HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. – During turkey season, Larry Shockey can call his shots.
His turkey calling skills, which have garnered nine grand champion titles and four world champion titles, could earn him big guiding money anywhere in the country. Instead, he chose to spend a weekend during turkey season volunteering at a youth hunt.
“To put it as simple as it could be, where a hillbilly could understand it and a person making six figures could understand it, there is nothing that will bring me to a level of excitement or a natural high as me coming here and watching these kids’ faces,” he said. “Calling a turkey up to one of these children, the words will not describe it. The tears do a lot of it.”
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Tears were common at the Sam Lester and Friends Youth Turkey Camp. Lester, whose various youth hunts were born from his years as a state game warden in the education division, brought in some expert turkey hunters to instruct youngsters and take them on a hunt.
Alongside Shockey as the headline celebrities was Troy Wheat, a three-time natural voice world champion caller, who entertained the crowd and helped anyone who asked with their calling.
Perhaps the toughest of the tough old birds assembled was Lester’s long-time friend Larry Harlan, a charter sponsor of the event who grew up in the surrounding Ozark hills. Even he fought the emotions when relating the successful hunt of Bobby Whaley, a 15-year-old with cerebral palsy.
Whaley, mother Angela, brother Noah, 9, and guides Bobby Castile and Harlan crammed into a blind at 6 a.m. and were posing for pictures with a turkey by 8:20.
Lester said, “This year, before we ever got here, Larry asked me, ‘Sam, can I help a disabled kid?’ “
That was all it took to contort the rugged outdoorsman’s face; his chin lowered to his chest as he turned away.
“You crying?” Lester asked.
“Still am,” Harlan said.
“There’s nothing in the world better than that,” Lester said as he put his hand on his friend’s arm. “Turkeys put the word ‘hunt’ … in hunting. The deal is, for Larry, Bobby Castile, Bobby and his mom and his little brother, to all be out there at the same time, that is divine.”
Once composed, Harlan explained that he and Castile called in seven or so gobblers and helped Bobby shoot one from 40 yards.
“We missed the first shot, but we called the turkeys back,” Harlan said. “The second shot was 20 yards further than the first. Then we took a bunch of pictures out in front of the blind.”
Angela said she appreciates Lester and Friends for giving Bobby such an experience.
“It’s awesome. It gives him an opportunity he would not normally ever get to do,” she said. “I’m a single mom -- their dad passed away years ago -- so to get him involved is something I could never do by myself. I have no clue about hunting at all.”
Lester’s assemblage of guides do. Lester and program co-founder Steve O’Dell coordinate the weekend, including securing sponsors, land to hunt, a place for the youth and families to stay, meals, an outfitter and some of the world’s most renowned turkey hunters.
“First of all, what makes a legend is how you treat others,” Lester said. “And these guys are truly legends of our time. They’ll never ever be another Larry Shockey.
“And the draw for Larry is simple. They’re the best of the best. They’ve been with me from the very beginning. Scott and all the Hook’s guys and they come year after year for these kids.”
Scott and Roger Hook of Hook’s Custom Calls have been a constant on Lester’s Youth Hunt Outreach Team. Roger gave a pre-hunt safety talk and offered pointers like the correct target on a bird. The kids must have listened as half brought in a turkey.
“Six out of 12,” Scott said proudly. “I’ll take that turkey hunting every time.”
Guide Jake Reynolds put Hunter Lawrence and father Mike on a 19-pound, 4-ounce tom that sported a 10¾-inch beard and 1-inch spurs. The Lawrences were one of two military families who signed up and were drawn for the hunt. Deployment forced Mike to miss this past deer season and he’ll be gone for next turkey season.
“The emotions are definitely heightened when we get these times. It’s special,” Lawrence said. “As a military member, to be associated with this, and with the people that are here to do this for the military, it’s incredible.”
Hunter, 9, even assessed his good fortune well: “I have an opportunity to learn from a pro.”
That is Lester’s main objective, teaching. While working with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, he found education was his calling. The youth hunts came about out of necessity. Lester worked hard with a boy struggling to pass the state hunter education test. When he finally did, his mother confronted Lester.
“His mom came up to me, and said, ‘Thanks a lot. Now what am I going to do? I work three jobs. Who is going to take him hunting?’ It was with that concept that we started doing our youth hunts,” Lester said.
Lester gathered up all his shotguns and took a few kids turkey hunting that year. It spread by word of mouth, and now Lester and his friends have held nine turkey camps as well as several duck and deer hunts. Last year, he said he had 40 people camped in his yard for deer season.
“Most of the kids are disadvantaged, disabled. A lot of times the kids, we don’t know if they’re going to be here next year,” said Lester, who also selects some kids from a statewide essay contest. “They would bring me a bag. I would read every one of them. I would pick the 12 or 15 kids, and all they did was touch my heart. It was just what the kid had to say.”
Seth Basinger, 12, a sixth-grader from Cave City, Ark., was picked this year for an essay he wrote. Basinger, his father Bruce, mother Jyl and sister Laura stayed the weekend at Lindsey’s Red River Resort, home base for the hunt.
While Basinger hunted with Lester, his family went trout fishing and relaxed. The Basingers didn’t take home any game, only an experience and some knowledge.
“How to sit,” was Seth’s response when asked what he learned while out with Lester, who added, “That’s one of the first things my daddy taught me. How to sit.”
Seth’s mom called it the “The best training ever.”
It was a weekend about families. Lester employs his wife and daughter to help with the vittles and such, and his son, who goes by “Young Sam” or “Sammy,” prescouted the lands generously offered by more of Lester’s friends in the area. Sammy showed the likes of Shockey where he had seen birds and where they were roosting.
For Shockey, the youth hunt was extra special this year as he was paired with his grandson, Dylan Miller, of Morrilton, Ark.
“First bird. First animal,” Miller said. “I said, ‘I think I see a turkey.’ Then he said, ‘I see it, too.’ He went right up to the decoy and hit it with his spurs. And then I shot at it once, but I missed. Then it ran a couple feet. And then it went back to the decoy. I shot at it again and killed it.”
Chuck Farneth, the “Michael Jordan of fly fishing” who operates a lodge on the Red River, gave an inspirational talk at the banquet/fellowship/story telling session on Saturday night. He had Miller stand on a chair for an eye-to-eye interview, asking the 9-year-old for details.
The boy froze when asked what kind of shot he used, but grandpa chimed in. “The kind that kills turkeys … and makes holes in decoys.”
The hunt will be memorable for both. They might recall little details, like Shockey asking Dylan to count the gobbles of the bird that was run off – 64. But he’ll always remember the emotions of these hunts.
“It’s right here,” Shockey said as he pointed to his heart. “Right here is where mine comes from.
“I guided at a professional level all over the United States for right at 17 years -- I was making $300-$400 flat rate and $200 commission a day -- and that is nothing compared to taking these kids out and seeing their face.”
Shockey already put this exchange in his memory bank. "I told him, ‘I’m glad that you are my grandson.’ And he says, ‘I will just tell you how happy I am that you are my grandpa.’"
Shockey also might like to deposit what Dillon said when asked what he thought of his grandpa. “I love him very much."