CAMP RIPLEY -- A turkey hunter who approaches his blind in the pre-dawn darkness and finds two toms perched nearby has good reason to be hopeful. Thus, Dick Hendrickson was confident he would bag a bird on the first day of his 2005 turkey season.
"Not only were they roosting here this morning," the Deerwood hunter said, "but we heard a lot of calling. Later we had a tom coming and he spooked about 60 yards out. Maybe we had too many decoys."
So that afternoon Hendrickson hunted without decoys, but to no avail. The next day's luck wasn't any better and Hendrickson wrapped up his hunt without a bird.
There's no shortage of turkeys in Camp Ripley these days. Birds from a stocking project near Fort Ripley have found a home in the 53,000-acre military reservation and are doing quite well. Eleven of the 19 hunters who took part in the first Veterans Turkey Hunt got a turkey.
It's a fate shared by thousands of turkey hunters each spring, but Hendrickson's story is unique. He's 100 percent disabled with hip, back and shoulder injuries and he was hunting in Camp Ripley, where until May 3 turkeys had never been legal game.
Hendrickson was one of 19 disabled veterans who took part in the first Physically Disabled Veterans Turkey Hunt. Modeled after the Veterans Deer Hunt, the turkey hunt gives people who otherwise might not take the field a chance to hunt in a controlled setting with the help of experienced guides.
Hendrickson, a 35-year Army veteran, was a high-altitude parachute instructor with Army Special Forces until he had a "bad accident" while stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. But over his long tour of duty he had hunted turkeys wherever he was stationed, including North Carolina, Oklahoma, Montana and Texas.
"I read about this hunt in the paper," said Hendrickson, who has bagged turkeys in all of the above states. "The way they set it up is outstanding. They do a really good job. For us disabled guys this is about the only outlet we have."
Hendrickson was guided by Paul Bruggman, a state trooper from Staples. Hendrickson was hoping Bruggman could help him accomplish what he has yet to do in his long turkey hunting career -- shoot a Minnesota bird. It didn't happen this year, but Hendrickson said he's hopeful of returning to Camp Ripley for another hunt someday.
"The way they set up this hunt is outstanding," said Dick Hendrickson (foreground), a Deerwood veteran who took part in the first Veterans Turkey Hunt at Camp Ripley. "For us disabled guys this is about the only outlet we have."
Judging from the success rate, this first hunt went very well. Eleven of the 19 participants got birds, including a hefty 26.5-pounder taken by Ross Jorgenson, Sauk Rapids. Except for one jake, all of the birds were mature toms. Jerry Klemm, Forest Lake, got the first bird at 6:20 a.m. on Day One. Hank Ebert, Merrifield, shot a 25.5-pound tom. By noon that day there already were eight birds in the bag, which delighted Brian Dirks of the Camp Ripley environmental staff.
"At one point we wondered if anybody would get a bird," said Dirks, who along with Marty Skoglund of the environmental staff did the pre-season scouting and set up the blinds where the veterans hunted. "Once we started scouting we realized we had a lot of birds out here and we would have a good chance to take some."
Yet even Dirks and Skoglund were amazed when eight birds were taken the first morning.
"It couldn't have gone any better," Skoglund said. "We had great weather and a high success rate. But most important it was memorable for the hunters. For many of them it was their first turkey hunt. Some said that because of their age it might be their last. And the mentors had fun, too."
Beginning last year, when it was known a veterans turkey hunt was imminent, staff members of the environmental office and range control kept track of where they saw turkeys. Each person carried a map in his truck whenever he went down range and marked the locations where he saw turkeys. This gave Dirks and Skoglund a good idea of where to set blinds.
Unlike the Veterans Deer Hunt, the turkey hunters weren't asked to sit in one specific spot. They were given a general area in which to hunt and could move around if conditions made it necessary.
Turkeys have incredibly keen eyesight, making it necessary for hunters in most situations to use a blind to be successful. Dick Hendrickson, Deerwood, carefully aimed his 12-gauge shotgun out a window of his blind as turkeys approached. But the birds stalled at 60 yards, too far for Hendrickson to shoot.
"We didn't want somebody sitting in a blind and then have birds a couple hundred yards away," Dirks explained. "We didn't want them to come back and say, 'If I could have just moved over there I would have got one.' "
DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam put his turkey hunting skills to good use by calling in a tom for Todd Kemery, Lakeville. The pair had action as early as 7 a.m. when two birds hung up about 75 yards from their blind, then disappeared into the woods. They reappeared at 11:20 a.m. from the opposite direction and approached to within 25 yards, where Kemery downed the 17-pound tom with 9.5-inch beard and 1.5-inch spurs with his 12-gauge shotgun.
"Just a great hunt," Kemery said over lunch. "Yesterday would have been tough with all that wind."
Two circumstances played a key role in the high success rate of this hunt: ideal weather and a large population of turkeys that had never been hunted.
"I've never had a day like this before and I've hunted in Florida, Texas, Georgia and Hawaii," said Tom Glines, regional director of the National Wild Turkey Federation, who served as a mentor. "At one point this morning we had birds coming in from three different directions. We had guys missing shots and getting second chances an hour later. Everybody at least heard birds. As a turkey hunter where do you go from here?"
Dennis Erie, who coordinated the hunt for the Veterans Administration, said he does not expect major changes to be made to next year's hunt, tentatively scheduled for May 2-4. But the number of participants likely will expand in the future.
"We gave each guy upwards of 2,500 acres to hunt," Skoglund said. "We weren't sure how mobile they would need to be. But many of the guys were stationary both days. They had no reason to move. They were hearing and seeing birds. Knowing that, we're sure we can accommodate more hunters."
This year's hunt was sponsored by the Wheeling Sportsmen, a branch of the NWTF, the DNR, Veterans Administration and Camp Ripley. It was funded by proceeds from charitable gambling, the NWTF and other sporting groups. Lunch on Day One was served by the Brainerd American Legion and lunch on Day Two was served by the Brainerd VFW.
VINCE MEYER, Dispatch outdoors editor, can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5862
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