Gods, guns and Rio Grande gobblers

I have to admit, I absolutely do not get turkey hunting
rio grande tom turkey
Photo: Buck Valley Ranch (cc/2.0).

Every once in a while, in Texas Hill Country, Cernunnos, Mixcoatl, and the rest of the world's hunting deities gather to tell lies, drink pulque, and – maybe – give some lucky soul a gift he absolutely has not earned. March 29 happened to be my day.

My buddy Steve Bender and I spot the first three toms at 3 p.m. through the pickup window. They're not 100 feet from the pocked ranch road we're creeping. I neither touch the brakes nor look directly at them for fear they'll sense our intentions. At camp, we scramble to don the requisite head-to-toe camo, minus the camo gobbler-getter shotguns, backpacks, and cushions my bona fide turkey hunting buddies swear by.

To hear those guys talk, the only thing stopping old toms from careers in neurosurgery is the medical school tuition. I've killed a few easterns as a matter of opportunity, but I've never felt compelled to hunt turkeys. Any interest I might have had died in a Mississippi creek bottom 30 years ago while I was hunting squirrels. A dozen or so hens and jakes scratched and putt, putt, putted around me for longer than I could stand. So I coughed. I stood. Finally, I jumped and waved my arms to run them off, which only moved them to the first horizontal limbs where they perched and peered at me while I stomped off. Of course, when my boot hit the creek they all flew away.

So, at 3:15 p.m. today, my fondness for turkeys is limited to recollections of my grandmother's dressing. And I have to admit, I absolutely do not get turkey hunting. I'm a deer man.

Of course I don't tell Steve this, because he is my friend; he is crazy for Rio Grande turkeys; and as a rule, if I get an invitation to do a friend's favorite thing, I accept – especially if I don't get it. Something my father instilled.

At 3:30 p.m. I drink my fill of water for a near five-hour sit. For the uninitiated, even March days in central Texas are 12-hours long, sweaty, bug and snake filled. And your safest bet is to assume that every plant, animal, and mineral burns, bites, crunches, stabs, slices, or stings. Even the huisache blooms, bursting soft and yellow, are just bait for the spines that await too intimate an admiration.

"I'd start down that hill. Then, maybe work around to be on that fence line by 6 p.m. And, here, use this." Steve hands me a box call held together by a rubber band that's dry rotted about half in two. "Just make it sound like a turkey."

Not too long before that turkey encounter on the creek bottom, my dad handed me a block of basswood and a Case pocketknife and said, "Cut away everything that doesn't look like a crow." Fair enough. So I carved a pretty good crow that day – and on this day, I manage a couple of pretty good turkey noises on the box. I don't plan to call much anyway.

Steve and his two boys head out to sit a blind. I load my over-under and start through the afternoon shadows. I slide two shells between my left pointer, middle, and ring fingers – a habit I picked up as a kid dove hunting with a single shot 16-gauge Winchester model 37. With each step, the call in my pocket chirps. So I wedge a twig between the boxtop and the striker and put it back in my pocket, hoping the sun-dried rubber band will keep it collected and the twig will keep it calm.

Soon I'm backed into the arms of a twenty-foot juniper in as comfortable a spot as ever existed in Hays County Texas. Already I like the idea of a cushion and a backpack full of water. White clouds skate overhead and I lose time. A young eight-point jumps the fence and walks to me until my scent changes his mind. He looks wiry and a little drawn out, but strong as he darts through the junipers. Texas is in an historic drought now so there's little fat left for people and wildlife alike.

A gobble cuts through the hill country and shoots adrenaline through me. Turkeys are coming fast singing every song in their hymnal. Now two toms are strutting, spitting and drumming, but there's no shot through the trees. They hang up, turn, and go as they came and, for once, I agree with every curse and accusation ever leveled at a hill country juniper.

I pull out the call and do my best to mimic a sweet talking hen. Three toms call back. And, as was my tendency in my youth, I give my excitement the microphone. The toms shut up and seem to get after less eager – or more hen-like – hens.

It's early yet so I abandon my nook. I do my best to slip, but nothing on legs can be quiet in the drag-and-growl and crash-and-pop of the limestone grit and cactus laden terrain. And, about when I get proud with my progress and pace, the ground crunches, the call screaks, I stop, and the box calls that, too. Molasses motion is the only remedy as I move across unfamiliar terrain still looking for my first Texas tom.

Twenty minutes yields a hundred yards and a thorough scouting of every tree and nook therein, every cactus, every opening, and shooting path thereto. Finally, I find my spot. The ground is about as appealing as a set of bird spikes, but I tuck into the shady side of the tree where I have a 20-yard shot through the understory to the east; a 30-yard lane to the south; and 40 yards of open space to the north. Perfect.

A quiet, stump-still hour pays off. A crow calls. A gobble rattles behind me a ways. I recall listening to the albino hen and her 13 conmadres my wife and I have watched over the past two Mississippi deer seasons. And, I recall my father saying it's better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. So, I decide the hen in my pocket should be coy.

To make her so, I strike my single best cluck— confident and concise. And one more. I set down the call, managing not to hit it and make it squeak like a sickly coot. A distant tom gobbles. I wait. Cluck. Long pause. Cluck. A still distant tom gobbles. Then I stand. Even though my back's covered and I'm in the shadows, I can see my bona fide turkey hunting buddies cringe. The bird spikes get the better of me and I regret it immediately.

Then there he is. Beard is coming in hot at 30 yards and before I know I've drawn a bead, the 12-gauge Mossberg rolls him. I pop in a shell from between my fingers and walk to him. He jumps. I shoot and miss. He runs. And, I get him with the third shot.

Steve and the boys meet me at the camp.

"I thought you said you're not a turkey hunter," Steve says.

"That was a gimme from the hunting gods," I say. "But, I tell you what, I get it now."

"Big bird," he says and the tape measure shows 1.25" at the spurs and 10.25" at the beard.

"Is that big? I'm glad I didn't know," I say.

It's barely 6:00 p.m., which leaves better than two hours of hunting light. So after a round of recollections, thank yous, and attaboys, I tell Steve I'm going to ease on home so he and the boys can finish their hunt. He says he understands and I believe him: he and the boys slip back toward the blind as I ease the truck door shut.

We wave as I drive past and I wish them luck. I roll down the windows, prop my arm up, and ride home slow with the hot air in my face and the low sun at my back, pleased I followed a friend and that he proved me wrong— yet again.