Rio Rollercoaster

Rio Rollercoaster

Rio Rollercoaster

As I was walking around my apartment, trying to relax from the pile of schoolwork that sat on my desk, my roommate, Henry Eddy, jokingly asked, “Hey Haywood, when are you going to take me to kill some Rio’s in Texas?”. I sort of just scoffed at him, but as I sat there thinking about the fact that it had been some time since I had chased Toms through the Texas brush country and that Spring Break was quickly approaching, I looked back to him and said “You know, that’s actually not a bad idea.” I picked up my phone and called one of my best friends (and cold-blooded Turkey assassin), Skyler Hribar, otherwise known as Sky. I told him about our plans and it didn’t take much convincing for him to be in. Now came the most difficult task, convincing my dad to let us go to South Texas. He was on a lease; just outside of Dilley, Texas, that was loaded up with mature birds. But I was not sure if he was going to be able to make the trip or whether he would even let me take my buddies down there with me. It was obvious I went about this totally backward.

I anxiously clicked his contact, and waited. When he answered, I could tell he was in a good mood so I just went for it, “Hey Dad, can Skyler, Henry, and I go hunt turkeys at Todos for spring break?”, he quickly replied, “Sounds like a plan, let me see if Chris Williams wants to go”.  And just like that, Skyler, Henry, my dad, Chris, and I were all headed to Dilley, Texas to hunt on the Todos Santos Ranch and hopefully punch some Rio tags.

So, on March 22nd, at 4AM in the morning, Henry and I headed to Myrtle Beach International Airport to catch our flight to Atlanta to begin our highly anticipated trip. Henry has an impressive resume when it comes to turkey hunting, but up to that point he had never killed a Rio Grand turkey. You could sense his excitement for the trip.

 After landing in Atlanta we caught our flight to San Antonio, where we would meet up with Sky and Chris to head on over to the ranch; Dad had a meeting in Florida so he would arrive later that night. Upon landing, we gathered gear from baggage claim; we stuffed it all into our Chevy Suburban rental to make the two-hour car ride to Todos.

There were two important stops we had to make before we arrived at the ranch. First, the liquor store and a very special stop at the closest Whataburger. It had been nearly 10 years since the last time Sky and I had enjoyed the true greatness that is Whataburger. So I didn’t hold back and I got a triple-meat burger meal and a 3-piece whatachick’n (the stomachache was worth it). Fully supplied, we headed to the ranch and arrived around 2 PM. We were anxious to hunt.

That first afternoon we split off into groups. I was with Skyler, Henry had gone alone, and Chris ventured off with Zane, one of the ranch hands, to scout for the next morning. Sky and I are religious bow hunters, so we initially sat in one of the African style blinds hoping for a bird to come our way. Around 7PM, we heard a gunshot off in the distance. Assuming it was from our crew, I quickly grabbed my phone and texted Henry to see if it was him; it wasn’t.

It was hot and the birds were quiet. With not much going on, Skyler and I called off the hunt. Zane and Chris came and picked us up, and then we grabbed Henry, and headed in. As we rode in on the Badger, our badass means for transportation, I got a phone call from my dad who had finally arrived, it was time for dinner.

Driving into camp, you could see the glow from the campfire and smell the burning mesquite in the air. After changing clothes and enjoying a beer around the fire, we sat down to a delicious meal prepared by Chef Domingo. Sitting with us were two men we had not yet met, so we introduced ourselves. They were two American heroes who had served our nation in the war against terrorism. Both men had been wounded in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan and were given the opportunity to hunt on the ranch thanks to the efforts of the Wounded Warrior Project. Sure enough, that shot we had heard earlier in the day was one of theirs and they had smoked a big Tom and a massive pig that afternoon. We lent them a few Expedition folder knives to help clean the beast . It was an honor to spend a night with them and celebrate their successful hunt. But after a few drinks, it was time for bed as we had an early wake up call the next morning.

As the alarm blared in my ear at 5:30 AM, we popped up and got ready to roll, anxious for our morning hunts. Again, I was paired with Skyler, and this time Henry was with Chris. Skyler and I got dropped off a few hundred yards away from where we planned to hunt and began to walk cautiously. We decided to go with the “Run and Gun” method after our uneventful evening the day before. We approached our destination and Skyler let out an owl call that screeched through the morning air. Then, all hell broke loose as at least 5 gobblers sounded off right beside us. Not knowing exactly where the birds were roosted on that dark morning, we quickly dropped and set up. I jumped down behind some small trees and pulled out my camera to film Skyler, who put out the hen decoy and slid back into position, bow in hand. As we sat still in the moonlit brush country, we heard the birds as they began to fly down from their roost. The suns rays slowly lit up our surroundings, and the birds came alive.  Multiple Toms had us surrounded, as if it was an ambush, one even flew down from its roost, landing just beyond my feet. It felt as if we were the ones being hunted. If this had been a shotgun hunt, we would have been done early.

However, bow hunting offers its challenges, especially for wary Toms. It was just our luck that Skyler never had a clear shot. Although the Toms walked within a few feet of me, Skyler was 10 yards away, with brush blocking any potential shot. We waited patiently, but no birds wandered into his shooting window. We were left defeated. We called Zane to meet at the rendezvous point and head back to camp. It turned out the rest of the crew got skunked too. Henry and Chris shared their tale of the morning, letting us know the turkeys weren’t cooperating with them either. But the mood at camp was full of hope. We had seen lots of Gobblers and all of us had a chance that morning. Turkey hunting can often be a battle against patience and diligence.

In the middle of the day, we were resting up when a gobbler let off, not too far from camp. I look over to see Henry’s ears perked up. His killer instinct was taking over. The turkey gobbled a few more times and before we could really think about it, Henry had grabbed his gun, and was off on a solo mission. Sure enough, about 30 minutes later, we heard the report of Henry’s 12 gauge. 5 minutes after that, we could see Henry was off in the distance, with a turkey over his shoulder and a huge smile on his face. Henry had bagged his first Rio and it was the first dead bird of the trip, we were all excited. He shouted from the distance, “Pour me some of that Ruby Red, the drinks are on me”.

Henry didn’t make it out for the afternoon hunt, but Sky and I were on a mission.  We switched back to our original tactic and decided to set up in a blind and hope for the best. Nevertheless, just like the evening before, the next few hours did not go in our favor. We saw no signs of life and were beginning to lose hope. However, just before dusk, nearly a hundred yards away, we heard a gobble. We tensed up and began to anticipate the Tom coming our way. Then, out of no-where, three hens came running out in front of us to feed. They hung around just long enough to coax in that cautious Tom we had heard off in the distance. Everything was falling into place.

He came in from the far back left corner and slowly walked his way across the tree line, headed our direction.  The Tom wavered in and out of the brush, aware that something was off, but he couldn’t refuse the hens attention. He finally strutted right into the shooting window; Sky drew his bow. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins as I sat behind the camera and filmed the bird, anxiously waiting for Skyler to lose his arrow. The slight commotion from the bow startled the bird just enough to convince him to leave. He began to pace toward the dense brush, but he wasn’t quick enough. Skyler flung his arrow, making one of the most impressive shots I have ever seen. The arrow pierced the turkey’s vitals and after one last hop, he fell dead right there. Cheers of joy erupted from the both of us; we were pumped! That feeling of success is like no other. With the sun falling, the lighting was perfect to take photos of the bird, so Sky took his trophy and set him up with the sun perfectly lighting up his vibrant feathers. Then, with full hearts and empty stomachs, we decided to finally give Zane a call and head back to camp.

We arrived back at camp to show off Skyler’s bird just before dinner. Beers were flowing and there were smiles all around as we sat down to eat another awesome meal. We were all excited to watch the footage from the hunt. The shot was beautiful and Skyler and I’s animated reactions were caught on film as well, generating a laugh from everyone at the table. Even though I was excited for my friend, I couldn’t help but be a bit worried about the final day of hunting tomorrow. I ate as quickly as I could, said my peace, and went to bed, eager for the next morning.

My alarm blared at 5AM, snapping me out of bed. I put on my camo, gathered my gear, ate my granola bar, and headed for the truck. Sky was tagging along to film the hunt just as I had with him. We loaded up in the Badger with Henry, my dad, another member of the lease, Knox, and his friend.  With everyone already at their spot on the ranch, we were the last hunters dropped off, which only added to the suspense of the hunt. Finally, Skyler and I got in the blind and organized our gear; he checked his camera and I checked my draw; everything was good and ready to go.  Then we waited, patiently.

You never know what you may see when sitting in a blind in South Texas, that is one of the reasons I love hunting there so much. As we waited for the Rio’s, a group of roughly fifteen whitetails decided to visit us. One was an impressive young buck that still sporting his antlers and made us forget we were there to hunt turkeys at all. His frame was abnormally high, with serious mass all the way up his tines. We admired the future trophy until he eventually walked away. We were a certainly a little star struck; its not everyday we get the pleasure of seeing an animal so magnificent in the South Carolina low country.  I can only imagine how big he will grow to be.

As time went on, there was no sign of a turkey directly near us, but we had heard turkeys off in the distance. So we decided it would be best to close the gap. We waited a few minutes, just to be safe, but we weren’t safe enough. Skyler stepped out of the blind first, and then I followed. As I stepped out, Skyler intensely whispered, “Haywood get behind the blind, now!”. I jumped behind him and immediately knew my worst nightmare had come true. A Tom and 4 hens had run into the food plot in front of us, just as we got out of the blind. My heart was beating rapidly and I just sat there, mentally rattled by what had just happened. There was nothing I could do but crouch and wait for him to get within range. The Tom eventually made his way toward the blind with his head down feeding. I was shaking, my adrenaline was through the roof, and I rushed. I drew my bow and stepped out from behind the blind before he was fully turned away. The hens spooked instantly, and in response, so did he. I let one fly as he was on the run and my heart immediately sunk.

The miss was like a black cloud hanging over me. I was pissed at first, then just mad at myself for rushing the shot. But I didn’t have time to sulk. Just as the last four-letter word slipped from my lips, I saw three Toms following two hens, headed right in our direction. With my tail between my legs, I made my way to a group of trees with Skyler. It seemed like my luck was going to turn around, they were about to walk right in front of me. I crouched down in some high grass between small trees for cover. I drew my bow. The hen walked right in front of me and stopped, and the Toms were just behind her. They never saw me. Then, as if she had some internal human radar, she simply turned around and walked back where she came from. I wanted to scream, because I knew the Toms would follow her, and they did. The Toms had been just 10 yards away on the other side of the tree, so close yet so far away. They made their way slowly into the dense brush, never to be seen, or heard again. I was totally deflated. I still get that unsettling feeling as I write about it now. It was a great lesson in the importance of patience that morning. I had only one hunt left to redeem myself and I was not going to mess up again.

With my head down, we made the phone call to get picked up and taken back to camp. I knew I needed to let it go, so upon arrival, I grabbed my 5 wt. fly rod and headed for the stocked ponds to try and lift my spirits a little bit. I began picking out bass and bream left and right. I was having a blast, so much that I had lost track of time, totally forgetting about my unsuccessful morning. Skyler and Henry eventually came out and hollered at me, letting me know it was time for lunch. So I headed on in. Henry had been happy to let me know that he and my dad had a successful hunt that morning. Henry drilled a big bird with his shotgun just a few minutes after it had left its roost. Fortunately, he wasn’t too hard on me when I told him about my debacle that morning. He had his limit for the week and I was still skunked. I was happy for him, but I knew it was my turn to get the job done. 

When that last afternoon hunt arrived, I was anxious, it was my last chance to get the job done. Finally at our blind, I went through my usual routine and drew to make sure that I had plenty of room. However I quickly realized it was too small for me to fully draw back inside of. So I had to MacGyver a brush blind together just to the right of the fixed blind Skyler sat in. I was completely out of sight from any animal that would walk by, however it made the shot much more difficult, with only a small window for me to shoot an arrow through. Skyler was left to sit in the sauna-like metal blind with his camera, but he had made himself a drink before we got out there so I knew he wasn’t complaining. It was time to do what we had been doing all week, wait.

There was silence for hours, broken only by our intermittent calling. With no signs of life, we began to have doubts. Just as we were about to give up, we heard thunderous gobbles that must’ve been a few hundred yards away. I prayed my luck would finally turn around. I got focused, anticipating the fact they may come my way. A few quiet minutes passed, I did my best to compose myself. Then, they gobbled again, this time, only 50 yards behind me. I couldn’t see the birds, but Skyler peeked over his shoulder and looked at me through the blind window and mouthed, “Draw!”. I pulled back my bow and waited. I tried to slow my breath; my heart was beating out of my chest. Coming out from the other side of the blind was 3 Toms, headed straight for the Jake decoy. I took a deep breath and picked out a bird then just let it fly.

It had all happened so fast. I knew I heard the arrows impact and quickly looked up. The Grim Reaper tipped arrow went straight through the Tom and I spotted the wounded bird trying to make its way for the heavy brush. I was not letting that bird get away. I jumped up from beside the blind and ran toward him in a full sprint, but by the time I caught up with the turkey, the arrow had done its job. He was done. I grabbed my bird and ran back to the blind with the biggest smile on my face. We had done it. 3 days of ups and downs, blown opportunities, and perfect executions finished with my first Rio downed with my bow. I couldn’t shake that feeling of success as I sat there over the bird. I hooped and hollered; I didn’t even care to hunt the rest of the evening at that point. As the sun was about to go down, we called Zane. He picked us up and we rolled back in to camp, beers already in hand to enjoy this last evening we had at Todos.

That night, we all grabbed our birds out of the freezer to clean them with our Williams Expedition Series knives. The crew drank some drinks (Deep Eddy’s-Ruby Red mixed with whatever we could find, to be more exact) and ate dinner one last time before we had to head out early the next morning.  When 4 AM came around, we were all up and ready to roll out to the airport. Henry, my dad, Skyler and I, all packed into the Suburban and made our way home. Chris had left separately the evening before. As exhausted as we were, we were still so happy about the memories we had made hunting turkeys on one of the greatest ranches in Texas. I really wished we didn’t have to leave, but Clemson was calling my name and I had schoolwork to do. And just like that, Skyler was headed back to Florida, Dad was back to work in Myrtle Beach, Chris was back in Greenville, and Henry was back with me at school. It was a quick four days but it was four days I will never forget. Rio’s beware, we’ll be back.