Double Trouble

“There are some turkeys right there.” It’s a phrase I say quite often when we are out scouting for turkeys on the Bruce Peninsula. We are fortunate enough to be in an area where a two-hour drive could turn up seven or ten different birds

“Those look like jakes” was the response from the back of the truck.

It was just before 8pm on the Thursday evening of the opening week and I was certainly not above shooting a juvenile turkey for the roasting pan. I’m the kind of hunter who is looking for an experience and wild game for the freezer more than I’m after a dragging beard or giant hooks.

To the southwest, in the distance far against some hardwoods two birds were strutting for a pair of hens. I asked politely for the binoculars, and as I glassed the turkeys in the sunset, one of the birds turned his back to me while strutting, and it was very clear these were not a pair of jakes in the lenses but rather two mature toms.   They glowed a deep bronze in the setting sun while they spun back-and-forth displaying for the girls.

My friend Brian, who we simply call Tack, said he had a good idea where they would be roosted that night, and we drove on in search of additional birds.  Later that evening over some stories and some beers, eight excited hunters devised plans for the coming morning.

My brother and my cousin Luke were going to head north and hunt a spot I had previously failed from last season. My friend Lucas Hunter and my cousin Dane were going to hunt a spot adjacent to the family farm that held a nice gobbler. Neither my uncle nor my good friend Justin were entirely certain that they were going to get out at all. Tack looked at me and said “We’ll go after those two toms and see if we can’t get a double”.  I said we should do exactly that and derisive, but good-natured, jeers rang out.  No one believed we’d be able to get one tom, let alone both, especially if they were roosted with the hens.

Banter and stories continued into the evening and Tack and I agreed on a 4:45am start.  The 4am alarm rang too soon.

I stepped into the kitchen to find Tack waiting, and we threw our guns, vests, and decoys into the back of the truck.  We formulated a plan as we rolled down the gravel lane at the farm.

“If both come in, is it 1-2-shoot, or 1-2-3-shoot?” I asked.


“Okay, guy on the left gets the left bird and guy on the right gets the right bird?”

Nodding, Tack said “Sounds like a plan.”  Now we just needed cooperative birds.

The spot we were setting up was a five-minute drive up the road and as we headed there I made a mental note to myself of how dark it was going to be when we made our way in.  Seeing the birds in the trees from the distance was not going to be an option. We parked in a nearby corral and saddled up.  By Tack’s headlamp we made it to the field edge before going dark and walking the last 300 yards in the gloom of an April pre-dawn.  We stopped where we had last seen the birds and in hushed tones decided that a small island of six or seven hardwoods would be our spot.  If the birds had moved east after we left them, we’d hopefully hear them and get set before they flew down.  If they had gone further west before roosting, we’d be facing their approach.  In the dark we set three Avian-X hens and one HS Strut Jake Snood decoy at twenty steps, before slipping up against two trees.  I checked my watch and it was 5:25am.

We sat silently in the dark for a few minutes before I heard Tack hiss my name.


I turned my head.

“There’s an animal right there.”

I had a mild rush of adrenaline at the murky silhouette just five steps away and in my heart of hearts I would have been fine if it was a coyote, or a deer, or even a lion at that moment.  So long as it wasn’t a skunk.  As it turns out it was a husky old raccoon, and he made his way up a nearby tree after eyeing us in the dark for a few more minutes.

I calmed down and waited for a hen to murmur a morning greeting or a crow to fire off and draw a shock gobble from the toms.  But all that stirred were some spring peepers in a low marshy spot nearby and a steady but not altogether hard wind from the west.  What I noticed first as the dawn slipped slowly forward was that the decoys seemed quite close.

So yeah, that ‘twenty steps’ we had put the decoys at?  It was more like twelve or fifteen steps in the dim but inevitable light of day.

In the dark, I had resolved not to call a single note until I either heard a hen yelp or a tom light up with a gobble.  That was a particularly tough resolution for me as I really enjoy hearing myself make turkey noises, but I persevered.  I was passing my Woodhaven mouth call from cheek to cheek and strongly considering breaking my resolution when I saw a black shape on the ground go from narrow to wide.

It was a gobbler on the ground, and he was popping in and out of strut.  Neither Tack nor I had seen him fly down, and he had not made a peep on the limb.

“Tack, turkey right in front of us…” I whispered and as I did so another bird flew down a mere 70 yards from us.  Our silent sneak in under cover of darkness had put us close to the roost.  Way too close if you trust conventional turkey wisdom. In short order two hens and two longbeards were sixty yards from our gun barrels, milling about just out of range.  One gobbler stayed in strut the whole time while the other puttered around near the hens.

Tack and I both shoot right handed and he was about four feet to my right side, so as the hens began to slide to my left I grew worried that he would not be able to safely get a shot.  I had my longstanding 870 rested on my left knee, but I was going to have to shift slightly to have a shot myself.  At first the birds had shown only mild interest in our setup but then something changed.

As the four birds began to skirt the outside edge of our effective range, the strutting tom raised his head to full periscope and eyeballed the jake decoy intently. Both Tack and I saw the big longbeard’s head turn a bright white, and as he popped back into strut he began to do what Tack called the ‘dinosaur walk’ into the setup.  A crow barked and the big tom rattled off a gobble. It was the only sound we’d heard him make.

As he marched toward our gun barrels, the second bird popped into strut and began to do what I call the ‘death run’ trying to catch up.  They had one thing on their mind and that was to beat up the interloping jake moving in on ‘their girls’.

The birds strutted shoulder to shoulder, spitting and drumming as they approached the fake jake, and both their skullcaps were electric white. Without hesitation, the dominant bird that had been strutting from the time he flew down leapt and landed a flying kick to the side of the jake decoy, before following up with another kick and wing swat to the head, knocking the decoy from its stake.

In the commotion of the initial attack I whipped my gun into position, and I saw Tack do the same in my peripheral vision.  The second bird kicked the decoy while it was down and after a few seconds there was enough separation that we could distinguish a ‘left’ bird and a ‘right’ bird.

The dominant tom was to the left where I was, and the satellite bird was in front of Tack.

“Shawn…one…” I heard Tack whisper.

“Two…” I whispered, slightly louder.  The bird lifted his head and turned towards my voice just as I tightened my grip on the trigger.

My shot roared home first and milliseconds later Tack’s Winchester barked a reply.  I saw my bird flop down and stay down while Tack’s bird rolled once and came to rest against the base of one of the hen decoys. I pumped the gun and turned my head to meet Tack’s eyes.  I don’t know what my face looked like, but his was a huge grin punctuated with wide-eyed, stunned silence.  For a moment, we just sat there speechless.

Then the hooting and high-fiving started.

The final resting place of two big Bruce Peninsula gobblers.
The final resting place of two big Bruce Peninsula gobblers.
Red leg, black spur, yellow turkey tag.
Red leg, black spur, yellow turkey tag.

I went out to put my boot on the gobbler’s neck, but that was not necessary.  At 15 steps my new Winchester Longbeard XRs had blistered his head and neck completely. He had lifted his head slightly at our count, and although no pellets had hit him in the breast, his neck was denuded of feathers and part of his beard was shot off.  Tack’s bird flapped feebly as Brian picked it up, but he was stone dead within seconds. It was 6:25am.

Brian "Tack" Tackaberry (left) and Shawn West (right) with their Ontario longbeards.
Brian “Tack” Tackaberry (left) and Shawn West (right) with their Ontario longbeards.

We unloaded the guns, tagged the birds and for a few minutes just stood there soaking in the morning so recently ended.  We both agreed that we had been much too close to the birds, but that our early arrival, absolutely silent setup, and use of the lone jake decoy against the two toms had been the factors that bought us some leeway on being right there in the bird’s bedroom.  A few pictures later, I sent a text message to the boys from the previous night, reveling in our hunting group’s first double off the roost.  Their response started coming in and before long we were at the truck bed and our friends were rolling up to hear the story and check out the turkeys.

The 2017 season was started with a bang, and little did we know that it was only going to get better.

The List

It is around this time of year, with just a single weekend standing between me and the opening of turkey season, that I make “The List”.

It is a somewhat redundant exercise, but it makes me feel better about myself.

For months now I’ve been writing about the preparations I’ve been making, the mental duress I’ve been experiencing, and the practice I’ve been doing.  But “The List” brings closure, and likewise serves as the primer for the much- awaited start of Ontario’s wild turkey season. Every year the list gets longer, partly out of necessity, partly because packing and planning is an immensely fun part of the ritual.

I started all this with similar exercises for goose camp, and I came by it organically from my father and his numerous hand-written deer camp checklists that used to appear around our home in mid-October every year.

So, here’s some of what happens to be going to the Bruce Peninsula with me next week.  Some of the items may duplicate things you’ve taken for years; other things might seem like surplus to requirements.  Maybe you’ll even find a nugget or two in my list that you might start taking for yourself.


  • Mouth Calls. I have a dozen or more of these stashed on my person or in my vehicle at any given time during the spring. Keep a ready supply, because they aren’t for sharing.  My choice? Anything from the good folks at Woodhaven Custom Calls, but currently I’m running the Ninja Ghost more than any other call.
  • Box Calls. Yes, I used the plural.  The Real Hen from Woodhaven sounds exactly as it is named, but it is not waterproof.  I also pack along a very serviceable Primos Wet Box because it runs in the rain and has never failed me yet.
  • Friction Call & Strikers. Some hunters pack many pot & peg style calls or other manner of friction calls with them. I have one go-to in my Cherry Classic Crystal, but I have strikers from several companies to help sound like multiple hens.  I also pack a push-pin friction call from Quaker Boy, because it is great for doing fighting purrs or soft yelping like tree calls.
  • Locator Calls. I have owl, crow, hawk, and gobbler calls in my vest.  Turkeys have answered all of them at one time or another.


  • A weapon & Ammunition. My 870 is all I have, and it’s all I feel I’d ever need. In past years I’ve used Federal Mag Shok #6, but this year I couldn’t find it so I made the leap to Winchester Longbeard XR #5.
  • For notching tags and cleaning gobblers, a good blade should always be handy. Just watch your thumbs.
  • Pruning Shears. I love these for making shooting lanes or snipping twigs to construct a little makeshift blind if required.


  • Sore feet and blister suck, so a pair of comfortable, properly-fitted boots is essential.  Depending where you hunt this may mean hikers, rubber boots, or even snake boots.  Both my pairs are from Rocky Boots and I use rubber boots in the early season and lighter hikers with the addition of external Gore Tex gaiters in the later, warmer parts of the year.
  • A Turkey Vest. I was lucky enough to win some Cabela’s gift cards over the winter through a work function, and splurged them on a new turkey vest. My Primos Gobbler vest was on its last legs after serving dutifully for nearly a decade, and after doing the research I opted for a Cabela’s Tactical Tat’r 2 vest. I’ve tried other vests from Ol’ Tom and Under Armour, and all are equally solid.  Anything with a comfy seat and abundance of pockets fits the bill in my opinion.


  • Camo Outerwear. I always used to bring two sets of jackets.  One that would handle rain and one that would handle warm spring weather.  After last year, when my cousin Luke and I nearly caught a mild dose of hypothermia, I’ve resolved to also bring winter weather clothing as an insurance policy.  Get the best, driest, most comfortable camo you can afford.
  • Facemasks & Gloves. Again, I use the plural. I usually follow the warm-weather/cold-weather approach that I use for outerwear when it comes to facemasks and gloves, but I also have extras at the ready, because nothing is easier to lose than an absent-mindedly stashed pair of thin mesh gloves or an old facemask that gets hung up and left behind. I take three sets of each, minimum.
  • I bring a good camo hat with a mesh back for the warm mornings, and a camo fleece beanie for the cold mornings.


  • Because you never know when a poker game will break out or when you’ll make an ill-conceived bet with a fellow hunter and be required to pay off. Also, not every small-town business takes plastic, and there may come a time when you’ll be the one buying snacks at the local gas-station.
  • Because once the guns go away, nothing makes your tales of turkey hunting glory (or comedic, flailing, abject failure) more grandiose than a dram or two of the good stuff. I suggest a good single malt, or if you’re into bourbon, the clichéd but still excellent Wild Turkey.
  • Because nothing chases a whiskey like a beer. Duh.
  • Water bottle. If you’re running & gunning birds in the mid-day sun & have been huffing on a mouth call for six hours, you will be thankful for even a single mouthful of water.
  • A camera. From a basic cellphone camera right through to something too expensive to realistically be taken afield, make sure you have something to document your success with.  Also, I’ve seen some wacky things in the spring woods, and more than once wished I had a camera close by to document the proof.

I have way more than the above on my personal list, but if I had to pare this down to the “essentials”, I think I could manage to hunt quite comfortably outfitted in camp with the above items.

Stir Crazy

It won’t be too long now, and I for one am very happy for that.  You see it has been a long time since I felt a May morning’s dawn on my face, and too much time has lapsed since I last had twenty pounds of feathers and turkey meat slung over my right shoulder.  In the intervening months, I’ve dealt with all the same stressors and failings that you may have had to put up with.  Long hours at a job, family commitments of varying importance and enjoyability, the interminable puttering around with gear, and the long pining for the always-too-lengthy season of this Canadian winter to pass. I did get out and enjoy an unforgettable few months of waterfowl hunting, and as I often do, I passed another personally fruitless deer season trying to use telekinesis to convince a tall-tined buck that he’d much rather reside in my freezer than spend another winter in his wilderness home. But warmer weather is inching ever so slowly closer, and my inner monologue screams out to re-mortgage the home and head abroad to pursue wild turkeys.  Meanwhile, my imagination wanders to sun-dappled woods, the smell of trilliums blossoming, and the distant rattle of a dominant tom’s lovesick holler in response to my sweet calls floating on the spring breeze.

Spring greenery and Ontario trilliums are calling me.
Spring greenery and Ontario trilliums are calling me.

To paraphrase Tennyson “in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of hard-gobbling longbeards”. Butchering legendary poetry in the anticipation of turkey hunting.  That’s about where I am right now.

Some of you, if you are reading this from the southern United States, are already deep in the throes of turkey season, and for that I envy and secretly hate you. Not a day goes by when my social media feeds on Twitter and Instagram aren’t chock-a-block full of pictures of men, women, and children of the south grinning their proud, beaming grins from behind the fanned out tailfeathers of a recently deceased gobbler, or of hunters leaned pensively against a broad tree trunk patiently waiting for a wily turkey to make a fatal misstep.  Meanwhile here I sit north of the border with my head in my hands, angst-ridden and impatiently waiting.  Sometimes I slither down to my basement and delicately put hands on my favourite box call, before I lay it down and reverentially glide the purple-heart tip of a striker across roughly conditioned crystal.  When I do that, the raw nerve is soothed…albeit temporarily. I drive my car to work every day, erstwhile yelping and purring and whistling on assorted mouth diaphragms, picturing the approach of a thoroughly seduced gobbler in my mind’s eye.

Somedays the old fella plays hard to get, tiptoeing stealthily in, walking almost sideways to the setup the way that old, cagey turkeys with scimitar-long spurs sometimes do.  Other mornings I picture him as a frenzied two-year-old, horny, triple-gobbling and almost stomping on his beard as he stampedes down my gun barrel.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see turkeys do both scenarios above and almost everything in between…and one hefty longbeard that did both the slow approach and the death sprint in short succession of one another.  But most of the allure is in knowing that no matter the vividness of my imagination, pretty much every spring Tom Turkey finds some other way to surprise and teach me in a fashion that pales in comparison to everything I’d imagined.

My batting average is not hall of fame worthy, but my list of stories might be.  Wild turkeys can be maddening to chase, and almost once a season I’m ready to quit on the whole goddamn thing. Operator error often plays a factor, and I’ve worn them all.  Poor shooting, bad decision-making, impatience, having too much patience, over-confidence, lack of confidence, incredulously blind faith, and stubborn cynicism have all cost me turkeys in the mere decade that I’ve gone from rank amateur notorious for over-calling and educating turkeys, to only-slightly-less-rank novice turkey hunter who still overcalls and educates turkeys, but now does so with misplaced confidence in my occasionally shabby set of skills.  Every time one of those gaudily-plumed professors whips me, which is often, I file the experience neatly away in the memory banks, hoping that being humbled that particular day will make me slightly less gullible the next time I spar with a bird.  In the decades to come I marvel at the things I might learn about myself, all the while not really knowing what those things are.

Friends, or at least people who purport to be my friends, label my lamenting as grandiose.  They say “It’s just a dumb bird” or “I don’t see why you think they’re hard to kill. My buddy shot one within twenty minutes of his first hunt” or “Stop being a drama queen and focus”.

So maybe that is it.  Perhaps I am just of too fragile a disposition to make a legendary turkey hunter.  True, I can call well enough, and I can even do a reasonably good job of sitting still, but when that longbeard sounds off and heads my way, things get immediately and chaotically re-wired in my brain. I instantly get into a pitched battle between pride and hubris, and things I’ve long rehearsed and believed all my life somehow fall by the wayside.  Safety first and foremost always, but planning, rational decision-making, and even my proudest skills of being articulate fade from view under the heart-pounding, single-minded haze that making a gobbler bury his own head in the dirt breeds in my psyche.

I’ve got it bad, that gobbler fever.  Even when I think I’m alright, it can all slip-slide away in seconds when I hear him drumming on the other side of the ridge.  I think I’m so hot, with my high-test shotgun shells, sweet-sounding game calls, and photo-realistic decoys made of space age materials.  They aren’t worth their weight in manure when a bird that I didn’t even know was there rattles my bones with a gobble from inside ten yards and proceeds to turn my insides into just so much quivering pudding.

Writing this all down was supposed to be an act of therapy, some shameless display of catharsis in the public sphere.  An admission of my own faults and addictions that while purely self-indulgent, was also meant to entertain and perhaps even serve as a cautionary tale to those in the same lamentable predicament.  But all I’ve really done here, so far as I can tell, is wind myself up even tighter. The drum is stretched taut now, and as the hands glide around the clock face in my office, every tick-tock just reminds me that I’m still weeks and weeks away from a happy place at the foot of a tree.

Picture Sylvester the Cat in that Looney Tunes episode where he thinks he’s finally managed to kill Tweety Bird.  That’s me lately…pacing back and forth in my mind and about to wear a groove through the floor of my once steely resolve.

Pratfall comedy and children’s cartoon references aside, the masochist in me openly loves the emotional duress and occasional physical suffering.  The sleep deprivation.  The bewildered looks from my spouse. Silent mornings of serenity, punctuated with raucous turkey noises and booming shotgun blasts. The sense of community in being with other turkey hunters, and the sense of exclusivity in having a one-on-one battle of wits and skills with a supremely adapted and wary (not to mention delicious) adversary. The outdoors experience is full of emotional complexity like this; I’ve always felt a sad sense closure to a successful turkey hunt, mingled with a degree of whooping excitement as I smooth down any feathers I may have ruffled in harvesting the bird.  When the season comes to a close, there is relief couple with a lingering sense of greater things still unexperienced, and I suppose these are true of any kind of hunting if a person is passionate enough about it.

I’m fairly far gone from being philosophical anymore, and this rambling is best served to end now, so I’ll close with wishing all the other members of the Tenth Legion out there the best of luck and I hope you have fine weather and willing gobblers wherever it is that you hunt them.

When You F@%! Things Up

We’ve all done it.  We’ve made mistakes, and I’m not talking about the minor, piffling mistakes of a day-to-day life.  I mean big mistakes; errors that cost you a deer, screw-ups that sent that whole flock of turkeys sprinting into the next county, or boneheaded blunders that flare ducks and geese at the last minute.

There are, in my mind, fundamentally two types of ways that hunters screw up.  They either forget to do things that would lead to success, or they do things that prevent their success.  In both psychology and philosophy there is a whole genre of debate about the same thing, called ‘errors of omission’ and ‘errors of commission’.  I am neither psychologist nor philosopher, so I’ll leave the dialectics aside here and just fess up to things I’ve done on both sides of that particular ledger.

This always cathartic.

The constant hope is that you are alone when you commit these boners, so that you can just quietly berate and loathe yourself in solitude.  Not always the case, though.

Two years ago, with my then six-year old son in the ditch next to me and four or five good friends in close proximity watching, I missed three layups on geese inside 15 yards.  We had been having just a stunner of a morning.  We had found a fresh-cut field and piles of willing geese; birds pitched in on almost every pass and we were beginning to make some solid stacks.  A group of three spun hard at our calling and flagging, and as they bee-lined for the fakes, they slid ever so slightly to my left.  It was obvious that those birds were going to all die together at the business end of my shotgun.  I have always fantasized of making a true triple on a trio of decoying geese, and I like to think that my anticipation was the reason I balked hard on the birds.  When I rose to shoot the birds still hadn’t made me and I whizzed my first volley over the head of the leading bird…a bird that should have been flaring and climbing.  In panic I threw a wasted string of steel somewhere near the same bird, which was now obliging me by flaring hard and climbing rapidly, accompanied by the derisive laughter of my compatriots.  The third blast was a true parting shot as the birds were making hasty exits and I ushered them along with a wayward hail of steel BBs.  The lads down the ditch were roasting me loudly and thoroughly and I muttered a not so silent curse at myself.  My son innocently asked why I missed and I tried to explain myself with a rueful grin on my face.  Not my finest moment in the blind, although that evening and the next morning brought some redemption at least.

Sometimes you are alone, but people just have too many questions.

While walking into a tree stand a few years back in deer season I was obviously daydreaming or something and as I approached my ladder I was paying no real attention to my surroundings at all.  I crested a small rise and heard a deer snort.  Closely.  Think inside thirty steps.  I snapped my head up and saw a small buck standing broadside against a line of cedars.  As I fumbled to throw my rifle to my shoulder he coiled and bounded for the safety of the thicket, while I blasted two cartridges at what I was certain was his front shoulder.  After thirty minutes of searching, I found no blood, no hair, no dead deer.  The radios we use when out party hunting were crackling with questions, and I passed it off as shots at a wayward coyote.  Which way did the coyote come from, they asked.  Which way did he go, they asked? Was he a big coyote?  A dark one? Was he running fast or just loping along?  Was it more than one coyote?  How far were your shots? My tapestry of lies became untenable over time and I secretly confided in my cousin.  He promptly told everyone, to my chagrin.  Now it would seem that I cannot be trusted.

Sometimes you just screw up and just have to own it.

In two consecutive years I’ve missed two spring gobblers, and both times operator error lead to my hubris.  I killed an absolute trophy piece of limestone ridge one year, instead of the handsome strutter giving me a full periscope of his head and neck behind it.  Last year I blazed a pair of shots at a bird that I was convinced was a mere thirty steps away. On closer inspection he was much nearer to forty-five steps than thirty and I had cocked up an absolutely picture perfect opportunity for my cousin Luke and I to double up on a pair of Bruce Peninsula longbeards.  I took that one out on myself particularly hard, almost renouncing my membership in the Tenth Legion on the spot…except we all know that would be an error as well.

I, of course, am not the only hunter who experiences flailing ineptitude.  One of my favourite nights in deer camp, once the guns are away and the wine and whiskey flows freely, is hearing the camp elders, truly my heroes of deer hunting and men with countless deer under the belts, regale us all with the tales of their own hilarious failings, of their incomprehensible misses and gaffes, and for a while I don’t feel so crushingly inadequate…although that may have more to do with rye than with my reality.

Nevertheless, to err is truly human, and to miss is the mark of an experienced hunter, or so I’m told by people who really want to spare my fragile ego.

If you’ve got a favourite ‘missing’ story, especially if it doesn’t involve me, add it below in the comments, tweet it to @getoutandgohunt or post it here on our Facebook page.

Hunting. Not Hype.