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Thursday, April 3, 2014

A case of turkey fever

This normally sensible retriever can't contain his enthusiasm for turkeys.


He charges a flock like a dog possessed, covering ground in long leaps. Once amid the birds, Hank is a black blur as he chases first one turkey and then a dozen-or-so others.

If I shoot a bird, he hits it with a pounce that would do a puma proud. His front feet bounce like pogo sticks as he tries to sit to deliver the bird.

If I don't shoot, he'll sprint until there's not a turkey in sight. Eyes bulging with excitement, he'll return with his tongue long and flapping like a flag.

He can't help it. Our Labrador retriever's addicted to flushing and fetching wild turkeys.

It began on a summer deer scouting trip when he was about a year old. Atop a Flint Hills ridge, Hank turned on scent and charged into a small thicket. A big tom flushed.

After watching the bird sail from sight, Hank thoroughly vacuumed the thicket with his nose. He didn't want to leave when I whistled.

On the drive out, I let Hank out of the truck where two hens and broods had hunkered in knee-high grass. Hank pounced, flushing 17 birds.

He ran victory laps around the truck on his return.

Mind you, this is from a dog that's calm and controllable when working everything from doves to geese. Hank won't budge until sent when live or shot ducks land within a few feet. One whistle toot will put him in a sit when he's on a pheasant's hot trail.

But our Eeeyore turns into Tigger when turkeys are around. Birds that large must carry a lot of scent. That he often finds them in huge bunches probably adds to the attraction.

He fetched his first bird the fall after he smelled his first turkeys. We accidentally stumbled into a turkey flock at close range and I shot a young bird that flushed at Hank's charge. He hit the bird so hard and fast, he flipped over as he tried a grab at full speed.

I let him carry it during the 15-minute walk to the truck. He ran a few figure eights along the way.

We live in the perfect place to support his turkaholic habit. Central Kansas' fall season is nearly four months and has a season limit of four birds. We have access to places with plenty of birds.

The openness of the prairie helps us spot flocks and plan stalks. If the scatter's good, some of the birds often sail to tall grass where they'll hide and hold for Hank's flushes like overgrown quail.

We spend far more time hunting doves, waterfowl and pheasants, and only hunt turkeys when the opportunity arises.

Hank's often the one who spots such opportunities.

He's a pro at being a seat warmer, stretching far across my old truck's seat for hours on end.

But if he sees we're driving past creek bottoms or places where he's hunted turkeys in the past, he's on full alert watching for turkeys.

But that's not a bad thing.

Earlier this winter I drove through a friend's ranch scouting for prairie chickens. I saw Hank's ears at full alert, nose against the glass, feet shifting.

Following his gaze, I saw a flock of 100-plus turkeys in a distant pocket of a field of soybeans.

I parked out of sight.

With Hank at heel, we circled wide of the birds and used a high creek bank to hide our approach. His tail and nostrils went into overdrive when we got downwind of the birds.

A whispered "OK" sent him into the flock when we were 60 yards away. What followed looked like a Three Stooges skit as startled birds ran and flushed into one another trying to avoid Hank.

I shot a young tom and Hank made the retrieve.

We followed to where a few turkeys had flown in a patch of tall grass. Within minutes, Hank flushed a young hen that crashed into a big snow drift when I shot. Hank followed at full speed. His face and back were frosted white when he happily made the retrieve.

Out of permits, I watched him flush three more turkeys from the grass. I put my gun and both birds near a nearby two track, planning to drive back and get them.

Hank would have no part of that. I'd walked about 40 yards, but he was still standing by the birds.

When I said, "OK," he picked up the hen and proudly carried her the half-mile to the truck.

Like I said, the dude's addicted.

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