As winter gives way to spring, I always grow antsy, waiting for the chance to sit in a ground blind. The high hopes and anticipation of arrowing a good long beard are nearly enough to keep me awake at night. This year was no exception, and after a slow start to the Ohio turkey season, I once again found myself travelling out to the Pine Ridge area in Nebraska with the Bueltel Clan on our annual Merriam’s hunt. In addition to the usual crew, SELFILMED founder Forrest Breedlove also made the journey west in what would prove to be a most entertaining and pleasant addition to group. There were plenty of laughs and stories to be shared on the drive. Telling tales of old hunts always keeps the mood light and helps pass the time, but once we stepped foot on Nebraska soil, the tone changed…it was time to get down to business, we had Turkeys to kill!
Even before we arrived, we knew that we were going to have some rough weather conditions to deal with. The Monday of our arrival as well as Tuesday morning were forecasted to be great weather. Unfortunately, Tuesday evening leading into Wednesday morning we were expecting snow. In the past, this has typically shut the birds down, so we hoped to get at least one bird on the ground the first day we hunted. We used Monday, like usual, as a day to gain permission to hunt properties and attempt to locate and/or roost birds. Fortunately for Calvin and I, we were able to acquire permission on several pieces of property, one of them being the same ranch I had killed my Merriam’s on in 2012. We knew the property well, and because of that, we elected to make our start there.
The property looked much the same as it has in the past, but one thing we quickly noted was the lack of turkey sign. No feathers, no droppings, and no tracks in the dirt road that splits the property. It dampened our mood slightly, but we knew there had to be birds. There had been too many in the past and we assumed, or hoped at least, that the storm that had struck the previous October had not completely wiped out the birds. We scouted the entire western side of the property, but by the time dusk came, we were at a loss. We decided it would be best to pack our gear out and come back in the morning and simply wait to hear a gobble. We were a little discouraged, but not for long. No sooner than we turned to leave, a single bird sounded off to the South. We both spun quickly, trying our best to pinpoint the location the gobble had come from. Without knowing for sure, we dared not move in too close, but we were 90% sure it had come from the Southern end of a long draw we were standing near. Quickly we made our way to a spot we had called birds into in the past and set up the blind beneath a Pine. After putting out the decoys, we stowed our remaining gear away into the blind and silently slipped away. 3:30 AM would come sooner than we would like, but it couldn’t come soon enough.
When the alarm woke us the next morning, we were able to stave off the fatigue we felt. The excitement of knowing we were set up on a bird was enough to drive us out of our blankets and back to the blind. Thanks to setting up the night before, we had very little gear to carry in and we were able to get set up quickly and quietly. Not long after we were settled in the birds started hammering. What we had initially thought to be only one bird turned out to be at least two, and we believed there was a third bird as well. Slowly the sun climbed higher towards the horizon, and the gobbles slowed, but at last, we could tell the birds were on the ground.
No too much later, Calvin tapped me on the knee and told me he had spotted a bird on the hill in front of us at the Eastern edge of the field we were hunting. As I pulled up my binos, sure enough, there was a bird strutting right on top of the hill. He gobbled several times, and after 3 or 4 gobbles, he sounded off once more…except this time I did not see his neck extend. Sure enough, just a moment later another strutter crested the hilltop and from the side came 3 hens.
For the next 40 minutes, the birds strutted back and forth on the hilltop without showing any intention of coming our way. Impatient and wanting to make something happen, I decided to let out a few yelps. Another bird behind them hammered in response to my call! Both of the birds in the field began acting a little strange, and a few moments later the third bird materialized from the South. None of them were apt to simply running into our decoy spread, but you could definitely see a change in their posture at the arrival of this new, and from the looks of things, more dominant gobbler. After a few tense moments, the birds all settled down and began to work back the way the last bird had come. Fearing they were leaving Calvin struck a few purrs on his slate. That did the trick! All three birds went mad with gobbling, it was obvious they liked what they heard…so Calvin kept it up. All three gobblers and both hens began working towards us. One bird in particular really began quickening his pace. After crossing a barbed wire fence in the field, he began to sprint our direction. Going about 20 yards at a time, he kept stopping to strut and gobble. Closing distance all the way to 40 yards, I readied myself, as I knew I was about to get a shot. I then noticed the hens, still at the top of the field, began working southward again. The dominant bird in the field started to follow them, followed closely by the other bird now at about 100 yards, and of course, the closest bird turned and went with them. I couldn’t believe it. We had just called these birds approximately 300 yards, and after coming all that way, he decided he was not taking another step towards our DSD’s without his friends. Dejected, we watching him and the other birds walk away from our setup to the south.
For almost two hours, we caught periodic glances of the same group of birds through the trees to the southwest. They all appeared to be basking in the sun and looked like they were settling in for the morning. We did notice however that the strutter closest to us kept looking back our way and gobbling on occasion. Though we didn’t expect him to come in right that minute, we hoped he would make his way back to us later in the day.
A short while later, a fourth bird gobbled behind us to the north. Assuming he was alone, as it was nearly 10 AM, I decided to do some excited yelps and see if we could get him started our way. I was barely able to finish my calls before he answered back. I decided to let out a few more about 2 minutes later just to make sure he knew exactly where to find us. Suddenly, in the direction the three strutters had gone earlier, came a gobble…and it was close! I looked up and quickly noticed the tom standing at the edge of the woods only 80 yards away. I turned on the camera and got him in focus just in time for him to rip out one last gobble and start out way.
As he approached, he kept going into full strut, spitting and drumming the whole way. He got to the point he had turned around earlier, but this time, he kept coming. His head had been a pale w
hite the whole approach, but as he neared the 30 yard mark, like someone splashed him with paint, it became a brilliant red. We knew this time we were going to get a shot as he made his way inside of my effective range with a bow. He was planning to come have a talk with my DSD Jake that I had turned into a small Tom, and ask him why he was keeping all the hens to himself. As he approached my DSD at the 8 yard mark, he pushed up against the decoy and began to smack it with his wings and assert his dominance. I let him do his thing for a minute, capturing some great footage, but as he turned the decoy and faced away, it was time to let him know who was really boss. I slowly drew back my Hoyt…took one quick look to make sure he was in frame, settled my pin, and let my Grim Reaper tipped arrow fly. He took it no better than expected. The Grim Reaper made a mess of his right wing and took out his vitals. He jumped in the air, only to spin like a tornado 3 or 4 times and then he lay still in the field still touching my DSD. I was pumped! Our plan had worked out perfectly. But I must admit, despite our careful planning, it seemed a little unreal that not 24 hours after arriving, we had a bird on the ground already. Unsuccessfully, we spend a little time trying to call in the other two birds, but after a short period, I had to get out and put my hands on my second Merriam’s. We took a lot of pictures and shared a lot of high fives. I was on top of the world at that moment and nothing could bring me down.
2 years in a row I had ventured to Nebraska and been successful on harvesting a Merriam’s. This has definitely become a trip I will enjoy many times over, and with luck, we’ll have a chance to harvest many more of those beautiful Nebraska Merriam’s in the future. In fact, not a few hours after I shot my bird, another fell victim to the SELFILMED crew.
Be sure to check back on the SELFILMED Blog later to see who else had success while we were in camp.
- 20 lbs.
- 7 1/2″ beard
- 5/8″ and 3/4″ spurs