I've never met Ben Gibbs. But I know his young Walker hound well enough to know he's addicted to the hunt.
The tricolored pooch first crossed my path during mid-April of last year, deep in the heart of the Angelina National Forest in Jasper County. It was day two of the East Texas spring gobbler season, and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department eastern wild turkey program leader John Burk and I had just completed a 3-mile march in the darkness with high hopes of pulling off one of spring turkey hunting's ultimate challenges-taking a love-sick longbeard off public land.
We arrived at our initial listening point-a forest road intersection-about 30 minutes ahead of dawn's magical light and quietly mulled over the incredible hand we'd been dealt. Hunting conditions couldn't have been better.
The woods were still and quiet. The skies were clear. Hardwood drains were on either side of us. And turkey sign was everywhere.
Perhaps that's why our hearts sank like the Titanic when leaves suddenly began to rustle along the edge of the Shearwood creekbottom to our rear.
"Listen. ... What is that?" Burk whispered.
"Probably an armadillo or something," I responded.
Out from the darkness stepped this flop-eared coon dog. He appeared to be relatively young-3, maybe 4 years old at the most-and was marked with a spattering of black, brown and white. But rest assured, neither of us was complimenting the guy on his attractive coat.
"Oh no, it's a dog-get outta here!" Burk grumbled under his breath.
Sensing he wasn't welcome, the hound circled wide, took to the limestone trail and disappeared around a sharp bend.
"Think he's gone?" whispered Burk. "Let's hope so," I said.
With flydown time just minutes away, Burk let loose with the locator call of a great barred owl and the creekbottom beneath us erupted with the resonant rumbling noise a turkey hunter loves to hear at first light.
The bird couldn't have been more than 150 yards off, but the flapping noises of massive wings followed up by a series of faint putts told us he wasn't alone.
"He's got hens with him, but we might be able to call him off if we play our cards right," said Burk. "Let's head up the road a ways so we can swing around behind him and get in a little thicker cover. It's way too open to call from here."
Just as we were about to enter the woods, I got this weird feeling I was being watched. One glance over my shoulder confirmed the suspicion. Nose to the ground, the young hound was back on our heels and closing in quick.
"John, there's that damn dog again," I whispered. "What are we gonna do?"
Our imaginations rambled.
We'd already chunked rocks, but he didn't seem to mind.
Neither of us had the heart to blast him, so strangling him definitely was out of the question. Then Burk remembered he was wearing a belt.
"This ought to hold him," Burk said, holding the belt in one hand, his sagging britches in the other. "It's leather. I don't think he'll be able to chew through this."
With one end of the 3/4-inch belt tied to the dog's collar, which bore the insignia "Ben Gibbs, Jasper, TX", I began securing the opposite end to a 3-inch pine sapling. One firm tug on the square knot and it became obvious that the belt wasn't made of leather after all. It was some sort of cheap plastic.
Worse yet, it was old.
Snap! Burk's 33-inch belt was now all of 18 inches long, and attached to it was a bona fide nightmare. Gobblers were sounding off in all directions and I was standing there with a coon dog in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Talk about a major handicap.
"Well, what do you think we ought to do now?" I asked Burk.
"We could pick him up and slide his collar down over the top of one of these saplings." he responded.
"Nah. As much as I'd like to, that would probably choke him to death," I said. "You go ahead and set up on that bird and I'll hold the dog. I'll take the next one."
At that, Burk slipped into the creekbottom, while the hound and I sat down at the base of a big pine bordering the forest road. With his head down and tongue dangling, it was apparent my new friend meant no harm. He laid his chin across my thigh and dozed.
Thirty minutes passed and still no gunshot. The gobbler hadn't said much, either.
Had my partner been pegged? Not likely. A longbeard with a harem of receptive hens can be a very tough nut to crack.
In the meantime, I wracked my brain as to how we might restrain our furry ball and chain. The truck was a good 30 to 45 minutes away, and prime hunting time was slipping away. Going back for a rope was not an option.
Then it snapped.
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