Two red and blue heads dropped behind the knoll 75 yards away. Big gobblers. They were in that transition zone every turkey hunter knows too well.
They could stay there, just out of range and out of sight all day. They could turn left and never be seen again. Or — even though I figured there was no way it would ever happen — they could dance right up to us.
My skepticism was born from trying to hide two boys stricken with buck fever (or rather its springtime strain, gobbler fever) along with three equally excited men in and behind a pop-up blind built for one.
It was the sort of setup in which you need more luck than skill.
We were used to that. On this trip, luck had been a pendulum. Now we were only a few yards from learning just how far it could swing.
It had to improve from the night before, when weeks of planning for an annual youth hunt almost had to be canceled because my father-in-law was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy. Fortunately, Pawpaw Brown understands hunting and knows how much opening day of youth turkey hunting season means to Jacob, my 13-year-old. He'd hear no talk of disappointing Jacob because of a little thing like a burst appendix. The hunt was back on.
The only change was to push back the two-hour drive from the night before to the morning. That 3 a.m. alarm bell did little to dampen our enthusiasm. We pulled into Danny Harris' Empire Ranch at straight up 5:30 a.m. There we were met by Danny, his 11-year-old son, Danny Jr., and his friend David Covington, a fellow biologist who has helped Danny turn this typical segment of Crowley's Ridge in east Arkansas into an undeniable wildlife showcase.
We conferred before the hunt and decided to hunt the boys together in hopes of scoring a double on longbeards. It was early in the season, and the turkeys were still ganged up.
It's enough of a challenge to call up a large group of turkeys when you're alone. That's a lot of pairs of eyes and ears to catch the slightest movement or the tiniest unnatural sound. Hunting in a pair or trio only compounds the chore.
If you really want a challenge, try hiding five hunters in your setup, and make sure two of them are excited kids. Then throw in an adult trying to run a video camera. You see why I figured the gobblers would give us a very wide berth.
We had set up near one end of a food plot about 100 yards by 40 yards on the ridge where we were hunting. It's prime strutting zone, and we hoped to call the group across the ravine. Then any turkey on the south half of the plot would be in shotgun range for the boys. We crammed Covington into the blind with both boys while Harris and I leaned shoulder-to-shoulder on a large pine immediately behind the blind.
We made some good luck for ourselves with a successful owl hoot from our listening spot. It didn't take long for the first gobbler to break the early morning silence, and several others soon joined in. As we thought, most of the gobblers in the area were roosted together on the next ridge over.
We could hear repetitive gobbles from the next ridge when we laid out the first few soft tree calls. A chorus of gobbles answered our calls instantly. We knew we could be in business.
Once the birds hit the ground, we could tell they were headed our way.
Everything looked rosy until our luck swung again: a coyote appeared at the far end of the food plot, heading right for our turkeys. Covington shot me a forlorn look, and sure enough, the gobbles went silent. The boys looked crestfallen.
We waited a few moments, and tried a little cut and a few yelps. To our surprise, a gang of gobbles answered them.
With the turkeys fired back up, it sounded as though they might skirt our little food plot on the north end. We called with more intensity.
Two big gobblers finally walked out into the road at the far end of the food plot, about 100 yards away. A third briefly appeared, and then just as quickly disappeared into the brush. Then a hen stepped out of the woods on our end of the plot, directly across from our position, maybe 40 yards away.
There was no need for any more calling. We now had a live decoy.
The pair of longbeards started our way at a steady walk, slowing only to strut and to drum for the hen. When the gobblers reached the object of their attention, they ganged up about 45 yards from the blind, too far to try a shot, especially for Danny Jr. and his 20-gauge. We needed them closer.
We watched as the hen headed across the food plot on a path that would bring her 20 yards from our blind. She made it almost across the plot before the longbeards decided to follow.
Covington whispered to the boys to get ready and shoot at the count of three. He told Jacob, on the right, and Danny Jr., on the left, to shoot their corresponding birds.
The front bird stopped about 30 yards out and suddenly slicked down from his strut. The gig was up. I whispered to the boys: "Shoot!"
After what seemed to be an eternity, Covington reached "three." The guns barked. One turkey did a complete backflip; the other shot straight into the air. As soon as his feet touched the ground, a third shot rang out and anchored the 20-pound tom.
Pandemonium brook loose in the blind as two boys and two middle-aged men piled out and raced each other to reach the turkeys first. I stayed back to record it for posterity. We slapped backs, high-fived, shook hands. With the toms taken, there was no longer any reason to contain ourselves.