ZANESVILLE, Ohio — The father-son team of Jack and Darren Gephart stood in the middle of the dirt road, straining to hear a gobbler at first light. Unfortunately, a 20-mph wind was at their backs, and the gusts were increasing. A significant cold front was blowing through, already dropping the temperature 30 degrees in the last 24 hours.
Guiding the pair for the morning's hunt was Josh Grossenbacher, turkey products manager for Zink Calls of Port Clinton, Ohio. "I'd rather hunt in rain than high winds," Josh told us. "Under these conditions, it's going to be real tough today."
Of the four of us, Darren, age 14, was the only one carrying a shotgun. He was one of 10 young turkey hunters who had earned their way to the Ohio Governor's Youth Turkey Hunt by finishing high in an essay contest, answering the question: What was your best hunt ever?
Darren's sister, Janelle, attended the Governor's hunt last year, and was the only youngster lucky enough to kill a turkey. As a result, a photo of her and Ohio Governor Ted Strickland is on the cover of the 2009-2010 Ohio Hunting and Trapping Regulations brochure.
After using an owl hooter to try and raise a gobble, but with no luck, Grossenbacher suggested we hike to the end of a field surrounded by woodlands and set up there. Before we sat down, however, he pulled a taxidermied hen decoy from a carrying bag and jammed the metal rods extending from its legs into the ground, hoping they would anchor the Judas bird against the gusts.
Once we got settled into the edge of the woods and our face masks pulled up, Grossenbacher began calling loudly on a slate call, hoping to be heard above the wind.
Within minutes a hen answered, yelping somewhere to our left. A shot of adrenalin pulsed through Darren and his dad. Was there a gobbler with the hen? Would this be the morning Darren would kill his first wild turkey?
But it was not to be. The hen eventually went silent, and we never saw her. And if there was a tom or two with her, they never gobbled. Grossenbacher continued to call off and on for over an hour more, but finally decided we should move on.
We tried several other areas and set-ups during the morning's hunt, but never heard a gobble. Darren and his dad were disappointed, but understood that conditions were far less than ideal for turkey hunting.
At lunch time, the 10 young hunters and their guides gathered at Dillon State Park in east central Ohio, all curious to see if anyone had killed a gobbler this morning. Surprisingly, despite the blustery, cold conditions, three young hunters had scored. Two boys and a girl had each killed a longbeard.
Obviously excited and proud of his accomplishment was Michael Stark, age 15, of Brunswick, Ohio.
"This was my first turkey hunt ever, and I killed a gobbler with a 10 and a quarter-inch beard!" said Stark. He was guided by Scott Bear of Flint Ridge Outfitters.
Also killing his first turkey was Sam Garrigus, age 15, of Farmer in northwest Ohio. He and his dad, Peter, had driven three and a half hours to attend the hunt.
"We had two birds gobbling, one coming from our left and the other from our right," said young Sam, wearing a full gillie suit. "I took a 40-yard shot, and our hunt was over in just 10 minutes."
Sam and his dad were guided by Kindell Keeton of Down and Dirty Outfitters, a turkey call company from Lewisburg, Ky.
MacKrea Kilpatrick, age 16, of Newcomerstown, Ohio, was the only gal to kill a turkey. She had turkey hunted before and killed a bird, so this gobbler was number two for her.
"Once the birds flew down they shut up, but we saw them in a power line cut, so circled them about a mile and set up," she said. "And when we started calling, they came to us in just five minutes. I really like the adrenaline rush you get from turkey hunting, especially when the gobblers see the decoy and start coming in strutting. It's really cool ... "
MacKrea was guided by Doug Wallen, head guide at Flint Ridge Outfitters.
Josiah Sifford, age 15, and his dad, Bob, were the lucky father-son team who got to hunt with the governor. And the pair could not have had a better guide — Shane Hendershot of Zanesville, Ohio, winner of the National Wild Turkey Federation's (NWTF) Grand National Calling Championships in 2007. As a result of his national win and turkey hunting expertise, Hendershot is now employed as a turkey products manager for Zink calls.
"It doesn't get any better than this," said Bob Sifford, commenting on this third-annual Ohio Governor's Youth Turkey Hunt. "It's not all about bagging a turkey. It's about getting outside and enjoying God's creation, and doing it with my son. These are the types of things we need so much more of in our society today."
Jack Gephart, Darren's dad, agreed. "If someone would have told me we would experience everything we did today but not kill a turkey, we still would have participated," he said. "This has been a great time for my son and me."
And even though Darren didn't get to dual a bird, he and the nine other young hunters walked away with so much turkey hunting equipment — provided by the 15 hunt sponsors — that his dad had to help him carry it all to their vehicle for the ride home.
Gov. Strickland concluded the event with comments to the group following lunch, saying, "I've been asked several times today why we do this ... why we have a governor's hunt. And my answer has been that if more young people spent time outdoors in nature, we would have fewer problems in our world. There is something about being outdoors that contributes to our lives in a way nothing else can."
W. H. "Chip" Gross is a frequent contributor to ESPNoutdoors.com, and may be reached for comment about this article through his Web site: www.chipgross.com.