I’ve been infatuated with wild turkeys since harvesting my first bird — a hen — in high school during Colorado’s 1997 fall season. As I stood over my fall prize in the September sun, I vowed to pursue these magnificent birds as long as I was above the dirt.
And I have yet to break that promise. I’ve chased birds in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma, taking three of the four subspecies needed to complete the coveted grand slam. The species I lacked, as most hunters do, was the highly coveted Osceola. A difficult bird to check of the grand slam list, the swamp-dwelling Osceola only inhabits the Florida peninsula (and nowhere else in the world). Similar to the eastern subspecies found in the Florida panhandle, the Osceola tends to be a bit smaller and is further distinguished by the white bars on the wing feathers which are more narrow with an irregular, broken pattern.
I’m a big dreamer, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the opportunity to settle a shotgun bead or a bow sight pin on a long-legged Osceola. Much of the state’s public-land is overrun with hunters, especially in the spring. I looked into the outfitter route, but being a husband to a wonderful wife and father to three amazing children, I simply couldn’t justify forking over the necessary greenbacks to achieve a personal goal, at least not at this point in my life.
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The Hunt of a Lifetime
Unexpectedly, an opportunity came knocking at our 2017 Grand View Media party held at the annual ATA Show. My good friend Mark Sidelinger, president of Media Direct Creative, extended an invite for me to attend a South Florida hog hunt at Hoppy Kempfer’s famed Osceola Outfitters. I’d hunted with Hoppy before and jumped at the opportunity. Then, Hoppy uttered the magic words — “Hey, maybe we could get you out for a day to complete that turkey grand slam you’re always talking about.” He didn’t say another word. He just smiled, patted me on the back and melted into the crowd of people.
Months passed before I got the final confirmation, but Mark finally pinged me with a text noting I would have a single day, the last day of Florida’s 2017 season, to complete my grand slam.
I walked into Hoppy’s cabin at 5 a.m. on Sunday, April 23. Hoppy was as chipper as ever, sipping a cup of coffee and cracking jokes.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “Most of the birds are done breeding. The gobbling and strutting is getting to be less and less, and I don’t have any ground blinds on this part of the ranch. We will have to build a blind out of the palmetto branches and hope these birds don’t pick you off when you try and draw.” Then, that wonderful grin that makes Hoppy, well, Hoppy, spread across his face. “But I bet we’ll get it done.”
In 2015, Hoppy guided me to a 10.5-foot alligator and a world-class 121-inch Florida whitetail. As we bounced down the sandy Florida two-track, we hoped we’d find similar luck not long after fly down.
Never Give Up
We didn’t hear a single gobble on the roost, but about an hour after daybreak a pair of distant birds let us know they were at least in the neighborhood. Hoppy called from time to time, and occasionally the duo would answer.
It was a tick after 8 a.m. when I spotted the red-headed bird running down the backside of the oak flat we were nestled in. He put on the breaks three yards from Mark, who tried to remain motionless. I had no shot. At one point the nervous Osceola started to walk into the timber, only to turn and run in the opposite direction. Minutes later the second gobbler arrived, but stayed 60 yards out from the decoys and paid Hoppy’s sexy hen-pleading no mind.
We were all disgusted. Yes, it had been a great morning in the turkey woods, but with only a single day to hunt, close calls weren’t going to cut the mustard. We decided to give it another 30 minutes before moving to a new location. That’s when the true backbreaker happened. A tom that had been hugging the cover came in totally silent only to pop out five yards from our decoys. Because of a spiked palm tree, Mark and Hoppy couldn’t see the bird, and I could only make out bits and pieces of the bird’s head. I clipped my release onto my Prime Centergy and the bird started putting immediately. Then, like a ghost, the bird was swallowed up by the Florida swamp. I wanted to cry.
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We made an evening plan as we made the sweltering walk back to Hoppy’s Ford. The sun was high in the sky and the humidity was upwards of 80 percent. I was drenched in sweat by the time we reached the rig.
“Let’s check one spot on the way out,” Hoppy said as we loaded up. “I’ve seen birds in this spot off and on throughout the season, but haven’t checked it in quite a while.”
Mark ran the video camera while Hoppy crawled up a steep bank allowing him to overlook a stand of thick palm meadows and oaks. He laid motionless, his binos glued to his eyes for nearly 10 minutes. Then, without looking in my direction, motioned with the wiggle of an index-finger for me to crawl up next to him. In my hands was a 20-guage shotgun loaded with Federal #5s. There was no way I would get drawn on a savvy Osceola, especially lying in the terrain Hoppy and I were in.
“You see him?” Hoppy asked. “He’s next to that big pine between the two oaks. I can’t tell if he is a jake or a tom.” Just then the bird stepped to the left and a hit-the-ground beard instantly became visible. Hoppy and I gasped in unison.
Hoppy had a tail fan in his grasp, but elected not to try and fan the bird. “It’s just too risky,” he said. “These birds are about done, and I’m afraid we will run him off. I’m just going to call lightly to him.”
A Turkey Hunter’s Dream Come True
Using only his mouth, Hoppy began producing some of the best yelps and light purrs I’ve ever heard. It was truly amazing. At first, the bird didn’t act at all interested, but then, raised his head, looked in our direction and started marching our way. He was coming fast, but was working to our right. Of course, I was set up and ready to shoot to the left. When the bird popped out at 12 yards, I quickly swung around and fired a shot. The king of the swamp didn’t so much as twitch. Just like that, my dream of completing the wild turkey grand slam was complete. I cried. Yep, sure did. I cried, and Hoppy embraced me tightly.
Not only had one of my childhood dreams just become a reality, but the bird sported a 10.5-inch beard and and 1.75-inch spurs. Yep, true daggers that could hang on any limb. Thank you Mark Sidelinger and Hoppy Kempfer for making my 20-year dream come true.
If you’re looking for an incredible hunting destination with one of the savviest outdoorsman I’ve ever had the pleasure of hunting with, visit www.osceolaoutfitters.com or give Hoppy a call at (407) 957-3593. You can complete your own grand slam or choose to chase hogs, deer or even a trophy gator. You’ll fall in love with the landscape and with Hoppy and his crew. I plan to be back very soon, and I hope to see you there!