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A Turkey Hunting Legend's First Bird
Ray Eye, as told to Michael Pearce
January 26, 2009
My grandfather took one last sip of coffee, pushed his breakfast plate aside, and stood as he pulled out his pocket watch. Opening the lid of the old timepiece, he said, "You'd better be going, boy, if you want to kill turkey." His words caught me off guard, so much so that it was several seconds before I could stammer a reply. "But pop, aren't you going with me . . . ? I've never been turkey hunting before." "I'd like to, Ray, but you know I've got chores to do," he answered putting a hand on my shoulder. "Besides, the only way you're really going to learn is to get up there and do it by yourself. Now come on, you'd better get going."
I stood there in a state of shock and watched the old man leave the room to get his trusted Winchester 97 and a handful of shells. Following him to the back door, I still couldn't believe what was happening. Just outside the door he reached up and took down a kerosene lantern, scratched a match against its base, lit it, and handed it to me. "You know where to go on the mountain and what to do, boy. God knows we've been through it enough," he said as he stuffed the shotgun shell into my faded bib overalls. "Just remember what I've told you and be careful." He placed the shotgun in my other hand and gave me a pat on the back that nudged me on my way. Holding the lantern high I headed across the yard, now more scared than excited. Those first few steps that I took as a nine-year-old were the toughest I'd ever taken-or would ever take.
Some of my first memories are of the weekends spent on my grandparents' farm deep in the Missouri Ozarks. Located three miles up a valley, or "holler" as they call it in the hills, the farm had been the home of three generations in my family. The old two-story farmhouse was typical for the hills. A clear, spring-fed creek ran only a few yards from the front door, past the barn and other outbuildings. The house sat in a rare Ozark meadow, surrounded on three sides by steep evergreen- and hardwood-covered hills. The highest of the hills was simply referred to as "the mountain" because it was one of the highest points in the state. In 1962, the year I headed up the mountain that dark morning, most of America was in the middle of a rapid modernization. Not so in the backcountry around the farm. Life had changed little since my dad was born in the house decades before. Electricity had just arrived, but indoor plumbing hadn't and the telephone never did. The roads were a far cry from what most Americans were used to. During the spring, the dirt path leading to Grandpa's turned into a muddy trough. But there were advantages to living such a life. For one thing, it was simple. Everything was hard work and you did the best you could with what was at hand. Also, there was closeness between family and friends that sometimes slips away with progress. The primitivism of the mountains made them sanctuaries for wildlife. Small game was abundant, and deer and turkeys had never been pushed or shot out of the rough backcountry.
Hunting was a way of life, as much a means of putting food on the table, as it was recreation. Like previous generations, I was educated at an early age. I listened to men tell old hunting tales and tagged along on squirrel hunts before I was five. I loved it all, but turkeys held a particular fascination. They seemed to possess an almost mystical quality. They were rarely seen but always there. I can remember one spring morning like yesterday. Black storm clouds were marching over the mountain, and Pop and I were hurrying to get the last of the chores done. With the first rumble of thunder came a gobble from a nearby ridge, then another and another. I stood there, my mouth hanging open in amazement as the hills around the farm came alive with gobbles. Pop finally snapped me out of my trance and we made it to the house just as the first of the big raindrops banged down on the tin roof. As a youngster, I had turkeys on my mind constantly. In the woods I was always looking for turkeys and I always asked my dad to explain any kind of evidence of their presence. I badgered poor Grandpa relentlessly, asking him to retell stories about turkey hunting when he was young. Looking back, I now realize he showed a great deal of patience and answered most questions to my satisfaction. Except for one: "When will I be old enough to hunt turkeys?" "Someday" was his standard answer.
One fall day his answer changed. The smell of homemade bread was in the air as we cut wood for the cook stove. Pausing to watch me work, Pop smiled and said out of the blue, "Ray, I think you'll be big enough by next spring." He didn't need to explain; I knew exactly what he meant. A little later he gave me what became my most prized possession my own turkey call. Grandpa had made it by hand, using a piece of slate from the chalkboard at an old one-room schoolhouse. For a striker he'd cut a piece of cedar from a fencepost and fit it in the bottom of a hollowed-out corncob. The call was my life and I practiced religiously. Teachers took the call away from me more than once for using it at school. Grandma said I sounded like "a cat caught in a fence" and Pop kept telling me to keep practicing. The winter of 1961-62 was the longest of my life, but it eventually ended.
Turkey season was only a week away when Pop shook me awake one cold April morning and said, "Get up. We're going up on the mountain for a while." I did my best to keep up with him in the predawn darkness as we crossed the creek, headed across the dew-covered pasture, and found the old trail that would take us up the mountain. We walked quietly until we came to a huge oak at the junction of two ridges. I started to ask one of the dozens of questions that were floating in my mind but Grandpa quickly silenced me with a finger to his lips. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he let loose an imitation of a barred owl. Imagine how I felt when a turkey gobbled down the ridge to the northwest. We stood there for a while and listened to the sounds of turkeys gobbling all over the hills. Each time one called, the bird in front of us rifled back a reply. As we turned to leave, Pop whispered, "This is the place, boy. You'll want to sit with your back against that big oak, facing down that ridge. Use your call and whatever you do don't move until you're ready to come home" I was a bundle of nerves and anticipation the night before my hunt.
Hoping to make the next day arrive faster, I slipped into bed after supper, already wearing my hunting clothes, except for my oversized brown jacket and old tennis shoes. Sleep was slow to come. I lay in bed listening to the calls of the whippoorwills, the coyotes yipping on the mountain, and the steady sound of the stream flowing nearby. I'd been awake for hours when the smell of homemade biscuits and frying bacon and eggs drifted upstairs. Normally I'd have devoured the breakfast in front of me in a matter of minutes, but not that morning. I picked at the meal and never took my eyes off Grandpa. When he broke the news that I'd be hunting alone I was heart broken. For years I'd pictured us hunting together. The thought of trying for one of the mountain's phantom birds alone was beyond my young imagination. I tried to present myself as a man as I headed toward the creek. In some ways today brought the realization of a lifelong dream. I was going up on the mountain to try to kill a turkey. The fact that I was carrying Grandpa's favorite shotgun was an accomplishment. But inside I was as scared as I'd ever been. My hands full, I had trouble crossing the stream. Midway across I missed a steppingstone and ended up knee-deep in cold water.
I made my way across the pasture, wet shoes squeaking with every step. I'd walked the trail to the top of the mountain dozens of times, but never had it seemed so long or so frightening. I finally arrived at the big oak, put out the lantern, and sat down. I strained to remember everything Grandpa had told me as I quietly slipped the blue paper shells into the pump gun. I sat there shivering from both cold and fear; desperately hoping Pop would come walking up the trail. With the reddening of the eastern horizon came the sounds of life in the timber. At first I heard only songbirds, and I began to relax a little.
Then came the eight-note call of a barred owl. I caught my breath when the turkey gobbled from down the ridge.
I picked up the slate call but couldn't use it. I was afraid, afraid I'd goof up and scare the turkey and ruin my dream. Again and again I tried to rub the cedar against the slate but each time I pulled back. Finally I shut my eyes, swallowed the huge lump in my throat and shakingly rubbed the peg against the call. I winced at the gosh-awful noise it produced. Whether it was in response to my call or just coincidence I'll never know, but the gobbler sounded off. Several more times I tried to force some yelps from the call but couldn't. I finally dropped the call in frustration and clutched the gun that was resting on my knees. By then I could hear turkeys gobbling all around me, the closest two being the bird in front of me and a tom on the next ridge. I waited and listened to the birds gobbling; I could tell they were not moving. Suddenly came the soft yelps of a hen turkey behind me. I began to panic, fearing the hen would call the gobblers away from me. I started to get up to move closer to the hen but suddenly I remembered Pop saying, "Whatever you do, don't move . . .." Even though it looked hopeless I stayed. Soon the three birds were calling almost nonstop and the two gobblers were headed my way. Then I realized that the hen was actually a blessing. To get to her the gobblers would have to walk right past me.
Since I was too nervous to call she was my only hope. I could hear the two toms getting closer to each other but wasn't prepared for what came next. From just below the ridge came the loud noises of deep turkey purrs, flapping wings, and feathered bodies thumping together. I didn't know it at the time, but the two birds were fighting for the hen. I was shaking so hard I thought for sure the turkeys would see me, and the end of the gun barrel was drawing circles the size of donuts. Hearing the sounds of tree limbs breaking I watched a big turkey rise through the trees and sail out across the valley. A loud, triumphant gobble sounded from the scene of the battle, and the hen responded with a series of clucks and yelps. My pounding heart went into overdrive. Breathing was hard and my black-rimmed glasses started to fog. The next time the tom sounded off he was so close I could hear a rattle in his gobble. Like a ghost he suddenly appeared to my right, head tucked back, feathers puffed out and wings dragging the ground.
My first response was to swing the gun and shoot, but in the back of mind I heard Pop stressing, "Never move a muscle when you can see the turkey's head. If you do he'll spot you for sure. And remember to aim just for the head." Seconds seemed like hours but I waited. When the bird stepped behind a big hickory I twisted my body, cocked the hammer, and raised the gun. There was a deafening boom as the old gun went off when the turkey stepped back into view. In my haste I'd tucked the stock under my arm and the old Winchester had raised up and struck me in the face,
bloodying my nose and sending my glasses flying. Holding onto the gun with one hand I rummaged through the leaves, found my broken glasses, and poked them on my face as I ran to where I'd last seen the bird. My foot caught a root and I tumbled down the ridge. When I finally stopped rolling I looked up and there he was, stretched out, his feathers glistening in the sun.
I arrived down at the farm, soaking wet, covered with mud and blood, half dragging and half carrying a turkey that weighed half as much as I did. Grandpa heard my shouts and was waiting for me. He admired the bird, congratulated me and then laughingly said, "You'd better run along and get yourself cleaned up before your grandma has a fit." I spent the rest of the day telling and re-telling him how I'd killed the big gobbler, fibbing a little by explaining how I'd called the bird myself. He smiled and listened to every word. I learned a lot about calling turkeys that April morning and I've learned a lot since. In fact I've learned enough to make my living at it. I present seminars all across America, appear on hunting videos, have an outdoor radio show, hunt on television, and pro staff for many great outdoor companies. Grandpa and Grandma had to move off the farm and into a small community nearby. We lost Grandpa in 1976 and Grandma continued to tease me about sounding like "a cat caught in a fence."
It wasn't long after Grandpa passed away that the entire family was gathered at grandmas. As usual, the talk turned to hunting and someone brought up the subject of my first turkey. My eyes began to moisten and I walked over and leaned against the fence to look out towards the mountain that held so many fond memories of Pop. A few seconds later I felt Grandma's hand softly rub my shoulder as she said, "You're thinking of Pop, aren't you?" Never taking my eyes off the mountain I bit my lip and nodded my head. She lovingly moved in beside me and softly said, "Ray, do you remember that hen on the mountain the morning you killed your first turkey?" I looked at her, swallowed hard and said, "Yes." Ray, "That wasn't a real hen calling behind you," she said, "that was your grandpa."
Legendary turkey hunter Ray Eye recounts the tale of his first turkey ever.
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