Storming the castle


PERRYVILLE, Ark. -- The outline of a strutting turkey was like a shadow, no real detail just lines and arcs of a slowly moving presence that could have been a bowed-up gorilla.

Like a sniper, the big gobbler was taking full advantage of the terrain, staying concealed while commanding a view of the world around him.

I was 75 yards below, well within his world, in complete pain. A tick was running down my gun barrel and a squadron of black ants were playing ring around the rosy across the bridge of my nose and my ear lobes. None of that compared to the throbbing in my backside.

I couldn't move. Although the ticks, ants and pain demanded I move, the sniper forced me to stay still.

I stayed that way for three hours, the whole scenario a testament to how tough it can get in the Ouachita Mountains.

History tells us it wasn't always that tough.

Today when turkey hunters dream of heading to hallowed ground to listen to a gobbler serenading the morning, they think of places like Missouri, Kansas and Texas where birds are plentiful and the action is exciting.

Few non-Arkansans ever think about the Ouachita Mountains. But in the 1970s, these hills were a big part of the growth of today's turkey hunting. Three and four decades ago, the Ouachita Mountains, stretching from central Arkansas to eastern Oklahoma were the destination for the few turkey hunters back then that would actually travel to hunt.

Well known hunters from Harold Knight, David Hale and Ben Rogers Lee made this mountain range hallowed ground.

"This was during a time when most states had not progressed very far with turkey restoration at that point in time, and overall turkey numbers were much lower nationwide,'' said Mike Widner, turkey biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

"Turkey numbers exploded in the Ouachitas in the late 1970s."

Hunters came from all over, finding numerous gobbling birds on the miles and miles of ridges.

But since then, the populations have dropped while pressure has increased with the popularity of the sport. Hunting is still good, but not near what it used to be.

It seems as if a lot of these turkey treks start somewhere in the dark at a place that wouldn't be familiar even in the daylight.

It shouldn't have been that way on this one. But it was.

I'm familiar with the Ouachita Mountains, having turkey hunted here for the last two decades. It's always been a tough place. The turkeys are smart, real smart. You hear a gobble you better get on him quick or there will be lots of company.

That's what I was thinking as I sat on a vaguely familiar logging road. I had out my iPhone, trying to get a look at the place on Goggle Earth so I would know which way to move if the morning worked out.

I was studying the screen when somewhere in the woods around me a gobble floated through the trees. It was so far away that I immediately checked to see if I had accidentally hit my "turkey sounds" app on the phone. But before I could get that far, the real thing gobbled again.

The sound sent me in almost-panic mode. Not only did he gobble, but he sounded off twice in just a few minutes.

"Get on the stick,'' I told myself, "before some other yoddle beats you there."

Now let it be known, turkey hunters are runners. They have to be. But when you reach the upper end of 40, running hurts. Pain, though, is just a byproduct when a turkey is gobbling.

I figured I was a half mile from this boy and it seemed with every step I took, he was gobbling.

That can be a good thing in some places. In the Ouachita Mountains that just made me wince.

In short order, I was on the outside of what appeared to be about a 300-acre square block of mature pines on the side of a ridge with a turkey gobbling inside.

The ridge took care of the north side, so I wouldn't be entering from there. To the west and east were faint logging roads. To the south was a more-traveled dusty, rocky road.

I decided to head up the west side, jogging as fast as 240 pounds can jog uphill, constantly checking in front to see where I could slip into these woods. The whole time the turkey was gobbling.

The trip was about a quarter-mile and in no place did I see an opening of any kind big enough for a turkey to get through, let alone a grown, gasping, wincing man.

Stopping to catch my breath, I noticed the turkey's gobbles had started moving away from me.

Knowing I had to get in front, I raced back downhill past where I started and ran east as fast as possible on the south side of the square block, looking again for a suitable place to slip into the woods. A half-mile later I realized there was no way anything this side of a church mouse could get through the tangle. Unfortunately, all that left me with was the east road -- uphill again.

Trudging, gasping and wincing (this turkey had yet to have two minutes go by without gobbling), I made it another quarter-mile to the top and hit a brick wall of vines and tangles. And nowhere in that trip did I see anyway for turkey or man to walk to or from those woods.

To add to my pleasure, the turkey now sounded like he was on the west side -- the other side of his mature pine castle surrounded by a moat of impenetrable crap.

Even though I knew it might be a waste of time, I retraced my steps and ran back down, back across and back up, gasping and wincing the whole way.

A couple of times, I tried to penetrate the thickets of briars, but it wasn't happening.

For some reason, I continued to run around it. At one point, I looked down at eight different sets of footprints headed in every direction and they were all my prints.

"This sucker may be un-killable today,'' I finally thought. "He's set up a perimeter and he's inside of it waiting for every available hen and there's no way to get close without a helicopter."

I plopped down in semi-defeat, trying to devise a way to quietly penetrate the defenses. I was still gasping and puffing, when I heard wing slaps and then the rustling of wings hitting air.

I waited and wondered, crunching the data that I had. My turkey had stopped gobbling. It was 8 o'clock, and I had spent the last two hours running a 10k.

I decided to ease down to the main road to shed some sweat-soaked clothes and noticed hen droppings that I had ran past several times that morning.

The 300 acre castle was to my left and a huge cutover was to my right. Past that was another ridge full of hardwoods and right in the middle of that my turkey gobbled, quickly accelerating to the standard every two-minute gobble routine.

Once again, I looked at an impenetrable tangle of briars, this time surrounding the cutover. There would be no way I could get across that. It was too thick and I was too thick to avoid detection. So once again, I ran.

I went west to get to the end of the cutover and into the hardwoods to cut him off. That trip was a half mile west, quarter-mile south and then another quarter-mile east. In the middle of that my iPhone vibrated with a phone call from the boss, Jerry McKinnis.

"Hello,'' I gasped.

"Where are you? When will you be here? And why are you breathing so hard?,'' came the reply.

"I'm chasing a turkey,'' I answered. "I won't be long, I promise."

It was 8:30 and with the last quarter-mile in front of me, I expected everything to be academic at that point. I had yet to make a call, this turkey had already gobbled four dozen times and he had stupidly fled the castle. All I had to do was get close and make a couple of sweet yelps and this game was over.

I should have known better. As soon as I got in the same woods with the bird, it was obvious he had now changed course and was headed east. My only recourse was to move up the hill and get around him. I looked up the slope and determined that I was looking at an eight-stop hill.

In turkey slang, that means it will take me eight stops of resting and breath catching to get to the top of the hill.

It turned out to be about a 15-stop hill. By the time I was at the top, racing east and out of sight of the hillside, the turkey seemed to be getting hotter by the moment. I got past him by a few hundred yards and pitched off the hill.

About 60 yards in, all hell broke loose.

Physics demands that 240 pounds can't slip down a mountain side in a quick, stealthy manner. Maybe it can, but it didn't. Midway down, my feet went one direction, and my backside went the other. I crashed down the hill, looking like man-sized sack of potatoes that had just been thrown out the back of a truck.

You know when you were a kid and you used to frog someone's arm: Basically hit the muscle of the bicep with a knuckle and make it seize up. That's what happened to the left side of my butt as a slid in behind a downed oak tree. My whole side seized up.

To make matters worse, my turkey triple gobbled. How 240 pounds flopping in the leaves sounds like a turkey, I will never know. But he liked it. I quickly realized the bird was 100 yards away and headed my direction.

I quickly surveyed my surroundings, decided I was not in a good position to make a stand and something told me this bird was going to move down along a terrace below me. I tried to get up, but my muscles wouldn't let me stand.

I wanted to scream, but instead I slid down the hill 30 yards and got my back against a tree. With every slide and rustle of leaves, the turkey would gobble.

I got my gun up, squeaked out a short series of yelps, received the cursory triple gobble and waited for my hard-earned prize to float into view. It was 9 a.m. and the turkey was still gobbling every two minutes, but this time I could hear his drumming. Any minute now, I thought.

Again, I should have known better.

Instead of materializing, the turkey started moving up the hill. The expletives going through my head were numerous and agitated as the bird started moving around me. First he was just above me, then past me and I had to swing around my tree to the opposite side.

That's when I started catching glimpses of him. If I brushed the leaves, he would gobble. If I didn't brush the leaves, he would gobble. I was in a pickle.

I could just see pieces of him and then it got worse. My last move sat me right in the middle of an ant hill, the black kind that race all over the place and thankfully don't bite. That was the only good thing that had taken place that morning.

I was crouched in pain with my left buttock throbbing, watching ticks race down my barrel, feeling ants and ticks all over my body, with a bird that was in no way going to pitch down the side of the hill another 20 steps and give me a shot.

I simply had to sit, wait and grimace. By noon, the turkey had floated behind a brush pile, giving me an opportunity to crawl on all fours over a slight rise and shake off the crawling things that had taken up residence in every nook and cranny I own.

The hunt was over but I wasn't completely done.

As I first crawled away and then limped off, I did the only thing I knew that would give me any satisfaction, if only to a small degree -- I flipped the turkey the bird, a return of a gesture I had been receiving from him all day.