BEDFORD — Last Saturday just before sunrise, Mike Doyle of Roanoke arrived with his two sighted guides in the Flint Hill area of Bedford County. Once the truck engine shut off, the three hunters attempted to find a spot in the darkness before the turkeys arose.
Tommy Meador of Bedford County was one of Doyle’s guides, and the other was Steve Davenport of Bedford. Davenport led Doyle through some of the rougher terrain by holding onto the end of his monopod shooting stick, which doubles as a cane. Every so often, Davenport paused to verbally guide Doyle down a hill. This is the third year the three would spend the day together hunting for elusive gobblers ; they have yet to nab one.
Doyle, 58, began hunting turkeys a year after he was diagnosed with Retinitis pigmentosa at 35. The degenerative eye disease reduced his vision . A hunter of other game since his early teens, he never imagined he’d stop the sport after becoming blind. His brothers living in upstate New York invited him to his first turkey hunt and worked their way around Doyle’s condition.
“When I was first diagnosed with being blind, I was a ‘poor me, pity me, why me,’ thing. And then, I realized that the only thing that has changed in my life was my vision,” Doyle said.
Doyle is one of the beneficiaries of the Bedford Outdoor Sportsman Association’s Gunnin’ for Gobblers event. The event dispatched 44 hunters into fields across Bedford County on the morning of April 25.
Gunnin’ for Gobblers is held each year during spring turkey season to give physically disabled hunters the opportunity to spend a morning looking through a scope with the assistance of BOSA members.
It’s held in memory of Gene Parker, an outdoorsman who worked tirelessly for BOSA. Parker passed away in 2008. His widow, Julie, continues to aid the organization.
By the end of this year’s event, three turkeys were felled by the 15 hunters with varying physical disabilities and the 29 guides helping them.
Bedford resident Barry Arrington has been instrumental in keeping the annual hunt alive since it began in 2006.
Arrington broke his back falling out of a deer stand in 1994, but the resulting paralysis only managed to delay him 13 months.
“I knew from Day 1 if there was any chance at all, I would get back into it,” he said.
Floyd County hunter Rick Baker, who hunted with Arrington on Saturday, said hunting turkey is a more adventurous brand of hunting, because the hunter has to go on the offensive to lure the prey. It also lends itself to the challenge hunters with physical disabilities face.
Six years ago, Arrington asked Meador to help with the hunt, and Meador has been involved ever since.
Meador strategically set up a ground blind for he and Doyle to use during the hunt. Meador became Doyle’s eyes inside the blind.
Once Doyle sat inside the blind, Meador climbed in underneath and opened two or three slits so they could visually track the turkeys. Then, they listened and waited. Davenport sat outside behind the blind after setting up two decoys and used a box call to entice the gobblers.
Doyle said he enjoys the camaraderie of a hunt even if it means they walk away without shooting a turkey. He served a little more than 17 years in the Marine Corps, in combat in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War and in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, eventually retiring as a communications chief and gunnery sergeant. Working as a team is familiar to him.
There are three different ways that Doyle works with a sighted guide. On that Saturday, Meador looked down the side of the barrel of Doyle’s Mossberg 500 shotgun to tell Doyle when to pull the trigger. If Meador said, ‘shoot,’ Doyle shot.
The other two options include using a laser attached to the weapon and the sighted guide prompting verbal cues, then pointing the shotgun in the direction of the target. Doyle tried using the laser, but for one reason or another, Meador couldn’t see it. Doyle said multiple factors can hinder a sighted person from seeing it.
The third option is the use of a camera mounted behind the scope, connected to a monitor about the size of a smartphone. The benefit of this method is that it increases the room between the sighted guide and Doyle.
Close to five hours ticked by, with intermittent rain just heavy enough to make it harder to hear the sounds of turkeys in the distance. The initial excitement of hearing a few gobbles at the first of dawn waned. Inside the small ground blind, the sounds of geese, mourning doves and cows lulled Doyle and Meador into silence.
In their second location, a flutter of birds above peaked Meador’s interest, and not long after three jakes, or young male turkeys, bobbed their long necks nervously above the grass line several yards to the right. Doyle snapped into gear and gingerly lifted his shotgun as Meador watched for the bobbing heads.
“Don’t move,” Meador said.
They positioned the shotgun. Then in single file, the three jakes, as though they heard Meador’s cue, waddled off together away from the blind.
“Turkey hunting is … a way of thinking. Even if you’re freezing, you’re shivering, you’re hot, you’re slapping mosquitoes, you’re soaking wet … you still do it. And you do it again and again and again,” Doyle said. “It’s very relaxing and soothing.”
Meador and Davenport made one final move after estimating the bird’s path since they first heard it gobble in the morning. They set up one last time where they hoped to ambush it.
Finally, a large gobbler behind the blind sounded as if it got closer. The gobbles got louder, and the hunters perked up. The gobbles came from the left side, where Davenport sat outside of the blind. Silence ensued and then a blast from a shotgun rang out.
Out of sight from Meador and Doyle’s blind, Davenport shot the gobbler after it turned back to go in the opposite direction . Davenport said he felt sorry for shooting the 20-pound turkey when they had tried so hard to get it in front of Doyle.
“There’s no guarantee in this game,” Doyle said.
Close to the noon deadline to cease hunting, the three men headed for one final push to find another gobbler. Luck was not on their side, and they eventually headed to the Moose Lodge to fill their stomachs and chat with the other hunters about their journey.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you, as an individual, are accepted in this group of people no matter what, disability not withstanding,” Doyle said.