough for mountain lions would be wild enough for us. And so we got serious about Black Hills turkeys.

In a way, I felt like a pusher introducing some fresh-faced kid to crack. I've hunted turkeys in the past and managed to curb my budding addiction due to its conflicts with other things I like to do at that time of year (see Al's reasons not to hunt turkeys, above). But a couple of days spent as a guest at Ron Schara's Turkey Tracks camp a decade ago left me with a strong desire to get another fix of Black Hills turkeys. It ain't easy to kick the turkey hunting habit.

And it's always fun to help a newbie spend money. After some expected grumbling, Al pulled out the wallet. Now he has new map software for South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois and the Upper Peninsula (I guess it was a heckuva deal), more camouflage clothing, a box call, a decoy, a turkey vest, ammo and who knows what else. So far, he's figured out the box call scares his house cats, which are clearly not mountain lions.

I called the resort where Dean recommended we stay and introduced myself as a friend of his. From the other end of the line came "We don't want any friends of that guy staying here!" and I knew it was a good place. It turned out the owners had even hunted deer with Dean in northern Wisconsin.

I also found myself trolling the outdoor television channels looking for turkey-hunting programs. Usually, I find hunting television about as exciting as watching paint dry at best and, at its worst, little more than crude animal snuff videos. But when you are preparing for a new adventure, you get hungry for whatever information you can find.

Unfortunately, I didn't find much other than some truly awful deer-hunting shows.

 
But bad television can't dampen my anticipation for a Black Hills adventure. In the evening I'd page through an autographed copy of a turkey-hunting book by Gary Clancy to glean a thing or two. For me, the most difficult aspect of turkey hunting is that they don't live where I do, so I don't know them in the same way I know northwoods ruffed grouse or whitetails. Understanding the habits of the game I pursue makes for a more effective (and personally satisfying) hunt.

But I do know enough about turkeys to call one into range. And I can teach Al what little I know to get him started. In some ways, what is most interesting to me about Black Hills turkeys is that you can pursue them the same way we go after northwoods bucks, moving slow and quietly through big country until your path coincides with that of a gobbler.

In that respect, finding a turkey ought to be easier than finding a buck. After all, turkeys are active during daylight hours and gobble occasionally so you know where they are. On top of that, they're just a dumb bird, so just how hard can turkey hunting be?

In the coming week, we'll find out.

Airdate: May 7, 2010

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