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HuntFit or HuntFat?

In the preceding few years, I have noticed a trend creeping into every aspect of the hunting community, and that is an increased focus on the health benefits of hunting, which is a noble thing to be focusing on.  Time spent outdoors is undoubtedly beneficial, a tidy hike through the woods being far preferable to dozens of other sedentary pastimes, and the numerous health benefits of consuming wild game has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

That said, there also seem to be an effort afoot to glorify an ultra-fit outdoors lifestyle as somehow ‘better’ or in some way more rewarding method of pursuing game.  Under Armour or Sitka Gear do not have hunting pro-staff members.  They have “Athletes”, which in a hunting context sounds patently ridiculous.  This whole thing has been on my mind and has been thought-provoking to say the least.

Is this purely self-aggrandizing machismo?  Marketing? A way to sub-divide the hunting community into classes?  Is there merit in the dichotomy between the HuntFit movement and what I lovingly call the HuntFat movement, and does this dichotomy denigrate anyone who isn’t fit enough to pack out whole elk quarters or climb mountains in search of bighorn sheep? Does this devalue the hunting experience at large of those who are not in peak physical condition? What are the metrics?

This fellow did not take care of himself very well. Photo Credit: Rory Eckenswiller

I can remember the first time my own lack of fitness impacted my hunting experience.  A one-time collegiate athlete, I had let an inactive lifestyle take over, and between nine hours at a desk every day, a long commute in the car, and a generally poor diet, I had gotten more than soft…I had gotten fat.  My cousin Luke and I were hiking out to a couple of deer stands in the Parry Sound district are we hunt in, and I was rapidly getting sweaty, winded, and leg-weary.  More than once I stumbled slightly over fallen tree limbs that my legs were just too sore to step over.  I was breathing hard and loud, and I was so damp from sweat that I almost immediately caught a chill when I finally reached my stand. Luke, never one to exercise an internal monologue, basically asked if I was going to keel over from a heart attack on the way back out.

Now there are certainly areas of the hunting experience that don’t simply benefit from being ultra-fit, but that essentially mandate it.  I would be courting danger to head on a high-country goat hunt in miserable physical shape.  I would be doing the animal a disservice if I were pack-hunting and managed to shoot an elk or moose in a spot where the butchery had to happen at the kill site.  It takes physical strength and stamina to pack out meat, horns, and hides. I can see why they say that safari hunting on the ground in Africa requires physical and mental stamina, especially when hunting dangerous game.  All valid points in favour incorporating high levels of physical fitness into the hunting tradition.

But what about the ‘rest of us’?  Last year, my doctor told me it was time for a change, or I was staring down the barrel of obesity, diabetes, and cardiac problems, and I wasn’t even 40 years old. I was a hunter that indulged in rich food, both at deer camp and day-to-day.  I did hardly any physical fitness and had not been into a gym for years. I rode the ATV if the country got rough, and I got winded dragging deer or carrying a backload of decoys. I was fat, and it was a source of good-natured ribbing from the camp boys. Maybe I was not ‘okay’ with it, but I was comfortable with it.

So for myself and my family, not for hunting, I committed a whole lot of time, effort, and money to getting in shape.  I’m there now.  Down 50lbs, way down from almost 32% body fat, and up lean muscle.  I feel great, and some say I look great.  All good things, but none of which much to do with hunting.  I’m sure it can’t help but be beneficial, but I don’t think it makes me a better hunter (because I have no idea how to quantify ‘better’ in a hunting capacity) and it certainly doesn’t make me think less of anyone who wants to live differently.

This fellow does take better care of himself, but it hasn’t made him any better at deer hunting.

For a long time I’ve personally resented the HuntFit movement, because I took it (and still do to some degree) as an attack on the majority of hunters who simply enjoy the outdoors recreationally and may, in the course of their day-to-day lives, be out of shape, or slightly obese, or otherwise physically inferior to those who subscribed to this model of physical fitness uber alles.

I consider it in many ways to be exclusionary, and there are certain individuals out there that privately and publicly act in a definitively exclusionary way.  The outdoors just seems to be an extension of the gym to them, some personal best just waiting to be conquered.  I find it offensive at worst, ridiculously myopic at best. It takes away the democratic feel of the North American hunting tradition, and boils it down to ‘fit’ versus ‘unfit’.

I can also safely I’ve never shared a hunting camp with a hunter of the ‘physically fit’ variety.  That’s not to say I have not hunted with very athletic and in-shape people…because I have.  But more accurately, my hunting per group is just a group of average guys, some that could use to drop a few (or more than a few) pounds, some that while slim, couldn’t jog 5 minutes without breaking down, and others who ripple with muscles and live a lifestyle that renders them terrifyingly strong.  But no one in my goose, duck, deer, or turkey camps makes a point of staying in shape as part of their preparation for hunting. And feats of strength rarely factor into what we value in our hunting camps…although arm-wrestling does occasionally break out.

Likewise, in the past I have shared hunting camps with some of the most physically out-of-shape people I’ve ever seen. Fat guys, chain-smokers, heavy drinkers, party animals, loud-snorers, fatty-food loving guys, and more.  And you know what?  Every one of them all loved hunting, and I never saw their experience diminished by their bad habits.  Are their personal (and by extension, deer-camp) lifestyles beneficial and worth emulating?  Probably not, but that’s not for me to decide.

I’m reasonably fit and healthy now, and I still have the same obsession for chasing waterfowl and turkeys that I did when I had sleep apnea.  Losing weight and getting stronger did not ignite some hidden love of deer hunting that I did not know existed.  I still like it just the same as I did when I was creeping up to 270lbs.  Can I get to a deer stand without getting winded? Sure. That’s a nice fringe benefit, but is my deer hunting experience quantifiably better? No sir, it isn’t.

I’ve tried to think of all the arguments that are coming my way.  People will say I didn’t love hunting enough to give it my full physical effort.  That I don’t have ‘appreciation’ for what it takes to hunt fit, whatever that means.  That is am just condoning lazy, “slob” hunting habits. And so on, and so on.  There is an absolute truth here, and that is if you are in the minority of ultra-fit hunters and you treat that as some means to demean and devalue the vast, vast, vast majority of everyday hunters…or worse yet, try to use this HuntFit trend to make a tidy living off exploiting this majority of everyday hunters, then you are one of the things wrong with the modern hunting culture.  Not a popular stance, but I stand by it.

Anyhow.

I decided to change for my kids and my wife.  If there’s a hunting benefit at all, it might be that I’ll get to enjoy hunting experiences with my boys for a longer time if I’m healthier.  That’s still a ‘might be’ only because I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and all the burpees, crunches, and wind-sprints won’t help me then.

So, just go out and enjoy your hunting however you like it. If it means indulging in rich food and whiskey at dinner, riding the ATV because you can’t climb hills, and hunkering into a weather-proof blind in a comfy chair, so be it.  If you want to do chin-ups and push-ups before you head out to scale craggy peaks in search of game in some test of man against nature, or you against yourself, then go ahead and do that too, even though I just don’t understand it.

In either case, just be safe, have fun, and pass on the tradition. Because the future, and history of hunting is bigger than you, despite whether you choose to HuntFit or HuntFat.

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.

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.

“1-2-shoot.”

“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.

“Shawn?”

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.