A thunderstorm almost made me miss out on the bird that day, but before we get there, so much more can be said in the lead up to my encounter with a gobbler I nicknamed “One and Done”.
Years ago, a fifteen-year old version of me began my deer hunting career on the property. It had a modest farmhouse on it and was a working cattle operation for most of the year. By the time I started chasing gobblers we no longer hunted deer out of the farmhouse, but I made a point of asking the landowner if I could poke around the property one or two times in the upcoming spring turkey season. There were small copses of cedar trees interspersed here and there through the pasture, a marsh bookended one piece of the property while a bush road marked the other end. Hardwoods stands circled the perimeter and the large fields were cordoned off by a modern electric fence overlaid in front of an older fence of split cedar rails. A Google Earth view of the property showed more than one spot that just felt like they had to have a turkey in it; narrow fingers of pasture surrounded by hardwoods tucked back far from the prying eyes and binoculars of ‘road hunters’. In one spot the distance across the field was less than fifty paces.
I was early in my turkey hunting life and as I recall it was just my second full spring season. Success had eluded me in my rookie year but close encounters with gobblers had whet my appetite so much that in my mind I was picturing myself triumphantly killing a wary old gobbler in that exact, narrow, secluded spot. I told no one about the spot, so sure was I of my success there.
The fact that I had not actually scouted the location did not enter my young, excitable mind as an impediment at all. Such is the joyfully ignorant exuberance of youth and inexperience.
That morning my alarm buzzed in the predawn of an early May morning. I heard rain on the rooftop. Hard rain. No matter, I told myself as I pulled on a camo rain suit. I was outfitted with the newest, most modern line of waterproof box call and could run a mouth call more than competently. All my readings had indicated that turkeys stampeded to open fields during rainstorms, and with the zeal of a converted fanatic, I went out the door.
Driving in the dark down an empty two lane highway at 4:30 in the morning gives a man pause for thought. I shifted a mouth call from cheek to cheek and thought about how that morning was going to play out, while the rain picked up and my wipers slapped against the windshield. I ran a few practice yelps from behind the steering wheel and turned off onto the county road; as I did so lightning sparked in the east. A drizzle I can handle. Thunderstorms, not so much.
At that point my 870 would have been less of a weapon and more of a lightning rod.
I pulled off the county road at the eastern edge of the property and then drove down a narrow dirt road to a point that gave enough berth for me turn around and pull over so as not to block the track. Thunder rumbled again and wind-driven rain sheeted down, so I decided to give the storm a half hour to pass me by. It was 4:55am. I set a cellphone alarm and reclined the car seat, dozing and listening to the spring showers falling outside of my glass and steel cocoon.
My phone alarm buzzed and I jolted awake. The earliest hints of powdery grey dawn was breaking and while the thunderstorm seemed to have passed, a fine mist with aspirations of becoming drizzle persisted. I unloaded my decoy, my gun, and then slipped my vest over my raincoat. With the cedars and hardwoods forming a protective bower over the road I stalked quietly down the trail to that secluded finger of pasture where I was sure that I had a date with a tom turkey. I stopped and owl called half way to the field but received no response. Further on a crow called and again met only the stony silence of rain-soaked branches and budding spring leaves.
I entered the field and dropped a hen decoy twenty steps away before stepping over the electric wire fence and nestling comfortably into a corner of the moss-covered cedar rail fence. The cedar rails propped up my shoulders and supported my back so perfectly it was as though that spot was designed just for me to hunt out of it. I slipped shells into my gun and waited a few minutes in the dawn light, absorbing the sounds of an awakening woods.
Eventually I started calling softly, mimicking the soft yelps and clucks of a hen turkey on a limb. I escalated the volume into a fly-down cackle and ran a string of assembly yelps together with my mouth call. The natural amphitheater of the narrow field surrounded on three sides by forest provided an acoustically perfect atmosphere.
To my “second-spring-of-turkey-hunting-ear” I sounded damn near perfect.
As is usually the case nothing answered me immediately, and given my total lack of scouting in this area in the pre-season, that result was less than surprising. In time, I ratcheted up the volume and urgency, before throwing in some hard cutts and cackles. The second time I ran some aggressive calling, he answered.
It was a gobble that was quite close, and it was a long, raspy, mean-spirited old gargle that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. And he did it only once. Although the gobble had come from a spot directly across from me, I was not 100% certain of where I should be pointing my left shoulder.
I cutt hard again on the call, hoping he would betray his spot and give me a glimpse. He remained silent. My eyes scanned the undergrowth across the field, trying to key in on the blue and red of his head, or the white bars of his wings, or for him to move slightly and let me track him with my eye, since he seemed reluctant to give me anymore help with his voice. At one point I was peering so hard through the trees that my eyes started to blur. I blinked hard and still could not make out his form, but I was certain he was there. My heart was hammering and I was barely managing to keep my breathing steady.
For fifteen minutes this went on. Me sitting there silent and still with my gun at the ready, and him standing somewhere across from me in the gloomy forest under grey skies, curiously wondering where the hen sounds had been coming from or perhaps even cautiously eyeing my decoy. I was afraid to move or even call. For a while I was afraid to even blink. The brain of a turkey hunter can play some awfully mean tricks in that still, quiet fifteen minutes, and I was mentally scrolling through my (at that time very limited) turkey hunting playbook trying to come up with a strategy. Finally unable to take it any longer I clucked, once, on my mouth call. Nothing.
Emboldened, I purred and yelped softly. All remained quiet across the pasture.
Taking this personally, and still absolutely sure that the bird was standing inside the far tree line, I yelped and cutt on my call, pleading for him to gobble again. The silence, or was it indifference, that I was receiving was borderline insulting.
Slowly I reached into my vest and retrieved my box call. It was damp, but waterproof and I sawed some sweet yelps on it. Once again, nothing happened.
I exhaled slowly and my heart rate returned to normal. I was fairly certain that the bird had seen or heard something he didn’t like and had just moved off, although I had never heard a putt or seen any movement at all. I was crestfallen, and in an instant all my hard-won confidence and self-aggrandizing delusions of expertise went out the window.
And that’s the point of the story I guess. A bird like One and Done didn’t care what the magazines said or how much proprietary modern technology I had in my hands, how promising a hunt looks, or how good I thought I was. If a bird like him wants to go silent and wander off, that’s just what he is going to do. Short of the very unlikely prospect of running him down and tackling him, he was not going to be killed that wispy grey morning, at least not by a hunter of my then-novice pedigree.
I never did kill him, or any other turkey that day, and when I went back the next day the woods were vacant of turkeys. I wandered and prospected but it was as though he was never there at all. I shot over the head of a bird later that season, bumped a couple of others, and it was not until the last weekend of that season that my comedy of errors ceased and I was finally able to put my boot heel on my first longbeard’s neck. The lesson in humility that the One and Done turkey taught me was not forgotten though, and to this day one or two birds teach me something new every season. Once in a while I get a predictable bird that does what I planned he would, but more often than not some ornery gobbler or his harem of girlfriends flips the script and I have to improvise.
I don’t mind though, because that’s the fun of it.