South Dakota Deer Hunt: It's Now or Never
As Joel Torrence was growing up on the family farm outside of Aberdeen, South Dakota, he was exposed to the hard work on the family's agricultural holdings and enjoyed the ample hunting opportunities the farmland provides. He began carrying a gun when 12 years old and spent his free time hunting the abundant rabbits and pheasants that lived along the farmland fringe. It wasn't long, however, before the exuberance of youth discovered scouting, which is usually a seasonal adult game, and it became an important part of his year round, daily agenda. As he learned about more hunting opportunities, ducks, geese and doves were added to his resume and provided an opportunity to hunt from September to January.
But as it often happens with youth, the grass is always greener someplace else and even though this young, South Dakota hunter grew up smack in the middle of the greatest pheasant hunting on the continent, his dreams turned to deer hunting. Deer soon became his passion and Joel discovered that learning to pattern deer while scouting was as enjoyable as hunting the other farmland game.
On the very first day he was old enough to hunt deer he slipped into a field and took a doe that he had been watching during the pre-season. It had been so easy the outcome prompted the question, "Is that all there is to it?" That day he vowed to never again shoot a doe, as his self-taught scouting skills carried him well on the way to not just shooting bucks, but good bucks on the prime, South Dakota farmland.
Joel's father, Jack Torrence, had spent his spare time in the fall hunting South Dakota's deer and when each of his kids had completed their hunter safety course, Jack would take them hunting to assure their first experience was a good one. His goal during these trips was to explain, "Why the deer do what, when and where." The first hunting trip became the introductory course, Whitetail Knowledge 101, and the graduation present would include a nice set of antlers from the child's first whitetail buck.
Because all the family members enjoyed hunting, Joel eventually took over the deer scouting detail and soon found the time scouting was as enjoyable as his time hunting. It didn't take long for Dad to realize that if the pickup and binoculars were missing when he came home from work, Joel was out scouting for big bucks. And sure enough, it wasn't long before Jack's cell phone rang and Joel would start telling him about the newest big buck he had spotted, where it was and what other deer accompanied him.
The area Joel hunted was within three or four miles of home making access to the properties while scouting quite simple; when leaving home then again on the return trip, he always took a different route. This travel variation kept him up to date on what buck was where or which doe and fawns were feeding in what field. The bulk of his hunting area was made up of sloughs, cornfields, CRP ground and weed choked fence lines, which easily met all the deer's food, water and cover requirements.
Torrence family portrait. L to R Front Row, Cousin Cody Kleinkechd, Jack Torrence, Joel Torrence, Jordan Torrence,
Jarred Torrence. L to R Back Row Becky Florence (was Torrence), Jay Kleinkechd, Bridget Kleinkechd
Scouting and the family's deer management potential began to pay off when Joel's brother Jarred, the oldest son, took three big bucks over a span of a dozen years. The first one came when Dad set the then 18-year old in a spot overlooking a CRP field with a low, swampy section that provided such good cover that any deer moving through the area would utilize the thicker vegetation. The corridor provided the deer with a secure travel lane that ran 400 yards out into the CRP ground where the swampy ground eventually turned into grass and weeds. As Jarred sat watching, a big buck moved from his feeding area in a tree-lined cornfield to the bedding spot in the CRP field. One shot and he had his first South Dakota trophy! The 140 class buck was large enough that Dad told him he may never see, let alone shoot, a buck that big again.
Seven years later Dad had located another buck and Jarred was watching where it bedded in a windbreak, just 10-12 trees wide and 1/8 mile long, planted in a CRP field adjacent to a cornfield. The extremely spooky buck stayed with four or five does but would abandon them if disturbed, slipping quickly into the trees then reappearing 600 yards away in the CRP cover. The buck even learned he could disappear into a depression, 200 yards from the end of the trees without being seen. The crafty, alert old buck was not afraid to lie still and let you walk by or vary his technique and flush well ahead of a hunter into the safety of the monstrous CRP field.
One morning as Jared was walking quietly along the edge of the tree cover, thinking he could spot and stalk the whitetail, he pushed the big buck and does to the edge of the trees but when they reached the end and lost track of Jarred, they stopped, not wanting to leave the cover. The big buck hadn't abandoned the does yet and probably thought he was safe. Jared continued on, sneaking quietly towards the end of the cover and caught the buck standing. He took a rest across a tree limb and when the 7MM Magnum spoke, the buck folded. The 150-class buck was even bigger than the one that prompted his dad to tell him he may never see another buck that big, let alone shoot one!
Now, five years later, it was Joel's turn to become the mentor. Jared had spent the interval hoping for a third time to prove Dad's prophecy wrong once again and was now watching a big buck that Joel had patterned. The buck was almost completely nocturnal, visible only late in the day or very early in the morning. Joel showed Jared a spot where he could remain hidden at a safe distance from the bedding area then watch the grove of trees. The buck would stand and move around in the late afternoon but not leave the grove until the last bit of light was fading. Joel's instructions were simple; hide during the afternoon to glass the trees and you might catch the buck in the staging area, moving about while feeding before dark.
With less than an hour remaining before sundown Jared spotted the buck just as Joel explained, feeding in the heavy cover, but he could only see pieces of the deer through the trees. The body was hidden but the antlers, head, and neck appeared then disappeared as the buck actively fed. The buck kept feeding in the cover of the grove but was moving toward a lane that had been created when the trees were planted. As the buck stopped in the opening Jarred already had a solid rest and placed the shot at the base of the neck of the 160-class ten point with his 7MM Magnum.
The fourth family big buck was another product of Joel's scouting. This one came on a father - daughter hunt as Dad was sitting back to back along a treed fence line with Becky. They were sitting in the thickest cover available where Becky could watch a heavily traveled pinch point located out in the weeds. The best cover and all the deer travel lanes funneled through a point right in front of Becky's watch so Jack wasn't too concerned about the sparse cover in the opposite direction since he had never seen any deer cross that way. Never say never when hunting!
This was to be Becky's hunt but it wasn't long before a big 140-class buck appeared on Jack's side, headed toward the pinch point. Its route was straight towards the pair and the buck was going to literally walk right up to them but because of where they were sitting in thick cover, it would be impossible for Becky to turn around without being spotted. Dad solved the problem when he shot the buck as it walked right into their lap.
Jack had taught his family well, teaching them what to watch for and what to do, the places to look and the places to avoid. This made the kids very efficient at finding big bucks because their premium time for early morning and late evening scouting was spent in the best areas. A typical morning hunt for the family is to have each member sit in a separate location where Joel had located a big buck. Breakfast interrupts the morning about 9:30 when the crew shares notes before planning CRP drives where they know big bucks spend the day. They use just a few drivers with the rest of the hunters sitting in critical exit areas.
The area's ample CRP land allows the family to actively hunt during the day and still have undisturbed places to hunt later in the afternoon. They choose appropriate locations for the drives and usually route them through the low bottoms adjacent to or located within CRP ground. Here the watchers can focus on major crossings or places where thick cover extends out into the grasslands. By alternating who walks and watches, they always fill a few tags by late afternoon. Anyone with an open tag can take an evening stand in an undisturbed location where one of Joel's other bucks could be found.
Jack, operates like most fathers when hunting with the family and tries to take the least likely watch using the philosophy, "I enjoy shooting a big buck as much as the next guy but when one of my kids shoots a big buck I enjoy it even more. I have shot a lot of deer in my lifetime and probably used every trick in the book doing it so passing this knowledge on to my children then watching them take a buck is a father's dream come true. I like deer hunting, but I love my family." And that pretty well sums it up!
By the time the 2007 season arrived young Joel had built up quite the reputation as examples of his whitetail knowledge became more evident. His diligent scouting had pinpointed almost every buck that lived in the CRP plots and he soon became the family's outfitter. He would locate the deer then assume the responsibility for sighting in each family member's rifle at 100 yards then checking it for zero at 150 yards. Joel has found he enjoys shooting as much as hunting and has become very proficient with his own rifle, a Model M77, .270 Ruger.
During the fall of '07, Joel had promised to take his mother, Laura, hunting. He planned to have her hunt from a ground blind sometime in mid November. He had built the blind earlier using two cattle panels with hay, straw and weeds woven through the rails for concealment. It was located in a spot where he had watched a small herd of bachelor bucks that fed in the corn stubble every morning before moving to the safety of an adjacent CRP section. He knew if he and Mom slipped into the blind under cover of darkness, they could catch the bucks in the field at first light.
The next morning things didn't go as planned; it was already dawn before they left the house. Joel drove quickly covering the two miles to the corn lot and as he was about to make the turn into the field roadway movement caught his eye. There was a buck chasing a doe about 200 yards out into the field and a quick look confirmed that this was definitely not a buck he had scouted; this one was a newcomer that carried a very unique rack. Joel focused all his attention on getting his mother a shot, as she had not been hunting for 33 years. He wanted to see her get the buck and also demonstrate how much he had learned about deer hunting.
He pulled the truck down into a borrow pit to stay out of sight then slipped from the vehicle and began to sneak down into a slough. Using a tree-lined fence for cover they stayed hunkered down and were able to shorten the distance to a little over 100 yards. Joel knew mom would be very comfortable with the shot at this distance and directed her to kneel and support the gun next on the wire next to the fence post. Laura got the .243 ready but had difficulty finding the buck in her scope.
Joel got up and moved, passing behind her to help and when his movement caught the attention of the old buck, it froze. It only took a moment for the buck to realize he was in trouble and quickly abandoned the doe, turned and started walking away. After only a few steps it started an all out sprint towards the cover in the CRP field as both hunters watched. The buck was headed toward the crest of a hill where it would quickly disappear into the 4000 CRP acres and just before reaching sanctuary, Joel realized it was a now or never situation.
The buck was now quartering away at about 175 yards when the .270's cross hairs moved ahead of the buck's chest as the years of experience hunting running cottontails with a .22 provided the instinctive reaction. The .270 barked and the buck tumbled head over heels in the thick frost covered weeds at the edge of the cornfield. When the buck lifted its head Joel rested the Ruger on the top of the fence post for a final shot. The first 120-grain Ballistic tip bullet had broken the buck's back about mid body. Mom didn't get her shot but was very impressed with the calm way that Joel made the best of a morning that started poorly.
Joel with his deer. More detailed photos below.
None of the family's big bucks have even been officially scored so when Joel took the buck to Roger Huepel, a B&C scorer in Aberdeen, the numbers were very impressive. Any buck scoring over 200 is impressive! The green, non-typical gross score was 211 6/8 and the net score was 202 2/8.
After ten years, Joel achieved his youthful dream of taking a huge buck. Starting at age twelve and learning the skills provided by Dad then dedicating his time to learning about the specific deer in their South Dakota farming neighborhood, he put himself in the right place at the right time with the skill to succeed when it became a now or never situation.