Dr. Eddie's Prescription for Hearing-Impaired Turkey Hunters
By: Doug Howlett
The Texas sun cut hard shadows in the landscape. At the edge of a sparsely-wooded flat, huddled beneath the shade of a low mesquite tree, I stood among a group of hunters trying to avoid the relentless heat and make a game plan for the next morning.
The guides, except for one, stood apart from the crowd, content to joke among themselves, wiping away the sweat on their foreheads with the brim of their hats and occasionally kicking at the dust as they spoke. The group came here every year from Mississippi, brought to the ranch this year to guide a group of outdoor writers, me included, on a three-day hunt. Their pay? A chance to tag a Rio Grande gobbler in some of the best Rio country in the world.
Each wondered what writer he would take hunting, and which of those writers would be worth the skills they wrote about. This was to be the first time I'd ever hunted outside my local area and to my turkey hunting credit, I had taken only one gobbler — a reluctant tom that finally worked to my calls just weeks before this trip. In those weeks, I had finally felt like a full-fledged turkey hunter. But standing among this group, I felt woefully unprepared for the days ahead. If nothing else, this would be a great learning experience.
As the outfitter discussed the next day's pairings with the head of the Mississippi gang, their voices floated through the wind, alternating between audible and hushed tones. Suddenly, the outfitter, a lanky gentleman in a straw cowboy hat, peered my way and stepped toward me. Then he pulled me away from the group, the head guide right behind him.
"Look Doug, if you don't mind, we're going to let you hunt with Dr. Eddie tomorrow," he drawled. "He's a real nice guy and a heck of a turkey hunter. It's just that he's a little deaf. Since you're one of the younger guys here, we figured you'd be more open to the idea of starting out a hunt with him."
"Oh sure," I replied. My eyes ran from the outfitter to the guide. Perhaps my blank look made the outfitter feel he needed to offer more of an explanation.
"We're going to put you in a real good spot. You won't be right where the birds are roosting, but they will work their way later in the morning toward you. If it doesn't work out, we can switch you up with someone else later."
Eddie Stevenson is a veterinarian out of Mississippi who doctors livestock. He's a big NWTF supporter and an avid turkey hunter. But he's also partially deaf. "Dr. Eddie," as his friends call him, can hear some sounds like voices spoken in regular conversational tone. He just can't make out the words unless he's looking at someone's lips. It was hard at first to remember to look at him when we spoke.
"So you can't hear a turkey, then, can you?" I inquired.
"Not really. But I can still call. You just have to help me out on what the turkeys are doing."
The next morning found us set up in a blind, a short distance from where the birds were roosted, but in a direction they headed each day to feed. Using a box call and a slate, Dr. Eddie called a little at first light, and I was certain it was as good a calling as I had ever heard. Because our faces would be hidden beneath camo masks, we had to work out a system of hand signals that I could use to let him know what I was hearing.
A fist, rocking back and forth, meant a hen was yelping or calling. Two fingers together and pointing down from the fist meant a gobbler. I would flash a finger for each 10-yard distance I thought the bird was when I heard it. If a bird gobbled 150 yards away, I would flash my hand open, fingers spread wide, quickly three times. A simple pointing of my finger indicated the direction from which I heard the calls.
If I saw a turkey, I would point to my eyes, then to the direction I was looking, offering a sign for whether it was tom or a hen. Our makeshift system worked fine.
Each time I heard a call, I let him know by using the appropriate sign. That way he could judge the intensity of the bird's response, whether it was a tom gobbling or a hen cutting back his calls. As the first yelps reached us shortly after sunrise, Dr. Eddie commenced into a back-and-forth calling sequence with several hens that soon grew to a flock of about 15 hens, four jakes and three gobblers scattered among the trees in front of us. Unfortunately, they got on us so quickly, we weren't as ready as we should have been, and as the first birds drifted into sight, Dr. Eddie and I were caught flat on our stomachs in the short blind.
The longbeards straggled in the background and a nosy jake craned his head over the wall of our blind, pinning us down so we couldn't move, even behind the cover. As the birds began to nervously walk around, one curious gobbler edged up to our blind a mere 12 yards away. That's exactly where he stood when I finally slid the muzzle of my shotgun through a vent in the wall, and holding the 12-gauge sideways, unleashed a shot of No. 5s. Turkeys scattered in every direction, including the tom I had just grazed, but a second, more correctly-aimed shot as he took to the air, anchored him for good.
Already, my guide had proven that a disability is only that if you let it be. His passion for turkey hunting and the skills he developed as a result of that passion helped us become the first hunters in camp to harvest a tom. In fact, we would take a second one just hours later, (this time I persuaded Dr. Eddie to shoot), and those two birds would be the only kills that first day!
On the second day, the hunting came to us a little harder, giving us time to talk as we tried to strike a hot-gobbling bird. Dr. Eddie has hunted turkeys in his native Mississippi for years. I asked him how he typically does it, given the fact that he can't hear the turkeys.
"I usually go with a friend," he explained. Despite not being able to hear a gobble in the distance — the thing that fires up most hunters — Dr. Eddie enjoys calling the birds. Once he has them in sight, he calls according to how he sees them respond. It is only when the birds are too far off that they pose a real challenge. That's why he prefers hunting open areas where he can remain concealed while scanning the landscape. He also makes good use of decoys; they are a visual call to the birds, something I would learn on our last day of the hunt.
After filling my second, and last, tag on a mature Rio that second afternoon, we headed to a piece of land down the road that Dr. Eddie had permission to hunt. We quickly got into a mess of birds and after determining which way they would likely head to roost, we hustled to get in front of them and set up in a makeshift blind of broken mesquite limbs. As soon as we offered a few calls, the birds spread out before us. Over the next hour and a half, we had hens chasing each other within yards of our blind, watched one gobbler breed a hen within 25 yards of us and watched another pair of longbeards fight. I applauded the doctor's restraint; he had numerous shots. But he never risked one for fear of hitting other birds. They soon went up to roost above us on a pair of powerline towers, forcing us to wait the day out and crawl away from the scene under the cover of darkness.
Dr. Eddie wanted to return before the sun came back up.
The next morning, my ride was late getting me to our meeting point, so I eased within a few hundred yards of where I believed Dr. Eddie to be and sat down at the base of a large tree. The sun was at the horizon and against the lit sky; I could tell that the turkeys had already hit the ground. I felt bad that I hadn't gotten there early enough to help him, but I knew after just three days that he had as good a chance as anyone down there. I soon realized just how right I was.
I first heard a few gobbles, followed by what I believed was the doctor or a hen calling. Then came more gobbling and, finally, a gunshot. I waited another half-hour before wandering down the powerline, where I found Dr. Eddie smiling over his Rio trophy. Turns out, he got there late, too, and couldn't sneak back into the blind, so he set up off to the side of where the birds were roosted, but he could still see them when they flew down. He also used those decoys, setting them in front of him where he could see a turkey from every direction.
As the birds began to pitch down, the doctor hit them with his calls and waited. In short order, two of the longbeards marched up to his decoys, whereby Dr. Eddie did the second thing he loves as much as calling--he pulled the trigger!