Birds of the Big Island

If you've had trouble getting your spouse to accompany you on an out-of-state turkey hunt, can you say "aloha?"

Hand cupped to ear, John Sabati grinned and flashed me a “peace sign” with his free hand. Huh? I shrugged my shoulders and returned my best “shaka sign,” a common two-fingered Hawaiian greeting. “No,” he shook his head, “Two gobbles [you idiot]!” Jon spun his cap to the “locked” position and cranked on the box call. This time I clearly heard the tom turkey as its boisterous response cut through my guide’s seductive yelps, and we shifted into gobbler gear.

Jon is president of Hawaii’s fledgling but dedicated NWTF chapter and a turkey hunting madman. He was also my host and guide on this most improbable hunt—for Rio Grande turkeys on Hawaii’s Big Island.

We’d been inching the Land Rover up a mountain above Kealia Ranch for more than 4 hours, trolling for turkeys —a landscape that modulated from classic rain forest to bald highland pastures, all prime turkey habitat, according to Jon. But success, thus far, had been measured by the “wow factor” of the Aloha State’s unique setting.

We’d seen a few hens and jakes, but the gobblers were tight-lipped and noncommittal. Jon remained determined and confident, but the lack of response had him scratching his head. “The gobblers were tearing it up in here yesterday,” he muttered. “I know they’re here, it’s just a matter of time before one fires up.” I smiled and nodded politely—guide talk.

We methodically cruised the dim two-track roads that skirted the mountain, stopping at predictable intervals to get out and crank up the box call. Just as predictable was the outcome at each of these stops: The gobblers weren’t buying it.

While bouncing along in the SUV, I discovered Jon is fond of analogies. “Trolling for turkeys is a lot like fishing,” he explained. “You cover lots of ground and string out your lures, hoping to get a bite. Depending on the time of day, I know where turkeys like to congregate or pass through, and I’ll stop at those spots and cast calls, hoping for a strike.” Jon eased to the side of the road, leaned out the window and hit the call again. No fish in this pond.

A half-hour later, Jon stopped the Land Rover and for the umpteenth time grabbed the box call off the dash. His first stroke was followed by a super-loud, way-too-close gobble that made us both jump. Apparently we’d driven by the bird and the loud box call shocked him into responding. But just as abruptly it was over, as the bird silently melted back into the forest.

The sun was becoming one with the mountain when Jon shot me two fingers. “He’s in a hollow over that hill,” Jon took off at a quick gate, and I fell in behind him. This bird was hot, and we were able to quickly dial in on his position. But that position presented a problem. If we crested the hill, chances were good he would spook. So we settled in and called. When the tom suddenly went silent, I knew it meant one of two things—he was coming in or bailing out. “He’s coming,” Jon whispered, the precise moment I caught movement on the rise of the hill. The tom peeked over the hill at 30 yards, and as quickly as you can say aloha, my Hawaiian turkey was dead on the ground.

Parker Ranch Rio

For phase No. 2 of my Hawaii turkey hunting adventure (Hawaii allows two tags per turkey license), I was relocated to the historical Parker Ranch. This expansive cattle operation truly captures the essence of pioneer America, with a definite twist … its location. Its 130,000 acres make it one of the largest working cattle operations in the entire United States, but even more interesting is that it’s also one of the country’s oldest ranches, with a colorful history that stretches back 2 centuries.

The story begins in 1809, a single generation after Captain James Cook first encountered the tropic isles of Hawaii. A 19-year-old sailor named John Parker jumped ship and was eventually befriended by King Kamehameha I, the monarch who fought to unite the islands in a single kingdom.

Parker, being a keen hunter, was hired to help control the population of wild cattle, whose numbers had exploded since their introduction on the island in 1793, while also providing a supply of beef for trade. As the need for beef increased, so did Parker’s fortune and influence, as he began domesticating a herd of cattle and accumulating real estate. He married Kipikane, the daughter of a high-ranking chief, and in 1847 the Parker dynasty began, figuring prominently in the next 2 centuries of Hawaiian history.

I pondered the Parker prodigy while being jostled about Richard Hoeflinger’s pickup. In addition to the history lesson, my guide for the day was giving me a good look at the expansive ranch, and seemingly every pot hole in the weathered two-track roads. We’d seen a bunch of birds from long distance, but were still looking for a workable tom.

The Parker Ranch is largely open terrain—cow country—and the bunches of turkeys we saw reminded me of the prairie Merriam’s I frequently hunt in South Dakota—birds that prefer spending the majority of their time out in open where they can keep an eye on things. I noticed numerous small groves of trees here and there, and Richard confirmed that the turkeys use these woodlots for roosting.

By mid-afternoon I needed to stretch my legs, and I asked Richard if he would drop me off so I could work a roost area on foot until dark. He reluctantly turned me loose, and I walked the mile or so to a cluster of trees, where I found significant evidence of roosting activity.

Two hours later I heard my first faint gobble, which I hoped signaled that the birds were on their way to the roost. Another hour passed in silence and I began to get antsy, so I crept down the treeline, hoping to encounter the bird I’d heard earlier. After walking a half-mile, calling as I went, I sat down for a bit to reconnoiter. With the afternoon turning to evening, I figured it was time to slowly hunt my way back to the road. I had scarcely covered 100 yards when I got a firm gobble about a half-mile away, across a vast pasture. I couldn’t see the bird, but he was definitely headed in my direction.

I plopped down next to a large dead tree the same instant a lone gobbler crested a rise in the pasture, clearing looking for a girlfriend. He came hard, but then hung up on the opposite side of an old barbed-wire fence at 80 yards. He was still locked on my position, so I kept still and quiet. Clearly agitated, the gobbler marched back and forth at the fence. Finally, the gobbler dropped his head and I knew he was mine. Once clear of the fence, the big tom strutted in to 35 yards and performed some weird rendition of what I’m guessing was a hula dance. I enjoyed the show for a full minute and then shamelessly dropped him in the dust.

With nearly an hour of daylight left to make the hike back to the road where I’d be picked up, I had it made … until a brutal fog rolled in, reducing visibility to a few feet. Luckily, I was able to locate a fenceline that I felt reasonably sure would deposit me on the road. About the time I began questioning my bearings, the honk of a nearby truck horn penetrated the fog and confirmed I was on track. I smiled, hoisted the heavy bird a little higher on my shoulder and walked out.

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