ST. ALBANS, Mo. — John Ludwig is a self-made turkey hunter.
On his family's farm near Salem, Mo., where as a youth he learned to hunt deer with his father, he decided to give turkey a try. As a teen, he went to a store to buy a license, a shotgun and a call. The clerk scoffed, saying, "There's only one day left in the season."
He went out alone the next day and killed his first bird of many in a state that turkey hunters across the nation clamor to visit.
"Oh, we've got some turkeys up here," said Ludwig, who lives on property outside of Wright City. "We should hunt out in my backyard. We could easily get a bird there."
Oh no, the Turkey Trek stop in his neck of the woods was specifically planned to include a reunion of the Cherry Hills gang, who after the hunt had a golf outing at St. Albans Country Club, where Ludwig is project manager. One doesn't get a chance to play such a highly rated course every day.
And Ludwig boasted of the wildlife living of the property. Ludwig, an outdoorsman who also hunts morels and arrowheads, got permission to chase turkey on the development company's property, staying far away from the two 18-hole golf courses and 400 home sites, which wasn't hard with 5,400 acres.
Awake "way before dawn," Ludwig is usually out on the course for each sunrise, enjoying his solitude in nature before getting busy building things that blur the line between nature and manicured fairways.
"It's relaxing," he said. "I wouldn't still be there if it wasn't so great. It's such a great environment to work in."
The actual hunt took Ludwig and the author up the wooded bluffs overlooking the Missouri River Valley, down into the bottoms through farm fields, over the levee and onto the banks of the river where Lewis and Clark's expedition was nearly brought to an abrupt end.
On top of things but off course
We meet in the darkness at the multi-million dollar clubhouse and drive to a remote end of the property in Ludwig's four-wheel drive van.
At the edge of the woods, we quickly gear-up before a hurried, exhausting climb up a steep hill of old-growth forest. It's hard to be perfectly quiet as it hadn't rained in almost two weeks, making the ankle-deep leaves covering an abundance of twigs and branches all snap-crackly dry.
We hit the crest where turkeys had been heard and Ludwig has completed business before. In the center of the ridge, we set up, facing downhill into a bowl, the slope rolling out on both sides of us like an amphitheater. The undergrowth hasn't yet sprouted, and as the sun lights the eastern sky behind us, we can see roughly 120 yards before branches obscure the view.
After listening for a bit, Ludwig tries his slate, stopping when he suddenly sees a hen in the distance. She disappears down the slope and he works the call again. After a while with no responses, he decides a move is in order.
We follow a deer trail along the ridge, working up to the bluff's highest point along a ridge perpendicular to the first. Ludwig stops often to listen.
"I can't see as well as I used to, but I can hear pretty darn good," said Ludwig, not long before he announces a faint gobble over the crest off to the left. He doesn't think he can call the bird over the hill, so it's time for extreme stealth.
"We need to be quiet getting up there so we can see on the other side," he said. "Set up on top again and see if I can call him up to us."
Easier said than done. Ludwig moved close enough to hear the bird rustling and point toward its location, but bone-dry leaves work both ways. By the time we skulked to the crest, the gobbler was gone. The hills were no longer alive with the sound of music.
More walking scared up a group of deer, who ran into a posted area of Elminger Woods, a Missouri Department of Conservation area providing wildlife plenty of sanctuary. The farmlands some 300 feet below called, as Ludwig had seen a congregation of turkey recently in a cornfield.
Past the levee and a slough in the river bottoms, we managed to chase off a heron and a whitetail that bounded across a large cornfield, jumping every third stride. We managed to find turkey tracks, but our exploration was nowhere near as successful as the one that started, and almost ended, at the bluff before us.
The Corps of Discovery, better known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, almost came to an abrupt halt near St. Albans, which at the time was a stop for river travelers visiting a natural cave. Called Tavern Cave, the French and Indians drew on walls of the large indention in the sandstone bluff.
On May 23, 1804, two days after the trip began from St. Charles, Meriwhether Lewis climbed the steep 300-foot hillside over the cave and began to slide. He fell 20 feet and almost over the sheer drop, but his knife caught and helped him stop just short the precipice.
Not far from that hilltop now stands The Bluffs, the ritziest St. Albans' development with 3- to 10-acre parcels for homes $2 million and up. St. Albans developers had owned Cherry Hills Country Club in west St. Louis County, but with neighborhoods encroaching its borders, the powers worked out a deal to build further west, outside suburbia and into the river wilderness.
Ludwig was a part of that westward expansion in the late 1980s.
"There were zero houses when we first moved out there," he said. "Wildlife was just abundant. It was plumb full when we first built the golf course."
The design of St. Albans was touted as the course was cut into the natural surroundings — a 12-point buck could be spotted from the 12th tee and the crack of a fairway wood could produce a shock gobble.
But with golf course management out in these wilds came wildlife management. With holes landscaped into the natural terrain, it left areas of habitat within reach of a slice or shank. Viewing deer, turkey, beavers and other wildlife enhances the golf experience in some ways, but detracts in others.
Dues-paying members aren't too appreciative when an 8-foot bender bounces off line because of a deer print or turkey scratch on the green.
A birdie hole
Tom Dailey, a resource scientist for the state conservation department, said he could imagine the problems golf course managers might have keeping wildlife from doing damage. Recently , he marveled as a bird he called in shook off the dew.
"I could imagine they would like to get on the green in nice short grass and show off, and not be all covered in wetness," he said. "Id' bet that'd be a great place for a gobbler to scratch. They like dry spots. They would love the sand traps. That sand would probably be ideal for a turkey to lie down and dust."
But Ludwig said St. Albans didn't have a major problem with turkeys scratching up the sensitive and difficult-to-repair grass.
"Turkeys haven't ever really done too much," he said. "In the early days, when we first moved out there, there were scratching a little. It was the deer. We had to put fences up around the greens because the deer would be just trampling them.
"The greens were still young and we had to put safety fences around them because there were so many deer that would go on the greens and leave footprints. We'd take the safety nets down during the day and let the golfers play."
Armadillos also root about certain parts of the course and moles always seem to present mounds of problems. Of late, they've trapped some bothersome raccoons and tagged them before relocating to see if the same ones came back.
With a creek running through a number of holes and through backyard, beavers were of major issue as their dams backed up water flow.
"We actually had somebody trapping beavers because homeowners complained, and their dams messed with our drainage," Ludwig said. "The bunkers wouldn't drain."
While Ludwig would hear turkeys almost every morning during gobbling season, he's noticed fewer in areas where more homes are going up.
"They don't like the new homeowners coming in. There's just not as many turkeys out here like there used to be ... The deer are still here."
And with their love of eating certain plants, the deer clash with homeowners at times, creating a love-hate relationship. The course does have a list of animals, mostly birds, they try to draw.
"We're part of the Audubon Society and actually create habitat," said Ludwig, who's constructed wetlands or quail habitat in his time. "You just want the good species that people like to see. Everybody loves bluebirds. They care about those blue herons and the grey herons."
Canada geese - and their propensity to top-dress greens with their droppings - not so much. But there are houses on the course for wood ducks, bluebirds and bats. Ludwig calls the wet areas in the river bottoms "Duck City, there's so many ducks down there, mallards and wood ducks."
Morel of the story
The wooded hills around St. Albans are a mushroom hunter's mecca. Ludwig said one worker found 2,000 in one particularly productive season, and he's always on the lookout as on his travels.
As he pointed out some turkey scratches, he found one. On the trek back, the area produced about a dozen, including one he aptly called the "King morel," though leaves covering much of it stunted its full growth.
"The shaft is like bigger around than a baseball bat. If this thing could have sprouted, it would have been two feet tall, possible the Missouri state record."
Mushroom hunters are rather secretive about their spots, as each spring the tasty fungi can usually be found in the same locale.
During a scramble around the course, Ludwig pointed out, and looked in, several spots for morels, all while Team Turkey Hunters slightly edged Team Turkeys — Kent Critchell and David Axelrod — in a rematch from their days working at Cherry Hills.
Although no birdies were recorded on the scorecard, or the gamecard, it was nice to at least have some shots at one.