by Ken Brown
We all hold memories of a special bird or a special place that we’ve hunted. This is a story of both…
Brad Haun laughed when Dr. Marc Brown and I told him about the cattle stampede that ended my first evening hunt in Kansas. It’s easier to laugh about such things on the first night of a three and a half day trip. Brad owns Ranch Country Outfitters in Fall River, Kansas where he runs a cattle operation full time and handles a highly successful deer hunting outfit in the fall. Marc, an accomplished caller and well traveled hunter, had hunted with Brad the previous year and had taken 2 trophy birds weighing 24 pounds each. His recounting of the number of birds, the country, and the people convinced me to join him this time. With 5000 acres of his own land and thousands of additional acres under lease, Brad promised we would not be bothered by cows again.
The next morning we worked at least 7 different gobblers off the roost, but none was enticed by our seductive calling. Marc and I moved off that location and through about a half mile of mixed hardwoods to where the country opened up and I saw the Marr Valley for the first time. Most of the valley consists of open pasture sloping downward on each side of the small creek running through the middle of it all. There are trees and higher grasses where the creek moves through and where runoff has created pockets of moisture. And there are nooks and crannies capable of hiding the resident deer and turkeys and the occasional visiting hunter. The valley is bordered by hardwood forest with varied terrain much like that I’m accustomed to in the East. But the roughly half mile wide and ¾ mile long valley was unlike any place I’ve ever hunted. It is the classic example of why this area is described as “where the piney breaks meet the plains.” It was love at first sight.
As we eased along the edges of the valley, a gobbler on the other side answered Marc’s calling. We could see across the full width of the valley to a line of trees at the top of the other side. Suddenly, Marc pointed up to that far tree line. “Look at the size of that bird!” I did not need my binoculars to see what he was pointing at; for silhouetted against the skyline was a large gobbler patrolling the edge of the valley. Even at that distance, I could see he had a substantial beard. There was no way we were going to be able to sneak across without being seen. All we could do was watch as that gobbler marched back and forth, the monarch of his domain. I really wanted a chance at that bird!
That afternoon, we came into the area from a different angle and hunted a large field that the valley emptied into. An hour before dusk, Marc got a bird going in the woods up behind us. The gobble was distinct in that it sounded like the bird was shaking his entire body as he gobbled. Slowly, he moved around behind Marc and then behind me. I was convinced he was the big bird we’d seen that morning. And I was sure he was coming to my decoys. Then he shut up. Right before dark I heard a single bird fly up in the woods behind me. And just for good measure, he threw me one more gobble.
At dusk, I was back on that same corner setup before first light. I was hoping that longbeard could be coaxed in off of the roost, but I never heard him fly down and he avoided the field. I eased on up the valley just inside the tree line where we’d seen the big bird strutting the previous morning. A gobble from the other side convinced me to slide across the valley to a hardwood ridge over there. From a rocky outcropping, I could look down through the valley. Two black forms moving in the distance from the middle toward the edge where I had just been caught my eye. My binoculars confirmed my suspicions. Two gobblers, one much bigger than the other, were hustling across the open slope to the higher ground. When they got there, the larger bird proceeded to march back and forth gobbling unsolicited and letting all know whom the boss of this valley was.
I was beginning to dislike that bird.
That afternoon I was on the side of a burnt ridge that ran perpendicular to the field I had started the morning in. As I moved up this burnt hillside, I heard gobbling coming from just over the top where two small fields were tucked into the hardwoods. I slid in against a large oak and waited. Through the hardwoods I was able to make out movement in the woods to the right of the fields. Like a ghost, the red head, and then the black body of a gobbler floated between two trees. And he was moving away from me, between the fields and the backside of the rocky outcropping… Right in the direction of the Marr Valley! As soon as he was out of site, I got up and ran back toward the field around the other side of that ridge top. On the other side a small ravine ran down from the top. A well-worn deer trail cut through the middle of it and I ran up the trail, trying again to get ahead of the birds. Halfway up I stopped and let out a loud series of yelps. I was answered immediately by a thunderous gobble from just over the top of the ravine. I dove against the wide trunk of the nearest tree. Some gentle clucking elicited another gobble. Closer. Then two mature longbeards crossed the top of the ravine. Behind them, an obviously larger bird with an obviously longer beard moved slowly across. He came closer, at just 60 yards, and slowed to look down the trail. “Come on.” I coaxed to myself. My heart was in my throat. He continued to move slowly across without moving closer. I purred and he stopped. Looking. Waiting. Then he walked where the other birds had walked. Damn! I waited 5 minutes and clucked gently. Nothing. Louder. And a gobble on the edge of the valley told me it was over. I climbed up and moved slowly to the edge in time see the three birds running across the open side of the valley. Man, that bird was big, and the other two were good birds!
Back at Brad’s that night we had a strategy session. And I agreed with Marc’s assessment. The “Monarch” as I’d named him, did not get that way by being stupid. He expected his hens to come to him and was probably going to be very difficult to call in. “You’re going to have to hunt him like a deer.” That meant placing myself within his normal travel pattern. The good news was that we had a pretty good sense of his morning routine. And that had him moving across the valley to the tree line where we’d seen him the first morning and where he’d run to when I lost him the second morning. Both mornings we’d seen him there at about 11:00.
I made the mile long walk in before dawn and was set up in one of the few trees on that entire side of the valley. It was so open on this side, that most movement could be seen from a fairly wide area. I sat against a dead tree in a slight depression that restricted my view of the entire valley. Here I could see a corridor of 100 yards or so below me and about 50 yards to either side. Early gobbling in the hardwoods and at the other edge of the valley tempted me. I listened to a bird gobble and then fly down into the middle of the valley from a few hundred yards away. “Patience.” I told myself. “Only 4 and a half more hours.” It got hot… Around 80 degrees. I slept. “Only 3 more hours.” The valley was quiet now and I doubted my plan. I yelped a little. Nothing. More sleep. At 10:00 a bird gobbled over in the hardwoods. “Not falling for that one!” I stayed and sweated. At 10:25 a bird gobbled in the middle of the valley, down by the creek. At 10:35 he gobbled again. Closer. I yelped gently and he answered immediately. “Now shut up,” I thought, “He knows you’re here!” No decoy this time. I figured if he saw one, he’d wait ‘til she came to him. More gobbles coming closer and I knew he was coming. There was almost a questioning to his gobbles… Maybe just me imaging…
“Are you still there?”
There was one problem: It sounded like he was going to pass just out of range. Some gentle purrs and clucks. A quick response and much closer. “Now, shut up!” He was just out of range and even with my position on the slope. After 5 minutes, he gobbled again. Same place…Hadn’t moved. 10 more minutes. Another gobble…Same place! My mind whirled…If I didn’t respond, he might think the hen left! I turned my head and purred, trying to make it sound like the hen had moved away. Nothing. After 10 minutes, I purred and putted. Nothing. I yelped. Nothing. Louder. And he gobbled from on top of the ridge above the valley. Going, going, gone. For two and a half days I’d chased that bird around the Marr Valley and he’d shown me up as “not worthy”. That afternoon I’d hunt in a different place.
Sometimes our most memorable hunts are those where we do not get a bird. This year I’m going back to Kansas to see some old friends: I’m looking forward to seeing Brad and his wife Michelle and their boys. And I can’t wait to hunt again in the Marr Valley.
Since this first, memorable hunt, I’ve been back to hunt with Brad 5 times. I’ve shot many turkeys and in 2009 brought my son and my father out for deer. All 3 of us shot the biggest buck of our lives. But that’s not why I’ll continue going back. It’s the place and it’s the people. And it’s how I feel when I’m there…Like I belong.