A misconception about me is that I’m some sort of old-timer, a man who has been chasing gobblers since he was old enough to walk, and one who has matched wits and resourcefulness against countless wary tom turkeys over several decades.
I frequently receive reader emails asking or asserting as much, so now it is confession time.
I’m a kid, relatively. Not even forty years old yet. In terms of my turkey hunting pedigree, I’m just safely beyond the realm of novice; not quite a veteran and definitely not a professional. The modern turkey hunting tradition in my home province of Ontario is not quite thirty years old, and I’ve only been after them for not even ten of those seasons. Rabbits, deer, grouse, and waterfowl dominated my early hunting experiences, and turkeys have become a recent, if all-consuming, addition.
And now that my credibility is shot to hell, let me tell you a secret.
I’ve still been whipped by birds, probably more often than most and most certainly as a direct result of my clumsy, neophyte bungling. I’ve jumped into turkey hunting with both feet and I’ve nearly drowned on several occasions. The birds do that to a man as susceptible to the sickness as I am.
The primary culprit in several of my misadventures are adolescent turkeys. Jakes. Jacksons. Shortbeards. Whatever you call them, those spur-deficient gobblers drive me nuts. You’ll see why.
The first bird I ever missed was a jake. To date it is the only bird I’ve ever missed, but I’m sure it won’t be the last. I was in my second season in 2008, and I already thought I was a hot-shot. I’d tag-teamed a hard-gobbling two-year old with my Dad in my first season, and in the summer of 2007 I walked on and finished second at a couple of turkey calling contests. By 2008, I was then focused on drilling my first solo bird and it was going badly. My calling was good and I was reaching out to birds, but I was spooking them like mad at the last minute, setting up in bad positions, and getting generally worn out by turkeys on the Bruce Peninsula and in Simcoe County.
I found myself in the former location one sunny May afternoon late in the season, and I was getting desperate. My uncle had harvested a bird from a spot just outside of Cape Chin, and he had said that a gang of jakes was running around the area. I just wanted to hang a tag on a bird by then, so my good friend Brian and I made the drive in and hopped over a corral into the property in question. We sorted out a plan before leaving the truck, and then we snuck in as quiet as ghosts. I saw a flash of red moving away and was sure we had been busted, but was relieved to see it was just the red face crest of a Sandhill Crane departing from the field edge. We made our way to a low copse of conifers and sat at the base of a broomed out cedar, facing opposite directions and hoping for a show.
We got one.
Brian scratched out some yelps on his slate, and I cut hard on a box call. A veritable chorus of choppy gobbles screamed back at us, and they weren’t that far away. I sawed on the box call again and they hollered back, much closer. I had no difficulty ascertaining that the birds were running our way, looking for the seductive hens they had heard. I faced the east and Brian basically to the west, and the birds of course showed up on our south side. Brian whispered, and I could tell the excitement in his voice.
“Jakes,” he hissed. “Two, no three…wait, four. Four jakes all in range!” My heart was hammering in my chest. “Can you turn?” he whispered?
“I’ll try” was all I could whisper back.
And with that I painstakingly inched my butt around the tree, until I had the bead of my 870 in an opening that they would have to cross. A few minor clucks came from the band of juvenile delinquents, but so far as I could tell the low limbs of the cedar masked most of my awkward fumbling, or maybe those birds were just young, horny, and dumb.
I’ve been there before myself.
For a few seconds, my bead hovered in openness, but eventually the jakes seemed to sense something was amiss. They starting filing out of there, and one of them was on a beeline for the opening I was covering. As he entered the opening with his head down to pick at the ground, I yelped softly on my mouth call, and he gave me a full-periscope shot. A shot which I promptly buggered up by sending a load of #6-sized lead shot over his head. I said a bad word and for a moment pandemonium reigned as turkeys putted, cackled and ran frantically about. For my part, I scrambled to my knees and sent another salvo downrange. It wasn’t even close.
I saved my third shell, while the gang of shortbeards re-consolidated and gobbled ludicrously. We tried to call them back, but perhaps they weren’t as dumb as I’d thought. I just sat there, flabbergasted at my poor shooting and thinking of a way to politely kill Brian so that this embarrassment wouldn’t get out.
The problem with jakes is that they are always in groups, it seems. Or at least in doubles. There are just that many more eyes and ears to beat…and they are always willing and lusty gobblers, with choppy ‘hee-haw’ gobbles exploding out of them every chance they get.
The hardest gobbling bird I ever encountered was a jake, and he seemed determined to steal all the air in the Simcoe County forest with his constant gargling. He sounded like a bunch of pebbles being rattled around in an old tin coffee can, and he hollered at every sound I made, as well as at every crow, blue jay, and car he heard. I sneezed once and he still gobbled, although after that he moved off. He was still loud-mouthed, even though he slowly faded from earshot.
In the last two seasons, I’ve had a couple of memorable run-ins with jakes, and while I closed the deal on one, I flailed and bungled the other.
The day after my mother died from cancer in 2013, my father and I went out for a ‘therapy hunt’ as I call it. A silly jake showed up, running with two longbeards. While the mature toms hung up well out of range, the subordinate jake made a surreptitious sneak on my decoy and I whipped his head around to his derriere with a well-placed load of Federals. It was special to get a bird that day given the emotions of the previous weeks and months.
Last year, I was working my tail off trying to get my buddy Lucas Hunter his first turkey. Lucas has done photo work for this blog in the past, and some great design work in the recent move to the new site, but we were friends and former coworkers from long before that.
We had hunted fruitlessly for almost two full days, with some pretty dim weather dogging us. Two hours before we planned to head home, we were around a block not far from the family farm property. Through binoculars we could see a group of five or six jakes milling in a field edge between two bush lots. We made a circle and parked before scrambling into our gear and stalking into position. I yelped on a mouth call and the jakes answered resoundingly. We tried to close just a little bit of ground on them and get into a position that would be reasonable for Lucas to get a shot from, but those pesky jakes were on a dead run in our direction. Like idiots, we bumped them as we tried to get into position. The gobbled in surprise and started bobbing along at a jog to the west side of the field. We cut through the mix of hardwoods and cedars and got to a spot that seemed to be promising. Now firmly set up and perfectly still I yelped again. Nothing. I cutt harder and put in some aggressive purring. Still nothing. We trudged back to the vehicle and drove the block once more, but all the activity was off the stage now. It was as though the birds had disintegrated into thin air.
For a second I wondered if they had ever been there at all, but that was jakes for you.
In a little over six weeks this is all going to start again in Ontario. Every season I hear friends or acquaintances that I share the turkey woods with tell me their disdain for jakes. How a gang of juveniles ran off a lone tom, or how they screw up hunts by gang-raping a hen decoy, or how these hunters somehow feel that dangling a tag from a jake bird’s leg is below their aristocratic standing as a turkey hunter.
But not me. Bring on the shortbeards. They gobble hard, run in eager, and taste great on my fork. I have a love/hate relationship with them sometimes, but I’m not above bearing down the rail of my shotgun at one if I’ve got a tag to fill. If it is legal where you hunt, hammer down I say. You may never have a more memorable hunt than when the jakes show up.