I peered down the top of my ventilated rib, safety off, finger on the trigger. The bright white head suddenly appeared at 10 yards, silhouetting himself in the fading sunrise sky. He gobbled, and immediately, I was taken back sixty years to a similar scenario with my grandfather calling behind me. Turkey hunting in my family was our most coveted hunting tradition. At the age of five, the anticipation of, “Turkey Camp” may have surpassed that of Santa Claus on Christmas day. New blades of green grass began to pop as the spring snow melted, the trees began to bud and the turkeys began to gobble. The “bugle of the spring” as my grandfather referred to it, was a sound a turkey hunter never gets tired of hearing. My first turkey seasons were many years ago and each year I find myself traveling to chase those, “bugles of the spring”.
I’ve traveled to several different western states to chase Merriams turkeys, and most recently I traveled to Buffalo, Wyoming to hunt with the guys at Big Horn Outfitters.
Western states often have generous seasons and bag limits, allowing you to harvest 2 to 3 birds in a season that may last as many as fifty days. When I’m traveling to hunt, I always appreciate any opportunity to hunt multiple birds. The white-tipped tail of the Merriams turkey is as beautiful as the vast and mountainous terrain they inhabit. I love the fact that many of my western harvest photos are in a green hayfield or river bottom with snowcapped mountains in the background. My experiences with Merriams indicate that they’re fairly aggressive, they don’t mind being called, they respond well to decoys and they’re far less pressured than most of the birds east of the Mississippi. Anyone who’s hunted turkeys understands precisely how those indicators can lend a helping hand to notched tags.
I began the search for an outfitter during the summer months. I surfed the web, reading reviews, watching videos, and visiting websites. I narrowed it down and fired off several emails to my short-listers. Over the years, I’ve sent many emails to outfitters and it never ceases to amaze me how few responses I receive and of those responses how many of them happen months down the road. Either way, I sent an email to Big Horn Outfitters and within a couple of hours, I had a very informative and detailed response to the questions I had posed. A short phone call later and my dates were secured for late April of the following spring. The hunt was a three-day, all-inclusive hunt for two birds.
Dustin DeCroo and Rich Sweeny are the owners of Big Horn Outfitters. From my first email, the communication was clear and prompt. They contacted me when the application period opened in January and took care of my license applications and obtained the conservation stamp that I would need to legally embark upon my adventure. Well in advance of the hunt, they sent me all the information I would need in regard to gear, arrival times and airport pick-up. Their communication certainly eased any tension or uneasiness that any hunter could incur on their first hunt with a new outfitter. Granted, in the grand scheme of things, a turkey hunt doesn’t generate the same “outfitter anxiety” as chasing a sheep in the remote wilderness of a far-off country, but a paid hunt nonetheless. Over the years, I have learned that ironing out all the details well in advance certainly helps to reduce any stress that I may have as the hunt approaches.
After a quick and (mostly) turbulent-free plane ride from Denver to Gillette, Wyoming, I deplaned into a crisp, cool northerly breeze. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I was able to see the green grass blanketing the sage-covered hillsides. I was eagerly greeted by Dustin’s wife, Jennifer at the gate. Dustin and Rich were out shooting prairie dogs with other hunters that had filled their turkey tags early in their hunt. The rolling door at the baggage claim opened and my camo duffel bag and shotgun were the first two pieces of luggage to slide down the ramp, I was pleasantly surprised. More than once I’ve found myself watching the track circle around empty and then come to a stop. We hopped in the car and began the short drive on I-90 to Buffalo, the Bighorn Mountains growing ever larger in our approach. Anyone that has ever had the pleasure of driving from Gillette to Buffalo, Wyoming, will understand that a turkey hunter could begin to think that he’s been bamboozled. With the exception of crossing the Powder River, you’d be hard-pressed to find a roost tree, let alone a strutting tom.
Jen turned the vehicle into the lodge and pulled up to lucky cabin number four, the cabin I would call home for the next three days. “Lunch is ready, come over after you get settled in,” Jen said as she headed over to the main building. At first glance, the exterior of the cabin was modest and rustic. The inside was very clean and had the warming feel of my grandfather’s cabin we used for turkey camp when I was young. I had a refrigerator stocked with bottled water and Gatorade, fresh linens and my own bathroom.
Quickly, I organized my stuff and headed to the main lodge building. I entered the mudroom to a sign on the main door that read, “friends don’t knock, come on in.” The lodge was recently remodeled, with reclaimed wood and big game mounts decorating the walls. A large television sat across from the bar, with couches and two oversized leather chairs. I later learned how productivity can be affected by sitting in those leather chairs after a day of walking and a belly full of good vittles. As I admired a pronghorn hanging on the wall, Dustin and Rich both came in and introduce themselves. We ate a bowl of white chicken chili as we went over the safety sheet as I signed my licenses. I truly appreciated the great respect the guys exhibited for the laws, landowners, and wildlife. By the time my chili bowl was empty, I already felt like I’d known Dustin and Rich for years.
The following morning I woke up well-rested. I could see the sunrise colors sneaking through a small gap in the curtains. I have to admit, I’d never been on a turkey hunt that we set out after the sun had risen. During lunch and our discussion about the hunt, Dustin had explained that they don’t hunt the roosts unless it’s absolutely necessary. He explained that because there isn’t a plethora of roost trees and the next closest roost could be a mile away, they allow the birds to come down unpressured and wait for them to disperse before pursuing them. He and Rich also explained that the birds gobble a great deal and are visible throughout the majority of the day and finding the birds is not usually a problem.
After a quick breakfast, we were on our way to chase some spring bugles. The LCD thermometer read 41-degrees, but the high elevation sun made it feel much warmer. I’m fairly certain that I had seen more deer, antelope, and turkeys than I’d ever seen in my life by the time we arrived at the first ranch and it was only a 12-mile drive. Dustin approached the ranch entrance and before his tires hit gravel, Rich had three strutters spotted. The excitement of seeing that first bird of the day is something that absolutely never gets old.
After glassing the hills and the valley for a couple of minutes, the number of birds we could see was increasing exponentially. As a guy that grew up in the southeastern United States, being able to physically see birds is truly incredible. There were 15 toms and countless hens that dotted the terrain as we eased the truck behind a thick patch of gray brush to get out of sight.
We snaked our way through the thick brush by way of deer “tunnels” that connected intermittent clearings. On each side of us, the sagebrush and grass covered hills rose to rocky ridges, where the mule deer stood sky-lined, watching us contently from a safe distance. Gobble after gobble rang through the draw, ever increasing in volume as we approached. Dustin and Rich each carried a turkey fan, no decoys and a couple of calls. Certainly not anywhere near the amount of gear I usually lug along.
As we reached the end of the last thicket, our pace slowed. There was a small rise in front of us that kept us from getting a visual on the birds from where we stood, but they were certainly doing their best to impress the ladies. Dustin crawled on his belly about 15 feet to where he could see over the lip, as he barely raised the fan atop the sage brush and gave a soft yelp. One tom sounded off and Dustin gave a slow thumbs-up as he retracted the fan. Quickly, he slid back down the hill and motioned me to set up in the deer tunnel we had just exited. “He’s coming quick and he’s going to be inside of 10 yards”, Dustin whispered.
Quietly, I slipped a 20-guage, 3-inch #6 into the chamber and closed the bolt on my old Browning. Rich yelped quietly to our left and the bird gobbled almost immediately, in front and slightly to the right. Within seconds, the big white head, snood dancing, magically appeared within the sagebrush. His attention was focused to the left as he strutted and picked his way through the sage. I had to wait for an ethical shot, which meant I needed him to cross the ridge fully. He did so looking for his hen and at 7-yards as he stood tall to see her, I squeezed the trigger. With my bird down, we handed out big hugs, endless smiles and ‘high-fives.’ We admired the bird, the scenery and thanked God for the opportunity. I’ve taken many turkeys, but at my age, I take none for granted.
A bird down in the morning of the first day? What was I going to do next? Fortunately, in this part of the country and with Big Horn Outfitters (www.bighornoutfitters.com), you have options. The area has some phenomenal trout fishing opportunities, prairie dogs for the varmint hunters and plenty of history and sights to see as well. With a smirk, Rich said to Dustin (while looking in my direction), “Should we tell him there are some leftover tags?” I smiled and said, “I’ll buy breakfast at that place right next to the sporting goods shop.”