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Family Tradition

4/10/2010

CONWAY, Ark. — The waning moon filtered through a thin fog and cast a ghostly light on the small clover field on the old family farm. Dawn was reluctantly lifting the gauzy veil as Jeryl Jones and his daughter, Rachel, stuffed themselves into a small ground blind overlooking the food plot.

The world was reticent on the opening morning of Arkansas' youth turkey season, amplifying the whispers between father and daughter. A barred owl finally called out from a distant tree, followed by more silence, more whispering.

"This isn't the kind of morning that you're going to hear a lot of turkeys gobbling," Jeryl Jones said. "We may have to be patient and stay here a while and see if they come to this clover to feed later on."

A few minutes later Jeryl mimicked the owl's call to elicit a gobble from an undetected tom. Nothing answered. Rachel passed the time playing a video game on her mobile telephone, periodically peering through the blind's small window to scan the clover.

The avian symphony began in earnest as the day slowly brightened. The cardinals sounded the first notes, and then came the heckling caws of raucous crows. But still no word from the one big bird the Joneses were looking for.

Jeryl slipped a diaphragm call into his mouth and softly yelped and clucked. Still nothing.

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"They could be gobbling on the other end of the farm and we'd never hear it over here," he said.

Jeryl pulled a phone from his pocket. His son, Jacob, who was hunting on the opposite end of the nearly 50-acre parcel, had sent a message: "There is a turkey gobbling across the big creek from me, but i dont think i will be able 2 get him 2 cross the creek."

A turkey, presumably the subject of Jacob's text message, sounded off seconds later from a field on the other side of a meandering tree-lined creek. It was 7:10 a.m., and for the next 20 minutes he hardly shut up.

Jeryl used a mouth call and a slate to produce several series of yelps, trying to convince the gobbler that receptive hens were waiting for him in the clover patch. Though the turkey's gobbling continued, he didn't seem to be getting any closer.

"He's probably got some hens over there," Jeryl whispered. "That field isn't part of this property, but we have a little piece on the other side of the creek. I've slipped across the creek to the property line before and seen them strutting over there. I doubt he's going to come over here if that's the case."

But there was hope, albeit slight.

"When the creek's dry, they'll cross it," Jeryl said. "But with an inch of rain last night, it's not dry today. But sometimes they'll fly up to a tree, take a look around, then pitch down into this clover. But if he's got hens over there ..."

Jeryl's words trailed off as he shook his head. The prospects didn't look good: High water in the creek and a gobbler sounding off from a known strutting area. But at times the gobbles sounded as if they were getting closer.

Then they stopped altogether. After gobbling his head off for 20 minutes, the turkey didn't make another sound after 7:30 a.m.

Maybe he was too busy trying to figure out how to cross the creek. About 10 minutes after the turkey's last gobble, as hope was starting to dwindle, Rachel's shoulders tensed and her blue eyes opened wide as she fixed her gaze on a spot through the blind's front porthole.

"There's a turkey right there," she whispered. "It's a gobbler."

Family tradition
Rachel Jones' quest for her first wild turkey began at 5:45 a.m. around a small dining table in her great-uncle's home.

Terry Hazel, Jeryl Jones' uncle, delivered the most recent scouting report. While moving a beehive to the edge of a clover field on the north end of the farm, he'd seen several turkeys, including a few gobblers. He surmised the birds were roosting in big trees along the small creek near the property's west boundary.

Jeryl formulated a game plan: Jacob, his 14-year-old son with a half-dozen gobblers under his belt, would hunt by himself in a cozy corner of a pasture on the southern end of the farm. Jeryl would take 12-year-old Rachel to the north end.

Hazel nodded in agreement, a ringing endorsement given his expertise on all things related to the small family farm. Hazel and Jeryl's mother inherited the farm from their parents, and these days Hazel spends a lot of time tending to a small herd of cattle and the beehives that have become his new passion.

He has been around this farm his entire life, and even so, it represents just a splinter in the woodpile of family history tied to this small piece of ground between the Ozark foothills and the Arkansas River Valley.

Saying the farm has been in the family a long time is epic understatement.

"I don't know the exact year they settled here, but it was sometime in the 1830s, probably close to the time of Arkansas statehood (1836)," Jeryl said.

A couple hundred yards behind Hazel's house, on a small knoll overlooking a pasture, lie the mortal remains of Jeryl's great-great-great grandfather, Thomas K. Hazel. According to the weathered white marker, he died April 20, 1874.

Jeryl started hunting and fishing on this ground as a child, wading the small creek in search of crawdads and sunfish, crappie and bass. He killed his first squirrel and his first raccoon just steps away from the pasture that now grows clover on the north end of the farm.

"It seemed so much bigger when I was a kid," Jeryl said. "Now I can sit behind the house and just about see the whole farm from one end to the other. But back then it was like a whole big world to me."

Jeryl now is sharing that world with his kids. Jacob killed his first turkey, a jake, on the farm six years ago, and the next season he took his first longbeard, in the same clover patch where his younger sister will soon try to kill her first turkey.

Turkeys are a relatively recent addition to the farm ecosystem, so Jeryl didn't have the opportunity to hunt turkeys here as a youngster. But they started showing up about 15 years ago, and the property has yielded a gobbler or two every year since.

"I was absolutely thrilled when turkeys started showing up," said Jeryl, a self-employed wildlife biologist who at one time worked as a regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation. "It was several years before I started hunting them."

Hunting the farm requires a singular tactic: Setting up and waiting for the birds to come to you. Jeryl's usual approach is run and gun, traveling light and fast.

"If it won't fit in my pockets," he said, "I don't carry it."

Jeryl calls the farm's style "deer hunting for turkeys."

"It's such a small piece of property," he said. "You really don't have any other choice."

It's almost miraculous he and his family can hunt turkeys here in any manner. At first glance it seems like any number of small family farms across the country. But urban sprawl is just a stone's throw away.

Many similar homesteads have fallen victim to development in nearby Conway. Though not a big city by most standards, it's one of the larger cities in Arkansas behind the Little Rock, Fayetteville and Fort Smith metropolitan areas. Its population has doubled over the past two decades (an estimated population of roughly 55,000 according to a 2006 U.S. Census Bureau estimate), and it's almost certain that figure will increase considerably following this year's census.

The farm sits only a couple of miles from a new housing development, and real estate signs are sprouting up like spring wildflowers on undeveloped land.

But thanks to Jones' family and a handful of other longtime landowners, there are a few hundred acres of suitable turkey habitat on the edge of urban encroachment, a veritable oasis in an expanding concrete desert.

"It's just a little island of habitat," Jeryl said. "But as long as these landowners hold out, I guess the turkeys will do OK."

Generation next
Oblivious to Rachel and Jeryl in the small ground blind, the gobbler slipped out of the edge of the woods and steadily moved toward a pair of decoys about 15 yards in front of the blind. Just a few yards into the clover patch, roughly 70 yards from the blind, he went into a half-strut, puffing his feathers but keeping his tail fan horizontal. He let out a heart-stopping gobble before inching closer to the decoys, an ample beard swinging with every cautious step.

Fearing their movements might spook the big tom, even within the confines of the blind, Rachel and Jeryl were frozen to their chairs and their heads were frozen to their shoulders. Eyeballs moved deliberately and guardedly.

Roughly 50 yards out, the tom broke into a full strut. Rachel's eyes grew wider with his every move.

Rachel needed to move into shooting position. But the time for even whispers had passed, so Jeryl relayed his message with eye contact and diminutive hand gestures, carefully keeping his hands below window-level of the blind.

Rachel slowly rose from her chair and eased onto her dad's knee to get a steady shooting base that also would allow her a comfortable position for shouldering the gun and poking it through the window. Jeryl took Rachel's shotgun and awkwardly transferred it behind Rachel to put it on her right side, careful not to knock the gun into the flimsy nylon walls of the blind.

The turkey gobbled twice more during the reconfiguration going down in the blind. The last half a minute seemed like half an hour, but the gobbler finally slipped within the 35-yard range Jeryl had predetermined as the kill zone.

Rachel eased the barrel through the small opening in the front of the blind, took a deep breath, and squeezed the trigger.

Her first turkey flopped several times and then folded up just a few steps from where she'd hit him.

"I could feel her shaking," Jeryl said. "And I was pretty nervous, too. I was saying prayers the whole time. The good thing was that it all happened so fast that she didn't have time to get too nervous about it."

The gobbler sported a 10 ¾-inch beard and 7/8-inch spurs.

"I was just scared the turkey was going to run off," Rachel said.

If smiles were currency, the Joneses could've opened their own bank that morning. Jeryl took pictures with multiple cameras and mobile phones. He and Rachel both made phone calls and sent text messages to mom, Uncle Terry and several other family members and friends.

Hearing the shot from his hunting spot, Jacob called to verify the outcome and then covered the length of the farm in record time to congratulate his sister face to face.

There was just one more requisite task for the father and daughter. Walking across a small creek on a log that has served as a foot bridge for at least 40 years, Jeryl and Rachel took a shortcut through a wooded section of the farm, crossed a fence, slipped between several cows in a large pasture, and walked up the little knoll to the grave site of Rachel's great-great-great-great grandfather.

Jeryl took a photograph of Rachel and her first turkey next to the grave marker. One copy of it will hang on the wall above the dining table in Uncle Terry's home on the old farm, right next to a nearly identical photo of Jacob and his first turkey.

"How many people have an opportunity to do something like this?" Jeryl said. "This is so special."