When it All Ends Too Soon

I had spent the day basking in the afterglow of the morning’s success.  Brian and I had taken dozens of pictures, field-dressed birds in the sunshine, eaten celebratory breakfasts, and shared our story several times.  With a bird down for each of us so early in the season, we both agreed that a bit of ‘pressure’ was off our shoulders and we could freestyle some hunts, or even take a morning or two off and sleep in, spend time with our kids, and generally be less compulsive about chasing spring gobblers.

That said, we were still resolved to be hunting the next morning.  I awoke and Tack’s text simply said “Two birds roosted again. Let’s try for a second double” and I needed no further encouragement to rise early.

We drove to a property that was a bit further south than the one we had succeeded at on Friday morning, and once again in the darkest of pre-dawn light we set up decoys before sneaking under a cedar thicket and waiting for the sound of gobbling.  Much like the previous day’s hunt, we waited in the dark silence for what seemed like forever.  As dawn broke we saw a half-dozen or more deer filter into a distant field, and we heard the songbirds wake up around us.

Unlike the previous hunt, however, this time we heard the tom sound off from treetop far behind our setup.  I answered lightly on my mouth call and he cranked a gobble back in response, giving us hope that he would come investigate our little ambush and then take a ride home in the back of the truck.  Of course, not every turkey hunt can be the slam dunk we had the previous day…in fact most turkey hunts aren’t slam dunks.  This time the bird gobbled sporadically before hitting the ground marching away from our position, headed straight north.  We decided to dog the bird a bit and see if we could pinpoint his position, but after a series of slow stalks around the cedar islands that made up the property, it was as though he had just evaporated on the spring sunrise.  We had no choice but to pick up our setup and head on a quick run & gun hunt for a cooperative bird.

As we headed west down a local sideroad, we spied a gobbler the width of 100 acres on a property Tack had hunted several times.  We glassed the bird and seeing he was a good gobbler, we decided to hunt him. A snowmobile trail ran up one side of the property and we could see a hen in the trail, that presumably was holding the tom’s attention.

“I know how we can get to him.” Tack sounded confident.

“We’ll run in from the north and cut through to the hilltop and then try to call him in,” Tack said and since it was as good a plan as we had for the only bird we’d laid eyes on that morning, so we turned around, parked around the corner and started to double-time it out of sight along the field edge.  Coming to a cedar and hardwood thicket that was within 100 yards of the where we last saw the tom, we split up with Tack heading straight at the bird’s position, while I scooted down a cedar rail fence 80 yards to the west, next to the previously mentioned snowmobile trail.

I found a large, broad juniper bush that was high and wide enough to conceal my seated figure, and I sat facing southwest in the ample shadow it cast for a few minutes before crow-calling loudly.  Drawing no response from the bird, I began to do some soft calling on my Woodhaven Ninja-V mouth call.  The wind was increasing to somewhere between a soft breeze and steady gusts, and I half-stood to see if I could scoot down closer to the bottom of the hill.  I spied a hen and that essentially ended any dreams I had of changing my setup.  I texted Tack to see if he was on the bird visually, and he said he could no longer find the tom.  For a while we were at a stalemate as we were pinned down by a hen, but seeking a gobbler that would not answer any calls and had seemingly vanished.

While I sat there, my friend Lucas Hunter texted me to tell me had tagged his second gobbler of the weekend and I flipped him a quick message of congratulations.  I relayed the news to Tack and asked if had seen the gobbler yet, and he said he did have eyes on the bird now, directly in front of him in the field.  I decided it was as good a time as any to break out my crystal friction call and try some loud calling in the hopes that it would pull the bird my way, and hopefully up into range for Brian.

I cranked up some loud yelping and cutting, but still the stubborn bird wouldn’t budge and he was not gobbling at all.  I could only hope to keep calling and see if I could draw him in for a shot.

In between sequences, I looked southwest and was surprised to see, a few hundred yards in the distance, a strutting tom trotting my way. There was a hen with him and for a second I was unsure if I had called in the tom or the hen, but I didn’t care at that point. I messaged Tack that the bird was coming but that it was on the wrong side of the cedar rail fence, before getting my 870 rested on my knee and my left shoulder pointed towards the bird.  He made the cedar rail fence and began walking parallel to my position.  He had run ahead of the hen and was directly perpendicular to my gun barrel when he began to spin on the spot and spit and drum.  The hen yelped lightly and walked past the tom to position to my right; and the gobbler followed her close behind.

I thought on more than one occasion of shooting him through the fence, but there were two factors dissuading me.  First, I was unsure if we had permission on the other side of the rail fence, and second I could only see tom’s head and none of his neck through the slats. A younger version of me might have risked the shot, but part of me knew that if I were patient, he’d either offer an ethical shot or slide off and I’d set up on him again.  For about five minutes the tom strutted and the hen puttered around near him, just agonizingly beyond the fence.  After a while the hen crouched, and the gobbler commenced breeding her, which allowed me to twist into a position more in line with where the birds were.

In time, the gobbler hopped off the hen and went back into strut.  The hen, for her part, shook her feathers off and, to my joy, hopped up onto the cedar rail fence.  I had hoped she would cross at some point and now she was obliging me.  The gobbler, meanwhile, was oblivious that the hen had left him.

He spun in strut and, presumably realizing that his girlfriend had left, craned his head to full periscope.

I could have killed him quite easily at that point, but he was still on the wrong side of the barrier. While I silently pleaded for the hen to move off, she once again did as I had hoped, slowly marching north away from the tom.  The tom now dropped strut completely and himself jumped onto the fence top, which was my cue to slide the safety off on the gun.

He awkwardly tottered on the top of the fence for a moment or two, before hopping and flapping down onto my side, well within range.  He popped into strut and I bore down on the stock, welding my cheek to the comb and focusing the front bead on the base of his ruby-red neck.  I cutt hard on the mouth call, and the bird once again went full periscope and stared straight at me.

For a second, it was as though the bird recognized that he had been had.

I yanked the trigger and the shotgun boomed, but I was in such an adrenaline haze that I barely felt the recoil.  I saw as the bird’s head snapped out of sight, and he flopped limply to the ground, never twitching again.  I went out and put my bootheel on his neck, but that was a mere formality.  I pumped the gun and put it on safe before turning to see Tack walking my way.

One of the quick field-shots right after harvesting my second tom.

We had some high-fives and some photos before tagging the bird and heading out to the truck.  It was just after 9am and my turkey hunting season had lasted all of five hours over two mornings.  I was done; tagged out on the two legal toms that Ontario allows hunters to take in the spring season.  He weighed in just shy of 19 pounds, and sported a paintbrush of a beard, inch-long spurs, and long snood.  It was bittersweet in a way to be done on the opening weekend, but it was two completely different, yet still fantastic hunts, that had brought my season to a close.

Some tools of the trade, and the iridescence of an Ontario spring gobbler in the sunshine.

It was satisfying to know that, for the first time, I had no tags left to fill for a spring.  It was also satisfying to have my friend Lucas Hunter get his first two birds of his fledgling turkey hunting career, and it was great to have hunted the mornings with a friend like Tack, who I’d been hunting with since our early teen years.  We did some running and gunning that afternoon, and very nearly had Tack his second bird of the weekend as well, but as the toms sometimes do, the old gobbler zigged when he was expected to be zagging, and we were left to rue a close call.

Later that night, all the turkey hunters I knew and called friends got together at my cousin Luke’s and we feasted on chicken wings, fried shrimp, French fries, and cold beer.  The stories flowed as freely as the drinks and laughter, and we re-lived the hunts we had all experienced so far in the season.  Successful and unsuccessful hunters alike bonded over tall-tales, food and time spent with friends and family.

I was happy to be done, but it had also ended far too soon for 2017.

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