Wild for Turkeys
After hunting for more than three decades, a hunter rediscovers the excitement of the first hunt.
By Steven R. LaMascus
The first memory I have is of my Grandpa LaMascus taking me hunting along some nameless wooded creek near Prairie Valley, a tiny ranching community near the Red River, north of Nocona. I must have been about 4 years old at the time, but I still remember walking along the sandy banks, searching for some unknown prey. This was the day Grandpa allowed me to shoot his Mossberg .410 shotgun for the first time. That single event started a lifelong trend or, as some who know me would say, a lifelong obsession.
It seems that the greatest portion of my life has been spent hunting something: deer, doves, quail, hogs and predators near my home in Southwest Texas; elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Idaho; pheasants in the Texas Panhandle and Nebraska; ducks and geese along the Texas Coast and on the Panhandle Plains. I have been blessed to enjoy the outdoors in many marvelous places. But although I grew up and have lived for the last 35 of my 52 years in South Texas, some of the best hunting country in the world, I never hunted turkeys.
Turkeys were always there, in the background, ubiquitous in their presence and annoying in their ability to interfere with the well-planned stalk of a trophy white-tailed buck. But despite their propensity for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the fall season simply wouldn’t be the same without the presence of marauding bands, pursuing their daily routines across the countryside in ragged formations. I have had hundreds of opportunities to shoot one of the big birds. Why I haven’t, until recently, is inexplicable, even to me.
Last spring I had an opportunity to hunt near the historic South Texas town of Goliad. The purpose of the hunt was to familiarize a group of outdoor writers with some of the newest products offered by Browning and Winchester. The highlight of the shindig, for me, was hunting turkeys with Kevin Howard, public relations honcho for Browning and Winchester. He was determined that I collect a turkey gobbler and I was more than willing to try. Howard took me under his wing and made it his mission to introduce me to the world of calling spring gobblers.
On the first morning, we leave the lodge well before daylight and by the time it is light enough to see, we are strolling through a wonderland of green grass, budding and flowering trees and wildflowers. It just doesn’t feel like hunting season. The temperature is in the 60s and the air is laden with the almost cloying aroma of spring blossoms. “Naw,” I think, “this ain’t right. Hunting season is supposed to be cold and gray and windy, with the faintly sweet aroma of hay on the air from the frost-cured grass.”
As the sky lightens and the brush country awakens, turkeys begin to gobble all around us. Howard, a master with any kind of turkey call, soon has several gobblers answering him. Presently a pair of jakes (yearling gobblers) arrives, and they strut and show off their glistening tail fans for the hen decoy Howard has placed a few yards in front of us. Not until Howard asks why I am shaking do I recognize that, for too long, childlike excitement has been absent from much of my hunting. Now it is back in full force.
We spend the morning moving from place to place, calling occasionally to locate a hot gobbler, walking through what seems a garden of flowering plants. Bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, Mexican hat, giant thistle, larkspur, Indian blanket and many others carpet the landscape.
Calling up a Rio Grande turkey, I learn, is not that difficult, at least not for a master caller such as Kevin Howard. However, calling up a long-bearded gobbler with several seasons behind him may be very difficult, and Howard won’t allow me to shoot just any gobbler. It has to be a trophy, with a beard like Methuselah’s and spurs like the ones that gauchos wear.
About mid-morning we sit concealed in a small grove of gnarled liveoaks. Howard is calling softly, hoping to lure a gobbler into range. After about 15 minutes of clucks and purrs he decides to stand up behind me so he can see better. I am leaning drowsily against the trunk of a small oak when I hear him whisper: “There’s a real old longbeard coming down the road to the left. He’s about 70 yards out. Get ready!”
Now comes the same feeling I had when I shot my first buck. My palms begin to sweat, my mouth goes dry and I have trouble swallowing. “How,” I wonder to myself, “does a hunter with more than 35 years of experience get so het up over a bird? Dang! You’d think I was about to go on my first date.”
Eventually the gobbler struts into view. He is a magnificent sight. Fluffed up, his iridescent feathers glistening in the morning sunlight, wings extended in low arcs dragging trails in the dust and tail fanned out, he is in his glory. Any hen in the world would have melted in her tracks at the sight of this tremendous old patriarch. As I wait for him to come into range of the shotgun, the world stands still. Finally Howard whispers hoarsely: “Take him!” I slowly raise the gun to my shoulder, place the glowing fiber-optic sights at the base of his neck and will myself to squeeze the trigger — but it won’t shoot. The safety is on.
Finally the gun roars and the gobbler collapses. Kevin runs to the bird, but I can’t get up. I am too weak, my knees won’t work right, and my right foot is asleep. I eject the remaining shells and, using the now-empty gun as a cane, I stagger to my feet and limp toward my prize.
He is every bit as majestic in death as he had appeared in life. With a beard nearly 10 inches long, spurs over an inch and a quarter, a regal tail fan, wings worn down from strutting and huge, ugly feet, calloused and worn, he is truly a fine, fine trophy. And I am well and truly hooked on calling spring gobblers.
A couple of weeks later I am again hunting turkeys, this time on a West Texas ranch with outfitter David Mann of Brackettville. Flowing through the desert canyons of the ranch is the famous Devils River, the cleanest, purest river in the state, full of catfish, perch, largemouth and smallmouth bass. Droves of Rio Grande gobblers roost in the trees by the river. At the lodge each evening, we can hear them gobbling. Things are starting to look promising.
In a bizarre turn of events, I am not just hunting this time. I am acting as a guide for several hunters from Georgia and Florida. While I know the ranch well and know where turkeys are likely to be found, my hunters are much more familiar with the techniques for calling and collecting a gobbler. One of them, Darrel Tweedel, has planned to call a gobbler for me before he begins the task of finding a Rio Grande gobbler for himself. Darrel already has four “grand slams” (one each of the four species of North American turkeys: Osceola, Rio Grande, Eastern, and Merriam’s ) to his credit and finds it more fun to call for a novice, me, than to hunt for himself. He also wants to get the hunt on video, if that proves possible.
By 3 p.m., Tweedel and I are sneaking through the brush and timber along the banks of the river in search of a likely trophy. According to the experts, most of the gobblers are with hens now and are much more reticent to answer a call. It is well into the afternoon before we get an answer to any of our calling, and surprisingly, I am the one who gets a gobbler to respond.
Much to the annoyance of my wife Kandace, I have been practicing incessantly with a slate call. After many hours of struggle, I am beginning to sound like a turkey instead of a 1956 Buick. However, once the gobbler answers, I figure I’d better let the real turkey caller take over.
The gobbler seems to be alone, far up a rocky, thorny side canyon that runs into a range of low hills to the west of the river. Tweedel and I slowly ease up the canyon until we’re as close to the gobbling tom as we can get without spooking him. Setting up in a thicket of thorn brush, Tweedel prepares the video camera and starts calling to the bird. With each seductive syllable, the gobbler responds, sounding closer with each passing minute.
After 10 minutes, the bird appears on the side of a hill 300 yards in front of us, strutting back and forth, displaying his gorgeous fan for the hen with which, he thinks, he has been having a promising long-distance relationship. Five minutes more and he disappears into a shallow arroyo; another five minutes and he sounds as if he is just beyond a line of brush, 40 yards to my right front. Again my mouth goes dry and my hands are trembling.
Then he is before us. He stalks slowly into a clearing 35 yards out, suspicious now. He doesn’t gobble or strut, but moves cautiously into the clearing, his neck outstretched, looking for the hen he has been wooing. It seems a shame, somehow, to disappoint him so, but when he turns his big red-and-gray head away from me for a second, I raise my shotgun and take the shot.
Having a new interest is healthy, I think, and now I don’t have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Turkey hunting in the spring is an invigorating, resuscitating experience. It also brings back the excitement I felt when I was younger. Kevin Howard, David Mann and Darrel Tweedel proved to me that hunting season is not restricted to the gray months of autumn. Now I look forward to spring, to hunting turkeys when the world is being reborn from the ravages of winter, and everything is green and warm and alive and smells like God’s own garden.
Spring turkey season this year runs from March 27-May 2 in South Texas, April 3-May 9 in North Texas and April 12-25 in East Texas. For more information consult the Texas Parks and Wildlife Outdoor Annual, call (512) 389-4505 or go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild.