Belly crawling along a creek bottom — pronounced crick in northwestern Nebraska — isn’t as easy as it once was for me. Years and girth have a way of slowing you down. Multiple occasions saw me first knee-crawling and then belly-crawling through wet pine straw, frozen mud and cattle dung to stealthily sneak toward massive flocks of Merriam’s turkeys.
For a Virginia hunter whose wild turkey escapades usually center in The Old Dominion, encountering the incredible, raucous flocks of Merriam’s was a sensory delight. Whether they were loudly exhorting one another from the roost before flying to the ground or moving noisily through a savanna while loading up on final snacks before the evening slumber in pines or cottonwoods, their antics and audibles always brought a smile.
Part of an escarpment on the edge of the high plains, Nebraska’s Pine Ridge, near Chadron, is a wild turkey wonderland, with a glorious mix of forests, meadows, small canyons, eroded river and creek bottoms, and mostly gentle hills accentuated by minor peaks and rock formations. It contrasts sharply with the rolling prairie so characteristic of the rest of Nebraska. Large, devastating forest fires burned through the region in 2006 and 2012. Thousands of acres were scorched, and some locals say the public lands have yet to fully recover from the damage.
I was there on a mission to collect a Merriam’s turkey, the final bird to complete my Royal Slam, which includes all five subspecies of North American wild turkeys. Adding an ocellated turkey from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula gives you a World Slam. A Merriam’s is likely a rarity in terms of being a last bird in a slam, but it was for me, as my sole previous effort in 2011 was an end-of-season strikeout on a public-land hunt in the still snowy Black Hills of South Dakota.
The coronavirus pandemic halted 2020’s plans, and many outfitters with turkey-rich environments were solidly booked with hunters in 2021. Fortunately, Slam master Jeff Budz and his TSS Shot business partner Blake Rice hooked me up with Thomas Chamberlain, their go-to guy in Nebraska for filling out the Merriam’s portion of any slam. And Chamberlain even had opening weekend available. Put me in, coach.
With two turkey tags in hand, I traveled to Nebraska with a pair of Mossberg shotguns: my trusty 535 pump and a new Model 500 Turkey in .410. I patterned the tight-choked .410 to 40 yards and was confident that any bird presenting a good shot inside that range could be had. To avoid any sight-alignment slips by my aging eyes and to ensure maximum pellets on target, I topped the .410 with a new German Precision Optics SpectraDot sight. A red dot on red wattles equals a dead bird — at acceptable range.
My hunt began in a ground blind near a ponderosa pine roost. Four inches of snow had fallen the day and evening before. The turkeys were exceptionally vocal before and after flying down, likely saying, “Hey, there’s a guy in a tent over there, so let’s go the other way.”
The flock crossed a huge meadow and headed to a farm where cattle were having breakfast in a feeding pen. We snuck in and, of all things, set up at the wheel of a large, defunct tractor a couple hundred yards from the bovines.
The male turkeys busied themselves with constant dominance displays while the hens ignored them and fed. We finally called three toms away from the flock. The birds rounded a fence line at 43 yards and clearly weren’t coming within 40 yards. I grabbed the 12 gauge, loaded with TSS Shot No. 7s. Chamberlain cutt hard on a box call. The largest bird in the rear quickly popped in and out of strut, and as soon as he stretched his neck, I fired. Bird No. 1 down.
I made a commitment to carry only the .410 from that point onward.
Jakes on Parade
Afternoon saw us at a beautiful ranch, nearly an hour northeast of Chadron, close to the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Northwest Nebraska NWTF Chapter was having its long-awaited banquet that night, giving us just a couple of hours to hunt. We elicited a gobble from a gobbler with a couple of hens, and then set up and tried the often-fruitless drill of calling the hens to us, hoping they’d troll in the tom.
The calling worked, albeit without the desired effect. First, a jake climbed the hill and popped out 10 yards from me, his head deep cherry red and his lower back and tail feathers tipped with the frostiest white colors imaginable. He disappeared and returned with friends — lots of them. In all, 21 jakes crested the rise and milled about us as we stood and sat motionless against the pines. Another five jakes remained below. It was incredible to witness.
Hunting the same ranch the next morning, we almost closed the deal on a large mature gobbler that was a seeming outlier from the rest of the flock. Fortunately, the morning air was crisp. The mud and dung were frozen as we tried to creep within .410 range.
The bird slowly strutted toward us. Heard but unseen turkeys conversed beyond a point to the right. Patience is a must when hunting turkeys with a .410. I estimated the gobbler was 45 yards away, but with luck and subtle calling, he might tiptoe several yards to the left and offer a certain shot.
It wasn’t meant to be. A hen rushed to his side and squatted, ready for breeding. Obviously distracted, the tom gave up on us and prepared for business — until three jakes rushed in and ran him off.
We hunted closer to Chadron that afternoon. A flock was feeding toward a narrow drainage choked with pines on each side. Chamberlain hatched a plan to sneak into the draw and move, listening to where the turkeys were in the meadow. We swiftly and silently moved through the bottom and then belly crawled up the hillside toward the turkeys.
Reaching the edge of a small bench, we nestled in a prone position, with just the tops of our heads and shotgun exposed. Chamberlain pulled his rangefinder.
“See that pine tree,” he whispered, pointing to a tree at the top of the draw. “It’s 41 yards.”
We’d have to call birds into the draw to get them in range. Turkey heads and the tops of strutting tails occasionally appeared. Chamberlain gave a soft yelp before cutting with a couple of two-note strokes. It was all that was needed. I knew the jakes and subordinate 2-year-old toms would likely respond. The heftier strutters in the field already had ample ladies they were squiring.
A jake popped down and disappeared. A pair of gobblers raced around the tree Chamberlain had ranged and committed. Of course, instead of moving to the right and into my only open shooting lane, they veered left. From Chamberlain’s viewpoint, a shot looked impossible because of the tree stems and other vegetation. I had a small window, and when the turkey appeared in it, I aimed the red dot and fired, dropping the gobbler at 33 yards and marking the end of my Nebraska Royal Slam quest. Making it all the more memorable was taking that final bird with a .410 shotgun, something I would have never dreamt possible a couple of years ago.
“I’ve never seen so many out-of-town hunters as I have this week,” Chamberlain said during the hunt in late April 2021. “It’s literally about three to four times the number of hunters I’ve ever seen in the spring.”
That’s not surprising, given that 2020 was such a bust in terms of hunters being able to travel. As COVID-19 restrictions began lifting this spring, more hunters had access to travel options and a greater sense of safety as vaccination programs rolled out.
As significant as my Royal Slam quest was for me, it paled in comparison to that of Kentuckian Jarvis “Dutch” Casey, a hunter I met on the trip, who emotionally dedicated his hunt to his late wife, called from this life at far too young an age. It was a reminder that many hunts have symbolic value far transcending the act of pulling the trigger.
A Slam quest can, and should, be about more than killing turkeys with different physical characteristics. It's about the journey, the travel, the planning and the people you meet, who sometimes get to share your experiences. It's about honoring the places, the traditions and, yes, that moment in time when you and that turkey intersect.