May 24, 2021
Spin it however you want, but death is the definitive prerequisite of a "successful" turkey hunt. Sure, we make it a goal to enjoy the entire hunting process and find fulfillment in every aspect of the hunt, but the ultimate goal demands killing an animal that we dearly respect.
This irony is often difficult to describe or wholly understand, even among turkey hunters, but in these muddy waters one thing is abundantly clear: Hunting gives us an extreme appreciation for life and living it.
Waking up to sunrises with your back against a tree. Admiring the night sky as a campfire crackles at your feet. Hearing Ol' Tom rumbling through the hardwoods. Or simply watching a robin peck for worms after a fresh rain. Hunting provides a front-row seat at Mother Nature's theatre, and nobody can complain about the cost of admission.
Getting together with good buddies in hunting camp delivers an unrivaled level of fellowship and shared experiences—a type of bond that can only be formed among hunters. And it was through the hunting community that I met two of my greatest friends: Mike Mattly and Gordy Krahn. After nearly a decade of mutual friendship, we finally decided to plan a spring turkey camp together.
As the days inched closer to our hunt, we exchanged text messages and phone calls to stay riled up. During one of those phone calls, Mattly nonchalantly revealed an unexpected twist in our plans … followed by an alarming bit of news.
"Do you have a 20-gauge I could use on our hunt?" he asked. "I messed up my left shoulder, so I'm going to have to shoot one-handed and I don’t want to lug around a heavy 12-gauge."
I had a 20-gauge Mossberg semi-auto with an Aimpoint red-dot sight that was ready to roll. Not a problem. But then I prodded him to learn what had happened to his shoulder. Mattly is a gym rat, so I figured he had probably torn something while pumping iron.
"Well, it's kind of a weird deal," he explained. "I was driving to Idaho for a work meeting, and I stopped at a grocery store to pick up some food for Easter dinner. The next thing I knew, I was seeing all sorts of crazy colors and then I woke up in my truck. I didn't know where I was or what I was doing there. I was sore all over, especially my left shoulder. Turns out I blacked out, had a seizure, and beat the living s--- out of myself in my truck."
I was speechless. After processing what Mattly had just told me, I motioned to cancel the turkey hunt. He wasn't having it.
Hurt but Hopeful for Turkey Hunting
A couple of weeks later, Gordy and I loaded up our turkey gear and headed from our Minnesota residences to Mattly's stomping grounds in southern Iowa. Mattly had told us to expect home-cooked meals, a fridge full of cold beers and brazen strutters out his back door—a fine turkey camp. But we rolled into our friend's driveway with a mix of excitement and uncertainty, not knowing what condition he would be in. Without skipping a beat, Mattly greeted us with his broken wing in a sling and told us to get unpacked so we could scout for birds.
It was extremely windy, so it was no surprise that we didn't see a lot of turkeys as we "scooped the loop" (Mattly's term for driving the big circle that surrounds his various hunting leases). I attempted one failed stalk on a skittish gobbler that we saw on the edge of a brushy ditch, but I rushed the mission and the big bird flushed out of the ditch like a rooster pheasant. He caught wind and rocketed into the horizon. But it didn't matter that we weren't seeing much, nor that I had screwed up an easy kill. That evening was as much about friends catching up on some backroads as it was scouting for turkeys.
Mattly assured us that his home property was loaded with gobblers, and after returning for dinner we saw numerous strutters out his trophy-room window. One long-spurred tom was within spitting distance of the patio. I glassed the bird through a spotting scope and obsessed over his inch-and-a-half daggers.
Huddling around the HuntStand app that evening, we got a digital lay of the land and plotted our strategy for the next morning. Mattly pointed out a couple of heavily used roost sites on a prominent ridge and two primary fields where the birds were congregating most mornings. We decided splitting up was the best plan. Gordy would take the top field, while Mattly and I would set up on the bottom.
We told ourselves that the birds were bound to walk into one of our traps, but rarely do even the best turkey hunting schemes pan out as planned. It was hard to ignore that one of us was less than fully functional, but it didn't keep us from hoping the next morning's hunt would unfold into one of those banner days we pray for as turkey hunters.
So Many Turkeys, So Close
We loaded our vests and scatterguns and set out through the darkness. Gordy plopped down along a fencerow on the top field. Mattly gave him one last boost of confidence, pointing and predicting where the birds should appear after pitching off the limb. We bumped fists with Gordy and proceeded to the bottom field.
Dawn was breaking quickly—too quickly—as the one-armed man and I scrambled to decide on a killer position. We settled on the corner of a straight-line cedar grove, breaking branches to build a natural ground blind. It was an ideal spot to intercept gobblers from 270 degrees. Mattly rested the fore-end of his 20-gauge on a shooting stick so he could shoot one-handed.
Tensions mounted as gobblers started firing up from every direction, including one bird that was too close for comfort. Judging by his reaction after he hit the ground, we had been busted while setting up.
I'll admit it: I'm melodramatic in the turkey woods. When something goes wrong, I take it personally and it feels like my whole world is crumbling. Mattly is the opposite, embracing a laid-back approach and never over-thinking the situation. We're a well-balanced duo. When that wise gobbler busted us right out of the gate, and the birds naturally went silent after fly-down, I was distraught. It was imperative for Mattly to get a crack at a bird. After what he had been through recently, he needed to bust a gobbler's noggin for a morale boost.
We pulled out our full array of Rocky Mountain Hunting Calls and started grinding on them in tandem. As often happens after the fly-down lull, the gobbling ramped up again.
"Are they getting closer?" I questioned.
"I can't tell," Mattly whispered.
And then it was like the heavens opened up and delivered a wad of gobblers from the ridge above. One after another, a gang of aggressive toms filed down the ridge.
"They're coming! Get ready!" I urged.
As soon as the birds assembled together in the field, they charged our decoys, flickering in and out of full strut, the morning sunlight radiating off their brilliant Eastern bouquets of feathers. They closed 300 yards and ended up in our laps faster than our adrenaline-drunk brains could process. The first bird to arrive was a dominant tom, but his beardless chest saved him until next spring. His four compadres eased onto the scene a bit slower.
It was pandemonium as Mattly struggled to get his gun settled on the shooting stick with one arm. Thankfully, the flexibility of the red-dot allowed him to hastily get a clear sight picture. All the while, the birds postured and purred as they prepared to dominate our jake decoy.
The arrangement was for Mattly to whack the first bird that gave us an opportunity. Given the chance, I would follow up on another bird. The odds of that happening seemed to decrease by the second.
"Shoot!" I demanded.
"I can't," he responded in agony. "I'll kill all of them!"
He was right. It was like a snake's den of gobbler necks at 5 yards. Finally, the birds slithered apart far enough to … Wham! As the birds scattered, my instincts took over. I found a solo runner with my red-dot and squeezed off a stout load of Heavyweight TSS.
After a long series of hooting, hollering, fist-pumping and one overzealous pat on Mattly's broken arm, we gathered our gobblers and snapped pictures. While we posed with the morning's prizes, another shot echoed from the ridge above.
When we crested the hill, vests heavy and grins giant, our best wishes came true. Gordy appeared and summoned us with his own surprise.
"This gobbler skirted me, and I decided to run after him," Gordy explained as he hovered over a dandy Iowa longbeard. "As soon as he got behind the pond in the middle of the field, I heard your shots. I ran down there and closed the distance. He came right to my call!"
Three great friends, a triple of first-morning gobblers, and more than enough excuses to pop some tops and salute before the noon hour. Mattly had killed a tom with one arm, after all. This is living, I thought as I took another glance at his dead bird.