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Turkeys elude hunters in Black Hills chase

Sep. 8, 2011 - 01:15PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 8, 2011 - 01:15PM  |  
Retired Vice Adm. Carl "Van" Mauney, from left, with the national Wild Turkey Federation's Michael Turbeyfill and Ryan Kirby.
Retired Vice Adm. Carl "Van" Mauney, from left, with the national Wild Turkey Federation's Michael Turbeyfill and Ryan Kirby. (Ken Perrotte)
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Winchester Ammunition collaborates with the National Wild Turkey Federation to support military heroes through the Winchester Veterans Breakfast at the NWTF’s National Convention and Sport Show.
Each attending veteran is honored with a commemorative lapel pin. A distinguished veteran or active-duty officer delivers remarks at the event. Retired Vice Adm. Carl Mauney addressed attendees at the 2011 breakfast.
The upcoming convention is scheduled for Feb. 9-12, at Gaylord Opryland Resort and Conference Center in Nashville, Tenn.
For more about NWTF, see


Winchester Xtended Range Hi-Density Turkey Loads. These hard-hitting shells from Winchester Ammunition are 10 percent denser than lead. Available in three shot sizes, they patterned tightly and optimized the effective killing range for wary gobblers.
Zink Calls Avian X Lifelike Collapsible Decoy. This collapsible decoy is incredible. Even nicer, it packs extremely tightly, making it easier to carry on flights and into the field.
Mossy Oak Obsession Camo. This mostly green pattern blended well with the ponderosa pine trees and early spring vegetation sprouting in the Black Hills. This pattern builds on the success of the elements used in Mossy Oak Break-Up, like ghost shadows and realistic limbs.
Lodging. The Lodge at Palmer’s Gulch was a superb jumping-off point for a Black Hills turkey hunt. It’s close to Mount Rushmore and other sightseeing destinations should you tag out early and offers a variety of accommodations from camping pads to cabins.

Michael Turbeyfill and Van Mauney surveyed the expanse of thinned ponderosa pine below them as first light began creeping over the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Heavy rain had moved through during the evening, and more storms were forecast. It was a soggy start to a long-planned dream hunt for wild turkeys.

Fortunately, daybreak was dry, and shortly after 5 a.m., a pair of gobblers began rattling away from their roost trees just a few hundred yards off.

"Let's go," Turbeyfill whispered. "We'll try to get as close as we can to set up and then call them to us after they fly down."

The hunters quietly advanced. When the cover became too sparse to move closer, they picked a large pine tree and nestled against its base. Turbeyfill edged forward and stuck a realistic hen turkey decoy in the ground.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, triggering another gobble from the turkey. Between Turbeyfill's calls and the advancing thunder, the birds must have gobbled at least a hundred times. As the rain approached, at least one turkey flew to the ground, gobbling as soon as he landed.

Mauney shouldered his shotgun and scanned forward. In a perfect hunting world, this is where the bird comes toward the stealthy, fully camouflaged caller and offers a shot. But this hunt was shaping up to be one where everything from the weather to the terrain and behavior of the quarry was confounding.

The clouds opened for another deluge, making for miserable hunting. Within a couple of hours, the rain had turned to snow.

Things clearly weren't turning out as Turbeyfill expected. The 26-year-old Atlanta native, who now lives in St. Louis, wanted to show his Uncle Van, known to the rest of the country as recently retired Vice Adm. Carl Mauney, about turkey hunting. Ideally, the final outcome would be a couple of long-bearded, hefty turkeys in the bag.

Mauney, also a Georgia native, retired last October as deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. A career submariner, he had not had much time to hunt for many things other than enemy subs and ships over the past 35 years.

Then he was asked if he would speak to the Winchester Ammunition Veterans' Breakfast at the National Wild Turkey Federation's banquet in February.

As he researched the organization, he began thinking he might like to try turkey hunting.

His extended family and a couple of instructors who were diehard turkey hunters helped sell him on the challenge. The more Mauney researched and listened, the more he realized how much a submariner's skills in sound strategy, adaptable tactics and impeccable stealth were key to turkey-hunting success.

While Mauney took a Virginia Hunters Education Course and soaked in online research on turkey hunting, Turbeyfill began researching locations for a great first hunt. Wildlife biologists and friends within the NWTF convinced him that the Black Hills National Forest was the place to go.

The hunt there would be for the Merriam subspecies of wild turkey. With their beautiful white-tipped feathers, relative abundance and receptivity to the call, they are on most turkey hunters' dream sheets.

The hunt would take place in the diverse terrain of the hills, canyons and fields all around Mount Rushmore over the last four days of the South Dakota spring season. The elevation ranges between 5,000 and 7,000 feet, the air considerably rarer than most East Coast hunts.Detailed area maps were prepared and scouting took place via the computer and telephone. Trails that offered only foot access were best bets. National forest land that abutted private farms and ranches also could be good. Mike Verchio, NWTF's state chapter representative, met the group at the firing range on the day of their arrival, sharing tips on best places to try and how to hunt for Merriams.

"You can't overcall to a Merriam" was one piece of advice Turbeyfill welcomed. He is an excellent caller and likes to call.

"Another thing," Verchio added, "If you can hear that bird, you need to be able to sit and set up before calling; he's closer than you think."

Misbehavin' Merriams

"These birds aren't behaving like the Merriams you hear about, read about," Turbeyfill said with frustration as the hunt progressed into the third day with no one in the five-person hunting party yet to tag a tom.

Every evening as dinner dishes were cleared from the log cabin at the Palmer's Gulch base camp, topographic maps would be spread on the table to formulate battle plans for the next day.

The snow squall had everyone piling into a 4-wheel-drive vehicle for windshield scouting the remote back roads of the national forest. Mount Rushmore was obscured in the low clouds. When the storm transitioned back to rain and the ceiling lifted, the presidents carved into the mountainside had darkened watery streaks along their visages, giving them a weird Alice Cooper-like quality.

Everyone was hearing gobbles. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was because the season was nearing its end and these public land birds had seen and heard enough hunters that fooling them into shotgun range was a bridge too far.

Mauney was philosophical about the rigors of the hunt.

"If we had success on that first day, I wouldn't have learned as much as I have, or appreciate it as much," he said. "Turkeys are worthy adversaries. There is so much that goes into it in the way of tactics and strategy. You've got to figure things out. I like how Michael put it: ‘You've got to get between where they are and where they want to go.‘" Turbeyfill used each gobbler, each calling situation or the road time while changing hunting locations to mentor his uncle. He explained why certain calling techniques were used, assessed what the turkeys were likely doing in response to the call or the weather, or how the hunters had to use terrain and cover to get close, but not too close, to a potential tom.

Mauney had a box call and a glass friction call in his hunting vest and pulled it out to attempt a few clucks and yelps whenever the scenario allowed.

As the hunt entered early afternoon of its final day, Turbeyfill heard a distant shotgun.

Josh Fleming and Ryan Kirby of the NWTF were hunting together a few miles away, and minutes later, Kirby reported that Fleming had taken a juvenile gobbler, called a jake in turkey-hunting lingo. Still, any legal bird was a good bird on this hunt, and the parties rendezvoused to share in the success.

That evening, chicken-fried turkey nuggets and grilled breast strips were the featured dinner fare. The hunters toasted Fleming's success and lessons learned on the expedition.

"I was pumped up about coming on this trip. I've hunted a lot of things in the oceans around this world and I noted in my NWTF speech how important stealth was to both a submariner and a turkey hunter," Mauney said.

"Listening to the turkeys gobble, seeing how we set up was a good experience," he continued. "I had to remind myself to stay calm and breathe if that turkey approached."Beyond the tactics, the coping with wild weather, and the ups and downs of steep, rugged hills, Mauney summarized the hunt with another point that would stick with him.


Ken Perrotte is a Military Times outdoor writer.

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