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Across the Hills and Hollers

Across the Hills and Hollers

Turkey Hunting in the heart of Arkansas's Ozarks is a challenge full of ups and downs.

Andrew Johnson

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I don't know what it is, but whenever I head to the Ozarks to hunt turkeys, the heat meets me there. The temperatures where I live in Wisconsin had only scratched the 50-degree mark twice, but when I arrived at the Springfield, Mo., airport during the second week of April, you could literally see the heat waves rising from the concrete runway.

I was in Arkansas as the guest of the Harrison Convention and Visitors Bureau and Knight & Hale Game Calls. After being picked up by Glenn Wheeler, a professional photographer from Harrison, and Lawrence Taylor, the public-relations manager for Knight & Hale, we headed south into Arkansas and the heart of the Ozarks. We went to Wheeler's comfortable country home to sight in and pattern the Knight TK2000 muzzleloading shotguns Taylor had brought with him. I had never used a muzzleloader on a turkey hunt, and I was excited to take on the challenge of a true one-shot proposition.

As we drove, we heard the weather forecast on the radio: The temperatures would stretch into the 90s during the next few days. Little did we know, however, that the turkeys were cooling off.


Semantics

According to Webster, the definition of the noun "hollow" is: 1, an empty space, hole or cavity; 2, a valley.
 
My definition, however, is neither as succinct nor as kind. In my estimation, a hollow (or "holler" as it is commonly referred to in the dialect of the region) is: 1, a steep wooded chasm that looks innocent enough as you descend, but then mysteriously triples in slope and elevation once you have to go back up; 2, an obstacle that always seems to have a gobbler on the other side. Such was the case as Knight & Hale pro-staffer Keith Wahlig and I chased Easterns across most of Boone County for the first two days.

On the first day, after our initial setup didn't work out, we spotted a strutting longbeard in an open glade across a deep holler. Because that bird was the only game in town, we decided to put the sneak on him. It was only after finally reaching the dry creek bed marking the base of the valley that we realized the folly of our decision: Going uphill and taking the action to the longbeard was simply not an option, and because we were in the wooliest stuff Arkansas could muster, we knew there was simply no way a tom could find us if he tried, nor could we see him if he did.

To pour salt in the wound, a hen sailed high overhead as we contemplated our next move. "Did we spook that bird?" I asked Wahlig as I mopped the sweat off my brow.

"Nah, we didn't bust her," he replied. "She's just reminding us that no one in his right mind should be down here."

As we climbed our way out of the holler in the high-noon heat, we were painfully reminded of why the Ozarks are considered mountains.

On the second day, local hunters Phillip Roberts and Don Mahler helped us set up in a fence line overlooking a bowl of hardwoods where Mahler had roosted a boss gobbler the night before. And sure enough, the bird began rattling the woods as soon as gray light's tide moved in. We had staked out a Carry-Lite Pretty Boy gobbler decoy in a mating position over a fake hen 20 yards in front of us, hoping it would get the bird's attention. However, after flydown, the gobbler made a left instead of a right, so we were off and running again. 

As we gave chase, the once-vocal bird seemingly went silent, and we eventually lost track of him.

"Henned up?" I asked Wahlig.

"That's one way of putting it," he replied with a shake of his head, "but goofed up is more like it."


Obstacles

While Mahler, Wahlig and I were on the move that morning, Roberts had retreated to a high vantage point to watch and listen from afar. When we met up with him back at his truck he was surprised we were still turkey-less.

ark2.jpg"I swear that bird gobbled 200 times," Roberts insisted. "Every time you called at him he tried his best to gobble his head off. He couldn't have been more than 100 yards away from where you were calling, and I just knew the next sound I'd hear would be a gunshot."

Our three jaws dropped in unison, because we had only heard two faint gobbles while we were on the run.  The wind had been blowing hard the first two days, and combined with the terrain of the never-ending hollers, it had transformed the suicidal bird's gobbles into whispers and carried them north into Missouri.

"I'd rather hunt in the rain than in wind and heat like this," Wahlig said. "Wind does strange things to turkeys, and this warm front that's pushing through has literally blown them out of their rhythm. Usually, in conditions like this, they won't say anything, especially if they've been hunted ... we're lucky that he even gobbled."
 
I didn't know how lucky I felt, because throughout the rest of the day, we had several more close encounters but nothing ever panned out. We put on some serious boot miles in the heat, but it was clear we were still fighting an uphill battle, because on top of the weather conditions, we knew we were hunting pressured birds. The Ozark turkey hunting tradition runs as deep as its hollers, and even though we were hunting private land, it was obvious these birds had been hunted -- and hunted hard. They always seemed to be one step ahead of any move we made.

During the drive back to the hotel, the tired silence was evidence of how we felt. The impact of the assorted obstacles we were facing -- hills, hollers, howling winds and heat -- had taken its toll.


Twins

Day 3, the final day of our hunt, promised to be another scorcher, but something was different -- the heavy air was still for the first time.

The majority of the morning, however, was a repeat of the first two: lots of prospecting with nothing to show for our efforts. Roberts had graciously chauffeured Wahlig and I all over the countryside to his best turkey spots, but we couldn't get anything to take the bait. Wind or no wind, we were quickly coming down to the wire.

As 10:30 came and went, we found ourselves driving to our final spot of the day. As we approached on the oil road, Roberts suddenly stopped his truck and grabbed his binoculars.

"There's a gobbler all alone underneath that oak in the middle of that pasture," he said.

"Can we hunt there?" I asked.

Roberts' smile was all the confirmation I needed, and a half-hour later the three of us were hunkered down in a finger of trees that extended from a holler into the pasture. The crest of the hill and 60 yards of pasture were all that separated us from the shade of the solitary oak where the gobbler was loafing.

Once we were set up, Wahlig started yelping lightly on a mouth call, and to our surprise, not one, but two gobblers fired back in response. Much like the day, these two toms were hot, but they didn't want to budge from the shade that was barely out of our sight. After an hour or so had passed, Wahlig motioned for me to crawl through the pasture to see if I could pop over the hill and get a shot.
When I finally topped the hill, I saw both gobblers all right, but they weren't where they were supposed to be. Evidently, their gobbling had attracted a real hen. She stood in the shade of the trees at the opposite end of the pasture 400 yards away, and the twin gobblers were already halfway there.

After I made my way back to where Wahlig and Roberts were still set up, we all had to share a laugh at our "luck."

"Let's ease down into that draw and set up below them," Wahlig suggested with enthusiasm. "Maybe that hen will lead them back down the way she came."

4th and Goal

We quickly made our way 150 yards down the slope of the holler and set up again, out of breath and running out of time. The gobblers, of course, had long been silent, and Wahlig's calls were falling on deaf, henned-up ears.

After 10 minutes had passed, I saw Wahlig jerk to attention. "I just saw them walking through that clearing," he said, pointing up through the trees toward another part of the pasture that wrapped around the edge of the hollow to our right. "I didn't see the hen, but I think if you could make your way up there you might be able to cut them off. I'll stay here and call, just letting them know we're still interested. Stay low, and stay quiet."

So, off I went -- again ­-- down through the bottom of the holler and back up, and as I came to the edge of the trees, I was faced with a decision. I either had to go left or right using the trees as cover, or straight through the ankle-high grass expanse that rose sharply in front of me. The hen had been in the shade at the tip of the finger of woods that extended to my right, but my gut feeling told me the birds had already made it to the wooded ravine that curved off to my left.

It was 4th down and goal, with the ball on the 1-yard line. So, I did what any coach worth his salt would do: I ran the ol' quarterback sneak -- right up the middle.
Belly crawling would have been a more educated means of climbing the pasture hill, but I decided to charge it quickly, knowing that if I was lucky enough to intercept the gobblers I wouldn't have any cover in which to hide.

Still, I fully expected the turkeys to be in the shade of one of the draws, but when I got to the point where the hump of the hill no longer separated me from the horizon, two heads periscoped up from underneath a lone cedar tree -- right in the middle of the pasture. "Maybe I should have stuck with the stay low and stay quiet idea," I silently thought to myself.

Not knowing what else to do, I slowly raised the TK2000 and tried my best to gauge the distance. I knew it had to be over 60 yards -- too far for any smokepole -- and my hope began to falter.

Then, in keeping with everything else that had happened in the past three days, the twins did the unexpected. Slowly but surely, they began feeding slightly toward me, heading cautiously toward the trees on my left, apparently drawn toward Wahlig's calls. As the birds moved closer, they also started disappearing below the hill's apex. However, they had slowly fed their way into range. The first bird had already submerged into the holler's shade, but the second bird was 5 yards closer -- and I could still see him from beard up.

ark3.jpgI had frozen when I first spotted the birds, and my front foot ended up about 18 inches higher than my back foot on the hillside. So, I had to shift all my weight to my back foot in order to steady the fiber-optic sights on the bird's neck. The recoil almost sent me back to the bottom of the holler, but after regaining my balance, I sprinted up and through the smoke to where the gobbler was somersaulting in the grass.

The bird had been 53 steps from where I shot, but the 100-grain load of powder had given the No. 5s more than enough energy to do the job. I didn't know if the goose bumps on my arms and back were the result of excitement or the beginning stages of heat exhaustion, but I didn't care.  ark1.jpg

It was just after 1 p.m., and the mercury had just topped out at 93 degrees. However, the heft of the 19-pound bird seemed weightless as we climbed our way back to the truck. Funny how that works.

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