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Still Hunting the Bad Sandhills

By Randy D. Smith

-- A thousand years ago the sandhill country south of the Arkansas River in Kansas probably looked like the worst regions of the Sahara desert. Today, a lot of these rolling hills have been tamed by land levelers and circle irrigation units but hundreds of thousands of moderate to steep dune acres still remain in tall prairie grass. They are the dominant feature of the 5,700-acre Pratt Sandhills Wildlife Area of Pratt County near Byers, Kan. The east sections of the area are covered with thousands of steep grass covered sand dunes.  

PhotoPhoto: Tall grass, isolated rolling hills and lots of cover make for a great area from which to surprise hiding bucks.

Depending on my luck at taking a whitetail buck on nearby private land, I hunt Pratt Sandhills Wildlife Area every deer season. Vehicles are restricted to public roads bordering the area, horses are not allowed and camping is limited to parking areas only. The only way to get in there is on foot, and the only way to get a deer out is to either drag him or cut him up in pieces and carry him out. It makes for a tough physical challenge, but the exciting deer hunting makes it worth while.

At first glance, the vast, open sandhills would seem like the perfect place for a high-powered scope mounted on a magnum rifle, but I have never found that to be the case. I go into the sandhills looking for trophy white-tailed bucks right at the beginning and late in the season after they have been driven to isolated pockets by outside hunting pressure. I usually hunt after 10 a.m. and try to surprise bucks in their beds. Over the years, I've had some fine successes, many failures and always some good hunting experiences.

The areas where bucks concentrate late in the season are in steep dunes well away from any roads. Dunes are often 20 feet tall and not more than 30 yards apart. They are covered with plum thickets and tall grass. The low areas between the dunes are often covered with shoulder-high grass, clusters of cedars and a few cottonwood trees. I move into the prevailing wind following game trails not a lot differently than if I were upland bird hunting. 

PhotoI jump-hunt the sandhills with either a short barrel .54 caliber muzzleloader launching a 400-plus-grain slug, a pump-action slug shotgun, or a .45-70 Marlin Guide Gun. If a buck busts from cover in the steep dunes, the shooter usually has no more than four seconds to make an appraisal, draw and shoot. Running to the top of the dune for another shot or a long-range set shot is normally a waste of time. 

Photo: Bucks can often be found resting in clusters of cedar trees. Such places should always be checked out.

If you don't nail the buck at first contact chances are you will not see it again. It's best to use a fast handling, quick sighting, big bore, that throws a lot of lead and puts the buck down for good. Shots in spite of the expanse being hunted are seldom greater than 70 yards.

When I go in I plan on spending most of the day and usually wear a back or fanny pack loaded with first aid supplies, toiletries, tools, water, an energy bar, drag line, emergency flashlight, cell phone, compass, whistle, camera and a pair of binoculars.

There are areas where I will glass from tall dunes hoping to spot a buck on the move or some sign of antlers in likely rest areas. Mainly I use binoculars for target identification as mule deer also frequent the dunes and I sometimes want to pre-judge a potential buck before making a stalk. This is not an area where I want to drag out a forkhorn. I'm in there for trophies only.

I usually work a broad circuitous route and have often encountered bucks when working back to my truck with the wind behind me. Whenever I hear shooting from other parts of the area, I normally move to the nearest dune and glass in that direction for signs of deer moving into my area. Throughout the years, I've taken bucks that others have missed.

This style of hunting is not for everyone, but if you are physically fit, enjoy the challenge, enjoy going into the back country and want a trophy buck opportunity, stalking these hills is a fine hunting experience.

-- Randy D. Smith

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