A Turkey for Jerry

By Don LaFerla, photographs by David Stonner | March 18, 2014
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2014

The roar of Jerry Gilpin’s old 12-gauge pump shotgun jolted me out of my daydreaming. I turned and saw a fallen turkey just a few yards from our decoys. A couple of hens were hot-footing it across the only opening I had in the trees. Right behind them, a big gobbler was closing the distance to the nearby woods.

I brought my Browning Sweet Sixteen shotgun up and swung the bead along with his trotting head. Just a few yards from the thick oaks ringing the field, I found my shot.

I was dumbfounded by our good fortune. It was only an hour and a half into the first day of spring turkey season and we already had two nice gobblers on the ground.

Nothing to It

I got up from behind a blown-down oak and started into the field. I could see Jerry, grinning hugely, approaching his bird. We did a whoop-and-holler dance — our two gobblers had fallen only 7 yards apart. I glanced at my watch. It was 8 a.m. sharp. Nothing to it!

“That was really cool!” Jerry kept repeating to me, as if I didn’t fully understand what had just happened. We collected our decoys and admired our birds side by side. They were nearly identical mature gobblers with nice beards and spurs. As I poured us each a cup of hot coffee, Jerry called his wife to tell her about his first turkey hunt.

“Yeah, we both got one,” he told her. “I shot mine, and then Don got one a few seconds later.” He made it sound so easy, like it worked out just as he had expected.

I didn’t want to dampen his euphoria, but I explained to Jerry just how unusual this was, and how fortunate we were to both get gobblers. His look told me this was pretty much the way he thought it would play out — maybe with only one turkey instead of two — but he had been confident in our success all along.

An Unlikely Mentor

This unusual hunt was the result of months of planning. One afternoon, back in the dead of winter, my wife, Gloria, casually mentioned that our friend, Kathy, had asked if I would consider taking her husband, Jerry, on his first turkey hunt.

“You wouldn’t mind taking Jerry turkey hunting with you, would you?” she asked, though it was more of a statement than a question, and mere formality. I could tell I was committed.

I told her that I would just have to clear it with my friend Bob who owned the 80-acre “gentleman’s farm” where I hunted, but all I could think was, with a record like mine, I had no place teaching someone else to hunt.

Nothing to Lose

A few days later, I saw Bob, the landowner, and asked him if Jerry could hunt with me on his farm. Bob enthusiastically agreed, he probably assumed the wild turkeys on his farm were just as safe with the two of us hunting as they were with me alone, anyway. He knew that I hadn’t fired a shot in my past three years hunting on his farm. For Jerry’s sake, I hoped to prove him wrong this time.

Jerry, the rookie turkey hunter, is an amazing guy, and I didn’t want to let him down. A military veteran and, more recently, a colon-cancer survivor, he has endured some hard times. Yet Jerry and Kathy always had smiles on their faces and words of encouragement for everyone else. They remained active in their church and community and supported others despite their own difficulties. I wanted to give a little something back to them.

Like a Kid at Christmas

Every time I saw Jerry after I told him we were going to hunt together, he was like a kid who couldn’t wait for Christmas morning. He was excited to be going on his first turkey hunt and to be carrying his beautiful old, hand-engraved Ithaca shotgun; it was a family heirloom they had sold during his illness. His wife had bought it back as a surprise gift for him.

His excitement began to have a draining effect on me. I was getting worried about how Jerry would feel if we didn’t even see a turkey, let alone bag one. It was a lot of responsibility.

As spring drew nearer, I took every opportunity to try to keep Jerry’s optimism in check. I told him about my record with turkeys, and that he shouldn’t expect too much. I told him we would enjoy some beautiful spring mornings. I told him we’d see some deer and plenty of other wildlife. I told him it would be great just to be out there.

Regardless of what I said, it was like Jerry hadn’t heard a word I was saying. He had his mind fixed that I was going to put him in front of a big gobbler. End of story.

What could I do? How could I make this turn out for him?

Preparing for Spring

I decided to do everything I could to improve our chance for success. I went to our local sporting goods store and bought a set of turkey decoys that said on the box they were “almost guaranteed” to bring turkeys running. The pictures on the box looked very convincing. I also purchased a new, full set of camouflage — pants, shirts, vest, and head net — the works. I tried it all on at home and looked like a walking brush pile. My wife and granddaughter took one look at me and burst out laughing. What did they know, I thought, they’re not turkeys.

I added up the costs of my new turkey hunter duds, decoys, and tags. I calculated the break-even point of my shopping trip to be approximately nine turkeys. Not too bad, I thought, though one would still be a stretch.

A week or so before opening day, I drove Jerry out to the farm where we were going to hunt. I wanted him to see the layout and prepare a couple of locations to set up on opening morning. We agreed on two locations, both mowed fields surrounded by heavy timber and brush. The landowner told us he had seen a few turkeys around these areas in the afternoons. Not for long, I thought. They will be heading for the neighboring farms soon enough.

Opening Day

I picked up Jerry at 5:45 a.m. on opening morning. It was less than a 15-minute drive to the farm, and it was just starting to lighten up. We quickly finished off our coffee, picked up our decoys and guns, and headed to the first field, which was only a few hundred yards away.

We set up the decoys so that any turkeys crossing the lane into the woods would spot them. The decoys would really stand out in the morning sunlight as they slowly rotated on their stakes.

Jerry sat at the base of a thorn tree along a fencerow that divided two fields. He would have an almost 360-degree view. The decoy spread was about 25 yards to his right — halfway to the woods. I settled into an oak tree rootwad nearby.

I told Jerry he was our designated shooter. He would be in the best position to see any turkeys approaching, so I expected him to take care of business if I could call them in.

I got my head net on and looked at my watch, 6:30 a.m. Perfect. A few minutes later, scattered shots rang out from across the river. Aha, I thought, the turkeys were already fleeing to the other farms.

Stubborn Turkeys

I worked the cedar box call every few minutes, just like I heard them do on the Outdoor Channel. Why don’t they gobble back? I wondered. Maybe these turkeys are mute … maybe they are all hens … but I continued to call anyway.

From where I was sitting, I really couldn’t see much except for the small lane beside me leading into the field. Any turkeys I might see would be within a few yards. I wasn’t expecting to shoot anyway, though. That was Jerry’s job.

By 7:30 a.m., not a thing was happening. No more shots across the river, nothing. Boredom was setting in. I imagined turkeys walking down the lane toward me, but they never materialized.

Turkey Time, Times Two

I glanced at my watch, and it was almost 8 a.m. I stroked the box call a few times and sat waiting for a turkey to appear. That’s when I heard Jerry’s shotgun boom. I spun around to see his turkey on the ground. Then, another popped up and it was my turn. He dropped quickly, too. I couldn’t believe our luck. We had done what I never even thought possible — harvested two gobblers out of one group in a span of a few seconds.

Kathy came out to our house as Jerry and I proudly displayed our gobblers for the cameras. We celebrated with hugs and a lot of congratulations. With Jerry’s help, we cleaned and prepared both birds for the freezer. Soon, we had a wild-turkey dinner planned with Bob and his wife to celebrate.

What started out with not much more than blind faith had turned into an unforgettable morning. As I gazed at Jerry, still sporting his gigantic grin, it dawned on me that perhaps I had the teacher and student thing all backward. It was Jerry who showed me that blind faith can be a powerful thing, indeed, especially on a spring opener.

Also In This Issue

When the weather warms, anglers seek a royal treat in a mess of these fine-eating fish.
Purple Martins nest made out of gourds
Citizen conservationists prepare St. Louis’ Forest Park for the return of purple martins.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - vacant
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Brett Dufur
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler