After laying probably the worst beat on me ever in 2009, I was really hoping that the Pines Gobbler had made it through the winter and survived into 2010.
With almost no time to scout the location in 2010, and having already endured the most miserable ‘May 1st weekend” weather I had ever seen, I made my way hopefully north to the familiar hunting grounds of the Bruce Peninsula for the weekend of May 8th, 2010. I had asked around and no one had seen the Pines Gobbler or another big tom matching his description, and a friend of mine had permission to hunt the property ahead of me anyways so with a tinge of melancholy I gave up the big tom for dead, or at least that he had found other, less obvious places to hang out. Besides, at the time I worked with a woman who had a family cottage in the same area I was hunting in and she had said something to me which made me tingle with anticipation.
“You know the property along the main highway there, the one with the green steel roof on the homestead?” I said that I did know that property, and that I knew the man who owned it as well. “Well I was driving up to open the cottage last weekend, and I saw about a dozen turkeys in that front field, right at the back against the trees.”
When I asked her if she saw any big ones strutting, she said that they all looked pretty big from the width of a pasture field away, at which point I realized that to a non-hunter pretty much any turkey looks ‘big’. I was heartened and worried simultaneously (any avid turkey hunter knows this feeling) because if she had seen them, certainly others, and most definitely someone with a mind to hunt the birds, had seen them as well.
I called the landowner that night. He said no one had approached him for permission and that I was free to go in and hunt turkeys in that property if I wanted to. Things were coming together and with no proof that the Pines Gobbler was even alive, I focused my energies on the next challenge.
There is a finger of field that runs just behind the place where my co-worker had seen the birds, and it seemed to me a place that just had to have turkeys nearby; it was isolated and hidden from the road, but close enough to the last reported sighting to be well within earshot. I drove in on a very dark morning, just behind a passing thunderstorm and found a large turkey track in the dirt road while walking in. Buoyed, I sat in the “V” of a very damp, very mossy, very old cedar rail fence overlooking a wedge of field not more than 70 yards across. My Flambeau hens, one feeder, one upright, stood 20 steps away, looking first like gloomy blobs in the dark, then morphing into grey shadows, and then coming into focus under the break of a steely gray morning.
The thunderstorm rumbled in protest as the wind moved it southeast, but the low, hazy dawn persisted behind it and I was to have no sunshine that morning. The weather was strange. It was not quite fog, and it was not quite drizzle, it was just that kind of cold clammy dampness that gets into everything and makes your pot calls run funny. My box call was waterproof though, and I gave some light yelps just at fly down, with no answer. At around 7am I cranked up the volume a bit and just before 8am a gobble cut off a series of aggressive cuts from my mouth call. The bird was in front of me, but I could not precisely tell where the tom was. He never showed himself and never spoke again. After two hours I left wet, bedraggled, and frustrated. On my way out I was fortunate enough to sneak within 100 yards of some Sandhill Cranes performing their courtship dance, which is truly one of nature’s most elegant forms of entertainment, a bit like a wildlife ballet, but that single distant gobble haunted my thoughts on the drive back to the farm.
No one else in our little group of hunters had connected that morning (most had heard the thunder and did not even bother going out) so as is our habit, we had breakfast and planned an afternoon of running and gunning. The plan was simple: drive to places where we had permission to hunt, get quietly out of the truck, make a whole bunch of turkey racket, and hopefully get a hot tom to come for a visit. Our batting average over the years is right around .500 with that tactic so we must be doing something right. A wicked wind picked up while we were eating and threatened to spoil our plan. Our solution was to do it anyways, just with louder and longer calling.
The first three stops netted no answer, so we went into a spot close to where I had my 2009 run in with the Pines Gobbler, but as I said, I had put that mean old bird out of my mind. Allegedly a gaggle of jakes had taken up residence there, and I was hungry for some turkey tenders so I was not fussy on punching my tag with a short-bearded bird.
My cousin, my brother, my good friend, and I all stepped out of the truck and let slide with a chorus of yelps and cuts that sounded like some sort of enticingly violent turkey orgy. It worked. Not one, not two, but three lusty turkeys answered our pleas. With the wind blowing high it was tough to say how far they were, but when they gobbled again seconds later with no provocation it was obvious that they were running to meet us.
Jakes. It had to be those jakes.
We softly closed truck doors, slid some shells into shotguns, and my brother and I hastily sat down next to each other at a junction where one trail became two. My cousin and friend, unarmed and not at all interested in shooting jakes, sat ten yards in back of us behind a knoll. They kept pouring on the hen music. The birds were gobbling to my right and coming hard, so I turned slightly that way and bore down on the stock of my 870. My brother was to my left with his gun barrel pointed directly at the fork in the trail. I had about twenty yards of space between me and an impenetrable blow down so the hope was that the birds would come between the blow down and myself and then perhaps offer my brother a shot in the subsequent turkey panic.
Now, before I go further, here’s a point that every turkey hunter (if they don’t know it already) needs to understand. Whatever you think a turkey might do, he will invariably do the opposite. If you try to get clever and purposely do the opposite of what you think a turkey might do so as to double-bluff the gobbler, he’ll do what you initially thought he would but didn’t account for. Either way, you’ll almost always need to adapt or fail.
In this case I failed. The birds found the open trail and hightailed it down to the fork…a path that took them right down my brother’s barrel. To make matters worse, before I could see the birds I heard the unmistakeable Pffft….voooooom of a turkey spitting and drumming. These were not jakes.
I could just see glimpses of the birds, but all three were strutting up the road on my left to my brother. They gobbled so loudly that I thought their heads were fixing to fall off; one of the gobbles put me in mind of a bad beat I had suffered at the hands of a wily tom in the same area last year.
I was right, and I heard him before I saw him, but there was no question of who it was. When I did finally see him, mere seconds before my brother dispatched one of the other satellite toms, there was no doubt in my mind that the Pines Gobbler lived. He was the last of the three strutters and though I could not swing around to shoot him without spooking the lot of them, with my eyes cut left I could see clearly that thick beard and one big spur on his leading foot. And that voice, God that voice. I said I’d never forget it, and I hadn’t.
When my brother’s 870 barked the lead gobbler began flopping and digging his head into the trail while the Pines Gobbler and his consigliere fled straight away back from where they had come. I leapt up but was only privy to two black blurs speeding away and even though I knew my pattern was good out to fifty yards, a running poke at such a bird was never on my mind.
It was a hunt that none of the four of us will ever forget, and while I was very happy for my brother, I was also insatiably hungry to match wits with the Pines Gobbler again. We left to weigh and dress out my brother’s two-year old bird, but also to let the spot cool down; when I came back for the evening sit I heard not a whisper of a turkey there. The same was true of the next morning stand. Family commitments saw me unable to hunt the afternoon shift that Sunday (gun-hunting is permitted in that Wildlife Management Unit on Sundays) but while reliving that run and gun hunt on the drive home I resolved to get back and have one more crack at the Pines Gobbler for 2010.
The next weekend I was indisposed and could not muster a hunt, and the next Saturday on the Victoria Day holiday weekend I hunted around the Barrie area, but the birds seemed to have had lockjaw in that part of the province.
Closing weekend came slowly and my work-week (and five restless nights) teemed with nothing other than visions of getting a chance to close the deal on that bad boss gobbler. I took the Friday afternoon off so that I could do a quick evening’s scouting before the morning hunt, but the bird was not in any of his old haunts, nor did he answer my crow and hawk calls in the vicinity of where I had last seen him. No one had reported sighting him, but no one had likewise reported shooting a bird of his stature, so I was pretty sure he was still out there, in hiding, and just being ornery with me. To top it off it was drizzling, with no sign of it improving until mid-day on Sunday…a Sunday, that by the way, was the final day of the season.
Driving slowly down a muddy road, feeling sorry for myself and resigned to just going back to the same spot where I had last seen him last, I slammed on the brakes. There was a turkey track on the soft shoulder of the road. It looked big, but it was also a little washed out. I got out of the car and looked closer at it. The track crossed the road into a cedar stand near a hydro cut that I had hunted rabbits in more times than I could remember. I knew just where I would set up in there: a small clearing about 30 yards wide and 50 yards long flanked by thick cedars and the hydro cut on the south side and open hardwoods out to the north and east. I crow called hopefully, wishing for that heavy, gravel-shaken-in-a-tin-can gobble to ring out, but still I received no response.
Yet this track was the only turkey sign I’d seen that whole afternoon while scouting, so I really only had one option. Hunt the bird that I hoped had made that punch in the mud.
I got up at an ungodly hour that Saturday morning and in the wet, dripping darkness walked for fifteen minutes to the clearing. I was soaked by the time I put out both my hen decoys, and for the hell of it (and because I was desperate) I put out a Flambeau “Intruder Jake” decoy as well. I pruned myself a bower under a sopping wet hummock of balsams, sat down, and waited for fly down time. I almost chewed my mouth call to pieces with anticipation. I checked my watch and at the appropriate time I tried to slide my Federal Mag-Shok #6s into the action of my 870 as smoothly and as quietly as possible. Later, but probably still a little too early, I purred and tree-yelped softly. Instantly, and from behind me, a tom turkey roared back. I should have been happy but I wasn’t.
I was set up close, way too close. Think “twenty yards away from his roost” too close. Now maybe I should have owl-called before I got that close to my stand, or maybe I should have slunk further away when he gobbled, but I was in a predicament just then and paralyzed with indecision. Mostly I just sat there praying that the wet ground had muffled my approach and that the metallic’ snick-snick’ of me loading my gun had not sounded like a gong to this bird. I hoped because from that one gobble there was no question that it was the bird I wanted.
He gobbled again and again on the roost, but I was determined not to yelp back. He was already way too close and most certainly knew I was there. Every gobble tied me in knots: this was the bird that beat me so badly twelve months before, just across the road from where he was roosted. I didn’t want revenge from my 2009 debacle because, as Moby Dick has shown us, wildlife has no concept of spite, pride, or vengeance. I just wanted a chance to best this wise old tom at his own game because that’s part of the challenge and allure of turkey hunting. I heard him fly down and gobble on the ground, but he was going away from me. He got quieter and quieter as he marched further and further away. I begged him to come back over and over, and once in a while he did return a few steps back to me, but never all the way. I was going to have to move.
I pulled up my decoys and set them under the balsams. I threw some of the boughs that I had pruned to make my stand on top of them and decided to make a wide circle around the gobbler. I unloaded my gun to head up the road in an effort to get in front of this bird, and I’ll tell you I’ve never had that “Murphy’s Law” feeling more acutely than I did right then. With my shotgun in one hand and three shotgun shells in the other I was almost certain that this cagey old turkey would suddenly materialize on the road in front of me while I had an empty gun, or that he’d gobble behind me and I’d turn to see him looking at me from backtrail.
The paranoia of a turkey hunter chasing a hidden, silent gobbler is nearly unmatched. My neck was sore from all the turning around to look over my shoulder.
Finally I got to where I thought I would be in front of the bird. I reloaded and cut hard on my box call. He answered, and he started coming my way, gobbling constantly. Then I saw him. He was winnowing his way through some low gads and saplings; he was hot and in half-strut. I thought about my decoys under the cedars and half-wished I’d brought a confidence hen. There was no where that I could get a clear shot until he was within 20 steps or so, and he never even came that close. He had to have seen something he didn’t like (because I was a living statue…for once) and he folded up and started half-trotting away to my right.
When he went behind a tree, I tried to twist my body to the right for a shot. If you are a right-handed shooter like I am, you know how difficult and uncomfortable this can be, and frankly, I’m not what you would call ‘limber’. He didn’t putt so I don’t think he saw me, but shortly he disappeared. Again I sang on the box call; no answer. I went into a fighting purr routine with my mouth diaphragm fifteen minutes later. Nothing. He had been gone for half-an-hour and I was sitting there quietly with my gun half-raised on my knee when he gobbled so near to me that I thought he was going to peck my ear off; to say he startled me is an understatement.
He was behind me again, but the next gobble told me he was coming around to my left. I slowly raised the gun and cut my eyes to the side; there he was. This time he was doing that ultra-slow turkey stalk. He was spooked and frankly so was I. Sliding the safety off, I needed him to take five steps into an opening and miraculously it looked like he was finally going to oblige me. My mind was racing; the moment was finally at hand. And then I did it.
I screwed it up.
Preparing to shoot, I lowered my cheek way down and pulled the butt of the gun even more tightly into my shoulder. Milliseconds later I would have pulled the trigger, but he saw that movement and in a flurry of putting and shock gobbling the big tom half-sprinted, half-flew out sight.
It was the closest I’ve come to crying while turkey hunting. I swore. I said horrible things about myself out loud to any tree that would care to listen. I cursed the Pines Gobbler, wild turkeys everywhere, and turkey hunting in general. Then I moped back to where this had all started, stuffed my decoys in their bag and trudged back to the farm. Halfway back across the big front field, I heard the bird again. He was a way across the road, back in his safe pines. He was gobbling. It sounded to me, at that moment, like triumphant laughter.
After a very quiet, very pensive lunch I put in a half-hearted attempt to hunt the gobbler that afternoon. After all, I knew where to find him, but I was also beaten down. Although he gave me a momentary thrill when he marched half-way across a field towards me, my hopes were ultimately dashed when he skirted me by 100 yards and crossed the road. I roosted him and the next morning I set up on him again in the very early hours. I even owl-called to avoid setting up too close to him, but he never made a peep and all I saw that morning was a small red fox that was stalking my decoy setup. I mouse-squeaked the charcoal-footed little fox to within eight steps but he caught my scent when the wind changed and he bolted like his tail was on fire. This cheered me up a bit because I like the antics of red foxes and see no real reason to shoot one that isn’t causing any trouble in the henhouse.
So that’s how a two year odyssey with the Pines Gobbler stands to date. Again, so far as I know, no one shot him and he just has the weather, the coyotes, and the traffic on the county roads to survive this winter. I swore to my wife that if I run into this bird again I am just going to live and let live and not even bother hunting him; he’s obviously far superior to me in every way, and to be honest my self-esteem simply cannot take another spring flogging.
I just hope that if I do happen hear that gobbler doing his raspy, angry shouting, and see his puffed up tilt-a-whirl strutting routine that I can help myself.
Odds are I won’t be able to.