Mike Hayden smiled amid the first drops of rain, lightning and thunder because with every loud roll through the clouds, a second kind of thunder came from the treetops along a nearby creekbottom.
“Listen to that, isn’t that something?” Hayden said, excitement in his voice, as 20 tom turkeys responded to every roll of thunder and crack of lightning with gobbles that sounded like the wave along a quarter-mile of sycamores, oaks and elms. “On our first hunt, 29 years ago, it was a real foggy day, we only saw one tom and he saw us first and was gone.”
Before Friday was over, Hayden had 21 toms within shotgun range, including 11 mature birds with longbeards. A dramatic increase in Kansas’ wild turkey population isn’t the only change the 71-year-old hunter has seen since that first Kansas Governor’s turkey hunt. Hayden began the hunt when he was governor. He’s the only hunter, out of thousands who’ve been invited, to have attended all 29 events.
The hunt also hardly resembles that first event of 22 hunters and a crew of mostly inexperienced guides who held redemptions in a cleaned-out garage of a sponsor. Thursday and Friday evening hundreds, including 73 hunters, guides, sponsors and landowners, gathered for elaborate dinners in huge banquet facilities, raising thousands of dollars to go assorted civic causes.
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While the first hunt was just for Kansans and held in Butler County, this year’s event invited hunters from 20 states spread across more than 20 Kansas counties, led by a small army of guides with a combined 1,012 years of experience at the hunt. Several youth and wounded veterans were also afield, all expenses paid.
Some of the most blessed changes, on the Friday and Saturday’s hunt that saw plenty of rain, pertained to equipment.
“We used to just sit in the rain and get absolutely soaked to the bone,” Hayden said, tucked dryly in a pop-up blind, in a lawn chair, as rain poured down Saturday morning. “This is a lot more comfortable, too.” He also benefited from some advancement in decoys.
Back in 1987, most turkey decoys were flimsy foam, or cardboard silhouettes that generally looked just enough like a turkey to get a tom into shotgun range. Friday afternoon, Hayden got an hour watching two longbeards claw, kick, peck, flog and spur a fake of a submissive yearling jake that was full-sized and painted to exact detail.
The realism was enough that first one tom, and then the other, came at the decoy. The best of the pair, a bird with a beard of at least 11 inches and long spurs, repeatedly hammered the fake bird from all angles, including above. The attacks were fierce enough to put a serious bend in the 1/8-inch steel stake that held the decoy.
Hayden watched the show, occasionally reaching for his binoculars for a full-frame look at the best bird’s spurs, and doing a mental estimation of its weight and beard length. His shotgun saw no action that afternoon.
“I’ve never won Top Gun at the hunt, and I don’t think that bird’s a winner,” Hayden said. “I’ve gotten third place three times.” That includes third-place finishes each of the past two years. Trail camera photos and sightings by friends assured Hayden this spring there was at least one bird that looked as big as a butterball, with a beard like a small pony’s tail and ebony spurs with long, wicked hooks.
He figures he’s checked in about 22 turkeys in his 29 years at the hunt, though some years he’s had opportunities but left his permit unfilled when no trophy tom appeared.
Saturday, though, he dropped his standards a bit late in the morning, shooting a tom that was probably smaller than at least two he’d seen earlier in the event.
Next spring is already in the planning, and maybe the mega-bird that escaped his sights this spring will be even bigger.
For Hayden, maybe the 30th time will be the charm, to win an event that’s been a winner every year since he began it so many years ago.
Winners – Intermittent thunderstorms may have hampered hunters, but it didn’t hurt the overall success.
Greg McKenzie, the hunt’s measurer, said 62 percent of the about 70 hunters got at least one turkey, as did all six of the youth hunters.
Mat Raymond of Jacksonville, N.C., was first, with a National Wild Turkey Federation score of 72.75. Bryan Lewis of Nashville, Tenn., was second (70.5), and Ryan Bader of Overland Park was third (70.06).