Matt Watson, 9, peered through an opening in a camouflaged blind and got a great view of what it’s like to be a turkey hunter.
A flock of 12 turkeys milled around in front of him, called in by Watson’s adult mentor, Fred Masters. One big tom spread the fan of its tail and danced, hoping to draw the attention of the girls.
For Matt, who lives in Olathe, it was the moment of truth. He had fired a shotgun for the first time the evening before, practicing with other youngsters participating in the Beau Arndt Memorial Youth Turkey Hunt near Emporia, Kan.
Now he was about to fire another shot. He picked out a target and pulled the trigger.
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Matt looked out anxiously to see if he had taken his first turkey. But all he saw were the tail feathers of 12 birds scurrying back into the woods.
“You shot just a little high,” said Masters, one of the guides for the annual youth hunt, who lives in Americus. “That’s OK. We’ll get another chance.”
Masters smiled and added, “At least you got to see how this turkey hunting works. Pretty cool, huh?”
Matt, obviously disappointed, nodded his head.
He got words of encouragement from his aunt, Laura Tennal of Emporia, and Chuck Cleghorn of Cedar, Mich., who were also in the blind to lend support.
For Masters, it was just another moment in his quest to “pass it on.” He started hunting turkeys 10 years ago and has become hooked. After taking many birds on his own, he spends most of the Kansas season these days introducing others to the the thrill of spring hunting.
He guides on several youth hunts, but he also takes adults who are new to the sport.
That’s how he met Cleghorn. When Cleghorn lived in Clay Center, Kan., he signed up for a Wounded Warrior hunt. He was paired with Masters and enjoyed a memorable day.
“I was in the Army for 11 years, and I served in four deployments,” Cleghorn said. “I survived two IED (improvised explosive device) attacks, but I have severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Hunting is my main escape. I had hunted deer before, but I hadn’t gone after turkeys. When I met Fred, we hit it off right away. He’s a ‘turkeyholic’ and he knows his stuff.”
Cleghorn shot a turkey with three beards — a rare trophy — on that hunt. And he planned a return trip to Kansas this spring to hunt with Masters.
When he heard that Masters was going to guide a youngster during the Beau Arndt Turkey Hunt, he asked if he could help.
He wanted to be one more link in the “pass it on” chain. He presented Matt with a custom-made glass turkey call that he had made for the boy. But what impressed the youngster the most was when Cleghorn reached into his pocket and handed him a patch and a pin from his Army uniform.
“I was wearing this when I came back from my last deployment,” Cleghorn said. “I want you to have it.”
Matt smiled and spent much of the rest of the hunt staring at his new treasure.
Special moments such as that abounded during the youth hunt last weekend. The event, now in its fifth year, is named after Beau Arndt, a young man who was shot and killed in 2007 by an illegal road hunter who shot into a spread of goose decoys where Arndt was hiding.
Arndt’s grief-stricken parents were determined to make some good out of the tragedy, and they formed the Beau Arndt Foundation, which has a mission statement of “helping children and their families learn to enjoy the outdoors safely.”
The annual youth turkey hunt is one of the activities that honors Arndt’s love of the outdoors.
“My husband and I don’t hunt, but we didn’t turn against it when Beau was killed,” said Christine Arndt, Beau’s mother. “He loved to be outdoors, and I know he has to be looking down, smiling on all of us today.”
Many of Beau Arndt’s friends returned to help guide the five youngsters who were chosen to participate in the youth hunt. And some of the kids came in with turkeys. Kaylee Burton, 13, of Americus, was among the excited hunters.
She took her first turkey under the guidance of Vance Ralstin and her dad, Tim Burton.
“I shot and missed two birds last year, so this was fun,” she said.
Matt also experienced the highs and lows of turkey hunting after missing on one more shot. But at the end of the day, he uttered the words that Masters loves to hear.
“I want to come back and try it again,” he said.