Dave Oyler has an infatuation with turkey hunting that I’ve only seen in the rarest number of men. There are so few of his type that but a handful of others so singularly focused on turkeys come to mind. I like turkey hunting a lot; Dave is the kind of guy that could give up all his other hunting so long as he could still hunt turkeys.
For 20-plus years, Oyler worked as a National Wild Turkey Federation turkey guide in spring in the Black Hills, taking bunches of time off from a more-than-50-year career with the nonprofit Rapid City Club for Boys.
When I got the go-ahead to hunt with Dave and son Craig for a long weekend, it felt like hitting a jackpot. Both Oylers keep a busy spring schedule, even though Dave has discontinued his guiding business. The hunting passion is still there, and talking turkey with Dave in February felt like he was ready to chase birds the next morning.
We made plans to hunt opening weekend but a funny thing happened along the way. Winter would not release its icy grip on the region, and the Black Hills got a foot of snow on opening day. Time crunches and rescheduling looked daunting, but the figurative flip switched dramatically to spring, and the birds got active. Midway through the first week, the Oylers suggested I come out for second weekend to take in a Black Hills hunt in sunshine.
After settling into a cabin by Hill City the night before, I walk a chunk of property west of Rapid City with Craig. I am treated to an angry hen looking for a fight with Craig over his yelping and cutting, followed by a trio of toms out of my line of sight but putting on a show 150 yards away for Craig, who was sitting behind me with a slightly different vantage point. A group of jakes tiptoe through the jackpines 30 minutes later, but not seeing a beard and being near the end of my effective range, I give them a pass. The henned-up toms left and the ridges became quiet.
By late morning, I join forces with Dave and I run errands with him in town. I’m given a tour of the Club for Boys thrift store, a fundraising engine for the nonprofit. Inside the busy store, it’s hugs, hellos and smiles for the staff, which includes Dave’s daughter and grandson.
With our rounds complete, we head back into the hills to see if we can find a lonely tom looking for love in the woods.
Returning to the morning scene, Dave and I walk ridge sides and let loose some yelps, looking for a response and a reason to take cover against a tree and play the cat-and-mouse calling game. The first few ridgetops are empty. Finally we hear some distant gobbles. We plop down for a good 40 minutes, but the bird gets quiet and never shows.
Eventually we continue down the ridge, and I, content in my fancy-free and foolish ways, bend over to snap a photo of the first spring bloom, a pasque, the state flower of South Dakota. At the same time, Dave yelps and solicits a thunderous gobble, and he’s right next to us!
Pandemonium ensues while Dave grabs the one mature tree nearby and I scramble to find something to lean against. Finding nothing, I sit down just a few yards away and prepare for a bird. We call and the tom answers. He sounds like he’s coming.
Finally I see him, picking his way up the hill toward us but on the far side of a patch of volunteer jackpine saplings. When I get a good look at him through a thinner section of trees he’s in a direct line with Dave and me; in other words, for me to shoot the tom I’d have to shoot Dave first!
Unaware that the bird is right behind him, searching for the lonely hen he heard talking just moments earlier, Dave mouths, “Can you see him?”
I shoot back pursed lips, imploring him to shush! The bird is still craning its crimson head around, searching for the raspy hen he’s heard earlier before he continuing up the hill. When the bird is behind another dense patch of young pine, I spin around and lay prone facing uphill.
“It was right behind you!” I whisper.
“I’ll try and call it back,” he replies, purrins softly before the gobbler belts out a vociferous gobble through the brush.
I see his bright red head again, this time up the hill, but a fallen tree is in the line of fire. I wait for the right moment when he looks away to side shimmy and get a shot, but when I do so, he disappears again for good. We try calling him a third time, but the gig is up. Dave and I stand up.
“Did you see him?” Dave asks. “He was 12 yards away!”
I explain that I had no shot. We give the bird time to put some distance between us so we won’t spook it permanently and head up and off the ridge.
Turkey hunting, like no other sport, offers plenty of Monday-morning quarterbacking, and we’re quick to assert that we should have found a better set up, even if it meant spooking the approaching tom. The dense jackpine in our immediate area prevented shots to anything coming up the hill from across the ridge.
We exit the property entirely after some exploratory ridgetop calling yields no return calls.
Back in Dave’s blue Ford pickup, we replay the scene over and over in disbelief. Twelve yards!
“Hunting, and especially turkey hunting, has been described as a matter of convergence. You and the game have to be in the right spot at the right time,” Dave says.
We swap stories of close calls, our encounters where convergence brought filled tags and the times when it brought nothing but disbelief and headshakes for those hunts wherein toms got away unscathed. To bring a bird so close and not be offered a shot seems like bad luck, but this many bird encounters leaves me no reason to pout as another bird is seemingly just around the corner.
We hit the road to head for camp and to grab fishing rods. We’ll fish rainbow trout in the evening and make a game plan for the morning.
We pull into a convenience store to fuel up the truck. Oyler sells firewood bundles to many stores in the area, a side business for him that originally began as a fundraiser for the Club for Boys until insurance requirements made it all but impossible to continue. Our stop keeps Dave’s truck rolling down the road and helps him check inventory. Tourist season in the hills is about to start and the demand for local firewood will rev up in little more than a week’s time.
Oyler knows the clerk inside – really he knows most everyone in the greater Rapid City area! Each time we stop he’s checking in on people and giving out his hugs. These aren’t the fake, Hollywood-greeting hugs; these are genuine, “I care about you” hugs.
“Every person has a story,” Dave tells me as he turns back onto the highway. Dave goes on to tell me about the clerk and how she’d lost her husband, lost her daughter and is alone and raising a grandchild. Dave knows and cares for many, his friend the convenience store clerk another thread in the community he supports.
Dave’s an easy conversationalist, and our topics turn to all matters of life and interests — places you’d love to visit, the importance of family, our love for our jobs and our values. Dave’s psychology background intrigues me and gives insight into the environment he helped cultivate at the Club for Boys.
“People have to feel loved and to feel belonging,” he says.
“Is that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?” I ask.
Yes, he tells me, adding, “Every conversation I ever had with my parents, they always ended it by telling me they loved me. … I think the home I grew up in helped me become the person I was meant to be.”
For many boys in Rapid City, the Club for Boys was their chance at belonging, of getting one on one attention, of receiving love and hugs from Dave and others. Poverty, single-parent homes and tough times are a fact of life for some.
“I can still try to go across our building and campus, and it might take me an hour because the boys want to get a hug, say hi, or tell me a story,” he says.
It’s starting to feel less like a hunting trip and more like hanging out with an old friend. Better still, the weekend is less about hunting and more of a spiritual retreat and discussion about what is truly important in your life and the values you hold dear and pass on to others.
There are stories that touch the soul – the kindness of strangers at club Christmas tree lots, camping trips with boys who would never have had a chance to visit the very Black Hills near where they grew up, and the revelations of grown men whose lives were saved or sent down a better path.
I’ll proudly say I put Dave Oyler on a pedestal and for good reason. Today’s society uses people and loves things: Dave Oyler and his Club for Boys teaches kids to love people and use things.
It’s day two and the movement of birds has us excited enough to be up and active early, a tactic the Oylers rarely employ as they often hunt toms that follow hens after flydown and roost in variable locations. Craig suggested an early start on a farm east of Custer, so Dave and I pull out of camp at sunup. Hill City and Keystone have plenty of city-limits tom turkeys, gobbling and strutting for their harem of hens and showing off for tourists.
Our first sit on the farm is on a flattop ridge that is rotationally grazed. A few cow pies have been turned over, a sign that turkeys have been working through the area looking for food. We blind call for about an hour, but hear little more than an irritated hen before moving on.
Dave and I strike up a conversation heading up and down paths as we make the rounds to his favorite locations to call birds. Coming over a ridgetop, our conversation stops mid-sentence.
“Right there!” he blurts.
In a moment, I spring ahead, raise my shotgun and draw a bead on a tom among a group of several turkeys in a semicircle. Wasting no time, I pull the trigger and see the bird flop.
I’m off like a shot to ensure the kill, and in my haste to close the 30-yard distance, drop my foot in an uneven spot and roll my ankle. Undeterred, I limp up to the bird, now assured of its demise. I replay the aftermath of the shot in my mind; the other birds scatter and finally fly. Dave is behind me, and we’re soaking in the mid-morning sunshine and the triumph of serendipitous success.
I can’t think of a more fitting conclusion than a hearty hug from Dave before we notch a leg tag and soak it all in. Sore ankle and all, we grin like fools.
Dave notes the irony of our earlier conversations about convergence. Had we arrived at this point earlier or later, would we have succeeded in shooting a tom? We imagine the butterfly effect of the past 36 hours of hunting activity. I take a long view on the idea of hunting luck, supposing that eventually everything will even out and you’ll get enough good luck to offset the bad and vice versa.
With bird in hand, the rest of the day is spent in Dave’s company, getting insight into why he loves springs in the Black Hills, chasing turkeys and dabbling in work and play.
We drop in to his great grandson’s birthday party, a big family gathering. Still dressed in camouflage, I’m made to feel welcome with stories, Ole and Lena jokes, pizza and punch, and warm conversations. Dave and I fish for a second evening, sending me home with not only a turkey but a possession limit of trout to smoke.
I drive home on Monday with fish and game in the cooler, but, best of all, a heart that is full.
Scott Mackenthun is an outdoors enthusiast who has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. He resides in New Prague and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.