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Hunting365: Counting Coup in Kansas

4/18/2008
Lynn Burkhead

Kansas, the proverbial land of Dorothy and Toto, is a modern day mecca for hunters — a must-visit place every autumn for species including huge trophy whitetail deer, wild flushing pheasants, and clouds of migrating ducks and geese.

The spring turkey hunting in the Sunflower State is pretty darn good, too — possibly the understatement of the year in this column.

And that's why I recently found myself piloting my old four-wheel drive pickup north through Oklahoma, dodging severe thunderstorms blossoming at the collision point of a strong cold front and surging spring heat.

That warmth had all but dissolved into a noticeable wind-driven chill by the time I reached the home of my good hunting pal, Casey Ingold, of Topeka, Kan. After unloading my gear and securing the necessary licenses, Ingold and I set about to discuss the matter at hand — spring turkey hunting, cold or no cold.

With the Kansas spring turkey hunting shotgun season set to begin in a few days, I had arrived to participate in the state's April 1-9 early archery season for longbeards.

The next morning, as Ingold guided his oldest son Tanner after a bird during the state's youth-only season, I teamed up with Mike Reber to try my luck with the stick-and-string. Reber, who lives the Hunting365 lifestyle through Kansas' various seasons, was keenly excited after having put several longbeards to bed on their roost the evening before.

After getting the Eastman hunting blind set up in the dark, I sat back bundled up against the early morning chill to await the first gobble. I wouldn't have to wait long, as a tom perched in a tree 150 yards away began to greet the cold, windy morning with his lustful gobbles.

As sunrise approached, I got to watch the bird put on a show as he was silhouetted perfectly against the sky, shifting back and forth and gobbling at a number of pre-dawn sounds tripping his trigger. Calling to him with some tree yelps — louder than I wanted, thanks to the wind blowing — he gobbled back, giving me hope that this would be an easy bowhunt for my first ever Eastern gobbler.

But as the Bible says, pride goeth before the fall.

At fly-down time, the big tom launched from his perch and glided several hundred yards into a distant corner of the old soybean field where he began to run helter-skelter at full strut after a number of hens gathered there.

Game over, right?

Not so fast, especially when you have a Cally Morris Hazel Creek Taxidermy mounted hen decoy standing atop a terrace some 25 yards in front of the blind.

Battling the wind, I cranked up on my new call, Bill Zearing's magnificent Cody Holei One-Sider, a revolutionary box call that just hit the market this spring.

Responding to the loud, raspy yelps from the Holei One-Sider, a lone hen very slowly, but very surely, began to edge our way. As she did so, the hen also dragged a collection of other hens and two longbeards along with her.

After nearly a half-hour of calling to the hen, she had covered the 400 yards or so initially separating us.

She must have been the boss hen, going into strut herself as she menacingly approached my decoy, dubbed "Henrietta." That was followed by a few bluff charges at the decoy, a brush-back pitch with her wings, and the thought that any second, a fight to the finish was about to break out between the decoy and the decoyed.

That's when the remaining four hens and one of the longbeards arrived on the scene, milling around the decoy for two or three minutes before beginning to move towards the timber behind the blind.

A slam dunk shot on a 20-pound plus tom dragging a 9-inch bear along for the ride, right?

Not with momma hen staring our blind down, daring me to make a move as she peered through my shooting window.

And that's why — despite the fact that the aforementioned longbeard and a late-arriving sidekick of similar dimensions both passed by my blind at less than 30 yards — I wasn't even presented with a single chance to draw my bow back.

An hour later, Henrietta and the Cody box call proved to be a nearly lethal combination again, slowly dragging a lone gobbler across the same expanse of barren dirt.

This time, after getting charged up by a couple of late-in-the-game gobbles by the previously silent tom, the third longbeard of the day gave me hope of a shot.

Coming to full draw as the bird disappeared behind a cedar tree, I waited the tom's approach into shooting range in front of the blind.

And as I was silently waiting, the bird likewise silently disappeared.

Even the pancakes at Banjo's Café on the edge of Topeka couldn't cheer me up after having three longbeards tempt fate that morning and coming out on the winner's side of the ledger.

Ah, the fiendish travails of hunting spring turkeys with a bow.

Now fast-forward to my final hunt of the trip, an afternoon outing just hours before the Kansas Jayhawks would duel with the Memphis Tigers for the NCAA basketball crown.

Kansas' Turkey Gold

Virtually non-existent some 50 years ago after decades of market hunting, pioneer settlement and population growth, and changing land use practices, a wild turkey sighting in Kansas used to be a stop-the-presses headline.

The state certainly wasn't on the yellow brick road to turkey hunting happiness.

So much so that retired Denver Post outdoor writer Bob Saile recorded in his excellent tome "The Sultan of Spring" that "The turkey population in 1966, when Kansas, with a shipment of birds obtained from the King Ranch in Texas, launched its turkey restoration, stood at zero. And it has stood there for almost a century. There are records indicating the last confirmed sighting of a wild turkey in the state previous to the restoration effort was in 1871."

Thankfully, these incredible big game birds have made themselves quite at home in the Sunflower State since then.

As of his book's printing in 1998, Saile wrote that some estimates placed the Kansas wild turkey population — a mixture of Easterns in the eastern counties, Rio Grandes in the central and western counties, and a band of hybridized birds in between — at some 200,000.

Today, while no firm population figures exist, there are undoubtedly even more,

With a spring hunting season that began back in 1974 with a harvest of 123 birds according to Saile, Kansas turkey hunting has grown to the point where hunters took 33,913 birds in 2007 according to the National Wild Turkey Federation.

This leads me to believe that maybe Dorothy was right: "There's no place like home."

Especially if home is Kansas, now home to some of the best spring turkey hunting this side of the Land of Oz.

As a cold rain storm approached, Ingold and I tried a different farm, one absolutely loaded with turkeys.

Setting up in the thin strip of timber that existed between a high ridge, a beautiful creek bottom and an old cornfield, we were hoping to catch up with one of the longbeards leaving behind piles of turkey scat as they scratched for sustenance in the greening up habitat.

After an hour of emptiness, I glanced out the shooting window of the blind and saw a gleaming white head about 120 yards away. The tom had responded without a peep to the mixed sweet sounds of my Cody World Class slate call and my Hunter Specialties EZ-Rasp mouth diaphragm call.

Problem was the bird remained silent, advancing at a snail's pace while at full strut. Apparently a subdominant gobbler, he wanted nothing to do with Ingold's Carry-Lite Pretty Boy decoy strutting tom and breeding hen decoys.

After dishing out every trick I had in my turkey hunting vest over the next 45 minutes, the bird had closed to about 80 yards, refusing to budge another inch.

And that's when I heard the far away gobble of a longbeard on top of the ridge behind us.

To make a long story short, this bird gobbled virtually all the way to the edge of the ridge, responding to nearly every call that I made.

When the boss tom appeared 100 feet above us on the ridge's edge, Ingold whispered excitedly "There he is — get ready!"

As I prepared to do just that, the longbeard saw the Pretty Boy setup and set sail down off the ridge and across the creek right into our lap — literally. Landing a scant 4 yards away from the blind's shooting window, the tom looked to his right and we made eye-contact as I was trying to come to full draw.

He then quickly looked to his left at the decoy setup. Using his pea-sized brain, the gobbler fought to make a snap-second decision between danger on his right and a fight for love on his left.

Unfortunately for me, the danger card won out, as the bird quickly put brush between us, never offering a high percentage shot as he edged away.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, all of this was too much for the silent gobbler strutting in front of us, as he quickly decided to cut in on the action. But he passed through my shooting lane so briefly as I was coming to full draw that I couldn't get a clear shot at him either.

If you're counting, the scorecard reads Kansas gobblers = 5, Burkhead = 0.

As shooting time waned and the first hint of a rainstorm that would have left Dorothy's Tin Man high and dry with rust began to sprinkle the ground, Ingold and I retreated for a hot dinner prepared by his wife, Kelly.

My glum mood grew even bluer later that evening as rain and thunder descended on Kansas ... and as Super Mario Chalmers drilled the heart of Memphis Tigers fans to send the Jayhawks to their spectacular overtime win for the NCAA hoops title.

Did I mention that I was born and raised in Memphis?

The next day, driving back across the now flooded Kansas landscape, I spotted a group of water-logged turkeys plodding along the side of the highway that with a little imagination I could believe were laughing at me in "Go home sucker!" style.

The following day, after my return to warmer and drier Texas, a brief and to-the-point text message arrived from Ingold on the opening morning of the April 9-May 31 Kansas shotgun season.

"One down, one to go."

Later, my best buddy told me by cell phone of his brief but exciting hunt on a frosty morning that culminated with his downing the first of two birds that Kansas allows.

Oh, and by the way, he added "I think it was the ridge bird that landed in your lap the other evening."

And with that, I determined that the old Chevy would point north again this spring, high price of gas notwithstanding.

After being treated so rudely by the birds of Kansas, I'm coming back to the Land of Oz — this time, with a score to settle.