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March 24-26, 2017: As this Florida Osceola turkey hunt slowly approached on my calendar, the excitement was building up knowing this would be the official kick-off to my quest to complete a turkey grand slam in one season. I was meeting several friends in Dunnellon, Florida and we would spend the next three days hunting Osceola Turkey in 80 degree weather in the sandy, buggy woods of Central Florida with guide, Dave Mehlenbacher. This would be my third time hunting turkey with Dave and up to this trip, our past groups had been 100% with him–we were hoping for a continued record. It would be hard to top our triple in 2011 where within the first hour of our first morning’s hunt, but we were willing to fathom the thought.
Our first morning we were out the door at 5:15 a.m. with strict instructions to be ready when we bail out of the truck because we would be parking within earshot of the resident turkey in the area. The walk in was on a dark two rut road because of the tall, eerie majestic plantation oaks that had limbs and branches that spanned over the entire trail. Several of us had to get in close and even hold on to the other to sneak through this section of woods to get to the backside of the property. Mister and two hunters, Raquel and Rebecca, stopped at a front field tucked away in the scrub oaks and heavy ground brush. Dave, myself and two others traveled on to the back portion of the property.
Once we reached our destination, I quickly set up with my back resting against an oak tree. Dave and the other hunter, Keith, were to my left and the decoys were also to my left in a sandy area about 18-20 yards. It was still really dark out and definitely too early for any gobbling. As I rested against the oak, my shins burning from the brisk walk in on sandy soil, I couldn’t help but feel the building excitement deep in my soul as to what the day would hold. We had two hunters, Keith and Rebecca, that were needing an Osceola to complete their turkey grand slam. One other hunter, Raquel, was working on shooting her first Osceola. I was working on my 5th Osceola and the first bird in my quest for a grand slam in one season. I have completed several turkey grand slams but never one in the same season….it was on my bucket list!
As the sky began to lighten up, the first gobble rang out. Then a second gobble a few minutes later. All of a sudden there was a strong gobble in the tree line in front of us followed by what sounded like a jake gobble, and it was like someone struck a nerve…chain gobbles came out of those trees for the next few minutes. At one point I wondered if they had time to catch their breath. It was music to my ears, making my hair stand up on the nap of my neck and my stomach felt as if fireflies were playing Quidditch in my gut and lungs.
I had already told Keith that if we had the opportunity at birds, he needed to take the first shot to finish his grand slam and if the opportunity was there for a double, I would follow-up. It was exciting to think that maybe a few of those toms gobbling on the roost would give us that opportunity. The birds eventually pitched down but in the other direction. We heard a single gobble a good distance off to the left of us. We waited as Dave made a few calls at varying times.
We were well into the first hour and a half of our first hunt when I heard a hen putt somewhere behind and to the left of me. I strained to hear movement…nothing. Within a few minutes I saw something very dark and round to the extreme left of me. A TOM!! And he was coming in HOT! The bird stopped for a moment, pecked at the ground, reassessed the decoy scene, went into strut, and marched right into our set up blown up like an overstuffed pinata. I knew at this point that the bird was directly in front of Keith, but he had yet to shoot. The bird walked over to the decoy, bumped into it and the next thing I knew he was on top of the decoy knocking it to the ground, and pecking at the decoy’s head.
I was thinking to myself, “shoot, shoot, shoot!” Then I thought, “Maybe Keith sees another bird coming into the set-up down the trail that I can’t see.” I heard my heart start pumping as I readied my shotgun. The live tom was doing all he could do to beat the decoy up and he paused for a moment when the shot rang out pelting his noggin with turkey shot and laying him out in the sand. Keith rushed out to retrieve the bird as Dave rushed out to upright the downed decoy. Well, the decoy needed a little work and wasn’t going to just easily get poked back into the sand. I dug my Buck Knife Bantam out of my turkey vest and handed it to Dave to work on the repairs. Dave was able to temporarily fix “Old Scar Face” and he ran out and stuck him up in the sand.
We sat on this spot another 45 mins to an hour but nothing else came into it. That was and exciting hunt and I was ecstatic for Keith in completing his Turkey Grand Slam. The other hunters had not seen a bird all morning.
After a quick trip into town for lunch at The Blue Gator, we returned to the woods in search of toms. We all used strategy to get us to where we heard birds gobbling in the morning thinking we may have a chance at them coming back to the roost. No such luck! With all the chain gobbling that took place that morning, we estimated at least six other tom’s in that area, but we didn’t hear a single gobble.
On Saturday and Sunday we didn’t hear a single gobble and we hunted all day both days with a short lunch break. Keith had a failed archery opportunity at another tom that came running into the Deception Outdoors Decoy setup. With turkey hunting, it isn’t over until the sun starts to set so we held out until the last minute and made our retreat back to the trucks.
I won’t lie, I was kind of bummed. Something that I set out to do was knocked down on the first turkey hunting trip. Was I giving in too easily? Was there still a chance? Would I have the time to come back this season and hunt again? All of this was running through my head on my walk back to the truck and on our drive home. After discussing it with Mister and bringing up the idea to Rebecca, much pondering and schedule changing, and the heart of gold of an awesome guide, WE ARE HEADED BACK TO FLORIDA! WoooHooo! The weekend of April 8 & 9th we will be back in those woods working hard toward achieving Rebecca’s first grand slam and for me, pulling off a grand slam off in one season. Wish us luck!!
Richard and I were fortunate enough to share this hunt with friends Greg and Billinda Neyman. We are so thankful to have them in our life and to be able to share the outdoors with them. This is Billinda’s story:
An amazing amount of excitement and nervousness had us busting at the seams. Gregory & I couldn’t wait to get to our hunting blind. Our walk in the dark with Dave was quick and silent. We were more than ready to sit and listen for some turkeys. Our blind was under an old oak tree that was dripping dew.
After getting in the blind we sat in anticipation of the sunrise and the possibility of turkeys gobbling. The sun began to show and the turkeys started their morning. We heard several gobbles in the distance. We were thrilled to the core and knew there were birds in the area. Dave made some quiet purrs and yelps and it seemed the turkeys heard him. I sat wondering how close those birds may be. Were they looking at us and we didn’t see them?
After a short time, Dave let us know there was a hen coming quickly behind our blind. We saw her trotting in and grew enamored with the thought of a Tom following her. Dave worked his magic! He called to the hen with a slate call. She stayed to our right out of sight but she kept “talking” to Dave. Dave then looked with binoculars toward Nancy Jo and Richard. He could see several turkeys and at least one long beard strutting in front of them. A few minutes later, a shot rang out. Several birds were now on the move. I couldn’t stand it, so I texted Nancy Jo to see if she connected. She didn’t reply which made us all wonder….did she miss? Was there some sort of problem? Then, Dave informed us that several birds were on the move behind our blind. We had to quietly get out of our chairs, move them and get in position to see the coming birds. We were both so excited to see Osceola’s much less get a chance to harvest one! Dave told us we could each take one if we wanted. I decided to take the first one I saw. I was down on the ground on one knee and couldn’t wait to see if a shot was in my future. Gregory leaned toward me to look out of the door to our blind and picked his bird out from the group. I reminded myself to breathe and clicked the safety off my Browning Gold. I aimed and shot and Gregory shot immediately after. Both birds were down. We were smiling, laughing and bursting with pride! With our guns clicked back on safety we high fived and had a celebratory moment with Dave. Dave was extremely happy and content that we had taken two birds. It was the “double” we all jokingly talked about…or wait…was it a “triple”?
We climbed out of the blind to run to our first turkeys in Florida…Osceolas! I was excited and trembling from adrenaline. I looked over toward Gregory and his smile was spectacular and extremely large. I enjoyed the moment. I felt like I was in slow motion for a moment or two. Hunting with Dave and my husband was an amazing time. We couldn’t wait to show Nancy Jo and Richard our birds! Dave had a smile as big as Texas planted on his face. Dave gathered our birds and threw them over his shoulders for travel. Gregory texted Nancy Jo and sure enough she had scored. It was a “triple”. All three of us harvested our Osceola within the first hour of the first day of our hunt and Richard had Nancy Jo’s on film! We walked a bit and saw our friends about 150 yards away. I know we had a spring in our step! We met up with them and began telling our own “stories” of the days events. Then we started posing for pictures. We were so blessed to have safe travels, an awesome guide, beautiful weather and turkeys to harvest. Life is good and God is great!
My workday seemed like it was never going to end on Thursday. We were picking up our friends Greg and Billinda Neyman right after work and driving to Florida to hunt Osceola turkeys for the weekend. As I watched the clock slowly tick and time crept by my mind kept reeling about what the weekend would bring. Looking at the weather online we were in for some sunny skies and great weather. I just had hopes that we would have all our birds harvested before Sunday’s high 80s and humid temperatures rolled in.
We were on the road by 7 p.m. for the 6.5-hour drive to Crystal River, Florida to hunt with Dave Mehlenbacher of Woodland Guides Outdoors (www.woodlandguidesoutdoors.com). We arrived at our destination and were in bed at 3:15 a.m. with my alarm set for 4:45 a.m. I thought to myself as I drifted off to sleep…”Whew! Tomorrow is going to be a long day.”
The alarm went off and I was wide awake, showered, dressed in camo from head to toe and waiting with Richard, Greg and Billinda for our guide to arrive at the pre-planned time of 5:30 a.m. Dave arrived and we were off to our first morning of hunting Osceola turkeys.
Dave had told me about a fantastic piece of property that we would be hunting that he had seen several really great birds on. That was going to be our first hunting spot this morning. Richard and I were going to be sitting in a blind at one end of the property and Greg and Billinda were going to be in a blind about 300 yards from us on the upper end of the property where the birds funneled through on their way to a water source.
One of my favorite things in hunting is always walking in; anticipation of not knowing what the morning will bring—today the anticipation was even more exciting since there were three of us hunting. On this morning it was just dark enough to keep us in stealth mode but not dark enough that we had to use light getting to our blind. While Richard was setting the decoys I got in the blind and set up the chairs. We settled in, video camera set up—on standby, calls out, ThermoCell lit, gun loaded-on safety and waiting within an arm’s reach. The wait was on and we had plenty of time to spare.
While we were waiting for that magical sound and for fly down, I whispered to Richard that Dave had joked around with me earlier in the week telling me he was confident that we could get a double out of this spot and possibly get a triple if we were lucky—knowing in the back of our minds that it was possible but also a long shot. I said, “Wouldn’t that be cool?” Richard replied, “Yea, it would.”
As sunrise was slowly approaching and the anticipation was growing, we were able to see our surroundings; absolutely beautiful! We had not heard anything up to this point, but I was feeling pretty positive that the birds were going to be here—it had everything that equaled turkey habitat; tall oaks, planted pines, pine needle and leaf covered ground for feeding on grubs and bugs, sand for dusting, and a good water source.
I sat there in the blind taking in the scenery and sounds as the day came to life. I could smell the damp, musky earth permeating the inside of the blind—I could not think of a better way to spend daybreak. Finally, a good strong gobble erupted from over my right shoulder. The sound traveled through the still, warm, humid laden morning. Chills ran up my spine and down my arms as I turned and smiled at Richard pointing in the direction I heard the gobble. He nodded. I pulled my facemask up and pulled my gloves on.
Shortly after we heard the first gobble, we heard two more gobbles; one from directly behind us and the other over my left shoulder. The show was about to begin and I had high hopes that it was our hunting party they wanted to perform for.
After daybreak, a gobble came from behind the blind and it was definitely from a gobbler on the ground. I reached for my shotgun and laid it across my lap. Richard was looking at some settings on the video camera when I first caught a glimpse of a gobbler’s bobbing white head coming over a hedgerow. I tapped Richard on the leg and said “Bird, bird! Right there in front of us by that big oak” as I pointed low and well under the window of the blind. He could not see it at first, but then he spotted it.
Whew! My heartbeat was suddenly in my ears and pounding like a bass drum. I LOVE that feeling and the biggest smile crept over my face. After some light calling, the tom paraded around strutting like a fool. Richard said that he saw a hen go over the hedgerow about the time he saw the tom, but I did not see it. So we assumed that the hen was just over the rise in front of us and he was putting on a show for her. Finally the hen came over the rise and walked down the tree line feeding with the tom in tow.
The tom was 45 yards in front of me at one point, but two things kept me from shooting. First, when I did have a shot at him out of strut, the camera couldn’t get a clear view because of the window placement and second, when the camera was on him, he was in full strut and headed directly for the blind. Finally he meandered back to and over the rise and out of sight.
I heard hens feeding just outside the blind and two hens were visiting our decoys, feeding comfortably around them. After those hens left, a short time had passed when a gobble came booming from the planted pines directly behind us. I looked at Richard and said, “That is close.” He nodded. I turned my head and body slightly to look out of a small gap in the window behind me and I saw birds flocking out of the pines like cattle. I looked at Richard and said, “There are turkeys everywhere coming out of the planted pines.” I got out of my chair and on to my knees. I was going to have to be really still because the hens were marching right by my window.
The tom gobbled again and Richard looked at me and said, “He is coming on this side of the blind.” Richard could hear the tom drumming. He no longer got it out of his mouth when I saw the tail fan of a tom over his right shoulder about 10 yards behind the blind. I could definitely take a shot but our goal was to get some video footage so I was going to be patient enough to allow him to work around to the front of the blind.
All of the sudden Richard saw some jakes filing into the field less than 10 yards from the right side of the blind. We watched as the jakes walked by one-by-one. The tom stopped one or two trying to pick a fight. Two hens even raised a little ruckus at one time during all the chaos. Now we had 8 jakes, two hens and a tom in front of the blind. Two of the hens went out of sight. The tom strutted and gobbled once more. Richard hit the calls softly a few times and that got the tom’s attention.
That tom turned right toward the blind, went into full strut, and spent the next 30 yards of his life strutting and walking a little closer to the blind, then strutting again several times; he was losing ground on the blind. Then he came out of strut and walked a straight line right for the blind just like he wanted to pick a bug off the side of it. I couldn’t believe it. I worried that taking the shot was going to shoot his tail up but there was no chance for a profile shot at this rate so when I said I better shoot him now, Richard gave me the go ahead from behind the camera. I hesitated a few seconds to pull the trigger because I was waiting to see if the tom was going to give me a profile shot…he didn’t and he was quickly closing the ground between us so I took the shot.
At 15 yards, head on he didn’t have much flop left in him so he flipped over on his back and started doing the “running man” and I looked right at Richard and said with a slight grin, “He’s running straight to heaven in a hurry.” The last two jakes that were left in the field curiously walked up to the tom lying on the ground and stood for a few minutes, necks high and erect. Finally they turned and trotted to the other 6 jakes and just before they went out of sight the last two stopped, stretched out their wings, shook and quickly tucked their wings back and took off again…as if saying, “Woo Hoo!! The old tom is no longer going to be the boss of me!!”
Richard and I high-fived and Richard turned the camera on me to do some videoing of me telling about our morning hunt. He had the camera rolling when we heard a shot! I smiled and said, “that is either Greg or Billinda. We might just have gotten that DOUBLE after all!!” Then two more shots rang out simultaneously. I said, “Woo Hoo!! How about a triple!” I could not wait to get out and see my bird and then run down and see if we had a triple.
After a quick look at my bird and a little footage, we headed down toward the edge of the field to see if there was anyone in the field. I didn’t see anyone so I sent a text: Are ya’ll hunting still? Then I saw Dave coming out of the edge of the timber on to the field with two birds hanging over his shoulders and Greg and Billinda walking right behind him. I high-fived Richard and did a little victory dance! Outstanding! We had not been in the field one and a half hours and we had all three birds within the first hour.
We walked to meet everyone halfway in the field. We all high-fived and quickly shared the short version of our story. Dave had the biggest grin on his face. He said, “I was really just joking about the triple.” This was a fantastic morning!! Greg and Billinda scored on some great birds. Richard got my bird on film and we were now headed to take some harvest photos and clean these birds. When it was all said and done we had to actually wait for the restaurant we planned to eat at open for lunch. I call that a good morning of hunting.