feature By: Darron McDougal | May, 19
When the morning hunt had concluded, 21 mule deer had been spotted on a South Dakota game production area. None of them were the type of deer I came to hunt, but I left that chunk of public land a happy camper. To see 20-some deer by 10 o’clock in the morning while hunting public land on an over-the-counter tag is a successful day.
South Dakota’s prairies and terrain breaking along the stunning Missouri River have been special to me ever since my first hunt there in 2009. In fact, I consider it some of the most underrated country in terms of beauty, but it’s the region’s large white-tailed and mule deer bucks that regularly bring me back for fall outings.
My 2017 hunt was no exception in regard to the beauty and big bucks I love about the area. As shared above, I hunted a bit on public lands, but I spent most of my time on a private cattle ranch on which I gained permission to hunt. Obviously, the cattle ranch holds more mature bucks, but my DIY personality usually causes me to poke around on public land anyway.
From my Wisconsin home, reaching the Missouri River takes about nine hours. I intentionally left at 4 o’clock in the morning for the November 2017 hunt so that I’d arrive a few hours before dark. As always, anticipation was high during the drive. I arrived on schedule and drove up to the parking area of the game production area referenced. Before I shifted into park, I spied two large-bodied mule deer bucks, but after studying a public-land atlas, it became clear they were across the fence on private land. I headed out anyway, hoping the bucks would cross the fence or that another mature buck would appear in my optics – no cigar. I reached my vehicle at dusk and drove the remaining half hour to my brother’s house where I lodged for the next eight days.
Encounter After Encounter
Over the next several days, mule deer sightings were plentiful on both the private and public lands. Several bucks I encountered were stunning, and a couple of large-bodied bucks with cull-quality headgear also had my attention. However, careful stalks were always blown by non-target deer, or I’d get merely fleeting glimpses with insufficient time to pull off a stalk.
One morning I spotted a velvet buck with gnarly, non-typical antlers. Such bucks are commonly referred to as “cactus bucks” for obvious reasons. It was a buck the rancher wanted culled, so I attempted to move into a draw where I hoped to intercept it. During the stalk, however, a 2½-year-old buck caught me cresting a hill. Fortunately, I had a Miss Muley decoy from Montana Decoy Co. in hand and held it up in front of me. The buck was convinced I indeed was a doe, and it never spooked, staying within 15 yards for so long that I lost track of the cactus buck.
Another buck with an enormous body but only a 2x3 rack gave me the slip during another morning hunt. The buck was bedded between a shelterbelt and a fence line, so I sneaked within 100 yards and carefully erected a portable ground blind. I assumed the deer would follow the fence line one way or the other, which meant I had a 50/50 chance the buck would come by my blind.
Of course, the deer went the other way, so I slipped out of the blind and followed its tracks through the freshly fallen snow. Despite my efforts to move slowly and be on the lookout, I soon saw where the buck’s tracks veered into the shelterbelt, and it was right in there and bolted. And you know what? The buck passed right by my ground blind on its way out. Go figure!
While driving around the ranch to look for other deer one morning, I happened upon a bedded buck and doe. With the rut happening, the pair was hardly concerned with my vehicle’s presence, and I was able to shoot several photographs before they moseyed over a hill. I didn’t attempt to stalk them because I felt that the buck just wasn’t quite a shooter.
I reviewed the photos of the buck that evening after hunting and second-guessed my decision to pass on the deer. It was certainly mature, and its antlers were very respectable. Little did I know I’d encounter that same buck the very next morning.
On the final day of the hunt, I didn’t see any bucks from my usual glassing locations. I hopped into my truck and drove to another part of the cattle ranch. I hoped to find an opportunity to fit in another stalk or two. I soon spied a group of three bucks and a doe. One of the bucks was bristling and posturing to fend off the two subordinates. The group was 600 yards away, and I knew I could cut the distance in half and park well out of sight before approaching on foot.
As soon as I parked, I hopped out and grabbed my bow and decoy. I had barely left the truck when the doe popped over the rise that had been separating us. A second later, the buck appeared behind the doe. Great, I thought. I was caught in the wide open and figured the two deer would instantly pick me out.
Thank God for the rut! Both deer were so preoccupied that they totally ignored me (and my truck) and cruised by broadside at 40 yards. An arrow was loosed, and I heard contact, but the buck continued after the doe as if nothing happened. Regardless if the first shot was superficial or lethal, I wasn’t going to ask questions. I nocked a second arrow, ranged the buck at 61 yards and then administered a double-lung shot. The buck ran 60 yards before stopping on wobbly legs, and then it tipped over. I then realized the buck looked familiar.
After waiting for a few minutes, I approached the downed deer and realized that I had indeed seen it before. It was the same buck I had photographed the previous morning. It’s really neat to have before-and-after pictures of such a beautiful buck.
After taking photographs and field-dressing, I spent the remainder of the day skinning the deer and deboning the meat. I know some folks like to hang their deer for a few days, but I prefer to remove the hide and get the meat on ice as quickly as possible.
No Place like the Missouri
I’ve hunted deer from Ohio to Wyoming and from North Dakota to Oklahoma. Still, it’s the banks of the famed Missouri River that are most special to me. Deer numbers are good, and there’s always potential to encounter and possibly shoot a mature whitetail or mule deer buck. Beyond that, the Missouri River is simply breathtaking. The sunrises and sunsets are stunning, and it’s a place to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. That’s why I don’t tire of hunting Missouri River mule deer.
South Dakota Mule Deer
One reason I love bowhunting mule deer in South Dakota is that the state offers a guaranteed archery tag that can be purchased online (South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks will mail the license to you), or a hunter can drive to the Game, Fish & Parks office in Pierre to buy it over the counter. The statewide archery deer license is valid for “one any deer,” which means a hunter can arrow a doe or buck mule deer or whitetail. Visit gfp.sd.gov/hunt-fish-license for more information.
Tactics must be adjusted in regard to the timing of your hunt. I’ve rarely hunted deer in South Dakota early in the season, so I’ll focus on the tactics that work during the rut. During the pre-rut, usually late October through mid-November, dominant bucks will be searching for does. As does come into estrus, subordinate bucks will circle groups of does like flies around a rotting carcass. The dominant buck will generally posture and walk toward the invaders, which is usually enough to send them away. Few young bucks have the courage to actually take on a dominant buck.