April 18, 2023
By Lynn Burkhead
The old saying goes that if at first you don't succeed, then try and try again. That certainly applies to hunter Greg Cherne, whose perseverance during a recent turkey hunt in South Dakota that resulted in a one-in-a-million gobbler known as "Ghost."
After days of seeing the just-out-of-reach albino Merriam’s gobbler—and almost giving up—the 48-year-old from Georgetown, Texas, took the rare bird on basically his last chance during a hunt near Gregory, S.D. The gobbler weighed 19.2 pounds and had two beards, one of which measured 9 inches, the other 4.75 inches, and inch-long spurs.
Cherne, a former minor-league hockey player, and chiropractor, and currently a police officer, said the bird was like "a snowman-looking turkey in the middle of a field," the first morning he saw him. "That’s 'Ghost,'" guide Jack Hayden said.
An Unusual Turkey Hunt
Cherne has been primarily a big-game hunter, even going to Alaska where a friend lives, hunts, guides, and transports. But recently, his thoughts shifted to something else. "I really never thought too much about hunting turkeys," he said. "But after watching some turkey-hunting videos and reading about the Grand Slam and World Slam, I started thinking about it and that it would be cool to do, especially trying to do it in one year."
Cherne admits that he knew little about turkey hunting, other than killing a Rio Grande once when he had an empty tag. But this time was different as he started researching when, where, and how to go turkey hunting. "I actually Googled ‘world champion turkey caller (to start off with),'" he laughed.
That led to a phone call, an explanation of what he was wanting to do, and a referral to outdoor television personality Alex Rutledge. Once a field staff member with Hunter's Specialties, Rutledge's career path has included “Bloodline with Alex Rutledge,” a podcast and radio show, his American Roots Outdoors brand, a number of turkey-calling titles, and in 2007, induction into the National Outdoors Hall of Fame.
Soon, Cherne was talking with Rutledge, and before long, a hunt was in the works. "I'm a nobody, not a TV show guy, just someone who does police work," said Cherne, who admits he was surprised all of this happened. After looking at several dates and options, the Mount Rushmore State of South Dakota eventually became the place where everything came together.
'Like a Sore Thumb'
"It was my first time to go on a guided turkey hunt," Cherne said. "I got on an airplane and flew to Sioux Falls, S.D. Then we drove over to Gregory SD where I met up with Alex, Neil Hylla, guide Jack Hayden, and the crew with Rock Road Outfitters."
Before long, the crew was out looking for longbeards. And in the process, they all saw a ghost—literally. "We had scouted the night before and had run into several toms and a whole bunch of other hens and jakes," said Cherne. "The next morning, we were driving out to hunt and there was a snowman-looking turkey in the middle of a field, standing out like a sore thumb. The sun had come up and he was lit up and you could see him as clear as day."
Unfortunately, the ghostly gobbler wasn't on property that could be hunted. And as everyone discussed the unusual-looking bird, Cherne learned there was some history there. "Jack said, ‘That's Ghost' … He added ‘We've known about him for a year now, but we've never been able to get on him on property that we can hunt. And believe it or not, even though he's easy to spot, we haven't seen him for about six months now.'"
Undeterred, the group proceeded to land that could be hunted and got into the field, seeing a few birds, but having nothing that worked their way. That was subject to change, however. "The next day we went out and we were coming up from the morning hunt," Cherne said. "We started driving by another lease across the road and, all of a sudden, there he was on our lease now."
After backing up, the group drove another mile and a half down the road and got perhaps 70 yards away from an old, broken down, abandoned farm building with a whole lot of trees around it.
"I snuck in towards the bird's last position, and then there he was," Cherne said. "But he was always pulling the caboose with the hens in front of him, it was like they were his lookouts. I was about 40 yards away and he puffs up, struts, then shrunk down and started to dart off to the right. I squeezed the trigger and hit a tree instead of him."
Despite Cherne carrying a Savage Stevens .410 shotgun and a load of Apex TSS #9 shot, the score was Ghost 1, Greg 0.
"He walks off and my hunting career for turkeys almost ended there," said Cherne. "I felt sick to my stomach, it was the worst feeling in the world. He was such a beautiful turkey, it kind of felt like I had missed a 210-inch whitetail or something."
Ready to Throw in Towel?
That afternoon, Cherne was back out in South Dakota's Merriam's country, hunting from the makeshift blind that the old broken-down building with no windows or floor provided. "We got to see a tom turkey actually mate a hen about 80 yards away from us," Cherne said. "It was so cool and Alex filmed the whole time through a window."
When the gobbler finished breeding the hen, he turned and came towards the building as Cherne prepared for the shot and Rutledge filmed. "The only shot I had was in the same window that Alex was filming through," he said. "And wouldn't you know it, my old nemesis showed up again and I missed that bird, too. Alex said, ‘You missed!' and the bird took off."
Dejected, Cherne was ready to throw in the towel. "I think ‘I'm ready to go home and forget this turkey-hunting stuff. I was so disappointed,'" he said. "I called my wife and I think I said that I thought I was never going to be successful as a turkey hunter."
But remember that stuff about trying again?
"I'm ready to hang it up, but Alex and Jack—and I'd have to say he's probably the best guide I've been around and I've been around a few others—they won't let me do that and they tell me that I've still got one more day, to keep my head up and to keep trying," Cherne said.
Hunting in a blind early the next day, not much was happening, and the hunting ghosts were whispering in Cherne's head once again that he might go home empty-handed. "We saw some prairie chickens and three jakes come across that field, but that was it and it was cold," Cherne said. "Alex said at around 10:30 a.m. that we'd wait until 11:30 a.m. and then head in. He said, ‘You've had a rough week and I'll buy you some coffee!'"
As they headed in, somewhere in the background, you could almost hear Buck Owens and Roy Clark singing Gloom, despair, and agony on me."
One Last Chance
But when it was time to go back out in the afternoon, Hylla stepped in and offered to throw a change-up pitch, and accompanied Cherne. When he showed up with Kenny Zespan, who owns 1st Class Whitetails of Ohio, the bad luck began to head in the other direction with a sudden Ghost sighting.
"Kenny has his binocs on his chest and he looks and says, ‘What are y'all doing, Ghost is in the field,’” Cherne said. "I guess he had come into the field, but in the terrain, we couldn't see him do so. … Neil looked at me and said ‘Dude, this is a God thing, there's no way he comes back into your life again unless you're going to go and kill him. About that time, my heart rate went right on up to about 220 I'd guess."
After setting up near the old building in a tree line, Cherne's luck began to change as Rutledge laid out a game plan of what to do, including a ninth-inning move to the turkey if necessary.
"Not three minutes later, Ghost comes out of the woods flying, like he looked at me and laughed," Cherne said. "He drops down, gets to the crest of the hill, and goes onto the other side of it. I started (quickly moving) towards him and get to the top of the crest of the hill. When I did, I see him about 50 yards away, lagging behind the hens again."
This time, Cherne was carrying a Mossberg Turkey Thug 12-gauge shotgun loaded with Apex TSS #9 shot. When he reached the zenith of the hill, he fired once, then again for good measure, and the ghostly turkey was down on the ground.
All of a sudden, all was quiet on the South Dakota prairie, including the naysaying voices whispering in Cherne's head. "It looked like a patch of snow sitting there and South Dakota still had some snow on the ground," he said. "But it wasn't snow, it was Ghost laying there and I kept thinking that I hadn't missed and that I couldn't believe that I had gotten a second chance with this bird and got him. It felt surreal and kind of like a once in a lifetime thing. And I think everyone on a million acres must have heard me then, because I screamed out so loud, ‘Praise God, I got him!'
"They said it's like a one-in-a-million gobbler and no one, not Alex, not Neil, not Jack, not the biologist, not anyone, said that they had ever heard of a double-bearded albino bird. And there's a lot of experienced turkey hunters in that group."
He's Got It In Him
It should be no surprise that perseverance has been a big part of Cherne’s life, and reflected in his professional career. Growing up in northern Ohio, he developed as a standout hockey player, playing at Ohio University and then professionally. He played for the Fort Worth Fire, the Memphis Riverkings, the Colorado Gold Kings, and the Idaho Steelheads. After two years in the NHL minor league system as a left winger, Cherne didn't see a clear path to the big league and decided to retire to do something else.
So he went to school again and became a doctor of chiropractic medicine, a career path that he shared with his wife Gretchen. After doing that for a decade-plus in the Chicago area, Cherne found himself with an opportunity to retire early in his 40s, which he did. But still wanting to contribute to society, he took the unusual step of moving into a law-enforcement career, eventually landing a job in Austin, Texas. Today, Cherne is a police officer, a resident of Georgetown, and a husband, father, and outdoors enthusiast when time and opportunity permits.
Memory Will Linger
While the bird doesn't score high enough to rank in the National Wild Turkey Federation's non-typical scoring system, the NWTF noted that it doesn't actually have a category for color-phased birds. Potentially, that could change down the road, and if so, Cherne has applied for the first world record in that possible category.
For now, he's savoring the memory of a ghost-like turkey, and looking forward to more longbeard hunts this spring. He may even end up in Mexico chasing an ocellated turkey there too. In other words, consider his turkey hunting reboot successful, and Cherne hooked for life on the springtime game. "I'm so blessed to meet Alex and his friends and those guides," he said. "Everything about it all was so cool and such a blessing. I never thought it would end the way that it did, but it did."
"Who knows where it will go from here," he added. "But this is pretty cool."
Ghostly cool, indeed.