A Truly Higher Calling

In January 2019, I had an incredible experience while praying.

The Lord impressed two words upon me-“Higher Calling”.

I could feel the weight and depth of it in my bones as I knew a significant shift was coming to my life. It was one of those few times where I knew the Lord had a message for me to unravel.

Some say He no longer communicates with people but Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice”. (John 10:27)

And in this case, the significance of sheep cannot be overstated.

That prayer time began a journey of soul-searching and a path back toward the very beginnings of my career as a wildlife journalist and even younger.

For starters I knew the Lord wanted me to dedicate more time to Him, studying His word and praying. That was first.

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Chester Moore loves the mountains and forests of America and feels most at home there.

But there was more.

I love pretty much all aspects of fishing, hunting, and wildlife but if someone had given me a chance to do anything I wanted at 19 years of age when this journey began I would have pursued the wildlife of the mountains and forests.

I’ve always written about it but when paying opportunities came in other areas of the outdoors industry, I went where chances to make a living came.

Very much of that for me was in the Gulf coast fishing boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. I have loved coastal fishing my whole life so it was natural for me.

But my deepest love has always been mountain and forest wildlife.

So, last year I decided to put all career time outside of what I do at Texas Fish & Game toward writing about and advancing the cause of the conservation of mountain and forest wildlife. That is why this blog exists and the Higher Calling podcast and it has expanded into articles in numerous national and regional publications.

By discerning the two words “Higher Calling”, a new purpose was birthed into my writing and broadcasting and an epic year ensued.

I went from having never photographed bighorn sheep to photographing them in four different states. I went having only hunted and photographed Rio Grande turkeys to photographing the Grand Slam of the four major subspecies all in 2019.

And I managed to bag a big eastern gobbler in New York in the process.

In the fall of last year, we started a new outreach of our ministry called Higher Calling Wild Wishes Expeditions which has the goal of taking kids in our Wild Wishes program into mountain regions to train them to be wildlife conservationists. Wild Wishes grants wildlife encounters to children with a critical illness or loss of a parent or sibling.

Plans were on tap for Central Texas, Colorado, and Montana.

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Then COVID-19 came.

The Colorado trip has been at the very least postponed.

Montana is still up in the air and we will probably pull off the Texas trip. But it has been disheartening as we had some special teens lined up for some incredible opportunities that are shaky at best now.

People can say what they want about the coronavirus but at the time of this writing there were more than 60,000 people dead from it in the United States alone and economic depression looms like vultures circling a carcass.

It’s pretty ugly out there.

But I remain hopeful.

I am a follower of Jesus Christ. That means I believe in His virgin birth, death, burial, and resurrection.

And although I fail more often than I would like to admit, I try to follow his teachings and example. It’s why Lisa and I work so hard to help children going through illness and trauma.

And since I believe in a supernatural God, I believe supernatural things can happen. I believe in healings. I believe in deliverance and I believe in hope that we can have great lives despite the chaos.

I was a little boy from a lower-middle-income home who grew up in the oil industry bust of the late 70s/early 80s. We could barely afford to hunt in East Texas near our home much less pursue the great wildlife of the mountains.

My Dad and I would cut our favorite photos out of old Sports Afield, Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines and paste them in scrapbooks. We would dream of hunting around the country together and in our 700 square foot home in Orange, TX we were the best hunting team in the world.

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The author with one of his treasured scrapbooks. Note the three wild sheep on one page.

Dad died of natural causes on a hunting trip with me in South Texas in 2014 at age 71. He just shot the second biggest buck of life, topped only by the one he shot on the same ranch the year before. A connection I made in the industry became a friend and let me and Dad live out our deer hunting dreams on his ranch.

I am eternally grateful for that.

I hated to lose Dad but there is no better way or place he could have made his trip to Heaven.

I almost quit hunting after that.

For a couple of years there it just wasn’t the same. Dad was my hunting partner and it felt so strange to be in the field without him. I would always support hunting but two years ago, I had plans no one knew about to go bury Dad’s deer rifle on the ranch he died on and walk away from hunting.

It was just too hard emotionally.

But my friend Josh Slone who came into my life through our Wild Wishes program had been inspiring me to keep at it. Every time we got around each other the conversation was hunting and it often ended up being about our mutual dream of sheep hunting.

You see right after I got the words “Higher Calling”, I found those old scrapbooks in one of my mom’s storage bins.

Opening them up again was like opening up my childhood and being back in Dad’s lap.

And as I looked at the pages I was blown away that the majority of photos were of wild sheep and wild turkeys in that order. And those were the first two things I felt I needed to pursue on the career and conservation side of a higher calling.

The Lord had taken me back to the beginning of my life and a deep, profound love of wild sheep and wild turkeys that was rekindled like a wildfire.

In the ancient Book of Pslams, the Psalmist writes “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

I look back at 2019 and had more desires of my heart fulfilled than I have in 10 years before that from wildlife and career perspective.

And although 2020 has been scary for all of us, I have been able to photograph desert bighorns in Nevada and capture a very rare photo of an eastern turkey in East Texas as part of the Turkey Revolution project.

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This desert bighorn ram thrilled the author when it walked down the mountain to within 40 yards of him after He climbed up to get a good photo when it was  1/4 mile away.

I had a great hunting season and feel as alive in the woods bow hunting and turkey hunting as I did as a young man.

I am no one special.

But I get to do special things because I put my relationship with Christ first and work extremely hard on the vision of wildlife conservation and helping hurting children receive peace through wildlife encounters.

That is the true higher calling.

Without those two words, I felt in my spirit because I took time to pray, my life would look very different this year.

I am extremely concerned about the status of the outdoors industry that I have made a living in for 28 years. Like most Americans, I don’t know what is next. In this process, I have fears that need to be conquered as a man, provider, and conservationist.

But I am placing my trust in God and realizing I have a cause that is greater than the desire for even commerce.

I would continue using my God-given talent of communication on wildlife’s behalf even if there was no paycheck. I’m going to do everything I can, of course, to make sure the paychecks keep coming but that’s how much I believe in what I do.

This blog doesn’t pay. The podcast doesn’t either. These are things I do because I followed the Lord’s direction on “Higher Calling” and to keep the cause of conservation of mountain and forest wildlife front and center.

Lisa and I have never received a dime for our work with children. All of the money in our nonprofit goes to the cause and we are believing donors will continue to support what we do.

I can’t help but think about Jesus’ quote that His sheep hear his voice.

As His follower, I am one of those sheep and it blows my mind that because of hearing “Higher Calling” and doing something about it, He has led me to the wild sheep He created in the beginning and to childhood dreams never realized.

I thought seriously about this as I photographed a gorgeous desert bighorn in Nevada that actually walked down toward me after I climbed a treacherous mountainside. The beautiful ram essentially posed in perfect sunlight!

In this case, which sheep heard his voice?

Was it me who followed the call?

Or was it the ram?

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Chester and Lisa Moore in Colorado scouting for a location for Higher Calling Wild Wishes Expeditions in Colorado in 2019.

Perhaps the Lord brought it down to let me know He was there with me when Dad and I were cutting out pictures of rams and putting them in a scrapbook when I was six.

And He was there with me 40 years later on the mountain.

I can’t describe what that feels like.

Sometimes it’s hard to feel truly loved in this crazy, often dark world but as I knew the Lord brought me and that ram together. the Creator’s love was tangible.

I praise Him for the opportunity and for the higher calling.

His love for all of us is astounding. We just have to pray and listen.

Remember, His sheep hear His voice.

And I am living proof He still speaks to His flock.

Chester Moore

Hen Turkey Defends Nest Against Snake (Video)

The beauty of everyone having a high definition video camera in the form of their phone is we get to see wildlife interactions rarely viewed in past times.

Jackson Wheat was walking through the woods near Ardmore, OK. when he came across this Rio Grande turkey hen defending her nest against a snake.

Snakes, especially rat snakes, are one of the greatest nest predators of wild turkeys and in this clip we see momma turkey refusing to let her clutch become a statistic.

This is a great tribute to the tenacity of turkeys and the impact outdoor lovers can have by using readily-available technology to share what they see in the wild.

Chester Moore

Of Mice And Men (And Turkeys)

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

I’m sure when poet Robert Burns inked those words in his seminal “To A Mouse”, wild turkeys were the furthest thing from his mind.

But oh how this poetic truism has rang true in all things turkey for me lately.

Last year I founded Turkey Revolution, a project to raise awareness of wild turkey conservation.

It began with a quest to photograph the Grand Slam of wild turkeys (Rio Grande, Eastern, Osceola, Merriam’s)-all within 2019.  That concluded at 9,000 in elevation in Colorado last June by photographing a gorgeous and ultra-rare bearded cinnamon phase Merriam’s hen with poults.

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The author photographed this bearded Merriam’s hen with her poults at 9,000 feet in elevation in Colorado. This bird is the super rare “cinnamon phase”. (Photo by Chester Moore)

This year’s goal was to photograph the elusive Gould’s turkey that inhabits the “Sky Island” areas of Arizona and New Mexico.

I had the location.

I had the contacts.

I had a time picked out to travel during the peak breeding season.

Enter COVID-19.

Not only was air travel not an option but the federal lands the limited Gould’s population dwells in were off-limits as well, so I decided in March to switch 2020 and 2021’s objectives. The Gould’s search would begin next year and the search eastern turkeys in the Pineywoods of East Texas where I live would begin.

A tract of private land 75 minutes from my home that had turkes on it opened up and it happens to be in Newton County, one of 12 counties open to hunting eastern turkeys in the Pineywoods region.

Once a mecca for these birds, poaching and habitat degradation took the numbers down to nothing.

Gradually intensive stocking and habitat work from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) brought the region’s numbers up to around 10,000.

Me and my friend Josh Slone scouted his friend’s property heavily the day before the season opener and figured we knew where the birds were roosting.

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Josh scouting an opening in a clear cut. (Photo by Chester Moore)

It was in a big creek bottom on the edge of a clear cut.

Our plan was to set up on the outside of the roosting locations and get the birds as they came into the field to feed. Tracks, scat, and scratching showed they were using the exact spot where we set up the day before.

So, now we go back to that whole best-laid plans of mice and men thing.

We got to the location well before daylight, set up the decoys, and after things settled a few minutes let out a call.

A gobbler called back immediately.

It sounded like he was on top of us.

He gobbled again and I was thinking the bird might already be on the ground right out in the weeds just past our decoys.

“Holy smokes! He’s right there in that big pine tree!,” Josh said.

On the outer edge of the creek bottom was a small clump of trees and sitting on a limb about 60 feet up was a gobbler.

He was way too close for comfort!

The big gobbler let out a flurry of gobbles that was unlike anything I’ve heard and was running up and down the big limb strutting.

I don’t like to get this close to roosting birds, especially in an extremely open clear cut like we were in.

I thought there was no way this bird was going to come to us. The sky was so clear we didn’t even need a light to walk in so I knew he saw us setting up.

Dangit.

Josh kept toying with him and he seemed interested until a hen busted out into the field and started calling. He fixed his attention on her and as she made her way down the field away from us, he flew down, walked far out of range along the woodline, and followed the girl.

Who could blame him, right?

Just as I was about to get discouraged, I saw a beard hanging off a big pine tree about 60 feet up and 30 feet away from where the other gobbler flew down from.

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This Newton County gobbler stayed in the roost for two and half hours after daylight. He walked to the sunlit side of the tree, stood there a minute, and then flew down toward the direction of where a hen had been calling. (Photo by Chester Moore)

A few minutes later I saw tail feathers as the bird moved.

It was a huge gobbler!

And it never made a sound.

Not at daylight. Not for the next hour.

Not for the next two hours. It just sat in that tree and barely moved.

I have seen turkeys in roosts a little after daylight but nothing like this.

At around 8:30 it walked from the backside of the tree to a limb on the front side in perfect sunlight.

I grabbed my camera with the 400 mm lens knowing the Lord had granted me an opportunity and snapped away.

As the massive gobbler stood there with beard dangling, I was in awe.

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When gobblers strut their feathers make lines in the dirt. There was some serious action at this spot the day before we hunted. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

This was the county I have hunted in my whole life.

It was the county my father first let me accompany him to a deer blind in the late 70s when there were few deer and no turkeys.

And here I was with my true hunting partner Josh sharing the moment.

When my father died of natural causes on a deer hunting trip with me in 2014, I was broken. I didn’t know if I would hunt again, especially hunt deer.

Dad was my hunting partner and whitetail were his thing.

But I couldn’t help talk hunting being around Josh. He practically forced me to get on his deer lease and here we were together seeing a turkey that never made a peep for 2.5 hours after daylight in a county that means something to both of us.

It was a powerful moment.

When I got home, I reached out to TPWD Wild Turkey Program Leader Jason Hardin about the birds in Newton County.

The bird I photographed did not have a leg band so it was at least a second-generation wild bird so I thought.

“You will not likely see any banded wild turkeys in Newton County. The area has not received a stocking in 20 years. My records show four release sites scattered north to south across Newton County,” Hardin said.

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Newton County is on the left. Jasper County is on the right. (Graphic Courtesy TPWD)

“Restocking efforts began slowly in the late 1970s and concluded in 2000. There may have been some earlier restocking efforts, but those would have consisted of Rio Grande wild turkeys and pen-reared turkeys (illegal to release today in Texas for the purpose of establishing a wild turkey population).”

Historical Newton County Release Sites

  • Donahue Creek in central Newton County near Louisiana border: 1977 (2 males), 1978 (4 hens), 2000 (15 hens and 4 males)
  • Sheppard Road in southern Newton County near Louisiana border: 2000 (5 males and 15 hens)
  • Scrappin Valley in northern Newton County: 1981 (8 females, 2 males), 1982 (4 males), 1996 (5 males)
  • Slaydons Creek in southern Newton County near Louisiana border: No data in my records other than the location suggesting a restocking effort in the late 70s or early 80s.

I was blown away to see Sheppard Road on the list because my Aunt Ann lived at the end of it and I took my first animal-ever there-a swamp rabbit. I used to hunt squirrels on the very public hunting unit that used to exist where the birds had been released in 2000.

Listen to The Higher Calling podcast as Chester Moore interviews TPWD’s Jason Hardin on a can’t miss episode.

“Newton County birds are part of a larger population that expands west out of Louisiana. Once you get to Sabine County, Toledo Bend reservoir serves as a fragmenting feature on the landscape,” Hardin said.

“Turkey numbers begin to decline rapidly as you move north to Shelby County due to the connectivity with the larger metapopulation in Louisiana.”

Hardin said Louisiana wild turkey genetics flow into Newton County.

“They make their way here naturally through regular population expansion. The lake reduces that potential for ingress to those areas north of the Toledo Bend lake dam,” he said.

This Turkey Revolution journey has been full of surprises.

Whether it was the super rare color phase Colorado bird hen noted above, learning that York’s turkey population has declined 40 percent in the last decade after hunting there in 2019 or that reservoirs can serve as a barrier for natural turkey expansion, surprises are the norm.

Josh and I are returning to the property in hopes of bagging a gobbler this time. We have a new game plan and are hoping for better turkey cooperation.

I’ll never forget watching that big Newton County gobbler walk out on that limb and pose for us.

And I’ll never forget watching a TPWD and NWTF eastern turkey release in Titus County in the Pineywoods just a month before COVID-19 became an issue.

This year has been special in the quest to learn about the region’s eastern turkeys and share it with hunters and other wildlife lovers.

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Emily Odom and Dustin Wolfe from Chester snd Lisa Moore’s Wild WIshes program release turkeys with TPWD and NWTF in Titus County. (Photo by Chester Moore)

I’ll always remember the disruption caused by the pandemic as giving me a greater chance to learn about the turkeys in my back yard.

Sometimes plans do go awry, but that doesn’t mean something just as good can’t come along.

Chester Moore