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Rifle Magazine
November - December 2001
Volume 33, Number 6
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 198
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Holehan Long Range Hunter Winchester Model 70 features a custom laminated stock, return-to-zero square bridge scope mounts and a Kahles 3-12x Special Ediditon Scope. Whitetail deer photo by John R. Ford Purchase the CD-ROM here
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We camped on the flat under the red sandstone pyramid. As soon as everything was laid out, Eileen and I filled the magazines of our rifles, then shouldered aluminum packframes and followed the trail along the north side of the pyramid, into the badlands.

The trail showed a few pronghorn tracks made during the last rain, almost as hard as fossils in the red sandstone. Sometime soon - perhaps on the first ridge, perhaps the sixth – we’d belly-crawl to the top and brace our elbows under binoculars and see white dots against a hillside a few hundred yards away. Horns didn’t really matter, though this year I had first choice. Eileen had chosen a big doe the year before, and I might too.

Once around the pyramid, we dropped into a draw between low parallel ridges, below the red sandstone into gray-tan clay. We followed the base of the north ridge, every so often climbing a wind-eroded notch to glass.

When the ridge disappeared in the sparse grama grass of a gumbo flat, we headed for the next ridge, 400 yards away, and glassed its notches. During this walk we jumped three desert cottontails, butts absurdly white in the muted badlands. When the second one bopped into a washout, Eileen looked at me and raised her eyebrows. When the third showed she bared her teeth, wolfish. She likes to hunt white-meated bunnies after the dark meat is down.

The second notch in the second ridge was the highest climb yet, and the sweep of the badlands flowed down to the desert creek a mile away. “It looks like a satellite photo from Mars,” Eileen whispered. I nodded: One of my favorite places resembles a waterless planet.

Then we saw white particles a couple ridges over. Magnified, the head of one appeared black with horns and throat-patch. A lower ridge top would put us 150 yards away.

We moved automatically to the end of our ridge, finding a deep gully that twisted across a big flat toward the pronghorn ridge. We eased back down, then walked the edge of the gully until finding a place to enter. The erosional gullies of the badlands have straight sides, cut by hard rain through soft sand. Somewhere along their edge, you’ll find where a smaller wash enters or cattle have beaten a path and be able to ease down, the miniature bluffs rising over your head.

The sandy bottom was broken only occasionally by pools of week-old rainwater. We found fresh rabbit and coyote tracks and then the remains of a badlands tragedy: bunny feet and tail fluff.

“Let’s hope we’re as good as that coyote,” I whispered. The gully squirmed like a rattlesnake, sometimes within a few yards of itself. Every 100 yards we peeked from behind a clump of sagebrush, until we could no longer see the white dots         on the hillside, then climbed out and headed toward our final ridge.

At its base we slid the packframes off, so tall aluminum wouldn’t betray us as we crawled up behind rock or sage. Then we eased cartridges into chambers, clicked safeties and headed uphill, pausing often so we wouldn’t be winded.

As our eyes cleared the ridge we glassed carefully. No pronghorns. We took a baby step and glassed again. Still nothing. Another step and where the heck are they? Is this the right ridge?

I was sure; Eileen not so much, since she gets lost amid twisted gray ridges. I went down on my belly, placing the rifle a foot forward on the sparse grass, crawling to it, then replacing the rifle ahead of me, one foot at a time, once detouring the tiny hemisphere of a hedgehog cactus, half-buried in the grassy sand.

Still no prairie goats.

And then, as the ridge top curved downward, I saw the head of one doe. The head disappeared, and I eased forward another foot, and there they were, 75 yards away, feeding along the bottom of the draw, white ankles still visible in what passes for lush pasture in the badlands. The buck stood on the right, heavy horns spreading wide, throat patch as black as a raven’s glance.

I heard a scrape beside me: Eileen, also on her belly. “You want him?” she whispered, breath warm on my ear. I nodded, and eased the rifle upward, feeling ancient ocean sand under my elbow. I looked at Eileen, my grandmother’s old .257 Roberts ready in her arms. Then the crosshairs of my scope circled gently with my heartbeats, along the border between tan back and white sternum.

At the shot he dropped, and the others ran uphill before slowing to look back. The .257 cracked, and the herd ran again, but soon a doe started to trot sideways, then tripped over a sagebrush and lay still, one white leg above the sage. It was dark by the time we reached camp, the doe on my back and the hindquarters of the buck on Eileen’s. The rest of the buck - the lesser meat and inedible horns - still lay in the draw under my down vest, safe from coyotes during the buck’s last night in the badlands.

The lands we call bad were seemingly built by God and nature for foot hunters who like to see what lies behind the next ridge. They exist almost entirely between the Rockies and that arbitrary definition of the West, the 100th meridian of longitude that divides the Dakotas in half.

Between mountains and meridian lies the short-grass prairie, which really isn’t so arbitrary after all, since it was built by a lack of water from the sky. To an eastern hunter, the high plains seem to stretch beyond a horizon that seems both near and distant, a contradiction also created by dry sky. Back East humid air softens vistas and limits vision to a few miles. Out West parched air sharpens edges, allowing the human eye to almost grasp infinity.

The dry, thin topsoil refuses to grow forests, instead lying carpeted by very short grass, deep-rooted shrubs like sage and rabbit brush and the occasional miniature cactus. To a rifle-toting hunter this is fine, since grass grows more big game per square mile than oak trees. The biomass of the short-grass prairie, the total amount of life grown, is mostly animal rather than vegetable. Hunters like that, especially when there aren’t so many darn trees obscuring the animals.

Under the topsoil the earth consists mostly of sandstone laid down when central North America was a shallow sea, mixed with clay, coal, shale and patches of hard rock forged when coal beds caught fire, melting clay or sandstone. None provide much protection from water erosion, so April snowmelt or June rain cuts easily into the soft underbelly of the plains.

The result is badlands, which somebody once defined as open geological sores. They received their common name from the Dakota, pushed west from their pre-Columbian home in Minnesota by other tribes, who were in turn pushed west by white men who wanted to see beyond the next ridge. The Dakota found the buffalo prairie, and along the prairie rivers found stretches of what they called mako (land) sika (bad). The s in Dakota is pronounced like sh in English, the reason some badlands in eastern Montana are called Makoshika State Park. Other badlands erode here and there across the high plains, some so spectacular they’re national parks. The biggest occur along the biggest high-plains river, the Missouri, as the most deeply eroded parts of the Missouri Breaks.

To a newcomer, whether Dakota warrior or eastern hunter, badlands often appear desolate, even evil. Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery traveled through many stretches of badlands from South Dakota to Montana, but upon entering the heart of the Montana Breaks in 1805, Clark wrote, “I do not conceive any part can ever be settled, as it is deficient in water, timber and too steep to be tilled.” He was right. Nearly 200 years later, few humans find any use for badlands.

These few include paleontologists, who pull Tyrannosaurus rex skulls out of sandstone bluffs, and some modern hunters. Badlands appear desolate, but they are not. In their deep cuts you’ll find berry patches, tiny springs and level ridges ungrazed by any cow. Like the prairie surrounding them, they support herbivores: mule and white-tailed deer, pronghorns, cottontails and jackrabbits, sage and sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge and even a few ducks, geese and ring-necked pheasants. The abundance of prey attracts coyotes, bobcats, weasels, skunks and even the odd wolf.

In fact, the badlands are often so full of game it’s hard figuring out the quarry of the day. One November, back when coyote pelts were worth serious money, I drove an old Ford Bronco across a cow pasture in northeastern Montana, parking it just before dawn. Then I walked a quarter-mile to where the pasture abruptly crumbled into tan badlands that stretched three miles along the wide plain of a prairie river. I rested the .243 Winchester on my daypack and cut loose with a jackrabbit squaller.

First some Hungarian partridge whirred from the rabbit brush just below me, and then a muley doe trotted out of the biggest draw and stood looking up, 120 yards away. Finally a coyote came running up the same draw but panicked when the doe thumped away. Oh well.

One friend calls chasing mule deer in the badlands “the poor man’s sheep hunt.” This is true, especially in the big badlands along the larger prairie rivers. Here you have just as good a chance of killing yourself as on any timberline cliff. One fall I hunted a chunk of Missouri Breaks near the Dakota border. It had rained a few days before but since dried out.

The trail, formed by now-gone bighorns and elk, now maintained by deer and Herefords, followed the base of the steepest bluffs at the top of the badlands. These draws held buffalo berry and a few shelves of hard sandstone, places deer liked to bed.

I followed the trail easily, its surface hard-packed by generations of hooves. After glassing the first draw, I hiked around its head to the next ridge. The second draw curved severely, invisible from the trail, so I followed the ridge top downhill, then eased out to a clay knob to glass.

The dry clay turned out to be an inch thick, covering greasy clay still soaked from the rain. My heels slipped outward, my butt hit the slope, and I started sliding almost vertically down a 50-foot bluff. There was nothing to stop me except a narrow sandstone ledge 12 feet below, so I bent my knees slightly, stiffened my ankles and hoped my boot heels would catch the ledge. They did, and I felt the shock all the way into my skull. I stood there awhile, breathing, then walked the ledge until it curved around the face of the ridge. I hunted a little more, but my heart really wasn’t in it. What if I killed a buck down one of those greasy draws?

That and other adventures haven’t stopped me from going back - in dry or frozen weather. You can get lost back in the steepest draws, and not in the way Eileen gets turned around in the shallow pronghorn badlands. Instead you get lost from civilization, and hence most other hunters. I’ve found mule deer 200 yards from a well-used road, as safe from any passing road-warrior as if in Yellowstone Park. All it took was a hike along the muddy bank of a river, a climb up a draw steeper than any stairs and slow stalking around the bases of sandstone church spires. Aside from not falling, the main trick is not to hike the easy ridge tops like an average hunter.

My last Breaks buck came with the aid of such a hunter. I’d hiked around a big canyon in the dark, away from the roaded side, then eased up to a yucca balanced on the edge of the canyon. I lay behind it with my binocular, spotting scope and 7x57mm as the sun rose, eventually finding several bucks, including one heavy-antlered old boy that wouldn’t score worth a darn but was a fine specimen, a typical 4x4 with about a two-foot spread. He lay under a patch of juniper on a ridge-end halfway down the far side of the canyon, and I was figuring how to sneak him when a pickup parked on the far skyline, almost a mile away, and a fellow got out and started down the ridge.

At first I thought he’d seen the buck, but couldn’t see how. Soon the hunter shot, offhand, at another deer, evidently unsuccessfully because he kept walking down the ridge line, in front of every deer in the canyon. Soon “my” buck raised his ears, then rose and walked downhill, disappearing into the canyon. Well, shoot, I thought, but decided to see if the buck would show again.

He did - about 150 yards below me, pussyfooting the trail below the bluff like a smart hunter. He collapsed at the shot, for once not rolling into the draw below. That was the easy part. Just climbing down there to gut him was interesting, but luckily the ground was dry. The rest of it - well, let’s just say that stalking a badlands buck can take hours, but not nearly as long as bringing him out, which is just fine. Hunting the badlands isn’t for people in a hurry.

The Original Silver Bullet
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