Youngsters Beat Long Odds to Bag Longbeards

No Gravatar

The opportunity to hunt gobblers during the afternoon helped this Greene County group post a perfect record in its first youth turkey hunt.

JEFFERSON CITY-T.S. Eliot called April “the cruelest month.” Hunters who took part in Missouri’s youth turkey season amid awful weather April 12 and 13 might have echoed that sentiment. But they persevered, and in doing so they created lifetime memories.

Conditions could hardly have been worse for turkey hunting on the Saturday opener. The weather station in Mountain Grove reported winds as high as 35 miles per hour the night before. The big blow abated slightly on opening day, dropping to hat-lifting gusts of 28 mph around 10:30 a.m.

While the temperature had climbed to nearly 60 degrees on April 11, it dropped to 35 degrees by the time young hunters took to the woods. The mercury would not climb out of the 30s again until after the season closed.

Precipitation was mercifully meager that weekend, but what it lacked in volume it made up in variety. Rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow slanted down alternately across the state, stinging the cheeks of young turkey hunters hardy enough to brave the elements.

Harvest statistics provide strong evidence that the nasty weather kept many young hunters out of the woods. Those who hunted checked 2,898 turkeys statewide, 17.5 percent fewer than in 2007, and the second-smallest harvest in the youth season’s eight-year history. But before dawn began seeping through the scudding clouds on April 12, eight youngsters guided by members of the Ozark Greenways Thunderin’ Gobblers set out to pit their skills against those of wily turkeys.

Jason Bussard, Springfield, was among the organizers and guides for the first Thunderin’ Gobblers Jakes Turkey Hunt. He and a few friends and family members started the NWTF chapter in Greene County to get more young people involved in outdoor activities. With help from local sponsors, they outfitted all eight participants with turkey hunting gear. Private landowners provided places for the youths to hunt, and chapter members served as guides.

Five of the young hunters had never shot a turkey before. They were not completely uninitiated, however. A week earlier they took Turkey Hunting 101. The class included hunting safety, turkey behavior, hunting strategies and equipment. They tested their shotguns to see how they performed at different distances, so they would know how close a turkey had to be for a quick, certain kill.

The adults involved in the enterprise had no illusions about their chances of success. Rain, wind and the accompanying motion of foliage handicap turkeys’ two keenest senses – vision and hearing. Under such conditions, the big birds tend to be skittish. They may stay in open areas, where they have the best chance of seeing an approaching hunter.

In spite of less-than-ideal conditions, things got off to a good start when 15-year-old Trenton Terry, of Nixa, shot a turkey just 15 minutes into legal shooting hours. At about the same time, 11-year-old Caleb Stagner, Willard, shot an 18-pound “jake,” as one-year-old birds are known.

Half an hour later, 11-year-old Dylan Burnell, Springfield, harvested a hefty gobbler, and around 8 a.m. 12-year-old Holden Daughton, Elkland, bagged a 23.5-pound gobbler with twin beards measuring 8 and 10 inches.

Later that morning 14-year-old Matthew Krueger, Sparta, showed up at hunt headquarters with another turkey. Then Jared Frieze, 13, of Brighton and Christopher Haviland, 9, Willard, called to report taking birds also. Frieze’s bird weighed an impressive 24.5 pounds.

By 10 a.m., seven of eight hunters had bagged turkeys. Hardly able to believe their good fortune and eager to see if the group would go eight for eight, several young hunters, parents and guides drove to Stockton Lake, where Hunter No. 8, Lucas Jaudes, was about to embark on an afternoon hunt. Tension mounted as the 13-year-old Brighton resident set out. Jaudes admits he felt a little pressure as the gallery of successful hunters cheered his departure.

“I was afraid if I missed I would be the only one not getting one,” he said, “but my guide called to this bird and he just came right in without stopping. I felt really good then.”

The report of Jaudes’ 20-gauge shotgun at 2 p.m. gave notice to the others that the Thunderin’ Gobblers Jakes had run the table.

“We couldn’t believe it,” said Bussard. “We were hoping two or three kids would get a turkey. We were in the cabin looking out the kitchen window, where we could see the blind Lucas was in. We saw a gobbler run across the field toward him, and then we heard a shotgun go off and saw him run out there to get his bird.”

The eight youngsters were lucky in more ways than one. This is the first year that hunting regulations have allowed all-day hunting during the youth turkey season. If the hunt had taken place one year earlier, Jaudes would have run out of time, and the final score would have been hunters 7, turkeys 1.

Jaudes, who had never hunted turkeys before, said his favorite part was being in the woods and watching wild turkeys going about the business of producing the next generation of wild turkeys.

Frieze, one of the more experienced hunters, had shot a gobbler previously. All the same, he was a little daunted by the weather that morning.

“I was kind of surprised when I shot my bird,” said Frieze. “I figured it would be a really tough day. We got out there, and they weren’t talking at all. They only started gobbling maybe 20 minutes before I killed my bird. He was about 300 yards behind us in a tree line.

“We called to him a bit and he kind of started gobbling, and then he quit for a while. Then my guide called to him a little more, and he wasn’t answering. My guide dropped his slate call in the blind, and he was getting ready to reach for it, and then he said ‘There it is!’

“The gobbler came in on one side of us, and then he came in to the decoys and started messing with the jake decoy. We waited a little bit to see what he would do and then I raised my gun up and shot him.”

Frieze said the best thing about the morning was watching the gobbler’s reaction to the jake decoy.

“He stuck his jaw straight out and made that sizzling noise,” said Frieze. “That was pretty cool to see.”

Other turkey hunter-success statistics put the Thunderin’ Gobblers Jakes 100-percent performance in perspective. Only 13.4 percent of hunters who bought permits for the 2008 youth hunt bagged gobblers. The success rate during last year’s youth season – when hunters enjoyed warm, sunny weather, was 17.3 percent. The success rate during last year’s regular spring turkey season was 33 percent.

“It’s something that probably will never happen again,” said Bussard. “I have never seen anybody smile like these kids were. It made all the work we put into putting this thing together worth it. I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it.”

Bussard said the Thunderin’ Gobblers already have lined up landowners willing to give next year’s crop of youth hunters access to more than 2,200 acres for hunting. “If we can get more guides, we will be able to take a lot more kids,” he said. “It would be something to take 15 kids and all of them get birds next year. I don’t expect to see that happen, but you never know.”

-Jim Low-