Dick Alford is in his 45th year of hunting turkeys, an anniversary he never thought he would see after wiping out a couple of winters back on a slippery step.
On that day in November 2017, Dick was en route to a regular meeting of his beloved Fur, Fin and Feather Club, and the next thing he knew he was upside down, with the femur of his left leg punching a hole in his pelvis.
“Seventy-seven days,” he says. “That’s how long I was in rehabilitation centers.”
A tough break, yes. Still, there he was Wednesday, driving alone across South Dakota, beelining for the Black Hills in quest of his 299th wild tom.
Dick, age 80, had, of course, packed his camouflage clothing, including his timeworn hat, and also toted with him a 12 gauge Benelli with a pistol-grip stock.
His plan was to join his South Dakota pal, Ted Wick, and with him traipse among the Black Hills’ ponderosas and scrub cedars on what would be his first out-of-state hunting trek since the accident.
“Calling is what attracted me to turkeys,” Dick said. “When I started hunting these birds, I found out that when I talked to them, they talked back to me. Then I found out the more I learned about calling, the more likely they were to come to my call.”
One time, Dick called a tom in from just shy of a mile away. His son, Scott, was along, and he sluiced the bird at 12 yards.
Such occasions aren’t soon forgotten, and Dick has a memory bank full of them, even now in the shank of a hunting career that has spanned 20 states and New Zealand.
Each trip, whether hunting a spring or fall season, he’s carried with him a storehouse full of box calls, slate calls, mouth calls — and his favorite, a turtle-shell “finisher’’ call.
“I was in Texas years ago,” he said, “and a guy told me about making a turkey call from a turtle shell. These are small turtles like we have here, with a high mortality rate. The guy was selling the shells for $2 and I bought one. It’s real soft, and I’ll use it to bring in a tom the last few yards.”
For his most recent South Dakota adventure, Dick allotted three days. He wasn’t sure whether he would actually hunt Thursday, or instead just scout. The plan, he said, was to play it by ear.
Much more certain were the rules by which he would conduct himself while footloose in the South Dakota hinterlands. Dick’s a stickler for not trespassing on private land, and he’s a safe-hunting taskmaster.
“I can gobble with my mouth call, and I sometimes do,” he said. “But if I get a tom to gobble back to me, I won’t gobble again. You can never be sure if other hunters are in the area, and it could be dangerous.”
Whether, as some say, turkeys are dumb, or, as others insist, they’re geniuses, everyone agrees they’re mysterious.
One day they’ll race to a call, another day they won’t budge.
“Turkeys aren’t everywhere,” Dick said. “To hunt them successfully, you have to find them. When you do, note the time, and note also how the turkeys got to where you found them and how they leave. The next day, be at that location before they are.”
In early season, as now, Dick often uses multiple decoys, because toms and hens oftentimes are still in winter flocks and are accustomed to seeing multiple birds hanging out together.
To lure hyper-vigilant toms to within shotgun range, Dick often deploys what some might describe as oddball confidence decoys.
“Doves,” he said. “I’ll put two or three dove decoys in the branches above my head. Also I’ll hoot on a dove call. Old toms seem to be more comfortable approaching my turkey decoys when doves are around.”
Thursday evening, Dick and Ted set out afoot in the Black Hills, leveraging the turkey-hunting wisdom they had accrued over many long seasons.
Moseying toward an area where they had spotted turkeys in previous years, they soon took a seat on brown grass, leaning against a tree to camouflage their shapes.
Calling and calling again, Dick mostly yelped while mixing in an occasional gobble.
“So we picked up and started walking down a gully,” Dick said.
Which is when the two men came face-to-face with three toms and three hens working their way upslope toward Dick’s call.
“The turkeys flew,” Dick said. “Just as they did, I got a nice tom.
“I didn’t jump up and down like I did when I was younger. But it sure brought a smile to my face.”