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Monday, May 3, 2010
Calling, through the rain

By Sam Eifling

GEORGETOWN, Texas — It's 5:30 a.m. a half-hour north of Austin in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church, and the rain in the forecast has just started drifting down like a dew.

"It wasn't misting until you got here," says a thick-framed auto shop owner named Clark Grigsby.
Turkey Trek Texas Rio
The weekend before his hunt with, Clark Grigsby took this tom when the bird strutted for and then mounted his decoy.
Maybe he's joking? Hard to tell in the dark. But following behind his Pathfinder for another hour or so, driving west to the ranch where he maintains a hunting lease, the heavens open, and the Texas countryside, already blooming green from a season of heavy rains, is again drenched.

Turkeys don't exactly have a reputation as animal geniuses, but they do know enough to stay out of the rain. Seeing them today will be tough. With a five-week season, though, you take the Saturdays you're given.

Grigsby and his friend, Jay Tennyson, pull into a little ice station to fill their coolers, then roll ahead to the ranch, with the sky still dark but spitting less. Bouncing along the dirt road, Grigsby explains that the ranch has lots of hogs but not many deer, and, fortunately, a good number of turkeys.

The adjacent property, which no one hunts, has a beautiful pecan bottom near a spring, and something like five dozen birds roost there.

"One of the most inspiring thing you hear on a morning like this is when you're sitting and you hear birds gobbling in two or three locations," he says. "It's funny — the turkey, the way they act. They're a lot like we are. When the weather's gloomy, they want to sleep in, they kind of drag around. But on a cool, crisp morning that makes you feel so much alive, man, they are just on fire."

Grigsby grew up in Louisiana, hunting ducks from the age of 8.

"I grew up with the kind of duck hunting people pay a whole lot of money for," he says. "I didn't realize until later what we had when I was young."

He graduated to deer and turkey, and by now, at 48, he hunts them almost exclusively with a bow — a gun just seems too efficient, in a way. He's given more to watching, too, to photographing or simply observing the animals. It applies to all his quarry, but he sums up that evolution nicely when he says, "I'm just not as mad at the ducks as I used to be."

The dawn breaks slowly and uniformly behind a curtain of gray clouds, and Grigsby sets out through a cedar thicket to his turkey blind. At times the ground underfoot gives way to broad, flat flagstones, slick and deceptive in the dim dampness. He picks his way across the algae-slick stones of a burbling creek that a few yards downstream spills over a waterfall and cuts a ravine through the lush overgrowth.

Once he arrives at the canvas camo cube, Grigsby finds a soft patch to auger his (incredibly realistic) spandex-covered Floozie decoy between the flagstones, and inside the blind sets up the HD video camera he originally bought to record his son's baseball games. A cricket inside the blind chirps; outside, songbirds tweet, and a rooster bellows from points unseen.

At 7:30, Grigsby issues his first scratch call of the day, knowing that while the rain will likely keep the turkeys sluggish, they'll come out from their pecan bottom at some point, to forage and go on the prowl.

A half hour goes by, and still, no sign nor sound of the birds. Raindrops thud on the roof; a locomotive lows in the distance. "I knew it would be quiet," Grigsby says. "I didn't know it would be this quiet."

Turkeys, he says, are hardy animals, and underrated for their durability. When they're born here, they're liable to be eaten immediately by coyotes, foxes or even fire ants. They weather storms with nothing more than trees to protect against the wind. He forgives them on rainy mornings when they seem a little less than chipper than usual.

Discussing the differences between the Rio Grandes around here and the Eastern turkeys that live no closer than east Texas, Grigsby admits that the local birds are generally easier prey.

"Easterns aren't as curious as Rios," he says. "A big Eastern bird will have a thunderous gobble, and the easiest way I can put it is, he won't give you a second chance. A Rio will come in and is curious enough that if you're calling, and he thinks there might be an opportunity, he's going to hang around and check it out. An Eastern, if he's skeptical at all, your hunt's over with. He's gone."

OK, turkey story. Here's Grigsby, sitting in the blind, waiting on birds, harkening back to a past hunt here: "I killed a bird on April the third, 2005. It's the biggest bird I've ever killed. I saw him the previous day, and went to hunt him the following morning. It took a while, because he was uneasy, but he finally gave me a shot. I shot him at less than 15 yards with my bow.
Turkey Trek Texas Rio
In this 2005 photo, Clark Grigsby displays a five-bearded, 22-pound Rio Grande he took with a bow.
"But during the 45 minutes or so leading up to the shot, when he was out here struttin' at 45, 50 yards, out of bow range, I was back here shooting pictures of him with my zoom and got some pictures of him before I actually got the shot on him.

"I registered that bird, and I didn't realize it when I was hunting him, but this bird actually had five beards, one on top of another. When I registered him with NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation), he scored higher than I thought — he's the No. 2 Rio Grande turkey shot with a bow in the U.S. He had five beards, his spurs were an inch-and-a-quarter, and he weighed almost 22 pounds. "I didn't know he had five beards. I drew back and I shot this bird, and I was like, Yow! Well, it was 7 o'clock in the morning, so when he went down, I went out and picked him up, I drug him back, I put him behind the blind, I started calling again. Another 30 minutes later, I had another long-beard in front of me with about a 10-inch beard, and all I did was shoot pictures of him with a camera.

"I didn't know what I had back here. It wasn't until about two hours later or so, I finished the hunt, I put that bird over my shoulder, I walked back to the camp. I laid that bird on the picnic table outside the camp house. And when I laid him on the table and rolled him over he laid sideways and those beards fell over and I went ****."

And although it's fairly tame, that's where we're going to leave the expletive he uttered to your imagination.

Grigsby and Tennyson have always gone to lengths in order to hunt. Used to be, when Grigsby lived in Houston, that they'd leave the big city around 8 p.m. on a Friday, arrive at the lease by 1 a.m., hunt all day Saturday and Sunday, then head home late in order to be up Monday morning.

Work always comes, and Grigsby has always worked, six or seven days a week when he was younger, but now he sees work as the vehicle, no longer the destination. He figures that if a person cannot tear himself away from work, he must not have seen the things outdoors that Grigsby has.

Here was an example, which Grigsby unspools as he waits in the blind. The weekend previous, he saw four toms walking together, and actually enticed two to come across the fenceline. One was a smart bird — cautious, deliberate — while the second was simply headstrong and eager to mate. As they pick their way across the field, with Grigsby calling, his buddy Paul gets a clear shot and puts an arrow straight through the smart bird, which staggers away and collapses, still alive.

The second bird apparently decided this was the time to assert his dominance, and began stomping the daylights out of the downed tom. Grigsby, deciding he'd taunt this aggressor bird, starts calling up a storm, "like a real excited hen," and the tom relents.

But just then four jakes race up — in the HD video Grigsby shot of this, they appear to be sprinting — and pick up where the big tom left off, pummeling the dying tom, who by now must be ready just to die in peace. The strutting tom will have none of it. He whirls on the jakes, chases them off, and resumes thrashing his wounded companion. Grigsby called the tom again, then left the bird to wander off and hunt another day.

"That's the kind of stuff that keeps bringing me out, day after day," he says. "No matter how hard I work, it makes me get up at 4:30 in the morning. People don't realize, when you come out here, that's what you come out here for. You don't come out here to kill something, you know. That's not what this is all about."
Turkey Trek Texas Rio
Jay Tennyson of Houston prepares for a turkey hunt in the pre-dawn gloaming on his shared hunting lease on a central Texas ranch.
The rain falls like radio static on the roof, slowly at first, then with a commitment. Grigsby retrieves his decoy before it becomes waterlogged. His spirits are up, though.

"Turkey hunting gets very addicting," he says. "People have an experience with a big tom, and they're hooked."

Just as he starts in on the feeling of seeing birds, the thing that brings him out to the woods 20 or more times every five-week season in Texas, three huge, scarlet-headed toms appear on the other side of the fence.

Grigsby stops mid-story and reaches for his call. "That's them," he whispers. "That's the Three Amigos."

It was the same foursome of a week earlier, minus one bad-luck bird. Grigsby scratches calls for a solid minute. He doesn't know why they're on the wrong side of the fence; for some reason, the birds find fences far more daunting than you'd expect a winged animal to consider a three-foot-tall impediment. They work their way down the far side of the fence, left to right in Grigsby's field of view, a good 50 yards away. He calls; they ignore him.

It's as if they have somewhere to be; they're traveling quickly and silently. They don't gobble or slow. Their blazing red faces, a popping contrast against the gray skies and green underbrush, are visible for a moment, then gone.

On another day, if he were feeling spunkier, Grigsby might get out and stalk them with a shotgun, but it's the bow for him mostly these days.

"With my years of experience and know-how, if you set up right, you should be able to kill any one of them," he says.

He doesn't mean to sound arrogant. It's just that at a certain point in a craft, the degree of difficulty that a novice finds has to be replaced, in order to feel the same sense of accomplishment. He has gotten better, while the birds do not improve. As he talks, along the same fenceline, four jakes strut past. "A young bachelor group," Grigsby calls them. They, like the toms, move quickly and without a sound. One follows the next, with the final bird hustling to keep up with the leaders, utterly ignoring Grigsby's calls. It's now 9 a.m., the light has scarcely changed, and the birds are utterly indifferent to the hunter's presence.

"The old cliché people say, about them being so dumb they'll look up and drown when it's raining?" Grigsby says. "Nuh-uh." He laughs, quietly inside the blind. "I've had many of them make a fool out of me."

Those are the last birds Grigsby will see this drizzly day. He still has a goal to fill his season limit of four birds using only a bow. But a funny thing happens as he has gotten older. Sometimes after taking two or three birds, he cools off, and will let a shootable bird walk — let someone else see them, he says, or maybe take a shot at them the next year. To date, that goal is still out there, waiting to be accomplished.