The stiff wind swayed the cottonwood trees and sent their flowers spiraling down into the Nebraska prairie as I slowly, oh so slowly; raised up to locate the gobbler that I knew would give us a chance. As I inched skyward, barely able to peer out of the river bottom and into the open field, red, white, and blue–the colors of our nation, and the bird that many believe should have represented this country–collectively walked to my eye line not forty yards away. The fleeting seconds that seemed like eternity generated these thoughts as I waited for him to stroll through the clearing that would allow me a shot. With no more time than to ready my Mossberg, I also, for some reason, thought back to the 1,400-mile trip I endured to arrive at this very juncture.
As most good hunts begin with a good trip, this one was no different. When I touched down in Nashville, Tennessee on a stormy night in mid-April to meet my friend and former college roommate, Kyle Parker, the trip was on. Our plan was to drive through the night and arrive in Kearney, Nebraska sometime the following day where our other ex-roommate, Brandon Jones, now works and lives. Since graduating from Auburn University all those years ago, Brandon has worked in several divisions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until finding his calling as a Federal Game Warden and biologist. His recent move to Nebraska propelled me to jump on a plane with high hopes of bagging a Merriam turkey, which I have only admired from the pages of various magazines.
Traffic was sparse through Saint Louis, then Kansas City. We cast out into the plains at daylight, rain spattering the windshield, as we opted for the two-lane highways for the remainder of the trip. After countless Red Bulls, multiple cycles through our iPods, and conversations still living through all our years of friendship, we finally arrived at Brandon’s house just outside of Kearney. It was April 13th, the day before Nebraska’s gun season.
There aren’t many feelings comparable to the one we get on opening morning of turkey season. This feeling I’m talking about is not even the one that arises when that first gobble reaches our eardrums. No, what I’m talking about is the sleepless night before, the state of being that transcends between sleep and dream until we finally roll out of bed sweating at 2:00 a.m., the 3:00 a.m. cup of coffee, feeling giddy and dead tired at the same time when nothing else in the world means so much as getting there before daylight. It’s the senseless chatter among old friends as we drive down to Alma, the county seat of Harlan County, some forty miles south of Kearney. There, we’ll hunt public land just off the banks of the Republican River. We say things so unrelated to turkey hunting that it’s almost as though we’re talking code and it is actually all about turkey hunting.
But then, something strange, yet completely natural, happens. The tires touch gravel and the sleep deprivation and giggling cease to exist. Voices become more serious as we lay out a plan for the pending hunt. Kyle will shoot first. Brandon and I will do what we can to ensure that happens. The earth continues its rotation eastward, bringing the day anew.
The first stop produced no gobbles despite our attempts from an owl and a crow locator call. At the second, we heard a gobble several hundred yards from the road and decided to pursue. With Brandon in the lead, we marched south through the thick alfalfa, our pants quickly becoming soaked from the knee down. For a mere second, the giddiness returned as Kyle and I looked at each other and smiled.
“What could be better than this?” he asked without saying a word.
We entered the river bottom through a slew of trees that ran below a big, open field. One soft yelp from my diaphragm call brought an instant response. The turkey was in the field above us, no more than fifty yards away. Kyle and Brandon quickly took cover on two small trees while I retreated towards the river, hoping to lure the tom out of the field and to within my shotgun’s reach.
He answered every call. Finally, he came to the edge of the field and raised his head for a better look at his waiting hen. I braced myself for the report of a 3½” No. 5, but it never came. The bird slowly moved off down the field line where he continued to strut in a slight depression, temporarily out of my partners’ sight. Sensing the turkey’s leave, Kyle began to crawl towards the field; not knowing the gobbler was still searching for an early morning romance. Needless to say, his departure was hasty.
Turned out that Kyle had seen the turkey’s head when it popped up the first time. He didn’t shoot because he could not see the beard and was not sure that it was a mature tom. When I told him about my view of the bird strutting in and out of the early morning sun, all he could do was grimace. Ultimately, Kyle made a decision that I don’t believe many hunters have the grace or maturity to make. Little things like that remind me of why we’ve hunted together for the past fifteen years.
Brandon, our congenial host, led us back out towards the truck to check another spot near where we parked. He had spent the last week scouting the area and had a general idea of where we might find another gobbler. Sure enough, one yelp from the truck returned a gobble just a couple hundred yards away in the opposite direction. Again, with Brandon guiding the way, we set out through another thick alfalfa patch to play the odds.
In my years of turkey hunting, I have never worked a gobbler as hot as the one we were about to encounter. My conservative guess would be that he gobbled 80 times in about a 20-minute span. We crossed some train tracks and set up on an adjacent hill, lying on our stomachs towards the fiery tom’s anticipated entranceway. Before I could finish my cadence he would gobble at least two times.
When Brandon spotted him coming, I shut up and let the gobbler set up the final act. He walked left, out of sight, and then moved along the very bottom of the hill where we laid motionless. The only problem: he was on the other side of the hill. When he came into view again, he was a mere 10 steps away. Kyle, caught off guard by the swift entrance, shot too fast. As we watched that lucky tom run (for miles it seemed), I thought Kyle would surely wrap his Mossberg around the nearest tree. Hunts like those, the ones that work too perfectly until the finale, are the hardest ones to get over. I could see the hurt in my friend’s face as I started to laugh at this conundrum of a sport that can bring tears as quickly as it can bring joy.
With two close calls in two hours of hunting, we reassured him that the day was still new and there were other opportunities waiting. We trudged back to the truck, all feeling the weight of the miss, our hearts all hanging on the same axis.
Unfortunately, we were never able to recapture the magic of Saturday morning the remainder of the day. As tornadic activity developed to the southwest, we loaded up and headed for Kearney.
The next morning brought high hopes and clear skies. The weather had passed, but Kyle’s miss still lingered like a stray cat. With Kyle suffering from a migraine, we decided Brandon and I would go ahead and Kyle would drive down to Alma later that morning.
We planned to hunt the first turkey from Saturday morning, the one who would never quite commit to our calling. We parked the truck a bit east of the field where we thought he would be. One yelp and an instant response. He was already on the ground.
Brandon and I set out through the river bottom, below the gobbler yet again and hustled to his beckoning call. I looked back east as the first of the sun’s orange rays painted the waiting sky. Smiling to myself, I was already satisfied with the morning. Oh, how a sunrise soothes the soul!
The grass was wet when we dropped down at the base of a cottonwood tree and began to yelp softly. Drumming filled our ears as I held ready, sure his big white head would appear on the horizon at any moment.
After twenty minutes, we could tell the bird had moved back down the field, farther to the west. Brandon eased up to the field for a better look while I retrieved a decoy we had left behind upon hearing the turkey’s proximity to our setup. When I turned around, Brandon was motioning for me to get up there, and in a hurry.
“I see him. Seventy yards out,” he whispered. “What do you want to do?”
We decided to drop down into the bottom and ease around to get closer. Before moving, I would check again to get the gobbler’s exact location. When my head was high enough above the field line to see him, he was walking…right towards us! He was coming back to give his phantom hen another chance.
“Here he comes,” I whispered. “Don’t move.”
I needed him to come about another ten yards to make a clean shot. Slowly raising my Mossberg and sliding the safety forward, I held steady until he stopped, perfectly, in the gap I needed to make the shot.
His Sunday morning stroll ended abruptly and quite unexpectedly. I rushed out into the field to retrieve the flopping bird. His sharp spurs ripped up my right glove and cut my fingers, but that didn’t matter. He was a beautiful Rio-Merriam hybrid, a bird generally found only in the Midwest. I thanked my lucky stars, and, as always, I thought back to my first turkey all those years ago and still felt the same excitement of hauling such a magnificent creature out of the woods.
Brandon and I swapped high fives and hugs as the adrenaline ran its course. My head felt clear and my heart light as I draped the heavy bird over my shoulder. We talked about nothing and everything as we walked, smiling, back to the truck to where Kyle would be waiting for us with hot coffee and biscuits.
We heard few gobbles the remainder of the hunt. The weather flip-flopped over the next several days, bringing cool temperatures, wind and rain one day, and then warm and sunshine the next. The barometric pressure would rise then fall like a kite on a gusty day.
The birds seemed to have dissipated into the land, allowing for mid-morning naps when we chose to sit and wait. We found morels in the woods, ducks in the creek, and an abundance of deer in the fields, but never saw another targeted feather. Sometimes, it’s the last-minute kills that make hunts exciting, but not that time. In our closing minutes, we grilled steaks and drank beer, toasting our luck to have the opportunities we have as hunters. The evening, the hunting, the reunion all ended too quickly.
We left Brandon on Wednesday morning, headed for Kansas City where I had to catch a flight back to Savannah, Georgia.
“We’ll see ya next time,” was lightly said, accompanied by a quick handshake as none of us really care for goodbyes. As Kyle and I left the gravel road once again, we aimed east as the trip continued down its final leg. And yes, we will be back next time, possibly sooner.
Images by Hunter Worth