Merriam Turkey Hunt With High Prairie Outfitters
by Dan Wennerlind
In August I had the pleasure of taking my father with me on a World Class All Inclusive Antelope Hunt with Dave Ciani of High Prairie Outfitters near the Black Hills of South Dakota. We had such a great experience on that trip that I could hardly say no when Dave Ciani offered me the chance to join him again this spring on a Guided Merriam Turkey Hunt in the Black Hills. I took this opportunity as a perfect chance to not only enjoy a fantastic spring turkey hunt but to do a little site seeing after the hunt with all of the incredible tourist attractions that the Black Hills area has to offer.
As I hung up the phone with expert turkey hunting outfitter Dave Ciani, two days before I was scheduled to meet him in mid April, I was extremely excited. Dave had told me story after story of all of the hunters who had already had success with him this spring. In fact he was a perfect 8 for 8 with his gun hunters and the two archery hunters both had multiple opportunities that were up close and personal with trophy Merriam tom turkeys. However I also realized that this was not going to be a gimmie hunt by any means as the Black Hills area was right in the middle of the biggest snow storm in 7 years according to Ciani. In fact after all the smoke cleared and the 60 mph winds died down there was approximently 56 inches of snow covering the ground where we were expected to hunt near the Spearfish/Deadwood, SD area.
As we pulled into the driveway of the High Prairie Lodge, that not more than 5 hours ago was completely snowed in, Dave’s wife Teri Ciani met us with a smile and showed us to our room inside their completely renovated historic 1800’s stone house. As we got settled in Dave was in the process of lining up some new “Hot Spots” as his 1,700 acre lease was completely inaccessible due to the snow. During this time I also had a chance to meet Tom, another one of Dave’s hunters who was from North Dakota.
Tom had the opportunity of showing up Monday evening just hours in front of the storm and had spent the last two days snowed in at the lodge without even a chance of stepping foot outside due to the 60 mph winds and whiteout conditions. I could tell he was chomping at the bit to get out and pound some ground.
I had just unloaded my gear into the heated hunting garage when Dave joined us and explained that since we still had a couple hours of daylight left and this was the first chance the turkeys had to get out and feed in the past two days, we needed to hit the road and try and put a couple birds to bed and maybe even get a crack at a nice tom before dinner. Tom and I hopped into Simba, Dave’s jacked up Nissan Land Cruiser which I quickly found out you do not mistake for a Jeep, and off we went. We checked out several different areas and each place Dave took us to had flocks of turkeys trudging through the deep snow. Unfortunately they were all on the roads and most of the time were found running in front of the truck not wanting to dive into the 5 foot snow banks. We finally found a nice quiet feeding area that had about 50 turkeys using it and Dave explained that he had the lease directly adjacent to the property which was right in between the roost ridge behind us and the private little feeding area the birds were now using. We counted over 6 big toms in full strut which got all of our blood boiling. We had definitely found our morning spot.
I awoke at 4:30 am sharp and I think I beat the alarm clock. At that point I felt very fortunate I had packed my gortex snow camo but also wished I would have thrown in a pair of snow shoes. As we pulled off the road at our morning ”Hot Spot” we were not two miles from the lodge and we could already hear numerous toms gobbling on the ridge top. As Dave led Tom and I into the deep snow, he made the trek look easy with his snow shoes. Tom and I on the other hand struggled to keep up as with each step we sank into the thigh deep snow. Luckily we did not have to go far before we found numerous turkey tracks from the day before. Dave set us up about 40 yards apart in a nice stand of spruce trees. He then set himself up about 20 yards behind us to call the birds into us. I learned a lot more from Dave that day about how to hunt turkeys. For one thing, Dave does not like to use decoys. He likes to rely on calling exclusively as to keep the birds guessing as to his whereabouts.
Dave also said that today we needed to all call at the same time in an attempt to pull the big toms away from the hens due to the fact that there were so many birds in the area and the hens were so vocal.
In fact I think Dave had 7 calls in his arsenal that day and he used them all to expertise. I have never heard so many different turkey sounds including different purrs, clucks, yelps and some I don’t even know how to describe. I’m sure we must have sounded like an entire flock of birds. We were good enough to pull four hens within ten feet but unfortunately the three big toms hung up just on the other side of the barb wire fence not 50 yards away. They continued to strut and gobble at us for over two hours.
Around 8:30 am Dave motioned us back and said that we needed to regroup and set up in a new area on the back side of the bird’s strutting zone on the hilltop above us. We carefully made our way through the deep snow and thick pines where we finally got set up just below the plateau where the big toms continued to strut around. Again Dave set up 20 yards behind us but this time explained that we should keep quiet and let him call the birds down to us as he did not want to give away our positions since we were much closer to the birds this time.
As we sat there awaiting the big toms to peak over the hill we could also hear another tom sounding off quite frequently from about 300 yards behind us on the ridge. In fact it was like clockwork, every 5 minutes he would gobble. After quite some time with no success we snuck back to Dave and he told me that the tom we kept hearing behind us was the hottest bird he’d heard all season.
At that point he gave me the option of going after that bird on a stalking mission while he and Tom stayed back. He explained that I should keep quiet and let the bird lead me in until I felt I was close enough to set up and call. At that point Dave expected that the bird would come right in and should be an easy kill. I eagerly accepted the challenge and off I went.
I quickly found that sometimes my heart is bigger than my head as I trudged down the ravine where at points the snow was waist deep or more. It was slow going to say the least. I finally made it up to the top of the ridge only to find another valley on the other side. But for not I trudged on! As I finally made it up to the top of the next ravine, as luck would have it the bird finally shut up. I called to him as lovingly as I could several times with no response. I did find numerous fresh turkey tracks around me though so I kept going. Two hours and two miles later all I had to show for my effort was a wet back and a pair of sore feet. Outsmarted by a bird with a pea sized brain once again.
That afternoon I was finally able to get close enough to a nice tom and dumped him at less than ten yards. What a beautiful bird… my first Merriam.
That afternoon I was finally able to get close enough to a nice tom and dumped him at less than ten yards. What a beautiful bird… my first Merriam. I was in awe of how beautiful the different color phasing is on these birds compared to the Easterns I am used to hunting back in Wisconsin and Minnesota. As I plucked my trophy back at Dave’s heated game cleaning room at camp, I could hardly wait to put him on the grill! At dinner that night I couldn’t thank Dave enough for the chance to hunt with such a turkey hunting expert and for another chance to spend time in the field with such a good friend.
Now that the hunt was over it was time to spend some quality time with my girlfriend who I could tell was getting a little bit of cabin fever.
We were off to see the many sites that the Black hills had to offer. We were able to visit Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument and Custer State Park all within an hour of the High Prairie Lodge. As we packed up our things, and thanked Dave and Teri one last time for a fantastic experience Dave and I were already making plans for our next hunting adventure together later this fall. This time it would be off to Saskatchewan, Canada for a late season upland bird hunt. Until then……………
For More Information On High Prairie Outfitter’s Turkey Hunts
Please contact outfitter
11904 Crook City Road
Whitewood, South Dakota, 57793
Phone: 605-578-1222 Fax 605-578-1106
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