The honeyed aroma of spring rises from the wild, Western Kentucky terrain in the pre-dawn hours of an early April morn. The dew gently begins its ascent, weaving a low misty-morning air, barely visible as the first shades of deep, burnt orange glow on the horizon. Daniel Brown's eyes adjust to the unfolding golden hour. Today he's traded in his usual black suit, starched white shirt, and perfectly matched tie for a suit of camouflage. He waits deep in the woods near an area where he'd seen wild turkeys roost. Now, he simply waits for a large gobbler to start his way and his day.
"There's nowhere else I'd rather be," he says of being out on an early spring morning to hunt turkey. Daniel, a financial advisor at UBS, lives for the hunt. "I just cannot fully explain the power of hearing a turkey gobble in the wild when you are up close. It is almost a religious experience. When they get close, I get nervous and worked up. My heart gets to pumping, and the adrenaline gets going. There's nothing that adequately describes the thrill of hearing that gobble when you are only about twenty yards away,” Daniel explains.
Daniel enjoys hunting other game as well, but turkey is by far his favorite. "You interact with the turkey in a way you don't with other animals. You call, you lure, you stalk…it's definitely thrilling."
His passion for hunting started when he was about 14. "My dad and his buddies had a hunting camp, and they'd go up there to 'hunt.' But 'going hunting' was really a way of saying going to hang out and drink beer. Some of us kids would go along, and we'd go out and actually do what they said they were doing! "The first time I went turkey hunting, I really didn't know what I was doing, but I saw one on a limb and, at one point, was surrounded by them. I was hooked!"
Daniel soon realized how fortunate he was that first year. "It was four or five years before I killed one. I found out quickly that you were lucky if you even saw or heard one. It is amazing that I stuck with it because you'd go days without seeing or hearing one. It was a difficult hunt." Because of Kentucky's aggressive turkey restoration program, Daniel began to see things take a turn for the better. "If you go out now and don't see or hear one, you've had a bad day. Most hunters these days expect to see one, which wasn't the case in the past."
His passion for turkey hunting even takes him beyond Kentucky's borders to explore different seasons and terrains in other states. "Right now I am working on a turkey slam. I need to get one turkey in each of the wild categories: the Osceola, the Rio Grande, Merriam's, and the Eastern which we have here in Kentucky." The quest for the slam has taken Daniel from out west down to Florida. There are multiple slam categories, some extending to turkey varieties in Mexico and Canada, and hunters who achieve them become part of the National Wild Turkey Federation's official records.
"The thrill is just unlike any other," he adds. "The tom is after those hens, and he gobbles to attract them. And you call and try to get his attention and lure him toward you. You hear him, and you know he's near. So you work the calls and try to figure out how to get in close. Sometimes there can be a lot of belly crawling. Turkeys have the most amazing eyesight, and if he catches a glimpse of you, he’s gone. "But then, there's that moment. You see him strutting and spreading that magnificent tail. And he's saying, 'Look how big and macho I am!' The sun hits him just right, and those feathers are iridescent. It is truly an amazing sight."
JOHN AND CHRISSY ELLIOTT
It is the first crisp, cool morning of the fall season on an early October day in Mexico (the one in Kentucky). John Elliott stoops to the light the fireplace for the first time in months. As it roars to life, his wife Chrissy and son Trace play on the floor with their yellow Labrador, Sawyer. Their hunting cabin is once again full of life. Photos of the family with ducks, deer, fish, and turkeys adorn nearly every table. Mounted deer heads and ducks line the walls, and a prized double-bearded turkey (Chrissy's) sits adjacent to John. Hunting is this family's passion.
"I've been hunting my whole life," says John as he turns to sit on a chair near the fireplace. "It was just something we did. My family really got me into it." John's first major passion in hunting was with waterfowl and quail. He also fished and enjoyed deer season. In more recent years, turkeys have become one of his favorite game.
And John's passion for hunting goes beyond getting back to nature with a gun or a bow. He has become a steward of the land, creating habitats for his favorite native animals. "A lot of our landscape is not the same as it was natively. A great deal of it was cleared out for farming, and what was needed for certain species to thrive is gone. The area up here was mostly pasture land, and we've worked with the state and other organizations to restore some of it to the way it was before people were here and give some space for wildlife habitat."
John has placed over 30,000 trees and added native warm season grasses. "That's the way things were when my grandfather talked about the land in his day. This is an enhanced habitat for all the native wildlife. Turkey polts have plenty of space for nesting and adequate cover from predators. It provides a safety zone for them, young deer, rabbits, song birds, and all woodland life. And quail restoration, which is the newest priority, is possible in places like this. For a hunter, it’s a definite plus."
Chrissy has become just as passionate about hunting as John. But she wasn't always that way. "No way!" she exclaims. "About the most outdoorsy thing I'd ever done before meeting John was going fishing with my dad." The pair met at Murray State, and John naturally shared his love for the outdoors. "He got me into fishing first. Then he got me a deer stand just so I could go along with him. I didn't hunt. I just watched. My first experience shooting was with a .22 rifle. I enjoyed it, and I knew if I wanted to spend time with John, I'd have to join him outside." The couple even timed their wedding to coincide with their hunting calendar. "The wedding was in March right between duck and turkey season," she explained.
Chrissy is now a seasoned pro, exploring all facets of hunting, including muzzle loading and the art of turkey calls. "John taught me how to do the diaphragm calls," says Chrissy. The calls are usually constructed of a latex rubber sheet that acts a reed mounted on a horseshoe shaped frame. When placed in the mouth and manipulated correctly, the result is a turkey call like none other. There is, however, an art and skill to using the diaphragm call. "I practice a lot while driving down the road," laughs Chrissy. "As a pharmaceutical rep, I'm dressed in a suit and going down the road sounding like a turkey! I get some strange looks sometime. People ask, 'You hunt?' I guess they don't expect that."
"And don't let her fool you," adds John. "She's just as good with a mouth call as any veteran hunter out there. She's pretty impressive, actually. Most turkey hunters won't even attempt it." Now, their 3-year-old son Trace is joining in the family passion. "He's been hunting with us since Chrissy was carrying him!" laughs John. "And he wants to be just like his daddy!" adds Chrissy.
JAY AND LAURA SMITH
Jay and Laura Smith largely credit the fact that they are married to their love of hunting. "We met at a Labor Day parade," laughs Laura. "We were both walking the parade, and we walked together. One of the first things we discovered was our love for hunting!" The duo have since been inseparable.
"Dad got me into it," says Jay of his father Rex. "We always kept bird dogs and hunted ducks and quail. I guess he got me going on it when I was about five. By nine, I was deer hunting. I was one of the first among my friends to hunt when I went to Reidland. It wasn't long before I was the one taking everyone else out!"
"My dad was a hunter, too," adds Laura. "So I grew up with it and started going when I was about 15. By the time I was going to Murray State, it was a major part of my life. I would sometimes hunt before going to classes for the day!"
The couple fish and hunt together and enjoy a wide variety of game. "We do a lot more turkey hunting now," says Jay. "It used be to be pretty difficult to even see one but now I think there’s more here than when Columbus landed!”
While Jay enjoys all varieties of hunting, it is a game similar to turkey that has him hooked. "I like it all, but I think my favorite is elk. I say it is like hunting an 800 pound turkey! You interact with them like with turkeys, calling them, luring them. And to do that in a place like the Rocky Mountains is amazing. Being up in that high country is unbelievable."
Jay sees hunting as a major connecting point in his life. Not only is it a point of commonality between he and Laura, it helps keep him grounded to the important things in life. As he speaks about his passion, it’s quickly evident that his love for hunting goes beyond just getting the next big catch. "I can get out there and get a clear head," says Jay. "I watch the sun rise, and it is my time with God. It is very spiritual. When I am at home and get up in the morning and turn on the news, it is easy to get wound up right off the bat. But when you are out there in the woods, you realize that there is someone in control of it all. There is really no other place that I am closer to God."
"When you're doing something like deer hunting, you are in a place where you can really think about things," says Laura. "And hunting is also a major opportunity to building bonding experiences."
"That's what I love about duck hunting," adds Jay. "It is about the camaraderie with others. It’s a social event. Deer and elk hunting are more about being alone." Jay's fondest memories of hunting usually involve being with loved ones and connecting to something greater than himself.
"There was a big goose migration in 2000," he recalls. "School was out because there was about six inches of snow. Dad took me up to Illinois to hunt, and I remember wave after wave of Canadian geese coming in. You'd see these huge Vs of them descend on us. It was amazing. And one of my uncles was with us on that trip. We've since lost him. And a decade or so down the road, you think of people you've lost and times like that. Those memories really stand out.
"I will always remember men like Niki Matlock, Dr. Brian Vanderboegh, and Spike Stacy. Dad wasn't always able to take me around the time we lost my uncle and my grandfather. And these men were always willing to make sure I got to go. You form lasting relationships through times like that." Jay and Laura know that hunting helps keep them grounded to one another as well as a greater reality.
"A real outdoorsman just looks at the world differently," adds Jay. "You develop a greater appreciation for the ecosystem, the species, and life. The people who taught me gave me that view and that appreciation for all of life. We all really need to get back to that."