Category Archives: turkey and turkey hunting

Fifty-Seven-or-so Signs that You Might (or Might Not) be a Hopeless Turkey Hunter

So, in case you hadn’t noticed, it is that time of year again.  I call it ‘silly season’ and it is the time of year when all the hunting magazines and websites regurgitate a few dozen different articles full of tips, tricks, and gear reviews aimed at perpetuating their existence while simultaneously moving some inventory for their sponsors.  I’m not cynical about it anymore, after all staff writers and editors must eat too, and those are the spiritual compromises that come with the territory in the print-media world.

I get it.  I don’t like it and I try not to partake too heavily in it, but I do get it.

It is the time to hear about “dirt naps”, “floppage”, “beak-bustin’”, et cetera, et cetera. If you can’t find a headline that boasts a better way to call to a hung-up turkey, or that assures you that these seven pieces of essential equipment will put a longbeard in your lap, or a piece that tackles the thorny issue of turkey reaping while simultaneously advertising for tom decoys that clip right to your mother-loving shotgun barrel, then I can confidently say you aren’t really looking at all.  Because that sort of thing is ubiquitous now; it has been since at least mid-January and it won’t disappear until sometime in July.

As handsome a bird as I can hope to see this spring.

Somewhere along the line, between the quaint magazine by-lines of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the shift to an advertising-centric approach that materialized in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, we lost our way and nothing was off-limits or unthinkable anymore.

The truth is there aren’t really that many different ways to safely hunt turkeys, and much of the “innovation” we see in the marketplace is flash and gimmick. I’m perfectly content to just sit under a tree, yelp, scratch in the leaves, and listen, but based on social media advertising campaigns set on full-saturation levels, I’m just a throw-back and not nearly extreme enough to be relevant anymore.

Sigh.

Turkey season will approach and take place nonetheless, and I’ll be out there enjoying it on my own terms, but might I suggest that if you don’t find turkey hunting exciting enough the ‘traditional way’ that you at least try not to do something reckless or offensive?

I’m old enough to remember when the conventional wisdom of the culture was to sit under a tree, call like a sexy old hen, and above all else try not to get shot by another hunter; that said I’m not so old that I was indoctrinated into the school of “yelp four times every hour until the tom shows up”, but I’ve read about enough respected elder-statesmen of turkey hunting to see the wisdom in that ethos either. Was it accurate, in the fledgling years when the pastime was a fringe pursuit that lagged far behind deer, quail, and waterfowl hunting, to imbue the wild turkey with some of the feats of wily intelligence attributed to it?  Possibly not, but it did breed a healthy respect for the quarry.  After all, did Tom Kelly or Charles Elliott ever utter the words “thunder-chicken” with anything other than likely derision for the term? I can’t say for certain, but I can make some inferences.

And what of safety? I was fortunate enough to take the Ontario turkey hunter’s education seminar all those years ago from two of the very men instrumental in the re-introduction of wild turkeys into Ontario.  They both scoffed at the idea of stalking gobblers, and each was gravely concerned with the safety ramifications around even entertaining the thought. But this is 2018 and extreme, like sex, sells. So long as someone, somewhere puts ‘if it is safe to do so’ in their piece about fanning, stalking, circling, boasting of 80-yard kills, or hiding in waterfowl layout blinds (yes, this is a thing in the turkey hunting world now) then they have sufficiently rendered themselves culpability-free.

It’s like saying “Go ahead, drink and drive, as long as you’re sure no other drivers are on the road” or something else comparably irresponsible.

Of course, I am not entirely immune and I do have some of the usual trappings of the modern turkey hunter.  The decoys, the precision-made crystal friction call and finely-tuned mouth diaphragms, right to my ergonomic and luxuriously thick seat on my turkey vest.

Still, I’ve never once put a tom or jake decoy out on public land because no amount of turkey meat or close-encounter adrenaline is worth a torso full of searing hot lead pellets.  I’ve missed birds, but never out to 70+ yards as I’ve heard and seen on modern social media.  I have equipment that would have made those Pennsylvania and Alabama forefathers of the hunt sneer and chuckle at my gullibility, but even still my 870 isn’t tricked out for tactical turkey killing, my ammunition didn’t cost me the equivalent of a rib-eye steak per round spent, and while tempting, I’m not really inclined to crawl up to a gobbler just for some much-hyped thrill over and above the one I’ll experience should I be lucky enough to hear a tom sound off in response through the breaking light of an early May morning.

So, what exactly am I hopeless for?  I’m bereft of optimism that things will change for the better.  There is money to be made, a market to shill for, and so many born every minute that I have a better chance of stopping a freight train with your bare hands than I do of making any meaningful impact on the direction the sport is moving in.

I’m completely aware that I get cantankerous this time of year; just go back through everything I’ve written here in every month of March since 2011.  I’m deep into withdrawal.  I’m fed-up with the glitzy, whore-like makeup applied in thicker layers every year to the serenity of a spring ritual I’ve grown increasingly addicted to, and most of all I’m helpless in the face of change and pathetically prostrate to the throes of my turkey hunting impulses. Just go ahead and hunt them how you want I suppose, because all my pissing and moaning likely won’t make a convert of anyone that doesn’t already think what I think. Have some fun and try not to get yourself shot.

It only comes around once a year, and if you’re reading this from a region where your season is underway, I hope the gobblers are willing and that your patterns are tight.

If you have not been out there yet in the thick of it, enjoy those “firsts” that might happen this season.

First mornings. First gobbles. First hunts with your kids. First birds ever.

We hope that you enjoy the hunt, respect the bird, eat well, and be merry. All this silliness will seem so very far away soon, and the season will slide past all too quickly, just like it does every year.

Fear, Self-Loathing, and Internet Trolls

This week I decided to do something miles away from my comfort zone.

Explaining something…

Since 2011, this little webpage has acted as an insulating buffer between myself and the reader.  My ‘voice’ was expressed through typeface and I had the benefit of time, editing, and occasional proofreading to refine my ethic and message dozens of times before I put it out there. I’ve had all the control so that on the (rare) occasions that hateful or crude comments show up that revile me for being a hunter, or poke holes in my logic, or (to directly quote one aggrieved reader) deride me as just some “city boy pretending to hunt”, I simply delete the offending statements and move on my merry way. Unsolicited hate mail gone forever, just like that.

But this week, I lacked that luxury.  This week I did a television shoot, and went from ‘single voice among thousands of outdoors websites’ to ‘single voice talking straight into a television camera’. Those experiences are fundamentally different, and the public perception of those things are equally divergent.

For context, I was approached by Sang Kim, who is an author, chef, and television personality to talk about hunting and guns, as well as to cook my favourite wild game dish, which in this case was a wild turkey leg confit. I of course jumped at the opportunity because those are things I love talking about and things I love to do. But it did lead me to an existential crisis, and when I’m in an existential crisis, I write about it so here we are.

You see, there’s a chance I might be cast in the all-too-bright light of “expertise” which has always made me uneasy and self-conscious.  For whatever reason, even though televised media (even internet-based televised media) is ubiquitous, there still exists a sense that those with a mass-media platform have expertise. So, by way of full disclosure, here’s what I’m expert at.

  • I’m an expert at sharing my opinions.
  • I’m an expert at shoving delicious wild game into my face.
  • I’m an expert at trying new things with little forethought for how the external reaction is going to be.

And that’s where my head was during the shoot.  I offered opinions and statements on what I thought to be pertinent or what I believed to be valid on a variety of topics, some of which I was prepared for and some that I was not.  But nothing is off limits to me, so I gave it the old college try.  The demographic is non-conventional from a hunting perspective, the platform is non-conventional to typical media, and if anything, I’m not the typical ‘hunter’ stereotype (I think).

Some of what I said and believe will be unpopular with non-hunters and non-gun owners.  Some of it will be unpopular with hunters and gun owners. But all of it sits well with me which is what matters I guess.

Also, there’s that lingering and perverse fear that I have where people are going to ridicule and hate and mock me in a very public forum.  All the tough guy attitude, spunk, and bravado available to me still aren’t going to stop trolls and keyboard-social justice warriors, and other “better” hunters who might feel more representative of the tradition from trying to make me their whipping boy on YouTube.  But I guess that’s their prerogative and not mine.

Of course I’m not looking to be a martyr for the cause (although I would be if I had to I suppose) or for personal sympathy, or kudos, or bland affirmations.  Nor is this a pre-emptive disclaimer begging for kindness, forgiveness, or understanding because I waived rights to those things when I opted into this opportunity.  I’m mostly just going through prose therapy or literary diarrhea or whatever this actually is.  But at the heart of the matter, I’m writing this to clarify my hopes.

I’m hoping that I wasn’t too far off the mark in my opinions, hoping that I was representative of my personal ethics, and hopeful that my turkey calling was at least passable; the birds seem to like it anyhow.  I’ve yet to see the finished, edited product yet but the hope (there’s that word again) is that the passion and the simple message I have does not get lost in translation or flogged to death in a comments section.

Having a chuckle.

In all, the only thing I want is to represent hunting and the outdoors and my passion for both of them respectfully, humbly, and clearly. I also liked that I got to get myself a tidy new branded t-shirt with shiny dome fasteners out of the deal.

There were things that may end up on the cutting room floor.  There were things I desperately wanted to share that just never came up. Thankfully, I can honestly say that I never had a moment in the whole shoot (which was amazing by the way and an experience absolutely worth any stress or backlash that may come out of it) where my internal monologue went “Uh-oh, don’t answer that” or “This sounds dumb” or “This whole premise is ridiculous and going to negatively represent hunting and hunters”.

Still, it’s over now and nothing can be done about it anyhow, even if I had contributed something incredibly stupid to the record.  I knew the ‘risks’ about taking it on and did it gladly, because declining this would have led to regret and I like to live with a “what-the-hell” mentality. At best I like to think my opinions and contributions are benign and conciliatory.

Confit Wild Turkey Leg with Morels and Grilled Scallions

For Lucas Hunter, Chef Sang Kim, my family, TagTV and all those that supported this, I quite literally cannot thank you enough.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I’m truly glad I did it.  For those that want to actually see it, we’ll post the details once they come available.

When Less is More

I stood in the dark staring into the empty vacuum of my van interior.  I said bad words as I realized that I had not brought my turkey vest, or any decoys, on this particular trip.  Panic temporarily set in, and I jogged into the farm house, accusingly asking my wife if she had brought them in without my knowledge.  I then tried to passively blame her and the kids, before settling on ultimately flaying myself for the gross oversight in packing.

I swore and got grumpy.  I had never turkey hunted without a vest, and I was emotionally invested in having all of my gear and giving a good account of myself in my role of pseudo-guide the upcoming morning.  For a split second I considered texting Brian (a.k.a. Tack) and telling him that I was out for the morning.  I mean what good would I be without a comfortable seat, a full suite of decoys, and my full arsenal of very expensive turkey calls? Rummaging through my hunting box I found an old box call, a facemask, camo gloves, and two mouth calls.

It would have to be enough.

Forgetfulness and necessity dictated that I hunt ‘light’.

At 4am I snuck out of bed and put on my camo.  I was tagged out so I was going to be the designated guide and gear carrier for this trip.  Without vest, gun, decoy or calls, I was feeling very under-prepared when I slid out the door and waited for Tack. I caught a bit of a chill as I stood in the lane and quickly snuck back inside to grab my coat, and as I exited I could see Brian’s headlights coming up the county road.  We made for a nearby field where birds had been frequently seen, and snuck to our spot.  On our way in I had owl-called and the notes echoed hauntingly around the dead-calm of the hardwoods.

Nothing answered, and we hastily set out two hen decoys before settling into the undercover of a gnarly old crabapple tree. It was 5:10am and the previous night’s moon, which was just past being full, shone silver on the field edges around us.  Songbirds started up, and then a lone goose powered past, clucking loudly.  Eventually we heard a bird gobble from the property we had crossed through to get to our setup.  Then another, and then two more.  Tack swore silently that we had walked past the birds on our way in.  Two properties over to the south another, unexpected, bird fired off a lusty gobble.

We were surrounded.

Three jakes a few of their lady friends paid us a visit early Saturday morning.

To that point we had not heard a hen yelp, but soon we heard a very distinctive old girl start her morning rasping.  I began to call softly myself in response, before cranking it up and matching her note for note.  All the while the gobblers worked to a frenzy and they must have hammered a hundred times or more.  The noise did not dissipate when the birds hit the ground, but rather the hen grew more aggressive, while another jenny started calling more casually from a position directly behind us.

A couple of deer sauntered into the picture and the sun began to shine bright and strong.  The bird to the south seemed to be lonesome and he drilled gobble after gobble in response to the cacophony going on around us.  It was more gobbling than I may have ever heard on a spring morning, and I could sense that I had a big stupid grin on my face the whole time. That I was sitting on the cold, dewy ground without a plush cushion didn’t really matter at that point.

Eventually we called the hens into the setup, and they pulled their three boisterous suitors in with them, but we were stunned to be confronted with three strutting jakes.  They all had full gobbles, but they lacked full tailfans so we gave them a pass.

Sneaking out the way we had entered, we decided to head north for a run and gun tour.

While Tack filled his truck at the local gas station, he had a sudden change of heart, and suggested we slip south of Lion’s Head and check out a place he had not hunted yet in 2017.  I was up for anything, and we cruised down Bruce Road 9.  We pulled into the property and to the north I saw the telltale dark shape of a turkey crossing a field.

“There a turkey right there.” I said and Tack applied the brakes.  As he did I saw two more turkeys trailing behind.  Tack put the binoculars on the trio and then turned back to me, with a big grin and happy eyes.

“Three longbeards…and they’re alone.”  It was music to my ears.

The birds were headed from west to east into a series of hardwood ridges interspersed with grassy fields, and we sped ahead before parking the truck and putting a sprint on through the woods to get ahead of the birds’ anticipated route.  Halfway to where we wanted to be I looked to the left and at twenty-five steps a big doe whitetail deer was watching us sneak past. She never snorted or stomped and we crouch-walked into position.  We crested a bit of a hill and Tack grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and yanked hard.

“Shit. They just saw us,” he hissed.  Sure enough I could see a red-headed gobbler trotting away.  I could also see the two other birds, and they were still acting as though nothing was amiss, so we sat down and I started doing some soft calling and scratching in the leaves for about fifteen minutes, before I made a series of crow calls.

The birds said nothing.

Then a truck drove down the county road and all three hammered out gobbles.  I slowly stood again and could see that they were closer and making their way towards out setup.  Tack whispered that there was a trail up ahead that went to a water hole and he remarked casually “I betcha they’ll be on that trail.”  Part of me wanted to move ahead to the trail edge but I also did not want to have the longbeards bust us while we moved, so we stayed pat.  Five minutes later, I was softly calling and scratching in the leaves, when again Tack hissed at me.

“SHAWN…in front of us.”

As Brian had expected, all three birds were on the bush trail and they were trying to get around behind us.  Both Brian and I froze, and the birds filtered past, with one big gobbler strutting the whole time, drumming loudly as he went by.  Another bird broke off and closed to less than twenty steps, with his head glowing neon white and fire-engine red, but he was on the wrong side for Brian to ease into a shooting position.  In a few moments, all three toms eased off down the ridge and I slowly stood up once they were out of sight.  We quickly commiserated on a new plan of attack when suddenly all three of them gobbled in unison without provocation.  Knowing the lay of the land, we sprinted in a circle ahead of them again and deployed Brian’s one lone hen decoy.  I then dropped over a ridge and quite literally sat in a rock hole before I started calling once again.  This time the birds cut me off with thunderous gobbling.

I cutt hard on the call and ran a series of fast yelps and again the birds interrupted me angrily.  The tone of their gobbles had changed and there seemed to be a searching urgency in their calls now.  They were coming off the ridge we had last heard them on and they were closing the distance rapidly.  Three more times I called and every time they hollered back frantically.  One last time they screamed without even giving me the courtesy of asking them to do so.  Seconds later I was startled by the bark of Tack’s Winchester.  I stood and heard Tack let out a rowdy “WOOOOO!!” and I hollered one back at him.  Brian was striding to the downed bird, and I excitedly hurdled my way over the ridge, because I wanted to get a better look at the gobbler.

“PACE THAT OFF!” Brian shouted, and I did at a very conservative forty-five steps.  A bit of a long shot, but the bird had never even flopped.

Getting to the bird we engaged in the usual shouts of congratulations and high-fives and man-hugs that always go down in accordance with tradition.  Brian told me how they had come down off the ridge and hung up at the field edge, and he described how when two of them had gotten wary and started to slide away, he let slide at the strutter who had lingered in the open just a bit too long for his own health.  Tack had trusted his gun and it did not let him down.

We tagged the bird and I played gear-mule for the decoy and Brian’s shotgun, since he had the responsibility of over twenty pounds of feathers, spurs, and meat to sling over his shoulder.  It was a solid 3-year-old bird, with one-inch spurs and a thick paintbrush beard to go along with weighing in at a very respectable twenty-one pounds.

For my part, as much as I enjoyed the satisfaction of being there for Brian’s second bird of the spring, and as much as I was ecstatic about the way the hunt itself played out, I learned valuable lessons about patience, woodsmanship, and the art of travelling light.  Because sometimes, in the turkey woods, it’s true that less can be more.

When it All Ends Too Soon

I had spent the day basking in the afterglow of the morning’s success.  Brian and I had taken dozens of pictures, field-dressed birds in the sunshine, eaten celebratory breakfasts, and shared our story several times.  With a bird down for each of us so early in the season, we both agreed that a bit of ‘pressure’ was off our shoulders and we could freestyle some hunts, or even take a morning or two off and sleep in, spend time with our kids, and generally be less compulsive about chasing spring gobblers.

That said, we were still resolved to be hunting the next morning.  I awoke and Tack’s text simply said “Two birds roosted again. Let’s try for a second double” and I needed no further encouragement to rise early.

We drove to a property that was a bit further south than the one we had succeeded at on Friday morning, and once again in the darkest of pre-dawn light we set up decoys before sneaking under a cedar thicket and waiting for the sound of gobbling.  Much like the previous day’s hunt, we waited in the dark silence for what seemed like forever.  As dawn broke we saw a half-dozen or more deer filter into a distant field, and we heard the songbirds wake up around us.

Unlike the previous hunt, however, this time we heard the tom sound off from treetop far behind our setup.  I answered lightly on my mouth call and he cranked a gobble back in response, giving us hope that he would come investigate our little ambush and then take a ride home in the back of the truck.  Of course, not every turkey hunt can be the slam dunk we had the previous day…in fact most turkey hunts aren’t slam dunks.  This time the bird gobbled sporadically before hitting the ground marching away from our position, headed straight north.  We decided to dog the bird a bit and see if we could pinpoint his position, but after a series of slow stalks around the cedar islands that made up the property, it was as though he had just evaporated on the spring sunrise.  We had no choice but to pick up our setup and head on a quick run & gun hunt for a cooperative bird.

As we headed west down a local sideroad, we spied a gobbler the width of 100 acres on a property Tack had hunted several times.  We glassed the bird and seeing he was a good gobbler, we decided to hunt him. A snowmobile trail ran up one side of the property and we could see a hen in the trail, that presumably was holding the tom’s attention.

“I know how we can get to him.” Tack sounded confident.

“We’ll run in from the north and cut through to the hilltop and then try to call him in,” Tack said and since it was as good a plan as we had for the only bird we’d laid eyes on that morning, so we turned around, parked around the corner and started to double-time it out of sight along the field edge.  Coming to a cedar and hardwood thicket that was within 100 yards of the where we last saw the tom, we split up with Tack heading straight at the bird’s position, while I scooted down a cedar rail fence 80 yards to the west, next to the previously mentioned snowmobile trail.

I found a large, broad juniper bush that was high and wide enough to conceal my seated figure, and I sat facing southwest in the ample shadow it cast for a few minutes before crow-calling loudly.  Drawing no response from the bird, I began to do some soft calling on my Woodhaven Ninja-V mouth call.  The wind was increasing to somewhere between a soft breeze and steady gusts, and I half-stood to see if I could scoot down closer to the bottom of the hill.  I spied a hen and that essentially ended any dreams I had of changing my setup.  I texted Tack to see if he was on the bird visually, and he said he could no longer find the tom.  For a while we were at a stalemate as we were pinned down by a hen, but seeking a gobbler that would not answer any calls and had seemingly vanished.

While I sat there, my friend Lucas Hunter texted me to tell me had tagged his second gobbler of the weekend and I flipped him a quick message of congratulations.  I relayed the news to Tack and asked if had seen the gobbler yet, and he said he did have eyes on the bird now, directly in front of him in the field.  I decided it was as good a time as any to break out my crystal friction call and try some loud calling in the hopes that it would pull the bird my way, and hopefully up into range for Brian.

I cranked up some loud yelping and cutting, but still the stubborn bird wouldn’t budge and he was not gobbling at all.  I could only hope to keep calling and see if I could draw him in for a shot.

In between sequences, I looked southwest and was surprised to see, a few hundred yards in the distance, a strutting tom trotting my way. There was a hen with him and for a second I was unsure if I had called in the tom or the hen, but I didn’t care at that point. I messaged Tack that the bird was coming but that it was on the wrong side of the cedar rail fence, before getting my 870 rested on my knee and my left shoulder pointed towards the bird.  He made the cedar rail fence and began walking parallel to my position.  He had run ahead of the hen and was directly perpendicular to my gun barrel when he began to spin on the spot and spit and drum.  The hen yelped lightly and walked past the tom to position to my right; and the gobbler followed her close behind.

I thought on more than one occasion of shooting him through the fence, but there were two factors dissuading me.  First, I was unsure if we had permission on the other side of the rail fence, and second I could only see tom’s head and none of his neck through the slats. A younger version of me might have risked the shot, but part of me knew that if I were patient, he’d either offer an ethical shot or slide off and I’d set up on him again.  For about five minutes the tom strutted and the hen puttered around near him, just agonizingly beyond the fence.  After a while the hen crouched, and the gobbler commenced breeding her, which allowed me to twist into a position more in line with where the birds were.

In time, the gobbler hopped off the hen and went back into strut.  The hen, for her part, shook her feathers off and, to my joy, hopped up onto the cedar rail fence.  I had hoped she would cross at some point and now she was obliging me.  The gobbler, meanwhile, was oblivious that the hen had left him.

He spun in strut and, presumably realizing that his girlfriend had left, craned his head to full periscope.

I could have killed him quite easily at that point, but he was still on the wrong side of the barrier. While I silently pleaded for the hen to move off, she once again did as I had hoped, slowly marching north away from the tom.  The tom now dropped strut completely and himself jumped onto the fence top, which was my cue to slide the safety off on the gun.

He awkwardly tottered on the top of the fence for a moment or two, before hopping and flapping down onto my side, well within range.  He popped into strut and I bore down on the stock, welding my cheek to the comb and focusing the front bead on the base of his ruby-red neck.  I cutt hard on the mouth call, and the bird once again went full periscope and stared straight at me.

For a second, it was as though the bird recognized that he had been had.

I yanked the trigger and the shotgun boomed, but I was in such an adrenaline haze that I barely felt the recoil.  I saw as the bird’s head snapped out of sight, and he flopped limply to the ground, never twitching again.  I went out and put my bootheel on his neck, but that was a mere formality.  I pumped the gun and put it on safe before turning to see Tack walking my way.

One of the quick field-shots right after harvesting my second tom.

We had some high-fives and some photos before tagging the bird and heading out to the truck.  It was just after 9am and my turkey hunting season had lasted all of five hours over two mornings.  I was done; tagged out on the two legal toms that Ontario allows hunters to take in the spring season.  He weighed in just shy of 19 pounds, and sported a paintbrush of a beard, inch-long spurs, and long snood.  It was bittersweet in a way to be done on the opening weekend, but it was two completely different, yet still fantastic hunts, that had brought my season to a close.

Some tools of the trade, and the iridescence of an Ontario spring gobbler in the sunshine.

It was satisfying to know that, for the first time, I had no tags left to fill for a spring.  It was also satisfying to have my friend Lucas Hunter get his first two birds of his fledgling turkey hunting career, and it was great to have hunted the mornings with a friend like Tack, who I’d been hunting with since our early teen years.  We did some running and gunning that afternoon, and very nearly had Tack his second bird of the weekend as well, but as the toms sometimes do, the old gobbler zigged when he was expected to be zagging, and we were left to rue a close call.

Later that night, all the turkey hunters I knew and called friends got together at my cousin Luke’s and we feasted on chicken wings, fried shrimp, French fries, and cold beer.  The stories flowed as freely as the drinks and laughter, and we re-lived the hunts we had all experienced so far in the season.  Successful and unsuccessful hunters alike bonded over tall-tales, food and time spent with friends and family.

I was happy to be done, but it had also ended far too soon for 2017.