Eight-year-old Julian Courtois started hunting deer with his father, Joe, at age 6. Every boy craves time with father, but for Julian, the hunt is more than an opportunity for time with dad. It’s a consuming passion.
They decided to try their hand at turkey hunting in 2012. Their home area in New Madrid County is not one of Missouri’s top turkey hunting destinations. Hunters there checked just 87 birds during the 2014 regular spring turkey season, compared to the average of 380 turkeys per county. But this determined youngster not only managed to bag a turkey during his first season, he checked in a mature gobbler with 15/8-inch spurs.
Julian, now 8, also has tagged three deer, the largest of which was a 230-pound 7-pointer. I had difficulty imagining a hunter so young having the patience needed for deer and turkey hunting. But the morning I spent with him and his dad proved that this was simply a failure of my imagination.
We got to our hunting spot well before dawn on opening morning of the youth turkey season. Joe quietly set up a tent-type ground blind along the wooded edge of a drainage ditch, and we climbed inside to wait for shooting light. The Milky Way stood out like a diagonal brush stroke above the disked soybean field, and Venus hung just above the eastern horizon, bright as a Coleman lantern.
A light breeze stirred the air, but at 55 degrees, it was excitement, not a chill, that gave Julian goose bumps. In spite of his excitement, Julian surprised me by showing near-adult control of unnecessary movement and noise. He was alert to every sound as he scanned the gradually brightening landscape.
Then, to our dismay, we heard a single wing flap above us. Moments later a big gobbler sounded off in a tree to our north. We had walked right under him as we entered the field. A little after 6 a.m., four gobblers and three hens flew down from the tree overhead and into the middle of 80 acres of soybean stubble in front of us. They milled around for several minutes, studying our blind. They were clearly spooked. Then they were joined by a mature gobbler, which came in from the south end of the field. He had roosted in a tree near where Joe stood when he put the flock to bed the night before. It was official. Every turkey in the neighborhood had the drop on us.
The field flock moved off to the east, directly away from us. Meanwhile,
Joe glimpsed the boss gobbler flying down and disappearing into a strip of brushy Conservation
Reserve Program land. The big bird took up an unassailable position in the middle of a field as flat and bare as a pool table and refused to budge.
At this point, most hunters would be thinking of breakfast. Instead, Julian was fretting that his dad, who works for an agri-chemical company, might have to stop hunting at noon and go to work. Spring is Joe’s busiest time, and the day’s bright sun and dry breeze meant fields were ready to work.
“Can we hunt this afternoon?” Julian asked. He had his heart set on hunting all day if that was what it took to bag a turkey. But the situation didn’t look promising, and there was work to consider.
We tried to maneuver on the big tom, using a thicket between two fields to screen our movement. As Joe and I laboriously threaded our way around saplings and cat briars, I noticed that Julian, who can’t be much over 4 feet tall, was slipping through the undergrowth with the agility of a fox.
We sneaked within a couple hundred yards of where Mr. Big was gobbling operatically for an audience of three hens. He answered Joe’s calls but showed no inclination to budge, so we left that bird and set up where we last saw the flock that was sitting on our heads at daybreak.
Joe called every 15 to 30 minutes for the next two hours. We ate a few breakfast bars and swapped hunting stories in hushed tones until 9 a.m. With no turkeys in sight or hearing, Julian did what any smart turkey hunter would do. He laid his head in his dad’s lap and got a little shut-eye. But he was instantly alert when a pair of gobblers appeared in the wooded CRP strip about 150 yards to the north.
The gobblers responded to Joe’s calling and angled slowly within 70 yards of us. Nothing could persuade them to come any closer. Their departure left Julian plenty of time to wonder whether they were still spooked from finding us under their roost, if they were leery of our blind, or simply hesitant to approach any hen for fear of angering the boss gobbler. Imponderables like these are part and parcel of turkey hunting, and Julian drank it in.
Joe decided work could wait. Julian was elated. I had a long drive ahead of me, so I bade the pair of hard-core hunters farewell around 1 p.m.
The afternoon hunt produced only a sighting of a pair of hens. But two weeks later, during the regular turkey season, they were in their blind again. Joe lured a pair of 20-pound gobblers within range, and at 10:20 a.m. both gobblers succumbed to almost simultaneous shots by father and son.
Essie Reithemeyer is a serious deer hunter. In more than 50 years, she has missed only one opening day, on account of back surgery. At “92 years young,” her flashing eyes and quick wit belie her years. Sitting down over coffee, my questions loosed a cascade of hunting memories from Essie and her grandson Michael Hadley.
Those memories took them back almost 30 years, to when Michael was just a lad. His earliest hunting memories were of waking up to the sounds and smells of Essie cooking breakfast in the Reithemeyer’s hunting cabin on frosty November mornings. “She was the camp alarm clock,” he recalled.
Then there was the time when 6-year-old Michael shot his first deer, sitting in his dad’s lap. And the story about the 10-point buck that gave Essie such a case of buck fever that she missed with her first shot and couldn’t get a second cartridge into the chamber of her trusty .257 Roberts rifle.
“I’ll never forgive myself for not taking my time,” she said, shaking her head, “but that deer was so big it looked like a horse to me.”
There were recent memories, too. Michael recalled sitting in the tree stand with her last November and trying his best to talk her into shooting a medium-sized 8-point buck.
“She wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It wasn’t big enough for her. She sticks to her convictions!”
“Yeah,” Essie agreed, “I don’t want a little one.”
Having friends and family like Michael to share such memories makes reminiscing all the sweeter. In the midst of the stories, Essie mentioned that neither of her daughters
and only one of her 11 grandchildren hunts with her.
That’s Michael, right?” I prompted.
The two shared a glance and laughed softly.
“I call her grandma, but we’re not blood kin,” said Michael.
Essie explained that her late husband, Earl, worked with Michael’s dad at McDonnell Douglas. Little Michael tagged along with his dad on opening day of the 1987 deer season. Essie saw that he shared her enchantment with nature, and she took him under her wing. His visits to the Reithemeyer farm near Louisiana eventually stretched into lazy summer days spent exploring the Reithemeyers’ land and helping with farmwork. What began as hunting together matured into a bond as strong as blood.
Deer hunting remains a sturdy thread in the fabric of the time they share outdoors. They plant food plots, build deer stands, and chart the next year’s hunting strategy throughout the year. And, of course, they reminisce over past years’ hunts.
Essie says she is holding out for a 10-pointer this year, but her biggest trophy sat beside her, sipping his coffee, that day in her kitchen.
“I call him my adopted grandson, ’cause I helped raise him out there,” she says. “He turned out real good.”
Julian and Michael were fortunate enough to find mentors close to home. Not every child is similarly blessed. If you love hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, camping, nature photography, or just spending time outdoors, ask yourself if you know a girl or boy who seems similarly inclined but has no one to take them. As Essie Reithemeyer discovered, outdoor mentorship can yield undreamed-of rewards.
If you don’t feel confident stepping right into outdoor mentorship, look into the Conservation Department’s multifaceted Discover Nature program at mdc.mo.gov/node/3115. Or find out about becoming a Conservation Department volunteer at mdc.mo.gov/node/21451.