Cold, tired and running on three hours sleep is not what most people consider a vacation. While other college students might choose exotic or beachy locales for their Spring Break adventures, I selected Nebraska.
Four years ago, the Ohio National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) Youth Partnership Hunt, now the NWTF Gene Goodwin Memorial Partnership Hunt, not only launched my career into the outdoor industry but afforded me my very first turkey hunting experience. Gene Goodwin was the heart and soul of the Ohio Youth Partnership Hunt. He created the program and truly believed in it. Sadly, he fell ill and passed away in November 2020.
Gene’s hunt pulled the Ohio NWTF’s top ten Dr. James Earl Kennamer Scholarship applicants for an expense-paid weekend of turkey hunting. Each youth was paired with a guide and given all of the necessary gear from clothes to calls, and a Remington 870.
I was astonished to have been selected in 2017. I was the newest among the group to turkeys. It seemed everyone had gone turkey hunting before or someone in their family had. I knew absolutely nothing.
I learned a lot that weekend and though it didn’t conclude with a harvest, I had the most exciting hunt of my life. A 100-yard belly crawl (safely watched over by the rest of the party) towards a gobbler in a field led to what I consider one of the defining moments of my hunting career: the decision not to shoot. It was raining and the wet grass of the field so obscured the red dot that I could not place an accurate and ethical shot. From that moment forward, it was my goal to harvest a turkey.
I came back to future NWFT youth hunts, not as a participant, but as a supporter, and each year I looked forward to seeing Mr. Goodwin. Every time we met, it was like seeing an old friend though outside of hunting, I hardly knew him. His smile was contagious, and he was thrilled to see my success in the outdoor industry, a path his hunt set me on, and looked forward to seeing my first harvest, whenever that happened to be.
Despite my desire for a turkey harvest, I was still uncomfortable going on my own. However, a couple years after my first hunt, I met Kevin Paulson, founder of HuntingLife.com, through the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA). In 2021 he invited me to come turkey hunting in Nebraska with him and the timing couldn’t have been better. I knew I had to make it happen. I had graduated college in 2020, so I had the ability to leave for a week, and I could finally fulfill my 2017 dream.
Determined to harvest my first turkey in memory of Mr. Goodwin, with the shotgun from the partnership hunt, I took Kevin up on his offer. Kevin wasn’t the only one to support my turkey journey. Winchester Ammunition provided me with some Long Beard XR Turkey Shells. At first, I wondered why there are so few shells in a box. As a rifle competitor used to shooting 80 rounds in a match, the idea of smaller ammunition quantities puzzled me. Not anymore! Transitioning from rifles to shotguns was a challenge at first. I knew I had to hold the gun tightly, but didn’t expect to be sucker punched. The pattern was perfect, a nice collection of beads clustered in the head and neck of the paper turkey target, but it left my shoulder slightly bruised. My hunting and traveling partner for the trip, Max Crotser, tried to suppress a smile. The 12-gauge Remington 870 Express I had was not a target gun, but designed for putting down birds.
Despite my previous bad luck with a red-dot, I planned to try again. This time, I tried a Vortex Spitfire, a red-dot designed for ARs, but with a circle and dot reticle I thought ideal for turkey. However, I quickly discovered that it was much too tall. In order to see through it, I had to lift my head off the stock. After the first shot, I was relieved I had switched to the Hi-Viz fiber optic sights that came with the gun. These sights, which came in various colors and could be changed at any time, allowed me to have a consistent cheek weld. The extras also proved handy to have if one was lost in the field.
A fourteen-hour car ride and three hours of sleep later, Max and I arrived at Kevin’s house for our first morning of hunting. It was dark and cold. I expected spring weather and at the last minute had packed some of my deer hunting gear though the camo pattern wasn’t quite right. It didn’t matter. Staying warm was much more important and I soon wished I had brought more.
I followed Kevin’s lead and watched his every move, asking questions as he set up decoys and a half blind in the dark. It wasn’t long before a curious doe wandered by our setup. I smiled, watching the creature. We hunted public land exclusively, and Kevin had a good idea of where the birds might have roosted overnight. The first spot was one of several properties we played musical chairs between. The great thing about Nebraska is that unlike Ohio, where spring turkey hunting hours close at noon, hunters can hunt turkey from dawn until dusk. We struck out several times. Birds were quiet and it became apparent that a population imbalance combined with pressure and temperature contributed to their near silence.
I was clumsy the first day. I didn’t know what to expect and forgot what I had hidden in which pockets of my oversized turkey vest. At times I felt more like a tourist than a hunter, my camera slung around my neck, the strap tangling with my shotgun sling. As the week went on, I fell into a routine. I knew what to wear, what order to put layers on, and discovered what I wished I had brought. The first day we stopped in a charming small town for a warm lunch. Not wanting to waste any time in the woods, for the remainder of the week, I packed ham and muenster cheese sandwiches in the back of my vest.
We traversed fields, climbed through brush and walked through streambeds from sun up to sun down. Breaks came in the form of short interludes in the truck, spotting turkeys on lands we didn’t have permission to hunt on the way to the next spot.
We split our time between traditional running and gunning and watching and waiting from a blind. The turkeys were acting strangely on the most promising property, barely talking. They’d appear in the distance like deer, but wouldn’t respond to our calls.
Walking through the woods, we stopped to listen and call. A hen responded, then a gobbler. Excited, I set up shooting sticks and lay in wait. He was coming closer. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him. My heart beat with excitement, and I adjusted my mask to cover as much of my face as possible. Kevin called; the bird answered. I thought for sure I would have a window for a shot soon. Louder and more aggressive gobbles indicated he was coming closer.
All of a sudden, a group of coyotes began yipping and howling in the forest to the right of us. I immediately wondered if they had stolen away the turkey so close to being mine. A series of aggressive gobbles answered and the cacophony reached an eerie height for a few brief moments before disappearing altogether. It was confusing, unnerving and beautiful all at the same time. Everything was dead. Nothing moved and we felt as if we were the only three live beings in the entire area. This feeling haunted us the rest of the day.
By the second to last day, I was getting a bit worried. We hadn’t seen anything within shooting range and it was nearly time to depart. We started out at one property and bounced between a few others. Late afternoon we returned to the spot from the first day, finding feathers along the path along the way. At first, I thought this was a good sign, but when I came across a cluster, I realized I was looking at the spoils of another’s harvest. We left nearly as quickly as we arrived and decided to take our chances the rest of the day in the blind.
In the name of efficiency and lighter loads, we left the blind hidden but accessible each day. Kevin set me up with his shooting sticks and my blind chair. I was facing the largest window, keeping my eyes peeled and listening intently. Kevin called intermittently with a slate hen call. It wasn’t long before we received an answer. My senses heightened and I tensed up. I was on full alert, searching for a visual of the amazing gobbles I heard. Willing to try something a little different, we used a Lynch box call to gobble and challenge the bird. He responded as expected with a gobble you could almost feel.
It was over in a matter of seconds. Kevin realized that the tom was coming from behind us. We threw the chair to the ground and I braced off my knee through the back window flap he just pulled open. I saw a red head and pulled the trigger. All of my preparation for an incredibly stable shot went unused, but years of marksmanship training prevailed. I didn’t see him fall—it happened so quickly. Kevin began exclaiming in excitement.
It turned out that not only had I centered his head in the pattern of shot, I had hit him with the wad as well. It was an incredible and exhilarating feeling that didn’t go unearned. By putting in the time, I learned more about how to hunt turkey and the importance of mentorship. The early lack of success even sweetened the experience. In a tradition I had never heard of, but will carry forward, Kevin cut out the dates of my harvest from my tag and set the pieces on the slate call. I thought I was supposed to save them, but it was quite the opposite. Those small shreds of paper were meant to be wished away, blown off the slate like birthday candles. However, my greatest wish couldn’t come true—sharing my success with Gene. It was his hunt that set me on the path of success. I’ve continued on relentlessly and his dream helped form mine. Though he may no longer be here in person, his legacy lives on through the youth he mentored.
Kevin told me blow the pieces from my tag into the wind and make a wish. I thought this was a touching tradition, though the pieces mostly fell back into my lap.