I do not know how old the Pines Gobbler was in 2009, but three or four years might have been a safe guess. I did not doubt that he has been chased by many hunters, a lot of whom were probably better than me, and for aperiod in 2009 he became my white whale.
I first saw him on the Saturday before the 2009 opener, while I was out scouting. He crossed a road fifteen yards from my parked car, and I could tell than that he was better than average. He was tall and his beard was thick and would push double digits; his spurs looked like they already had a good hook. But most distinctive of all is his gobble. After crossing the road that early April morning he began to sound off in a stand of hardwoods at every hen turkey, crow and blue jay. His was a full, throaty holler that is unmistakable to me now. He roosted in a stand of pines that no one I know had permission to hunt in. After flying down he’d ramble around an area of a few square miles, but almost nightly he would return to roost in the fobidden pine stand.
I saw him again on the second day of the 2009 season while I was driving home from an afternoon hunt with my cousin. The old tom was across the road from his roost pines and fifty yards out from a stand of trees in a field that my family owns. When we slowed down to look he began walking towards the field edge and out of sight. We devised a quick plan and looped the block to set up an ambush for him. Things looked good, but when we got to our spot he was gone. He did not gobble or putt, he had simply vanished. We called and called but he remained mute. I momentarily pondered whether or not we had been hallucinating.
Two weeks later I was in the same neck of the woods, this time with my brother. It had rained throughout the morning and no one had seen a gobbler, which made for an early end to the morning hunt. When the rain stopped we prepared to head out and our Dad told us that he had seen a big gobbler in the pasture immediately adjacent to that off-limits pine stand. We double-timed it to a spot parallel but distant from where the gobbler had been seen and slowly walked to set up. When we were not twenty yards into the woods he gobbled and seconds later he thundered again, closer. We rushed to set up and as I faced west my brother faced east. Webegan calling to him; every time he answered, he came closer and closer until only a single ridge stood between him and us. If he came directly over the ridge or around it to the west, I would have had a thirty yard shot. If he came around the east side, my brother would have had the same. The gobbler foiled us both when he grew bored and walked straight away from our set up. During his escape my brother had glimpsed a couple of hens with him. A tense, silent hour later we gave up, and circling the block by car we saw no sign of him. Again he had disappeared. I was not sure quite what we had done wrong, but it was now abundantly clear that this gobbler was going to be very tough to kill.
That night was spent at a memorial celebration for a hunting companion who had died before turkey season but I heard through others at the event that the gobbler had roosted in the pine stand again. I set my mind on harvesting him. Three and a half hours of fitful sleep stood between me and the day that I was determined to make the one when I would get the Pines Gobbler. The plan was to get in very early, get as close as I could without spooking the bird and then wait for him to fly down. Despite being so wily, he was laughably predictable and almost every morning he walked out of the pines, crossed the narrowest point of the pasture, and went into the woods I had hunted the day before with my brother. I made a promise to myself that I would not call once.
The morning began badly. While getting dressed, the button broke off of the only pair of hunting pants I had brought, forcing me to wear my belt extra tight. When I parked my car at 4:30am I accidentally set the car alarm off and it blared for twenty seconds while I fished for the keys that I had buried in my turkey vest. I was now positive that every bird in the township was spooked and that I may as well go back to bed, but when he gobbled on the roost I knew I had to try him. Ten minutes later, and well ahead of sunrise, I reached a finger of cedars that was directly south from his pine tree roost and I set to making myself invisible by hunkering back into the cedar edge so that only my gun barrel was poking out. Just over 100 yards away he gobbled constantly until fly down and it took all my energy to not yelp ever so softly on my diaphragm. I heard him hit the ground just before six and I steadied my shotgun on my knee.
For half an hour after fly down the woods were silent and nothing came into the pasture. I worried that he had heard me or my car alarm and simply gone the other way. A deep depression in the pasture stood between my set up and the gobbler’s roost, but it was the hen that I saw first. Initially I could only see her head bobbing up and down, but within twenty minutes she had fed to within five yards of my set up. I have never sat as as still as I did in that moment; if she busted me then it would have been game over early. As she walked past me into the woods the gobbler started sounding off again. Obviously while I was watching her, he had crossed into the pasture. At first I could only see the white of his head and the top of his tail fan as he came out of the low spot and up the hill in full strut. He was walking right in the hen’s tracks and it looked as though he would finally make a fatal mistake. Of course, that was the jinx.
At sixty yards he stopped and looked at me, or at least he looked in my direction. While he stood stock still for ten minutes I tried not to blink or breathe; my heart hammered in my ears and my stomach was in a knot. He took six more steps and stopped again, and again he stood as still and as silent as a statue for what seemed like an eternity. The morning sun shone on him and he was all bronze, gold and green iridescence. My legs cramped and my shoulders trembled at the strain of holding the gun at the ready; it had been almost two hours since this saga started and I had not moved more than six inches since I had sat down in the pre-dawn. Suddenly, he hammered a huge triple gobble and began to trot away, cackling, gobbling and leaving me stunned and shaking my head. I was emotionally gutted and as my two hour adrenaline rush subsided I realized I was physically exhausted. For forty-five more minutes I could hear him walking away and gobbling, and I wracked my brain for what I had done to spook the bird. Deep down though, I knew that there was nothing I could have done differently. It was simply that the Pines Gobbler was better than me that day. He intimately knew every stone, branch, and leaf in the area and even though I was hidden from the hen, I could not elude his wary stare. I paced off roughly how far away I thought he had been before he left the scene and estimated him to be 50 yards away. Should I have shot? Maybe. Does it matter now? Not really.
Defeated, I snuck out of the area and to my car. As I drove home I saw him one last time, standing on a hill a few lots north from where I had last seen him, and he looked as regal far out in the open as he did in the pasture. Where he stood there was no way to get to him and although I am a little ashamed to admit it, part of me just did not want to hunt him any more that morning anyhow. He had just beaten me soundly and my ego needed a rest.
My only hope was that he would make it through the rest of 2009 and the 2010 winter. I should have been careful what I wished for.