While the previous two installments here were about birds that worked long, or that were repeat offenders, this chapter is about a bird that was in my life for all of twenty minutes, but it was still twenty very intense minutes that taught me a lesson that I put to good use in future seasons. Although this bird beat me, what he taught me helped me to kill other birds after him. This particular hunt took place on the Bruce Peninsula in 2008, and although I would tangle with a few other hard-headed gobblers up there in years to come, this was the first time a longbeard put a good flogging on my psychological state.
It was the perfect time of the spring season in Ontario. Sometimes the first week or two is still drab and cold on the Bruce, with patches of snow in the bush, and the woods shaking off the last lingering hangover of winter. I’ve been on damp, chilly, windy hunts under low slate grey skies on those early days, and although birds can be killed then, I’ve always had my success (or shall we call it luck?) later on in the season. Late season can be tough too, with the last week often inordinately warm and the biting insects really start to feast by then. But those middle two weeks of the five week spring season are just my absolute favourite time to be out there, and they are fast approaching pole position as my all-time favourite part of the hunting calendar, although a Thanksgiving waterfowl hunt still holds top spot…even if just barely.
I had hunted a field edge on the family property that Saturday morning in mid-May and had not heard any turkey activity at all, not even a lonely hen responded to my flock talk. After sitting from before dawn until nearly 10am, I made a plan to roam around the hardwoods to the south of the farm, with the hopes of at worst getting a line on a couple of likely spots for the rest of the season, and at best of striking a tom turkey with my calls. I was travelling without a decoy, and unfortunately, I had left my mouth calls in the farmhouse that morning, such was my haste to get out into the forest. But I had a box call and I had a slate, so I made for the hills. My uncle lives in the farm house year round and he had told us all of sporadic sightings of a nice gobbler as it crossed from our family property onto adjacent ones and back again throughout the late winter and into the spring. That longbeard was just doing what turkeys do, and the hope was that he was still wandering that local (albeit fairly large) area between the southern limits of Lion’s Head and the northern edge of the village of Barrow Bay. I had often wandered those fields and trails as a youth hunting rabbits, I’d chased ducks and geese in a few of them, and sometimes as a youth I was just hiking around behind my father so I knew my way around and I knew the properties I could frequent, and the ones I couldn’t. I had a spot or two in mind, for sure.
I made a large loop of the big woods to the south and east of the farm, calling as I went along, before coming out just west of a Bruce Trail parking lot. Not a single gobble had rung out, although I did kick up a few small groups of ruffed grouse and had spent some time watching two blue jays harass and chase each other through the budding green treetops. It was a fairly humid, somewhat grey morning, but sporadically the sun did shine through the clouds. When I broke out onto a gravel road, I unloaded my gun and slung it over my shoulder. Walking down the gravel road I resolved to cross Bruce Road 9 and stop in to a chunk of hardwoods where I had hunted a few weeks earlier in the season. I had experienced no action there on that previous day, but it seemed like a good idea; it would be a logical stop on the loop back to the farm for breakfast at the very least. Crossing Bruce Road 9 on the curve south of the Cemetery Road, I popped into the woods, loaded my 870, and began a slow walk inside the tree line. I had only walked for about ten minutes when I reached down and pulled out my box call. I ran a string of seven or eight yelps on it, and was just reaching down to put it back in my vest when a gobbler hammered at me. He was close enough that I could hear him clearly and I yelped once more, peppering a cutt and cackle into the mix. He hollered again, and he was closer.
For an instant I panicked. I had not really put any thought into what would happen if a turkey answered me and I looked frantically for a spot to get situated. I finally found a big stump that just a little shorter than my sitting profile, but amply wide. I ran the box call again and once more the gobbler answered. I was facing a rocky saddle and he seemed to be coming down a little bush road that came around to the left of it, so I nestled into the stump and pointed my barrel in that direction. I was fairly sure that this tom knew that the game was on, and I set down my box call so that I could secure both hands on the gun. He gobbled again unprovoked, and he was definitely close, so close that, aside from my heart beating in my ears, I could hear him walking towards me.
I still had not laid eyes on him, and when he gobbled again I had another moment of panic. He seemed to have diverted from the bush road and he was now sliding towards the other side of the small saddle to my right. I’m a right-handed shooter, so that bird going to my right was the worst thing that could have happened. I secretly wished for a mouth call, just to see if a few purrs would have straightened out his line, but in hindsight I realized that he already knew where I was by ear, and that I was going to have to get creative.
He gobbled again and it was now obvious that he was going to pop around the bottom of the saddle in area that I couldn’t swing my gun into. I’d been in that crossed up position before while deer hunting, and now I found myself in it again with a fired up longbeard within twenty steps of me.
I resolved to scooch my behind around the stump so that my gun would point to where he seemed to be heading. I made a bit of headway, and I took my hand off the stock and placed it down to stabilize myself while I shifted. When my hand brushed and scratched a few leaves the bird went berserk; he bellowed a double-gobble and literally ran up over the top of the saddle, again in a place where my gun was not pointing. At least I had a visual on him now.
For a brief moment his eyes and mine met; I could see his fiery red head, the top of his breast feathers, and the upper part of his beard. His head craned back and forth and his body moved in a jerky, startled fashion for a few steps, and he began to putt loudly. I knew from that sound and body language that I had just a few short seconds to make my move, so I slid the safety off and tried to pull the “spin move” on him, hoping to put the bead on his neck and fire in one seamless motion.
While I had visualized a smooth transition and a peach of a shot, he had dropped off the saddle and was sprinting back from whence he came before I had even swung halfway to him; I never even yanked the trigger. He gobbled as he ran, and I clicked the safety back on and sprinted the small saddle myself, just in time to see his sleek black back and red legs becoming one with the underbrush at a distance of nearly 100 yards. I swore, I shook my head, and I sat down on a rock near to where I had first seen him. I waited five minutes and ran a long string of yelps on my box call. Nothing. I looked at my watch: the whole thing had happened in under half an hour.
I hiked the twenty minutes back to the farm in that fog of self-loathing and hard, psychological self-analysis that any failed turkey hunter knows all too well. How had that all gone wrong? I went from having a lusty, willing gobbler essentially running to my calls to a fleeing bird that had me clumsily sprinting up a hill in desperation. Even for me that was “bugger up” of legendary scale.
Then it dawned on me that I had ‘overthought’ myself into failure. Now this is not something that I am the sole exclusive owner of; plenty of other hunters overthink. They believe they know better than the animal, and they try to outsmart a bird that while supremely adapted, unbelievably wary, and maddeningly unpredictable isn’t really that smart to begin with. Which actually makes it all the more frustrating when that gobbler kicks your ass. I’ve always held that the worst thing that can actually happen when you overthink a gobbler is that you still actually kill him in spite of your error. This just goes to cement a practice that is patently absurd.
Turkeys aren’t smart in the way we think of it. They are creatures of adaptation and habit, they have wickedly impressive eyesight and supernatural levels of hearing, and they have a memory and attention to detail that to my mind is unmatched in the inventory of game animals in Ontario, and maybe the nation at large. But they don’t do trigonometry, they don’t use deductive logic, and they don’t function on an intellectual plane of cause and effect so far as I can tell. All they have is one reaction to anything that seems even slightly abnormal: be paranoid and run from it like hell.
In the days, weeks, months, and let’s be honest, years since I’ve realized over and over again the things I did wrong that day, and forgetting my mouth calls on the table was probably the least of my errors.
First, I was prospecting for a gobbler with no actual plan of attack should one answer. Now, before calling I map out a few likely scenarios and setups should one sound off in response. On that Saturday in mid-May 2008, I may have been better off backing away slightly to a spot that wasn’t squarely facing a saddle; as I look at it now, I only had a 33% chance of having my gun in the right place when the bird popped up; if he came to the wrong side of the saddle I would have been crossed up, and if he popped over the top (as he did) I would have had to make a move, which I did and failed at in epic fashion.
Second, I was trying to be predictive in how the bird would react, and in so doing, I had actually forced myself into a reactionary situation. By trying to extrapolate (from no facts at all I might add) how this bird was going to behave on approach, I essentially put myself in a position that enabled my failure. The goal now is that when a gobbler answers, I try to put myself in a spot that has several easy outs. This includes concealing myself better, positioning the gun in a spot that doesn’t have me locked into one area only, and generally letting the hunt develop a little further before committing to a shooting lane or a physical position.
But even then, turkeys will be turkeys, and I’m going to have to suffer them being frustrating and unpredictable. Because that’s why I love hunting them.