There was a harbinger of all this change as we drove into the front gate of the ranch on friday afternoon– a lone turkey hen stood at the top of the hill to our left, as if to greet us in our hunt, almost on cue. Everyone took advantage of the pond next to the lodge and the fish seemed to eagerly chomp on spinners and spoons well into the evening. Wittrock, dutifully defying a state-wide fire ban, had his usual pyre out back. The beer and booze was flowing as well as the conversation, as always. We had another good group this time around– Ssgt. Rojas was a crazy Cuban with an accent stronger than the funniest parts of Tony Montana. Sgt. Lugo was a character, too, and the only guy around who talks more than Justin or me. Cpl. Culhane is a scrappy red-head who is mildly reminiscent of former Marine buddy Robert “Opie” Taylor who I served with. Culhane is a K9 handler with a solid black German Shepherd….a photo of he and his dog went viral online some years ago. Sgt. Broom was pure East Texas all the way. He’s missing nearly all of the meat on one of his legs, all the way up to his butt cheek, though you’d never suspect it with his calm swagger. All of them are awaiting a full medical retirement from the Corps.
It was fun telling storied tales of our collective adventures at Twentynine Palms Marine Base in the happy, happy high desert of California. The best thing about having fellow Marine hunters as guests is the instant bond by proxy; strangers all, yet brothers forever through our shared experiences in the same timeless hellholes. I like to hear how so many of those places have changed….and stayed exactly the same.
Starla made a delicious pork roast and strawberry shortcake for this hunt. Gunny Booth watched part of the Masters during a lull in the action. His son Connor entertained their dog, Bella, a beautiful and well-behaved blonde lab. This hunt had an easy going feel and an air of calm relaxation surrounding it, despite the howling Oklahoma wind. Saturday was a complete bust as far as hunting goes. Too warm, too windy…way too windy. This time we hunted down in the quarter section by Grave Creek, where the turkeys are known to roost. All the scouting, all the history and previous sightings and encounters of those crazy birds– nada. They weren’t talking. They weren’t answering. No gobbles. No tracks. Where the Hell were they? Out of 52 weeks a year when the often elusive turkeys could be described as a nuisance, they were now AWOL. The one weekend when it mattered, they were a no-show.
The heat but most importantly the WIND certainly had an effect. It was not for a lack of calling. Many a slate was rubbed clean and sanded and rubbed and scraped again and again…yelps, clucks, puts, the illustrious “Kiki Run”. The woods screamed with the sounds of pretend calls, but to no avail.
A friend, local Creek Indian Lonnie Hamilton, brought over some traditionally made long bows for us to try out saturday evening, which was awesome. Made from Osage Orange, cured and dried for months and made with hand tools only, they were both simplistically beautiful and dead-serious business in terms of accuracy and power. Folks fished some more and we did the ‘Warrior’s Walk’ and buffalo dinner a night early since Booth and Wittrock would be leaving on sunday.
So for the first time officially, I stepped into the role of hunting guide in Gunny’s absence. Such big-ass shoes to fill, literally. He is a turkey-callin’ fool, too. What’s worse was the shocking discovery that all my hunting boots were back at the house in Tulsa, so I’d be guiding in Saucony sneakers. I got a quick refresher course from Rock and borrowed his vest. Because Sgt. Broom has trouble sitting for long periods of time, we decided to forgo the hunting blind and start out at Buzzard Point and hunt on the move. After dawn, I yelped three times and then we heard the gobbles to our Northwest. It is almost indescribable to convey what that sound does to your soul in the early morning dawn. A strange, foreignly familiar sound that is loud when first heard like that. I yelped again. They gobbled back, a little closer. And so it went.
The humidity was effecting the slate calls, and I had no sandpaper to rough it up so I used a piece of rock. We decided to move closer and posted in the woods about 40 yards from the high fence. The gobbles were coming from two Jakes on the other side in the quarter section. It was fascinating to listen to an ensuing dance between the two Jakes and a hen just beyond our vision, down in the woods. We later learned it was Kevin and Cpl. Culhane, luring them in with expert calling like I’ve never heard. This went on all morning, and at one point I was able to bring the two jakes out into the open, walking along the fence right within our reach. A tough shot to be sure, but not impossible. We decided to wait and see if we could coax them over the fence, but that chance never came. We had one more chance encounter, but as all turkey hunters know, they move fast and often don’t offer you a good opportunity to shoot. At one point we even low-crawled to get into a good spot to no avail.
Unbeknownst to us, the real action was going on about 250 yards to our west with Kevin and Culhane. Now, Kevin Bishop has become almost legendary at his proclivity to nearly disappear all weekend with his hunter; often they won’t even come in for lunch, and when they do it’ll be at an odd time of the day. He’s almost always the last one in, and they rarely hunt from the blind. They were the only team that had a run-in with ANY turkey on saturday, and it was also the only real tom in the entire area. Apparently he was so cunning and sneaky that they dubbed him “Ninja Tom”. But Kev was undeterred.
I don’t know how, and details are skimpy at this point but along with skirting around with the two jakes Sgt. Broom and I saw, they somehow were able to get the drop on Mr. Ninja himself early Sunday afternoon. A single 3 1/2 inch 12 gauge shell did him in at 30 yards. The tom weighed 23 pounds and had a 11 1/2 inch beard….one nice bird! Culhane was elated, which made me happy as Hell.
Broom and I spent the rest of that afternoon scooting around the entire 160 acre quarter section after that, calling along the way. We earned two hens who called back from a thicket, but that was the end. The woods had fallen silent except for the warm southern gales slicing through the oaks. We walked in all of the bottoms, and Broom found the skull of an infamous Whitetail buck I had named “Lefty” a few years ago for his long single spike antler aside a perfect 8-point right side rack. We scurried along the bone-dry creek bed, chatting about future plans, his life back in Texas, and yelp calling, jumping a couple of deer along the way. The birds had gone to bed, or vanished completely. Or perhaps not. One can never tell what’s in the mind of a turkey, other than sex, food, and crazy-talk.
That last night we ate Starla’s awesome meatloaf, drank 18-year Scotch (Highland Park) and shot some pool. A brilliant electrical storm lit the western skyline for a few hours. A perfect wind-down to an exciting and rewarding weekend. We made 4 new friends. I even suspect a few might be back our way someday, not as guests but as guides…as brethren.
This morning while leaving for the airport, that same turkey hen was waiting for us near the gate. It was as if she was there to bid them goodbye. But not farewell.