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May 4, 2010
Over the past decade working at Outdoor Life, I've been fortunate to travel to a lot wonderful places and meet a lot of great people. One of three states I had yet to visit, however, was Nebraska, so when Joe Arterburn of Cabela's and Mike Capps, who handles media relations for Hunter's Specialties, approached me about joining them for their second annual wall tent turkey camp outside of Arnold, Nebraska, the last week of April I leapt at the chance. In addition to being able to cross the Husker State off my list of states visited (only Oklahoma and Hawai'i remain, for those curious), I'd also have another shot at my first Merriam's birds (not to mention Easterns and hybrids), the subspecies that confounded me in a freak Black Hills blizzard in South Dakota a half-dozen years ago.
I was stunned by the beauty of the country around Arnold, which was characterized by cedar draws tucked down between grassy ridges and fingers. The contours of the land reminded me of a face of a Shar Pei puppy. We had 45,000 acres at our disposal, most of which were situated on Cory Peterson's family's
. The hunt itself was outfitted by
Table Mountain Outfitters
out of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The sign hanging outside the offices of the local newspaper was a good indication that folks who live around Arnold are sort of into their wildlife.
Shortly after arriving at camp, we sighted in our Remington 11-87 Sportsman turkey guns in between 40-mph gusts of wind.
A minor adjustment here and there…
…and we were ready for the real things.
Our camp was rather comfortable, in spite of the howling winds and soaking rain that first night.
Mercifully, the clouds parted the first morning and we were treated to a gorgeous sunrise as birds gobbled across the wide-open landscape.
Glassing was a key component in locating gobblers, especially in the challenging shadows of first light. The incessant wind didn't help matters, either; unless you were downwind from a tom, there was little chance of hearing him gobble.
I claimed my first-ever Merriam's-strain turkey at about 10:00 the first morning of our hunt. We had located my tom and 2 other strutters entertaining a few hens atop a ridge, so we moved into position and set out three decoys--two hens and a jake.
Hunter's Specialties pro-staffer Rick White masterfully coaxed a couple of the girls down the hill, and one of the gobblers tagged along. As he strutted his way toward our decoys, spitting and drumming all the way, I dropped him 24 paces from where we were set up in a sandy cut-out on the side of a hill.
When we returned to camp for breakfast we found that several others had had similar luck. Not bad for a morning's work.
After some eggs, bacon and pancakes…
…and a bit of amateur cartography…
…we set back out in search of more birds. Dave Dolbee, of Petersen's Hunting, and Rick White moved in on a gobbler they had spotted from the truck as they cruised the ranch roads.
Fifteen minutes later they returned, gobbler in hand.
After Dave had punched his first tag, we hadn't travelled a mile down the road when we spotted these two strutters. After a half-hour-long stalk, Dave and Rick had themselves a double. The number of mature gobblers on the property was truly staggering. It's what you might call a "target-rich environment."
On the second day in camp, I decided to set out on my own for a bit of a walk-about. I wanted to explore the ranch a bit, hunt the birds at my own pace and, with any luck, catch a sun-splashed woods nap.
I had worked a group of 9 or 10 birds early in the morning. For an hour and a half we cat-and-moused in and around various draws and fingers, but I eventually lost them and decided to move on. Lord knows there were plenty of other birds to hunt. So I'd walk a bit, sit down, call, doze off, get up, walk a bit more and repeat the process.
According to my BackTrack, I was about 2 miles from camp when I decided to turn around.
Every time I'd crest a ridge, the view that greeted me on the other side would take my breath away.
As I came to the area where I had worked the big group of birds earlier in the morning, I stopped to glass. Sure enough, I spotted them walking along a fenceline atop a ridge, with a giant Merriam's tom in full strut, pulling up the rear. Knowing that I had a lot of ground to cover to cut them off, I took off running up the hill, doing my best to stay out of their line of sight. I eventually got to a point where I wouldn't be able to see them anymore, due to the steepness of the hill, so I hit the deck and started to belly-crawl through the tall grass in the direction I figured they were heading. I eased my way along, slithering as subtly as I could, when I looked up to see a red head about 10 yards in front of me. I strained to put a beard on that bird, but couldn't get a good look at his chest. Soon, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a hen, 10 feet to my left. Then another hen appeared 15 feet to my right. I was surrounded. The jig was going to be up real quick, so I turned my attention back to the redhead. As I did, I noticed a big blue and white head another 10 yards behind him, as well as white tail feathers. This had to be the big Merriam's tom I'd seen earlier. I eased the butt of my shotgun's stock to my shoulder, slotted the red fiber optic dot between the two green ones and squeezed. At the report, one bird went down and some 8 or 9 others took off to the four winds. When I walked up on the bird I was shocked to see that he had no spurs to speak of, and just a five-inch beard. Despite his gobbler-sized head, the bird I'd shot was nothing more than a super-jake. Not that I cared. This was the culmination of easily the most rewarding turkey hunting experience I'd ever had.
That night, back at camp…
…we feasted on pork…
…and played some cards and drank some beer. After all, a celebration was in order. Nine of us had hunted these crafty birds in this beautiful country and each of us was fortunate to have put tags on two of them.
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