Badlands – Back to Back

Accessible and downright productive, hunting in this rugged piece of the high plains attracts hunters a century after it drew TR.

Call it the high plains, crumpled. The creased landscape that joins western South Dakota, eastern Montana and their shared corner of Wyoming looks as if it were wadded up and tossed out, then retrieved and hastily smoothed. Pines gobble their scant ration of water in a bid to beat the next crush. Clouds sift on brisk winds over arid chalk bluffs, once inundated by a prehistoric sea. Bluestem waves a pink goodbye to sunsets still largely unbroken by dwellings.

It is a bountiful but rugged land. Theodore Roosevelt hunted there, and on his ranch relished the country’s coarse texture, warm colors, even its extreme weather.


“We drop below zero often enough,” admits Richard Folsland. My friend lives in Rapid City – or just Rapid, if you’re local. “Of course, winters can be truly cold.” The mercury had nudged 90 a few days earlier. Now we were snugging rain gear against a wet blizzard. Here, you give September lots of latitude.

Hunkered in a coulee to duck 40-mph gusts, I glassed windward, wiping sleet from the objectives of my 8×30 Zeiss every few seconds. “There!”

DSC_7527_-Van-ZwollSometimes you get lucky. We slipped into a cut undetected by the pronghorn. Minutes later, after emerging from the coulee’s muddied gut, I bellied onto a tuft of grass and pasted the sourdough front sight on the buck’s shoulder. The little Mauser hopped, and a Norma-loaded 120-grain Ballistic Tip anchored the pronghorn. It was the inaugural hunt for this 6.5×55, which I’d picked up in a gun shop for less than $150.

Two days later, in brilliant sunshine, Richard spied a magnificent buck on a nearby hill. He settled into his Remington 700 and squeezed the trigger. Norma did the rest, the bullet killing the animal cleanly.

Such good fortune can hook you on badlands, even if the fickle weather doesn’t. So I returned in October, this time to hunt deer with my friends from GreyBull Precision. John Burns, Scott Downs, Phil Quick and Don Ward met me at a cabin on a timbered spine capping a labyrinth of draws snaking through grassy hills. To the north, the draws became canyons, the hills bluffs. “But the deer seem concentrated on the ag land beyond,” Scott said. “New alfalfa is greening up after last week’s rain. It’s sucking in both the whitetails and muleys.”

Badlands on the high plains boast variety hard to match elsewhere. While drawing a tag isn’t quite as certain as a tax boost to fund universal health care, the odds are good for all big game licenses except elk. As a bonus, some units offer fall turkey hunting. Public land abounds; still, the best chances at deer and pronghorns come on private property, which is increasingly under lease. But even if you shell out a few dollars for access or a down-home guided hunt from one of the area’s many outfitter ranches, you’ll likely find the trip a bargain. Richard and I used Trophy Ridge Outfitters, near Carlile, Wyoming, for our early hunt, and we found it an excellent choice. The GreyBull boys and I would be hunting on Tony Swanda’s ranch with no outfitter.

DSC_8524_-Van-Zwoll“You can shoot either deer species in this Wyoming unit,” Scott explained over steak and salad that evening. “We’ll focus on mule deer because Tony likes to hunt whitetails himself.” GreyBull’s lease gave us freedom to roam without competition from other hunters.

Though the season had already run several days, we found plenty of deer the next morning. Scattered across a patchwork quilt of new alfalfa and wheat stubble, they sifted across islands of sage footing basalt ledges and slopes of yellow grass. Ribbons of snow from early storms laced the hills. Our breath curled in wisps beside our binoculars as we glassed into a cold, fitful wind and the iron sky slowly snuffed its stars.

No bucks. “At least, no big ones,” Scott conceded. “We’re in the nursery.”

By midmorning, we had looked at lots of deer. A bright sun finally nudged them into the hills. “Let’s shoot,” John said.

Near most hunting camps, you’ll find a stump chewed mealy by bullets, perhaps with a camp table 100 yards off. That wouldn’t do for GreyBull’s team, whose specialty is long-range precision. “Tony really supported us in this effort,” Don told me as we braked just a few yards from ranch headquarters. “We invited him to shoot. He liked hitting steel at 700 yards.”

DSC_9287_-Van-ZwollThe range consisted of a gravel pad with a concrete bench on iron-pipe pillars. The sheet-metal roof afforded shade. At 100 and 200 yards, John had installed target frames worthy of Camp Perry. “The gongs are more fun,” he said, pointing out black dots on a distant hillside. “They’re at 540 and 760 – far enough to show what our hardware can do.”

The hardware, it turned out, consisted of two rifles on Remington 700 long actions, both equipped with Leupold 4.5-14x VX III scopes, both with hand-laid synthetic stocks John had designed for long-range field shooting. Their target profile belied relatively slim lines and surprisingly light weight, which kept the rifles to about 9 1/2 pounds, with medium-heavy stainless barrels 26 inches long.

“One’s a .243, the other a 7mm Remington Magnum,” John told me. “I build them specifically for hunters who want to extend their reach. We have Leupold install our own range-finding reticle in the scopes. It’s a modified Duplex, with windage tics on the horizontal wire and lines below center that help you judge yardage.”  He was quick to add that the lines (like the tics, at one-minute intervals) aren’t for aiming. “To hit at extreme range, you’ll want to hold center. We manufacture a tall elevation dial engineered specifically to the load, so you can quickly run the dial to the distance and hold in the middle at any range to 800 yards or so, depending on the load,” he said. “The 1/3-minute clicks are absolutely repeatable. Set the dial at zero when you’re hitting center at 100 yards, or 200. For a long shot, just spin to the distance inscribed on the dial.” A second number at each 100-yard mark indicates deflection in minutes for a 10-mph full-value wind.

John insisted I try the 7mm. “It’s shooting a 180-grain Berger VLD at 3,000 fps,” he explained as I thumbed the magazine full. “We load the .243 to the same speed with 105 VLDs.” He assured me these hollow-point match bullets are deadly on big game at long range. “Besides retaining speed and energy very well, they expand reliably and penetrate deep into animals as big as elk,” he said.

DSC_7612_-Van-ZwollI took the 7mm prone first, cutting a sub-minute group at 200 yards. John reached over and spun the elevation dial to between 7 and 8. “Now try the gong.”  I protested. Holding center on a gong nearly half a mile distant seemed absurd. Bullet drop would be several feet! But I did, allowing a full minute – 8 inches – for deflection in the quartering breeze. Seconds after the Jewell trigger broke came the faint pop of a hit. John didn’t seem surprised. “Now try the .243.” At 540 yards on a smaller gong, I managed to keep five shots in a group the size of a cantaloupe. Misreading the wind, I leaked a sixth wide. “Let’s go hunting,” John said with a grin.

We prowled high, open range that evening, peeking into coulees that looked as if they should hold mule deer. They didn’t. Next morning we prospected in cuts framing the alfalfa bloom below. We jumped three whitetail bucks but saw only antlerless muleys. Where were those big-eared bucks? I’d seen canyons to the north, steep and lined with plum thickets that gave way to heavier cover below limestone bluffs: true badlands. “Let’s hike tougher country,” I suggested.

In midafternoon, John, Phil and I filed down a deer trail threading the head of a long drainage. It took us from pasture to pit, tall canyon sides eventually blocking the sun. Chokecherry, then cottonwood, clogged the bottom. Suddenly, two mule deer bucks broke cover, raced across to the far wall and scrambled up the rocks. I dived into prone, yanking the sling tight. But the pair – both four-points – didn’t stop. “Too young anyway,” we agreed. But bigger than we had seen above.

DSC_8930_-Van-ZwollWe hadn’t moved a hundred yards when John pointed. “Look!” Another buck, bedded on the face of a knife-blade ridge, was locked onto us a quarter-mile distant.

“You can take him from here with that 7mm,” John said.

Given its stellar performance on the steel, he was right.

“I’ll get closer,” I said. And I bellied to within 300 yards.

“Use the dial,” John insisted. I clicked it up to 3 and figured half a minute of wind. The crosswire steadied. I crushed the trigger. The buck vaulted from his bed as if spring-loaded. He rocketed over the ridge and was gone. But the solid “thwuck” and his spinning shoulder told me the trail would be short.

He was an aged buck, not big of antler but very fat and heavy despite missing half of his incisors. Evidently he’d prospered far from his younger compatriots in the alfalfa. Eating natural browse and under no pressure to move, he had gained winter weight early.

Scott followed my success with a perfect 150-yard shot on another four-point mule deer. But Tom Rosdail, a Cabela’s executive, upstaged us both when he joined our camp and drilled an exceptional buck at 410 yards. John was pleased too; his GreyBull rifles seemed incapable of bad shots.

Opportunities can arrive in bunches in the badlands; I clobbered a second, antlerless deer with the .243. Then, after a week’s hiatus, I returned to northeastern Wyoming for another try at pronghorns. Some units boast two buck tags, plus bonus licenses for does. This time I grabbed the quintessential pronghorn rifle: a Weatherby Vanguard in .257 Magnum sporting a Zeiss Victory 3 1/2-10×42 with Vari-Point. This reticle combines a standard plex wire with an invisible dot that glows red at your command. Like all Zeiss optics, this scope is brilliant. I put it to work one morning when my friend and host, Casey Tillard, spied a buck easing over a sagebrush knob. Casey’s practiced eye told him the animal was old, though the horns were modest. I had agreed to help target only antelope the Tillards wanted out of the herd. This was one. Casey nodded and crouched, letting me past. Crawling to the crest of a ridge, I squirmed into prone and squeezed off a Norma-loaded 115-grain Ballistic Tip. The speedy bullet hit exactly right, killing the buck instantly in his bed at 190 steps. An hour later, my colleague Dave Anderson dropped a similar buck at 300 yards with his Weatherby.

DSC_7760_-Van-ZwollAnd just in time. Casey’s antelope camp filled fast with other hunters that afternoon. But morning brought low, sooty clouds that sprayed freezing rain on our party. Hail the hydrophobic lens coating on my 8×30 Zeiss! We hunted all day, the new hunters taking seven pronghorns in wintry weather.

Whitetail deer also favor the badlands of the high plains. Private, public and reservation lands in South Dakota have given up deer that score into the record books. Wyoming and Montana also carry big numbers of husky whitetails. After combing the sage for pronghorns, and the rimrocks for mule deer, I had an obligation to chase a badlands whitetail. The drive took me to Montana’s “high line,” a tier of counties bordering Canada. “Alberta is known for big whitetails,” said Chris Faber, 43, whose family ranch sprawls across 30,000 acres south of Havre, Montana. “But the deer grow just as big here. We have trophy-class muleys too.” Chris now runs Bear Paw Outfitting, which offers hunts for elk, antelope and cougars as well as deer. Elk hunters find bulls here that score into the book – though draw odds for tags are low, and the best habitat is almost all privately controlled.

Early in my hunt, Chris and I slogged through calf-deep snow high above the prairie. He proved an able hunter. A successful collegiate wrestler (a three-time All American), he’s kept himself in excellent shape. We found whitetails, but no big bucks. Other hunters hauled in mule deer day after day, but though my tag was good for either species, I stuck to my goal. Chris was optimistic, and rightfully so. He manages his land specifically for big game. The abundance of animals there shows he’s on the right track.

The last day dawned cold, with more snow on the way. Chris and I drove east to meet Lon Waid, a lifelong area resident and guide. He lost no time leading us into the hills above his ranch. The storm nailed us with bitter winds and sleet. We persevered, splitting up to hunt a brushy draw that snaked for miles. While poking through cover, Lon bounced a heavy-beamed nontypical whitetail from its bed. Meanwhile, another buck slipped up the draw toward me. I spied it sneaking through a plum thicket 100 yards off. When the animal paused, I found an alley to its shoulder, steadied my Kimber 84L and triggered the shot. The blast brought the nine-point crashing down into the draw. Load: Federal .30-06 with 180-grain Ballistic Tip.

DSC_8742_-Van-ZwollIt’s true that nationwide, the biggest whitetails, mule deer and pronghorns occur in well-known places. Most demand that you endure low lottery odds for licenses and costly access or outfitting fees. Depressing. If you share my ardor for the hunt, and trophy score matters less than game sightings, and you must budget time and money – well, the high plains are for you. Their badlands offer great mixed-bag hunts and some units feature additional tags. Draw odds are excellent and private land access is generally affordable. You can drive there from the far corners of the lower 48 (I did, from northern Washington), and with planning, you can hunt in more than one state per expedition. And every so often, you’ll find a buster of a buck!

Last fall, pussy-footing up a coulee with an iron-sighted carbine, I started a hunting season that ended two months, four hunts, four bucks, and many fine memories later. And I had enough scratch left to help support government-run health care.

Theodore Roosevelt found these badlands so enchanting that he chose them over places of privilege in the East. He ranched and hunted where deer and pronghorns are now even more plentiful. Your licenses are waiting.–Wayne Van Zwoll

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