New tricks for an old dog in northwest Nebraska.
Eddie Claypool managed to snap this photograph of his first Merriam's gobbler as the bird strutted into bow range outside his blind.
Spring is a wonderful time of year. Warm winds bring booming thunderstorms, the grass is greening, the frogs are croaking and the birds are singing. It seems Mother Nature is waking from her long season of hibernation, and joy and good cheer are in her breath. Having spent 27 years as a construction worker, spring has always signaled a heavy workload for me. This is compounded by the fact that I quit work for about three months each autumn to pursue my passion for bowhunting antlered game. Such being the case, funds tend to be tight around my household during the springtime, and I have always had to work as much overtime as possible to catch up.
Only in the last few years has this pattern changed in my life. A few years after I married Peggie in October 2006, new opportunities began to pop up. Peg is a Realtor and deals with quite a few foreclosed properties. That being the case, there was a need for someone to rehabilitate these properties, getting them ready to go back on the market. I was the man for the job! As I embarked on this new line of work, the fringe benefits became clear. I get to sleep with my boss. My boss likes to hunt. I'm my own foreman, keep my own time, and thus, I've been able to free up some time for spring turkey hunting. Over the past few years, I've come to love the pursuit of longbeards, and I now eagerly anticipate days spent listening to gobbles and watching strutting toms.
A New Adventure
Having been able to take the Eastern and Rio Grande subspecies of gobblers in states surrounding my Oklahoma home, it was only natural wanderlust would eventually overtake me. Deciding to go on a road trip in search of my first Merriam's, Peg and I headed for northwestern Nebraska in late April of 2009, with smiles on our faces.
Field Editor Eddie Claypool prepares to carry his first-ever Merriam's gobbler back to camp after a successful hunt in northwest Nebraska.
As we rolled down the rural highways of the heartland, Peg and I quietly questioned our sanity. Were we really going to drive 600 miles so I could bowhunt a turkey? The answer was a definitive yes, and we both knew we were simply glad to be able to do it. Soaking up the sights of rural America, stopping in small-town cafes and exchanging chitchat with locals made the drive pleasant. By late evening, northwestern Nebraska was within our grasp.
Having set our sights on public lands in this part of the state, we chose one and headed that way. Asphalt quickly turned to gravel, then gravel to dirt. Flat, barrenness soon gave way to mesas, canyons and pine-covered ridges. Though we'd heard such country existed in the Cornhusker State, neither of us could really comprehend such a reality until we saw it with our own eyes. Yes, Nebraska certainly has some gorgeous country, and it's a fairly well kept secret.
Eddie Claypool is one proud bowhunter after arrowing his first Merriam's gobbler in Nebraska.
Winding down a remote canyon, Peg and I soon spotted a nice-looking camping spot. Jumping out to survey the area, a nip was in the air. In the shade of a nearby coulee, we spotted a snow bank, a sure sign that winter can be stubborn in loosening its grip on the high plains. The air was filled with the smell of pine -- a fragrance that always reminds me of many good hunts past. Hurrying back to the truck, we quickly set up a nice camp as darkness settled around us. Tomorrow would be a day of exploration and excitement.
Up at first light, I headed afield as Peg snuggled in the warmth of her sleeping bag. Covering ground quickly, I was ready to get started learning as much as possible about these Merriam's gobblers. Hiking over varied terrain, I covered a lot of ground, hearing no birds and seeing little sign. From what I could gather, there had been a good deal of hunting pressure in the area. Foot tracks were plentiful. Realizing this location might not be what I was looking for, I headed back to camp mid-morning. Sharing my findings with Peg over a cup of coffee, we decided to break camp and go to Plan B.
Our secondary plan consisted of running down a fellow we'd visited with by phone before leaving home. One of our good friends had put us in touch with this rancher, and it turned out this gracious fellow was willing to give us access to his 1,500 acres. There were some birds there, and the gent was more than interested in seeing whether I could get one with my bow. Well, that made two of us!
Heading to town, Peg and I were soon meeting with the rancher and his wife. Before long, they had us headed to the property, a gorgeous spread of rolling, pine-covered hills and brush-filled ravines. Though I didn't know much about Merriam's habitat, even I could tell this place had it going on.
Parking behind the rancher's barn, Peg and I set about establishing a base camp. In short order, we were finished and it was time to pack lunch and head out. Taking a circuitous route, we covered the miles with great anticipation. Toward early evening, I elicited a response from a gobbler that was clearly holed-up in a deep gorge. Considering the hour, I decided to sit back and attempt to roost the bird. About an hour before sunset, the big gobbler and his harem of five hens made an appearance at the top of the ravine. Awed by our first look at this beautiful species of fowl, Peg and I glassed the birds excitedly. Spinning in circles, the strutting tom was clearly mature, and I lusted after him.
As the birds drifted back into the timber, the sun slipped below the horizon. It was clear the birds were roosting where we'd hoped they would, and Peg and I slipped away from our hilltop perch as the evening chill settled around our clothing. The brisk walk back to camp soon had us warm again, and we chatted excitedly about the prospects of the morning hunt.
A Hero's Welcome
When the alarm went off in the cold darkness, I was up in a flash. The excitement of the hunt coursed through my veins. Cramming down a few donuts and a couple swallows of hot chocolate, I grabbed my gear and headed out. A bright, moonlit night made my journey easy. Approaching the ravine where the birds were roosted, daylight hinted
from the eastern sky. Setting up my portable blind, I placed decoys and climbed inside. Frost covered the ground. The air was crisp. I was alive and healthy, and a big Merriam's gobbler was preparing to greet the new day only a few hundred yards distant. What more could a bowhunter ask for? How about some early-morning "hero" photos?
As dawn spilled upon the landscape, a loud gobble streamed from the trees ahead. Instantly excited, I greatly anticipated the action to come. Before long, it became apparent the birds were on the ground, as the gobbling was clearly changing locations. Making a few short, soft yelps, the gobbler immediately sounded back closer! Spying the strutting bird about 100 yards from my blind, I jumped to a new level of excitement. What a gorgeous sight in the morning sun. Man, I wanted this bird in the worst of ways.
Soon, the birds began to drift away, sending me into a panic. Grabbing my calls, I attempted to lure them back, but they weren't buying into my sideshow. I listened as the birds departed, and my spirits dropped with the volume of the ever more distant gobbles.
Shortly, however, I realized I was now hearing another gobbler in another direction. Once again excited, I set about calling to the unseen bird. In short order, I spotted this bird strutting down the ridgeline behind me. Grabbing my camera, I was able to snap a few quick shots as the tom strode into range. Laying the camera down, I reached for my Mathews bow and prepared for the moment I'd worked long and hard for. Bringing the string back to my face, I sent the arrow on its way. In seconds, all was quiet. My tag was filled.
Jumping from the blind, I hurried to my first Merriam's and examined the bird from end to end. The radiant colors of the plumage glistened in the morning light, in stark contrast with the cream color of the tail crest. Peg was going to take those hero photos after all.