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Tents & Toms: Hunting in the Middle of Somewhere

Turkeys, tents and tribulation in the Sandhills of Nebraska.

Tents & Toms: Hunting in the Middle of Somewhere

Elsmere, Neb., was the center of the turkey hunting universe for the author and nine friends for a few days last spring. (Photo by John Taranto)

There isn't much in or around the town of Elsmere, Neb. In fact, the nearest place where a turkey hunter might get a few stitches after taking a chunk out of a finger while cleaning a gobbler is Ainsworth (pop. 1,655), approximately 40 lonely miles to the northeast. I know this from experience, but we'll get to that part of the story in a bit.

Indeed, as far as I can tell, the only business currently in operation with an Elsmere address is Goose Creek Outfitters, run by Scott Fink and his wife LaCaylla. And it was on their land, which, remarkably, has been in Scott's family since his great grandfather homesteaded there in 1904, where a group of friends and I set up a wall tent turkey camp last May.

Overview of Nebraska hunting land
Canvas wall tents aren't just for big-game seasons. They make a fine camp for Nebraska turkey hunters. (Photo courtesy of Joe Arterburn)

AN AMERICAN ICON

The canvas wall tent is perhaps the most iconic and indelible symbol of wilderness hunting and adventure. From the Rockies to the Adirondacks, the sight of a glowing, ochre-colored tent, a ribbon of wood smoke curling from a stovepipe rising from one corner, instantly evokes a sense of warmth, security and camaraderie in those of us who live the most rewarding hours of our lives in the outdoors.

Tent at night
The crew enjoyed good grub and lots of laughs at one another's expense inside the walls of this spacious canvas tent. (Photo courtesy of Joe Arterburn)

While a wall tent is most often thought of as the wilderness domain of the big-game hunter, it makes a fine shelter for the spring turkey hunter, too. It was in just such a wall tent, nestled in an island of oaks and cedars in a sea of sprawling ag fields, where my friends and I convened for the sixth week of Nebraska's 2022 spring turkey season.

Despite the late stage of the season, hopes were high that we would fill at least a few of the tags we were allotted, especially after two of the guys punched tags before the tent was even erected. For what Elsmere lacks in viable commerce, it more than makes up for in numbers of turkeys.

SLOW START

The first morning of my hunt found me in a ground blind set on a flat overlooking the Dismal River, about an hour's drive south of Elsmere. Within minutes of entering the blind and unzipping the windows, I spied a lone hen following the course of the meandering stream below me. I was bolstered by the prospect of working gobblers cruising the river bottom, but that hen turned out to be the only turkey I saw all morning. Occasionally, I'd answer a distant gobble with a few friendly yelps, but none ever resulted in a cooperative longbeard.

Later in the day, I sat with Matt Church, a close friend of the Finks, on a steep bluff overlooking an oxbow of the Dismal. It wasn't long before a gobbler alerted us to his presence in the bottom. After scanning with our binos, Church finally spotted him strutting on the wrong side of a barbwire fence.

Undeterred, we picked our way down the bluff and set up against a cottonwood tree. We called and the gobbler answered for the better part of half an hour, but no amount of pleading would convince the bird to cross the fence. Once he moved on and we were confident we could exfil ourselves without him seeing us, we called it a day and headed back to camp. There, some of the more successful members of our contingent regaled us with tales of hard-won birds over a dinner of tomahawk chops and glasses of whiskey.

turkey hunting friends
Wherever grown men gather in a circle, the odds are high that there’s eithera dead animal or a grill at the center. (Photo courtesy of Joe Arterburn)

THINGS GET WESTERN

A combination of said whiskey and forecasted rain prompted us to sleep in a bit on day two and enjoy a leisurely breakfast before heading out. It was still overcast and drizzly when I hopped in Fink's truck to head to a piece of leased ground—a nearby ranch—where he'd recently been seeing a fair amount of turkey activity.




The first spot we checked was a cattle pasture separated from the gravel county road by a windbreak of conifers. As the truck crawled past an opening in the break, we could see several turkeys on the far side of the field, roughly 150 yards away. Using the windbreak to screen my movement, I hopped out of the truck, grabbed my gun and a hen decoy and crawled through a thick tangle of branches until I could see the flock of turkeys. Among their ranks were at least two good strutters.

I waited until the birds disappeared behind a rise in the field before easing up to the barbwire fence and staking the deke at the edge of the pasture. Fink, Church and my buddy JJ had backtracked to the far end of the break to watch what would unfold … which ended up being not much. The gobblers, apparently content with the makeup of their flock, hardly looked my way. After 20 minutes or so, the birds disappeared into the trees on the far side of the field. Occasionally, one or two would pop out, but it was always hens. The toms had moved on through the trees to an adjacent field.

camp grilling
When in Nebraska, eat as Nebraskans do … or as Nebraska's cattle ranchers would prefer that you do, anyway. (Photo courtesy of Joe Arterburn)

When I heard Fink's tires on the gravel behind me, I gathered my things and crawled back out to the road. We weren't far from the driveway that led to the barn and other ranch buildings. People were operating tractors and skid-steers there, so we figured it'd be safe to drive up a lane that had been cut from the driveway into the stand of trees that separated the field where the turkeys had been and the one we thought they had moved to.

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After a hundred yards or so, Fink put the truck in park, and he and I slid out of the front seats. He carried a tail fan in front of him as he moved slowly up the lane. I followed closely behind. We were about 50 yards from a cattle run that connected the two fields when a turkey appeared from the second field, heading back to the first. It was clear this was a big tom, and when he cleared the brush on the far side of the run, I raced up to one of the panels that comprised the chute. The bird was 25 yards out into the field when I covered the back of his head with my red dot. The hunt didn't exactly play out like you see on TV, but a dead gobbler is a dead gobbler all the same.

wild turkey spurs
The author's tom sported a 1 1/8-inch spur on one leg and a 3/4-inch nub on the other. (Photo by John Taranto)

AMATEUR HOUR

With a second tag burning a hole in my pocket, the plan was to go back to camp, get my bird on ice, maybe grab a quick lunch and then head back out. Unfortunately, the only other blood I would draw that day would be my own.

John Taranto at clinic
In his haste to clean his kill and get back to hunting, the author sliced the middle finger of his left hand. (Photo courtesy of Joe Arterburn)

In my haste to clean my bird and get back to hunting, I committed a cardinal sin of knife handling and pulled the blade back toward my off hand when separating the breast meat from the sternum. I managed to slice from the pad of my middle finger around to the nail bed, with a slight dogleg in the incision just to make things interesting. Once I got it to stop bleeding long enough to examine the wound, it was agreed upon by all in attendance that it likely wouldn't heal correctly without stitches.

If our tent had been staked out at 10,000 feet, miles deep into a vast Western wilderness, there's a strong likelihood that I would be typing this story with a deformed left middle finger. However, although Elsmere may feel like it's in the middle of nowhere, it's just 40 miles from the Ainsworth Family Clinic.

GOBBLER GEAR

Turkey binocular, shotshells and shotgun
Nebraska turkey gear (from top left): Maven B1.2 binocular, Hevi-Shot Hevi-18 Turkey shotshells, Benelli Super Black Eagle 3 Turkey Performance Shop shotgun.

The gun, load and glass I used in Nebraska

  • SHOTGUN: If the length of the name of the Benelli Super Black Eagle 3 Turkey Performance Shop shotgun doesn't stop you in your tracks, the price very well might. But before you dismiss a $3,000-plus turkey shotgun as overpriced, realize that this might be the ultimate turkey shotgun. For starters, it comes fully cloaked in Mossy Oak Bottomland and is adorned with an oversized bolt handle, oversized bolt-release button and the company's SteadyGrip pistol grip. It features Benelli's inertia system, which handles heavy turkey loads with aplomb. The barrel and a full complement of chokes are cryogenically treated to improve pattern density and uniformity. And each gun receives performance-enhancing customization from Rob Roberts, one of the nation's foremost shotgun gunsmiths. To top it all off, Burris' excellent FastFire II red dot sight is included. ($3,399; benelliusa.com)
  • AMMO: Prior to a couple years ago, I never imagined I'd kill a mature tom turkey with No. 9 shot, but we are now living in the Age of Tungsten, when loads like Hevi-Shot's Hevi-18 Turkey make such feats possible. Granted, my bird didn't offer an opportunity at long-range testing, but it didn't flop much either. The product's name is in reference to the density of the pellets (18 grams per cubic centimeter), which are 48 percent denser than lead. This translates to a higher pellet count and greater lethality compared to lead. ($91.99/5 rounds; hevishot.com)
  • BINOCULAR: Whether you hunt turkeys in the great wide open or in thick timber, a good binocular is invaluable. And regardless if you rely on your glass to size up a tom strutting across a pasture several hundred yards distant, or to help pick apart dense brush is search of turkey movement, it's hard to beat the good old 8x42 configuration. Many turkey hunters opt for a compact bino anymore to save a few ounces, but in doing so they typically sacrifice objective diameter, magnification power or both. However, Maven's B1.2 offers all the benefits of an 8x42 in a 5.7-inch frame that weighs less than 2 pounds. ($950; mavenbuilt.com)

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