A light drizzle carried by a chill wind greeted me when I went out to load my shotgun and decoys in the car. It was 4:40am and I was heading out to get my dad so that we could kick off the 2014 spring turkey season at a local haunt where we’ve often tagged gobblers.
I kissed my wife on the cheek before I left and for the umpteenth time in our marriage her muttered, early morning farewell to me was “You’re crazy…” Maybe I am, but the pull of turkey hunting overrides any of my common sense affinities for a warm bed and a peaceful sleep.
The previous night at around 9pm, my brother and I had stopped near to this particular hunting spot and I had fired a few notes from an owl call. Despite the steady tapping of the nighttime rain, we both heard a distant gobble and I was confident that I’d have at least a chance at the bird that sounded off from deep in the woods.
My cellphone buzzed, and it was an early morning text message from my Dad. He had decided, on account of the cold drizzle, to forego the morning hunt. My brother was working. It was just me and the birds now. I drove in and opted not to tempt the mud of the narrow lane, instead parking on the shoulder of the road, where I quietly suited up in my vest and slung a decoy over my shoulder. I pressed car doors and trunks shut oh-so-softly, and slipped behind the gate. Just inside the treeline, I stopped and pulled my facemask up. Checking my watch I realized I was legal to load my shotgun, and as I reached into my pants pocket for a shell, a gobbler thundered overhead, just twenty paces away. My heart attempted to make an exit via my mouth, but I managed to thwart its escape.
It was not the same bird that had gobbled to my owling the night before. Oh no, this one was much closer to the roadway, and I now more than ever regretted not owling a little before I walked in. Although it was great to hear a gobbler so early in the morning, I was deflated and pretty certain that this particular bird had seen (and heard) me pull up, suit up, and walk in. I was pretty much hooped, or so I thought.
Still I pressed on, and if I had been generally quiet in my earlier entrance to the woods, I was now achieving ninja-like levels of stealth as I slowly and in near-perfect silence made my way to a spot some 200 yards or so from where the gobbling was happening. The bird kept gobbling as I walked away, but I resisted the urge to call to him. Finding a nice sturdy tree to lean against, I set out my fake hen, eased my butt down onto the damp forest floor and got comfortable. The plan was to not call at all until after the bird flew down, and then just try to get him within sight of my decoy. It was a long shot, but it was all I had in the tank at the time.
For twenty minutes or so the bird gobbled sporadically, and then some hens fired up from the treetops as well. Any hope I had that I was targeting a solitary, and hopefully lonesome, gobbler went out the window. But I couldn’t be mad because I was turkey hunting and it just sometimes goes that way. I heard the faint wingbeats as the birds left their roosts, and the longbeard’s gobble changed in tone when he hit the ground. Fearing competition from the live hens he was with, I slowly started to call, quietly at first, but as soon as he answered I picked up both the urgency and the volume. Being well-hidden in a blow down at the base of that sturdy tree mentioned above, I cut hard and loud on my mouth call, and miraculously, the gobbler started to get closer.
I was pretty sure that he was on the same trail that I walked in on, and he was slowly but surely closing the distance. To my right an unseen hen started yapping at my calls, and I cut her off every time, hoping to not only fire up the gobbler but to get her in a state where she may have also come looking for the loudmouth hen that I was impersonating. As is often the case though, she moved off the other way, taking the gobbler with her. As his voice grew fainter and more distant through the woods, another gobbler fired off behind me. This bird, I surmised, was west of my position, likely in a field that is usually overseen during turkey season by either my father or my brother. This second bird gobbled repeatedly as well, and the first gobbler answered him call for call. In my mind’s eye I could see what was happening and in time both birds were gobbling from the field. They eventually closed ranks altogether and moved off to the southwest through a series of fields punctuated by treelines. I called hard and loud for another few minutes, but hearing nothing I decided to move to their last know whereabouts; the field to the west of me. My watch told me that it was 6:45am.
I gathered my decoy and made the move through the trails, noting the patches of snow that lingered as stubborn but fading reminders of the brutal winter that southern Ontario went through in 2013-2014, and I called sporadically as I walked with no response from any turkeys. Getting to a spot that gave me visual access to both the last field the birds had been in as well as an adjacent field where I had tagged gobblers in the past, I placed the decoy and sat in a brushed in depression five yards inside the trees. I called and waited, and nature gave me a show to pass the turkey free hours.
Six drake mallards in full plumage circled the field in front of me for a full ten minutes, and they were a sight to behold. Their heads were a deep, almost iridescent green, and their rust-coloured breast feathers contrasted sharply with the powder grey of their underbellies. They gabbled in that soft, nasally quack that drake greenheads have, and their wings whistled in unison as they made broad swings over the field and then above the trees behind me. On at least a half-dozen occasions they were within 15 yards of my gun barrel, and if I weren’t such a terrible wingshooter I would have fancied a double or better had it been October instead of late April.
Chickadees tittered and fluttered around me for a while as they hopped from limb to limb, either oblivious or uncaring of my presence. Just out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a muddy patch of ground that was moving and as I focused in on the spot a frog poked its head up from the muck, crawled out and hopped away. An alarmingly red cardinal swooped around and sang its tell-tale song and far off in an adjacent swamp red-winged blackbirds greeted the arrival of spring. Spring turkey hunting, especially in the early part of the season before mosquitoes and the powerful late May sunshine attempt to drink all my blood and melt me respectively, has always crept into a deep part of my brain as the wilderness shakes off winter and goes back to living instead of simply surviving. For a full two hours I took in the spectacle, only briefly chiming into the chorus of wilderness sounds with some turkey calls of my own.
My heart was light, and even when fifteen minutes of pelting rain gave me a thorough soaking I still felt happier than I had since the last time I was turkey hunting.
At 8:30am, I made a series of yelps and clucks on my mouth call, and to my left a distant gobble answered. A few minutes later I yelped and threw in a bit of loud cutting and the bird gobbled again, this time closer. I turned left and balanced my shotgun on my knee. I’d hunted this spot dozens of times and more often than not gobbling birds from that side of the property will cut the corner of the two fields in order to avoid a narrow creek and a swampy area near there. This time was no different and a string of turkeys appeared a few hundred yards down to my left and they began to make their way up the field edge. Four or five hens were trailed by three gobblers, only one of which was doing all the strutting. The strutter would run ahead of the pack, gobble authoritatively, and puff up his feathers, only to have the whole procession march past him without so much as a moment’s hesitation. He would run back ahead of the parade and start strutting again, only for the same result to happen. This went on for a few minutes and as it became apparent that this whole line of birds was going to skirt me at 200 yards and head into another field, I bore down hard on a series of cutting, yelping and aggressive purrs. All the birds stopped momentarily and cast their eyes towards my decoy, but they just as quickly resumed along their chosen path and disappeared through the trees into a field that I do not have permission to hunt on. Once they made that field and for a full hour after I lost sight of them, they made such a racket of raspy hen yelping, thunderous gobbling, and excited flapping that I was certain they were being attacked or at the least involved in a serious physical altercation. I tried over and over again to aggressively plead with them, hoping to peel just one of those three longbeards away. In a desperate, ‘everything-including-the-kitchen-sink’ approach, I even broke out my gobble call and blasted an aggressive double gobble at them.
Eventually the whole noisy party of birds moved north through the fields and out of earshot. For an hour I sat and called with no avail. A cool breeze picked up and since I was already soaked from the earlier rain I developed a bit of a shiver; I had been out in the woods for nearly six hours and although I was hungry, cold, and defeated, I was not discouraged. I picked up my decoy again, bagged it and slung it over my shoulder. Walking across a wet spot in the trail, three whitetail deer bounded away and snorted their displeasure at me. Deer are funny like that.
Arriving back at my car, I shed some of the wet gear that was weighing me down, and then I took off my muddy boots and wet socks. With my feet in some dry shoes and the car heater fan warming me up, I put the vehicle in gear and made for home. I would have very much enjoyed the weight of a gobbler over my shoulder that morning, and I was wrestling with a certain level of consternation at the bird choosing to roost so close to the road that previous evening, but if I’ve learned one thing as a turkey hunter it is that wild turkeys are maddeningly unpredictable sometimes. If they were easy to kill, there wouldn’t be any of them around.
All that aside, I was hunting again, and that was pretty much all I cared about. The birds had been vocal and I had been treated to an experience that was both entertaining and educational. I made a quick drive to a couple of other likely spots that I could hunt, and finding nothing that piqued my interest, I made for home.
A warm shower, a mug of coffee, and a lunch of some hot and spicy noodle soup were all waiting for me, and when those are the rewards, the results (unlike turkey behaviour) are never unpredictable.