It started as something of a whim. Enamored by the novelty of crossbows and their growing popularity, I began looking for new ways to incorporate them into my hunting arsenal. They seemed an ideal weapon for turkeys. Crossbows bring the added challenge and thrill of bowhunting without the common spoiler: drawing the bow at the last possible second.
With an increasing number of states allowing the use of crossbows, the idea of travel spawned another idea. I'd long wanted to complete a National Wild Turkey Federation Grand Slam — an Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam's and Eastern turkey. And in doing my research I discovered no one had ever done so with a crossbow!
My quest was defined.
My good friend Scott Underhill of Extreme Dimension Wildlife Calls would accompany me and film the hunts for a DVD, Extreme Turkey Hunting. He would also prove to be a valuable asset and hunting companion.
THE SHOW BEGINS
Our first stop was at TRL Exotics in Wellington, Florida, about an hour and a half south of Orlando. By the luck of the draw, we were paired up with Brandon Storey, who manages the TRL properties and knows them better than anyone. Storey had carefully prepared a ground blind out of natural vegetation ahead of our arrival, which was where our quest would begin.
There is one major difference between turkey hunting with a crossbow and turkey hunting with a compound bow. With a crossbow, you can draw the bow before the turkey gets near. That's a huge help because turkeys have some of the keenest eyes in the animal kingdom.
It's still a close-range game. You need to give extra attention to your choice of camouflage and your concealment. I prefer to hunt from a blind. Pop-ups are ideal, but a well-built blind covered in natural materials will be a close second. We settled into our blind, fashioned mostly from palmettos fronds, and awaited the dawn symphony.
It began in somewhat typical fashion. Barred owls made up the bass section, eliciting tenor gobbles from the treetops. A raucous chorus of woodwind clucks and yelps from the numerous hens followed.
Already my heart was racing.
Before the turkeys pitched down, a pair of sandhill cranes landed in center stage and belted out a raucous bout of trumpeting. This evoked odd sounds from exotic ungulates in the area.
The crescendo built to a fever pitch. It sounded like feeding time at the zoo.
Despite the risk of spooking birds, I couldn't resist adding my very best jungle bird calls, which brought muffled snickers from my companions.
I didn't realize it at the time, but the flora and fauna would provide a sharp contrast to future turkey-hunting locations on my quest.
Things were shaping up nicely, but, as so often happens, the turkeys had other ideas. Jakes and hens piled in all morning, but no longbeards showed.
The afternoon went the same way. Again we couldn't bring a longbeard into range.
At day's end we built another makeshift blind, this time closer to where the longbeards had roosted the previous day.
Unfortunately, they chose another location to roost and, the next morning, another direction to leave. After calling fruitlessly for a while, we struck out for some run-and-gun hunting, moving from one location to the next, trying to elicit a shock gobble.
Running-and-gunning is an effective tactic for gun hunters. But it's especially challenging for bow hunters. Moving quickly through the dense underbrush is not as easy, or quiet, and when an eager bird responds, you can't simply plop down against the nearest tree. You have to find the right mix of sufficient cover and clear shooting lanes, often a daunting challenge.
Even when we struck a responsive bird, we weren't able to draw him into bow range. We had one that could have been felled by a tightly choked shotgun. In the end, we came up empty.
Fortunately, I'd prepared for such an eventuality. One of the most important steps in planning a Slam, particularly if you hope to do it in a single season, is to have contingencies.
I had lined up a second Osceola hunt, which would ultimately prove crucial. I didn't know it at the time, but in this second location, there are both Osceola and Easterns.
FLORIDA, PART II
My friend Jeff Lampe set up the next leg through connections he had in the Jacksonville area. Marvin Hartley, a former NWTF board member, and local turkey hunters Richard Barkoski and Danny Barrett provided local knowledge. Barkoski had scouted the area and built a ground blind.
The first morning was unseasonably cold for Florida — 34 degrees — which may have accounted for the lack of roost gobbling.
Minutes seem like hours when things don't go according to plan. The sun had yet to crest the treetops when we finally heard distant gobbles coming from several directions.
I typically begin with soft, sparse calling first thing in the morning, but the birds had already left the roost, and sounded a ways off, so I went right into aggressive mode. They seemed responsive, at least vocally, but weren't moving any closer. With little to lose at this point, I amped up the calling again.
The increasingly vocal birds were still a ways off when Underhill suddenly whispered, "Don't move. There's a longbeard 40 yards away."
The gobbler sneaked in silently and was now making his way toward our decoys. Relying on Underhill's eyes and whispered instructions, I carefully adjusted into a shooting position, switched on my Nikon red dot scope and set my TenPoint Titan up on its monopod.
I was ready for a shot.
When the bird finally showed up over my right shoulder, he was already in range, trotting toward the decoys and into my line of fire. I followed him as best I could. When he stopped I wasted little time lining up and taking the shot.
We watched anxiously as the bird limped off 50 yards then laid down. We were on the board!
But our first leg wasn't over yet.
With another tag and time remaining, we moved a short but ultimately critical distance north the next day. We failed to connect, but our efforts gave us a good idea where to set up for the final day's hunt.
After a morning with several close encounters, things slowed considerably. We were preparing to pick up and move when Underhill spied first a hen and then a strutter coming down the dirt two-track. We dove back in the bushes and got ready.
The way they approached, I wouldn't be able to see them until they were right on top of us. Making matters worse, the hen appeared first, picked us up immediately, clucked, and trotted off into the pines.
Fortunately, the gobbler missed it. He was keyed in on our decoy and kept coming. He cleared the cover at less than 10 yards.
He nailed us.
Three steps would have put him safely back in the bushes. He only got two. I put the red dot on him, squeezed the trigger, and sent a Grim Reaper-tipped arrow on its way. He was down.
The kill seemed like icing on the cake, a second Osceola. Or was it?
In fact, this bird, almost an after-thought — shot in Osceola-Eastern country — would end up being crucial to the success of my quest.
TEXAS TIMES TWO
Rio Grande turkeys are widespread, abundant and considered the easiest to bag. We headed down to Texas to hunt two ranches. The second was an insurance policy if needed to tap into it.
The first stop was the Eldorado Ranch We teamed up with Bill Zeering of Cody Calls, a pioneer in the call industry with over 40 years of turkey hunting experience. He was able to coax a reluctant bird into the very limits of my self-imposed range, but my shot flew low. The remainder of that hunt proved unsuccessful, so we packed up and headed southwest of San Antonia to Cotulla.
This time I'd be hunting the Herradura Ranch, which is owned by Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett — a special treat for a die-hard Sox fan like myself.
Again, we shot out of a blind, albeit one consisting of little more than a few sparse mesquite branches. We added a bit more natural cover, settled in and hoped for the best.
Any reservations about the plan vanished when gobbles sounded off to our left, our right and behind us.
"Hmm," I thought. "Maybe this will work after all."
It wasn't long before birds pitched down to our left. Within minutes a bunch of hens and three strutters arrived on scene, but they soon faded off, uphill and into the woods.
Not to worry, though, as two more toms sounded off behind us and seemed to be coming our way.
"Would they join the others, or turn our way?" I wondered.
They saw the decoys and quickly closed the distance to 50 yards, 40, then 30.
"Stay on the strutter," I whispered to Underhill, so he could get the kill on camera. "He's the biggest bird."
Suddenly, at the last second, the birds changed positions
"Switch to the other bird!"
"I'm on him," Underhill said.
I settled the 20-yard dot on the bird's mid-section and squeezed the trigger.
The arrow hit him amidships, and he stumbled and ran over the hill. The shot felt good, but I wasn't sure.
How quickly to follow is a tough choice bowhunters must make when the bird we hit doesn't go down right away. Sometimes it's best to let it go off and expire rather than risk running him off. Other times it's better to run him down quickly. Every situation is different, and you have to evaluate the circumstances and make a split-second decision. More often I'll let them go, particularly if I feel confident in the hit. If they're laboring to make headway, I'm more inclined to make a quick retrieval.
We opted for the former and waited an hour. When we set after him, we found him down. We successfully recovered what I thought was the second species in my slam!
I followed up the next day with a second Rio Grande. We were almost home.
Cost and logistics kept us from making a back-up plan for the Merriam's subspecies. We only had one hunt scheduled in Wyoming. It would be an all-or-nothing hunt.
The pressure seemed to build with every step.
First there was a nearly missed late connection in Denver. Then an overweight baggage situation required off-loading all but our carry-on bags.
We were greeted in Sheridan by our guide, Scott Shreve, and by 30-degree temperatures and 30 knot-winds blowing snow diagonally — less than ideal conditions for turkey hunting, particularly with only three days to hunt. After a second trip to the airport to pick up our late-arriving bags, it was creeping up on midnight when we finally arrived at our hotel, worn out and discouraged.
Morning offered little hope. The wind was howling, and snow had piled up to over a foot in areas. Our trio spent the first hour or so hiding in a barn watching a roosted tom gobble from the rocking limbs of a big cottonwood. The wait didn't pay off.
We spent the remainder of the day slogging through the snow and futilely trying to call in a bird. Figuring the birds would return to the same roost, we built a ground blind nearby, and fashioned a small log "fence," hoping it would funnel the birds our way. Things ended on a more positive note that day when we returned to the roost at sunset and watched several hens and jakes and two long-bearded Merriam's fly up.
I learned long ago there are no sure things in turkey hunting, but this looked pretty good. Unfortunately, instead of exiting as they had the day before, the flock turned and headed straight away.
"Shoulda known," I cursed under my breath. "This was just too easy."
Before we had time to formulate another plan, I noticed the birds had turned and were now heading back our way, and fast. I immediately keyed in on the strutting bird.
Slowly, gradually, the handsome bird made his way closer. It seemed but a matter of time before I would pull the trigger
History repeated itself when, at the last possible instant, the other gobbler rushed in front, taking a more vulnerable position.
"Switch to the other bird, the other bird!" I urgently whispered to the cameraman.
I settled the red dot on the bird's mid-section and squeezed the trigger. A fraction of a second later, there was a loud thwack! and I had my first Merriam's turkey. I thought it was the third of my four Grand Slam birds. I was wrong.
We'd had a few close calls, but the biggest mistake I made on my crossbow quest was taking Eastern birds for granted.
With time running out, we finally settled on Ohio. Late season can be tough, and an early spring made this one tougher. Breeding activity was winding down, and so were bird numbers. After four frustrating days, we were forced to extend our stay another two. It would all come down to one final hunt.
We woke to the worst weather we'd had all week — steady, hard rain. Given that, and our lack of success at the other locations, I opted for an enclosed shooting house where our host saw turkeys sporadically throughout the spring. Underhill and I sat in the blind on that final morning, all the while hoping an eleventh-hour tom would stroll in and help us make history. But when my watch struck noon, we packed up our gear and headed dejectedly back to camp.
It looked like I had failed. I did not kill a turkey on the last leg of the quest, and now the season was over.
The Eastern subspecies, the one I had hunted for years and was the most familiar with, had beaten me.
Turkey hunting is an emotional roller coaster. Things that seem inevitable fail to materialize. And sometimes, when all seems lost, an opportunity presents itself in a most unexpected way.
Several days later I was back home unenthusiastically entering my kills in the NWTF's Wild Turkey Records Database when I came upon a map depicting ranges for the four subspecies of wild turkeys.
"Could it be possible?" I thought.
A quick phone call to the NWTF record-keepers confirmed my hope.
The second of my Florida birds was taken in one of the northern counties where the ranges of Easterns and Osceolas overlap. Because of that, these birds intermingle, and can be considered either Osceolas or Easterns!
I had two turkeys from that area. Completely above board, I could call the second one an Eastern!
I had, in fact, completed the first recorded Grand Slam with a crossbow!
Though it was a personal accomplishment, taking the Grand Slam by crossbow was truly a group effort and would not have been possible without the help of so many others, to whom I am deeply indebted.
With a good friend and great guides behind me, my quest was completed.