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Turkey hunt about more than just shooting turkeys [The Wichita Eagle :: BC-OTD-TURKEY-YOUNGHUNTERS:WI]

BUTLER COUNTY, Kan. - The sounds of a 12-year-old's laughter and shouts rolled through a recent Friday morning's mist, as Sydney Wooldridge celebrated. She'd just filled both of her Kansas spring turkey tags. One was a rare bird that carried two beards.

The seventh-grader minced few words teasing her dad, Brian, that she'd accomplished something, with the double-bearded bird, he'd never done in his many years of hunting. The elder Wooldridge bantered a bit with his daughter, but largely just smiled and watched the celebration. Inwardly, he was probably happier than the child.

"The turkeys are great, but she got a lot more than just two nice birds from this trip," he said later. "We both did. A lot's happened here."

Sydney learned the power of determination at the governor's turkey hunt in El Dorado. She made new friends and experienced one of the best hunting environments in the nation.

"I'm just dumb-founded by the whole experience, all they do for us," Brian Wooldridge said. "It's seriously overwhelming, but in a good way."

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Since 2000, the hunt has teamed with the National Wild Turkey Federation to host a national youth essay contest winner. Entrants must be members in the conservation group's youth program and write about what hunting means to them, and what they will do to help ensure its future.

Mandy Harling, the federation's Hunting Heritage Program director, said it's the only national essay contest they sponsor. She praised all that's been accomplished through 31 years at the El Dorado event, the oldest and most success event of its kind in America.

Janet Post, the hunt's director, said the contest gives them a good link with the national conservation group and brings some "great young people to see Kansas."

Harling and Post said it's also important to reward not only kids who love the outdoors, and win the contests, but also the families that have helped them succeed.

National essay winners have come from at least 10 states. Harling said the contest sometimes draws 50 entries. The two supporting groups team up to host the annual winner at the federation's national convention in February. The trip and hunt in Kansas is sponsored, too.

For all 17 years Mark Elliott, of Naples, Fla., has paid airfare and lodging for the contest winner and at least one parent.

"Once you've been to one of these hunts, you're searching for ways to give back to this wonderful event," Elliott said. "You look at the smiles on (the family's) faces and you know you've done something right."

Long before dawn, Sydney and her dad joined guide Melinda Duff on a 430-acre property owned by Ramon and Betty Criss. A hunt supporter since the event began, Ramon Criss now dedicates the specially-managed property to the national essay winner and their guide. He also purchased the girl a limited edition custom turkey call at a Thursday auction.

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That Thursday's first light found the Woolridges watching a field with up to 10 mature tom turkeys strutting at a time as they often gobbled at Duff's calls. Sydney missed a shot at a tom.

"That was a lot more turkeys than I've seen the past three years (hunting in Arizona)," she said, adding, "They're such beautiful birds, and it's great just to get to watch them."

After lunch they headed to a pasture a half-mile away, where turkeys often gathered to feed and loaf. They had to let a flock of turkeys wander off before they could enter the blind. Soon another flock of hens, jakes and two large gobblers were all within 25 yards. Sydney shot and missed. A little later she called in three jakes, her first lured with a call, but missed again.

Some young hunters would quit after three misses. Others would just accept it and keep on missing. Sydney said she was far more determined than dejected. Duff stopped the day's hunt early. The group went for ice cream, and then some target practice.

Soft-spoken, but a hard-core turkey hunter, Duff is a certified shotgun shooting instructor. Brian Wooldridge wisely stood back, knowing children often learn better from others than their parents. After a few shots, Duff had improved the girl's accuracy and confidence.

Both shined in the grayness of Friday's early morning.

Duff and the Wooldridges walked in steady rain to a blind closer to where the 10 toms strutted on Thursday. Duff worked her calls when turkeys began landing in the field, and coaxed the double-bearded bird to within about 20 yards. Sydney made the shot like a pro. Twenty minutes later, she and Duff called in another bird to within five yards of the blind before it was seen.

The girl missed the bird twice, and was hanging half out of the blind, her body twisted, when the last shell in her gun killed the tom at 25 yards. The dancing, prancing, teasing and smiling began before Sydney even got a close-up look at the toms that both had beards of 10 inches or better.

"I loved it all, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life," she said. "I'd definitely rate turkey hunting as my favorite kind of hunting."

Brian Wooldridge thinks the hunt is something he and his daughter would share and relive the rest of their lives. He said Duff helping her work through the accuracy problem re-enforced the importance of never giving up.

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(c)2017 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

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