A little about me - I grew up in Maine and have lived here my whole life. After I graduated college, I took a job in Rapid City for a year. I had always wanted to hunt out west, especially spot and stalk mulies on the prairie. And this was an awesome opportunity to get to do it. Unfortunately, due to work commitments (I worked a lot that year!) I was never able to get out with my bow, but did manage a couple rifle hunts and I was hooked.
After my contract was over, my wife and I moved back to Maine (against my will, I'll add), but I try to make it out west every year. She's at least very understanding and gives me a week or 2 per year to head back west. Last year I rifle hunted SD with a good friend and we each got our first mulies.
I had planned on finally getting my chance to hunt on the prairie this year and aimed for September. Of course this year SD decided to change their public land laws for NR, so I was stuck until October. I already had vacation planned in November so decided to wait until then to go. I also invited a new buddy of mine to come. He also had never been out west before. Despite the short notice, he was able to work it out. I knew he would love it. We got all our gear set and soon enough we were on our way.
We flew into Rapid City without any issues. We were both relieved to see our bows and bags show up. We got into our rental car and headed into town for some food and gear. We were amped up to get going and headed over to our intended area – were I had been last year. We slept in the car that night and first light had us looking over a few drainages, but we never saw anything on public.
We drove around for the rest of the morning exploring what land was available to hunt on and eventually made our way back to our starting point. I know SD isn’t a pack in hunt, but the area I wanted to focus on was a pretty good hike. It’s easy (like most of SD is), but just takes time so we packed out tents and hiked in rather than trekking back and forth each time.
With our tents set up, we started glassing. Last year when we did this, we never turned up much at night. There are so many draws and places we couldn’t quite see into that I knew deer were around, it was just difficult to see them. Well, same story this year. We saw 2 does feeding but that was it.
The weather was turning to snow tomorrow and then a significant temperature drop the next couple days after. I really felt the deer would be on their feet the next few days.
There wasn’t much sign in the usual places. We made a big loop around the area much promise. We worked our way to the back side of a hill that is typically secluded from the wind and I’ve seen a few deer there before.
As we walked over, I caught sight of a deer. Finally! As I looked through my binos I saw a decent buck and doe bedded in a great spot. Bad news was they had caught our movement and were onto us. We hunkered down, but they eventually grew weary and trotted off. They ended up bumping another group of does and a small forked buck. We tried to track them down but never caught up with them.
Although we saw some deer, I was not encouraged by the sign and we decided to head out to our plan B spot. The snow really started to fall as this point. It made travel difficult but we reached our new spot safely by dark.
We drove around and eventually found a road where we could see into the backside of a peak (I use the term peak loosely, here). I glassed around and saw a pocket of deer. The more I looked, the more deer I saw. They were too far away to see what exactly they were, but I figured there had to be a couple of bucks around this time of year. Not long after I thought this, a couple deer starting sparring – game on!
We packed up and headed in that direction. Considering the terrain, coming from the bottom was off the table. We had to go up and over the top and there was a possibility we’d skyline ourselves at some point.
We took it slow and when we reached the top, I crawled to as far as I dared and glassed. I immediately saw deer. There were 3 nice mule deer bucks bedded down 120 yards in front of us. The does were plentiful and they fed contently on the grasses. In the next draw over, there was a decent whitetail buck that had 3 does with him. Down the draw a bit further were a handful more does – mixed between whitetail and mulies.
We both surprisingly had good wind, and it was enough to conceal our noise and movement. Unfortunately, the snowy background made us stand out but assuming we could stay hidden we had other things going in our favor.
As I was getting into position on my group, I noticed another deer walking onto the property. It was a bomber 10-point whitetail. I came on this trip for mule deer - but this deer would get an arrow from me any day of any season. Without hesitating, my plan changed. He eventually bedded on the backside of a smaller draw a bit further down. It was a great set. I had good wind, no other deer around, and he was in a good spot to get close.
I got to about 80 yards when the group of deer from above started running down the draw. I was just out of position and couldn’t cut them off as the moved onto private, taking my whitetail with them. I figured my buddy got busted - we both knew that one of us would likely mess up the other on our set-up.
The mule deer walked off, but I could tell the whitetail wanted to come back. He knew something was up but couldn’t quite tell what it was. He slowly worked his way over. When he went out of sight in the draw, I hurried down near his old bed, knocked an arrow, and ranged the surroundings. Not long after, he came right in to where I had expected, only I didn’t have much cover and he noticed something wasn’t right. He took two bounds, I came to full draw, and he turned broadside for me. It was perfect.
Except he was too far – about 90 yards. He took off but I knew he wanted to bed down. I followed him for a while and when I caught up to him, he had bedded down – again in a good spot.
At that time my buddy came down the hill towards me in plain view. I motioned for him to get down, but it was too late. The buck was up and away he went. We never did see that deer again.
I don't have all the details from his side of the story as I was doing my own thing, but apparently he had just enough grass to cover his movement. The bucks were really at ease and never really noticed him. He got picked off by a lone doe at 60 yards and after an intense staredown he lucked out when a fawn came by and distracted her. It was enough for him to get up and draw and the rest is history.
After all that, we packed it up and headed back for the truck. We drove around, mainly to celebrate while warming up. Without anything else really happening, we ended up going back there at last light to see if the deer filtered back. Sure enough, quite a few deer were back and just before sunset a group of mule deer showed up, including a beautiful buck.
With an awesome sunset in the background, we watched him scent check his does and could see the steam from his breath as he worked them. It was an awesome sight that will be forever etched in my mind. This was why I had come in November!
After a bit of searching, we found the group of mule deer from the day prior. The biggest of the group, a beautiful, thick 5x5 with deep forks was feeding in a good spot. The only issue was with the wind direction. I’d have to circle upwind on the backside of the peak. It was a bit risky, but I decided to make a bigger circle and hopefully the wind would blow around the peak rather than over it.
I made it over without any of the deer blowing out. As I was almost in position, I noticed the group leaving out the bottom of the draw. There were 2 bucks there, but neither was the bigger buck I had seen. I knew he was still close.
I peaked over the edge and sure enough he was there, although I was just a few seconds too late. I got to 100 yards of him but all I could do was watch as he worked his way out as well. He was a great deer. I’m not much for scores, but he had to have been a solid 180” deer.
Although they never busted out, I think they caught enough of my wind to get nervous and that's why they were on their way out when I got there. We stayed for a while hoping the group would feed back towards us, but it never happened. The rest of the day was uneventful as we eventually checked out some new spots around the area.
As I was on my way, a lone doe came up over the top of the draw. She never noticed me and walked towards the other deer. The buck eventually came around to get her, but at this point they were too far away. I followed them until I was able to see them through the grass. They also caught my movement and I froze as they went on alert. The does got curious and started to walk my way. I ranged them as they crossed in front of me at 40 yards. For whatever reason they paid little attention to me and started to walk away, putting me in between the does and the buck. I knew he’d follow and got ready.
I got that feeling when you just know things are going to work out. Everything that happened had been perfect, there was no way he wasn’t coming. It was just a matter of when.
We decided to head back over to 'Tower 1' but there were no deer there. We had about 2 days of hunting left so decided to pack up and head out to another area.
We arrived at our new area a couple hours later and eventually glassed up a buck with 4 does. A couple hours later I had snuck in to 50 yards. He was big forky buck with a couple of small kickers. He had 2 does bedded 40 yards above me, but a small sage brush was just enough to conceal my movement. He was bedded in a draw just out of sight with a doe, while another doe fed on the adjacent hillside.
I waited for him to get up, expecting him to work his way to the bedded does above me. When he got up, it's like he read the script and worked his way to the bedded does. I could see his antler tips and got ready. As he was just about the clear the bank, he turned and went the other way towards the other does. I had no play with the does bedded above me, so I just watched and tried to figure out a plan for the morning.
As hard as I tried, I eventually lost sight of them as they walked across a bank at 250 yards. I knew they wouldn’t be far, so I crept down the draw hoping to catch sight of them. Luckily, I had a great cut bank to walk along. But with no wind, it was louder than I would’ve like. The grass was manageable, but any type of vegetation made things tricky.
As I walked down the draw, I caught an ear. Unfortunately, that deer had apparently heard me walking and the little movement they saw was enough to bust out of the draw. The group was only 50 yards away at that point. Another close call!
Luckily, I picked out another group of deer a few hundred yards from me. It was the group from the night before. They were bedded on the backside of a slight draw – one that was just big enough to hide me. The buck was bedded highest and in the best position to stalk. They were all bedded facing the same direction. To add to my luck, they were upwind of me (what little wind there was) and would be for my entire route. I figured this was going to be my best chance and really took my time analyzing the situation. I grabbed lunch and called my buddy, who had stayed at the truck for him to come to help with hand signals.
As my buddy showed, I looked back at the group and saw the deer were up on full alert. A few seconds later they took off onto private. I figured a coyote was coming but as I glasses the draws it turns out someone else had seen the deer and was making the stalk in. I was annoyed – not by the fact someone else was going after those deer – I get that’s what public land hunting is. He had no clue we were there either, so it’s not like he did it intentionally. But he busted them out from well over 400 yards. Who knows what his story was, but I felt like my best chances were over.
Finally, I spotted some deer way off in the distance. They were 2 bucks – one I never got a good look at and a big fork – possibly the deer we had been after the previous 2 days. They were about the drop into a draw which would’ve been a good set for a stalk.
We continued to glass, and soon another doe showed up, and another, and so on. It was the group of 10 from the day prior.
Way off in the distance a good buck was moving on public. Things were looking up. I had 3 potential stalks for today at this point, so I was feeling pretty good.
However, as time passed that lone buck and the first group of 2 bucks we saw all fed onto private. The group of 10 had fed out of sight and we lost track of them.
Things were looking down when a lone buck showed up. He was in a decent spot and I didn’t hesitate. Off we went.
We worked down an adjacent draw and when we got close I climbed up over and there he was, 90 yards away feeding away from us. He fed for about 30 seconds, then bedded down. He was covered up pretty good in some sage. I figured a minute later and I probably would’ve missed seeing him.
We let him settle in and I figured out a plan. The wind was good for our position, and there was a good size draw I could sneak in. At some point I’d have to be exposed, but I’d figure that out later.
I started sneaking in with my buddy spotting for me. I got to about 100 yards away, looked up at my buddy who motioned that the buck was onto me. No doubt he heard me, so I knew I’d have to move slower. At this point I wasn’t very encouraged by the situation.
I got the go ahead to continue and slowed down. I made it as far as I could with the terrain cover but ran out. I didn’t really have great options, but I had a good size bush in front of the deer. I was able to make out his antlers and could keep tabs on him. I really slowed my pace and eased each step down. I took a step only when a car or a plane passed. Anything to muffle my noise. Somehow this was working, and I was able to get to 40 yards.
I felt I had no other play, so I decided to push my luck and just take it slow. I had made it just a few steps when I crunched a branch. His head whipped over and he stood up. I drew but I only saw his neck and hind quarter. I had no shot and watched as he took off.
I met up with my buddy and all we could do was laugh. I don’t have many opportunities for stalking, but hands down it was the best stalk of my life. And he had front row seats to it. It was awesome.
At this point I was very familiar with this area considering the previous days events. I knew on that there was a cut bank on the opposite of the draw the deer were. I was surprised at how far our cover went. When we were close I ranged the far bank – 60 yards. I knocked an arrow and peaked through a small gap in the bank. There he was, bedded in the only spot I could see well.
I did what I could to see how he was bedded and try to make some sort of plan. He caught some movement and stood up. I was out of cover – this was it.
I drew, settled in, and stepped onto the bank. The buck was standing broadside. I found the shoulder, made it halfway up the body, found a spot, and let it go.
He was a nice deer. Nothing huge but I’m thrilled with him. By far my favorite deer I’ve taken so far.
Things worked out well for us. We got him packed out and back at the truck pretty quickly. We had bought an extra cooler for his deer and since we were able to freeze it previously, I took a cooler and my meat on ice right away. We headed back to town, finished up cleaning and packing the meat (luckily we had ziplocs from his deer too), shipped some gear home, and got all set up for the flight home.
As with most hunting scenerios, so much needs to go right and it always seemed like something went wrong for me right until the buzzer. Luckily, I had a great partner and we had a great time. It’s always nice to have someone to ‘embrace the suck’ with - as some would say!
Lesson learned... it ain’t over til it’s over!
Congrats on that successful spot and stalk!
Jaq - I'll have to keep that in mind! I almost got a heads up decoy but decided against it for bulk. Would've come in handy many times, though!
I loved that territory in the badlands of western ND, and even after seeing more spectacular scenery in four trips to higher elevations in CO and a successful hunt in AZ for cow elk, I'd take another trip to the badlands as my first choice,
I'm 75 now, and realistically will not likely make another trip west, but it was good to enjoy your hunt through your writing and pictures and feel that same excitement again. Thank You.