Family, Friends, and Wild Turkeys on the Bruce Peninsula

Not even four days removed from the end of what was an epic adventure in southeastern British Columbia, I found myself loading all my gear (as well as my wife, as well as my two sons who are both under the age of five) into the car for a trip to the family farm on the Bruce Peninsula.  Pulling into the laneway, the weather forecast was for sunny skies, but temperatures well below seasonal for the third weekend of May.  I was thankful for the coat and long underwear that I packed as a precaution.  It was the Victoria Day long weekend, and my cousin Dane had informed me that there were a pile of birds around.
Two weeks prior, I had been up on the Bruce Peninsula, ultimately being unsuccessful in helping a very good friend of mine tag his first turkey, while just the previous weekend, while I was slogging my way through the ridges and valleys of the Cranbrook area, my brother had put down a dandy tom turkey on a Sunday morning.  The bird my brother shot had come on a line, marching all the way in to a strutter decoy setup, and Donavon had drilled him.  It was a great hunt, made all the more special because it was caught on film, a first for our hunting group.  I showed the video to Chris that night, and it only fueled our eventual success.  Dane informed me before I arrived on the Friday evening that there was plenty more chances like that to be had.
He wasn’t kidding.
My dad and I decided to hunt a piece of forest and field country just to the south and across the road from the farm, as Dane (who put in yeoman’s work as a scout and impromptu guide this year) informed us that a big fella had staked that out as his territory.  Dad made a move into the bush a kilometer or so from me, while I set up against a cedar rail fence near a clearing that was dotted with cedar stands.  I set up under a gloomy but clear morning sky, with the near-full moon lingering persistently overhead.  As dawn broke, the crows fired up and went crazy, but despite my best efforts to strain an ear, I didn’t hear a single gobble from the roost.  I did some calling sequences of my own, each time hoping to hear an old tom rattle the leaves and make his way over, but nothing seemed to be doing that morning.  I picked up my decoy and began to make my way back to the farm, taking the very long and circuitous route down some gravel roads and through some hardwoods, just in case.

I made the farmhouse and spoke with Dad, who was flabbergasted that I hadn’t heard all the gobbling that was going on over by him; I began to worry that perhaps my hearing was deteriorating.  Apparently, Dad had heard the tom gobble very well on the roost, but after fly down the bird moved the other way and went a bit quiet.  It was nice to know I was near one, but rather than go and put a flash hunt on the gobbler, I decided it was a good opportunity to take my wife and sons into town for breakfast.  While I washed the camo makeup off my face, I received a text from Dane.  He and his brother Lukas had gone out with their brother-in-law (like my BC friend, he is also named Chris) and taken a dandy gobbler using almost the same set up that had proven successful for my brother the week before, and once again, the whole hunt had been captured on video.  This bird had taken a long time to cross a field, but he eventually had to come over and kick the strutter decoy.  As soon as he made the kick on the fake gobbler, Chris took him.  My brother called that video “The Gobbler Landmine” for reasons best explained by watching the video.  The gobbler didn’t even flop, such was Chris’s handiwork on that particular hunt.
I checked Chris’s bird over after finishing breakfast and I had to admit that it was a bruiser.  It had one of the biggest heads I’d ever seen on a gobbler, and he was well-endowed with a thick beard and sharp spurs; as fine a specimen of a mature gobbler as one would find.
Chris’s May Long Weekend Gobbler
After reconnoitering at the farm for a while, Dane, my brother Donavon, and I decided to take a cruise all around the local spots and try to drum up some action on a gobbler or two.  Dane had permission to hunt about a dozen spots, and over half of them held toms from time to time.  All three of us exceed 200lbs so when we hopped in the car my wallet winced at the hit my mileage was about to take, but we were hunting, so what the hell.  We cruised through Dyer’s Bay and Cape Chin, stopping often on sideroads and laneways to cold call and listen for gobblers.  We did plenty of glassing as well, hoping to find a lone mid-afternoon gobbler that we could persuade to play our game.  Although we had some visuals on hens and a few birds in a spot that we couldn’t hunt, we made our way into Ferndale for some gas and refreshments.  I chugged back a Gatorade and popped a few chips in my mouth, a regular spring diet familiar to anyone that has tried to run and gun on wild turkeys, while Dane pitched two options.
We could make a move on the bird in Barrow Bay that my dad had heard that very morning, as we had a visual on him earlier in the cruise while he was loafing inaccessibly in a field.  Our other option was to cruise into a relatively unpressured area south of Barrow Bay and try our luck.  Dane had seen birds there previously, but he hadn’t nailed down explicit permission with the landowner.  As luck would have it, we found the landowner in his laneway, and secured the green light to go in and hunt his property.  He was adamant that we shoot any groundhogs we came across as well, and we were all okay with that policy.  Dane had seen two gobblers on the property, and it was situated not far from a Bruce Trail parking lot.  We parked on the side of the road, and quietly unpacked two Avian X hens and the same manufacturer’s jake decoy offering.  By about 4pm, we had found a little hollow that looked promising and set the fakes out at 30 steps before settling into the shade at the base of some broad hardwoods.  My brother remarked in a whisper that this was just the kind of place that felt like it had a gobbler in it, and I hoped he was right.
The sun shone and a cool breeze blew in off of Georgian Bay, but stillness reigned.  Trees were budding, but the leaves were late in coming on, depriving us of the soothing rustle of new greenery in the cool spring wind.  Dane and I alternated calling off and on for about twenty minutes with no response, and I was nearly dozing off in such an idyllic scene, when Dane yelped and cut hard on his box call.  A throaty gobble shook the woods over some ridgelines to our right, and when Dane called again the gobbler cut him off; the tom was closing the distance and he was doing it pretty quickly.  Both my brother and I positioned ourselves for shots; I had the decoys covered dead ahead of me, while Donavon guarded against anything sneaking in from the right.

A pretty decent looking setup that would prove successful.
The tom gobbled intermittently, and at one point he seemed to be hung up at about 90 yards inside the bush, which is a position I hate to be in.  Any turkey hunter worth his salt knows that this is the situation where most hunts end: the tom gobbles well but hangs up in a spot where you can’t see him, but you know damn well that he can see you.  Eventually he sees something he doesn’t like or he just loses interest before wandering off and leaving you to wonder what the hell you did wrong.  For at least a half-hour we called the bird and while he never left, he never came into visual range.  I was in a half-ready position and my arms were getting wobbly from holding mannequin stillness for nearly thirty minutes.  That was about the time I thought that this was going to go to script in a way I didn’t like.  Sure enough the next time he gobbled he was walking away, and then he sounded off again even further off moments later.  Had he caught movement?  Was he bored with a stubborn hen that wasn’t moving towards him?  Who knew, but I lowered my gun, reached for my slate call and purpleheart striker and then started throwing a string off excited yelps and fast, hard cutting at him.  He double-gobbled and miraculously started to come back.  I ran another string of fast yelps and purrs, and he gobbled again, closer than he had been at any time before.  Dane took up the gauntlet on his own slate call and it seemed we had him on a string.
I set the call and striker down and settled into a shooting position again, fingers poised over the safety on my 870.  After a few more minutes I heard him spitting and drumming at about sixty yards away; he was just inside the tree line.  Seconds after that I heard one last close gobble and saw him pop into strut before he made the clearing.  He was puffed up and the late afternoon sunshine made him glow in that coppery-purple sheen that haunts a turkey hunter’s dreams and keeps our like coming back time after time to chase these magnificent birds.  He was eyeing up the three decoys, and although he didn’t gobble again, he spit, and drummed, and strutted at sixty steps for what seemed like an eternity.  In that painstakingly slow way that old, cagey gobblers do he took measured step after measured step towards the fakes closing the distance a couple of feet before going into that stock-still pose that makes you afraid to even blink or draw a breath, lest you spook him at the penultimate moment.  It’s almost supernatural what a strutting gobbler at close quarters does to me, and the adrenalin, anticipation, and even a modicum of fear all make for an intoxicating, addictive experience that only the initiated can relate to.
Step by step he made his way in, and at fifty yards he stopped in half-strut just to my right and didn’t move for a solid three or four minutes.  I was locked up from a positional perspective, because when he broke into the meadow I had my gun muzzle pointed down and to the left of the middle decoy, with my cheek half on the stock.  He had spent fifteen or twenty minutes on closing not even fifteen yards, and I was getting an incredibly stiff neck while my left elbow dug sharply into the meat of my left thigh.  My right side was stiffening up too and it isn’t hyperbole to say that I was suffering physically for this bird.  My pattern is solid out to fifty yards, and for a moment I thought about doing the slide move on this old bird and just whipping the bead onto him and busting him before he knew what had happened.  But a part of me recalled something I had read in Tenth Legion.  To paraphrase Tom Kelly, I knew that this bird was not on a timeline, but I also knew there was no reason for me to force the situation.  Eventually he’d strut or turn his eyes away from me and that was when I’d make the move.  I was hurting, but Christ was he ever pretty just standing there with his feathers glossy and his head glowing like a soft blue light bulb.
Finally, the old tom broke his statuesque pose and started into the jake decoy.  He was walking purposefully at first but at about thirty yards he broke into a jog.  I slid the safety off, and part of me knew that things were going to end there soon.  It was going to end with either a dead gobbler or with me missing on a proverbial lay-up, but it was going to end nonetheless.  My pulse was pounding and my arms were shaking, but I was focused on one thing: making my move as soon as his eyes weren’t on me.
He sidled up to the jake decoy and bumped it slightly, causing the decoy to spin on its stake.  That movement set the old gobbler off and he immediately hauled off with jumping kick and a wing slap to the fake.  As soon as he made the first kick, I whipped the gun to the ready and steadied my arms.
He had no idea I was in his world at that point, so focused was he on flogging the decoy.
As the fake jake spun again, the gobbler jumped right onto the intruder’s back, kicking and swinging his wings the whole time.  Half-standing on the decoy’s tail, and with his head at full periscope and his back to me I bore down and sent the load of #6’s downrange.  He took the hit and rather than flop, he just crumpled down and toppled slowly over, spinning the decoy around one last time as he did so.  I pumped the gun and slid the safety back on.  It had been just under two hours between his first gobble and my shot.

 I’m obviously pretty happy with this.

Dane was certain that I had just shot his $100 decoy, and I was pretty sure that I had just become the new owner of a $100 decoy full of #6 sized holes.  But more importantly, for a second, I couldn’t whoop or shout with joy or hardly express anything.  I was just washed in a sense of relief and reflection; that old tom had made us work for him for sure, and I exhaled a relieved sigh and let things sink in for a second.  I stood up and made a beeline for Dane’s jake decoy to assess the damage; I can say for sure that if I wasn’t sold on Avian X turkey decoys before, I was then.  Either I had pulled off an act of precision shotgunning beyond compare (unlikely) or the peppering of the decoy at 30 steps with a dozen pellets or more hadn’t left a single hole (or even a noticeable paint defect) on it.  The word ‘durable’ immediately springs to mind.
I put my boot on the gobbler’s neck and grabbed his feet, avoiding the spurs that looked like straight daggers to me.  Both would come in at just under an inch and they certainly had a point on them.  He had a nice beard, but again the end was frayed and brittle betraying that perhaps a bit of it had frozen off in the hard winter that struck the Bruce Peninsula this year (check Google Images if you’re interested in seeing some eight foot snowdrifts).  I tagged the bird before we took some photos, and by that point relief had given way to that goofy joy that just makes a successful turkey hunter smile constantly.
We stopped off on the way back to the farm and weighed the gobbler.  He came in just a hair over 21lbs, making him the heaviest bird I have ever shot, and that combined with his flogging of the decoy along with the overall circumstances of the hunt made him a true trophy for me.  Later, it sunk in that I had just managed to take the two subspecies of Canadian wild turkeys in two separate provinces separated by over 3000km in the space of five days, and with no false modesty I can say that I felt pretty damn good about myself.  Even more meaningful was taking photos with my two sons and seeing their interest in the bird’s head, tail, and gorgeous plumage.
Moments like that are what my dad calls “Passing it On” and seeing my wonder, awe, and love of wild game reflected in the eyes of my sons in that moment was a feeling almost as addictive as the one I get from chasing a sun-dappled spring gobbler in the green fields and rejuvenated forests of a place full of my family’s heritage.
And I still had one more Ontario tag in my pocket.

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