LYING IN MY COT, MESMERIZED BY the moonlight as it wriggled its way through the walls of the teepee, I couldn’t help but fantasize about being a member of the Ute tribe of Native Americans who had inhabited this same country less than 100 years before, mentally preparing for the toils and triumphs of the morning’s hunt.
I fancied the thought of wielding a hand-crafted bow and arrows, sneaking through the mountains with little more than wit and skill, in a quest to bring a longbeard back to camp. Of course I can do little more than speculate, but I often wonder what it felt like to need to bring a turkey back to camp—or face the wrath of a hungry family that desperately counted on my hunting skills for sustenance and survival.
But in all honesty, I didn’t really mind the luxuries of modern-day teepee hunting, either. Two Merriam’s turkey tags were folded neatly in the camouflage- adorned daypack under my cot, the chilly New Mexico air was held at bay by the excessive warmth of my sleeping bag, and I was able to quickly insert ear plugs when one of my “bunk mates” started to snore in wistful slumber. Modern conveniences definitely have their advantages.
But still, I couldn’t help but wonder what the Utes would’ve done in the event of a snoring bunk mate on a night such as this. Maybe something involving a turkey feather and a bowl of warm water.
Merriam’s In The Mountains
I was slapped back to reality when the first gobble of the morning thundered through the canyon so loudly that my eyelashes shook. I looked over my shoulder at Mossy Oak’s Tack Robinson and smiled. Even through his facemask, I could tell he was smiling in return, and it was obvious he too had been temporarily distracted by the sun’s breathtaking entrance as it crested the distant mountain peaks.
Though the lone gobbler was still a few hundred yards away, I spotted him as he strode across the dew-kissed meadow, screaming to the heavens in response to our best-laid calls, bouncing and rolling like he was on fire.
I was so enchanted with the scene that Tack had to stick me in the ribs with a slate call striker to get me to rechannel my focus.
“Scoot around to the front of the tree.”
If there were awards given to turkey hunters who could whisper and yell simultaneously, Tack would be the undisputed champion of the world.
“Are you new at this or what?”
I had no more than gotten into position when the gobbler closed the distance to 100 yards and disappeared into the treeline—and went completely quiet.
Generally speaking, I avoid making excuses whenever possible, but I blame my sore knees and inability to sit still for long periods of time on a “less than bragable” high school wrestling career. It’s not a noble confession, but it’s the truth. Had I been a better competitor on the wrestling mat, my knees likely would’ve taken far less beating, thus making me a more effective and lethal turkey hunter.
And after 15 minutes of waiting on a silent gobbler, my tingling legs could take no more punishment—I had to readjust.
Putt … putt. Putt, putt, putt!
I could feel Tack’s gaze ripping through my hat and burning holes in the back of my head.
Our guide, Wayne, stood up and shoved his slate call into his vest. “Let’s go.”
Stickers And Spurs
As turkey etiquette goes, my initial strike-out meant Tack was up to bat. Being the Southern gentleman that he is, Tack insisted I try again, but I simply needed time to sulk and repair my pride.
“Show me how it’s supposed to be done, Hillbilly,” I grinned as I returned the favor and introduced his ribs to the business-end of my pot call striker.
“Just don’t spook this gobbler while you’re taking notes, Yankee.”
Wayne was confident he knew the whereabouts of another lonesome tom just across the meadow.
Conducting most of my turkey hunting escapades in Minnesota where tracts of turkey habitat are relatively small, I leaned the hard way exactly how long it can take to get “just across the meadow” of a New Mexico mountain range. Seemed to me we were supposed to be hunting turkeys, not participating in a biathlon.
Two miles and more than an hour later, we finally made it to the far side of the meadow. The good news was that the terrain looked promising, and I learned and appreciated that a spooked gobbler is far easier to carry than a dead one.
Tack no more than began a series of clucks and purrs when he was interrupted by a boisterous gobble less than 100 yards away, forcing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand tall like one of the mini-cacti that were continuously threatening our ankles. Tack scurried into position, and Wayne and I plopped down to enjoy the show from a few yards back.
If there ever was a turkey that begged to be shot, this floppy-beaked bird was it. Without need for further enticing, the gobbler spit, spun and sauntered directly to the end of the gun barrel—a bayonet would’ve been helpful—and Tack did what he does best; he pulled the trigger. I instinctively jumped up and raced to the scene. Wayne, on the other hand, was not so quick to respond.
Tack and I were inspecting the plumage of the gorgeous bird when Wayne came limping toward the action, obviously favoring his right leg.
“Looks like I’m not the only one with bad knees,” I joked, but Wayne didn’t see the humor.
And then it became obvious what had happened: In the heat of battle, when tying to duck and cover to get into position, Wayne had planted his “turkey cushion” directly in the middle of a cactus.
Hunters with more class and compassion might have responded differently, but Tack and I did what any worth-their- salt turkey hunting buddies should do: We laughed long and hard.
As Wayne described it, the cactus was of the “needle-hair” variety. And rather than being injected with a pile of big stickers that could be removed one by one, Wayne now wore countless hair-sized spikes that rubbed and tugged with each step he took.
As we headed back toward the truck, I watched Wayne limp and immediately apologized to the turkey gods in silence for complaining about the long walk.
After the cactus incident, Wayne was forced to retire for the day and head home to his wife who, given the nature of their relationship, had drawn the unfortunate task of removing the plethora of tiny stickers from her husband’s rear-end.
But the next morning, Wayne was back bright and early, wearing his own personal rendition of a smile.
“Well, boys,” Wayne said as we entered the cook’s tent, “The stickers are out … sort of. My wife wasn’t home last night, so I had to take measures into my own hands ... I had to shave them off.”
Anyone who’s ever hunted turkeys as a group knows the atmosphere is generally very laid back, but still, there are things even the best of turkey hunting friends should never, ever share. And Wayne had definitely crossed that line. I pitied him in a way; not because of the physical pain he had to endure, but because of the emotional pain he was sure to endure at the hands of our campmates after making a comment like that.
But most importantly, Wayne was ready to lead me to a gobbler—only after he made me promise not to mess up the second time around.
As usual, we were into turkeys in no time. A short drive in the pickup led us to a ridgetop overlooking our teepees, and a short walk and a few locator calls led us to the edge of an evergreen thicket with a gaggle of gobblers quickly closing the distance.
When I spotted the group of birds, I noticed two gobblers with breathtakingly long beards, accompanied by a handful of hens and four other toms.
I desperately wanted one of the larger toms, but they brought up the rear of the group, and I knew the retribution of killing any tom at this point was far better than risking another blown setup waiting for the longest beard to strut by.
“You see the four gobblers coming in from the left?” Tack questioned. He was pressed tightly to my shoulder and the clicking of his camera in my ear was almost more audible than his words.
Wayne was a few yards behind Tack and me, and this setup was eerily similar to the one I had blown the previous day. But if there’s anything that motivates me, it’s the thought of having to explain another blown opportunity to a group of experienced turkey hunters at camp.
Initially, the flock of gobblers was interwoven so tightly that I dared not shoot for fear of killing multiple birds. And at 25 yards, with the safety off and my cheek smeared to the shotgun’s stock, the group harmoniously gobbled, nearly startling me into prematurely pulling the trigger.
As they started to leave, the last gobbler in line loitered just a bit too long.
The sight of that flopping turkey filled me with a rush I’ve never before experienced during a turkey hunt, as I looked beyond my bird toward the teepees below. And as I laid my shotgun down, I removed my daypack and camouflage hat and said a little prayer of thanks, all the while wondering if a Ute hunter had ever stood in that very spot, experiencing the exact same emotions, more than a century before.