The Quest For A Grand Slam Began Near Spring Training

CJ VanWierenFriends of ELO, Spring Fling

By:  C.J. VanWieren.

Several months ago I received a text message from my dad asking me if I would be interested in a Florida turkey hunt. Without hesitation, I said I was absolutely in for a hunt. One, I have never hunted the Osceola turkey and would need that feather in my pursuit of the Grand Slam. More importantly than that, it was the last feather that my dad needed for his Grand Slam and I wanted to be a part of that moment. My dad had waited 27 years to complete his slam and there was no way I was going to miss it. 

We set out to southern Florida for the opening week of turkey season. My dad, Jim, made the drive from Michigan to Florida with my mom, who was joining for the adventure. Dad was down in Florida several days before I would fly in and begin the hunt. I would not be able to arrive until late Tuesday night, which gave me Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to hunt before departing back to Michigan early Saturday morning. It was going to be a quick trip for sure, but the excitement was through the roof at the opportunity to harvest an Osceola turkey. 

Mom and Dad spent a couple of days in Florida checking out state game areas and seeing if they could get into some turkeys prior to our scheduled hunt with Gary Morgan from Wild Game Dynasty. Mom and Dad met up with Gary and his good friend Chad, who is a Florida resident, on Tuesday afternoon and from there the adventure began. While in the airport in Michigan, waiting for my flight to Florida on Tuesday afternoon, I received a text message from my mom that read “Turkey Down!!” I knew that mom and dad were headed out with Gary and Chad for the evening hunt, but I was shocked by how fast it all ended. I was beyond excited to read that text, but selfishly disappointed about missing my dad’s completion of his quest that he started so many years ago. He had finally completed his Grand Slam and did it in typical dad fashion. It was a short, quick hunt, like many of his lifetime of turkey hunts have been. Nonetheless, it was my turn to chase the Osceola. 

As I arrived late Tuesday night, I was met at the airport by mom and dad. It was awesome to hear my dad’s story in person and see the excitement that was still evident in his smile. My mom was able to video the shot and the celebration after and it is a memory that will last a lifetime. As we arrived in camp, we spent some time talking about turkeys and also the population of wild hogs that were frequenting the orange groves. It was hard to get any sleep that night with the anticipation, but the morning would come soon enough, and my quest for the Osceola turkey would begin. 

Wednesday morning arrived and my dad and I set out to a blind on the edge of the orange grove near an area which looked ideal for turkeys to roost. We did not hear any gobbles, but stayed seated as several hens passed through the area. The rest of the morning was spent watching hogs come and go, listen to bees go to and from the hives that were located nearby, and spend some quality time together. As we left for lunch, we decided that the afternoon hunt would be a return to the same blind, and the possibility of taking a hog was in play. 

We returned to the blind after lunch and sat for several hours. A hen or two passed through but still no sign of any Osceola gobblers. The heat in the blind, nearly 90 degrees outside, made it difficult to stay put, but nonetheless, dad and I pushed through. As the 5 o’clock hour approached, and still no gobblers, a team of wild hogs appeared out of the thick stuff and headed for the orange grove. If you have never experienced this, it is one for the books. The hogs will pull oranges from the low hanging branches, bite into them, and chew them a bit before spitting them out and moving on to the next one. Non stop noises of hogs snorting and what sounds like fresh squeezed orange juice being made. The noise simply made dad and I laugh and smile at the situation. As those hogs moved on, another team of hogs arrived and at that point dad and I agreed that we needed to put some pork on the table. After a few operator errors with the rifle, I was able to take down my first ever wild hog as day one of Osceola turkey hunting concluded. 

The next morning, we set out again for the same blind on the edge of the orange groves. We had seen several different hens during day one and we had a strong belief that a gobbler would show up soon. Again, we did not hear any talking early in the morning, and we sat for a few hours and saw nothing. As some mid morning storms approached, we decided to head back to camp, get some food, and regroup for the afternoon hunt. 

That afternoon, I decided that I needed a change of scenery and we planned with Gary a way to cover more of the property to see if there was action elsewhere. Mom and dad decided to go sit in the blind on the edge of the orange grove in hopes that more hogs came in. Gary went and sat in another blind on the opposite side of the grove, and I ventured through the grove to the center of the property to what was referred to as “The Barn.” As I trekked from the edge of the orange grove to the center of the property, I used each row as an opportunity to locate a gobbler before he would see me. I slowly peeked down each row in an attempt to spot a bird before moving to the next row. Row after row after row until I reached the barn. No luck, but it was exciting to be on the move, which is one of my favorite turkey hunting tactics. 

At my new location for the afternoon, I did not have much cover. The barn, a structure used mostly for storage, looks over a wide open sandy area that is then surrounded by orange trees. It is an area where turkeys will pass through or stop to feed in the Florida sand. I tucked myself into a corner, trying to blend in with the structure as best as possible but knowing that I would need to spot the bird before it made it to the open area or else I would be in trouble. Low and behold, later that afternoon, I peeked to my left, then slowly started to turn and peek to my right when I was spotted. My first Osceola gobbler had eyes on me before I could do anything and he skirted quickly back into the orange grove. I watched closely as I could see his feet under the trees move back and forth before disappearing. An opportunity at last and like so many times in turkey hunting, I got busted. Spotted before I could spot him! 

I sat the rest of the afternoon by the barn, seeing a couple more hens, before hunting my way back to the truck before evening. I was definitely disappointed in my missed opportunity, but those feelings started to change to excitement as I began to mentally prepare for the next day. The last day of the hunt, I had finally located an Osceola gobbler, and that gave me hope that Friday could be the day. 

Friday morning’s plan was a little different than prior mornings. I set out to the blind that Gary had occupied the day prior. He had seen a few hens and the hope was that there would be a gobbler near-by. Mom and Dad headed back to the blind on the edge of the grove in hopes that a wild hog would pass through. I planned to sit in the blind for a couple of hours at daybreak and then I was going to hunt my way back to the barn in hopes of finding the gobbler from the day before. As I settled into the blind and daylight crept further and further over the horizon, I finally heard my first gobble of the hunt. Way off in the distance, on the neighbor’s property, a gobbler sounded off 3-4 times. The excitement level grew in hopes that he would make his way across a big grass field, but after a couple of hours of waiting, I did not see him, nor did I hear him gobble again. At that time, I decided to hunt the groves towards the barn so I headed out and began my stealthy walk along the edge of the orange grove and the field where I heard the gobbler early that morning. 

As I crept over a small hill, I caught a glimpse of movement in the neighbor’s grass field. I immediately identified it as a turkey and put my binoculars on it to see that it was a hen. I continued to watch as another hen showed up, and then a third hen. All them at about 200 yards out in the field, but moving towards the orange groves. As I watched the hens feed along, I saw more movement behind them and without a doubt knew it was a gobbler. In full strut he made himself visible, following along about 20 yards behind the hens. I crouched down to be out of view, and made a plan to try and cut the birds off before they entered the groves. I ran back away from the birds, then cut over a couple of rows of trees, and then ran towards the birds, knowing that I could use the trees for my cover. As I moved quickly towards where I believed the birds were headed, I was forced to come to an abrupt stop when a hen stepped into the row of trees I was in. The bird was about 120 yards in front of me, and I was frozen as the other 2 hens joined her. Still no sign of the gobbler, I waited for the hens to leave my row of trees, and I then started moving quickly again in hopes of getting closer before the gobbler followed them into my row. I made it about another 20-30 yards before he showed up and I was left watching him strut through the row at about 100 yards. At that point, I knew I had to get to the barn as fast as possible because the birds were moving that direction. I turned and ran directly away from them again, and made a big circle around them so that I could position myself in hopes that they would continue on the path they were on. I made it to the barn, got set up, and waited. And waited. And waited. The anticipation of my plan coming together made it feel like time was frozen. All of a sudden 2 hens appeared from behind me, the opposite direction of the gobbler. As I watched them get closer, a 3rd hen appeared from the direction of where I believed the gobbler would come from. I was certain this was going to be it. I waited for the other hens to show up and knew that the gobbler would be close behind. However, it never happened. I couldn’t believe it and as I sat there for another hour, I began to let failure creep into my mind. Knowing that I only had that afternoon left in my hunt, an unsuccessful turkey hunt was becoming more of a reality. 

As I left the barn late that morning and started to hunt my way through the groves back to the truck, my mood was instantly lifted when I poked my head down one of the first few rows and to my amazement, there stood a gobbler. He was a good 100 yards away, but had no idea I was there. Again, I stepped back a few rows, made a circle to try and get in front of him, and positioned myself where I thought he would show up. I waited 5-10 minutes and again, he didn’t show. I then got up and moved slowly again, using trees as my cover. I would end up spotting him several more times, but each time I would get set up, he would no-show me. Eventually, like turkeys so often do, he disappeared. As I walked out to the truck to meet up with mom and dad, I couldn’t help but smile. This is exactly what turkey hunting is all about. The chase, the close encounters, the moments when you think you have finally outsmarted them, and then the failure. I smiled because I love everything about those moments. I knew at that point, no matter the outcome of the afternoon hunt, it was a successful hunt. Doing what I love to do, in the hot Florida sun, and experiencing it with my parents was enough. But little did I know, the fun had just begun. 

As we sat at camp, making the plan for the afternoon hunt, it was decided that I was going to head to the barn for a few hours in hopes that a gobbler passes through. If it didn’t happen, I was then going to position myself along the field that I saw the birds that morning and hopefully cut them off as they headed back to their roost. Mom and dad were again going to go sit by the hog spot, so we headed out a little after 1:00 that afternoon. As we loaded our gear and got ready to go our separate ways, dad said to me, “Now I want to hear a gunshot by the time I get to the blind!” With a laugh and a smile, I responded with, “yea that would be nice!” We all said “good luck” and headed our different directions. 

I again entered into the orange groves, hunting each row as I had done before. Slowly making my way towards the barn on high alert, knowing that I couldn’t afford to make any careless mistakes as it could be my last opportunity. Row by row, checking both ways like I was crossing a busy road, but nothing in each one. Finally, I could see the barn several rows ahead. Slowly finishing the last row of orange trees before the barn, I peeked my head out and instantly saw a gobbler feeding by the barn. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was too late and the bird was already there! The curse words that ran through my head quickly changed to making a plan of attack. Without even peeking one more time, I didn’t hesitate to make my move. I stepped back a row, and ran away from the bird. I went over a small hill that I thought would be big enough to cover me as I crossed the row that the bird was in, so I crept out and then darted across the row. As I got behind another tree, I noticed not one, but two gobblers poke their heads up in caution. For a second I thought maybe they had seen me and would spook, but I kept the plan in mind and stayed on the move. 

As I moved through the orange groves, it was like I knew this property as if I had hunted it for years. I counted rows as I crossed them, I was completely out of sight at this point, 10 rows now from where the birds were. I turned there and began running towards them, knowing that when I popped out in the wide open area around the barn, the birds would be on the opposite side of the structure and would have no idea I was there. But what if they had spooked? What if they did see me? What if they fed around to my side? I slowed for just a moment as I entered the open area, no birds, and then I moved quickly to the back corner of the barn. I got down on my hands and knees and crept forward until I could barely peek around the corner of the barn to see if the birds were still there. I slowly peeked around, and sure enough, an Osceola long beard, feeding at about 40 yards and with no clue I was there. From that location, I still had no shot. I needed to get closer to the front corner of the barn, so I laid on my belly and army crawled through the sand until I was in a spot where I could get a shot. I slowly rose up and rested my gun on an old pallet that leaned against the barn, and the bird still had no idea I existed. Safety off, deep breath, and a quick “yelp” with my mouth, and the turkey load did its job. The bird rolled, started flopping, and I took off after him, like I always do, to be sure he didn’t get away. I approached the bird as he was expiring in the sand and knew that I had just completed the task. A successful Osceola turkey hunt in south Florida! But, I didn’t know that it wasn’t over yet! 

In a matter of seconds, I stood next to the bird that I had shot, and noticed the other gobbler starting to scurry away from me. I watched as that bird went behind an orange tree, but instead of continuing the opposite direction, the gobbler turned and started coming towards me. I have witnessed turkeys attacking birds that have been shot in the past, but never when I was standing right next to it. I am certain that this bird was headed that way to show his dominance on the already dead bird, or possibly even me. He spread his wings wide and started to run towards me, and at which point I yelled to him, “GET OUT OF HERE!” His response was to gobble at me. Maybe I was using the wrong call all week in an effort to get a turkey to gobble. At that point it registered in my head that in the state of Florida, you can harvest two wild turkeys in the same season. Being from Michigan, I’ve never been presented this opportunity, so I decided to capitalize on it. I shouldered my gun, took the safety off, aimed at the gobbler that was at about 15 yards, and pulled the trigger. CLICK! What in the world just happened? My gun didn’t go off! I quickly looked at the chamber and realized that my first shot had not fully ejected and was jammed in there. I quickly pulled the shell out, racked another one in the chamber, shouldered the gun and pulled the trigger. Boom! Another flopping Osceola long beard about 10 yards from my feet!

Words can’t describe the feelings and emotions that were going through my head. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and called dad. Getting a quick answer, he asked, “what happened?” I knew that he heard both shots and would wonder what was going on and my response was simple, “you are not going to believe what just happened!” From thereon it was all a blur. Mom and dad made the trek up over the hill to meet me by the birds. We spent several minutes taking pictures of the 2 long beards hanging by their spurs in the orange trees. I walked them through the hunt and how it all went down, and we shared in the shock together.

When I look back on this hunt, it is definitely one that catapults to the top of my list. The opportunity to hunt Osceola turkeys is not something that many experience. On top of that, the ability to harvest 2 long beards, along with a wild hog was a blessing. But beyond any of that, to share these moments with my parents is priceless. To celebrate the success of my dad’s Grand Slam after a 27-year wait was amazing. I am beyond thankful for this opportunity and I can’t thank Gary and Chad enough for their advanced scouting and accommodations.