The Witness and I pounded powder with our teeth for days.
Longtime readers of this column may remember The Witness from a 2007 series of articles about a seemingly endless quest to catch an elusive black squirrel in Phillips County. It shouldn’t have been a difficult task in a place infested with black squirrels, but they always disappeared when The Witness and I got close.
After many attempts, we finally got one. His mount takes pride of place in my office.
The identity of the Witness was a closely guarded secret until March, when my book, St. Tom’s Cathedral, A Turkey Hunter’s Quest for His Best, revealed it to be Sheffield Nelson.
Our hunting ground for the trophy squirrel was Island 64, also known as Jackson Point. It is one of many oxbow islands between the levees of the Mississippi River.
In 2009, as I was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatment for colorectal cancer, Nelson insisted that turkey hunting in Jackson Point was also vital to my recovery. I took out some great gobblers while hunting with Nelson, including the biggest one.
It’s been about 10 years since Nelson and I last hunted together at Jackson Point. Nelson remedied that deficiency on Saturday.
We arrived on Friday afternoon. After storing our gear in Nelson’s cabin, we visited some of our old familiar haunts. With vivid memories we remember the places where we worked or slaughtered turkeys. We had to stop at the spot where a black squirrel finally made an unfortunate mistake.
“We climbed it up a big tree that used to be right here. Do you remember that?” Nelson said. “We finally cornered him in a tree that didn’t have a hole to climb, and it was too far away from all the other trees. It was blown down in a storm a few years ago, but it was right here.”
In a remote corner of the property we saw four Jakes and a mature wolverine eating contentedly in a field.
Nelson opted to hunt in a different location, so I came back in a UTV. It was hot and windy, and the dirt road was very dry and dusty. Dust swirled into the cabin through the floor and my attempts to filter it out were futile. I coughed and coughed up dust the rest of the night.
The turkeys were gone, but I walked almost to the end of the field and placed two AvianX decoys at the convergence of three food strips. Unlike all my other lures, the AvianX are incredibly realistic. All details are sharp. The eyes are bright and the colors are vibrant. They rest on a stake that allows the lures to sway and sway in the wind. The motion makes them more dynamic than normal stationary lures, and their weight prevents them from spinning like helicopter blades in strong winds like light lures do.
I hunted until 6 pm, but no turkeys responded to my pleas for company.
In the morning I convinced Nelson to look for that place with me. Turkeys are never guaranteed to be where they were yesterday today, but when scouting reports are scant, it’s not unwise to hunt where he saw turkeys the day before.
In addition to my AvianX lures, Nelson brought out one of his mounts made from a stuffed peacock. We settle behind a leafy tree on the edge of the field and wait.
Behind us was a thicket that was surprisingly open. The turkeys had scratched many bare spots from the leaf cover. Bordering the thicket was Lake Mellwood.
“They perch in those trees over there and move back and forth along the water,” Nelson said. “They have everything they need right here. Food, water, shelter and trees to sleep in. We just need Mr. Gobbler to come knock.”
It didn’t take long for us to strike up a conversation with a chicken behind us, but she didn’t reveal herself. Shortly after, I saw a hunched shape slithering through the grass about 200 meters away. With his Steiner binoculars, Nelson identified him as a chicken.
“Wherever there are chickens, there will be gobblers nearby,” Nelson said.
I got some howls out of my phone booth from Eddie Horton. It is made from Hempstead County bois d’arc and an African ebony top. The full tone of it projects well in open field with the wind.
The hen seemed not to hear the call and disappeared into the tall grass. About 10 minutes later, she came out of the grass and walked over to the decoys.
The hen zeroed in on the middle decoy, an AvianX hen with its head held high in an alert stance. The king hen stalked around the lure, purring aggressively. With each circle it made around the lure, it became more and more agitated. Finally, he couldn’t bear the decoy’s insolence any longer. She looked the lure in the eye for a moment and then pierced the lure’s head with her beak.
With a loud, hollow thud, the lure spun on its stake. Her head snapped back and she slapped the royal hen.
Each feather seemed upright. The hen pierced the lure again, but this time it was ready. She jumped back when the head turned this time, and pecked at her again. This made the lure spin faster, forcing the hen to be agile. He jumped from side to side and from side to side.
Eventually, the hen seemed satisfied that she had made her point. She walked over to inspect Nelson’s lure and then went back to abusing the insolent AvianX lure a second time.
Nelson’s shoulders shook in silent laughter.
After winning her fight with the decoy, the hen happily fed among the decoys. I purred lightly and she came within 12 feet to inspect the source of that sound. Not finding it, she resumed feeding.
Nelson and I were sure a gobbler would come to the chicken, but we were wrong. When the chicken finally left, the songbirds were the only sign of life.
We both had commitments at home, so Nelson and I finished the hunt around 1 pm On the way back to the lodge, we passed six male turkeys about to cross to the other side of the field we were hunting. It looked like the same group that was in the field the day before. As Maxwell Smart would say, we missed it by “so much!”