Category Archives: them crooked gobblers

Backdoor Birds

At an hour that was too early, even for a turkey hunter, I rolled over when the farm’s downstairs smoke detector chirped.  In an old farm house heated with a wood stove, that sort of things gets your attention.  Careful not to wake my peacefully slumbering spouse, I slipped out of bed and glanced at my cell phone, muttering in my head about the apropos fact that my alarm was due to go off in less than ten minutes.

There would be no oversleeping that Saturday morning, and the smoke alarm chirped again as if to confirm my jaded realization.

In the muted glow of my cell phone screen, I doffed my pajamas and donned my camo like a middle-aged ninja before I tip-toed down the stairs and inspected the still-beeping device.  The batteries had seemingly given up the ghost and I was in no mood to attempt a pre-dawn repair.  I texted my brother to wake up and heard him stirring in the room above the kitchen.  I wolfed down a banana and a glass of orange juice, then gathered gun, decoys, and vest before stepping out into the still night.

Because even when using the most liberal application of the word ‘morning’, what I was experiencing at that moment was firmly entrenched in the category of ‘night’.

Eventually my cousin showed up in his truck and we weighed the options.  I had been informed that the turkey haunting my preferred location had been killed earlier in the week, so I opted for a second choice where my father, uncle, and several others had been seeing a pair of longbeards.  My brother hopped in with my cousin and made for their preferred location in the hopes of doubling up on turkeys.  The crunch of the laneway gravel under my tires made way for the smooth hum of pavement, which shortly deferred to crunchy gravel again as I made the short drive to the field.  I snuck up a thin line of trees and cedars before deploying my hen and strutter decoy setup.  I nestled in between a small round rock and the sinewy mass that was the base of an uprooted tree and I looked at my watch. There were six minutes until legal shooting light.  I opened the action to my 870 slowly and when the time came I dropped in a shell before firmly but inaudibly sliding it closed.  Gloved fingers slid two more shells in the underside of the gun and I checked the safety as my habit dictates.

Ten minutes after settling in for a long sit, I heard a gobbler sound off from a tree two fields over to the west of my position.  As if in response across the road and three fields to the east of me I heard another gobbler.  I yelped softly on my box call before turning up the volume and interspersing some cutts and cackles.  Nothing answered and the area fell silent.  For almost two hours I called and waited for a response, and eventually a jake and two hens showed up.  At about the same time I got a text message from my cousin informing me that my brother had killed a beast of a gobbler with two 10 inch beards, a wide tailfan, and daggers for spurs.  Shortly after that I watched the hens and jake run off as my compatriots pulled up to the field I was in.

A single text message from my cousin Dane said “Come out”.  So I did.

Dane and my brother were parked at the gate next to my vehicle and both were all smiles.  My brother’s bird was a real trophy tom and in the hand it was sure to exceed 20 pounds.  Officially it was 21.2lbs, with 20 inches of beards and sharp, curved spurs of 1-1/4 inches each.  A true brute of a turkey.

My brother with his trophy Bruce Peninsula gobbler.
My brother with his trophy Bruce Peninsula gobbler.

We cleaned my brother’s bird and spent the rest of the day running and gunning without much success, and just after dinner I went on a quick scouting tour.  In the same field I had hunted earlier that morning I found four hens and two longbeards, and all were exceptionally skittish.  When I slowed my vehicle they looked up and began fast-walking away to the west.  Now, if you’ve turkey hunted for very long you know the “fast-walk”.  It is not quite walking but it is not quite as quick as a trot; turkeys do it when they are uneasy and these ones did not like me peering through binoculars at them from the side of the road.  I pulled in behind some greenery before I saw them cross into the next field over and continue walking away towards the sunset in the west.  Having seen nothing else on my drive around, I resolved to be back in the same field the next day even earlier than before with the hopes that when they woke up they would see my decoys first.

Thirty minutes earlier than the day prior, my alarm gently buzzed on the nightstand and I went through the turkey hunter’s morning ritual again.  Curse the early hour, silently dress, eat something marginally healthy (or at least filling), and sneak out of the house without waking anyone.  I was greeted by a clear night, a blazingly full moon, and a cold, stiff wind from the northeast on my face.  Throwing everything on the passenger seat, I once again rolled down to the field.  Being extra-paranoid, I shut my headlights off for the last hundred yards of road and then sat in the car for ten minutes after I had powered down before slowly opening doors and unpacking.  I was sure the whole flock had roosted in the hardwood stand west of the field and I crossed the ditch to the east of there and into a triangle of cedars and swampy ground under the weight of two decoys and my vest.  My gun was in a sock tucked under my right arm (such is the law) and that I managed to quietly cross the foot of still water in the ditch without sustaining a soaker is more attributable to luck than to any particular skill on my part.

In the silver moonlight I put out a strutting tom decoy and a lookout hen from Avian-X before settling against a page wire fence under some low cedar boughs.  I was looking towards the setting moon to the west and I was sure that I would hear turkey talk ringing from that direction at sun-up.  In the pre-dawn darkness I tucked my hands into my pockets and, sheltered from the wind in my copse of cedars, I actually fell into a light sleep for a time.  Rousing myself I found it to be that certain shade of purple-grey that means dawn was rapidly approaching and a glance at my wristwatch confirmed my suspicions.  I once again loaded my long-serving 870, hoping I would get to unload my constant hunting companion the loud way that morning.

My gaze was transfixed on the hardwoods to the west and I eagerly waited for the gobbling to start.  Except it never did.  At 5:30 a.m. or so I heard a hen turkey fire up from the block I was watching, and then another joined before a third distinct voice chimed in.  The hens were a cacophony of cutting, whistling, and raspy-yelping and I tried to outmatch them so that the longbeards would come check out my set up first instead of falling in line with the real thing.  Before long those loudmouth hens all flew down one-by-one, making cackles so loud and clear you would have thought they were taping a ‘how-to-call-like-a-hen-turkey’ instructional video.  They hit the field and milled around but never showed any real interest in my setup or my calling.

Still I had not heard a single gobble from the hardwoods to the west.

I tried a few more strings of calling, but still the gobblers remained tight-lipped, and I was beginning to get that paranoia that sets into turkey hunters when they are pretty sure there is a gobbler in the vicinity, but the cagey bastard won’t reveal his precise whereabouts.  At 6:10 a.m. I picked up my phone and texted my cousin Dane to see if he was having any action, and then it all unraveled in such a casual way I could scarcely believe it.

As I set my phone down after hitting “Send” I glanced nonchalantly over my left shoulder and was temporarily stunned.  Two longbeards were sprinting across the field from a position east of me and both were in half-strut while looking at my decoy setup with malicious intent.  They had never made a peep.  I moved both hands onto the gun and slid the safety off, just as the birds approached into range.  At about forty yards both birds quit their sprinting, and as one of them dropped strut and began to slowly and deliberately take a wide circle around the decoys, the other bird held strut and made a bee-line for the fakes.  It had all happened so quickly that I had not even had a moment to get excited, but now my heart was thumping as I eased the gun to my shoulder in as painfully slow a motion as I could muster.

All the while my only thought was “How in the hell did those birds backdoor this setup and just how did they get back over to where I had first seen them the night before?  Crafty.”

When the closest bird hit about twenty-five steps from the decoy, he must have realized something was very wrong because he also dropped strut, turned away, and craned his head up to full periscope.  He started walking straight away but was still giving the evil-eye over his right shoulder to the fake gobbler when I snapped the gunstock to my cheek, found the crease between metallic black feather and red throat with my front bead, and pulled back on the trigger.

I barely felt the gun kick such was my adrenalin response in that moment, but the Remington roared and I saw his head snap forward, hit the ground and flop limply over his wing. His legs had quit on him by that point and he was burying his head in the dirt as I put the gun to safe and jogged out to him.  Amazingly the other turkey had stayed stock still at the shot and simply watched me walk over and put my bootheel on the Ontario longbeard’s neck before he started putting and sprinting off to where I had mistakenly thought they had been roosted the night before.  It was 6:15 a.m. and not four minutes had passed between seeing the birds and pulling the trigger.

Another gobbler falls to the Remington 870.
Another gobbler falls to the Remington 870.

I snapped some photos and tagged the bird before rounding up all the gear and heading back to the vehicle.  In the early morning sunlight the wind no longer felt as cold, the gear, gun, (and now) gobbler were somehow lighter than before, and I could sense that I was grinning uncontrollably.  After stowing all my gear at the van, I sat on the open hatch and petted the bird’s feathers flat where they had ruffled.

My hands were still shaking.

A good end to a good morning.
A good end to a good morning.

He was a trophy tom as well, and although his inch long spurs lacked the scimitar-curve that my brother’s sported, he had a head the size of a softball, his body was long and heavy coming in at 22.1 pounds and his bushy 10 inch beard confirmed that he was a very mature bird.  Statistics aside, though, he was the culmination of what had been a long, frustrating season of lousy weather, bad shooting on my part, cagey birds, bad luck, more lousy weather, and one badly placed coyote.  There was redemption in that hunt, and all the crippling self-doubt that sometimes creeps in during turkey hunting’s lowest moments was washed away.  No one had guided me to him, no one had done the calling or the scouting for me, and when things got unpredictable, I was still able to seal the deal on my best bird to date.  There’s probably a deeper meaning about personal independence or a spiritual metaphor in what I’ve put myself through in the last five weeks, but there’s not much room for that here right now.  A turkey in the freezer notwithstanding, right now all I have is the memory, and I’m going to spend some “me time” with it thank you very much.

That is, until the next early morning hunt when I try to forge some new ones.

Them Crooked Gobblers, Part Four: Jakes

A misconception about me is that I’m some sort of old-timer, a man who has been chasing gobblers since he was old enough to walk, and one who has matched wits and resourcefulness against countless wary tom turkeys over several decades.

I frequently receive reader emails asking or asserting as much, so now it is confession time.

I’m a kid, relatively.  Not even forty years old yet.  In terms of my turkey hunting pedigree, I’m just safely beyond the realm of novice; not quite a veteran and definitely not a professional.  The modern turkey hunting tradition in my home province of Ontario is not quite thirty years old, and I’ve only been after them for not even ten of those seasons.  Rabbits, deer, grouse, and waterfowl dominated my early hunting experiences, and turkeys have become a recent, if all-consuming, addition.

And now that my credibility is shot to hell, let me tell you a secret.

I’ve still been whipped by birds, probably more often than most and most certainly as a direct result of my clumsy, neophyte bungling.  I’ve jumped into turkey hunting with both feet and I’ve nearly drowned on several occasions.  The birds do that to a man as susceptible to the sickness as I am.

The primary culprit in several of my misadventures are adolescent turkeys.  Jakes.  Jacksons.  Shortbeards.  Whatever you call them, those spur-deficient gobblers drive me nuts.  You’ll see why.

The first bird I ever missed was a jake.  To date it is the only bird I’ve ever missed, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.  I was in my second season in 2008, and I already thought I was a hot-shot.  I’d tag-teamed a hard-gobbling two-year old with my Dad in my first season, and in the summer of 2007 I walked on and finished second at a couple of turkey calling contests.  By 2008, I was then focused on drilling my first solo bird and it was going badly.  My calling was good and I was reaching out to birds, but I was spooking them like mad at the last minute, setting up in bad positions, and getting generally worn out by turkeys on the Bruce Peninsula and in Simcoe County.

I found myself in the former location one sunny May afternoon late in the season, and I was getting desperate.  My uncle had harvested a bird from a spot just outside of Cape Chin, and he had said that a gang of jakes was running around the area.  I just wanted to hang a tag on a bird by then, so my good friend Brian and I made the drive in and hopped over a corral into the property in question.  We sorted out a plan before leaving the truck, and then we snuck in as quiet as ghosts.  I saw a flash of red moving away and was sure we had been busted, but was relieved to see it was just the red face crest of a Sandhill Crane departing from the field edge.  We made our way to a low copse of conifers and sat at the base of a broomed out cedar, facing opposite directions and hoping for a show.

We got one.

Brian scratched out some yelps on his slate, and I cut hard on a box call.  A veritable chorus of choppy gobbles screamed back at us, and they weren’t that far away.  I sawed on the box call again and they hollered back, much closer.  I had no difficulty ascertaining that the birds were running our way, looking for the seductive hens they had heard.  I faced the east and Brian basically to the west, and the birds of course showed up on our south side.  Brian whispered, and I could tell the excitement in his voice.

“Jakes,” he hissed. “Two, no three…wait, four.  Four jakes all in range!”  My heart was hammering in my chest. “Can you turn?” he whispered?

“I’ll try” was all I could whisper back.

And with that I painstakingly inched my butt around the tree, until I had the bead of my 870 in an opening that they would have to cross.  A few minor clucks came from the band of juvenile delinquents, but so far as I could tell the low limbs of the cedar masked most of my awkward fumbling, or maybe those birds were just young, horny, and dumb.

I’ve been there before myself.

For a few seconds, my bead hovered in openness, but eventually the jakes seemed to sense something was amiss.  They starting filing out of there, and one of them was on a beeline for the opening I was covering.  As he entered the opening with his head down to pick at the ground, I yelped softly on my mouth call, and he gave me a full-periscope shot.  A shot which I promptly buggered up by sending a load of #6-sized lead shot over his head.  I said a bad word and for a moment pandemonium reigned as turkeys putted, cackled and ran frantically about.  For my part, I scrambled to my knees and sent another salvo downrange.  It wasn’t even close.

I saved my third shell, while the gang of shortbeards re-consolidated and gobbled ludicrously.  We tried to call them back, but perhaps they weren’t as dumb as I’d thought.  I just sat there, flabbergasted at my poor shooting and thinking of a way to politely kill Brian so that this embarrassment wouldn’t get out.

The problem with jakes is that they are always in groups, it seems.  Or at least in doubles.  There are just that many more eyes and ears to beat…and they are always willing and lusty gobblers, with choppy ‘hee-haw’ gobbles exploding out of them every chance they get.

The hardest gobbling bird I ever encountered was a jake, and he seemed determined to steal all the air in the Simcoe County forest with his constant gargling.  He sounded like a bunch of pebbles being rattled around in an old tin coffee can, and he hollered at every sound I made, as well as at every crow, blue jay, and car he heard.  I sneezed once and he still gobbled, although after that he moved off.  He was still loud-mouthed, even though he slowly faded from earshot.

In the last two seasons, I’ve had a couple of memorable run-ins with jakes, and while I closed the deal on one, I flailed and bungled the other.

The day after my mother died from cancer in 2013, my father and I went out for a ‘therapy hunt’ as I call it.  A silly jake showed up, running with two longbeards.  While the mature toms hung up well out of range, the subordinate jake made a surreptitious sneak on my decoy and I whipped his head around to his derriere with a well-placed load of Federals.  It was special to get a bird that day given the emotions of the previous weeks and months.

Last year, I was working my tail off trying to get my buddy Lucas Hunter his first turkey.  Lucas has done photo work for this blog in the past, and some great design work in the recent move to the new site, but we were friends and former coworkers from long before that.

We had hunted fruitlessly for almost two full days, with some pretty dim weather dogging us.  Two hours before we planned to head home, we were around a block not far from the family farm property.  Through binoculars we could see a group of five or six jakes milling in a field edge between two bush lots.  We made a circle and parked before scrambling into our gear and stalking into position.  I yelped on a mouth call and the jakes answered resoundingly.  We tried to close just a little bit of ground on them and get into a position that would be reasonable for Lucas to get a shot from, but those pesky jakes were on a dead run in our direction.  Like idiots, we bumped them as we tried to get into position.  The gobbled in surprise and started bobbing along at a jog to the west side of the field.  We cut through the mix of hardwoods and cedars and got to a spot that seemed to be promising.  Now firmly set up and perfectly still I yelped again.  Nothing.  I cutt harder and put in some aggressive purring.  Still nothing.   We trudged back to the vehicle and drove the block once more, but all the activity was off the stage now.  It was as though the birds had disintegrated into thin air.

For a second I wondered if they had ever been there at all, but that was jakes for you.

In a little over six weeks this is all going to start again in Ontario.  Every season I hear friends or acquaintances that I share the turkey woods with tell me their disdain for jakes.  How a gang of juveniles ran off a lone tom, or how they screw up hunts by gang-raping a hen decoy, or how these hunters somehow feel that dangling a tag from a jake bird’s leg is below their aristocratic standing as a turkey hunter.

But not me.  Bring on the shortbeards.  They gobble hard, run in eager, and taste great on my fork.  I have a love/hate relationship with them sometimes, but I’m not above bearing down the rail of my shotgun at one if I’ve got a tag to fill.  If it is legal where you hunt, hammer down I say.  You may never have a more memorable hunt than when the jakes show up.

Them Crooked Gobblers, Part Three: The Surprise Bird

While the previous two installments here were about birds that worked long, or that were repeat offenders, this chapter is about a bird that was in my life for all of twenty minutes, but it was still twenty very intense minutes that taught me a lesson that I put to good use in future seasons.  Although this bird beat me, what he taught me helped me to kill other birds after him.  This particular hunt took place on the Bruce Peninsula in 2008, and although I would tangle with a few other hard-headed gobblers up there in years to come, this was the first time a longbeard put a good flogging on my psychological state.
It was the perfect time of the spring season in Ontario.  Sometimes the first week or two is still drab and cold on the Bruce, with patches of snow in the bush, and the woods shaking off the last lingering hangover of winter.  I’ve been on damp, chilly, windy hunts under low slate grey skies on those early days, and although birds can be killed then, I’ve always had my success (or shall we call it luck?) later on in the season.  Late season can be tough too, with the last week often inordinately warm and the biting insects really start to feast by then.  But those middle two weeks of the five week spring season are just my absolute favourite time to be out there, and they are fast approaching pole position as my all-time favourite part of the hunting calendar, although a Thanksgiving waterfowl hunt still holds top spot…even if just barely.
I had hunted a field edge on the family property that Saturday morning in mid-May and had not heard any turkey activity at all, not even a lonely hen responded to my flock talk.  After sitting from before dawn until nearly 10am, I made a plan to roam around the hardwoods to the south of the farm, with the hopes of at worst getting a line on a couple of likely spots for the rest of the season, and at best of striking a tom turkey with my calls.  I was travelling without a decoy, and unfortunately, I had left my mouth calls in the farmhouse that morning, such was my haste to get out into the forest.  But I had a box call and I had a slate, so I made for the hills.  My uncle lives in the farm house year round and he had told us all of sporadic sightings of a nice gobbler as it crossed from our family property onto adjacent ones and back again throughout the late winter and into the spring.  That longbeard was just doing what turkeys do, and the hope was that he was still wandering that local (albeit fairly large) area between the southern limits of Lion’s Head and the northern edge of the village of Barrow Bay.  I had often wandered those fields and trails as a youth hunting rabbits, I’d chased ducks and geese in a few of them, and sometimes as a youth I was just hiking around behind my father so I knew my way around and I knew the properties I could frequent, and the ones I couldn’t.  I had a spot or two in mind, for sure.
I made a large loop of the big woods to the south and east of the farm, calling as I went along, before coming out just west of a Bruce Trail parking lot.  Not a single gobble had rung out, although I did kick up a few small groups of ruffed grouse and had spent some time watching two blue jays harass and chase each other through the budding green treetops.  It was a fairly humid, somewhat grey morning, but sporadically the sun did shine through the clouds.  When I broke out onto a gravel road, I unloaded my gun and slung it over my shoulder.  Walking down the gravel road I resolved to cross Bruce Road 9 and stop in to a chunk of hardwoods where I had hunted a few weeks earlier in the season.  I had experienced no action there on that previous day, but it seemed like a good idea; it would be a logical stop on the loop back to the farm for breakfast at the very least.  Crossing Bruce Road 9 on the curve south of the Cemetery Road, I popped into the woods, loaded my 870, and began a slow walk inside the tree line.  I had only walked for about ten minutes when I reached down and pulled out my box call.  I ran a string of seven or eight yelps on it, and was just reaching down to put it back in my vest when a gobbler hammered at me.  He was close enough that I could hear him clearly and I yelped once more, peppering a cutt and cackle into the mix.  He hollered again, and he was closer.
For an instant I panicked.  I had not really put any thought into what would happen if a turkey answered me and I looked frantically for a spot to get situated.  I finally found a big stump that just a little shorter than my sitting profile, but amply wide.  I ran the box call again and once more the gobbler answered.  I was facing a rocky saddle and he seemed to be coming down a little bush road that came around to the left of it, so I nestled into the stump and pointed my barrel in that direction.  I was fairly sure that this tom knew that the game was on, and I set down my box call so that I could secure both hands on the gun.  He gobbled again unprovoked, and he was definitely close, so close that, aside from my heart beating in my ears, I could hear him walking towards me.
I still had not laid eyes on him, and when he gobbled again I had another moment of panic.  He seemed to have diverted from the bush road and he was now sliding towards the other side of the small saddle to my right.  I’m a right-handed shooter, so that bird going to my right was the worst thing that could have happened.  I secretly wished for a mouth call, just to see if a few purrs would have straightened out his line, but in hindsight I realized that he already knew where I was by ear, and that I was going to have to get creative.
He gobbled again and it was now obvious that he was going to pop around the bottom of the saddle in area that I couldn’t swing my gun into.  I’d been in that crossed up position before while deer hunting, and now I found myself in it again with a fired up longbeard within twenty steps of me.
I resolved to scooch my behind around the stump so that my gun would point to where he seemed to be heading.  I made a bit of headway, and I took my hand off the stock and placed it down to stabilize myself while I shifted.  When my hand brushed and scratched a few leaves the bird went berserk; he bellowed a double-gobble and literally ran up over the top of the saddle, again in a place where my gun was not pointing.  At least I had a visual on him now.
For a brief moment his eyes and mine met; I could see his fiery red head, the top of his breast feathers, and the upper part of his beard.  His head craned back and forth and his body moved in a jerky, startled fashion for a few steps, and he began to putt loudly.  I knew from that sound and body language that I had just a few short seconds to make my move, so I slid the safety off and tried to pull the “spin move” on him, hoping to put the bead on his neck and fire in one seamless motion.
I failed.
While I had visualized a smooth transition and a peach of a shot, he had dropped off the saddle and was sprinting back from whence he came before I had even swung halfway to him; I never even yanked the trigger.  He gobbled as he ran, and I clicked the safety back on and sprinted the small saddle myself, just in time to see his sleek black back and red legs becoming one with the underbrush at a distance of nearly 100 yards.  I swore, I shook my head, and I sat down on a rock near to where I had first seen him.  I waited five minutes and ran a long string of yelps on my box call.  Nothing.  I looked at my watch: the whole thing had happened in under half an hour.
I hiked the twenty minutes back to the farm in that fog of self-loathing and hard, psychological self-analysis that any failed turkey hunter knows all too well.  How had that all gone wrong?  I went from having a lusty, willing gobbler essentially running to my calls to a fleeing bird that had me clumsily sprinting up a hill in desperation.  Even for me that was “bugger up” of legendary scale.
Then it dawned on me that I had ‘overthought’ myself into failure.  Now this is not something that I am the sole exclusive owner of; plenty of other hunters overthink.  They believe they know better than the animal, and they try to outsmart a bird that while supremely adapted, unbelievably wary, and maddeningly unpredictable isn’t really that smart to begin with.  Which actually makes it all the more frustrating when that gobbler kicks your ass.  I’ve always held that the worst thing that can actually happen when you overthink a gobbler is that you still actually kill him in spite of your error.  This just goes to cement a practice that is patently absurd.
Turkeys aren’t smart in the way we think of it.  They are creatures of adaptation and habit, they have wickedly impressive eyesight and supernatural levels of hearing, and they have a memory and attention to detail that to my mind is unmatched in the inventory of game animals in Ontario, and maybe the nation at large.  But they don’t do trigonometry, they don’t use deductive logic, and they don’t function on an intellectual plane of cause and effect so far as I can tell.  All they have is one reaction to anything that seems even slightly abnormal: be paranoid and run from it like hell.
In the days, weeks, months, and let’s be honest, years since I’ve realized over and over again the things I did wrong that day, and forgetting my mouth calls on the table was probably the least of my errors.
First, I was prospecting for a gobbler with no actual plan of attack should one answer.  Now, before calling I map out a few likely scenarios and setups should one sound off in response.  On that Saturday in mid-May 2008, I may have been better off backing away slightly to a spot that wasn’t squarely facing a saddle; as I look at it now, I only had a 33% chance of having my gun in the right place when the bird popped up; if he came to the wrong side of the saddle I would have been crossed up, and if he popped over the top (as he did) I would have had to make a move, which I did and failed at in epic fashion.
Second, I was trying to be predictive in how the bird would react, and in so doing, I had actually forced myself into a reactionary situation.  By trying to extrapolate (from no facts at all I might add) how this bird was going to behave on approach, I essentially put myself in a position that enabled my failure.  The goal now is that when a gobbler answers, I try to put myself in a spot that has several easy outs.  This includes concealing myself better, positioning the gun in a spot that doesn’t have me locked into one area only, and generally letting the hunt develop a little further before committing to a shooting lane or a physical position.
But even then, turkeys will be turkeys, and I’m going to have to suffer them being frustrating and unpredictable.  Because that’s why I love hunting them.

Them Crooked Gobblers, Part Two: The Backdoor Bird

The first installment of this series was about a gobbler I ended up tagging, but this edition is about one I didn’t.  On consecutive hunts this bird did the same thing to me.  On the third hunt I tried to double-bluff him, and he still managed to trick me. Sometimes you can’t win and you just have to tip your cap and chalk up a learning experience.
My only proof that this was the same bird on all three occasions is that he did the same thing repeatedly; not to the point of predictability, as you’ll see, but consistent enough that I just had the feeling that this old gobbler was besting me over and over again.
And I didn’t like it.
When April of 2010 rolled around, I was hungry for success.  The spring season of 2009 saw me whiff on a bird on the Bruce Peninsula, a bird that I’m sure I’ll write about again, and that year I made the mistake of fixating on a gobbler to the point of obsession.  I didn’t get him and I didn’t even try to hunt another bird; I swore it was the last bird that I’d get into a personal battle with.
The opening weekend saw me stationed in Oro, Ontario, not far from where I had shot my first gobbler in 2008.  I got in extra early on that grey and foggy morning, and with a pair of snips I had trimmed myself a recessed nook in the side of shrub line.  Winter had clung on late, and there were no buds or camouflaging foliage on the shrub, but I nestled myself back into the boughs with just the fore-end of my 870 sticking out.  I shouldered the gun and gave a couple of swings just to make sure I could cover most angles of approach should a tom show interest, and satisfied that I was stealthily hidden away, I started some light calling.  Even though it was grey and damp, with a morning rain ceasing just prior to my arrival, as always the spring morning greeted me with songbirds and the stirrings of wildlife, and while no gobblers responded immediately off the roost, some fresh tracks in the muddy road and some pre-season sightings in the area buoyed my hopes that I would score on my first hunt of the year.
Off and on I yelped, occasionally ramping up the urgency and the volume before mellowing the sounds off into some clucks and purrs.  The soft boughs of the shrub were actually quite comfortable and I lounged back into an almost reclined position, while chickadees flitted and fluttered around the area.  One of the little clowns landed on my shotgun barrel and turned his head back and forth inquisitively at me.  Determining I was not a predator, he hopped along the rail and off into a nearby branch.  I smirked and my mind drifted away.  Had the sun been out I may have been tempted to take a mid-morning nap.
In this blissful frame of mind, I was hauled back to reality by a movement to my left.  At the field edge, well out of range, a small clan of turkeys was marching my way.  There were four birds, and the back one was most certainly a longbeard, although to that point I had not heard any turkey vocalizations of any kind all morning.  The gobbler was in half strut as he followed three hens across the field and I could tell from their route that they would pass me out of range.  I yelped softly and the birds didn’t even look my way.  I ratcheted up the volume and the hens looked over but stayed on their determined course.  Reaching a hill opposite me and at a distance of almost 100 yards, the hens popped into the woods and the gobbler took one look back my way before dropping his half strut pose and loping into the tree behind his girlfriends.
They had approached with no gobbling from the tom, no yelping from the hens, and no interest at all from any of the birds.
About half an hour later I heard some distant clucking and yelping as the birds worked their way through the property, and I let loose a string of cutting and yelping designed, if for no other purpose, than to get the tom to gobble, but that effort again fell on deaf ears.  I resolved to put another hour or so on the hunt before working my way back out of the woods to my vehicle, and though I called twice more, nothing answered.
I was at the point where I was just taking stock of the morning, and was very near to getting up to stretch my legs when I was overtaken with a preternatural sense of a presence.  It was not some supernatural moment, it was not clairvoyance, but it was just a sense that I was being watched.  I’ve felt it before while hunting, and I’ve felt it before when I haven’t been hunting and I uneasily dismissed it that morning.  I went back to thinking about the rest of my day, when the air was split by a long, rattling gobble from behind me.  It was close, much closer and louder than I had ever heard.  A tom turkey had essentially snuck up on me and had gobbled in my ear from inside of five yards.  I was startled and instinctively whipped my head around, which was enough movement to give the gobbler as much information as he required; my last sight of him was a sleek black form bobbing rapidly away through the hardwoods.  I spun around and rushed to my knees, but even a snap shot would have been impossible.  Instead I just swore and tried to get my heart out of my throat.  The walk back to the car was a slow, cautious one, but I never saw or heard the bird again that morning.
Two weeks later I was back on the same property, but I had moved to a different spot, more towards the row of trees that the birds had crossed to on the previous hunt.  Whereas the first hunt was grey and damp, that second day found me sitting in the glorious sunshine of an early May in Ontario.  The weather was much improved, but the turkeys were still as reluctant as before in gobbling.  Finally after a few hours of fruitless calling I heard a tom sound off in the distance.  He gobbled again and was closing the distance, and he seemed to be making a broad circle on my left.  A large swampy bottom with a narrow creek runs along one edge of the property and in my mind’s eye I could envision the bird taking the long way around that wet hole.  I moved my left shoulder in the direction of his anticipated approach, and brought the gun to a half-ready position.  He was still gobbling every so often and I had resolved not to yelp again; the goal being to make him hunt for the phantom hen that I was imitating.
His gobbling stopped and the woods were silent for fifteen minutes or so, and all the while I was peering to where I thought he should be popping up.  My arms complained and I got impatient, so being the relatively novice turkey hunter I was back then, I chose to let out one single cluck.  He gobbled immediately from the spot where I had last heard him, and then I promptly heard the clumsy beating of heavy wings before the literal ‘whoosh’ of a bird landing on the trail behind me told me all I needed to know.  As soon as the gobbler’s feet hit the ground, he gobbled again and once more he was directly behind me and closer than I could have imagined.  This time I did not jerk my head around or scramble to rush a shot, but I found myself hopelessly crossed up.  My left shoulder was pointing exactly opposite of where this tom had hit the ground, and my mind was whirring as I tried to deduce my next move.  While I was deducing my next move, I could hear the bird’s feet on the dried leaves and new grass, and he began clucking inquiringly.  From what I was hearing, he was pacing back and forth on the trail behind me, sure that he should have been seeing a hen turkey.  I was suffering from a case of “paralysis by analysis”, and while I shook nervously and tried to will him into the open, he just got bored, gobbled once and trotted off into the forest again.  Once more, I regained my composure and stalked out of the woods, setting up twice to blind call hoping he’d come back to me, but an hour later I found myself at my car, with my mind racing at the events that had just transpired.  In two hunts I had been approached to within feet by a tom turkey and both times he had showed up precisely behind me.  I was beginning to make the same mistake I made the previous year.
This bird was getting under my skin.
I hunted the family farm on the Bruce Peninsula the week after that, and while unsuccessful, I did at least ease my mind about that ruthless old tom in Oro.  I spoke to my Dad and a couple of other turkey hunters and although I’m still reluctant to call what we came up with ‘a plan’ I will say that I got some good advice for going after him.  The following weekend would be the final one of the 2010 season and I was getting close to having to gnaw on another spring turkey tag.
I made the woods extra, extra early and snuck in silently to a spot between where I had first had the bird sneak up on and the second spot that he had ambushed me at.  I had promised myself I wasn’t going to yelp until I either heard gobbling or the sun rose, whichever came first, but in the end I didn’t really need to make a choice.  I had been sitting for less than five minutes when a bird gobbled from the roost.
He was seventy or eighty yards (by my ear) onwards from where I had sat down, and it sounded like he was roosted right over top of the same swampy bottom he had flown across two weeks prior.  He gobbled a few more times before I yelped at him, and he hammered back, cutting me off in the process.  I peered through the treetops hoping to spy him, but I could not get a line on his exact whereabouts.  After a half hour of intermittent tree talk, the tone of call changed and I could tell he had flown down.  My only hope was that he had flown to my side of the swamp and not to the far side.  My suspicions were soon confirmed as I heard him sound off in the hardwoods ahead of me.  I again brought the gun to half-staff, waiting to make a positive ID on him.  He gobbled hard and then something startling happened, again.  Another bird gobbled, once more from behind me.
This bird had never made a sound on the limb, and now he was closing the distance behind me once more.  He gobbled and the original bird answered, and I was in a conundrum.  I had still not laid eyes on the first turkey but the one from the rear was closing the distance more rapidly.  It was decision time once again, and for the umpteenth time I made the wrong one.  I chose not spin and face the bird closing from the rear, but instead I remained steadfastly focused on the gobbling turkey approaching from the front.  They both gobbled again, in a sing-song fashion, when I realized something terrible was happening.  The bird in the ‘front’ was sliding off hard to my left, his gobbled still came closer but he was making for a spot…you guessed it, behind me.
I did a quick butt-shuffle trying to spin and keep my front shoulder facing him, but eventually the two birds met up. I know they met up because they gobbled wildly when they did.
It sounded like laughter.
They headed back into the hardwoods and out of earshot.  It wasn’t even 8am and I was thoroughly defeated.  The mosquitoes had been feasting malevolently on my hands and neck the whole time this raucous show was going on, and I was frankly just fed up with turkey hunting for the year at that point.  I got up, made it to my car, and drove to a public land spot in the Simcoe County Forests near Elmvale, but my heart really wasn’t in it by then.  The whole time I sat in the woods there, I was thinking about what had transpired in the woods back in Oro.
Part of my problem is the thinking, I guess.
I learned a lot about the frustration inherent with hunting turkeys that season, even though I felt that I had learned everything I could from the prior spring.  I knew the bird wasn’t ‘smarter’ than I was per se, and I knew he wasn’t a mind reader.  But I did know for certain, even if I couldn’t prove it, that the “Backdoor Bird” as I came to call him, was just flat out better than I was at the predator/prey relationship.  I kept reliving (and still do) those mornings, and I just can’t seem to pinpoint where things went wrong or what I could have done differently.  It is possible that somebody might have killed him in the years since, but I secretly hope he eluded all of us for as long as he could.  Despite the frustration of the moment, now these few seasons later I can say it was a fun time hunting him; a true learning experience.
Usually my Dad always has good advice in these situations.  But that time, after I lamented my poor luck and the uncanny instincts of that old tom, even he seemed to be at a loss for ideas.  Dad just smiled and said it best.
“Sometimes they do that.”