Mini-Mountains Merriam's

For die-hard turkey hunters, western South Dakota offers much more than Sturgis and Black Hill's gold.


I felt the tenacious grip of Lance Verhulst clamping on my shoulder as he whispered in my ear.

“How far?” I questioned.

“Forty yards. Maybe 35. Straight ahead—got us nailed. No sudden movements, got it?”

“Hey, Lance.”


“Your nails are breaking skin.” I silently clipped my release on the string loop as Lance allowed circulation to return to my shoulder. The gobbler’s eyes locked on mine for a brief moment before returning to the visual feast of our decoy spread.

One step forward. Spit … ooooommm. Two steps backward. Circle. Fluff. Spit … oooommmmm.

Lance and I had been traversing the hillside, stopping to call occasionally, in search of a lonely tom that wouldn’t think twice about some willing company.

He was a homely bird with missing tail feathers and a featherless breast area that was doubtlessly a result of fighting—but I didn’t care. He was a mature Black Hills Merriam’s and that’s all that mattered.

I began to put tension on the bowstring, with the full intention of arrowing this lonely longbeard, when he bolted.

“He saw you move,” Lance hissed.

“No, not in this ground blind he didn’t,” I replied as I watched the gobbler sprint back down the ridge. “Look left.”

Two white-tipped tail fans—which seemed to be locked together—crested the hill and encroached on our decoys. The twin toms moved with eerie silence and disturbing synchronization. Left foot, right foot. Stop. Left foot, right foot, left foot. Stop.

There was little doubt these toms were the tag-team terrors of the turkey world, and the badly battered, fleeing tom was undoubtedly one of their previous victims. The physical mannerisms of both turkeys were freakishly similar, leaving me to ponder the possibility of two turkeys actually hatching from a single egg.

“As soon as they separate, take the shot,” Lance instructed. “You can’t kill ’em both.”

“You’ve got a tag in your pocket, too, don’t you?” I asked. “Relax. I’m gonna kill only the ugly one.”

Lance set his box call on his knee and leaned back to enjoy the show. The duo was still 40 yards out—and approaching quickly—but there’s no forgiveness for making noise at that distance, even in a ground blind.

I coordinated drawing my bow between the steps of the approaching gobblers and the harassing torment of a hen, which was head-pecking our decoy a mere 6 yards from my broad-head tipped arrow. Then all of them stopped.

True to fashion, both gobbler heads erected simultaneously and shot a dirty stink-eye in my direction. They were essentially clueless, although the hen saw something—heard something, maybe— so they followed suit. The gobblers froze, then hen froze, and the world stood still with two mature, shootable turkeys less than 15 yards away … and I hadn’t the opportunity to complete the draw.

I could feel the eyes of the toms, the hen and Lance all staring, burning holes through my mettle: What’re you gonna do?

So I did what I always do in moments like these, when the heat gets a little too hot and I’d do anything to make the situation defuse: I count the holes in the riser of my Mathews. I know exactly how many there are, but I took my eyes from the gobblers and start counting, bottom to top. One. Two. Three. …

As my eyes approached the upper limb of my bow, I peered through the top hole in the riser just in time to see the gobblers separating, and found comfort as the kisser button automatically migrated to the corner of my mouth.

The “dominant” bird gave the other tom a quick wing-jab and approached the decoy alone, sizing her up from behind before waddling around the side to a little jig for his new-found lady. He was preparing to begin dance No. 2 when I dropped the curtain and planted an arrow immediately to the right of his beard.

Lance and I watched as the tom hobbled over the ridge, followed closely by his lookalike. I could see little more than the top few inches of the tail of a strutting turkey, when Lance picked up his box call and began the serenade again.

“Well done, Luke. The second tom is pouncing on your downed gobbler— that’s the strutting and bobbing tail fan you see. Let’s give it a minute and try to call the other bird back.”

I grabbed for the zipper of the blind with trembling fingers once the gobbler decided my tom was indeed down for the count.

“You always get this worked up over a turkey?” Lance grinned.

“This is my first Merriam’s and my first turkey with a bow,” I sputtered as I crouched behind the bird and opened his tail for the full visual effect. “I’d say I’m allowed a few involuntary convulsions, wouldn’t you?”

“I’ll let it slide—just this once.”