3:15am came far earlier than I had anticipated, but I was galvanized to put in a hard last shift before flying out that night. I was feeling the pressure to show my friend Chris that I actually knew how to hunt turkeys, and I believe (although he didn’t show it) that Chris was feeling the pressure to put a gobbler in front of my gun barrel.
We made the trailhead in a chilly and dim pre-dawn, previously determined to make it to a clearing for an initial set up on birds that we hoped were roosted nearby. We began to make the uphill walk to the clearing, and after 300 yards or so, I stopped and got out my barred owl call. I heard a distant coyote bark just before I made a call, and then, as my owl call broke the still dawn air, I heard the sound that I had been hoping for. A tom gobbled, and he was inside 100 yards. I turned to Chris and gestured to him that a bird was gobbling, but he thought I was referring to the coyote. I was shocked that he hadn’t heard what I had. I owled again, and nothing responded. Chris was ready to move on, and I was questioning my own sanity…I was absolutely positive that I had heard a gobbling turkey.
The bird gobbled again on his own, and this time I was sure Chris heard it. His eyes told me so.
I’m pretty sure I was grinning like an idiot while we exchanged hand signals outlining where we wanted to set up on the bird. We resolved to move quietly back down the trail to a small clearing that had a convergence of game trails on it, where we set out my two Zink Avian X hens and got ourselves situated under some broomed out Douglas fir trees. It had been a nightmare deflating, rolling, and packing around the decoys, but I was quite pleased to have them at that very moment. Within minutes of setting the decoys out, I saw a light frost developing on their backs. In the excitement of a gobbler sounding off from the roost, I had not noticed that the air temperature was hovering in the mid-single digits.
The bird gobbled steadily as we set up, and after we were comfortable I did some light calling on my box call. The bird hammered back and then really ratcheted up his gobbling. I didn’t have any trouble keeping tabs on him when he flew down, and slowly but steadily he began to make his way down towards our position. Two game trails that I could see converged on the clearing about twenty yards from my position, and as the gobbling came closer I could picture the bird coming down the left side trail, and twice I could hear him walking on the other side of a small ridge. He moved back and forth, concealed by the ridge, gobbling often. I moved slightly to get my gun in position, hopeful that by the time he could see the decoys, I could see him.
If he cleared the trail, he would be in range for certain.
I held the gun steady for what seemed like an eternity, and since the gobbler didn’t own a watch and presumably didn’t care about my aching, trembling arms and increasingly frozen fingertips, he made arduously slow progress towards our set up.
Then I heard a deer snorting behind me. Close by. Think inside of twenty steps. I turned my head to see a doe whitetail standing in our scent column, blowing an alert over and over again. This went on for a minute or so, and the next time the turkey gobbled, he was farther away…then further still. I lowered my 870 and yelped excitedly on my pot call, throwing in some aggressive cutting. The next gobble was closer but more to my right. I shifted slightly while the bird gobbled again and again, seemingly hung up out of sight behind that blasted ridge. I still had not laid eyes on him, but I was beginning to get a feel that this was as cagey a public-land bird as I’d hunted anywhere in Ontario. He gobbled hard and kept making a racket, and keeping an ear on him wasn’t tough, but soon my worst fear was fulfilled.
I heard a hen yelping near to our setup, and then I heard his gobbling change. I was certain that she was taking him away. Over and over he gobbled, each time further up the hill from where he had been just moments before. Then he went silent. He had found his hen, and gobbling just wasn’t something he was interested in doing any more. My heart sank, and I looked over to Chris. We nodded to one another before slowly gathering the decoys and strategizing our next steps.
We decided to make a circle around ahead of the birds, and we dropped into a gully off the trail so we could move unseen past the birds. After moving a few hundred yards back up the trail, I blew a crow call and the turkey let one solitary gobble slip out. He was perpendicular to our position, across the trail, and well inside of forty yards. We decided that the best move was to have me crawl up onto the trail side, and hopefully yelp the bird into range with a mouth call. I silently shed my vest, decoy, and coat before beginning a slow, ten yard belly-crawl up onto the edge of the road. I poked my head around a stump and saw a turkey fifteen steps from me. It was the hen and she was oblivious to my presence. I purred and yelped aggressively and she cut me off every time. I was hoping she would come onto the road and drag the gobbler behind her. Instead she headed back further up the hill and into the woods, yelping and complaining all the way. I still had not seen the gobbler, and in the whole conversation I’d had with the hen he had not gobbled once. I was beginning to fear that he had left the area.
I reverse belly-crawled back down into the gully, and we planned our next move…again. I was certain the gobbler had made for the hills, and I was thinking of making a very large loop to a spot over a mile away. Chris had similar ideas but his range was more limited; he was pitching a spot just over a few hundred yards ahead where the pine ridge that the bird had been hunkering in transitioned into a more open, meadow-like area. He knew the lay of the land and I would have been a fool to second-guess him.
I’ve never moved so quietly and rapidly as I did to make the spot Chris had in mind, and we once again set out the decoys. We resolved not to call or make a sound for at least twenty minutes, and for that whole time I was cursing the turkey hunting gods. I cursed them for sending the deer by to snort at me, I cursed them for the wily old hen that had led that gobbler astray, and I even cursed them for providing the gobbler in the first place. After all, my hopes had been raised, only to be dashed cruelly. It had been a hard three days of hunting and my feet hurt, which I also blamed on the turkey hunting gods. I had temporarily forgotten about the beautiful scenery, the abundance of wild game, and the good times spent in the woods, the truck, and the kitchen with a great friend. But getting beaten by a turkey does that to a man.
Almost in disinterested fashion, I yelped plainly on my pot call after twenty minutes of abject silence. Before I finished the sequence a hammered gobble cut me off. The game was back on and the gobbler was in front of me inside of sixty yards.
I shouldered my shotgun again, and within seconds I saw the heads of two turkeys pass quickly through an opening forty yards to my right. I turned ever so slightly to get the gun downrange on them, while the bird gobbled again unprovoked. I could see the broad tail fan of a bird that went in and out of strut, and the bright red head of the turkey began to approach one of my fake hens. I saw the bird gobble again and I began to search with my eyes for an opening that would allow me to slide in a shot.
Another fir tree obscured the gobbler from my sightline, but it also meant that he could not see me. Eventually, I could see the bird’s fire-engine red head moving out from either side of the tree as he approached my decoy, and I kept the front sight on his throat as he closed the gap. Finally, at thirty steps, and with both his head, and his tail up in half-strut, I could restrain myself no longer. My shotgun barked, and the bird dropped out of sight. I stood up and made a run to an open spot (although in truth, I don’t really remember my feet touching the ground) and I saw a turkey sprinting off before getting up and flying back into the pines from whence the birds had appeared.
Had I missed?!
About to swear out loud at my incompetence, I looked to my right, and there in a depression next to the tree was the still, lifeless shape of a Merriam’s gobbler. From my seated position I never would have seen him fall.
“Did you get him?!” was the cry from where Chris was sitting. Apparently he couldn’t see the downed bird either.
“He’s down!” was all I could shout back. I let out a whoop of joy and Chris came running over for high fives and slaps on the back. I wonder if he felt his feet touch the ground either.
|Seemed like the most appropriate time to take a selfie.
I put my bootheel on the turkey’s neck and grabbed his feet, whereupon the gobbler lamely flogged my right shin with a wing beat or two. I was shaking like a leaf, and adrenalin hammered in my veins. I vaguely recall hearing my heart beating in my ears. If having a turkey outsmart you makes you instantly and hopelessly cynical, there’s likewise no better route to pure joy than sealing the deal on that same bird. Even though it had all happened so fast, and just minutes before, we relived the hunt (as hunters are apt to do) and we took dozens of photos. I notched my tag, and we made for the truck. I could hardly feel the weight of the bird I was in such high spirits.
He was not a typical bird, and at first I thought he was a jake. He barely had spurs at all (only 1/8 of an inch on each leg) and his beard was just a 3-inch stub, but he had a full, even tail fan with the tawny, pale signature feathers of a Merriam’s gobbler. On closer inspection, the beard was rotted and frayed at the end, and my suspicion was that it had frozen or otherwise been broken off (a sentiment echoed by all my turkey hunting brethren when they saw it). But I wasn’t on that trip to shoot a monster longbeard, or a sharp-spurred limbhanger. I was there to take on a Merriam’s gobbler on his own turf, and with the help of my friend, I had succeeded. I pride myself on being eloquent and articulate, but in those moments (and to be fair even still, a whole month later) I didn’t have adequate words to describe the feelings. I was exhausted, elated, and on the brink of crying tears of joy. This was a bird I’d wanted to hunt for a long time, and the only other subspecies of wild turkey other than Eastern that lives in the cavernous expanse of wilderness that makes up Canada. I could say now that I’d achieved a turkey hunting goal, and that Chris and I had done it with our hodgepodge mix of local savvy, woodsmanship, and turkey hunting experience respectively.
|The only shotgun I’ve ever owned, with the only Merriam’s I’ve ever shot
We’d persistently hunted some pretty tough country, and we’d made good decisions (especially that morning) that ultimately brought the game to hand. I was proud of myself, but I was really happy for Chris. He had never hunted turkeys before, and I hoped that I had made a convert of him. The bird, for his part, certainly provided a compelling case for the excitement and rollercoaster of emotions that a successful turkey hunt can bring. We honored his sacrifice by eating him a mere seven hours later.
In the back of my mind, I knew I’d have to get back to work eventually, and I knew that my wife and kids would be happy to see me. I also knew that I still had at least three more weeks of turkey hunting to do in Ontario. But as we sat in the sun in Chris’s front yard, cold cider in hand, and our bellies full of wild rice, wild turkey, and carrots I could not help but feel completely at peace with the world. The stresses of work were several provinces away, the afterglow of a successful hunt surrounded us, and we were in arguably the most beautiful countryside in the nation. We talked about Chris making the next year’s trip to Ontario for an Eastern turkey hunt, and I can say that it sounded like a pretty damn good idea.
There was nothing that could break the good vibes that afternoon.