BRANSON, Mo. -- Curtis Bradley spends his life preaching, mostly in his Baptist church.
But on many days of the three-week Missouri spring turkey hunting season, he takes his orations outdoors.
At the moment, he's focused on a message of inspiration.
"Life is full of obstacles," says the self-described hillbilly preacher from Oak Grove, Ark. "Now, the question is, how do you deal with 'em?"
Bradley then pauses on the rocky creek bottom and points his outstretched hand up, way up, to a green Ozark Mountain ridge top.
And he laughs.
He's deftly switched from theory to reality. He's also just seen the expressions on the faces of two boys from flatter country -- Perry Peterson of Manchester, Iowa, and me.
"Those birds like to work a pasture up there," says Bradley. "It's only a couple miles."
His calculation doesn't include the vertical distance.
But the prospect of strutting tom turkeys is sufficient enticement. Peterson and I fall into line behind Bradley as we huff and hike up a rock-strewn ravine and old hill road.
We've met in the Ozarks to pursue spring gobblers. It's a brotherhood of hunters, you might say, at a meeting of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoors Writers in Branson.
Branson is flush with musical and theatrical acts. But not all of them are indoors.
For Peterson and me, it represents a pilgrimage to famed turkey hunting country.
In the unqualified wildlife management success story that is the recovery of the North American wild turkey, Missouri is often called ground zero.
The Ozarks sustained a population of wild turkeys when most other areas of the continent had been depleted.
Missouri has held a turkey hunting season since 1960. The Show Me State had such a strong population of turkeys that, in a storied trap and transfer program in the 1970s, it supplied Wisconsin with the birds that jump-started our state's reintroduction.
Missouri is perennially among the top states in turkey harvest, topping 50,000 in many years. But recently the turkey population has suffered from poor recruitment, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, and harvests have fallen.
In 2009, spring turkey hunters registered 44,712 birds in Missouri.
As any turkey hunter knows, it only takes one.
I was curious to compare hunting in Missouri, where turkeys have been hunted much longer, to the Wisconsin experience.
Over two mornings of hunting on private property, I saw the gamut: Toms turning away from calling, hens leading toms away from my position and toms hanging up out of gun range.
Nothing unusual there. In fact, the birds seemed as responsive to calling as do turkeys in southwestern Wisconsin, where I do most of my hunting.
The biggest differences were the individual properties, the local population of turkeys and the amount of hunting pressure.
On Day 1, I hunted a property with few birds and lots of hunting pressure. On Day 2, Bradley led Peterson and me to his farm just north of the Arkansas line.
The farm sits in aptly named Stone County. The hills here are covered with oak, but every wash is filled with limestone rocks.
The rugged nature of the area has left many of the hillsides undeveloped. With verdant growth of oak, hickory and other mast trees, wildlife flourishes.
Now, in the first week of May, the foliage is summer lush. Oak trees are fully leafed out, the hay is knee high in many pastures.
The three of us set up at O dark thirty in a cedar and walnut tangle at the edge of an alfalfa field. A clear sky reveals another local amenity -- no shortage of stars.
At dawn, four gobblers sound off, the closest about 200 yards from our location.
A coyote trots in to investigate our turkey calls about 6:15 a.m. but abruptly turns tail when it ascertains our species.
Unfortunately, the turkeys also depart for other fields after fly down. We were left with a decision.
There was only one choice, really -- scale the 500-foot mountain to the southeast of Bradley's farm.
The obstacle proved surmountable, despite lots of "rock rolling" and at least one unchoreographed seat plant.
About 7 a.m. we crest the back ridge and look out over a horse pasture. A strutting tom works the opposite side.
We duck down a side ravine and traverse a wooded point off the strutter's field.
As we hunker in wild rose bushes and walnut saplings, Peterson begins to call.
A long beard and five jakes show up immediately, red heads glowing in the morning sun, and eye our location from a distance of 80 yards. The strutter is still 200 yards away and gobbles periodically.
After a few more calling sequences from Peterson, who works as a regional field manager for Mossy Oak, the long beard slips into the wooded point.
We wait expectantly for the bird, eyes focused in the dense, shaded undergrowth.
Long minutes pass when Peterson checks our backside. A tandem of long beards heard our calls and slip in silently over a grassy rise.
"Don't move," says Peterson. "Don't even talk."
The turkeys spot us and start the quick step and putt that normally precedes flight.
Peterson has the only shot, and an off-hand, wrong-shoulder one at that. He pivots and takes the second bird in line as the first flaps and flies.
The turkey has an 11 1/2 -inch beard, 1 1/8 -inch spurs and weighs 18 pounds. "They are like me, skinny," says Bradley. "We use all our energy getting up and down these hollers."
We hunt the rest of the morning but aren't able to draw another gobbler in range.
The hike back takes us down, up and over several high hills. Somehow, though, the added cargo of an Ozark gobbler makes the work easier.