There's just something about an airport in spring. You catch glimpses of a gun case here or some camouflage there. Then you hear snippets of stories and start to pick out your turkey hunting brethren, who, like you, are in transit to or from another lifetime adventure.
There's an extra something about a South Dakota airport in spring. When you walk in and see a "Welcome hunters" banner displayed proudly in the main concourse, you get the feeling you're in a good place. Then when you see Matt Morrett stroll into view and chat with him for an hour about his upcoming hunt, you know you're at the place.
That's where I was one rainy April afternoon, ready to embark on my first hunt for Merriam's gobblers. I had no idea what to expect, but I'd heard the turkeys were gobbling fools and the terrain was wide open. I figured the former would let me wing it on the latter.
The first morning, near the White River south of Kadoka, veteran prairie guide Jerry Murphy and I settled down near some dead cottonwoods near a ditch that overlooked a huge field ... and one tree.
"So," I whispered, "that's the roost?"
I could almost feel Jerry's eyes rolling in the darkness.
"Yep," he said. "That's where they'll be."
And they were — about 100 of them. And from flydown time till several hours later, they put on an incredible show, complete with incessant gobbling and yelping and many seemingly close encounters. Then, as Merriam's do, they walked away. We tried to get around on them. We tried to get above them. We tried to outflank them. And they beat us to the punch every time.
Finally, at midmorning, the prairie was quiet, and I was out of ideas. That's when Jerry stepped in.
"We'll go up here to this big flat they like," he said. "I think we'll get one."
The big flat looked like an endless sea of prairie grass with a small corn stubble field near the far end. It also appeared to be devoid of turkeys. I suggested that we walk to a ridge line and call.
"Wait," Jerry said, eyes fixed to binoculars. "There's some. And there's a gobbler."
I raised my binos and looked. Nothing. Wait, there they were. The birds were barely visible, cruising in and out of the stubble field.
"There's a fence line about 150 yards up here," Jerry said. "If we can get to it, we might call them in."
I nodded and prepared myself. It wouldn't have been a bad walk, but there was no way we could walk. At first, we crept forward on our hands and knees, peering now and then at the distant birds. Closer to the fence, it was full belly-crawl mode, until our necks ached and I'd probably picked up every tick east of the Rosebud Reservation.
But eventually, we reached the fence line and settled in. I yelped once or twice on a mouth call, and the gobbler responded, as did several hens. Within minutes, we were surrounded by turkeys, and I dropped the longbeard at 25 steps.
My first true Merriam's was memorable for many reasons. First, it completed my career royal slam. Second, it had sharp 1-inch hooks and three beards; a true prairie trophy. Also, it looked almost unscathed, even though it had dropped like a stone and barely flopped. Apparently, only one or two pellets had found their way to the turkey's head. I'd almost missed it.
Hey, I always seem to make things interesting ... even when the landscape and turkeys are interesting enough.