April 10, 2023
Our guide’s pickup sped through the cloudy Wyoming night, slowing only when a sharp curve allowed no alternative. The truck’s headlights bounced off the dark-needled pine trees that gave this region its name. He Sapa (Black Mountains), or Black Hills in English, were sacred hunting grounds for the Lakota and coveted by gold hungry prospectors. They were perhaps the most coveted, contested, and blood-stained ground in America’s march toward its “Manifest Destiny.”
But my destiny this morning was to connect, hopefully, with a big Merriam’s gobbler.
We left the pavement and transitioned to a dirt road that ran along a ridgetop. As dawn’s aurora increased our visibility, I could make out a valley to our right and a heavily forested slope to the left. After a ten-minute drive, the guide pulled to a stop. Dismounting, Benelli’s George Thompson and I grabbed our guns. I was packing a Super Black Eagle III Turkey model, while George had one of the very first Super Black Eagle III 28 gauges cradled over his arm.
Stoked with Fiocchi USA’s impressive Golden Turkey TSS loads, my 12-bore, 3-inch shells held a whopping 1 5/8 ounces of #9 pellets; George’s diminutive 3-inch 28s were also filled to the brim with 13/16 ounce of nines. The afternoon prior, we had patterned both guns at 30 yards and the results were truly astonishing. But don’t take my word for it. The pattern photos that accompany this piece show the incontrovertible results.
While George and I sorted our kit, our guide from Trophy Ridge Outfitters let loose with a few yelps on his box call. Immediately, several gobblers responded from a distance, I’d say no less than 400 yards away. The guide was pleased as he turned to George. “They are just where I roosted them last night,” he said. “I have a pop-up blind about two-hundred yards down this hill. Let’s get there as quietly as possible and see what we can do.” Requiring no additional motivation, George and I followed him down the hill.
The blind was sitting on a flat spot along the slope. From the front of the blind there was a clear view downslope in the direction of the roosting tree. To the left, a twenty-yard stretch of open ground gradually rose to a low hummock from which three or four Ponderosa pines grew, effectively blocking the remainder of any view down the hill. Farther to the left, the flat ground swung around those trees and seemed to dip into a gully.
I suggested to George it might be best for him to get in the blind with the more open view as this might prove an asset when shooting the 28 gauge. As the blind was not big enough for three of us, I took up a position on the far-left side of a big pine positioned just to the left of the blind. The tree’s trunk obstructed my view to the blind even though it wasn’t any more than five feet from where I sat. George and I agreed that if a bird came in from the far-left I would take the shot and the remaining fields of fire would be his.
I’ve found that hunting turkeys is a lot like romancing a woman. Sometimes it happens fast and sometimes it happens slow and sometimes it never happens at all. The only thing for certain is that you can never predict how your best efforts may turn out.
With the team in position, our guide proceeded to romance the local toms who had given voice earlier. His calling was rewarded by a single strong return gobble, along with several much further away. My guess was the more dominant birds had followed their gals from the roost while this younger fella decided to take a look-see at who the new girl in the neighborhood might be.
With our guide softly and sweetly yelping, with a few provocative clucks thrown in for good measure, our gobbler continued his cautious but vocal approach. It wasn’t more than ten minutes into the duet that I spied some tentative movement just behind those trees that blocked my long-view downhill. That got my attention. I slowly raised my gun as I brought my knees up to support my shooting stance.
“Yup, that’s him,” I thought to myself as I caught a glimpse of a white head popping over the edge of the gully to my far left. Using the trees for cover, he was coming in from the least expected direction. If he kept coming, I’d soon have a shot I thought.
To be fair, I allowed him to almost get past me, as I thought that George might be able to see him from the blind. But George didn’t shoot, so naturally I figured what the hell. Lining up the Burris Fastfire 4’s red dot at the base of his wattle, I pulled the trigger and the big Benelli roared. One and done. Smackdown. No flip, no flop. The Fiocchi TSS load hit him like a flippin’ freight train. When I walked over and picked him up his head and neck felt like overdone macaroni in a wet sock. Not a bit of bone left beneath the skin.
George came out of the blind to admire the bird. He told me that he had seen him and was thinking to himself “That’s a nice one…” just as my gun roared. We sure got a laugh out of that!
We hunted hard the rest of that day but could not pull in a bird in for George, but happily he connected the next morning. Our quest for Wyoming Merriam’s proved to be a great hunt in a beautiful part of the country. As a bonus, I even got a quick visit to Mount Rushmore and a view of the Devil’s Tower. Didn’t see any flying saucers, but I don’t doubt that the truth is out there!