Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Great Article From Lowell Washburn...

Schulte’s Pasture

We all have favorite places.  Favorite deer stands, favorite places to hunt ducks, favorite turkey woods.

With Iowa’s spring turkey season currently at its peak, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about one my favorite places.  For me, there are few destinations that conjure up such a vast collection of fond memories.  This special place is simply known as Schulte’s Pasture.

Located in the rugged bluff country of northeast Iowa’s Clayton County, Schulte’s Pasture has been in use for a long long time.  For generations now, herds of Holstein dairy cows have gained sustenance here; the black and white bovines kept in place by the sagging, three-strand barbed wire fence that leads from farmstead building site to ridge top meadow.  Where growing saplings have sprouted too close, the rusted wire is forever entombed by several inches of wood and bark.

Completely surrounded by timber, Schulte’s Pasture is a veritable turkey magnet.  Small but mighty, the four acre plot is the first spot to green up each spring, and the short cropped grass presents an ideal backdrop for gobblers to strut their stuff as disinterested hens forage on new plant growth or take advantage of emerging insect life.  Although turkey traffic can be heavy, human hunters are rarely seen here.  In reality, few people even know the place exists.  Located completely out of sight and a good three quarters of a mile from the nearest county roadway, the pasture remains a well-guarded emerald secret.

We accidentally stumbled onto Schulte’s Pasture during the late 1970s.  That’s when Steve Schutte, Ed Kotz and I first began prowling the adjacent hardwood timbers.  It was a time when newly restored turkey populations and the mysterious sport of turkey hunting were both enjoying unprecedented adolescent growth spurts.  And although turkey populations were sparse by today’s standards, we usually managed to hear and occasionally even see birds.  Turkey seasons were short, turkey decoys were illegal, and hunting was only allowed during the morning.  But in spite of the many challenges, one of us usually managed to bag a turkey each year which statistically kept us at average or above. 

By the late1980s, turkey hunting had undergone dramatic change.  Turkey populations had soared and our success rate had followed the trend -- at least on the good days anyway.  By now, we were all busy raising families; and as we made our way into the 1990s, we began introducing a new generation of hunters to the unmatched thrills of turkey hunting.  The growing squadron of young hunters included my son Matt; Steve Schutte’s boys, Brad and Dan; and Ed Kotz’s son, Wesley.  By then, my brother Sterling and his son Justin had also joined the party.

Matt bagged his first gobbler along the northern fringe of Schulte’s Pasture.  It had been a tough hunt.  There had been three days of abnormally cool temperatures and driving rain.  Matt had contracted a World Class head cold, and both of us were bone tired and discouraged.  At around 5 o’clock on our final afternoon, the rain suddenly stopped.  The skies cleared, and we decided to give it one last try. 

Working and calling our way along an abandoned logging road, we soon detected the faint sound of distant gobbling.  As we hustled through the woodland, the continued gobbling led us straight to Schulte’s Pasture where we determined the bird was sounding off from just inside the timberline on the opposite side of the plot.  Cautiously creeping forward and finally taking our seat against the base of sturdy hardwood, we began calling.  The gobbler roared back, and immediately headed our way.  A slight ridge runs along the pasture’s centerline, and the first we saw of the approaching gobbler was the top of his magnificent tail fan -- vividly backlight against the late afternoon sun.  The tom quickly topped the rise and continued his approach.  After awing us with a final and spectacular display of gobbling, the tom stepped into range.  Matt’s 20 bore rocked the timber and his very first gobbler was in the bag.  The tom sported a long thick beard and needle sharp, inch-plus spurs -- a magnificent bird by any standard.  The day had provided both of us with a good lesson of just how quickly turkey hunting can spin on a dime.  The hunt is a memory we will forever cherish.

The mention Matt’s head cold, reminds me of a time when I didn’t feel too well myself.  Steve Schutte and I were enjoying a four day turkey hunt when I suddenly fell victim to the flu.  I spent a miserable night and when it came time to roll out the following morning, my temperature was pegging the thermometer at 102 degrees.  The weather had taken a sudden turn for the worse as well.  What had been ideal spring weather the day before had now become a significant late season snowstorm.  Alternating between sweating and freezing, I felt absolutely horrible and seriously considered staying out of the woods.  But after several minutes of just lying there and considering my options, I finally decided to at least try and go out for the first hour.

By the time daylight arrived, I had seriously begun to question the wisdom of my decision.  Wet and sticky, the snow was coming down so hard that visibility was severely limited.  Cold and soggy, the forest hardwoods were painted stark white on one side; while remaining dark and somber on the other.

There was, of course, no early morning gobbling.  Using a high pitched Tom Turpin Yelper, I tried sitting and calling at several locations as I worked my way through the timber -- desperately hoping to raise a response.  Eventually arriving on the south side of Schulte’s Pasture, I decided that this would be my final stop.  After calling for 10 minutes or so, I was about to pack it in when I heard a familiar sound --- the aggressive fighting purrs of male turkeys squaring off.  The purring continued to increase in volume until I figured the birds were within a literal five or six feet of my vibrating eardrum.  The only problem was that the turkeys were on my right side [I shoot right handed] and far enough to the rear that I couldn’t see them.

The situation escalated to a crisis when the purring of one bird suddenly became an alarm putt.  When a second bird began sounding the alarm, I knew I was in trouble.  My only hope was to execute a rapid about face, identify a target, and fire.  We all know from painful experience just how quickly a wild turkey can vanish.  And though I realized that my chances for success were slim or none, making the attempt was all I had.  There was also a question regarding the reliability of my firearm.  I was shooting a double barreled Navy Arms muzzleloader.  The gun, like everything else in the timber, was soaking wet.  Although I had tried to keep a more or less dry glove across the nipples, there was still a good probability of a misfire.

Something had to give, and it was now or never.  Rolling myself away from the tree, I twisted to the rear and back to the right as far as my skeleton would allow.  The turkeys -- which turned out to be a trio of jakes -- were already airborne.  Identifying all three as legal game, I quickly framed the head of the closest bird between the cocked hammers.  I pulled the front trigger and the 12 gauge roared.  Best of all, the retreating jake fell stone dead at a distance of 14 paces.  Returning to camp, I got into some dry clothes, crawled back into bed and slept until noon.  When I woke up, my fever was gone and I was ready for lunch.  The snow had stopped and Steve ended up shooting a nice tom the same afternoon.

But time moves on.  The boys grew bigger.  Hunting skills improved.  One by one, more gobblers were carried from the forest as the Beard Count grew.  Over time, our limited collection of turkey hunting stories became expanded to a library.  A good share of those outings took place at or around Schulte’s Pasture.  Many of the adventures were documented on Kodak film, and I enjoyed the unique privilege of photographing the boys as they posed with their first turkeys.   

But nothing stays the same, and times change.  The years and the seasons pass all too quickly.  Boys become men.  Kids grow up, leave home, and are soon having kids of their own.  Today, Brad Schutte is a financial planner living near Kansas City.  Dan Schutte is an environmental educator at Duluth.  Matt Washburn serves as a Conservation Officer with the Iowa DNR.  Wesley Kotz is a captain with the United States Army and was awarded the Bronze Star during a 2011 deployment to Iraq.  Justin Washburn sells commercial real estate in the Des Moines area.  Life used to seem simple; but not any more.  Young people have busy schedules and getting everyone to turkey camp at the same time presents a monumental challenge.

There are other changes as well.  Landowners age and retire; at least one has passed on.  And although the sagging barbed wire fences are still there, the black and white Holsteins no longer visit Schulte’s Pasture.  The leisurely open air grazing of contented dairy cows has been replaced with the stark confinement of modern day steel roofed, high-tech milk factories.

But there is also some good news.  Although now mostly abandoned, the pasture and its associated timbers remain.  As they have in times past, wild turkeys still come here each spring to gobble, strut, and to compete for hens along the pasture’s wooded margins.  Whenever I’m in the neighborhood and time allows, I still take the long walk back to this favored spot.  Sitting against the base of an ancient hardwood, I lean back and slowly close my eyes.  One by one, I try to recall the hunts, the gobblers, the successes, and the near misses.  Most of all, I remember the people -- the lifelong friends and family who helped create the countless memories that make this place so uniquely special.

As I suppose is the case with most of you, I often wish that I could turn back the hands of time.  I’d love to go back and hear the daybreak sounds of the waking forest.  I’d love to relive all the wondrously spectacular sunrises.  One more time, I’d like to see my friends as they [we] were when the sport of Iowa turkey hunting was still brand new.  As much as anything, I’d love to see the excitement in the eyes of all those young hunters.  I’d love to go back for a retake of all of those “first turkey” photos.

Like you, I have an endearing passion for wild turkeys and for the sport of turkey hunting; and I hope to see a lot more gobblers before I’m done.  But when the time does arrive for that inevitable final hunt, I have but one wish.  I hope that the very last gobbler I hear greeting the spring sunrise will be sounding off from somewhere along the shrouded margins of an emerald paradise --- A favorite place simply known as Schulte’s Pasture.
Lowell  Washburn                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                McGregor, Iowa
May 6, 2013   

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