Kansas turkey hunt
Headed to Kuhrt Ranch near Goodland. Northwest Kansas.
The trip out took about 5 hours. Got out of town late, about 4:30 pm. I followed a building storm that was heading east during most of the trip. From about an hour before sunset (7:30 ish) I followed a brilliant double rainbow that I never quite caught up to. Once the sun set the storms really began to build. The radio started to report several severe weather warnings including a few tornado reports close by.
As I was heading down the highway to Goodland I could see some really weird cloud formations with swirling clouds right on the ground, lit up by lightening flashes. I drove through some hail and torrential downpours and gusty winds. Some of the nearby lightening bolts and thunder booms seemed to shake the truck once in a while. I put my head down, crossed my fingers and made it to Goodland about 9:30.
Checked in to the motel, set up the auto switch for the coffee maker to 3:30, set the alarm for 3:45 a.m. and hit the sack.
I heard the coffee maker go off, figured I could close my eyes for another 15 minutes, then I heard my phone go off. Who could be calling me at 3:30 in the morning? Checked my watch and it was 5:30! OH DAMN!!! I overslept. The alarm had not gone off. The phone call was from my guide, Patrick Henry Flanagan of Border to Border outfitters. He was concerned maybe I’d gotten stuck in a ditch on the way out to the ranch. “No” I sheepishly replied “just overslept. I’ll be there as soon as possible.”
An hour later I’m shaking Patrick’s hand and apologizing as best as I could. I know he was a bit peeved/pissed but he did a good job of smoothing over the rough start. His plan was for us to be in a spot before sunrise where he’d seen birds over the last few days after they came down from the roost. He figured it would be a short hunt, done by 7:30. Now I’d screwed up that plan so we needed to find a plan B.
I should have warned him before hand that my whole turkey season this year has been really screwy. I’d been out for 6 hunts and had yet to connect on a tom. Seems like everything this year is just a little bit off compared to past seasons. I’m usually really lucky when it comes to turkeys and by now usually have a couple of birds in the freezer, maybe several. I’ve had encounters with birds every time I’d been out but I could never really make things work for a decent shot at a tom. They’d be just out of range, or not respond to my calls, or head to the right when I went to the left, go down the hill when I went up and they just did unexpected things that I’d not seen them do in the past. And what really convinced me this is a weird year is the fact that the place that over the past 18 years has always given me a bird (I had never been skunked there, always filled a tag or two) this year skunked me. No tag filled. And the final odd fact of the season - the owl incident.
For the past 25 years or so, every time I see an owl during a hunting trip I collect whatever game I’ve been hunting during that trip. Every time. Two weeks ago I was hunting here with my buddy Mike DuRant and as we were walking down a creek bottom about mid day an owl flew out of a short tree right next to me. A beautiful owl with reddish back I’ve since ID’d as a barn owl. As it flew away it turned and looked back at me and I caught a full glimpse of it’s pure white face with big dark eyes. At that moment I was pretty confident that we’d be putting a tag on a turkey at some point during that hunt. Didn’t happen… something has changed this year. Still haven’t figured out how or why.
But I have enjoyed myself and feel blessed to be able to still get out after these ornery critters and try to outwit them. I think maybe they realized I was getting a bit of a swelled head about all this and this was their year to put a pin in me, deflate my ego a bit and feed me a dose of humility. A bitter pill to swallow but good medicine in the long run.
It’s cloudy and overcast, breezy from the NW and the sun has been up for over an hour. Patrick decides it would be best to head over to the west side and take a look around. We load up vests and packs and start our hike in. When we crest a rise overlooking an old plowed under corn field we spot several turkeys in the middle of the field. This field is about 250 yards wide east to west and about 400 yards long north to south, sort of oval shaped. There is a bit of a ravine that runs east to west on the north side with a few scattered trees and on the east and west sides there are rows of big, 5’ diameter hay bales in a line. The west line stretches about 175 yards north to south, the east side bales run about 25 yards long. If we can get to the east bales we’ll be in a good spot, well hidden, if the birds decide to drift to the east side of the field.
We spend about a half hour sneaking through a wheat field, then putting a small tree between us and the birds then proceeding on to the hay bales on the east side. Once at the bales Patrick sneaks out a bit to set up 3 decoys, returns to the bales and the waiting game begins.
The birds are content to stay out in the middle, about 150 yards from us. No calling can convince them to come any closer. 4 hens and 4 toms. We call, we wait, they wander, no response, they just aren’t at all interested in our decoys.
At about 9 o’clock the birds drift out of sight behind the hay bales to the west. We decide to push the issue a bit and try to get closer to the birds. Keeping the hay bales between us and the birds, staying out of sight as best as possible we begin to cross the open field between us and the quarry. 15 minutes later we are set up behind the west line of hay bales and the turkeys are now picking around in another old corn field about 150 yards further to the west.
Beyond these birds there is another grassy pasture about 700 yards away that contains another 8 or 10 turkeys. Four of those birds are toms. But there is really no cover between us and those toms so sneaking over to try for them would be nearly impossible. We’ll just have to wait to see how things develop.
Patrick sets out the decoys, we call a bit and we get the same results as before. No response, no interest from the turkeys. We watch with disappointment as the whole troop of turkeys slowly moves away, crosses the property boundary fence and drifts off into the prairie and heads off over the horizon.
We decide to wait a while to see if something else might move into the corn field and soon we spot a single turkey heading back in from the prairie, heading our direction. We put the binoculars on it and see it’s a nice mature tom and seems to be heading right for us. The bird comes off the hillside, ducks under the property fence line and steps in to the corn field, seems like he’s locked onto something right around where we’re set up. Then we hear some light yelping from off to our right. Patrick peeks around the hay bales and spots a single hen off to our right, walking along the edge of the hay bales, heading our direction. The tom is about 150 yards out off to our left, walking slowly in our direction.
I’d been hopeful that the tom was coming in to investigate our decoys but I’m now pretty sure he’d seen this hen from off in the distance and was making his way to her. So hard to compete with a live hen. But things still may work out. If the hen continues along a path right in front of the hay bales she might lure that tom in to gun range right in front of us.
Now, speaking of gun range - I had decided that this turkey season I would use my Dad’s old gun to harvest a bird with. It’s a nice gun and carrying it really means a lot to me. Adds something special to the hunt. It’s an older Remington Model 11 that he’d used to bag many a bird with. Full choke but with a somewhat limited range. At least compared to more modern/newer guns. For turkeys it’s maximum range is 35 to 38 yards. I know this for a fact because earlier this season I’d taken a shot at a tom that stood 43 yards from me and all I did was tickle him a bit. He jumped straight up in the air about 3 feet at the shot, turned around and looked at me with a sort of “What the hell was that?!” expression in his eyes, then turned and walked away. I then tested the pattern and found the 35 to 38 yard maximum range. With my bigger 12 gauge and magnum turkey loads I’ve been comfortable shooting 50 yards or better but that gun is out of action for a while so I decided to add a bit of a challenge to things this year and am using the 20 gauge.
So the hen and the tom meet in the field right in front of us. And for the next 2 hours they torment us by drifting in and out, never really getting too far away and never really getting in quite close enough for a shot. The tom stood at 43 yards from me at one point, a couple of other times he’s 45 yards away…. Ten more steps in and I’ll take a shot, just a few more steps… and then he drifts away. At one point the hen laid down in the field and snoozed for a bit while the tom did his puffed up wing dragging dance around her to try to impress the girl. She must have had a long night last night. All she wanted to do was feed on a few bugs and take a nap…
I’m pretty sure I saw Patrick give me a couple of WTF?! sidelong glances when that tom was standing just 43 yards away… but I do appreciate him not pushing me to try for the shot.
I did get some pretty nice photos and finally they both turn and wander back off into the prairie. I just shake my head and smile… they got me again. After they drift off out of sight Patrick and I decide to head back to the truck and try to put together a plan C for the afternoon. It’s lunch time and I’m ready for a break. As I’m gathering up my scattered gear and putting things back in my pack I glance off up a hill to the northeast. There I see 3 turkeys coming fast down the hill making a beeline in our direction, maybe 500 yards away. Two hens are out front with a tom right on their tails.
Patrick and I duck around to the other side of the hay bales and peek around the corner to keep an eye on things. All of a sudden the tom is in the corn field to our east, heading towards the north end of the hay bales we are set up at (we’re at the south end about 175 yards away.)
Quick like bunnies we scoot down towards the north end of the bales. There’s a break between the bales and we stop and take a peek before running through the opening and possibly being busted. The tom is heading right for the far north end of the hay bales. I let him cross through the opening and as he disappears behind the next stack of hay I make a move, duck to the right, keeping the hay bale cover between us, and move to the far end of the bales. I shoulder the shotgun and begin to peek around the end of the bales and right then the tom lets loose a loud gobble. He’s right here! All I have to do is find him in the gun sight, line him up and shoot…
I’m looking over the end of the barrel, swinging it slowly left around the hay bales, trying to spot the tom. We spot each other at the exact same moment… he is right off the end of my gun barrel, not more that 8 feet away… way to close for a shot, I’m thinking.
He doesn’t give me an instant to think any longer and takes off running. I fire and miss, he jumps into the air, spreads his wings and flies right back towards me, I fire again and down he comes about 15 yards away, flops once and is still…
Wow! Got him!! My first ever turkey on the wing. This is something super special. Turkey on the wing after missing 3 opportunities in the years past, taken with my Dad’s 20 gauge, and all this in just a matter of minutes after 2 hours of waiting for that other opportunity that never developed. Things can change so quickly and you just need to take advantage and be ready for the opportunities when they present themselves.
This is always a time of mixed emotions - happiness, Thankfulness, sadness and a depth of such strong emotion when taking a life but accepting that as a special gift given by the tom, given by nature, touching an inexpressible light/spirit/energy that is as solid as the dirt and as untouchable as the breeze. I do so much love these things and am grateful to be able to experience and share in them.
Patrick and I exchange high fives and fist bumps and take a few photos. We debate whether or not to continue hunting and try to fill my second tag but decide it might be best to wait till tomorrow morning instead of risking pushing everything out of the area this afternoon. Let the birds go back to roost this evening as normal then set up in an A1 spot tomorrow morning and close things down with a sure and quick morning hunt. Besides, I’m beat and could use a hot lunch and nap back at the motel this afternoon.
We pack up and head back to the truck. It’s a bit after noon. Patrick says to keep an eye out for a lost range finder he dropped along the edge of a fence a couple of weeks back. We get up to the fence where a couple weeks back he had belly crawled along trying to get into a hidden position to ambush a turkey. He’s pretty sure the range finder is right along here somewhere.
I’m walking along, scanning the ground around me for a lost range finder when out of the corner of my eye I see Patrick suddenly jump to the left, away from the fence and gurgle something that sounds like “Gibbelstick!!” while pointing to the ground on the right while doing a little jig when he returns to earth after the leap…. I’m wondering just what in the hell is a Gibbelstick and I follow his pointing finger to the ground and spot a prairie rattler curled up in the tall grass. Oh, I get it, he meant Rattlesnake!!!! I get a couple of quick photos then do my own jig dance when I touch the snake with my gun barrel and he strikes lightening fast about 2 times further than I was expecting it to reach…and then quickly clip off the snake’s head with a shotgun blast because Patrick has a bunch of good bird dogs he trains all around this terrain and can’t risk one getting snake bit.
The rest of the trip back to the truck is uneventful. I clean the bird, share a refreshingly cold beer with Patrick, set a time to be back in the morning, assure him I won’t be late this time, make plans to meet for dinner that evening, load up the truck and head back to the motel.
At dinner that evening I get to know Patrick Henry Flanagan a little bit better. He tells me some interesting stories about life as a bird hunting guide, shares some things about his background, his perspective on the world in general and what is truly meaningful to him. It’s all good and special stuff. I thank him for sharing his time with me this weekend and I’m grateful I’ve been able to share this special hunt with him.
That evening I set up 3 alarm clocks and go to bed resting assured that at least one of them will wake me on time in the morning.
Sunday May 28, day 2 of the 2017 Kansas turkey hunt.
I’m up and out of bed about 5 minutes before any of the alarms go off. Packed up and ready to hop in the truck about 20 minutes later. A microwaved burrito and an orange juice is my breakfast. Nothing open this early in the a.m. so processed food will have to do the trick. Extra strong brewed coffee in the thermos is really what gets me going this day - that plus the anticipation of another day in the field chasing wily toms.
I’m back at the ranch early. I find Patrick a bit hazy eyed because of a shortened sleep. He’d set the digital alarm for 3:30 and it went off on time - but - this ranch is right on the mountain time zone/central time zone line so when it went off at 3:30 central time it was actually 2:30 mountain time and caused him to roust from bed an hour too early. Sunrise being a bit after 5 a.m. mountain time. We can hear several toms gobbling on the roost not too far away to the south. Sounds like it might be a productive day.
We take the truck up to the top of a hill that overlooks the west corn fields and far west pasture. The plan is to set up along the west edge of the far west field and catch the turkeys after they come off the roost and head down a dirt 2 track into the field. They’ve been doing this like clockwork every day for weeks.
We cross the field, ford a small stream. All around in the dark are the croaking, kricking, creeking sounds of the spring time chorus frogs as they set up nesting sites and try to attract mates. The cold water over my boot tops helps shock me into full wakefulness, we set up decoys along the edge of the field, just 20 yards or so from the 2 track, (a 2 track is basically a dirt trail used by farm vehicles to move between fields) tuck ourselves back under a small tree and relax and wait for the sun to rise.
We can hear toms gobbling from the roost off to our west. Right where Patrick said they would be. Pretty soon they will fly down off the roost, gather up with the hens and head down the path to their demise when they show up in front of us.
The sun starts to come up. It is a bright, warm, clear, light breezy day. I adjust my position a bit to find a more comfortable bit of hard dirt to sit on and then I see some type of big bird come sailing on big wings right over the 2 track and into the corn field about 20 yards away. Then another big dark bird lands right next to the first one. I raise the shotgun, sight down the barrel and find 2 big hen turkeys standing at the end of the gun barrel. Off to my right I see 2 more turkeys fly into the weeds along the 2 track. Then 3 more hens show up in the corn field. Any moment now the toms, who always follow along after the hens, will show up right where Patrick thought they would.
I wait… and wait… and wait… and nothing else comes out of the brush… where the heck are the toms? Pretty soon there are 9 hens in the corn field in front of us. We watch and wait and after about an hour I’m convinced the toms are not going to show up. It’s just been that kind of turkey season this year. No sure things this year when in the past a set up like this would produce a filled tag about 90% of the time.
After the hens leave the field, Patrick takes a quick hike back to the west to see if he can put eyes on anything back behind us. He’s back in short order, after climbing up a tree to get a better view, and reports he’s seen 4 toms behind us, moving pretty quickly along the 2 track towards us. Good deal, I’m thinking, this still might work out. And then I see 4 toms about a half mile away, going over the skyline of a hill in the distance. Patrick spots them also and we start considering a new plan.
We pack up our gear and start hiking over the the south, in the general direction of where we last saw those toms. Patrick knows this terrain and understands the patterns of these birds better than me so I follow his lead. He anticipates that those toms will head over the hill then back down the other slope that leads into the corn field where we’d spent 2 hours watching that frustrating tom the day before. Except this time we’d be on the other side of the field - where there is not even a hay bale to hide behind.
As we approach the field we spot the four toms with a hen already in the south end of the field. We use a cut in the terrain for a bit of cover and close the gap until we’re about 125 yards from the birds. The only cover we have are some irrigation pumps and piping sticking up from the ground. We set up, set out the decoys and wait. The rolling terrain puts us just a bit below the birds but it also puts our decoys out of sight from the toms. Every once in a while we pick a decoy up, raise it above the terrain to try to catch the attention of the toms. We sit baking in the sun for the next 45 minutes or so. I decide to stretch out in the grass, put the pack under my head as a pillow and promptly fall asleep. Best rest I’ve had in weeks. I wake up about a half hour later then watch as eventually all the birds clear the field and head back out into the prairie to the south.
Expecting the birds to head back up the hill, down the other side then back to the area where they had been earlier this morning, we make another move in that general direction, hoping to get ahead of them and ambush them if they decide to come down a trail that leads back into the property where we have permission to hunt. Turkeys tend to follow the path of least resistance, like a trail or 2 track, or a field edge when they move and can be fairly easy to predict most of the time. At least they do that in a typical year.
We set up a quick make do blind of tumble weeds, set out a decoy and wait. Pretty soon we see 2 birds come over the top of the hill and drop down into a ravine to our right front. Just got a brief glimpse before they vanish but it looked like 2 hens to me. About 20 minutes later we hear the quiet “Putt! Putt! Putt!” of an alarm call and see 2 hens next to our decoy. They had popped up out of the ravine right next to the decoy and caught us by surprise, busted once again…
We wait a while longer. The toms never show up. We pack up our gear and head back to the truck to regroup and have some lunch.
At lunch I decide I’ll stay until sunset if that’s what it takes to get another bird and I’ll head back home late tonight.
After lunch we make a plan to head back up the hill, find a good vantage point and just sit and watch the fields for a while to see what develops. When we get over the top and to a place where we can see the fields clearly, we spot 4 toms and several hens in the east corn field. This is the field we started out at the day before. Instead of just sitting and waiting way up here on the hillside we decide to move on down and try to get back in position behind the hay bales on the east side. We make the move without being spotted and are set up and in place about 45 minutes later.
The 4 toms and hens are tending to hang on the west side of the field about 200 plus yards away. Occasionally they move around a bit but tend to stay far off to the west side. About mid afternoon a 5th tom shows up and joins in the show. This bird is much more vocal than the 4 toms we’ve been chasing all day. His gobbles and the hen’s yelps help change things up a bit and help break up the frustration of the long wait.
A quick word about the toms we’re watching. Every one of these toms is bigger than the bird I collected yesterday, and my bird was a really nice tom. Every one of these birds has a beard that nearly reaches the ground. I’m guessing the shortest beard is 10” which is not all that common. A flock of 5 with beards 10” and longer is probably a once in a lifetime sight.
One of these birds stands out from the rest not because of his size or beard length but because he has a pale white head and neck. Typically a tom will have a white crown with a blend of neon blue and bright or dull red around his face plus a bright red neck. This bird is unusually pale white from crown to base of neck. He also does have a long and bushy beard which I’d love to collect. I nick name him “The Ghost”. Patrick names him “Paleface”. This is the one I’d like to put my tag on but I’d be willing to pull the trigger at the first one that comes into range.