As the crow flies, it’s 1,990 miles from my residence in Bucksport, Maine, to the Cuatro Semanas Ranch in Uvalde County, Texas. That’s exactly where I found myself on the morning of April 8, headed out the door into the unexpected cold dark with my guide, Tom Aasbo, in hopes of catching up with a Rio Grande longbeard.

After a short ride to the neighboring El Nopal Ranch, we settled in at the base of a mesquite tree, just up from a dried creek bed. In the predawn light, we waited silently, listening to a dozen or more fired up gobblers sounding off over and over. I’d heard nothing like it before in the turkey woods and as Tom let out a few soft yelps just before flydown, a series of loud and immediate gobbles assured me I was about to experience something pretty special.  

Chris Sargent poses with the turkey he hunted at El Nopal Ranch in Texas on a trip in spring 2022.

The previous September, I received an invitation from Dave Hentosh, president and founder of The Veterans Afield Foundation and owner of Smoldering Lake Outfitters in Bridgewater, Maine, to attend an April Rio Grande Turkey hunt at the ranch. The hunt had been organized through the non-profit foundation, which has a mission to promote healing through outdoor experiences for at-risk and disabled veterans, first responders, and Gold Star families. Given my recent experiences at the abrupt end of a 15-year career in law enforcement, the foundation felt I might benefit from some time dodging cacti and rattlesnakes while chasing longbeards under the hot Texas sun, a challenge I humbly but more than happily accepted.

Two very generous and hospitable ranch owners, Mike Weeks of the Cuatro Semanas Ranch and Cole Evans of the El Nopal Ranch, both opened their gates, graciously allowing exclusive hunting access to their beautiful properties. Mike arranged for us to stay at his guest house, which for me will be the most impressive and beautiful hunting “camp” I will ever stay at. Walls adorned with world-class whitetails and a bull elk, floors covered with tanned cowhide and a rustic feel that screamed old West. It was a special place where I spent time with some very special people.

Joining us in camp were two combat wounded United States Army Veterans: Major Joe Bogart and Major Jonathan Turnbull, both of whom had been blinded as a result of their injuries and whose stories of courage and perseverance will forever resonate in my consciousness. Also in camp was a film crew from Mossy Oak, a couple of good ol’ southern fellas who were there to feature Major Bogart and Major Turnbull in their Honor Series videos. These videos will be viewable online soon and will include both of their successful hunts as well as their harrowing and inspirational stories.

In the early morning light, I whispered to Tom, seeking affirmation of my estimation of distance to a few certain landmarks. After a brief pause, Tom’s response was simple and profound; “anywhere you can see here, you can shoot.”

I quickly came to realize that Tom was a wise man and I was in good hands. Quiet, polite and resolute, he chooses to listen more than he talks but when he does, what he has to say holds weight and makes sense. Plain and simple, the man knows what he’s talking about in the woods. He comes by it honestly, having been a Maine guide since the 1980s as well as owning Maine’s Oxbow Lodge from 1996 to 2010 before moving his wife Tracey and daughters Madeline and Annika to Texas where for years, he helped manage the famed Catarosa Ranch in South Texas, a deer hunters heaven.  

Chris Sargent poses with the turkey he hunted at El Nopal Ranch in Texas on a trip in spring 2022.

A few moments of silence interrupted the chaotic orchestra, signaling the birds had hit the ground. Tom continued his expert calling and within minutes, the first Rio Grande turkey I had ever seen came into view. A curious but cautious old hen, head on a swivel, snuck her way up the powdery dirt road, pausing long enough to pick us off, and alarm put her back the way she had come from. Gun at the ready, I waited, fixed on an area offering the first glance at whatever might come up the road next.

Then, there he was. A beautiful Rio Grande longbeard. In full strut and larger than life, his wing tips dragged hard on the ground as I found him in my sights. Around 40 yards, he came out of strut, looking for his next conquest. Tom whispered “take him.”

As my ears rang with the shot, I was surprised to see the bird take flight then settle down a few yards into the woods. We watched him for several minutes and determined a second shot was necessary. At the shot, the gobbler tossed again and scooted off into the bushes. Confused and anxious, we located the bird alive but barely, in a patch of thorn bushes I can’t adequately describe and where no man should go. Not one to be deterred by a couple thorns, I made my way in and dispatched the old warrior with some backup from Tom.

And just like that, there I was, holding the most beautiful turkey I had ever seen, in a place I had only dreamed of and with a man I will forever call my friend. Hunting is an amazing thing. It tests and challenges. It relaxes and teaches. It bonds and solidifies. Sometimes it frustrates and disappoints but for me as I watched my first Texas sunrise, it healed and helped and for that, I will forever be grateful.

 

       

Chris Sargent, Outdoors Contributor

Chris Sargent is an avid outdoorsman, a former Maine Game Warden and lover of anything wild and tasty. Chris’ passion and appreciation for hunting, processing and preparing wild game has become more...