A pair of wild Rio Grande turkeys — a tom (left) and a hen — have eyes for each other at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo by Robert Burton/USFWS
Many in the Fish and Wildlife Service demonstrated a commitment to protecting our nation through military service long before they began their quest to protect wildlife and wild places. Because of this kinship – this shared experience in adversity and sacrifice - veterans hold a special place in the collective heart of Service employees.
The opportunity to recognize and honor the sacrifices of those who have served in the nation’s military doesn’t just happen – it takes deliberate effort and planning, a network of like-minded partners, and the unwavering support of organizations and individuals to honor those sacrifices.
One small but poignant gesture took place in March at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. David Maple, the deputy refuge manager, shares the story:
After planning with such partners as the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), Candlelight Ranch and the Friends of Balcones, it was time for the hunt.
Participants in the 2018 Turkey Hunt: (L to R) Charlotte Larson, David Larson, Landon Davis, Matt Davis. Photo by Robert Linder
Air Force serviceman Matt Davis and his teenage son, Landon, joined up with Army soldier David Larson and daughter Charlotte at the refuge March 30 to kick off a weekend quest for Rio Grande turkeys and much more, including an impromptu welcoming ceremony complete with a presentation of mementos to commemorate the event.
After a tour of Candlelight Ranch, a local ranch that “provides therapeutic and educational nature-based experiences to at-risk youth, children with disabilities and their families,” the hunt party had the opportunity to try their luck at enticing some Lake Travis largemouths to bite at the facility’s fishing dock.
Robert Linder explains the fine points of box calls at Candlelight Ranch. Photo by David Maple/USFWS
The group then learned the fine points of turkey calling using box and slate calls from NWTF Past-President Robert Linder, and by the end of the session the participants knew how to call. They were ready.
For the uninitiated, turkey hunting starts in the wee hours of the morning – so the party was on the road early to link up with me at the hunt area. The Larsons and guide Linder began in a nearby blind 200 yards north of a small waterway – while the Davises followed me to a second blind. The hunters quickly settled into the darkness to await the coming of day - and the clucks, cackles and gobbles of roosting turkeys.
They didn’t have to wait long.
The faint light of dawn prodded the roosting birds into their calls – soft and occasional at first, but building to a full blown chorus of turkey symphony by the time it was light enough to distinguish shrubs from potential predators. The hunters at both locations watched as several hens and a big tom pitched down from a roost to an area laid bare by a recent prescribed burn. Another gobbler flew down to join a lone hen in a sunflower field. Linder and I each plied the birds with a mix of calls – pleading with and promising the birds that good times awaited if they would only join the decoys near the hidden hunters.
Turkey hunters will tell you that it is nigh impossible to call a gobbler away from a hen he can see to a hen he can’t see. Calling proficiency doesn’t matter. Being early in the season didn’t help much, as there were still receptive hens to hold the male’s interest. And this was definitely early season.
I issued periodic clucks and yelps to entice the lone hen to join his little band of decoys, and bring her paramour along for the ride. After several minutes of steady pleading, the hen accepted the invitation and made a beeline for the waiting hunters. Unfortunately, the gobbler hadn’t studied the script – he joined the others on the strut ground there. At least the hunters got to enjoy the show as the hen pecked and clucked and scratched like a barnyard chicken for several minutes in full view of Matt and Landon.
Sensing a growing frustration among the hunters, I told them that the morning might not be a bust. Sooner or later, one of the hens might break off from the group to go her own way and would probably join us at the blind. Seeing his increased chances with a lone hen away from the watchful eye of the dominant tom,the smaller subordinate gobbler would follow. Matt seemed skeptical but accepted the imagined scenario.
About an hour later, Matt excitedly whispered, “Here comes the hen across the dam.” And 10 minutes later he hissed in an even more excited voice, “Here HE comes.” Sure enough, the gobbler that had frustrated us at daybreak, decided to follow the plan after all. The hen slowly made her way straight to the decoys as if on a string. The gobbler moped along at a snail’s pace as if to feign indifference in the object of his low-speed pursuit.
As the hen reached the edge of the field, she made a minor course deviation. The hunters, attention fully fixed on the drama unfolding before them, all realized that if the tom continued following her, his course would take him just outside of shotgun range. They held their collective breath and willed the bird to choose a path to the decoys rather than chase after the hen. Time stood still as the gobbler weighed his options: follow the silent aloof bird that had so far eluded him - or begin afresh with the two dainty ladies that clucked and yelped sweet nothings his direction? He chose the decoys!
The tom’s attention swung to the two hen decoys and he began to swagger closer. I leaned in to Landon and whispered, “Let him come closer – don’t shoot as long as he is still coming.”
The big bird broke out into a strut – fanning his iridescent tail feathers and dragging his wingtips along the ground to impress the newfound objects of his attention. Seeing no response from his new hen friends, he elected to drop his strut and wow them at closer range. I whispered, “Wait ‘til his head comes up and shoot him just below the beak when you’re ready.”
What seemed like about an hour later, young Landon conquered his jitters and slapped the 12 gauge’s trigger. Before the sound of the report even died away, the gobbler lay slumped on the ground. Father and son exchanged a “fist bump” and excited “congratulations” as Landon fought to control his trembling fingers.
The Davises made their way out of the blind and down to where the bird lay a scant 30 yards distant. The rich hues of the iridescent feathers morphed from deep bronze to black to shiny green as they examined and positioned their prize for pictures in the morning’s soft light. The tom was a heavy mature bird, sporting a beard that looked to be over eight inches long and spurs just under an inch. Landon tried to keep a serious face during the picture taking session, but his grin couldn’t be contained as he beamed at his trophy (left).
Knowing that it was unlikely that other turkeys would make an appearance so soon after the noisy activity and that the other gobbler was likely still strutting just across the creek where he had been all morning, Matt asked if it was possible to try to stalk closer to the strut area and attempt to bag a second bird. I agreed.
Landon elected to take his bird to the truck - and the hunter and guide began the stalk, following a circuitous route to take advantage of the terrain to hide their approach. Despite a number of missteps and getting “busted” twice by the wary birds, Matt finally eased into ambush position near the oblivious flock. As he eased the final few feet around a plump juniper tree, a wary hen caught the motion. Predictably, the discovery of the hunter’s presence at a mere 20 yards sent the hens sprinting for cover. Knowing the gobbler would be bringing up the rear, Matt swung the shotgun to where he figured it would appear, and was rewarded with the sight of the tom in full sprint. He took the shot and the tom fell dead. This bird was even bigger than the previous tom – and sported a beard over nine inches long and sharp-pointed spurs that exceeded an inch and 3/8. A broad smile broke over the hunter’s face, as he smoothed the bird’s feathers for pictures. “I only wish Landon had been here,” he said. And with a long pause, he added wistfully, “he’s a good kid.” (At right: Father and son wuth harvest)
A fellow named Jose Narosky once wrote, “[I]n war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” It was painfully obvious at that moment that the Patriot who was striding beside me with a boss gobbler slung over his shoulder was recalling the times he had spent in deployments away from family – and, at the same time, reveling in the time he had spent with his son that morning. Bittersweet memories newly formed. Watching his teenage son bag his first turkey – then wishing the boy had been alongside when the second bird was brought to bag. For me, that encapsulated the lot of those who serve.
Not on this Hunt, But …
Regrettably, the second pair of hunters didn’t enjoy the smile of Lady Luck during their Balcones hunt. They experienced the sights and sounds, the struts and the gobbles, the early rising and the midday nap, the adrenaline rush that goes with birds close by, and the disappointment when the birds come no closer. David and Charlotte experienced the pursuit of turkeys, and bagged a trophy hunt if not a trophy gobbler. David asked to be invited back next year to serve as an “Alumni Cook” for the 2019 participants. I have a feeling he’ll be here.
Later, I got an email from David. He and Charlotte went hunting the following week on a private ranch and both got turkeys. (At left: Father and daughter with harvest. Photo courtesy David Larson)
David Maple served as an Airborne Ranger Combat Engineer Captain with the 2nd Armored Division. Essayons!