A veteran hunter and a young turkey hunting guide strike up a Texas-sized friendship
Something about Rio Grande turkeys makes me go a little gaga.
Maybe it's my affinity for the mostly wide-open spaces that Rios call home. Perhaps it's the sense of adventure inherent in traveling from my Minnesota home to Rio country. It probably has something to do with the opportunity to push spring and go turkey hunting before local seasons open in the upper Midwest. And it certainly has a lot to do with the singular beauty of Rio gobblers and their bronzy-cream-tipped tail fans.
I prefer a DIY approach for most turkey hunts. But I'm always willing to learn more about hunting Rios from folks who know them. I'd heard enough stories of the ranch's birds and excellent head guides, Thomas Neuberger and Mark Becka, to make the answer to the invite an easy, Here I come!
The hunt's first morning did not disappoint. Neuberger set up with me and Stoeger's Keith Heinlein flanking him to either side, on a turkey travel route leading out of a creek-bottom roost site. A gaggle of hens marched past maybe a half-hour after shooting light. The gobbler dutifully following skirted Heinlein's sights but ended up in my shooting lane.
Boom! Morning over! And I wasn't letting the M3500 out of my hands.
But that turkey's not even the real story here.
Tag No. 2
With a two-bird limit on the ranch, there was more hunting to go. I sat the midday hours in a blind close to the ranch house, and called in a hen. That afternoon, I witnessed quite a show as Neuberger worked a gobbler for a solid hour before the bird finally broke and came in to Heinlein, who shot it with a P3000.
After the next morning's hunt and another midday sit for me, Neuberger directed a mid-hunt, hunter-guide shuffle. I drew my wish, his son Reed, the newest guide in camp, who I could see was working extremely hard for his hunter though they had not yet killed a bird.
I've got the spot, Reed told me as we headed out, if you're willing to wait 'em out. It's all set up. It's a spot they like to travel through in the afternoon, but it's far enough back to not mess up any roost sites.
The spot was typical Texas Rio country: Nice pasture ground, grassy and open but brushy here and there too, with a taut barbed-wire cattle fence to keep any turkeys walking past in range, and a few copses of live oaks. Reed and I ducked into one of those oak groves. Comfortable turkey seats were already set up with two shooting lanes out of the natural hideout; one lane was straight out front toward the main travel route, and the other was to the right overlooking a secondary approach.
We settled in, got comfortable, enjoyed the shade, and whiled away the time with a soft whisper-chat about turkey hunting (of course), deer hunting (it's Texas after all), bass fishing (ditto, and Reed has a bass boat and fishes competitively) … and that's just for starters.
Occasionally Reed would call lightly to let any approaching birds know that all was good.
But after a while, as hunters often do after a couple of early morning wake-up calls, I may have dozed off just a little. We were into our sit's third hour when a spit-booooom flipped my eyes open wide.
Cranking my head to the right at the speed of an iceberg, my heart skipped: There he was, a strutting gobbler waddling after a feeding hen. In our hideout, it was easy to inch the gun up to get ready.
Then the hen turned to go back. Just like that. She wasn't alarmed, but that didn't matter. The gobbler pirouetted to follow her. He wasn't coming to the shooting lane.
Now, even at 50-something years of age, I am a fairly spry guy, and can twist and bend pretty good. In high school wrestling they called me Gumby for my flexibility. If you're too young to know who Gumby is, look it up.
So I did my best Gumby impression to contort around and poke my gun a full 135 degrees back and to the right. Then, through an opening in the live oak leaves, I lined up the sights and pulled the trigger when the gobbler's head came into view at maybe 15 yards.
Being close usually doesn't count when you miss a turkey. But this time it did. Though my twisting and contortions had obviously messed up my sight alignment, the shot charge must have been close enough to the turkey's head that the gobbler rolled and got up, more or less concussed, confused and confounded, but with enough sense to try and walk away.
I couldn't let Reed down after all his work and the perfect setup. Heck, I couldn't let me down. We both wanted that beautiful Rio gobbler very badly. I could sit and be sad. Or I could do something. There was a narrow window for a second chance, so I sprang up, ducked out of our hideaway, rolled up to one knee, took quick and careful aim at the gobbler now standing maybe 40 yards away, and rolled him for good with a second load of Federal Premium Third Degree.
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There couldn't have been a happier hunter as I jogged up and grabbed the flopping bird. And then there was an even happier young turkey guide right beside me. I never saw anybody move so fast, Reed laughed. You were twisted up so bad for the first shot, but then you were just gone and I heard the second shot.
That late-afternoon sun was beginning to move toward its evening descent. We sat down, laughed, re-told ourselves the story, and conducted a picture session with the copper sun raking in and Texas bluebonnets blooming all around.
To me, one of the rewards of a successful hunt is hoisting a gobbler over your shoulder and heading toward vehicle or camp. There's no feeling like it in the world. But for this Rio Grande bird, that job and honor went to the person who earned it the most, Reed Neuberger, Texas's newest turkey guide, who in fact wore a Texas-sized smile for the whole hike out.
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