After suggestion from a Beaumont Texas native, and the best turkey hunter I’ve ever known, I am writing a journal during turkey season. I swore for years that I would journal turkey hunts, and all related side lines that happen during the season. Now is the time. I am not getting any younger. I have many hunts in memory, but none committed to paper. I saw what dementia did to my dad, and I don’t want this special part of my life to go undocumented. If for no other reason than for my wife Tracie and our kids, so they can read stories to me some day as I slowly eat oatmeal in the old folks home.
As the second part of the story title suggests, this is the first of, hopefully, many years of getting it down on paper (or digital these days!). Thank God for the PC! A yarn, my wife said, is kind of story telling – that is woven. Sometimes the yarn goes from beginning to end, on a short yarn, nothing to weave, not much to tell, you go from point A to B in no time flat in your story. Other times, the yarn is well thought out, organized, predictable, much like a scarf being knitted. And sometimes, the yarn is not woven, but rather, it’s like the damn house cat that went unsupervised with a ball of yarn, and not only played with it, but strung it through every room in the house, taking many twists and turns.
The start of spring turkey season 2016, started out with the house cat gone wild. This story, is factual, with a little embellishment, and names changes to protect those reputations that may or may not deserve to be protected. You get to decide if they are worthy characters or not, I am only reporting the facts. So here we go…….
I booked a turkey hunt on a working ranch in southern Kansas. It’s pen name shall be the Purple Cow Ranch and yes Kansas is where this happened. The story really starts with the booking of the hunt in late February. I found this ranch on the internet, and it looked good for turkey habitat from Google Earth views and website photos of the lodging choices found on their website. Just a wonderful place for R&R and solitude. I called the Ranch Manager, lets call him Barney. He said they had a lot of turkeys, so he quoted me a price and I got the dates booked. During our conversation, Barney casually mentioned that he was not a turkey hunter, but had shot one with a rifle last fall during deer season. I was aghast, a rifle shot turkey, first of all, is an outrage. Then shooting it out of season and likely without a legal tag that us regular conservation loving folks voluntarily pay for. Out of the faintest of sympathetic thought, I immediately remember my dad taking a shot at a turkey with his rifle during the Missouri rifle deer season some 20 years ago and knowing my dad probably didn’t know that it was illegal, I was willing to let it pass. However, knowing Barney was a rancher and land man, and was probably familiar with the game laws, it did send up a “Danger Will Rogers” warning flag.
During our call, Barney told me that lodging was handled by his wife, lets call her Thelma Lou, which I later learned from Thelma Lou at the very end of my trip that they were actually living together, and it didn’t surprise me. Barney referred to Thelma Lou as his “wife” several times during my stay. Barney told me that he would have her call me to reserve the River Cabin. Thelma Lou called me on her cellphone the day after I talked to Barney. She said the River Cabin was available, but she couldn’t take my credit card number to hold the room at the present moment because she was driving en-route somewhere. I told her I would call her back in a day or two and get the deal done. I tried calling Thelma Lou on a Friday and the following Monday, and left messages both times. I tried calling her on an alternative business number, no return call. Not hearing back from her for about a week, I text messaged Barney to let him know I had been trying to get a hold of Thelma Lou and that I was still planning on arriving the day before the Kansas regular season opener on April 13th. Barney responded to my text and said something like Thanks, we’ll see ya at the ranch. I left it at that, trusting Thelma Lou and him were well coordinated, as one would expect from a professional ranching husband and wife team. About a week before the season, my gut said to call Thelma Lou again, just to make sure I had booked the River Cabin for sure. I didn’t want to drive three hours with no place to stay. So I decided to call her, only on intuition mind you, based on the only phone conservation I had with Barney back in late February. Barney’s demeanor from our February call didn’t come across as well organized; but rather, laughable, a little high strung and really likable. I tried calling Thelma Lou twice; both times of which I was notified her voicemail box was full. In fact I tried calling Thelma Lou multiple times on an alternative phone number, the phone number for her Purple Cow Store in the downtown area of the nearby town. There was no answer ever at the store, not even an old fashioned answering machine to talk to. I couldn’t call Barney to confirm lodging, because he strictly said Thelma Lou handled the reservations. So on somewhat blind faith, not knowing for certain the cabin was booked, I headed out April 12th at 11:15 a.m. after days of packing and planning.
Now the yarn will take a slight detour for a moment, literally, as I’m heading down Hwy 169 through Southeast Kansas. I knew that I probably would being driving through a town called Chanute, Kansas on the way down. Chanute brings back many childhood memories. My deceased grandma, Helen Kepley, had live there for many years, working as a state inspector for nursing homes in that region. My mom and dad took us kids on regular trips to Chanute to visit grandma for many years. I remember her first house was near the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Yard, but could not recall exactly where it was at. However, her second house, the one that she and her third husband Ernest Kepley had purchased together in their retirement years, I remembered the address. 1530 South Malcolm. So using my phone GPS, I quickly drove to her old house and took a few pictures, then texted those to my sister and asked her if she remembered the house. She did. We both had many good memories of grandma’s house, her billiard table, the three-wheeled bicycle, the town swimming pool, go-cart track, and the old train at the City Park. The memories go on and on. So getting past the lump in my throat wandering down memory lane, deciding it was necessary to soldier on, I was back en-route to my destination, the turkey mecca known as the Purple Cow Ranch.
After about driving for 90 minutes, I arrive promptly, as planned, for check-in time, 3:00 p.m. at the Purple Cow Ranch River Cabin. I noticed a suspicious pair of muddy basketball high-tops on the River Cabin porch, as well as three or four dishes of half eaten dog food. I thought that is weird, and being naive, I thought, did someone that forgot their shoes, dog and dog food dishes? I decided I better call Barney and let him know I arrived. Barney answered, and indicated he was glad I made it, but that he was taking his new puppy to the vet due to a urinary tract infection. Clear instructions were given for me to go into town to the Purple Cow Store, and find Thelma Lou. She would be there and get me checked in. Barney then said he’d call me in an hour or so after the vet trip and he’d come meet me at the cabin and we’d go drive around the turkey haunts. So I turned around, went back into town, found the Purple Cow Store, went to open the front door, and it was locked!!!!! I couldn’t believe it, but it didn’t surprise me either based on my intuition about Barney, and now about Thelma Lou, a lodging proprietor who doesn’t return my phone calls nor cleans out her cellphone voice message inbox. I literally sat in my truck in the downtown area of a small Kansas town until 5 p.m., probably looking suspicious. I watched the little old ladies and a few old men, and other people of various younger ages, walk into the local pharmacy for prescriptions. I drove around a bit, still waiting for Barney to call me or Thelma Lou to show up at the store. Somebody please call me, any human contact is appreciated so that I would have a bed to sleep in that night. I decided to drive back out the River Cabin, with no Barney in sight. So I just waited it on my tailgate….feeling helpless, and about ready to fire up a cigar to relieve the boredom and anxiety. Being the prepared Eagle Scout that I am, I had my tent, cot and sleeping bag in case of such an instance. So as I am sitting on my tail gate a car drives past the cabin, then stops half way across the bridge over the local creek. The car backs up and pulls in the driveway. A woman gets out and introduces herself as Wilma. She said she needed to get her stuff out of the cabin and she’d be done in fifteen minutes. I’m thinking, where the hell is Barney or Thelma Lou? Am I being duped by incompetent operators or cons? Your mind wanders a bit far sometimes. Meantime, Barney finally called me around 5:30 and said he’d be there in a few minutes on a Kabota Tractor. An hour and a half late. I though, well I am annoyed, but at least I might see a real person associated with the operation for the first time, but hoping desperately that I would not to have to ride around on the wheel well of a Kabota tractor on rough cattle country roads, or worse yet, on Barney’s lap, (again the mind wanders sometimes!!!). Barney did show up in a Kabota, but it was no tractor. It was a nice two-seat ATV, one that looked pretty new. Impressive. Perfect. No unsafe wheel well ride like we did on dad’s 9N Ford tractor back in the ’70’s and 80’s. Nor would it be an extremely awkward lap ride with a complete stranger, namely an middle aged man. Had it been a pretty girl, well, I may have thought differently about the lap cushion arrangement.
Barney introduces himself, and says lets go take a ride on the Kabota…So I hop in. I have to describe Barney, a big 6′ 4″ middle-aged white man, with neck length unkempt gray hair and beard under his beat up blaze orange ball cap, arm tattoo of a naked girl, gravely smokers voice, brown old man loafers, high water jeans, and white socks. He’s not what I envisioned as Kansas rancher. He was no cowboy. I don’t think he’d even been to his first rodeo yet. I must report, though, that he was in full company attire, a Purple Cow Ranch jeans jacket. So we drive along the major local creek, in an extremely deep tree lined and rocky canyon, which was flowing high from recent rains. It was breath taking, you felt like you were in a Sedona Arizona stream valley. The hardwood trees, against the carpet of last falls leaf carpet and many rocky outcrops was striking, when compared to the adjacent prairie grass hills found not 200 yards uphill. Now Barney, I learned quickly, is quite a talker. In fact, his favorite conversational word starts with F and ends in K, followed by a natural guttural laugh. You can figure the two middle letters out with little problem, unless you’ve lived a sheltered puritanical childhood. My goodness! So we drove across the creek in the Kabota and proceed in four-wheel drive up a steep, rocky and severely eroded ranch trail road. Road would be an overly generous description. No big deal, I’ve seen this kind of terrain before. Apparently many of the roads on the ranch are eroded and muddy due to the owner’s numerous oil well leases and an indiscriminate oil company who didn’t properly rock surface their roads or oils pads, as required by state law, nor does any seeding or any kind of erosion control. It was atrocious. There was some road surface rocked, but not a lot. Barney complains openly about the oil company’s abuse of the land, and how the Kansas Corporate Commission is a worthless enforcement agency when it comes to these ruthless oil men. In my mind, I had to totally agreed with Barney. None-the-less, we tooted along in the Kabota. Not far down the road, a cooling system warning light comes on in the Kabota, and Barney again uses the F word for the fiftieth time. I didn’t blame him for that particular slip of the tongue. We both exit the Kabota, and he pronounces that it is probably the lower cooling system hose again. Indeed it was. It had blown off, dropping all the coolant fluid along the trail. Barney then says that the Kabota is only 4 months old and this is the second time this has happened. I was amiss, was I going to get to see any turkey areas after all the days bad luck? Barney said we were not that far away from the place he’d been seeing birds, so we’d walk the rest of the way and check a game feeder and camera. Then we started the LONG walk back to the cabin. On the way back, Barney in his childlike way of laughing and using the F word, said he had earlier in the day, broke the front axle of his personal HUMVEE luxury SUV truck. I thought, is this guy for real, or completely incompetent? How in the hell do you break a HUMVEE front axle, these are stout military vehicles. So we keep walking, Barney ahead of me 30 feet or so, describing the F’ing rattlesnake den to stay away from, but not pointing out exactly where it’s at. Barney points out that the state of Kansas was doing a study of their rattlesnakes for some kind of fungal infection that is spreading. I found that interesting. Then all of a sudden, I see Barney pull out a LARGE BLACK semi-automatic hand gun and he says something, but I didn’t hear what he said. I just saw a big gun in the hands of a weird dressed man, one I had know for barely 30 minutes, just he and I, alone, in the middle of nowhere. Your mind plays tricks, as I am overly cautious by nature. He pointed the gun at something that I later learn was an armadillo. I could see he was getting ready to shoot it, so I plugged my ears, as I wear hearing aids and don’t need anymore hearing loss from a stupid animal execution. Barney said he hit it, but offered NO mercy shot to end its suffering. He was conserving bullets. I kind of could see where he was coming from on that point, as I personally hate wasting a two-dollar turkey load to finish off a longbeard, when my foot, being the free tool it is, works quite well at crushing an old gobblers windpipe and spine. My mind at this point, was like, is this guy setting me up and going to whack me the day before turkey season opens? I mean really. Is this a way to act around a guest at your ranch, someone you don’t know? Don’t you want to set your personal bar of demeanor to be at a respectable level. Barney did point out good morel mushroom spots on the way back to the cabin, so he got a little bit of forgiveness from me. But the man wasn’t quite off the hook yet, nor was Thelma Lou.We get back to the River Cabin around 6:30 p.m. Thelma Lou was in her car, like a real live woman person, not the one that Barney had eluded to. Not the one I had tentatively written off as a fictitious gal contrived as part of Barney’s grand plan to take me out with his 9 mm pistol on the back 40. Thelma Lou, a kind and lovely woman appearing younger than Barney, greeted me extending her hand in apologia. I commented to her that I had tried to call her several times the week prior, and her rebuttal was that she somehow got locked out of or had lost the password to her cellphone and that she would have to go to a wireless store to have someone unlock. The next comment from her was telling. She said her dad, who owns the ranch technically, had been getting after her about this phone issue for quite sometime. Geesh….We all laughed and talked a little, I think finally getting comfortable with each other after the series of slips, tricks and falls of the day and my minds wanderings of the situation. They invited me to supper at a local BBQ house close to the ranch, so I took them up. Since they were paying for dinner with the $300 dollars I had just given Barney for hunting rights for three days! So much for having your dinner paid for by others. The best part of handing that $300 to Barney was that he either forgot he quoted me $250/day to hunt, or felt bad about all the mis-communication and equipment breakdowns and lowered the price. It was a bargain. It was appreciated none-the-less.
We met up with their friends Fred, Sarah, and the woman Wilma, the one whom I had met earlier in the day when she was cleaning out the cabin that was supposed to have been ready when I arrived. Fred and Wilma are married, and good friends of Barney and Thelma Lou. We all actually had a nice dinner conversation, and Barney and Thelma Lou turned out to be very interesting people. I found out that they had moved from San Francisco to the Purple Cow Ranch about ten years ago. Thelma Lou’s father owns the ranch, he’s some big TV celebrity out of a major metropolitan city. Barney was a five-star restaurant chef for 25 years. It was a nice visit. All sins were forgiven. I was asked to drive Barney back to his ranch house, since he had no vehicle now that the Kabota and HUMVEE were down, and Thelma Lou had to have her truck for business to attend to at her shop. On the way out of the front door of the dining establishment, with Thelma Lou walking in front of Barney and I perhaps at 20 feet and out of earshot, Barney comments quietly to me, as he stares at her bum, something to the effect that Thelma Lou was quite a catch, that he had done well. Stated in a tone of lustful delight and sexual objectification of course. In effect, his comments suggested he was hanging around for the trophy. We arrive at Barney’s house, and he invited me in for a shot of liquor. We shared a drink, talked about the old railroad through the area, and the postal station, which is integrated structurally into their beautiful home. I headed out to get some sleep.
Wednesday Morning – April 13th Kansas Spring Turkey Season 2016 Opening Day
I wake at 5:00 a.m. and check the weather. It’s about 50 degrees outside, cloudy, and no wind. I dressed. Knowing I would have to cross the creek on foot, and the water was about 18 inches deep, my boots and pants would get wet. I had the brilliant idea of using two large trash bags to use as “hip waders” over my boots and camo pants. Unbeknownst to me, the creek was a little deeper at the ford than 18 inches. Water collected in the trash bag waders, my pants, boots and socks were soaked. Oh well, it least is wasn’t freezing temperatures. Daylight is coming on fast and I headed to a place called Pasture Henge, like the druid place called Stonge Henge across the big pond. It literally is two circles of large rocks on top of a large hill top knob of burned off prairie grass which is a sacred place to the Osage Indians, as Barney explained the day before. I believe it was blessed by an Osage tribal member, but I wonder what the Indians would think about all the oil wells around Pasture Henge? I digress. I hear a few distant gobbles, northeast, east and southeast of the rock circles down in the woods close to the lake. Gobbling was just weak this morning. I confirmed this by watching several distant hens walking to one of the mysterious gobblers, the one who only gobbled once. I suspect they are henned up now. It could be that the cool cloudy morning didn’t make those gobblers feel very randy, you never know for sure. I yelped periodically, and cut some to. I also re-positioned my small ground blind screen towards one of the gobblers who gobbled four or five times, thinking he might be lonesome without hens. I quit at around 9:30 and head back on the long walk. I found a way to get around avoiding another wet walk across the creek, and knowing there are gobblers in the area, I chalk the morning up as a successful scout on this new hunting property. I will head out this afternoon around 3 p.m.
Barney called me around 11 this morning and asks if I got anything and if needed to look at another spot. I tell him that Pasture Henge was fine, and just needed to try again in the afternoon. I think Barney is of the mindset that I would automatically kill a turkey opening morning, but since he is not a turkey hunter himself and doesn’t understand the odds are always against you, I just chalk his offer up as hey thanks for looking out for me and making sure I’m taken care of. I appreciated that. Barney’s only hunting claim to fame I’ve witnessed is the wounding of a nine-banded Armadillo. He claimed during the first phone contact in February to have rifle shot a turkey during deer season last fall, a shameful action, which was no surprise me. Barney is redeeming himself, and now that I understand the human dimension factor of the ranch operator, I will know how to handle weird situations without anxiety the next few days, nor expect to be whacked like a mobster hit!
During the day back at the cabin I looked at a game camera photos Barney gave me on my laptop. The game camera collects photos of wildlife at a feeding station west of Pasture Henge. I determine that the camera wasn’t quite set low enough to definitely confirm sex and age of every turkey photo, but from what I could tell, two jakes and maybe one or two hens had been visiting the feeding station, which had run out of corn. I decide to go ahead and hunt the feeding station Wednesday afternoon, only to observed two hens south of the station. Feeling discouraged about the lack of seeing any gobblers, I head back to the cabin for the evening.
Thursday Morning April 14th
I again wake at 5 a.m., eat a quick bite along with coffee. Then head out on foot for the long 35 minute walk to Pasture Henge. I conjured in my brain during the walk many new straight and shorter foot paths to reach the turkey grounds. This morning I again hunt the east edge of Pasture Henge that borders open hardwoods on an east facing slope towards a watershed lake. The gobbling this morning is just as weak as yesterday morning. Gobbling distances and direction were difficult to course due to the extremely low numbers of gobbles. I moved several times in the morning and never saw any longbeards. I am convinced that yes Barney probably had see a lot of turkeys in this area recently, based on outstanding habitat opportunities, some of the best I’ve seen in years. But the birds have broken into very small groups and breeding was probably hot and heavy. I debate on what to do, as I only have a day left before heading home. I could stay and hunt other areas on the ranch, as Barney had offered. Or I could head to one of my spots in Leavenworth County Kansas. It was my opinion that the birds were henned up right now. So I left. Needing to pay for lodging, I stopped by Barney and Thelma’s Lou’s home on the ranch. Barney yet again informed to go see Thelma Lou at the Purple Cow Store to pay. Barney tried to convince me to stay, but in assessing the overall situation, I felt it best to get turkey season back on track with a challenging piece of turkey gobbling ground in Leavenworth County, KS; ground I have been dupped on the last two seasons. I stopped by the store on the way out and Thelma Lou was actually there. Being the kindly woman she is, we visited for a few minutes. She talked about small town life, how small town people are not all necessarily the nicest in the world and they are too religious and close minded. We also talked briefly about the merits and drawbacks of the legalization of medical marijuana in Kansas. She also commented about the fact that she and Barney don’t have the best lines of communication, as if that wasn’t already painfully obvious to me. In fact, at some point, she stated that Barney doesn’t have a lot of people or communication skills. I had already ascertained most of what she was saying, so this was icing on the cake. I passed up the opportunity to offer debate on some of her thought processes, as there were more important things at hand, to pursue turkeys. With $190 spent, I left town.
It was a good trip and learning experience, and if turkey’s were the only judge, I know I was in good habitat and there were birds in the area. I saw and heard them. In fact Barney text messaged pictures of a group of hens and gobblers near his house after I left. In hind site, I should have trusted my gut about choosing this operation. There are trades off when booking a hunting trip and I believe that your hosts professionalism is just as important as having birds.