A light drizzle carried by a chill wind greeted me when I went out to load my shotgun and decoys in the car. It was 4:40am and I was heading out to get my dad so that we could kick off the 2014 spring turkey season at a local haunt where we’ve often tagged gobblers.
I kissed my wife on the cheek before I left and for the umpteenth time in our marriage her muttered, early morning farewell to me was “You’re crazy…” Maybe I am, but the pull of turkey hunting overrides any of my common sense affinities for a warm bed and a peaceful sleep.
The previous night at around 9pm, my brother and I had stopped near to this particular hunting spot and I had fired a few notes from an owl call. Despite the steady tapping of the nighttime rain, we both heard a distant gobble and I was confident that I’d have at least a chance at the bird that sounded off from deep in the woods.
My cellphone buzzed, and it was an early morning text message from my Dad. He had decided, on account of the cold drizzle, to forego the morning hunt. My brother was working. It was just me and the birds now. I drove in and opted not to tempt the mud of the narrow lane, instead parking on the shoulder of the road, where I quietly suited up in my vest and slung a decoy over my shoulder. I pressed car doors and trunks shut oh-so-softly, and slipped behind the gate. Just inside the treeline, I stopped and pulled my facemask up. Checking my watch I realized I was legal to load my shotgun, and as I reached into my pants pocket for a shell, a gobbler thundered overhead, just twenty paces away. My heart attempted to make an exit via my mouth, but I managed to thwart its escape.
It was not the same bird that had gobbled to my owling the night before. Oh no, this one was much closer to the roadway, and I now more than ever regretted not owling a little before I walked in. Although it was great to hear a gobbler so early in the morning, I was deflated and pretty certain that this particular bird had seen (and heard) me pull up, suit up, and walk in. I was pretty much hooped, or so I thought.
Still I pressed on, and if I had been generally quiet in my earlier entrance to the woods, I was now achieving ninja-like levels of stealth as I slowly and in near-perfect silence made my way to a spot some 200 yards or so from where the gobbling was happening. The bird kept gobbling as I walked away, but I resisted the urge to call to him. Finding a nice sturdy tree to lean against, I set out my fake hen, eased my butt down onto the damp forest floor and got comfortable. The plan was to not call at all until after the bird flew down, and then just try to get him within sight of my decoy. It was a long shot, but it was all I had in the tank at the time.
For twenty minutes or so the bird gobbled sporadically, and then some hens fired up from the treetops as well. Any hope I had that I was targeting a solitary, and hopefully lonesome, gobbler went out the window. But I couldn’t be mad because I was turkey hunting and it just sometimes goes that way. I heard the faint wingbeats as the birds left their roosts, and the longbeard’s gobble changed in tone when he hit the ground. Fearing competition from the live hens he was with, I slowly started to call, quietly at first, but as soon as he answered I picked up both the urgency and the volume. Being well-hidden in a blow down at the base of that sturdy tree mentioned above, I cut hard and loud on my mouth call, and miraculously, the gobbler started to get closer.
I was pretty sure that he was on the same trail that I walked in on, and he was slowly but surely closing the distance. To my right an unseen hen started yapping at my calls, and I cut her off every time, hoping to not only fire up the gobbler but to get her in a state where she may have also come looking for the loudmouth hen that I was impersonating. As is often the case though, she moved off the other way, taking the gobbler with her. As his voice grew fainter and more distant through the woods, another gobbler fired off behind me. This bird, I surmised, was west of my position, likely in a field that is usually overseen during turkey season by either my father or my brother. This second bird gobbled repeatedly as well, and the first gobbler answered him call for call. In my mind’s eye I could see what was happening and in time both birds were gobbling from the field. They eventually closed ranks altogether and moved off to the southwest through a series of fields punctuated by treelines. I called hard and loud for another few minutes, but hearing nothing I decided to move to their last know whereabouts; the field to the west of me. My watch told me that it was 6:45am.
I gathered my decoy and made the move through the trails, noting the patches of snow that lingered as stubborn but fading reminders of the brutal winter that southern Ontario went through in 2013-2014, and I called sporadically as I walked with no response from any turkeys. Getting to a spot that gave me visual access to both the last field the birds had been in as well as an adjacent field where I had tagged gobblers in the past, I placed the decoy and sat in a brushed in depression five yards inside the trees. I called and waited, and nature gave me a show to pass the turkey free hours.
Six drake mallards in full plumage circled the field in front of me for a full ten minutes, and they were a sight to behold. Their heads were a deep, almost iridescent green, and their rust-coloured breast feathers contrasted sharply with the powder grey of their underbellies. They gabbled in that soft, nasally quack that drake greenheads have, and their wings whistled in unison as they made broad swings over the field and then above the trees behind me. On at least a half-dozen occasions they were within 15 yards of my gun barrel, and if I weren’t such a terrible wingshooter I would have fancied a double or better had it been October instead of late April.
Chickadees tittered and fluttered around me for a while as they hopped from limb to limb, either oblivious or uncaring of my presence. Just out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a muddy patch of ground that was moving and as I focused in on the spot a frog poked its head up from the muck, crawled out and hopped away. An alarmingly red cardinal swooped around and sang its tell-tale song and far off in an adjacent swamp red-winged blackbirds greeted the arrival of spring. Spring turkey hunting, especially in the early part of the season before mosquitoes and the powerful late May sunshine attempt to drink all my blood and melt me respectively, has always crept into a deep part of my brain as the wilderness shakes off winter and goes back to living instead of simply surviving. For a full two hours I took in the spectacle, only briefly chiming into the chorus of wilderness sounds with some turkey calls of my own.
My heart was light, and even when fifteen minutes of pelting rain gave me a thorough soaking I still felt happier than I had since the last time I was turkey hunting.
At 8:30am, I made a series of yelps and clucks on my mouth call, and to my left a distant gobble answered. A few minutes later I yelped and threw in a bit of loud cutting and the bird gobbled again, this time closer. I turned left and balanced my shotgun on my knee. I’d hunted this spot dozens of times and more often than not gobbling birds from that side of the property will cut the corner of the two fields in order to avoid a narrow creek and a swampy area near there. This time was no different and a string of turkeys appeared a few hundred yards down to my left and they began to make their way up the field edge. Four or five hens were trailed by three gobblers, only one of which was doing all the strutting. The strutter would run ahead of the pack, gobble authoritatively, and puff up his feathers, only to have the whole procession march past him without so much as a moment’s hesitation. He would run back ahead of the parade and start strutting again, only for the same result to happen. This went on for a few minutes and as it became apparent that this whole line of birds was going to skirt me at 200 yards and head into another field, I bore down hard on a series of cutting, yelping and aggressive purrs. All the birds stopped momentarily and cast their eyes towards my decoy, but they just as quickly resumed along their chosen path and disappeared through the trees into a field that I do not have permission to hunt on. Once they made that field and for a full hour after I lost sight of them, they made such a racket of raspy hen yelping, thunderous gobbling, and excited flapping that I was certain they were being attacked or at the least involved in a serious physical altercation. I tried over and over again to aggressively plead with them, hoping to peel just one of those three longbeards away. In a desperate, ‘everything-including-the-kitchen-sink’ approach, I even broke out my gobble call and blasted an aggressive double gobble at them.
Eventually the whole noisy party of birds moved north through the fields and out of earshot. For an hour I sat and called with no avail. A cool breeze picked up and since I was already soaked from the earlier rain I developed a bit of a shiver; I had been out in the woods for nearly six hours and although I was hungry, cold, and defeated, I was not discouraged. I picked up my decoy again, bagged it and slung it over my shoulder. Walking across a wet spot in the trail, three whitetail deer bounded away and snorted their displeasure at me. Deer are funny like that.
Arriving back at my car, I shed some of the wet gear that was weighing me down, and then I took off my muddy boots and wet socks. With my feet in some dry shoes and the car heater fan warming me up, I put the vehicle in gear and made for home. I would have very much enjoyed the weight of a gobbler over my shoulder that morning, and I was wrestling with a certain level of consternation at the bird choosing to roost so close to the road that previous evening, but if I’ve learned one thing as a turkey hunter it is that wild turkeys are maddeningly unpredictable sometimes. If they were easy to kill, there wouldn’t be any of them around.
All that aside, I was hunting again, and that was pretty much all I cared about. The birds had been vocal and I had been treated to an experience that was both entertaining and educational. I made a quick drive to a couple of other likely spots that I could hunt, and finding nothing that piqued my interest, I made for home.
A warm shower, a mug of coffee, and a lunch of some hot and spicy noodle soup were all waiting for me, and when those are the rewards, the results (unlike turkey behaviour) are never unpredictable.
I was doing a good job of holding things together. Really I was.
A couple of weeks ago I saw my first strutting turkey of 2014. It was nice; a bit of an omen that spring was breaking through the tenacious, unrelenting grip of this frigid and nightmarish winter. It renewed my optimism for the speedy return of spring gobbler hunting, but I didn’t get too carried away. After all it was just one bird.
Then it got warmer, and the snowbanks at the foot of my driveway began to shrink. And I saw more birds, although another strutter eluded me. But seeing big groups of hens out picking in fields that were surrendering their soils for the first time since mid-November was still a pleasant sight. Numbers seemed strong and the hope was that plenty of birds survived to breed again this year. A few days later I went to the rural outskirts of Carp, Ontario for a work project and my nerves became slightly more jangled. Not only was the sky there almost black with raucous hordes of migrating geese, I saw big flocks of turkeys on numerous country blocks as I drove the area, and the fringe benefit was that I saw many, many more strutting birds. But these were birds I could not hunt, so the season still seemed distant and murky. It grew warmer still and my entire lawn became visible. I barbecued a sweet and delicious pork shoulder while I was wearing a t-shirt. Spring was here and I was planning a few drives down to likely hunting spots in Simcoe County so that I could scout out a wary old longbeard. My father, brother and I chatted about plans for the season and what locales we’d be hunting and when we’d be hunting them. It was all coming together according to plan.
Then the snow flew. Lots of it. Mercury plummeted. Roads became icy. Previously bare fields and pastures were dusted with a few more inches of the white stuff, and I was immediately disabused of all my hope, anticipation, and joy.
I went through the stereotypical cycle of loss and grief. At first I denied that such miserable weather was coming, after all meteorologists are just talking heads that are never correct ion their forecasts, right? Wrong.
Then I was mad and swore to everyone who would listen about how spring and summer were just going to skip Ontario this year. I subsequently bargained with the unseen deities worshiped by us many who chase gobblers that they would allow for less snow than forecast. My prayers went unheeded, as they always do.
Up until writing this piece, I was mired in depression and longing. I found myself trying to mollify my sadness with frequent trips to hunting stores, I nostalgically caressed my turkey calls, and thought of joyous times made up of early spring sunrises and the feathery burden of having a dead turkey slung over my left shoulder. I even found myself using pencils and notepads at work to make the practiced strokes of a hickory striker on a gritty slate. I was pitiful, just pitiful.
But today brought acceptance and closure because unless the sun explodes or the world otherwise ends, I’ll find myself hunting in less than two weeks. Yesterday evening I saw a flock of turkeys in close proximity to one of my favourite hunting haunts, and that brought renewed optimism. My hunting partner in British Columbia should be acquiring my license at just around the time this post goes into cyberspace; a trip of a lifetime so close that I can taste it.
Now I’m living by the Pollyanna principle again, blissfully ignorant to how flawed that approach may be. I’m feeling good about the upcoming season, and I’m relishing the reconnection with hunting partners that has been hibernating these last long winter months; in fact the only thing that has me down is that I can’t be turkey hunting every day of the upcoming season. The real-world boogeymen of work, family commitment, and maintaining legitimately meaningful relationships with loved ones have once again come back to derail my fantasy world of uninterrupted calling sessions in the woods and fields. But those painful realities do that every year. However, and I swear to heaven above that I mean it, if the weather this year so much as looks like it is going to be sideways on a day I plan on hunting, then I’m sure I’ll lose my mind.
Which is a short trip, given the lunacy that my turkey hunter’s brain lives with day to day.
There is a unique element of uncertainty in my upcoming trip to British Columbia, and while it has not been causing me stress, it has been on my mind.
That uncertainty is that, in some ways at least, my friend Chris and I have no idea what we’re doing.
I can’t speak for myself, but I know my man Chris is a capable woodsman, and that I can rely on his knowledge of the area and his geographic prowess in that regard to be a strong guide. But Chris, whose skills in the Kootenay forests are attested to by his success on whitetails and his adventures in mountain stream fishing, has never hunted, scouted or targeted wild turkeys. He gets the easy part. He just has to drag me up and down hills and I’ll soldier along unquestioningly. He also gets the fun bit, which is discovering turkey hunting with no prior conceits and with his childlike wonder unspoiled. He gets the joy of buying a stack of new equipment, and the whimsical anticipation of hearing that first resonating gobble as it floats through the hill country.
For me, things are slightly harder. I, for one, have a bunch of turkey seasons under my belt and a handful of birds that I’ve brought to their demise. I’ve also missed birds, bumped birds, set up too close to birds, missed birds again, and generally had turkeys whip me thoroughly on several occasions. This has made me love the sport even more, but also left me respectfully bitter to the tricks that wild turkeys unwittingly pull on us who hunt them. And yet somehow, for the first time ever, I’m the old hand in this partnership. Chris has managed, and I imagine will continue, to look to me for answers, anecdotes, and advice as we lead up to the hunt. This makes me uneasy. I haven’t figured out Eastern turkeys thoroughly, and now I’m trying to get into the walnut-sized brain of a Merriam’s.
I guess in a lot of respects turkeys are turkeys wherever you go. They’ll roost in trees and they will look for strut zones, food, and water. If I yelp, they will gobble. And if I screw up they’ll flog me in much the same way that they have for the last seven springs since I caught the turkey-hunting disease. But they live in a different environment than the rolling pastures and mixed forests of Central Ontario, and to discount that as a factor in their behaviour would be a grave error on our part. So I’m reading, and I’m learning, and I’m trying to get what I can from whatever turkey hunting videos I’ve already watched hundreds of times.
In Chris’s defense, not all the pressure is off him. I’ve known him for thirty-two years, and I know he wants to give a good account of himself and his little part of the Canadian wilderness by putting me on birds. We’ve even discussed his initial reluctance to carry a gun. I’ve told him that his being unarmed isn’t an option; if I can’t get a crack at a bird and he can, he had better hammer down and fill his tag because sometimes you don’t get many opportunities in a season. For his part he seemed amenable to this arrangement, and he’s deep into the gear acquisition phase of being a developing turkey hunter. He’s got some calls on order, and he’s even ordered a book for his reference and education. He knows as well as I do that a large portion of his education is going to come in the unpredictable lessons of the field, but we all have to start somewhere so a reputable handbook certainly won’t hurt. He’s done yeoman’s work in getting me all the licensing information, travel advice, and in sending me several Google Earth coordinates in an effort to familiarize me with the terrain and country that we’ll be traipsing about in for those four days.
Hopefully my advice to him on turkey hunting has not been ‘disinformation’ so far; his independent research will either corroborate or refute my expertise to date.
But I guess, that’s also the beauty of what this trip is going to be. Chris’s local knowledge combined with my lessons learned from several years of hunting hard gobblers on public land in Ontario serves to make us one experienced Western turkey hunter. Provided neither of us gets in each other’s way, the sum of our parts will make us more than we could be individually.
Will this assure of success, fun, and a delicious wild turkey dinner? If we want to score on all three, the answer is probably no; even in my wildest dreams I’m expecting this to be hard hunting with a moderate to low expectation of success, but I think we can bank on the ‘having fun’ part.
I’m just over a month from opening day, and pretty much every weekend of the season is now booked. That opening weekend is earmarked for sitting under a tree and trying to lure an early season tom into range is pretty much a given. I’ll be guiding around a friend who missed last season via the birth of his first child on the weekend after that. Then I’m off to BC for a much anticipated hunt (more on that to come below), and then we get a three day weekend here in Ontario, which only means three days of turkey hunting and barbecuing in the evening. If I haven’t tagged out by then, and odds are I won’t have done so, I still get one more full weekend and a bonus day the week after that since this year the Ontario spring season closes on a Saturday. By then the mosquitoes are usually so horrendous that I almost hope for rainy mornings and windy days, just to keep most of my hard-earned blood inside my veins. This year, a Thermacell is on my wish list.
So from the above, I guess I am by definition a weekend hunter. I have no other choice, since I’m not smart enough to be a billionaire and not handsome enough to be a trophy husband. But that’s okay, since I’ve never used the words ‘weekend hunter’ as a pejorative term. One of the lies I tell myself is that if I had the means and resources to hunt every day, I may find it boring or somewhat like a chore.
Of course, we all know that isn’t true.
I’m always thinking of hunting, using my hyperactive imagination to run through hundreds of ‘what if’ scenarios and set-ups. I’m also constantly on the lookout for new gear, and aside from the Thermacell that I keep procrastinating on, this year I will require a durable, airline-capable hard gun case. I fly often in my line of work and I’ve seen the abuse that the baggage handlers of every airline subject baggage to. I don’t exactly “baby” my Remington 870, but the thought of it being flung and bounced around by anonymous airline staff makes me cringe. My analytic nature (combined with an unhealthy addiction to online hunting stores) has led me down several paths in researching the purchase of a gun case, some of which are hopelessly too expensive others which are obviously too flimsy for effective. I’m down to three options, so now I have to actually go to a store and inspect them myself.
I’m down to Pelican, SKB, and Plano cases. All have their benefits. Pelican cases are essentially bomb-proof, but will cost a portion of a mortgage payment. They also suffer from the notable handicap of not being available at any nearby dealers, so I have to factor the shipping of some seriously oversized equipment into the price. Plano cases cost the least, but all the reviews I’ve read indicate they are a bit on the flimsy side. I own a cheap Plano case already, but it was never intended to fly, it was more of car-case. SKB seems to have the case that fits the logical niche between the two, but like the Pelican case, seems to only be available as a shipped item (in from the USA so far as I can tell) so again this will add to the ultimate cost factor.
On another turkey gear note, my accomplice for the upcoming Merriam’s turkey hunt is well on his way, having purchased a box call, some mouth calls, and a crow call. Some heavy duty turkey loads and a facemask are all he needs now (unless he’s outfitted himself with those too, in which case he’s golden). I, of course, have much more in the way of turkey vest-cluttering debris that I have to attempt to pack out there, but who knows, maybe this trip will make me a more lithe and sensibly outfitted turkey hunter.