On a bone-dry mountainside studded with pines and scrub in northern Mexico's Sierra Madres in late April, John Zuelke lived the dream of many avid wild turkey hunters.
He took a Gould's turkey, a fine gobbler of 21 pounds with a 10 3/8-inch beard and nearly inch-long fighting spurs, to complete what is known as a royal slam. The royal is a step beyond the Holy Grail of turkey hunting, a "grand slam" four-bagger of the four other major wild turkey species in North America.
"It all started in March of 2007," said Zuelke in starting a narrative about the recent successful quest for a Gould's in northern Mexico. A Toledo native now living at Devils Lake, Mich., he had killed a Rio Grande wild turkey in Texas to round out a grand slam, which also includes eastern, Osceola (Florida), and Merriam's (mountain/western) birds.
"I started thinking, wow, if I got a Gould's turkey that would make a royal slam," Zuelke said. But, "just about the time [in 2007] that I started to look for an outfitter, I had some medical issues come up and had to put the trip on hold."
Finally in January he was given a medical green light and contacted guide Wade Johnson in Chihuahua, Mexico. So Zuelke and a hunting buddy, John Lewandowski, flew to El Paso on April 17 and met Johnson.
But rather than cross the border at Juarez, heeding an American tourist advisory there, they drove 75 miles into New Mexico and crossed at Palomas, Mexico. Incidentally, the hunters left their shotguns at home because of the red tape in taking a firearm into Mexico, using the outfitter's in-country guns.
Then came a 175-mile drive through desert and past small towns and abandoned adobe huts to a ranch near Casa Grandes, a city of about 10,000. On the way up to the mountainside ranch, which lies at elevation 6,100 feet, they passed miles of peach orchards. "I was told they were the best peaches in the world," Zuelke said, "but I can't really believe they're any better than our own Catawba peaches."
They began hunting just hours after arrival. Lewandowski was the first to connect, taking a fine gobbler that was a near twin to the one Zuelke eventually bagged, on the very first evening. Zuelke never saw a bird, which goes to show that species-type aside, all wild turkeys are an unpredictable challenge.
Zuelke's luck and hunt continued in a sightseeing vein next morning, then seven birds came in to his makeshift blind near a creek. The lead bird had about a seven-inch beard and Zuelke let it saunter right past, never touching the trigger.
"We watched them feed until they were out of sight. Wade wanted to know why I didn't shoot, and I told him I didn't come this far to shoot that size turkey. I wanted a bigger one."
He got his wish that afternoon at a small waterhole at 7,200 feet elevation, hunting again from a makeshift blind. The royal slam was his. The bird came in to calling but was shielded by two boulders. "I waited about five minutes and he came out of the boulders, strutting. I gave him a "putt" [with a diaphragm call] and his neck came out like a telescope. That was his last move."
The hunter adds, "it was a tough hunt. I thought my legs were in good shape but my tongue was hanging down on my boots."
When Zuelke says his quest for a royal slam got under way just last year with his completion of the grand slam, he tells only part of his story.
He at one point actually had given up turkey hunting in frustration without having killed a single gobbler.
"I hunted turkeys in Ohio when there weren't any turkeys." At least not very many, anyway. That was back in 1966, when the first limited spring season opened.
Zuelke stayed at it for about 10 years and finally threw in the towel, er, box call.
"I never got a bird. I made every mistake in the book." Then a hunting buddy, retired Toledo dentist Ray Otto, asked Zuelke to hunt birds in Nebraska with him. They were hybrid Rio Grande-Merriam's turkeys and Zuelke started connecting.
He killed his first eastern bird in Ohio eight years ago.
In 2004 he bagged an Osceola in Polk County, Fla., and followed that up with a Merriam's in South Dakota in 2005.
He kills an eastern gobbler just about every year, but considered a 2007 Michigan bird as his entry in the grand slam.
"All you need," he says, modestly oversimplifying, "is the right places."
For all that, Zuelke enjoys mentoring younger hunters about wild turkeys as much as anything. The last two seasons he has called in a gobbler for a 17-year-old neighbor, Jim Davis.
"I have just as much fun calling in birds for other people as I do for myself. When you do that you can enjoy more of the big picture without having to pay attention only to the incoming bird."
All that and the man will only be 70 in July.