We are barely in Oklahoma, just a few miles from the New Mexico and Colorado borders along the cottonwood-and-juniper bottom of the Cimarron River on the Hitching Post Ranch.
We drove in here yesterday afternoon in time to meet up with Chain Ranch guide Steve Gray, jump back into our Realtree APG camo and head out to prospect for Merriam’s gobblers. This is our last stop in our four-bird Grand Slam, and we’re eager to add a Merriam’s gobbler to our Eastern and Rio Grande success.
Shawn White, the winner of Outdoor Life’s Turkey Grand Slam Adventure, had said all along that this bird, a white-tipped Western Merriam’s, was the one that he coveted the most.
This is the seventh morning we’ve been hunting since we kicked off the Slam last Saturday in central Florida. Our score currently stands at 2-1, with two gobblers in the bag, a stubborn Eastern turkey from northern Florida and an unfortunate Rio Grande gobbler from north-central Oklahoma. The one subspecies in the loss column was our first, an Osceola gobbler from central Florida.
This morning’s gobbles were accompanied by a cacophony of raspy yelps from hens roosted with the toms, and probably because of those possessive hens, all the turkeys – 20 or more – in the trees pitched down away from us. We tried seductive yelps and contented purrs but we couldn’t get the half-dozen mature gobblers away from the hens, even though the toms strutted and gobbled in full view for a half hour before everything shut up and dissolved into the bottomland brush.
So we pulled back. We had encountered two other flocks of turkeys yesterday afternoon and figured we’d leave this bunch alone so we could return to this spot in the evening as they were headed back to the roost.
As we’ve discovered all week, mid-day gobblers this time of year aren’t interested in playing. Here in Oklahoma’s Panhandle, the toms are so henned up that unless you call them off the roost they’re not very vocal until evening.
We broke for lunch, explored the ridges studded with pinon pines and junipers, and looked for elk tracks around water holes. This extreme western tip of Oklahoma’s Panhandle looks nothing like the rest of the Sooner State. As you drive west along the pancake-flat wheat plains of the Panhandle, you suddenly drop into the Cimarron River breaks, and if I didn’t know better I’d swear I was along southeast Montana’s Powder River or even the Book Cliffs of northeastern Utah. With the pine tress, sandstone mesas and cottonwood bottoms, this is classic Merriam’s turkey country.
We’ve budgeted only another half-day for our hunt. We have to be done by noon tomorrow, Saturday, so we can drive the 180 miles south to Amarillo, Texas, where we fly home on Sunday morning. Shawn is tense, but when I ask him if he’s nervous about connecting with a Merriam’s, he’s more assured than anxious.
“We’ve seen a lot of birds here,” he says. “We’ll find a gobbler. Even if we don’t, this has still been a great trip.”
We returned in the late afternoon to the same spot where we heard birds this morning, planning to tuck into cover and call to a roost-bound gobbler. We were glassing our approach when Steve whispered, “Do you guys see that stagecoach?”
We all looked, and right where the turkeys had pitched down this morning sat a beautiful, restored Western stagecoach. It certainly wasn’t there at dawn. Something was going on here. We worked our way around some cedars and spotted two vehicles and a group of people setting up picnic tables less than 100 yards away on the other side of the fence. Then Steve groaned.
“I think this is the wedding that I heard about from the Apples (owners of the Hitching Post Ranch). There will be people getting married here tomorrow.”
That settled it. We weren’t going to blast a gobbler in the middle of a wedding party, so we again pulled back and headed to a tributary of the Cimarron, to another roost site. On the way to the cottonwood grove, we spotted a dozen turkeys pecking in the pines along the creek. We backed up, ducked into the drainage and hustled for the roost tree, keeping out of sight below the high cutbanks of the creek.
We settled into place and soon heard birds clucking their way toward us. Within a few minutes a hen’s head peeked over the cutbank, and Steve gave some inviting clucks on his mouth call. Another hen, then another, then the scarlet red head of a gobbler, all scrambling down the steep dirt bank of the stream only 20 yards to our left.
Steve gave a soft cluck and the gobbler broke into strut. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Chuck Sumner’s camera catching the action, but then the gobbler kept walking left, out of view of the camera and out of position for Shawn. The bird was going to get behind us!
Then Shawn pivoted, leaned forward around a cedar limb and shot. The turkey, not 15 yards from us, dropped to the ground dead as a hammer.
Our Grand Slam was over, after a week of time, more than 1,800 miles of distance and the whole gamut of human emotions. Shawn walked to the gobbler, knelt down and put a hand on his feathers. Then he turned, and the smile on his face said more than all these words.
“Thank you,” he said softly to all of us. “Thank you.”
– Andrew McKean