January 28, 2022
By Darron McDougal
I vividly recall my first time laying eyes on the South Dakota riverbottom, nestled in the prairies, a decade ago. I’ve driven past it countless times on the way to other hunting destinations, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally noticed a public-land sign and a parking lot. My eyes widened, and I soon started virtual scouting via onX Hunt. The riverbottom’s snaking layout lined by colossal, weathered cottonwood trees and other generous cover had “whitetail hotbed” written all over it.
My wife and I made a special trip to scout and shed hunt along it in the spring of 2020. During our shed hunt, we logged many boot miles while checking waypoints I’d previously dropped across the area on my onX app. Being that it was late-March and with the snow melted, we knew we weren’t the first ones looking for “white gold.” The parking areas were pocked with tire tracks, plus we saw boot prints and quad trails throughout. Consequently, we tallied only a few dinks, a weathered side from a 21⁄2-year-old eight-pointer, and a beautiful, matched set from a mature buck.
Despite the minimal return on our investment, my outlook for fall prospects hadn’t diminished. We’d seen obvious pinch-points ideal for rut hunting, shredded trees, and high-traffic deer trails with large tracks from mature bucks. Still, I yearned to know more.
Knowing It All
When I realized my route to Colorado for a September elk hunt intersected with the South Dakota riverbottom, I stuffed some treestand gear and trail cameras into my truck, so that I could “know” just a little bit more.
A few days later, I had a bull elk down and was heading for a particular riverbottom. My wife and I met up with my sister in South Dakota, had breakfast, and then headed for the riverbottom. Temperatures reached the 90s, and hanging one stand in a pinch-point that looked awesome proved exhausting. I hung a trail camera on a nearby trail and quit for the day, so as not to subject my wife and sister to a minute more of the oppressive heat and humidity. My November success would have to rely on what I already knew, I thought.
Knowledge Doesn’t Yield Success
November came, and I kissed my wife goodbye before heading west for two weeks of rut hunting in South Dakota and Kansas. Upon arriving in South Dakota, I scouted and glassed in the heat, and saw very little to get excited about. So, I headed for the motel and prepared my gear for the morning hunt — my hopes still high for the stand I’d hung back in September, despite the lack of sign.
As the morning livened along the solitary riverbottom, I heard leaves crunching twice. One source was a young buck; the other was a lone doe. Neither displayed rutting behavior. Otherwise, all else was calm that morning, so I decided to climb down and pull my SD card from the camera and then scout during the midday heat to see how much more I could “know.” I had problems reading the SD card, but eventually found that in more than a month, there were no shooters and minimal deer pictures in general.
Over the following days, I hunted a few different areas. One buck was tempting — a 31⁄2-year-old eight-pointer. But, I’d decided well before the hunt to hold out for something nicer, so I passed. And I’d seen enough bucks to “know” that it was just a matter of time spent on stand before something good might happen.
The hot temperatures were damping my mood and my rut hunt. My truck dashboard read 86 degrees one afternoon on my way to hunt. Interestingly, I rattled-in a nice buck that evening, but he didn’t offer a shot opportunity.
I hadn’t seen any bucks chasing does and was now a week into November. Further, I was scheduled to hunt Kansas with two buddies for several days. With one afternoon left, I decided to hunt where I’d rattled-in the buck the evening before. It seemed like the best bet…until I found that another hunter had beat me there. Plan B: A parcel 40 minutes away was my best alternative based on the wind.
Only 30 minutes of daylight remained as I tucked into two cedars with the warm southwest wind tickling my face. Twice, I grunted loudly between wind gusts. Suddenly, I heard a very deep grunt. Then another. I grunted back. Nothing. I began second-guessing my ears when I heard another grunt. A doe ghosted out from a plum thicket 50 yards away. I just knew a huge buck was following her.
And he was. The deer was a bonafide monster. I ranged him at 52 yards and considered shooting, but he was quartering toward me. Then I remembered the wind — it was blowing crossways toward the food source the two deer were facing. If the buck didn’t turn broadside and offer a shot soon, the doe would catch my scent and bolt. Moments later, she did exactly that. The buck followed suit, pausing briefly on a distant hillside before vanishing for good. It was the end of my South Dakota hunt, unless Kansas produced quickly.
Plan B Returns To The Prairies
On my first day in Kansas, I took my best buck ever on a WIHA parcel at noon. I arrowed him on the ground in the wide open at 22 yards. That hunt, and the encounter with the big South Dakota buck, made me wonder if I’d been getting whitetail hunting all wrong for the last 20 years (despite good success) by relying on treestands, trail cameras, and what I “know.”
With the early Kansas success, I called my wife and said that I’d be heading back to South Dakota to hunt for a few more days. I stayed in Kansas for a day to help my buddies find hunting spots, and then I rose early the following morning and drove north.
Following a five-hour drive, I had lunch at my sister’s place and then drove to the parcel where I’d seen the giant buck just a few days earlier. Snow now blanketed the landscape, which heightened my hopes that bucks would be far more active during daylight.
My hunch was right, as I soon watched several does come up out of the draw behind me. Then, a big seven-pointer flew onto the scene. He dogged the does in the same plum thicket where the big boy had emerged days earlier. He was obviously 41⁄2 years old, so I got ready. I drew back when he was about 45 yards away, but he didn’t stop on his own — conditions were dead silent, and I didn’t want to risk alerting him — so I let down and hoped he’d come by again. He didn’t.
Plan B Produces
Worn out, I decided to hunt somewhere closer in the morning. So, I picked a parcel where I’d previously taken two turkeys. I knew very little about the location in terms of deer hunting, and obviously had no stand hung. I’d go in on the ground and tote my new Ultimate Predator decoy.
I trudged through snow and biting winds the following morning until I was tucked into a cedar with an Ultimate Predator doe decoy attached to my bow. But with no action and my confidence low, I soon decided to loop back to my truck and drive to another parcel.
I’d just passed the section line where the public parcel ended, when I spotted three bucks running across a cut cornfield, headed for the public parcel. The third buck demanded a closer look. When the bucks disappeared behind a hill, I slammed the shifter into reverse and hit the gas. I cleared the hill just in time to see them cross the road and disappear onto the public land. Immediately, I crafted a Plan B at its finest.
I gave the bucks five minutes to settle down in the bedding area centered in the parcel. Then, I parked where they’d crossed, attached my decoy to my bow, and grabbed my grunt call. With the wind in my face, I carefully crept toward the bedding area.
Once 50 yards from the edge of the bedding cover, I hunkered in the wide open with a milo field behind me. I grunted twice toward the bedding area. Nothing. Given the stiff winds, I raised the volume and roared. Moments later, I heard something. With a wide-open view of the cattail slough in front of me and not a deer in sight, I blamed the wind for the false alarm.
I was wrong. What I heard wasn’t the wind, but rather the largest of the three bucks I’d recently watched run toward the public land, and he was rubbing a tree. When he saw my decoy, he immediately bristled and started that wonderful stiff-legged march in my direction.
I continued ranging him until he was 30 yards away and closing. At 20 yards and almost broadside, I mouth-grunted twice and he paused. My Easton arrow buried behind his shoulder, sending him dashing for the cover of the cattails. I thought I was going to have a heart attack when I stood up! Although I trusted my shot, I played it safe and drove to my brother’s house to kill time.
A few hours later, my brother and I returned to the scene of the “crime.” It wasn’t long before my brother said, “I have blood…lots of blood. It’s all over the place!”
We parted the blood-stained cattails and found my deer 80 yards from where I’d shot him as the result of a perfect heart shot. Had I run after the buck right after my arrow struck, he’d have been dead by the time I reached him. The hit was that deadly.
My Kansas and South Dakota bucks were the second and third whitetail bucks I’ve ever taken from the ground; the first one was in Iowa in 2019. Tagging three consecutive bucks from the ground made me wonder if I’ve been doing it all wrong for the past 20 years by spending nearly all my time hunting whitetails from treestands. Apparently, I don’t “know” as much as I thought I did.
Author’s Note: To take my South Dakota buck, I used a Mathews VXR 28 paired with a Mathews Ultrarest Integrate MX, Spot-Hogg Fast Eddie XL sight, and Stokerized Edge Hunter 12 stabilizer. My Easton 6.5mm Acu-Carbon Match-Grade arrow tipped with a Rage Hypodermic NC produced a phenomenal blood trail. I shot a Spot-Hogg Wiseguy release and wore LaCrosse AeroHead Sport boots and Sitka Gear camo.