My grandfather took one last sip of coffee, pushed his breakfast
aside, and stood as he pulled out his pocketwatch. Opening the
the old timepiece, he said, "You’d better be going, boy,
if you want to kill
His words caught me off guard, so much so that it was several
seconds before I could stammer a reply. "But Pop, aren’t
you going with
me . . . ? I’ve never been turkey hunting before."
"I’d like to, Ray, but you know I’ve got chores to do,"
putting a hand on my shoulder. "Besides, the only way you’re
to learn is to get up there and do it by yourself. Now come on,
better get going."
I stood there in a state of shock and watched the old man leave
room to get his trusted Winchester 97 and a handful of shells.
him to the back door, I still couldn’t believe what was happening.
Just outside the door he reached up and took down a kerosene
lantern, scratched a match against its base, lit it, and handed
it to me
"You know where to go on the mountain and what to do, boy.
we’ve been through it enough," he said as he stuffed the
into my faded bib overalls. "Just remember what I’ve told
you and be
careful." He placed the shotgun in my other hand and gave
me a pat on
the back that nudged me on my way.
Holding the lantern high I headed across the yard, now more scared
than excited. Those first few steps that I took as a nine-year-old
toughest I’d ever taken-or would ever take.
Some of my first memories are of the weekends spent on my grand-
parents’ farm deep in the Missouri Ozarks. Located three miles
valley, or "holler" as they call it in the hills, the
farm had been the home
of three generations in my family.
The white, two-story farmhouse was typical for the hills. A clear,
spring-fed creek ran only a few yards from the front door, past
and other outbuildings. The house sat in a rare Ozark meadow,
rounded on three sides by steep evergreen- and hardwood-covered
The highest of the hills was simply referred to as "the
cause it was one of the highest points in the state.
In 1962, the year I headed up the mountain that dark morning,
of America was in the middle of a rapid modernization. Not so
backcountry around the farm. Life had changed little since my
born in the house decades before.
Electricity had just arrived, but indoor plumbing hadn’t and
telephone never did. The roads were a far cry from what most
were used to. During the spring, the dirt path leading to Grandpa’s
turned into a muddy trough.
But there were advantages to living such a life. For one thing,
simple. Everything was hard work and you did the best you could
what was at hand. Also, there was a closeness between family
that sometimes slips away with progress.
The primitivism of the mountains made them sanctuaries for wild-
life. Small game was abundant, and deer and turkeys had never
pushed or shot out of the rough backcountry. Hunting was a way
as much a means of putting food on the table as it was recreation.
previous generations, I was educated at an early age. I listened
to men tell
old hunting tales and tagged along on squirrel hunts before I
I loved it all, but turkeys held a particular fascination. They
to possess an almost mystical quality. They were rarely seen
there. I can remember one spring morning like yesterday. Black
clouds were marching over the mountain, and Pop and I were hurrying
get the last of the chores done.
With the first rumble of thunder came a gobble from a nearby
then another and another. I stood there, my mouth hanging open
amazement as the hills around the farm came alive with gobbles.
finally snapped me out of my trance and we made it to the house
the first of the big raindrops banged down on the tin roof.
As a youngster, I had turkeys on my mind constantly. In the woods
was always looking for turkeys and I always asked my dad to explain
kind of evidence of their presence. I badgered poor Grandpa relentlessly,
asking him to retell stories about turkey hunting when he was
Looking back, I now realize he showed a great deal of patience
answered most questions to my satisfaction. Except for one: "When
be old enough to hunt turkeys?" "Someday" was
his standard answer.
One fall day his answer changed. The smell of homemade bread
in the air as we cut wood for the cookstove. Pausing to watch
Pop smiled and said out of the blue, "Ray, I think you’ll
be big enough by
next spring." He didn’t need to explain; I knew exactly
what he meant.
A little later he gave me what became my most prized possession-
my own turkey call. Grandpa had made it by hand, using a piece
from the chalkboard at an old one-room schoolhouse. For a striker
cut a piece of cedar from a fencepost and fit it in the bottom
of a hol-
The call was my life and I practiced religiously. Teachers took
call away from me more than once for using it at school. Grandma
sounded like "a cat caught in a fence" and Pop kept
telling me to keep
The winter of 1961-62 was the longest of my life, but it eventually
ended. Turkey season was only a week away when Pop shook me awake
one cold April morning and said, "Get up. We’re going up
on the moun-
tain for a while."
I did my best to keep up with him in the predawn darkness as
crossed the creek, headed across the dew-covered pasture, and
old trail that would take us up the mountain. We walked quietly
came to a huge oak at the junction of two ridges.
I started to ask one of the dozens of questions that were floating
my mind but Grandpa quickly silenced me with a finger to his
Cupping his hands around his mouth, he let loose an imitation
barred owl. Imagine how I felt when a turkey gobbled down the
We stood there for a while and listened to the sounds of turkeys
gobbling all over the hills. Each time one called, the bird in
front of us
rifled back a reply.
As we turned to leave, Pop whispered, "This is the place,
want to sit with your back against that big oak, facing down
Use your call and whatever you do don’t move until you’re ready
I was a bundle of nerves and anticipation the night before my
Hoping to make the next day arrive faster, I slipped into bed
already wearing my hunting clothes, except for my oversized work
and old tennis shoes.
Sleep was slow to come. I lay in bed listening to the calls of
whippoorwills, the coyotes yipping on the mountain, and the steady
sound of the stream flowing nearby. I’d been awake for hours
smell of homemade biscuits and frying bacon and eggs drifted
Normally I’d have devoured the breakfast in front of me in a
of minutes, but not that morning. I picked at the meal and never
eyes off Grandpa.
When he broke the news that I’d be hunting alone I was heart-
broken. For years I’d pictured us hunting together. The thought
for one of the mountain’s phantom birds alone was beyond my young
I tried to present myself as a man as I headed toward the creek.
some ways today brought the realization of a lifelong dream.
I was going
up on the mountain to try to kill a turkey. The fact that I was
Grandpa’s favorite shotgun was an accomplishment. But inside
I was as
scared as I’d ever been.
My hands full, I had trouble crossing the stream. Midway across
missed a steppingstone and ended up knee-deep in cold water.
I made my
way across the pasture, wet shoes squeaking with every step.
I’d walked the trail to the top of the mountain dozens of times,
never had it seemed so long or so frightening. I finally arrived
at the big
oak, put out the lantern, and sat down.
I strained to remember everything Grandpa had told me as I quietly
slipped the blue paper shells into the pumpgun. I sat there shivering
both cold and fear, desperately hoping Pop would come walking
With the reddening of the eastern horizon came the sounds of
the timber. At first I heard only songbirds, and I began to relax
Then came the eight-note call of a barred owl. I caught my breath
the turkey gobbled from down the ridge.
I picked up the slate call but couldn’t use it. I was afraid,
goof up and scare the turkey and ruin my dream. Again and again
to rub the cedar against the slate but each time I pulled back.
shut my eyes, swallowed the huge lump in my throat and shakingly
rubbed the peg against the call. I winced at the gosh-awful noise
Whether it was in response to my call or just coincidence I’ll
know, but the gobbler sounded off. Several more times I tried
some yelps from the call but couldn’t. I finally dropped the
call in frustra-
tion and clutched the gun that was resting on my knees.
By then I could hear turkeys gobbling all around me, the closest
being the bird in front of me and a tom on the next ridge. I
listened to the birds gobbling; I could tell they were not moving.
Suddenly came the soft yelps of a hen turkey behind me. I began
panic, fearing the hen would call the gobblers away from me.
I started to
get up to move closer to the hen but suddenly I remembered Pop
"Whatever you do, don’t move. . . ." Even though it
looked hopeless I
Soon the three birds were calling almost nonstop and the two
blers were headed my way. Then I realized that the hen was actually
blessing. To get to her the gobblers would have to walk right
Since I was too nervous to call she was my only hope.
I could hear the two toms getting closer to each other but wasn’t
prepared for what came next. From just below the ridge came the
noises of deep turkey purrs, flapping wings, and feathered bodies
I didn’t know it at the time, but the two birds were fighting
hen. I was shaking so hard I thought for sure the turkeys would
and the end of the gun barrel was drawing circles the size of
Hearing the sounds of tree limbs breaking I watched a big turkey
through the trees and sail out across the valley. A loud, triumphant
gobble sounded from the scene of the battle, and the hen responded
a series of clucks and yelps. My pounding heart went into overdrive.
Breathing was hard and my black-rimmed glasses started to fog.
The next time the tom sounded off he was so close I could hear
rattle in his gobble. Like a ghost he suddenly appeared to my
tucked back, feathers puffed out and wings dragging the ground.
My first response was to swing the gun and shoot, but in the
mind I heard Pop stressing, "Never move a muscle when you
can see the
turkey’s head. If you do he’ll spot you for sure. And remember
to aim just
for the head."
Seconds seemed like hours but I waited. When the bird stepped
behind a big hickory I twisted my body, cocked the hammer, and
the gun. There was a deafening boom as the old gun went off when
turkey stepped back into view. In my haste I’d tucked the stock
arm and the old Winchester had raised up and struck me in the
bloodying my nose and sending my glasses flying.
Holding onto the gun with one hand I rummaged through the leaves,
found my broken glasses, and poked them on my face as I ran to
I’d last seen the bird. My foot caught a root and I tumbled down
When I finally stopped rolling I looked up and there he was,
out, his feathers glistening in the sun.
I arrived down at the farm, soaking wet, covered with mud and
blood, half dragging and half carrying a turkey that weighed
half as much
as I did. Grandpa heard my shouts and was waiting for me.
He admired the bird, congratulated me and then laughingly said,
"You’d better run along and get yourself cleaned up before
has a fit." I spent the rest of the day telling and re-telling
him how I’d
killed the big gobbler, fibbing a little by explaining how I’d
called the bird
myself. He smiled and listened to every word.
A lot’s changed since then. My life has never been the same.
took that turkey, I was in the woods calling every spare minute
I had. It
cost me girlfriends, it cost me jobs, and it almost got me kicked
school several times. But it was an addiction I wouldn’t have
cured if I
I learned a lot about calling turkeys that April morning and
learned a lot since. In fact I’ve learned enough to make my living
at it. I present seminars all across America, appear on many
videos, have an outdoor radio show, hunt on television, and pro
staff for many great companies.
Grandpa and Grandma had to move off the farm and into a small
community nearby. We lost Grandpa in 1976 and Grandma continued
to tease me about sounding like "a cat caught in a fence."
It wasn’t long after Grandpa passed away that the entire family
was gathered at Grandma’s. As usual, the talk turned to hunting
and someone brought up the subject of my first turkey. My eyes
began to moisten and I walked over and leaned against the fence
to look out towards the mountain that held so many fond memories
A few seconds later I felt Grandma’s hand softly rub my shoulder
she said, "You’re thinking of Pop, aren’t you?" Never
taking my eyes off
the mountain I bit my lip and nodded my head.
She lovingly moved in beside me and softly said, "Ray, do
member that hen on the mountain the morning you killed your first
I looked at her, swallowed hard and said, "Yes."
"That wasn’t a hen calling behind you," she said, "that