Riding down highway 20 on a sunny Friday afternoon in the passenger seat crossing that Wyoming Nebraska border I started looking around. All I could lay eyes on for miles was black specks all over these rolling yellowish grass sand hills. Yes I did say sand and those black specks were the thousands of Black Angus cows who call those hills of Nebraska home. We kept driving as we passed through the town of Chadron I found myself in Cherry County, gods beef country the sign said. To put this county in size proportion it isbigger than the state of Connecticut and home to more than 3 million acres of farmland. As we neared the ranch of our good friends Tom and Mary Nielsen I began to think to myself there is no way there is turkeys here, I haven’t seen a tree in the last 20 miles except for in the nearest town. As we pulled in the driveway with cattle on both sides we began down the lane kicking up dust as we went through pastures one after another winding back into the sand hills we finally arrive at the ranch. After quick greetings with Tom, Mary, and Clint I couldn’t even unpack the truck before my dad and I took off to scout for turkeys before sundown for the next morning. As we blazed out deeper into the sand hills going from pasture to pasture and opening and closing gates I begin to wonder how far we were going. After a good 15 minute ride, on the horizon to the south I caught a glimpse of some trees. I looked over at my dad and he said that’s the Niobrara river bottom and that’s right where we were headed. The river bottom was full of trees along the banks and turkeys roosted in the old cottonwood trees. We drove down to a spot that we like to call the gulch field due to the huge gorge at the east end of it. We set up shop and started glassing the field. There was a gobbler and 7 hens all the way at the other end. So we sat atop the hill and watched and waited to get an idea of where these birds were going to roost. As it got later dad and I discussed where we thought was best to setup and where the birds would come from in the morning before jumping back in the side by side to go get a quick scout in at another meadow before heading back to the ranch. As we pulled up on top of the hill that looked down on the riverfront meadow we sat for a few short minutes before one of the coolest first experiences I had ever heard. One lone Coyote just up the river started to howl as the sun was breaking down over the hills behind us igniting coyotes down the river for miles one right after another. It sent chills up my spine and made the hair on the back of my neck stand when they howled and the turkeys on roost gobbled back. After I took it all in and heard a few gobbles we pinpointed an area where a few gobblers sounded off and decided that’s where the blind would get set up the next day for my mom to sit in on Sunday. Shortly after we headed back to the ranch to unpack, grab some food, and lie down in bed and anxiously wait for the following morning.
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP as my 3:45am alarm went off as I laid in my bed already wide awake filled with excitement for my first morning hunt chasing Nebraska turkeys. Around 4 o’clock we took off for the river bottom cruising down the trails through the pastures guided by the LED light on top of the side by side. As we reached the top of the sand hills that crest before the meadow I gathered my decoys, gun and camera. My dad wished me good luck and said I’ll pick you up at 11am. I began my trek down off the hill into the meadow to setup about 100 yards from where we saw the turkeys head the night before. As I neared my destination turkeys were already gobbling at 4:40am down the river. After I set the camera up, put the decoys out, and got my gun loaded I settled in for the first morning hunt.
Several turkeys gobbled down the river behind me as I sat there but none got my attention like the first gobble about 150 yards in front of me on the riverbank. As it got lighter hens started yelping like crazy out in front of me and I could see them in the trees so I started to call back and forth with them and listened to the gobbler a little further down. After about 15 minutes the hens started flying down into the field about 80 yards in front of me. As they worked out into the field the gobbles grew louder and closer before one echoed through the bottom as he broke up over the bank in full strut. I moved the camera and started videoing the gobbler strut on the bank down towards the hens that were working across right in front of me. To my luck the gobbler never would leave his hens as they kept him between 80 and 120 yards as they worked across the hillside. After about an hour of calling and videoing these turkeys they worked out of sight around the bend and I didn’t see or hear them for a good 45 minutes. I decided to give them some time and hope the gobbler would separate from the hens later in the morning. What else is there to do when you are 4 miles from the ranch with no radio, no service and your ride isn’t coming until 11 am? Well shed hunt of course, and that’s exactly what I did. As I left my belongings under a small pine tree in the field something told me I should take my gun with me i case I see something. I walked along the bank through the trees and found one shed. As the morning sun beat down I began to sweat as I climbed up the river bank to the top of a hill where I could see all around. When I approached the top I crept up to the edge slowly and when I looked over the other side on the next ridge over there was a lone turkey. I crouched down to where only my head was showing so I could see the bird and then he gobbled and something inside of me told me that this is it, it’s about to go down. I quickly let out a call and the gobbler answered at about 200 yards. He slowly worked towards me while I was scrounging for my gloves and face mask. He stopped about halfway and started looking around and gobbled again so I turned around and called real light before peaking my head over the top again. He kept on walking along the ridge right to me. I quickly belly crawled about 5 yards up so that I was right on top of the hill and set up perfectly in the prone position with my red dot on. When the turkey hit about 50 yards he broke into a trot right at me. My heart started beating faster and I was sweatier now then I was walking up the hill laying there in the sand. He crested the knoll in full strut at about 10 yards. He started to turn sideways to look over the hill expecting to see a hen just below but instead he got a trigger ready, lead slinging Mossberg 835 to the side of the head at 7 yards! BANG! I sent the 3 ½ inch hevi shot triple beard shell right at him and there was no flopping with this bird as he was dead in his tracks! So quickly so many emotions ran through me; Excitement, relief, shock. It all happened so fast and all I could do was stand up on the top of the hill with nothing around but sand and raise my hands to the sky and say thank you God as I let out a big yell of excitement. I just killed my first Merriam ever the first morning in Nebraska! It turned out to be the same bird I was after that morning by his extremely recognizable fan that was missing two feathers. After I carried the bird back to my gear I setup for pictures and video and watched the footage from earlier in the morning. It was such an unplanned kill that I unfortunately didn’t get the kill shot on camera as I left the camera with my gear when I went shed hunting. I waited for my ride avoiding the sun and hanging out under a pine tree waiting on my dad to return to pick me up. As he came wheeling up on the horizon I waved him down to the field to let him know I was done hunting. With a proud smile on his face he congratulated me as he helped me load everything up as we headed to begin setting the blind up for day 2 action before returning to the ranch form the river to help with chores. It wasn’t all hunting in Nebraska if that’s what you were expecting.
As I wake up to my alarm the feeling of excitement I felt from the first morning had never left. Although I was playing the role of cameraman and caller this morning for my mom I was still taking my gun for backup. First priority was to get a bird down on camera today. With the same routine as the day before we got dressed, grabbed some waters, packed the side by side and hit the sandy trail to the river bottom. Hunting a meadow about a half of mile down from where I shot the bird the morning before we got out and said see you at 10am as my dad drove off into the sand hills leaving behind the only trace of light within a mile around. We walked down the trail into the field and got settled in the blind with decoys out, the camera ready to roll and 2 eager hunters ready for an action packed morning in the double bull blind. As the sun crept up the coyotes began to howl and the turkeys came to life on the banks of the Niobrara. Three were gobbling down river about 350 yards. I let out a few yelps as it got bright and just to our left a hen answered me followed by 3 simultaneous gobbles and the hunt was on. My mom spotted the hens fly down into the field to our left about 75 yards away followed by three jakes. As I filmed them feeding out into the field dead away from us my mom nudged me and said strutter up top. I looked up from the camera to find the white tip fan of a Nebraska Merriam cresting the hill as the sun glistened off of his chocolate feathers. The jakes took off after him as they went over the knoll with the hens eventually feeding behind them. Every couple minutes I would call to get a response from just over the hillside. As time moved on and the sun grew higher in the sky the big gobbler appeared again higher on the hill strutting around with all eyes on him when out of the corner of my eyes where the hens and jakes flew down this morning comes 2 strutting gobblers headed right up the hill towards the other one. If the morning wasn’t exciting already it sure was heating up now. As those two birds approached the lone gobbler they circled each other all in full strut and literally swapped places as the two stood there a top the sandy hill while the lone gobbler strutted back down and out of sight. These two birds inserted there dominance strutting around and gobbling back and forth at each other going down over the hill and back up coming in and out of view every time. After a good half hour the birds followed a hen up the hill behind a bank and out of sight. As me and my mom sat there in the blind we both contemplated getting out and putting the sneak on up to the edge to try and get a shot while reaping these birds, but a wise man once told me patience always wins so we decided to stay put. Way up on the hillside I caught movement of a hen just cresting the steep hill to our right and right behind her where the gobblers feeding on the edge. As the gobblers were at a good vantage point now I let out a few yelps followed by a gobble which seemed to get their attention as for the first time I believe they saw our B-mobile decoy out in front of the blind strutting with a hen. The Hen and two gobblers fed back and forth down the hill into the meadow and when they were at about 100 yards I told my mom to get her gun up as I could tell her nerves were already racing. Slow and steady the turkeys approached the decoys inching closer and closer with every step. My mom’s chest began to beat harder and harder as I could hear her breathing loudly and shaking in the knees. When the gobblers got within 50 yards I said to my mom you are going to shoot first as I reached for my gun to get it ready. I set the camera up and lifted my gun as the one gobbler went into full strut at 30 yards with the other gobbler just feet to his right. My mom was nervous drilling me with questions. Are they close enough? Will my 20 gauge shoot that far? When should I shoot? And which one should I shoot? I calmed her down and said when I call the strutter will stick his head up so keep your sight on his head and when I say shoot pull the trigger. As the gobblers crossed path staying at 30 yards fearing that they weren’t going to come any closer as they walked back and forth I yelped. As the strutter started to raise his head I glanced at my camera viewing screen to make sure they were in view before looking back down the sight and said now mom, shoot, shoot! Bang, as she pulled the trigger, with a quarter of second delay I touched off the second shot and looked up to two birds flopping in the field as the hen ran frantically for the river bottom cover. With my mom beaming with excitement I flipped open the door on the blind and took off into the field after the birds. Seconds later my mom arrived with the birds flopping at our feet I remember looking at my mom smiling from ear to ear and giving her a high five as I said we did it mom, a double in Nebraska! We were both ecstatic. As we stood there soaking in the moment and talking about what had happened I started looking over the birds that looked like very mature birds both with at least one inch spurs. Mine had a thick beard totaling 9 ¼”. As I flipped over my mom’s bird it looked like a huge paint brush was hanging out of its chest but as I pulled back the feathers more excitement rose as I said mom, you just shot a double beard!! Not just a few extra strands either, a true double beard with both beards measuring 9 inches. My mom jumped up and down frantically as I said this is going to run up the taxidermy bill. After settling down we gathered the birds and guns and set up for pictures and some more video shots. With about an hour before our ride came we decided to walk the river bank and look for sheds and when we came back we had 3 sheds and a deadhead. After my dad and two brothers came down with the side by side to us sitting outside of the blind he asked about the morning. Previously before he arrived I stashed the 2 turkeys in the blind so they didn’t see them. I replied yeah we saw a lot of turkeys up on that knoll over there. Three strutters total, but somehow two of them ended up inside the blind! With a puzzled face at first he finally caught on and looked inside the blind at our two birds laying in the shade. As all five of us in the family celebrated and we told the story of how it happened before we gathered everything up and headed up over the sand hills back to the ranch. As the hot sun rose over the sand we didn’t have much time as my brothers were busy tagging calves with tom as we prepped the turkeys for the freezer. We ended that day sitting around the dinner table over some fresh sizzling ribs straight off the ranch and laughing and smiling as I showed some of the footage from the morning hunt. Before we knew it the sun was down and it was time for bed because although we were taking the next morning off from hunting we had other plans that waited ahead.
Rest of the Trip
The next day we woke up and headed to the pastures to drive in cattle. It was branding day and there were about 200 calves that needed vaccinations and brands. As my brothers ran the calves around down the corral all morning I closed the door behind them as dad lifted them one by one into the shoot. When you’re hunting in the west that’s not all you typically do on the trip. We lent a helping hand with anything we could on the ranch to help get as much done while we were there as we could. From branding and tagging, to cutting grass and planting trees, to fixing fence and anything in between the days were well spent staying busy. I headed out to the river bottom two more times on eveninghunts with my younger brother Camryn. We had a close encounter with a big Rio bird but not close enough for a shot. After all we loaded up on an early, wet Wednesday morning at 3 am as Clint drove us to Rapid City, South Dakota to catch our 6 am flight back home.
I’ll never forget the memories I made on my first trip to Nebraska and I’ll be sure to return to those sandy hills to see what else they have in store whether it be to chase a big mule deer or back after another bird in hopes of getting a Rio to add to the collection in the future.
Article by: Darton Harwick