As I boarded the Boeing MD-80 and nestled into the cramped seat I would be confined to for the three hour flight into McAllen, Texas, my mind began to wander. Though I have flown many times, I still get that uneasy feeling just before the aircraft lifts into thin air. Those thoughts and feelings of anxiety were soon replaced with visions of gobbling Rios near the border of Old Mexico. I had been invited to spend a few days hunting with longtime friend and hunting companion Seth Johnson in some of the best South Texas brush country the Lone Star State has to offer.
Seth is president of Outdoors Interactive and the multimedia specialist behind Brush Country Monsters, an up and coming hunting show hosted by John Burrell for the 2010 season and soon to air on Realtree.com. Brush Country Monsters is based on the hunting experiences on the world renowned Novillos Ranch, owned and operated by one of Texas' finest cattlemen, Jackie Scoggins. His hard work and dedication to the deer herd are evident in the success of his hunters and also in big bodied, heavy horned deer that the Novillos is so famous for producing. The Novillos is on the featured properties of Whitetaildestinations.com and is in a league of its own among the South Texas venues.
As the plane made its final descent into McAllen, I felt like a kid in a candy store. This would be my first hunting experience in the state of Texas, and for a dyed in the wool turkey hunter, Texas is the Mecca of Rio hunting.
As Seth and I walked off the plane we were greeted by friend, guide and camera man for the weekend Lamar Smith, affectionately known as "Super Guide," who was already dressed in Advantage Max-1 and ready to get the show started. During our drive to the Novillos, I got my first eyeful of the South Texas brush, which I never imagined would be so short and thick. The turkeys in my home state of Alabama typically roost forty to fifty feet up a tree and cackle multiple times in the morning as they pitch down to the forest floor below. I realized quickly that the tactic of enticing a gobbler right off the limb with my best version of a fly-down cackle was a trick that needed to stay in my bag on this trip. I don't think I saw a bush over ten feet tall in a four-day period, which doesn't leave a bird much time to cackle on the way down or even blink for that matter.
On the morning of our first hunt in Texas, the dew lay thick on the ground and the temperatures dipped into the low 40s. While it seemed unseasonably cool to the South Texas natives, it was just what we needed to put the birds in a feel-good mood. For some reason the birds always seem to gobble better on mornings when dew present. I don't know if any scientific reason exists for my observation, but a heavy dew is always a welcome sight for this seasoned hunter. For a couple of weeks prior to our arrival in Texas, Lamar had been keeping tabs on the habits and whereabouts of the Rios in the area and had found a large group of birds on the neighboring Weaver Ranch. He felt certain that we would be in the middle of gobbling birds and choosing which one to call to would be the hard part.
As the star-lit sky gave way to the first hint of daybreak, the air was filled with the sound of the South Texas wildlife. Some sounds were new and unfamiliar, such as the chirp of the rare Pigmy Owl, while others including the bark of a matriarch coyote calling the pack back together and the sound of turkeys gobbling in all directions made me feel right at home. After deciding which of these mouthy birds was the closest, we quickly set up the decoys, and Lamar readied the camera in hopes of filming Seth harvesting his first Rio Turkey.
As my back touched the knurled bark of the Mesquite tree, the longbeard gobbled again, and I could tell his feet were on the ground. A couple of high pitched yelps and short cut lit the fuse for the lovesick tom and I knew it would only be a few short minutes before the bird would show himself. Seth steadied the Benelli on his knee and with one more yelp it was evident that the gobbler was not with hens and had closed half of the distance from his previous position. Within two minutes of the bird's pitching down he was in a full-out run and the cotton white top on his head shined like a beacon against the dull color of the dry Texas landscape. A strutting decoy changed the mood of the gobbler from lonesome to outrage, and it was clear that competition was not welcome on his Mesquite flat. Just as the tom postured to the decoy the gun roared and Seth has successfully harvested his first Rio.
With congratulations exchanged and a lengthy photo session completed, we set out to find another turkey that wanted to play. Ranch owner, Kent Weaver, suggested that we try a sendero near a water hole where he had seen several toms strutting just days before. A strange look came over the faces of the two Texans as I blew a crow call in effort to locate a gobbler. I later found out the reason for their confusion, it was explained to me that crows were not indigenous to that area of Texas. Oh well... the turkeys gobbled at it anyway; and they obviously overlooked that small detail as did I.
When we placed the decoys in the sendero and turned to find our seats among the mesquite, I noticed how well the Advantage Max-1 everyone was wearing blended into the Texas landscape. The first calling sequence ended in gobbles from two longbeards. Each time I called they answered, and each time they seemed a little closer. Soon I could hear the drumming of the birds as they strutted toward our position and then a full fan appeared beneath the low canopy of the mesquite. The more dominant bird displayed his feathers like he was being filmed for an episode of National Geographic. Everything a turkey is supposed to do, these birds did. After confirming that Lamar had all of the footage he needed, I pulled the trigger and completed the mission that we set out to accomplish. By 8:45 on our first hunt in South Texas we were able to call in and harvest two mature longbeards on film for Brush Country Monsters and Realtree.com.
The remainder of the trip was a much needed vacation from the headaches of life. The ranch house of the Novillas offered a hidden retreat that was just what Seth and I needed to clear our heads of the clutter surrounding work and family responsibilities. We shared hours of friendship with the owners of the Novillas and Weaver ranch, and dined on table fare fit for royalty. If you ever find yourself near the border town of Rio Grande City, be sure to eat at Caro's. The puffy tacos are out of this world.
So many times as hunters we get caught up in our own routine of chasing our quarry near the comforts of home. Taking a hunting trip is a great way to pump a new breath of fresh air into your commitment as an outdoor sports enthusiast. As a serious turkey hunter, I know from personal experience that I usually hunt alone or with very close acquaintances. It would almost be a sin in the eyes of a seasoned turkey hunter to share a gobbling bird with a not so familiar person much less a complete stranger, but after the first two hunts of my 2009 season I have reason to think otherwise. Just two days prior to the harvest of my Rio in Texas, I had the privilege of taking my almost four-year-old son Reid on his first hunt. He witnessed his father calling two noisy longbeards to the gun and absolutely loved the entire hunting experience. Since his first hunt on April 1, 2009 he has accompanied me on four other occasions per his request. Then only two days later, I had the privilege of calling in Seth's first Rio. Many years ago on one of Tennessee's steep oak ridge tops I called in Seth's first turkey, a large Eastern that remains at the top of my list as one of the most memorable hunts of my life.
During my trip to Texas I was also able to introduce two people to the sport of turkey hunting. Ranch owner Kent Weaver had never experienced the thrill and heart pounding action of a spring turkey hunt but was very much amazed. Lamar, "Super Guide," was also introduced to the art of calling a turkey into gun range and agreed that it was contagious. For me, the experience of the hunt and sharing it with others is becoming a priority again. Someone shared it with me once, and now I am enjoying the opportunity to share with others, the great art of turkey hunting and calling.
Get the latest turkey hunting news, tips and tactics in your inbox!
Steve Hickoff is Realtree.com's editorial director and turkey hunting editor. He’s been beaten by more birds than he can remember. Still he kills enough to eat well, and fool with beards, spurs and fans until the next season. Pennsylvania born and raised, Maine is his home base now. A full-time outdoor communicator with a couple university writing degrees, he chases spring gobblers and fall flocks around the country.