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Youth hunt yields more than turkeys

By James K. Joslin

This article was published April 15, 2012 at 2:19 a.m.

— The growing sounds of a vehicle’s tires crunching gravel revealed a single, plain-white truck crawling up the hill toward the fire ring where children, parents, guides and others had gathered to talk about the events of the next morning.

The truck’s passenger’s evening arrival on this Good Friday seemed like a Hollywood story line. He had been in the hospital off and on since the first of March and had not been in good health since December of last year, but there he was.

Sam Lester, the first part of the Sam Lester and Friends Youth Hunt Outreach Teams (YHOTs), watched as the crowd slowly shuffled his direction. Hugs, handshakes and conversations were exchanged. Then it was time to get to why Lester and the others were there.

History of the hunt

“I had a long career with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission,” Lester said. “It started with conservation camps in the Education Division. This,” he said, gesturing toward the activities around him, “is what that work is about. I retired in 2005 and kept doing what I loved the most about the job - this part.”

This part meant, on this occasion, the 12th annual Sam Lester and Friends Youth Turkey Hunt, held out of Lindsey’s Resort on the Little Red River near Heber Springs and conducted on various public and private land parcels in this area of the Ozarks.

Doing such events is as much a part of Lester’s character as his long beard, matching braided ponytail and whimsical grin. In fact, while his organization has been conducting this sort of turkey hunt for 12 years, he’s also facilitated nearly a quarter century of youth fishing derbies on the Little Red River at John F. Kennedy Park.

What keeps Lester coming back also keeps the others coming back, he explained.

“We’ve had people come as participants and never leave,” he said.

As proof, he pointed to a man with a grown daughter. The father was there for the festivities years after he had first taken his girl on this adventure.

Lester was quick to point out that these hunts do not occur just because of him. Instead, there is a huge network of supporters - people who offer time, money, merchandise or their expertise - to make the hunts happen.

“This year has truly been one I’ve had to depend on friends for coordinating this,” he said. “I’ve been really sick since December and deteriorating all the time. By the first of March, I knew I had to do something. They found an ulcer the size of a softball in my stomach.”

He then thanked a list of helpers that would make Santa jealous, emphasizing how much it means to him that Billy Lindsey and his family provide lodging for the hunt’s participants and guides.

“You know his heart,” Lester said. “He lets us do this, and there’s plenty of generosity from others.” The first bird

Chili, campfire hot dogs and more highlighted the potluck meal on Friday. A pairing of hunters and guides quickly followed. Then hunt organizers handed out goody bags to the young hunters, including camouflage tops and bottoms from Arkansas-based Deadfall Camo, which had a contingent of hunt helpers on hand.

The next task for the youngsters was trying to get a night’s sleep as they awaited the hunt. In some cases, youths had never bagged a bird. In others, youths had never even been turkey hunting. It did not take long for those statistics to change the next morning.

Right at 7 a.m., Caleb Branscum of Mountain View fired the first shot. By 7:10 a.m., there was a phone call to Lester to report the action.

“I’ve turkey-hunted all my life. Well, I started when I was 5,” the 14-year-old said. “This is my first one. I’m excited. First, what happened is the turkeys were moving fast. Then, this jake popped his head up. I shot, and feathers went flying.”

Branscum’s guide, a friend of the seventh-grader, concurred in his account of the successful hunt.

“We got out there before fly down time, before sunrise. We were down in a deep hole,” said Justin Clark of Drasco, a 20-year turkey-hunting veteran. “But the birds were in a different spot, so we went to them. We called them a good ways with my Hook’s Custom Call, straight up a steep hillside.

“There were four birds - two longbeards and two jakes. The first one came out around the rocks. Then the jake stuck his head over the rocks, and he let him have it.”Reasons to return

Clark said that he had begun hunting with his grandfather, had befriended Caleb’s grandparents and had hunted on their property. So, he viewed this hunt for Caleb as a way to return the favor.

“I’ve known Caleb since he was a little guy,” Clark said as Caleb echoed his comments.

“I love to hunt and fish with my grandpa or Justin. Justin lives close to me. I’ve never deer hunted, but I’ve turkey hunted every year,” Caleb said, rattling on about their days in the woods.

Still, for Clark, there was much more to being at the event.

Years before, Clark said, he had bought a block of goods from a storage-unit auction.

“I was into rodeos. I got this unit full of rodeo belt buckles, rodeo photos and other stuff,” he said.

Showing his finds to a neighbor revealed the identity of the person in the pictures. It was Sam Lester.

“I told my neighbor I wanted to give him his stuff back, so I called him,” Clark said. “I watched him cry right in the middle of that dirt road.”

The pair then started talking about the AGFC and youth hunts, bonding over such shared pursuits.

“I’ve been there by his side ever since,” Clark said.

A rare bird

Commonly quoted research in the turkey-hunting world relates that only around 10 to 20 percent of Eastern wild turkey hens have beards. Some hunters, though, go their entire lives without ever seeing such a creature. That was not the case for a 15-year-old Greenbrier boy.

Shaun was one of five boys who attended the hunt with Chad Hogan and Andrew Watson, Shaun’s house dad and the director of Soaring Wings Ranch, respectively. The ranch is “a Christ-centered home for children needing a chance,” according to the facility’s website: www.soaringwingsranch.com . (The last names of this hunter and another boy were withheld at the request of Soaring Wings Ranch.)

“We were just sitting there. Mr. Larry (Harland) got the decoy out, and we’d been waiting quite awhile,” Shaun said, reliving the morning’s hunt. “About 8 or so, four deer came by. I heard the deer coming and asked if they (Harland and videographer Mike Murphy) heard something coming. They didn’t. First there was one deer, then two, then three, then four. We also saw four crows, three squirrels and two doves.

“Mr. Mike (Murphy) was shooting video, and I was falling asleep, fighting to stay awake. I had already taken two bathroom breaks. Then, Mr. Larry tapped me on my thigh. There’s my turkey. It just walks out.

“All of a sudden, the adrenaline started flowing; my heart started pounding. … I was trying to control my breathing, breathing through my nose and through my mouth. I got the gun in position. The bird was on my left side, and I’m left-handed. It kept on walking around and then stopped with some trees in the way. I was waiting for the perfect shot with my 12-gauge shotgun and red-dot scope. Its head was up at the right time. I hit her, and she was dead with one shot.”

Yes, he said “her.” On this youngster’s first turkey hunt, he took his first bird - a bearded hen.

Murphy, who accompanied Shaun and his guide, got all the footage of the happenings.

“I’ve been shooting videos since 2001,” Murphy said. “At the start, I was following this male eagle around.”

Over time, however, he found that his true passion for this work lies with the kids getting outdoors. Describing Shaun’s hunt revealed just that.

“ The boy sounded like a Volkswagen running on two cylinders,” Murphy said. “I probably can’t count the number of hunts with kids I’ve filmed. It’s got to be 50 or more. Every time, though, I get to see the excitement on their faces, the smiles. I get to kid them about their breathing, like this morning. It all ties in. There’s more excitement and more fun. It’s the kid factor. That’s my reward.” Finishing touches

A nice, fat gobbler taken by 12-year-old Dylan Miller of Heber Springs rounded out the day’s hunts. Of course, no one was surprised when this youngster strolled up with his bird. His grandfather is Larry Shockey, a Missourian who has logged nearly two decades as a hunting guide. He’s also won the World 2 Man Team Calling Championship eight times with fellow turkey guru Don Shipp and has designed his own diaphragm call for Batesville-based Hook’s Custom Calls - The Shockwave.Dylan’s gobbler, though, was the first one he had taken that his grandfather had not called up for him.

After another turn at the picnic table for the evening meal came the big calling contest. All of the youths - even those in attendance who did not hunt - could enter. At stake were bragging rights for the year, trophies and more goody bags of hunting and fishing gear.

When the dust settled, the group of champion callers impaneled as judges chose 15-year-old Vilonia resident Elizabeth Bailey, one of two huntresses at the event, as the first-place finisher. Nathan, 11, another boy living at Soaring Wings Ranch, and Fayetteville’s Paris Reynolds, 8, rounded out the top three.

The next time

An Easter-morning visit with Lester included him saying he was going to focus on getting better in the short term, but that he was already thinking of the fishing derby in June and next year’s youth turkey hunt.

“What people don’t realize is this is a 365-day-a-year deal for him,” said David Mitchell, another guide who had stepped up to help organize this year’s hunt in Lester’s expected absence. “He’ll be working on next year’s hunt starting today.”

That will mean phone calls to landowners to line up permission to hunt private grounds; to guides to share their knowledge; and to businesses and individuals to offer donations of time, money or merchandise.

All the while, Lester will say that it’s worth it because of the experiences, the lessons learned, the smiles, the laughter.

Emotional from his health woes and the way others have so willingly helped with the hunt, especially this year’s, Lester ended the weekend with teary eyes and a Cherokee phrase.

Lester said his best spelling of the saying is, “Anagi nasq oonaphla naha.” While he is quite sure that his spelling is off, he is certain he knows the meaning of the words: “Be loved by everyone that knows you and go with God.”

Staff writer James K. Joslin can be reached at (501) 399-3693 or jjoslin@arkansasonline.com.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 143 on 04/15/2012

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