“There are some turkeys right there.” It’s a phrase I say quite often when we are out scouting for turkeys on the Bruce Peninsula. We are fortunate enough to be in an area where a two-hour drive could turn up seven or ten different birds
“Those look like jakes” was the response from the back of the truck.
It was just before 8pm on the Thursday evening of the opening week and I was certainly not above shooting a juvenile turkey for the roasting pan. I’m the kind of hunter who is looking for an experience and wild game for the freezer more than I’m after a dragging beard or giant hooks.
To the southwest, in the distance far against some hardwoods two birds were strutting for a pair of hens. I asked politely for the binoculars, and as I glassed the turkeys in the sunset, one of the birds turned his back to me while strutting, and it was very clear these were not a pair of jakes in the lenses but rather two mature toms. They glowed a deep bronze in the setting sun while they spun back-and-forth displaying for the girls.
My friend Brian, who we simply call Tack, said he had a good idea where they would be roosted that night, and we drove on in search of additional birds. Later that evening over some stories and some beers, eight excited hunters devised plans for the coming morning.
My brother and my cousin Luke were going to head north and hunt a spot I had previously failed from last season. My friend Lucas Hunter and my cousin Dane were going to hunt a spot adjacent to the family farm that held a nice gobbler. Neither my uncle nor my good friend Justin were entirely certain that they were going to get out at all. Tack looked at me and said “We’ll go after those two toms and see if we can’t get a double”. I said we should do exactly that and derisive, but good-natured, jeers rang out. No one believed we’d be able to get one tom, let alone both, especially if they were roosted with the hens.
Banter and stories continued into the evening and Tack and I agreed on a 4:45am start. The 4am alarm rang too soon.
I stepped into the kitchen to find Tack waiting, and we threw our guns, vests, and decoys into the back of the truck. We formulated a plan as we rolled down the gravel lane at the farm.
“If both come in, is it 1-2-shoot, or 1-2-3-shoot?” I asked.
“Okay, guy on the left gets the left bird and guy on the right gets the right bird?”
Nodding, Tack said “Sounds like a plan.” Now we just needed cooperative birds.
The spot we were setting up was a five-minute drive up the road and as we headed there I made a mental note to myself of how dark it was going to be when we made our way in. Seeing the birds in the trees from the distance was not going to be an option. We parked in a nearby corral and saddled up. By Tack’s headlamp we made it to the field edge before going dark and walking the last 300 yards in the gloom of an April pre-dawn. We stopped where we had last seen the birds and in hushed tones decided that a small island of six or seven hardwoods would be our spot. If the birds had moved east after we left them, we’d hopefully hear them and get set before they flew down. If they had gone further west before roosting, we’d be facing their approach. In the dark we set three Avian-X hens and one HS Strut Jake Snood decoy at twenty steps, before slipping up against two trees. I checked my watch and it was 5:25am.
We sat silently in the dark for a few minutes before I heard Tack hiss my name.
I turned my head.
“There’s an animal right there.”
I had a mild rush of adrenaline at the murky silhouette just five steps away and in my heart of hearts I would have been fine if it was a coyote, or a deer, or even a lion at that moment. So long as it wasn’t a skunk. As it turns out it was a husky old raccoon, and he made his way up a nearby tree after eyeing us in the dark for a few more minutes.
I calmed down and waited for a hen to murmur a morning greeting or a crow to fire off and draw a shock gobble from the toms. But all that stirred were some spring peepers in a low marshy spot nearby and a steady but not altogether hard wind from the west. What I noticed first as the dawn slipped slowly forward was that the decoys seemed quite close.
So yeah, that ‘twenty steps’ we had put the decoys at? It was more like twelve or fifteen steps in the dim but inevitable light of day.
In the dark, I had resolved not to call a single note until I either heard a hen yelp or a tom light up with a gobble. That was a particularly tough resolution for me as I really enjoy hearing myself make turkey noises, but I persevered. I was passing my Woodhaven mouth call from cheek to cheek and strongly considering breaking my resolution when I saw a black shape on the ground go from narrow to wide.
It was a gobbler on the ground, and he was popping in and out of strut. Neither Tack nor I had seen him fly down, and he had not made a peep on the limb.
“Tack, turkey right in front of us…” I whispered and as I did so another bird flew down a mere 70 yards from us. Our silent sneak in under cover of darkness had put us close to the roost. Way too close if you trust conventional turkey wisdom. In short order two hens and two longbeards were sixty yards from our gun barrels, milling about just out of range. One gobbler stayed in strut the whole time while the other puttered around near the hens.
Tack and I both shoot right handed and he was about four feet to my right side, so as the hens began to slide to my left I grew worried that he would not be able to safely get a shot. I had my longstanding 870 rested on my left knee, but I was going to have to shift slightly to have a shot myself. At first the birds had shown only mild interest in our setup but then something changed.
As the four birds began to skirt the outside edge of our effective range, the strutting tom raised his head to full periscope and eyeballed the jake decoy intently. Both Tack and I saw the big longbeard’s head turn a bright white, and as he popped back into strut he began to do what Tack called the ‘dinosaur walk’ into the setup. A crow barked and the big tom rattled off a gobble. It was the only sound we’d heard him make.
As he marched toward our gun barrels, the second bird popped into strut and began to do what I call the ‘death run’ trying to catch up. They had one thing on their mind and that was to beat up the interloping jake moving in on ‘their girls’.
The birds strutted shoulder to shoulder, spitting and drumming as they approached the fake jake, and both their skullcaps were electric white. Without hesitation, the dominant bird that had been strutting from the time he flew down leapt and landed a flying kick to the side of the jake decoy, before following up with another kick and wing swat to the head, knocking the decoy from its stake.
In the commotion of the initial attack I whipped my gun into position, and I saw Tack do the same in my peripheral vision. The second bird kicked the decoy while it was down and after a few seconds there was enough separation that we could distinguish a ‘left’ bird and a ‘right’ bird.
The dominant tom was to the left where I was, and the satellite bird was in front of Tack.
“Shawn…one…” I heard Tack whisper.
“Two…” I whispered, slightly louder. The bird lifted his head and turned towards my voice just as I tightened my grip on the trigger.
My shot roared home first and milliseconds later Tack’s Winchester barked a reply. I saw my bird flop down and stay down while Tack’s bird rolled once and came to rest against the base of one of the hen decoys. I pumped the gun and turned my head to meet Tack’s eyes. I don’t know what my face looked like, but his was a huge grin punctuated with wide-eyed, stunned silence. For a moment, we just sat there speechless.
Then the hooting and high-fiving started.
I went out to put my boot on the gobbler’s neck, but that was not necessary. At 15 steps my new Winchester Longbeard XRs had blistered his head and neck completely. He had lifted his head slightly at our count, and although no pellets had hit him in the breast, his neck was denuded of feathers and part of his beard was shot off. Tack’s bird flapped feebly as Brian picked it up, but he was stone dead within seconds. It was 6:25am.
We unloaded the guns, tagged the birds and for a few minutes just stood there soaking in the morning so recently ended. We both agreed that we had been much too close to the birds, but that our early arrival, absolutely silent setup, and use of the lone jake decoy against the two toms had been the factors that bought us some leeway on being right there in the bird’s bedroom. A few pictures later, I sent a text message to the boys from the previous night, reveling in our hunting group’s first double off the roost. Their response started coming in and before long we were at the truck bed and our friends were rolling up to hear the story and check out the turkeys.
The 2017 season was started with a bang, and little did we know that it was only going to get better.