It was back in a time when I was able to leap small mountains in only two or three bounds, and climb up rock hillsides with a shotgun on my back. There we were, just out of our tent drinking coffee, out in the middle of the Ozark National Forestland of Arkansas, in the wilds of Newton County. And you could hear two gobblers sounding off on the roost a good mile down the valley… maybe more. Up the valley a few hundred yards, a much closer gobbler answered them.
“I ain’t messin’ around with that one,” my partner said fairly emphatically!
It seemed to me that closer one was the best idea, so I asked why he seemed so certain it wasn’t.
“That gobbler there, he’s been called at and fooled with, maybe even shot at for all we know,” he answered.
“Heck, this is the first day of turkey season,” I questioned. “And we’re the only camp within five miles.”
My partner threw out the last of his coffee and gulped down his last swallow as he did so. “I know these folks in Newton County,” he said, “ I growed up here amongst ‘em. An’ you can believe me… he’s been hunted since it got to be March!”
I didn’t argue much. Down that Ozark canyon before us where those two distant gobblers were, a small creek flowed into another, and there were no logging roads back in there. That meant the two gobblers we could hear were likely unharassed, unhunted and unaware that a hen turkey’s sweet call might not be a hen turkey. Oh of course they weren’t the only toms there in that long hollow beneath the pine-studded ridge-tops. There were others, hesitant to gobble perhaps, with the other two threatening to flog and spur any competition.
So with nothing more than our calls, a light pack of essentials and a shotgun, we pitched off into the deep gorge before us. We would ease along the creek bottom until we could pretty well tell where the two gobblers were.
Getting to the bottom was easy; you just had to use your elbows as brakes and try to get your feet planted on rock outcroppings. You sort of walked and slid and bounced. In the bottom of the big canyon, the flowing water made it very hard to hear the gobblers, down the creek and up on the ridge to our right.
Wild Gobblers are heavy, and unlike young turkeys, they don’t like to fly up into the trees to roost. They like to pitch off a hilltop and drop down to a big tree where their roost is well above ground but still below them late in the evening. Then at first light, they fly out onto the flat ridgetop where the hens gather, to mate. And that’s where those gobblers were. In that creek valley floor, you could hear them faintly.
We finally got to the area below them, and my partner wanted to work down a little farther along the creek. I began the long hard climb up that steep incline strewn with big pines and boulders. When I gained the top, my heart up in the 150-beats-a- minute rate, I just lay back against a tree and checked to be sure my gun barrel had no mud in it and my little homemade box call was still in one piece. I hoped I hadn’t spooked those gobblers. As hard as I was breathing it should have been discernible at a good distance. And then the two both gobbled nearly in unison, about a hundred yards away, back up that high, flat ridge.
There is no use dragging the story out. I called for 30 minutes or so, they gobbled a lot. I sat there in anticipation and the gobblers eased down into the valley from whence I had just come.
During the winter before, on a snow-flurried day out on Bull Shoals Lake, I had decided I wanted to become a Christian… a real one, not just a religious follower of some sect or denomination. Baptized at the age of 13, I never really had a concept of what Christianity meant. But even at a young age, I spent enough time in the woods and on the river alone to know God was real. I wasn’t sure about anything else. Finally over the years into my mid-twenties, I began to get the picture, and I just told God that day out on the Lake that I wanted to change for the better and do what He wanted me to do with my life, following as best I could the teachings and guidance of Jesus as I had read of Him in the Bible.
I expected things to be easier. I counted on things getting better. And now here I had worked so hard to get there with those gobblers, and God was letting them get away, leaving me there two miles from camp, half exhausted.
I almost didn’t follow the turkeys. They went up the opposite hillside, gobbling on occasion to let me know where they were, and began to strut and mate and carry on over on that other ridge. I told God that I was awful disappointed in Him. I had done my part by climbing that mountain, and he had allowed the gobblers to elude me by crossing over to a place I would have to be super human to get too. I wasn’t going to do it.
About nine o’clock that morning they quit gobbling. They quit gobbling about the time I started climbing up to that ridge where they went. I got up there, knees and elbows and tail-bone bruised, and found myself a nice big pine to lean against, trying to reduce my heart rate. There were the beautiful dogwoods, birds singing, squirrels scurrying, but no gobbling. And it was that way for at least an hour. I dozed off and said to heck with it. God wasn’t going to help me, and I was mad at Him, as I have been a thousand times since when things haven’t gone so well for me, even with all the faith I have displayed.
I woke up and drank some water from my canteen and ate some crackers and cheese and decided I would head back camp and make myself a baloney sandwich. It was getting up toward noon. And then I heard a gobble, strong and lusty and close, maybe 100 yards before me. There’s little use in dragging it out, the way us outdoor writers do… my trembling hands managed a couple of poor hen imitations on my box-call and then I saw him easing toward me through the timber. He was strutting before me at 40 yards when I pulled the trigger, and standing over him I said something like, “Thank you God!” Then added, saying it to myself so He couldn’t hear me. “It’s about time, I worked hard enough to get here.”
It was then that I heard a rumble of thunder back to the south! Knowing God is aware of how much I am afraid of Lightning, I think that might have been a stern response. Since that long ago time, there have been lots of gobblers. Sometimes when one gets away I still argue with God about whether or not I don’t deserve to be treated better.
But when I see a genuine miracle while roaming the woods or floating a river, I realize that He hasn’t given up on any of us yet. I still don’t understand much, but perhaps knowing the answers to all the questions I have isn’t really that important. I think maybe Easter holds the answer to that.
To inquire about one of my books or my outdoor magazine, email firstname.lastname@example.org or just call the Lightnin’ Ridge office… 417 777 5227. Mailing address is Box 22, Bolivar, Mo 65613.