“That’s the buck I’ve been telling you about,” whispered Travis Brave Bird, barely an hour into a five-day hunt on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The muley was bedded in tall sage on the face of a steep slope and I could see only parts of its rack. “I don’t want to pressure you,” he continued, “but it’s a great deer.”
With five days scheduled for some of the most incredible terrain on Earth, I couldn’t bring myself to end this grand adventure in the first hour of the hunt. Then, as if the animal was reading my mind, it capitalized on my indecision and paraded over the ridge top, antlers silhouetted against the prairie sky like some giant cottonwood snag. My heart nearly stopped. What had I done?
My tag was valid for the reservation, but the buck had just moved onto private property. If it remained there or another hunter came along, my buck of a lifetime would be a fleeting memory.
The 3,500-square-mile Pine Ridge Reservation (larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined) is home to the Oglala Sioux and surrounds Badlands National Park on three sides. It contains much of the colorful moonscape geography that makes it a “must-see” for travelers in the West. Although we couldn’t hunt or travel within the park, the buttes and landscapes overflowed onto the reservation, creating one of the most special hunting opportunities in the world.
South-central South Dakota is home to great whitetails as well. My partner, Hornady’s Mitch Mittelstaedt, and I were open to whatever opportunity presented itself. We were hunting in the third week of November and both whitetail and mule deer species were heavily into the rut. Any coulee or creek bottom could easily harbor one or both species.
Time would tell whether Mitch and I had made the right decision to pass on the first-minute muley. But we didn’t hesitate to explore other promising areas. Travis Brave Bird was not only our guide, but also a conservation officer with the Oglala Sioux tribe. His knowledge of the area allowed us to sneak over horizons and glass incredible landscapes so breathtaking that a fellow could forget he was hunting.
Cresting the rim of one canyon, Travis nonchalantly pointed out a couple of does bedded a quarter mile below us. The doe stood for a second, and then trotted away, taking two other does with her. As the animals began to pogo farther, a small buck suddenly appeared. And as the animals approached a patch of cedar, a tall mule deer rack flashed in my binocular.
Hoping to catch another glimpse of the buck, I carefully watched escape areas from the box canyon, yet saw no movement. Travis and Mitch soon joined me. After setting up a Zeiss 60X spotting scope affectionately known as “the eye of God,” Travis found two deer, or at least a few feet and two bellies. Too wily to burst into the open, they stood in the protection of the cedars until dark. Heading back to camp we couldn’t complain with two good bucks sighted the first day.
Embracing the Culture
“We are a treaty nation,” Travis said when we asked about the Oglala tribe. “We never officially surrendered to the United States government. And as long as the water flows and the sweet grass grows, the tribal members can hunt on their lands.” As a conservation officer, he was quick to add that more tribal members are accepting the seasons set by the tribe, creating better hunting conditions.
Mitch and I had heard much of the sweat lodge ceremonies and were excited that our guide was a leader in that activity. “My father-in-law lets me conduct them,” Travis said, and then explained that it was one of many Sioux ceremonies for spiritual guidance that promote the purification of the mind and body. “It’s kind of a personal development connecting with the higher power,” he said. “People do it weekly or more often — like a prayer session.”
Sweat lodges are built from ash or willow saplings and then covered with old canvas tents or tarps (animal hides in olden days). Heat is produced by hot rocks brought into a pit in the center of the lodge. Members, who wear cut-offs or towels, gather around while water is poured on the rocks to create steam. That initiates a series of prayers and songs, with the ceremony repeated four times.
The number four has a spiritual meaning to the Oglala. In the summer, tribal members often fast without water or food for four days and nights. The number also symbolizes the four directions of the universe–west, east, north and south–and the four stages of life: infancy, childhood, adulthood and old age.
Hunting has a strong heritage with the Sioux, who believe that each animal has a spirit, and various parts of the animals hold a place in Oglala culture. For example, elk hide is fashioned into clothing and buffalo hide is used for drums. “As an organization, our hunters and tribal people continue to hunt, observe and manage the various animals,” Travis said. “We hope to go back to a healthier lifestyle by eating wild game, and preserve and keep the herds going for future generations.”
Despite the heavy rutting activity, the largest bucks seemed to appear at first and last light, and we planned to make the most of every second of prairie light. We greeted the day atop a bluff overlooking an overgrazed alfalfa field next to a dry creek bed, ideal cover for a wily whitetail or mule deer buck. Despite our earnest efforts, we saw only a few does and a small whitetail buck, so we headed toward the distant badlands bluffs.
Traveling in Travis’ pickup, we stopped to glass after cresting each rise, hoping to catch a buck immersed in mating activity. Often, the largest bucks find a doe under the cover of darkness and force it onto the prairie, where great visibility provides extra protection. Cresting one rise, we saw a 2 1/2-year-old mule deer buck with a doe and glassed intently for an older suitor. Glancing over my shoulder I spotted a 130-inch whitetail buck tucked in a small, grassy depression. The doe was bedded placidly, but I could almost read the fear in the big buck’s eyes. If not for the rut, this deer would have been long gone.
As the day grew brighter and the sun finally crested the horizon, deep shadows gave each of the badlands buttes special character. Our goal was to hunt about 100 square miles in the next few hours, a feat that may seem impossible to the first-time Western visitor.
Quality binoculars, shooting sticks and a spotting scope are critical gear in such hunting operations because spotting animals a mile or two away is a common practice. The ability to identify trophy animals in such conditions helps make the most of each opportunity and limited stalking time. As the sun rose and the day progressed, even rutting deer would bed, making them almost impossible to locate.
By early afternoon, we had seen dozens of deer and several good bucks, just not “the one” we’d traveled so far to see. So we headed to where we’d seen the big buck the first day. “You’ll have to close your eyes for a while,” Travis said with a smile as he pulled onto a gravel road and we passed through a privately owned ranch. We passed several trucks parked along the road and I wondered if any of these sportsmen also hunted reservation ground. State licenses can be held concurrently with reservation tags.
The boundaries between private (deeded) land and reservation properties are rarely marked, making GPS technology a must. Unless, of course, you have an Indian guide. The previous day, the big buck had been with a group of does that fed on the open prairie. As we approached the area, not a single deer could be seen. I couldn’t help but think of the fishing adage, “You should have been here yesterday.” And I had been.
“There he is,” Travis said, lowering his binocular and pointing to the distant horizon. Sure enough, the big buck was with several other bucks and does at the edge of the prairie, partially hidden by tall sage. The deer were a whirlwind of movement, with smaller bucks following does and a bigger buck cutting in. With the deer distracted, we quickly sprang into action.
We made a wide, downwind circle and crested a ridge that I guessed to be 200 yards from the herd, which had split in two. Crawling up to several yucca plants for cover, I laid the Howa .300 Win. Mag. over my backpack and settled in. I was using a Trijicon scope and placed the point of the triangular image precisely in the middle of the shoulder. My quarry was following a doe and stopped broadside for the perfect shot, except that a strand of fence wire was dead center on the vitals. Hitting that tiny strand seemed improbable, yet I’d only get one chance.
Finally, the buck moved, but he walked away toward another doe. My heart pounded as I watched the antlers (as long as the deer’s legs) fade into the distance. Then he turned broadside and stopped. I squeezed just as another buck challenged him. The first round clipped his brisket. A quick follow-up shot centered the shoulder and collapsed the buck. Although the mood was one of celebration, we approached carefully to avoid spooking the other deer in the herd. It still held several good bucks and we might want to return.
Approaching the downed muley, I thanked the good Lord for my fortune. There was no ground shrinkage with this guy. And to think I had passed him up the day before. The antlers had only average width buy great height and massive, deep forks. He was probably four or five years old. It was an excellent trophy and I couldn’t have been happier. Ironically, another big 4×4 moved in overnight. But he had a brief stint as king of the hill because Mitch and Travis returned to take him the next day.
Two great bucks in three days was just a portion of this great adventure. Spending time in the badlands, the homeland of the Sioux, and sharing stories with our native guide had a near spiritual effect. We saw coyotes, porcupine, pronghorn, whitetails, mule deer, buffalo, eagles and a host of other creatures. You can also hunt elk to add a big-game element to the adventure. We’ll never forget sharing a proud land with a proud people who will perpetuate their culture as long as the wind blows and the sweet grass grows.– Joe Byers