By Mark Strand
From a tent in Nebraska – First morning of this week-long archery turkey trek began as promising as it gets. In seriously fading light the night before, on the first night I’d ever spent in the Pine Ridge area of northwestern Nebraska, I had taken a leap of faith and decided on a campsite off Deadhorse Road, partly because I liked the name, and partly because I had watched a group of turkeys go to roost and listened to a much larger group, which they had joined, gobbling and yelping until long after dark.
Other turkeys had gobbled from various directions, but this was the mother ship and needed to be scouted before our group arrived the next day. So I pitched one tent in the pitch black, a half-mile from the turkeys, slept until near dawn, then walked from camp in the dark, to a listening spot near where the turkeys had crossed the gravel road the night before on their way to the communal roost. There were hundreds of birds across the road which turned out to be forbidden acres, my dad’s old term for spots you can’t get permission to hunt.
The early morning gobbling was sensational across the opposing hillside, from north to south and back again in waves. After the birds flew down, a good-sized group of hens and toms made its way across to my side of the road, strutting gobblers dragging wings loud on the hardpan in the still morning air, maybe 40 birds in all, led by a raft of hens that hopped up onto a grassy slope below, and the whole works came on both sides of me, at one point four big toms in full strut so tight together their heads would have presented one shot for a shotgun hunter. They filtered up the hill and out of sight, and I got busy selecting blind locations for the next morning.
Two 15-year-old boys, Levi and Josh, both on their first hunt of any kind, were going to attempt to take wild turkeys with a bow. Nothing like starting at the top. But this seemed so perfect, assuming the birds did the same thing the next morning.
Oh, the wild assumptions we make about turkeys and what they might do.
We’ll get to what actually happened in a minute, but there are a lot of other stories we have to squeeze in. Everyone deserves much more space than we have here, the whims of archery turkey hunting being what they are. This is being written, by the way, from my sleeping tent at the end of the second leg of this journey, in one of those million-dollar camping spots, along the banks of little Gordon Creek in north-central Nebraska, near Valentine.
Where to begin. The phone rang, maybe a month ago, and it was Joe Peterson asking if I would be interested in testing the latest Honda ATVs and Big Red (a two-up multipurpose utility vehicle, or MUV) in a turkey hunting situation. Sounded like the best idea I had heard in a long time, so I was in. Being a bit older and slowing down physically, I am a big advocate for using ATVs to move along trails, then striking off them to hunt on foot. Been doing it for years, in fact, including using them to take my ailing father on some of his best hunts.
Both locations for this trip were chosen because they have turkeys, and because challenging terrain would let us put these machines through worthy paces.
A Quiet Morning
On our first hunt morning, Josh and his father, John Brandon (who was testing the Hondas for Popular Mechanics), were sitting with me in a blind smack in turkey central from the previous morning. We lit them up good on the roost, but the birds chose a different crossing point and there we sat, out of range as they skirted us to the north and west.
Same story for Joe Peterson and Levi, and Joe Miller (a photographer accompanying Brandon) who were in other blinds farther up the hill. We all sat waiting for late crossers, but after several hours it was apparent the birds had avoided our well-laid battle plan. We walked out to our ATVs and drove back to camp for breakfast.
If put to a lie detector test, the boys would probably have fessed up that they were as interested in driving the ATVs and Big Red as hunting, so they were enthusiastic about what we did next, and continued to do for several days–saddle up and drive the trail network deep into the interior of our spot.
There were several miles of great trails, because they’ve been cut through rugged and scenic country that looks like the Black Hills. Eventually, we discovered that there is no easy walking other than the eastern edge of our area, but it was fun to put the machines through their paces on the west side. Being an ATV hunter, I had something to compare these to. They are new, so you would expect reliable starting and no mechanical problems, and nothing to report there. (In fact, the fuel-injected motors fired up beautifully on cold mornings.)
What was impressive to me, in no particular order:
● The stock tires, from Maxxis, are excellent. High, open tread grips the terrain better than other stock tires I have tried in hunting situations.
● These are relatively low-profile, lightweight, and compact machines, but with good ground clearance. We drove over impressive rocks jutting up out of the trail, recently-downed branches, and through deep ruts without incident.
● These units feature engine braking, from automotive technology, which is really nice when you’re easing down steep inclines. I have not experienced this with other makes.
● Power steering, in these environments, makes your life much easier.
● Overall, the designs seem intelligent and efficient, something particularly noticeable when climbing steep hills. In fact, no matter how impressive the hill, even when going through sand, I never had to put a unit in four-wheel drive. We drive slowly and as quietly as possible, because we’re hunting, so it’s best if the engine does not strain or rev up.
What archery turkey story would be complete without close calls?
We had plenty, but here are a few highlights. On the first evening, young Levi was sitting with Joe Peterson and Josh in one of our blinds. A group of birds walked close without announcing their arrival, Josh spotting three toms as they passed within 10 yards. Levi made what Joe reported to be a good hit, but despite lots of blood we did not find that turkey.
Josh, John and I called a huge flock, maybe 40 to 50 birds, down a steep hill to us, one strutting gobbler breaking from the pack and coming to about 35 yards, but we held off on the shot. During shotgun season, it would have been a different story.
There were others, including two great shooting opportunities for me on the day our big group hit the road for home and before David Draper, an outdoor writer from Nebraska, arrived to join me. That morning, I called a big strutter in to 19 yards (paced off later), and sailed a crossbow bolt over the top of his head and wide.
After that, I took the bow back to camp and tested it on a table, shooting to an archery target. Sure enough, it was way off. So I re-zeroed it and hit the woods in the afternoon. This time, I persuaded a big tom to leave his hens and he came right in, 11 yards in front of me. I made what for all the world seemed like a good hit, but the bird walked off and I could not find that one, either. Both of these shots are on video, which could have been part of the problem. Attempting to run a camera and shoot the bird with a bow might introduce too many degrees of difficulty.That’s where the opportunities came to a halt, despite putting in good efforts on two more days, alone and with Draper. Turkey karma no doubt had something to do with summoning big winds, which dominated the landscape in both locations for the final days of this trip. If somebody has a sure way of calling up a gobbler during a big prairie blow, I want to hear it. We’re talking winds consistently in the 30s, with gusts up over 50, that you hear coming in a low roar, that keep you awake by shaking and vibrating the tents.
After driving several hours to the east and settling in to the Valentine area campsite, I paid a return visit to the prairie ghosts of Gordon Creek, a group of turkeys I have dueled with in previous episodes. They spend their days out in vast grasslands, and then return to creekside woods to roost. They came, just like clockwork, but did it to me again, flying up on the wrong side of the property line, just like they had last time.
Now, it’s almost 11 o’clock at night, inside this rattling tent. Tomorrow is the day before Easter, so it needs to be the travel day to put me back in Minnesota for Sunday.
Perhaps the moral of this story is that it’s fun to test gear in the real world, to putt your way along miles of trails, driving up long inclines so you can hunt elevated benches, and try to get turkeys to respond to your calling. When the weather is favorable, it can seem downright simple. There will be other, calmer days, and there will be different endings, and this sport will remain one of hunting’s great challenges.