It didn’t take long for cousins Dean and Lucas Wright to learn what turkey hunting is all about.
Both of the 12-year-old boys slipped into the timber with their adult mentors last weekend never having hunted the big birds and not at all knowing what to expect. But moments after settling into a tent blind, they watched as a flock of 13 turkeys flew down from their roost tree and put on a show.
For almost two hours, the turkeys pecked at the residue grain in the cut crop field, dragged their wings to dust themselves and carried on a conversation. All eyes in the blind were on two big gobblers that were strutting, drumming and gobbling as they strived to impress the ladies.
It didn’t seem to be working. The hens continued on, seemingly unfazed by the male turkeys’ plea for attention.
But the hunters sitting in the blind were certainly impressed. As adult mentors Brant Masek and his dad, Don, called, they could feel the excitement building.
“Get ready, boys, they’re getting closer,” Brant said. “They see that decoy.”
Finally, the biggest gobbler strolled within shooting range, and Masek instructed Dean to take a shot. A shotgun blast echoed through the field, and the bird fell.
And the Missouri youth turkey season — and more specifically, the Governor’s Invitational Youth Turkey Hunt — was off to a booming start.
“I’m still shaking,” said Dean, who lives in New Florence, Mo. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited.”
Later, it was Lucas’ turn to get excited.
After the hunters switched location, he too got a front-row seat for one of spring’s most exciting shows.
Six hens first walked out of the timber into the field, then two big gobblers followed. They followed Brant Masek’s calls to a decoy he had set up. Lucas fired and hit his target.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Lucas, who lives in St. Charles, Mo. “I had never been hunting before.
“This was way better than I had even expected. I can’t wait to eat the turkey I took.”
That’s what the founders of the Governor’s Invitational Youth Turkey Hunt had in mind when they came up with the idea for the special event seven years ago.
They wanted to recruit young hunters who had never chased turkeys before, and show them how thrilling the sport could be.
They tied the event to take place during Missouri’s youth turkey season, then they recruited landowners in central Missouri to help take out the kids and their parents.
The event, led by the National Wild Turkey Federation with plenty of support from the governor’s office, the Conservation Federation of Missouri, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Legislative Sportsman’s Caucus, was a success from the start.
This year’s event started the night of April 9, when the kids and their parents got to meet Gov. Jay Nixon at the Governor’s Mansion and sat down to a fancy meal. Then they headed off to hunting camp with their parents and guides.
“Most of the kids who participate at least get an opportunity to take a turkey,” said John Burk, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation who organizes the event. “A lot of them at least get a shot.”
This year’s hunt may have topped them all. Twelve of the 16 youths who went out shot a turkey, the highest success rate in the eight-year history of the special hunt.
Brant and Don Maske kept their streak alive, guiding kids to turkeys in each of the years. Brant takes his role seriously, doing plenty of scouting and knowing where the turkeys will be before the kids and their parents even showed up.
He arranged two tent blinds, one for the boys and the Maseks, another for Lucas’ dad, Travis, and a photographer. The boys’ grandfather, Glenndale Wright, watched from a truck.
The day’s developments didn’t disappoint.
After the hunt, Dean posed with the 25-pound gobbler he took, an accomplishment that many adults never fulfill. Lucas also shot an adult bird, a gobbler that weighed 20 pounds.
The Maseks weren’t surprised. They live and hunt in Callaway County, which consistently ranks in the top five in Missouri for turkey harvest. And as usual, they’ve been seeing plenty of birds this spring.
“When the Department of Conservation first stocked this part of the state in 1960, they said we had perfect habitat on our land and asked if they could put some birds here,” said Don Masek, who lives in Fulton, Mo. “We had a mix of hardwoods, cedars and water — from a creek that runs through here — and that’s what turkeys need.
“They’ve always done well here. We love to hunt them, and we love to bring kids out here to introduce them to the sport.
“This is our way of helping expand the heritage.”
Now it’s the adults’ turn
WHAT: Missouri spring turkey season.
WHEN: The season opens Monday and will continue through May 8.
SHOOTING HOURS: One -half hour before sunrise to 1 p.m.
LIMITS: Two male turkeys or bearded birds. Only one may be taken the first week of the season. If a hunter does not take a bird that first week, he or she can take two birds the second and third weeks of the season. However, both birds may not be shot on the same day.
RECAPPING THE YOUTH SEASON: Hunters ages 10 to 15 took 4,145 birds during the youth season last weekend, about 300 less than were shot during the 2015 youth season. Callaway and Franklin tied for the top spot, with 105 birds shot in each county. Greene ranked third with 88.
NOW FOR THE MAIN SHOW: Prospects look good for the regular season. Turkey numbers have rebounded in northern Missouri after sub-par hatches from 2007 to 2010. Good numbers of two-year-old gobblers have been surveyed there, and those are the birds that respond most readily to a hunter’s calls. Turkey numbers also are up in the Ozarks, west-central Missouri and the central part of the state.