High Desert Showdown
I hope I never forget the feeling I had when I hung up the phone. Jason Temple, owner of Cross Country Camo, was casually calling to tell me he had gotten access to 6000 acres of thorny, snake infested, dusty, canyon country in west Texas to hunt Rio Grande gobblers. That was cool and all, but when he included me in the trip plans, things got serious in a hurry.
When I was boarding the plane from St. Louis, I suddenly realized this was my first out-of- state hunting trip since my grandfather had taken me on a whitetail hunting trip to Arkansas in my early teens. There was plenty of apprehension, especially since I had never flown with archery equipment. The takeaway, have friends that travel to hunt who can help you get over that anxiety. Once the wheels touched down in Dallas, the apprehension had dissolved, and “hunting mode” was fully engaged. As the sun rose the next morning, Jason and I had already begun a five hour road trip west to the beautiful Eason Ranch. As we drove, something changed in a sheltered Missouri turkey hunter.
Once we got about 80 miles from the nearest town, jagged, steep-walled canyons began to replace the miles of flat, mesquite-filled cattle pastures that dominated the trip. I was a long way from the lush fields and white oak wood lots of the midwest. Different terrain, different tactics, and different turkeys were about to make me a rookie again.
We were met with a warm welcome by the Eason family. Exactly how you expect Texas to be. Rascal, Duke, and Molly (the family dogs) were all equally friendly. We also became acquainted with two little goats that Ronda had rescued and was bottle feeding before turning them back out with the others. After a short visit, it was time to break out the gear for the evening hunt.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more “Texas”, we asked John where he thought we should sit for the evening. He pointed generically and said, “Why don’t you guys head up six mile canyon and set up by the windmill.” SIX MILE CANYON! Yes, it just got even more Texas. So we packed up the “buggy” aka, a UTV, and started up the trail to the windmill.
As we were pulling decoys out of the duffel bag, we heard a very familiar sound. Wing beats. Across the dry creek in the bottom of the canyon, we had been spotted by a gobbler that was working his way in for a final drink before he went to roost. Our hunt quickly turned into a roosting endeavor. We watched the sun turn the canyon walls purple as he gobbled his way about 200 yards behind our location to hop into a tree for the evening.
We weren’t sure what to do. Trail cameras were showing birds at almost every other likely place on the farm, including where we had just been busted. The only thing we could do that made any kind of sense to two guys that had just been whipped by a Texas tom in six mile canyon, was go right back there the next morning.
When the sun began to provide enough light to make out the silhouette of the windmill the next morning, we discovered that the gobbler had moved during the latest parts of the evening. 200 yards was more like 400, and it came time to put on our hiking boots. Once that tom hit the ground, his plans pointed him to the very back of six mile canyon.
Around mile three, as we were carefully walking a narrow goat path along a canyon wall, I remember telling Jason, “You know we have to kill this turkey right? We have to kill the six mile canyon gobbler.” It was wishful thinking. Three miles later, the gobbler decided to top the far canyon wall and head onto an open pasture. By lunch, I took a peek at my phone at it revealed that we had covered more than 8 miles working carefully along canyon walls and stalking through mesquite flat. We had worked three separate toms, and had closed the deal on zero.
We spent the hottest hours of the afternoon searching for Native American artifacts that were among the surprising number of camps scattered across the property. As we walked and looked carefully for the points of ancient hunters, I couldn’t help but wonder if the two hunters looking would be filling tags during our short time on the ranch.
When the evening hunt came, we honestly had no idea what to do. Turkeys seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We settled on a stretch of fence line that ran along a dry creek drainage. We had heard several turkeys along that creek throughout the day and because of the size of the trees along the edge, we thought it would be a good place to set up before roosting time.
As we casually walked along the fence line, a gobble rang out near one of the deer stands affectionately named “the gut pile stand”. Only 50 yards up the edge, the gobbler stepped into the road, and I took a shot. I missed. It was just too easy. Turkey hunts aren’t supposed to go that way. You don’t just walk along a fence row and have turkey walk out in front of you to shoot. All I really did was make a complicated situation more complicated. What were we supposed to do now?
Supplemental feeding is both legal and common practice in Texas. Particularly in sparse areas like the canyon region we were hunting, the terrain is so rugged and without sufficient forage and water, that the populations of both deer and turkeys would struggle tremendously especially during the drier times of the year. So, just like a hunter would factor in a food plot to a hunting set up, it was clear that we were going to have to break away from our initial plan of cutting and running on these turkeys, and devise a strategy that focused on the travel routes to and from the feeders on the property.
After my miss, we decided to stay close to the fence since it led to a supplemental feeding location. Jason and I backed up into a cedar tree and positioned ourselves facing down the fence line in the direction we had stalked two turkeys earlier that morning. Not 30 minutes after my miss, we heard two gobblers fire up down the fence line. Each time we would call, they were closer. Once they reached our decoy set-up, all bets were off. They wanted nothing to do with the half strut Jake that we had facing a feeding hen. The lead tom putted, and I fired. He piled up at 30 yards and in a flurry, I ran out to him not thinking about the fact that I should have ejected the empty shell and prepared for a follow up shot on the second tom.
As he sailed back down the creek bed, the turkey I shot laid at my feet and the day’s hunt was over. Jason and I celebrated with a high five and a quick prayer of thanks over the tom. I had never done more hiking, climbing, or calling in all my years of turkey hunting.
Before we got back in the UTV that night, we decided that the tom we had spooked would most likely be using the same travel route to feed the next morning. With little to no response to calling, the prudent thing was to set up at an ambush location and wait.
The next morning, tucked under the same cedar tree, the first gobble rang up the creek bed. Since I had killed the evening before, Jason sat holding his recurve bow, and I sat with TK, Jason’s Mossberg 12 ga that had performed flawlessly the night before. The royal purple fletchings of Jason’s handcrafted arrows and the stitched leather of their quiver were a perfect tribute to the history of the land we were hunting. As we listened to the gobbler slowly announce his way through the thick mesquite and scrub cedar, it was clear that he was trailing patiently behind a hen. She was the reason we wouldn’t be doing any calling that morning.
We saw the movement of a grey head peering cautiously out of the woodline toward our decoys, and the hen soon made her way into the clearing. Then, like a spotlight, the sun rose just enough to cause the black feathers of the tom’s breast to go from flat black and ignited it to a high gloss that made him look enormous. Jason whispered, “There he is.” and drew his bow while the tom was looking at the half-strut jake decoy in our set. The tom wasn’t in the mood for a fight. We saw right away that he wasn’t going to present a perfectly clear shot. When the bird turned broadside, being a seasoned archer, Jason took the shot he had through a small gap in the brush. From where I sat, everything was in slow motion. Jason’s fingers released the arrow well and the heavy wooden shaft launched cleanly from the bow and across the clear cut toward the tom. The trajectory was perfect, but as often happens with archery, a tiny limb caused the arrow to deflect. It skipped past the bird, and everything became a question. Was the bird gone? Would Jason get another shot? Was I going to need to follow up?
The gobbler paced nervously in the same place we first saw him. Now he knew where we were, and Jason wasn’t going to be able to nock another arrow. The tom finally had enough and made his way to my right and away from us. I raised the gun and said, “Jason he’s not coming back, I’m going to kill him.” Jason replied with a quick “Kill him.” and I fired. The tom fell cleanly where he stood. Our hunt was over.
When I went to Texas to hunt turkeys, I had in my mind that I was going to do it with a bow, take head shots, and fit the trend in turkey hunting today. I’ve killed turkeys with a bow. I’ve killed them with a gun. I know the feeling of missing with both as well. This hunt was about new experiences, not trends. It was about making new friends, not about new footage. Don’t get me wrong, footage of a head-shot with a monster broadhead on my first Rio would have been spectacular, but in a sense, I’m glad it didn’t work out that way. We had four sits to make this happen on our first trip. Thankfully, that’s all it took.
By Jim Richman