Fishing for turkeys

LAKE OUACHITA, Ark. — If it had been in an Olympic competition, I would have given Todd Crook a 7.5 for his somersault.

A 5 for style, and a 10 for recovery. Mary Lou Retton might have done it better, but she wasn't around.

Crook was the closest thing to a gymnast in the Ouachita Mountains in central Arkansas. His flying performance came on the heels of shooting a gobbler we had been working most of the morning. The turkey fell victim to his loud mouth and our ability to move around him with ease, the latter made possible with a bass boat.

For a lot of us, spring is all about making hard choices. Two of the most compelling are to catch a fish or kill a turkey.

Too often the best of both worlds coincide. As is often the case, I have a problem settling on one or the other.

The indecisiveness led Crook, Jeryl Jones and David Craig to Lake Ouachita for the expressed purpose of enjoying both worlds of spring bass fishing and turkey hunting season.

Arkansas is blessed with large reservoirs like Lake Ouachita, surrounded by a national forest, where a sportsman can catch a fish while being cheered on with the gobbles of turkeys on the hillsides. It's only made better with the growing business of houseboat rentals on every lake.

For the four of us, having a floating, movable and comfortable turkey and fishing camp is as close to heaven as can be found for a sportsman having a tough time making springtime decisions.

Crook's turkey is an example of that. At 6:30 a.m. that morning, we were sitting in one of the many spawning coves on the lake, catching largemouth when the big-mouthed turkey started gobbling.

It's surprising how quick you can forget about fish when a turkey starts gobbling.

With shotguns replacing the rods in our hands, we raced over a point and through a creek to the noisy bird. Within minutes we were within 100 yards of the turkey. If we had gone by land, it would have taken an hour.

But we were there quickly, and it looked as if we would be returning to fish almost as fast.

Our first yelps were answered with a gobble, then the yelping and clucking of a sassy hen that obviously didn't approve of the intrusion to its mate. A few seconds later, the hen was standing in our laps, clucking and purring, while the tom threw in an occasional gobble before stepping into view 80 yards away. But that was as close as it would come.

Our hen would cluck, cutt and purr, the tom would strut and we would sweat while waiting for the tom to move another 40 yards. It was a distance the turkey didn't care to cover. After 10 minutes of constant calling by our hen, she moved off, taking the tom with her.

There's not much you can do in a situation like that. The best you can hope for is to get in front of the turkeys and head them off. But only if you can keep the turkey gobbling. In this case, we couldn't. The best thing is stay close and wait for it to start gobbling again.

For Crook and me, the easiest way to do that was back in the bass boat, where the largemouth were again biting.

An hour later, when the tom began gobbling again I didn't hear it. It was timed perfectly with my hook set. But Crook did, and by the time we made it to the bank the turkey had followed with three more gobbles. Each one at perfect intervals to allow us a chance to move in front of it and the hen.

And just like earlier, our first yelps were answered by the hen and the tom. Like before, the hen marched straight to us, yelping, cutting and clucking bent on running off the intruders.

This time, however, we were in a better position. Crook was in front, with the hen in his lap, and I was 20 yards to the rear, clucking and purring on a slate call.

The distance and cover of a briar thicket kept the hen close and the gobbler moving toward us. The whole scenario took about 45 minutes. But it worked perfectly. The gobbler skirted the edge of the hill we were sitting on, and Crook was able to dispatch it at 40 steps.

A fairly long shot, even longer when you get up running trying to cover ground to the downed bird. It was really tough on Crook, who just got off crutches from a broken ankle. At 30 yards away, his foot caught a fallen tree, sending him flying in a somersault through the air.

One moment, a camouflaged-clad head and shoulders is bobbing through the trees, the next moment, feet and legs are flailing through the air. Despite the sorry excuse for a somersault, to his credit, Crook recovered somewhere in midair. By the time his head and shoulders caught up and passed his feet, he finished with a commando roll and pounced on the flopping bird.

For a minute it looked as if the bird was winning the fight. But the 20-pound turkey was no match for 170 pounds of flying, pouncing human flesh.

The turkey was a testament to two things: After years of failing turkey populations in the Ouachita Mountains, things are looking better in a region once considered the best in the country. And the second, it's a good thing Crook never made it to the Olympics.