For the third leg of my single-season Grand Slam Pursuit, I found myself at One Lazy J Ranch and Outfitter in northwest Nebraska. Six unforgettable days were spent with four other hunters who, like me, are carriers of the "spring sickness."
Having hunted the carefully managed ranch a few years back, I knew to expect lots of birds that have seen very little pressure. My expectations were fulfilled the first evening as we climbed atop one of the many rolling hills and witnessed a stunning show: Longbeards, hens and jakes fought, bred and finally flew up to a traditional roost by the tens, twenties, thirties, forties ... "This is what we came for, boys!" After an evening of plotting strategies over sippers of whiskey and a few tasty bottles of Longbeard Winter Wheat, we settled in for a restless night of jittery sleep.
Surprisingly, the first day brought no dropped hammers—just a few super-close calls. We desperately worked the turkey talk on our boxes, pots and mouth calls with hopes of luring a lonely feather or two into range, but the Merriam's chattered among their own. The birds followed their daily routines as we observed and planned for a new day.
A cold, miserable rain with high winds was in the ScoutLook forecast for Day No. 2, and that's exactly what ushered us into the pitch-black morning. I joined my friend, Branigan, and we stuck it out long enough for him to tag his first-ever turkey. We would return to the same hotspot later in the afternoon, but with me behind the gun.
After a short nap and quick gameplan formation, we grabbed a Double Bull T2 ground blind and hit the field. Not long after getting comfortable on a small rise above where Branigan had killed his bird, we heard a single gobble. Then another even closer. And then another. As I cautiously peered out the mesh window of the blind, suddenly I noticed movement to the right—a red head, barely visible in the intense sunlight. The tom locked his eyes on our Avian-X hen decoys and began strutting, spitting and drumming. Agressive calling, soft calling, no calling at all ... I tried it all, but the stuck-in-his-ways longbeard wouldn't come closer than 65 yards. We watched in admiration as he performed his delicate dance for 15 minutes.
Then, over a far hill, a mixed flock of hens, jakes and toms appeared. The toms strutted as the hens let out demanding, nails-on-a-chalkboard yelps. They spotted the gobbler on our dance floor and, all at once, sprinted toward him. This could be good, I thought, crossing my fingers that one of the mature toms would wander into the kill zone of my Weatherby PA-459. That's exactly what happened.
Branigan quickly pulled a shooting window aside before the final tom strutted out of sight. My shotgun barrel snuck out the window and my ghost ring sights centered on his neck. I was blessed with an esquisite 2-year-old Merriam's tom, courtesy of a riled-up bunch of birds, a fast-acting hunting buddy, and a necessary stroke of turkey-hunter's luck.
With Osceola, Rio Grande and Merriam's longbeards under my belt, only one subspecies remains in my single-season Grand Slam Pursuit: the Eastern. This week, I'll head to my annual stomping grounds in southwest Wisconsin to give 'em all I got—nothing less.