High Plains Mulies And Whitetails: A Tale Of 3 Bowhunts: Part 1

Part 1

One bright October day I found myself driving west across the endless South Dakota plains. The idea was to bowhunt mulies and whitetails, but my doubts grew with each desolate mile that passed. I couldn’t believe I’d find a deer anywhere in this sere, ankle-high "cover."

A week later I was back on the same road, heading east, not believing the deer I’d seen. In between was one of the most memorable bowhunting trips of my life.

This hunt had been a long time coming. I’d been trying to get to this part of the country for several years, to hunt with an old friend of the family, Reed Henschel. I knew Henschel when I was a kid, when we both lived in Minnesota. I always admired him and his odd mix of talents; his woodsmanship and horsemanship, his artistry with construction tools, and his singing voice, mistakable for Willie Nelson’s. Henschel is a true cowboy who also happens to enjoy inventing things, writing poetry, and reading it dramatically to large groups of ladies. He’s also the most sincere individual I ever met and a hell of a hunter, which is why I’d yearned to hunt with him for a long time.

We’d moved in opposite directions from Minnesota; Henschel to live the Western lifestyle and to start his company, me to the East Coast to start a career in sporting journalism. Thanks to Mark Kayser, who then worked for the Department of Tourism, and who wanted to get the word out about the great hunting to be had in South Dakota, I was finally going to get to hunt with my old friend.

I met them both in Pierre, at a sporting exposition. Henschel was there peddling the wares made by his company, Tower Stools, which include a hunting blind, stools, shooting bench, and other plywood items employing a unique fold-up design. Kayser was shuttling pheasant hunters between the big party and the bird fields, but took time to take me bowhunting that evening while Henschel worked the show.

Mark Kayser glassing for deer on the South Dakota prairie.

Kayser is an accomplished bowhunter who knows the country and how to hunt it. He’d told me what to expect.

"I guess you’d describe it as prairie hunting, with big flatlands and large hills, broken by river drainages," he said. "It’s a real challenging hunt, because cover is so limited. A hunter from the Eastern woodlands would find himself in a totally different situation, because instead of pine and deciduous woods, all you have for cover is a sage clump, or if you’re lucky, a small pocket of trees. You can find some places to stand hunt, but our most successful technique is spotting and stalking.

"What you do is find a chunk of land where you can get permission to hunt, and get in there early, about an hour before dawn,” he continued. “Get up on top of a hill, careful not to silhouette yourself, where you can look over a piece of real estate. The best place to find deer is a creek drainage with a water source or some cropland like winter wheat. Watch where the deer are moving, and figure out routes to intercept them. Or you can watch where they bed, and figure out a way to stalk them. For this type of hunting you have to use optics and look over every little piece of cover — bushes, rocks. You need to study the flow of the terrain and use the little depressions, ridges and saddles to help you move unseen.

"Once you’ve spent enough time watching a particular bunch of deer, you may be able to tell where good stand sites would be — where they travel along a creekbottom or enter and exit fields,” he said. “Another technique that has worked real well for me is calling — grunting and rattling. I usually try to spot the deer first, then move in close before I start calling."

There’s excellent whitetail and mulie hunting to be had just outside of Pierre — South Dakota’s capital city of 12,000. Kayser and I drove 10 minutes from there to a ranch near the Bad River, quickly swapped our business clothes for camo, and we were hunting.

The ranch was set in an old, well-worn riverbed that cut through big, rolling hills covered with short grass and sprinkled with sage and cactus. Our initial thrust would be a thick section of creekbottom choked with stunted oaks and a variety of brush. I took a shady stand at a bottleneck downwind, while Kayser eased into the thick stuff upwind, trying to move any bedded deer by me.

My eyes were wandering, gazing far, as an Easterner’s eyes always do when presented with the infinite landscapes of the West. A distant thump brought my attention back to the task at hand. I got ready, and presently a small group of does clattered out of the rocky, brushy draw, a couple passing so close I could have touched them. I hoped they would be followed by bucks, but the next thing to emerge from the thicket was Kayser. The bucks were elsewhere, and we decided to climb the hills to search for them.

A Warm, Tough Climb
The strenuous climb and warm, late-October sun streaked our faces with perspiration, and I was glad for a break as we snaked over the crest of a hill to lie glassing a sparsely brushed valley below. A couple of such stops revealed nothing, but a bedded coyote that spotted and identified us, despite our carefulness, a surprising distance away. He promptly put even more distance between us, and it was time for Kayser to make tracks too, to keep an appointment. I stayed to hunt the half-hour remaining till dark.

Now would be the time when the mysteriously invisible bucks would materialize as they began their nighttime feeding forays. Judging by the accumulations of tracks and an unpressured buck’s proclivity to do anything to conserve energy, I deduced they were apt to follow a dry run that provided easy walking and terminated at a lowland hay meadow. I made my way over to that run and began still-hunting uphill.

I hadn’t gone more than 100 yards when I eased over a small ridge and spotted a decent 3×3 mulie browsing his way slowly toward the field. I ducked down, plotted his likely route, and dashed around to set up and intercept him.

Fortunately, I found the best cover available within hundreds of acres. Unfortunately, that cover consisted of a dwarf bush with two branches and three leaves. The buck would have passed broadside at 20 yards, but he spotted me easily at 35, offering only a frontal shot, which I refused to take. As he began to turn, I drew, on the off-chance he would freeze at the movement and offer a good shot. But as I expected, he bounced off another 50 yards, stopping to stare at me in wide-eyed wonder, until I stood and sent him springing off into the sunset.

For a recurve-shooting bowhunter used to taking 15-yard shots through narrow tunnels cut in thickets, this new style of hunting was going to take some getting used to.

Please read more in Part 2.

For a fine selection of Archery gear, click here.

Mike Strandlund is editor of Bowhunting World Magazine and bowhuntingworld.com, and is a member of the National Bowhunters Hall of Fame.

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