Worth the drive: Wyoming produces on opening morning
Wyoming is a long ways to go for a turkey.
That's the common refrain I get from my buddies when I've tried to organize hunts out to Hulett in the northeastern corner of the state. It's a 10-hour trip with a camper behind the truck.
They're right. That is a long ways to go for a turkey, but it's also a turkey hunting experience unlike anything I've gotten anywhere else.
The landscape itself is worth the trip. We hunt a 3,000-acre ranch in the Black Hills but not in the portion of the hills where it's just rolling pines. The Ponderosas line the ridges with fields up top and valleys on the bottom that provide perfect strutting zones for gobblers.
That's the scene that kept running through my mind as my dad and I wrestled with whether or not to drive the near 550 miles for the April 8 opener.
The report from the rancher wasn't great. The population was down from the last time we were there in 2011, he figured. He had seen a few birds — mostly on afternoon drives onto the ranch to check the fencing before putting the cattle out for the summer.
Five days before the season, we committed to going. Dad has hunted Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming over the last 10 years without ever shooting a turkey. I wanted to change that this spring by being the one to call in his first tom.
We stepped out of the camper on opening morning at 4:30 to stars shining and not a whisper of wind. Perfect conditions for hearing and calling turkeys.
We set up on the top side of a popular ridge for roosting with plenty of time to spare before first shooting light. Dad was positioned against a tree that overlooked a wheat field, while I was 20 yards away at a lower elevation.
Song birds were starting to wake when the first gobble rang out in the distance. It wasn't close enough to get my attention.
I let out a series of soft purrs and tree yelps on my slate call. Nothing.
That tom in the distance was the only vocal bird within earshot as he let out a gobble every few minutes. Maybe I could reach him.
I eased into some high-pitched yelps with my Flextone diaphragm call, and he answered back. This was my invite to be more aggressive. I grabbed my box call and started cutting before joining those calls with the diaphragm.
We went quiet for a couple minutes before another gobble rang out. He was coming.
Dad looked at me, and I nodded back. It wasn't long before that tom was strutting circles just outside of gun range in the wheat field. A few more welcoming calls got him to gobble but didn't bring him any closer. After a few minutes, he looked back nervously and ran off.
I let out some aggressive cuts on my mouth call to hear a group of toms answer back.
"The field just came to life," Dad told me later.
I couldn't see them, but I could hear they were closing the gap. Another tom came strutting into my line of view. He was closer than the previous bird but still about 75 yards away.
I called; he gobbled. Then the hens responded. That's when I knew we had him.
Each time I cut them off, the hens got a little more vocal. Six heads appeared over the hill as they ran in on us. The tom raced to get to the front of the pack, and I watched Dad raise his Benelli a few inches to take aim.
He had waited 10 years for a chance like this. He wasn't going to wait a few more seconds for him to reach the decoy. At 25 yards, dad folded his first gobbler.
The hens jumped, and I immediately let out some yelps. Toms gobbled in unison in the field. I still couldn't see them, but we called back and forth for almost 20 minutes.
At this point, I knew I needed to do something different. The landscape allowed me to slip back into the pines about 70 yards without being spotted. I set up and called again. Five minutes passed without a sign before I headed back toward Dad.
By now, he was lying on his side, looking out at the wheat field. He motioned to me with his hand to stay down but to get up there.
I belly-crawled my way to the tree next to him and peered over the hill in front of us. Birds were everywhere on the corner of the field, most notably a tom spinning circles in full strut about 35 yards away. I waited until his fan was blocking his view and slowly got to my knees. One more time around and the gun was on my shoulder.
I waited for one more turn before giving two quick cuts on my diaphragm. The tom threw his head up, and I pulled the trigger and watched him drop. An hour after daylight, our tags were filled.
Dad and I jumped to our feet. He could finally describe what he had watched the last half an hour.
There were close to a dozen toms in the group, he figured. More than 30 birds total.
He watched them cross the wheat field for half a mile. All of them eventually got within 35 yards after he had shot his bird. Toms putting on a show for good measure.
That's the potential of Wyoming. That's worth the drive.