Lori Winningham has always been a morning person. But never had she experienced a morning like she did Friday in the Flint Hills.
With new friend John Moore, Winningham walked beneath a sky where stars were spread as thick as holes on a sieve. Sitting in a cloth blind, she watched the world wake up around her. Towering shapes turned into at least six kinds of trees, and forms moving through the grayness developed into nearby deer.
Male cardinals were the first to greet the day with their trilling song, followed by screeching blue jays, cawing crows and gobbling tom turkeys.
At least five toms were roosted along a trickling stream that flowed tap-water clear. Winningham smiled when those birds answered the sweet yelps coming from human hands. The last gobble of the morning was close enough to widen Winningham’s eyes, and she reached for the 20 gauge at her side.
Minutes later she was tagging a nice gobbler with a long, hair-like beard and sharp spurs. More importantly, she developed an even greater appreciation for the Kansas outdoors.
Winningham was one of about 70 hunters in El Dorado for the 30th annual Governor’s Turkey Hunt. One of the top invitational hunts in the nation, the Governor’s Hunt has hosted hunters from at least three continents and probably 50 states. Janet Post, hunt director, said hunters came from 13 states this year.
But many in attendance have long been high-profile Kansans. That’s fine with Gov. Sam Brownback.
“One of our biggest problems (in tourism) is that most Kansans don’t even know what we have here,” Brownback said over Friday’s lunch, a little before he’d shoot a nice bird. “We had a consultant in and that’s exactly what he said … ‘if your own people don’t know what you have here, nobody else is going to know, either.’ ”
Through the years the Governor’s Turkey Hunt has raised upwards of $400,000 in college scholarships for Kansas students, and hosted scores of Kansas youth at the hunt.
Mike Hayden, who started the Governor’s Turkey Hunt while he was governor, said he used the hunt to get key Kansans more involved, and educated about the outdoors.
“It’s been a great way to cultivate a better understanding of what conservation is about, and why we need more public lands in Kansas,” said Hayden, adding that some of Kansas top politicians have been invited to the event. To date, at least five governors have participated in the event as their introduction to turkey hunting. For several, it was their first hunting trip.
Hayden named at least 10 prominent positions that have been invited through the years, including prominent leaders in the Kansas Senate and House, federal judges, college officials, national pageant winners, athletes and astronauts.
“We want those kinds of people talking about the Kansas outdoors,” Hayden said. “Getting them together here gives them a good feel for what (wildlife conservation) is all about.”
For Winningham, the interim vice president of academics at Butler Community College. it was the first time carrying a gun afield.
When she first shot her bird, Winningham wasn’t sure if she’d get a second permit and go again. Then she and Moore talked about getting one and going the next morning. Eventually they bought another permit and headed directly back out, carrying cold lunches to be eaten in the blind. Lunch was barely finished when she saw a huge tom with three beards with long, wicked spurs.
“I’d never pictured myself hunting turkeys but it was a really good day,” Winningham said the day after he hunt. “I’m really glad I got to go experience it. I’m glad Kansas is promoting what it has to offer.”
This year 57 of 70 invited hunters shot at least one turkey. All but one of the turkeys were mature toms. All six youth hunters shot birds, too.