by Ronnie "Cuz" Strickland
It’s always a bit overwhelming to me when I get recognized at some place I would not expect. Places like a gas station, restaurant or any place that is not a hunting function or sporting goods store are not where I expect someone to come up and shake hands. It’s almost embarrassing, because I know that I am no better a hunter than anyone who stops to share a story or shake hands or just talk. It’s easy for me to be humble, because for years I had 3 girls that made sure I stayed that way.
My wife Pam and daughters Amy and Lauran have never been impressed that a stranger might yell out “hey Cuz” while we were out somewhere. They would roll their eyes and shake their heads and we would go on about our business. Now I have a granddaughter, Avery, who may be the best of the group at making sure I never get the big head. I do have three grandsons as well: Walker age 8, Matt who is 6 and “Cranky” Ben who it 3. I hope that as they grow up they may be impressed with the whole hunting celebrity thing, but the girls could not care less and I love it that way.
Not long ago I was in “Toy R Us” with Avery and, believe it or not, I was stopped by guys 4 times with the old “hey are you Cuz?” I would stop and visit with the guys who were in there doing the same thing I was but with their own kids instead of grandkids. Avery would hold my hand and look at them all the while being very patient. After we had picked out our “one thing” at the toy store and were walking outside Avery asked me, “Hey Pop, do those people in there think you’re famous?” I told her they had seen me on TV and yes they may think I’m famous. She never looked up and said “well you’re not.” You gotta love the girls but in reality I don’t need them to make sure I stay humble. God and turkeys do a wonderful job of that.
Another thing that comes with being some type of known hunting personality is folks tend to think, in my case anyway, that you can pull a turkey out of your cap on command. That’s not the case with old grizzled turkey hunters who know that it’s the geography not the biography that gets turkeys killed. There are some people who I end up guiding or hunting with that are blown away with the fact that I can’t will a turkey into gun range at anytime. A few springs ago, I was in turkey camp with some industry folks and a few outdoor writers, which is pretty much another day at the office for me in the spring. No big deal. Just hunt hard, tell some jokes and hear about how I call too much and too loud from all the other guides.
On this hunt, I had not picked the outdoor writers or the industry folks so there were some new faces in the crowd. I can honestly say I know most of the writers in the country that cover turkey hunting, but these writers were more from the guns and shooting world. So I was meeting them for the first time. The hunt was taking place in the mid-west at a nice facility that had a few thousand acres. I had never been there so I went in a day early to scout. I scouted from my truck and got all the MRI (most recent information) I needed. I found out what type operation the place was, who was in charge, who ran the hunting part and so on. I had a box of new Mossy Oak hats on the back seat to hand out, and in no time I had interviewed 4 guys that gave me the skinny.
What I learned was that this place was mainly a shooting preserve with quail and grouse. Turkeys were hard to find. The lodge was huge and top notch but the turkey hunting was slim. Luckily, I had a buddy an hour away that had turkeys, so I called him and got permission to make his farm my plan A for the next morning. Sure enough my hunter killed a gobbler and no one at the big lodge even heard a turkey, much less saw one. That afternoon I took another hunter back to the farm an hour away and he too slammed a longbeard mid afternoon. Same story at the big lodge, not a peep or a beak. By the time supper was over the word was out about the other two hunters who had scored with me, and the mood in camp had changed. One of the other guides who had come in to help call had apparently gotten a case of the red ass, and thought I was showing out by leaving camp and driving an hour (one way) to hunt where there were actually some turkeys hanging around.
Here’s a lesson for you in small thinking. Before I left the farm that afternoon, I had gotten permission to bring a second group back the next day. I had already decided to carry the guide who was now ticked off at me for “showing out.” But since he was whining to everyone in camp about my under-handed tactics, his chances of going with me to “the Farm” went up in smoke. This guy let his ego get in the way of the mission, which was to get some turkeys killed for the guest. Sure I was lucky to have a contact within an hour of the original location, but so what. I refuse to apologize for taking the bull by the horns and getting the job done.
The next morning, I took a hunter and a second team with a guide and hunter and again one scored and one missed, but both shot. When we arrived back at the lodge for lunch, the angry guide was sitting on the tailgate of his truck and waiting. I just thought he was angry the night before. When we pulled out another longbeard, he slammed his tailgate and threw gravel leaving the scene.
The whole time this was going on “The farm” was the star, not me. It was all about the spot. Not once did someone ask to go with “Cuz.” It was “can I go to the farm.” Had the angry guide seen this, he may have gotten an invite to the promise land, but instead he kicked rocks and complained for three days.
Through all this, I remained humble and made sure the hunters were the center of attention back at camp. I did take a fellow the next morning that had apparently missed all the talk about “the farm” and thought I was the guru of turkey hunting. We left the lodge for our one-hour drive to the Farm and he told me, “I need to kill my turkey before 8 a.m. so I can be back at the lodge by 9:30. I smiled and kept driving thinking he was kidding around. In a minute or two he asked me if I heard him. I turned to see his face, which had no grin or hint of joking around. I told him we would do our best and he said, “that’s fine as long as we’re done by 8 so I can get back for a conference call.” He said, “The guys at camp said you get one every time. All I’m asking is let’s do it quick so I won’t be late.”
He was serious. I guess this “gun writer” had taken part in very few if any turkey hunts and the guys at camp had fed him enough BS to convince him it was like fish in a barrel. We set up in the dark on the edge of a field and had two gobblers sound off a couple of times from the roost. One hen flew down and got close but the gobblers fly down silently so we sat. I called off and on not wanting to move into the wide open until I was convinced the gobblers weren’t just hanging around on the edge. My writer buddy looked at his watch about 10 times between the fly down and the next 30 minutes. He even reminded me once of his schedule during the wait. I could have pressed on, made a move to try and relocate the longbeards, but I decided it was more important to get this guy back on time and give him a dose of reality than to bump them so we left.
Once back at camp, the writer spent most of lunch talking about how boring his hunt was and how my calling had no effect of the gobblers (which was true). This guy was clueless as to not only the odds of killing a longbeard on any given hunt, but also the fact that I had been 3 for 3 in a day and a half up to that point and any luck I had built up over the past few seasons was gone. Some people love to hang pressure on you like a wet sheet when they get the chance. I think it makes them feel better about themselves when you come back to camp with no turkey. Coming back to camp with no turkey is commonplace for me but apparently some folks kill one every hunt.
Back in the late 90s I shared many hunts with Paul T. Brown, a professional wildlife photographer from Jackson, MS. Paul, who is a great hunter in his own right, used to tag team with me and my video gear on hunts to see if he could snap some stills. We hunted together many times and even though his gear was a bit lighter than mine, I felt we shared a similar experience in the outdoors, which was carrying way more gear than any of the hunters we followed and seldom pulling the trigger ourselves.
One spring Paul invited me to his new hunting club for the opening day of turkey season and even told me I could bring someone to shoot. He knew I would rather film a hunt. I invited a friend from Jackson, Karl Byrd, and the plan was made. I picked up Karl and met Paul at this camp the night before the opener. During the evening, I did the normal glad handing but never strayed too far from the huge aerial map blown up on the wall. I love to study maps and this one was quite large and very high quality. It was also blocked off into zones. I think there were 10 zones, so I was busy trying to determine which zones looked the best. I knew I had no say in where we went being the invited guest, but at least I could study the zones for boundaries and big roost trees.
One fellow who was looking at the map also did offer some info about how the roads laid out and where he had seen turkeys during deer season, so I decided to ask some questions about the zones to gather even more information. My first questions were about zone 1 and where the turkeys roosted. He smiled and said, “we don’t turkey hunt zone 1.” When asked why he informed me that zone 1 was flooded timber and used only for duck hunting. Fair enough. I went on to gather some pretty good info about the other 9 available spots we might get drawn for.
The next morning I was pretty fired up because the weather was perfect: cool, clear, no wind to speak of and some great new ground to yelp in. As the group gathered for coffee and sweet bread, the zones they had “randomly” drawn for were announced. First up, Paul Brown’s guest Karl Byrd and Cuz, zone 1. No one said anything after the other zones were awarded; I did catch a couple of grins from other hunters as they exited the camp house. My buddy Paul came up to apologize a bit, but I assured him we were fine with zone 1 and if we had no luck, we would go in behind some of the regulars after they were done and try their zones. One more look at the map at zone 1 revealed a square block of flooded timber with the northern most section being the border of the property. The map cut off there, but in my mind I thought surely the posted land to the north would hold some turkeys so that’s where we headed.
I found zone 1 to be exactly as advertised - flooded timber with the only dry spots being the roads. Once it was light, Karl and I made our way to the northern boundary and discovered the adjoining property was good, dry hardwood forest that, except for the big “POSTED” signs, was beautiful. I found a spot along the boundary road where the old barbed wire fence that once separated the properties was down and told Karl to get real comfortable. I faced my camera and my tube call toward the nice dry hardwoods to our north and every 30 minutes of so I would cut on the tube call. With no wind, the sound carried forever and echoed thorough the neighbor’s trees. This went on for several hours but my gut told me at some point a turkey would hear the cuts and yelps from zone 1. I’m pretty sure Karl thought I was either really nuts or very lazy for not moving for hours, but he stuck it out and never complained.
We talked about everything you can imagine and really made the best of our morning in zone 1. I was determined to stay there and make something happen but had made a slight miscalculation in preparation; I was short on food and water. Karl and I both are what you would call “big boys,” so around noon I was about ready to eat anything, including humble pie, if everyone back at camp had a gobbler but us. We broke camp and stretched our legs and began the walk back out of zone 1.
About halfway back to the truck I cut on the tube call again, but this time I thought I heard a faint gobble. The second cut on the tube verified it was indeed a gobble fairly close to where we just broke camp. We (the big boys) sprinted like gazelles for about 40 yards and then walked fast back to our original set up. Sure enough, this gobbler was just across the line in the posted woods and was coming. Another yelp was all it took, that beautiful white head popped up straight in front of us. Karl saw him and made one slow move to get his gun right. With camera rolling, the gobbler strutted slowly in our direction. He would stop for long periods of time and look into zone 1. I’m sure he had never heard a hen from the flooded timber of zone 1 and was looking to make sure he wasn’t being called in by a hen mallard or Susie. He made his way slowly to the boundary road, stepped across the old barbed wire fence and there he was firmly, legally and by a few inches solidly in zone 1. I whispered to Karl to shoot and he did. At the gun blast the gobbler took a couple of quick steps back then, airborne, he flew back toward the hardwoods and sailed out of view. We were disappointed, yes, but Karl more than me. I hated he missed, but the fact we got a gobbler into zone 1 was huge.
As soon as we got out of the truck back at camp one of the other hunters asked, “how was zone 1?” I told them to come inside and I would show them. Once I hooked my camera to the TV inside, we watched the miss and the camera pan back to the flooded timber so as to prove we were actually in zone 1 and had not left.
No one said a word except Paul T. Brown who was fired up about the great video, and the fact we had a hunt in zone 1. Now you might think I was trying to prove a point with the folks who put us in zone 1, and you’d be right. I enjoyed showing them we had overcome the odds and had fun doing it. Even though it was a miss, it was a hunt and a damn good one in my book. It was not about me trying to be some big time show off or know it all, it was about sticking it out and trying your best. It would not have bothered me at all to come back from zone 1 with nothing because that was supposed to happen.
I make no claims to be better at turkey hunting than the next guy and in reality I’m not. That’s why (for me anyway) when you pull off a zone 1 miracle it’s sweet. I’ve been hunting with many of the so called “best” turkey hunters in the nation and none of them kill or call in a longbeard on each and every hunt and would not claim too. I did hear one of these well known guys say once, “if I hear him gobble, I can kill him.” Ouch. I got as far away from him as I could just so the turkey gods would know I had nothing to do with that statement. I have had many hunts where people who thought up front they were in for a strutting, gobbling, drumming extravaganza and ended up listening to chirping crickets and rubbing their sore feet. It’s hard to disappoint folks but it is what it is. Sometimes you get smoked turkey and sometimes you just get smoked.