Spring turkey season rejuvenates 77-year-old hunter

(Brent Frazee/Kansas City Star/MCT)
Steve Stokes (left) a turkey-hunting guide, carries a bird out of the woods...
Story by Brent Frazee
The Kansas City Star
April 28, 2011
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WARSAW, Mo. — Ken Just knows where to go when he is in search of his version of the fountain of youth.

Each spring, Just, 77, makes the long trip from his home in northern Minnesota to the woods near Truman Lake in west-central Missouri.

There, he meets up with guide Steve Stokes, and the thrill of Missouri turkey hunting helps him rediscover his youth.

“When I pick him up every year, he tells me about his health problems,” Stokes said. “One year it was eye surgery. This year, he told me he had a new knee and he wasn’t getting around too good.

“But I get him out in the woods, and there’s no problem. He’s always excited and ready to go.”

Just laughed and acknowledged the healing powers of turkey hunting.

“This turkey hunting gets in your blood,” he said. “Coming out of a long winter, you always have some aches and pains. And this year, I had knee replacement surgery, and I’m still recovering from that.

“But I get down here, and I forget about all of that. This turkey hunting keeps me going.”

A hunt last week — opening day of the Missouri turkey season — only heightened Just’s passion.

As he and Stokes walked down an old logging road on a ridge, they heard the booming gobbles of a tom still on the roost.

They settled into a blind, and prepared for the show.

The tom kept gobbling loudly until it flew down from the roost tree. That’s when Stokes went to work.

“I have to get his interest before the hen flies down,” he said. “Once she’s on the ground, it’s over.

“He’ll go off with her.”

Stokes proceeded to use a series of yelps and cuts to imitate a lovesick hen. And the gobbler immediately responded.

He puffed up, fanned out and began coming in. The bird headed for the decoy in full strut, zig-zagging toward the hunters.

When the turkey was about 25 yards out, Just pulled the trigger. Moments later, he was celebrating another memorable moment in the Missouri turkey woods.

“I’ve hunted with Steve for 11 years now, and I’ve taken birds in eight of those years,” he said as tagged his turkey. “But this is the best one yet.

“This was a classic turkey hunt. That bird really put on a show.”

Stokes glanced at his watch and smiled.

“Seven minutes,” he said. “That’s how long the season has been open and you already have a bird.

“That’s not a bad deal.”

Stokes later weighed the bird at just over 20 pounds. Then he slung it over his shoulder and carried it out of the woods for Just.

“This Warsaw area has some of the best turkey hunting in the nation,” Stokes said. “There are a lot of birds down here and a lot of good habitat for them.

“We have two types of birds — the tough timber gobblers and the more open-country birds. They can be tough to hunt. You have to do everything just right to take one of them.

“But we’ve shot a lot of birds here over the years.”

Stokes, 53, has spent most of his life hunting those wild gobblers. He still remembers his first hunt.

“I was 15, and I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said with a laugh. “I was hunting in the bottoms, and I just started calling.

“Pretty soon, there’s this big gobbler walking toward me, looking like he wanted to tear up the woods.

“I shot that bird, and I was hooked for life.”

Stokes has logged literally hundreds of days in the turkey woods since that day. He has guided for 35 years, and he has been on the pro staff of such nationally known companies as Quaker Boy Calls, Remington and Realtree.

Hunting in the Warsaw area, where he was brought up, and also traveling to other states, he and the hunters he has guided have taken several hundred turkeys.

But he still gets excited when a new season rolls around.

“There’s no question that our turkey numbers are down,” he said. “We’ve had wet weather during nesting for a couple years, and I think that’s hurt.

“Plus, there just aren’t as many places to hunt. I used to have 4,000 acres I could hunt. Now it’s more like 400. Farms are sold off, they’re divided up and you lose places to hunt.

“But I can’t complain. I still have lots of places to hunt. And even in a down year, there are still lots of turkeys out there.”

Stokes and Just crossed paths 11 years ago when Just met landowners in the Warsaw area on a vacation and they referred him to Stokes.

Just made the 720-mile trip to Missouri to hunt with Stokes for the first time, and the two hit it off.

Now, Just said, “This is a spring tradition for me. Every April, I know I’m going to be down here in Missouri, hunting with Steve.”

(c) 2011, The Kansas City Star.

Visit The Star Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.kansascity.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Brent Frazee

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