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Here for the Gobble

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 7, 2010

I was just a little late. There was some trouble with the coffee pot and then the gate...

I got raised eyebrows over this, but not much else. Eddie did make me do double time to catch up, however. He was going to make my hunt as easy as possible, but he certainly wasn’t going to let me sabotage my chances.

I’d learned a lot about Eddie Hovis, my clinic-appointed guide, in the past 24 hours. Foremost was that he was an exceedingly proud grandparent. Second was that I could trust him to steer me kindly, if not subtly, through this adventure.

There was a hint of pink on the horizon as we pulled up to the property we would be hunting. This was a terrific spot, Eddie assured me, and it was a particular treat to be given permission to hunt here. The property owner, who normally did not allow hunting on her property, made exceptions only for participants in the women’s turkey clinics.

I knew we would have a bit of a walk. All of the clinic’s participants are asked about preferences and physical abilities before they are assigned to a guide and location. I had told them I’d go whenever, wherever and with whomever they assigned me. I fell in behind Eddie and started crunching through the frozen grass.

I stopped when Eddie’s silhouette stopped, and walked when it did. He gave a few calls on the way to the spot he had chosen, but we didn’t hear a sound but our footsteps and breathing until we were about halfway there. When the gobble finally came, it was just light enough to see the satisfied smile on Eddie’s face.

The woods were waking up, and unseen birds chirped and creatures scampered as we made our way through a grove of pine trees. We stopped and cleared a spot at the base of an oak near a break in the trees. I waited while Eddie set out his decoy.

The air was cool, but I wasn’t cold after our brisk walk. Everything sparkled as the sun rose on the frost, and I tried to justify my racing heart with the calm setting. We sat quietly for about 20 minutes, and then Eddie made a few calls.

No answer.

We moved a little further into the woods and toward a small ridge. As we walked, Eddie called some more.

Another gobble wafted from the distance. My heart skipped. Then we heard the gobble come closer, and I was sure that my heart had simply stopped. I had no idea that a turkey’s none-too-melodic voice could affect me this way.

“Find a spot!” Eddie whispered, sounding as excited as I felt.

We scurried to a tree behind a crumbling pile of logs and brush and waited a few moments. Then the gobble sounded, maddeningly, from further away.

And so began our dance of call, move, call, move, back and forth with an indecisive bird. Our spirits soared each time Eddie lured the gobble closer, and crashed each time it moved away. Then I heard the unmistakable spit-drum sound of our tom puffing out his feathers and breast.

“Gun up, get your gun up,” said Eddie, barely mouthing the words and gesturing with his eyes at the 20-gauge across my knees. I got in position. “He’s right there, can’t you see him?”

I could not. I had a log too close to my eye level.

I’d just have to follow Eddie’s direction.

For more than an hour, Eddie coached me which way to swing my shotgun, when not to move, and when to get ready. When he was sure the bird couldn’t see us, he advised me to rest my arms.

“Oh, he’s a tough old bird, and he’s been educated,” said Eddie, in a tone both frustrated and appreciative.

I was getting tired, but Eddie whispered constant encouragement. “I know you’re tired, I know this is tough, but if you can hold it just a moment longer, just a moment … if you’re really uncomfortable, it’s okay to put the gun down, but if you can just hold out … one … more … minute.”

I was about done for, and then I saw him. He was huge and pompous and vibrantly redheaded. He was in full strut, and I never thought a turkey could look so impressive.

“Take the shot if you want to,” whispered Eddie. “Go ahead.”

But it wasn’t a good shot, and I knew it. My angle wasn’t as clear as Eddie’s. I couldn’t justify wounding this bird. So I waited.

The tom turned toward me then and my tired arms finally betrayed me. I know the end of my barrel wiggled. The tom sounded his alarm and melted back into the trees.

I didn’t even care.

We had seen a big, beautiful turkey, and had spoken his language. We played the game and lost, but it was such an engrossing exchange. And here I was on a gentle, warm spring day, on what I could now see was gorgeous property, and this was more than enough success for me on my very first day out.

“I’m in it for the gobble, not the gobbler,” said Julia Kitchen, the first woman to take a turkey through the Missouri Outdoor Women program in 2003. Suddenly, I knew exactly what she meant.

I could have returned home happy and victorious, with or without a bird in my cooler.

“So, do you want to try again tomorrow?” asked Eddie.

“Ab-so-lutely,” I answered, without hesitation.

Eddie laughed, shook his head and told me he’d see me in the morning. “On time!” he called out, as I, grinning madly, ducked into my car.

Does this make me bilingual?

I liked the idea of it. Time outdoors, a personal challenge and a new reason for fun with the people I cared about. And if I happened to secure a tasty dinner along the way, well, I wouldn’t complain.

It didn’t require a lot of specialized equipment. It didn’t require great physical strength or endurance. Most importantly, it didn’t require that I subject myself to anything more grueling than an early morning. Nearly anyone should be able to hunt turkeys.

It would, however, require a little training and some humility.

The humility was a problem.

My stepfather and fiance were dedicated turkey hunters. I worked with turkey hunters. They were all very keen on the idea that I could and should give it a try. Anytime I wanted to learn, they said …

But I couldn’t. I was too self-conscious. Afraid of making a fool of myself, I wasted two spring seasons making excuses.

I had nearly resigned myself to giving up the idea, when I saw a notice for a Missouri Outdoor Women turkey hunting clinic. It was free, it was run by experts, and, best of all, I didn’t know anyone there. I called to sign up that day.

I felt a bit guilty. I had capable instruction at home, but here I was going to strangers. I was sure that the other women attending the event lacked such resources.

Then I arrived at the clinic and met a group of women who were just like me. Though some of them didn’t know anyone that they could ask for guidance, many had relatives, friends and spouses who were turkey hunters. They just felt more comfortable with the idea of learning with other women who were at the same skill level. There were even a couple of women who were already competent deer and waterfowl hunters.

The instructors were funny, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Though we heckled them mercilessly and made a torturous racket practicing turkey calls, they were never patronizing or impatient, and they made sure that we were never embarrassed by our novice skills. “Some of the worst turkey calls I ever heard were made by turkeys,” encouraged instructor Kent Bridges. “You don’t have to be great to get results.”

According to conservation agent Mic Plunkett, one of our clinic’s coordinators, “The good old days of turkey hunting are right now,” and we were looking forward to meeting our guides and finding out for ourselves.

Meeting Eddie

“Don’t tell Eddie I said this, but you’re getting the pick of the litter as a turkey hunting guide,” wrote Mic.

Eddie Hovis, a resource technician for the Department, was a volunteer guide for our turkey clinic, but we hadn’t met. I e-mailed Mic my effusive thanks and a rambling note about my nervousness.

“Just do me one favor,” replied Mic. “Come down here and wallop some big old longbeard!”

So I called Eddie to set up our meeting. It was a pleasant, but whirlwind, conversation that I could barely recall once I hung up. I had the impression that I was just sucked in and spit out by some sort of energy vortex. I sat dazed for a moment before I checked the directions he had given me. I wondered if he was as energetic in person.

I met Eddie at his home near Piedmont. He gave me a warm hello and a bright smile, pumped my hand, introduced me to his son, Andy (also a volunteer guide), and invited me inside. We talked for a moment about the next day’s hunt, made sure that my clothing would make me look sufficiently shrub-like and stealthy, and then we were off again for a brief tour of the area, a stop to see his new grandbaby and then to check out the camp where I would be staying the night.

Eddie, extraordinarily, was actually more energetic in person. He was also funny, casual and confident, and he treated me like family throughout my visit. Even if I never saw a turkey, Mic was right, Eddie was the guide for me.

Eddie’s final advice before we parted was, “Call if you need anything, whatever the time. Don’t forget to set that gun down tomorrow as soon as you shoot that big gobbler, because all you’re going to see of me is my butt and elbows flying across the field. And do not, I repeat do not, be late in the morning.”

More than the gobble

I was very close to being precisely, almost, on time our second morning.

We had decided to revisit the scene of our previous encounter with the big tom. As Eddie rarely paused to call and listen this time, we made quick progress toward the ridge.

I was enjoying our spirited pace and the bouncy carpet of pine needles beneath my boots, when Eddie startled me with a seemingly loud and random call to my right.

My pleasant mental fog was shattered, but my ears perked as a gobble sounded thinly somewhere in the distant trees.

Eddie and I stopped and glanced at each another. He gave another call.

The gobble seemed to be significantly louder this time, and it was accompanied by frantic rustling.

Eddie’s eyes grew wide and he motioned sharply for me to sit down.

“Where?” I whispered, confused. “You don’t mean here, do you?” I was in the middle of a cleared path and quite exposed.

He did. He pointed to the tree behind me. “Quick!”

We stepped backward in tandem. My butt had barely met bark when the love-crazed gobbler thrashed his way through the forest debris and skidded to a stop at the sight of me.

He half-turned to retreat as I checked that the landscape beyond him was clear. The ruse was up, and I’d only have a moment.

I slipped off the safety, let out my breath, and took the best shot that I could.

All I saw after that was Eddie’s backside and elbows bouncing through the brush.

First of many seasons

Eddie and I replayed every detail of our brief hunt on the way back to his house, where he and Andy helped clean the bird and bundled it into my cooler. My second outing had lasted less than an hour.

In two days, I had been lucky enough to experience an exquisite range of turkey hunting experiences, from how engrossing and thrilling a hunt can be, even if you never pull the trigger or bag a bird, to how fast and crazy the action can be at other times. I was officially hooked.

My turkey weighed around 19 pounds, had an 81/2 inch beard and spurs well under an inch. He was a young gobbler, and he had obviously made his rounds before submitting to Eddie’s siren song. His wingtips were worn, he had been spurred in the breast by another gobbler and he was, to all appearances, a bit disheveled. Of course, he was still a very fine and handsome fellow to me.

Twenty-two women participated in our clinic last spring. Though some of them were unable to hunt this year, I hope they will make their debut next season. Six of the women brought home a bird in addition to a great experience.

I can hardly wait to congratulate them in the turkey woods next spring.

Outdoor Woman 101: Your one-day, kick-start clinic

“Women haven’t necessarily been encouraged to hunt,” opened instructor Kent Bridges, invoking our pioneer spirit. “I welcome you all.”

Though he did not speak to my own experience, his words were a reminder that we had all accomplished something already—we had moved beyond our comfort zones to try something new.

Our clinic was held at the Duck Creek Conservation Area near Puxico, and the room pulsed with an incongruous array of chatting, laughing women. There were young women, seniors and all ages between. With outfits, personalities and outdoor experience at least as varied, it was hard to feel out of place.

We learned about the history and biology of the eastern wild turkey, hunting strategies and techniques, and safety. We also learned the best ways to handle shotguns and practiced shooting them—some of us for long after the clinic “officially” ended.

We left with lots of information, new contacts and coveted goodies from the sponsors of the clinic, including turkey calls and padded hunting seats. Most of all, we left with the confidence that we could go out there and hunt turkeys.

And when turkey season finally arrived, they paired us with volunteer guides to go out and prove it.

If you’re ready to kick-start your own adventure, the Missouri Outdoor Women program is designed to give women 14 years and older the skills and confidence to pursue a wide range of outdoor activities alone, with friends or with their families. To learn more about upcoming workshops, including spring turkey hunting, visit their Web site at www.MissouriConservation.org/13108 or contact your regional Conservation Department office

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