Category Archives: 2016 turkey odyssey

Backdoor Birds

At an hour that was too early, even for a turkey hunter, I rolled over when the farm’s downstairs smoke detector chirped.  In an old farm house heated with a wood stove, that sort of things gets your attention.  Careful not to wake my peacefully slumbering spouse, I slipped out of bed and glanced at my cell phone, muttering in my head about the apropos fact that my alarm was due to go off in less than ten minutes.

There would be no oversleeping that Saturday morning, and the smoke alarm chirped again as if to confirm my jaded realization.

In the muted glow of my cell phone screen, I doffed my pajamas and donned my camo like a middle-aged ninja before I tip-toed down the stairs and inspected the still-beeping device.  The batteries had seemingly given up the ghost and I was in no mood to attempt a pre-dawn repair.  I texted my brother to wake up and heard him stirring in the room above the kitchen.  I wolfed down a banana and a glass of orange juice, then gathered gun, decoys, and vest before stepping out into the still night.

Because even when using the most liberal application of the word ‘morning’, what I was experiencing at that moment was firmly entrenched in the category of ‘night’.

Eventually my cousin showed up in his truck and we weighed the options.  I had been informed that the turkey haunting my preferred location had been killed earlier in the week, so I opted for a second choice where my father, uncle, and several others had been seeing a pair of longbeards.  My brother hopped in with my cousin and made for their preferred location in the hopes of doubling up on turkeys.  The crunch of the laneway gravel under my tires made way for the smooth hum of pavement, which shortly deferred to crunchy gravel again as I made the short drive to the field.  I snuck up a thin line of trees and cedars before deploying my hen and strutter decoy setup.  I nestled in between a small round rock and the sinewy mass that was the base of an uprooted tree and I looked at my watch. There were six minutes until legal shooting light.  I opened the action to my 870 slowly and when the time came I dropped in a shell before firmly but inaudibly sliding it closed.  Gloved fingers slid two more shells in the underside of the gun and I checked the safety as my habit dictates.

Ten minutes after settling in for a long sit, I heard a gobbler sound off from a tree two fields over to the west of my position.  As if in response across the road and three fields to the east of me I heard another gobbler.  I yelped softly on my box call before turning up the volume and interspersing some cutts and cackles.  Nothing answered and the area fell silent.  For almost two hours I called and waited for a response, and eventually a jake and two hens showed up.  At about the same time I got a text message from my cousin informing me that my brother had killed a beast of a gobbler with two 10 inch beards, a wide tailfan, and daggers for spurs.  Shortly after that I watched the hens and jake run off as my compatriots pulled up to the field I was in.

A single text message from my cousin Dane said “Come out”.  So I did.

Dane and my brother were parked at the gate next to my vehicle and both were all smiles.  My brother’s bird was a real trophy tom and in the hand it was sure to exceed 20 pounds.  Officially it was 21.2lbs, with 20 inches of beards and sharp, curved spurs of 1-1/4 inches each.  A true brute of a turkey.

My brother with his trophy Bruce Peninsula gobbler.
My brother with his trophy Bruce Peninsula gobbler.

We cleaned my brother’s bird and spent the rest of the day running and gunning without much success, and just after dinner I went on a quick scouting tour.  In the same field I had hunted earlier that morning I found four hens and two longbeards, and all were exceptionally skittish.  When I slowed my vehicle they looked up and began fast-walking away to the west.  Now, if you’ve turkey hunted for very long you know the “fast-walk”.  It is not quite walking but it is not quite as quick as a trot; turkeys do it when they are uneasy and these ones did not like me peering through binoculars at them from the side of the road.  I pulled in behind some greenery before I saw them cross into the next field over and continue walking away towards the sunset in the west.  Having seen nothing else on my drive around, I resolved to be back in the same field the next day even earlier than before with the hopes that when they woke up they would see my decoys first.

Thirty minutes earlier than the day prior, my alarm gently buzzed on the nightstand and I went through the turkey hunter’s morning ritual again.  Curse the early hour, silently dress, eat something marginally healthy (or at least filling), and sneak out of the house without waking anyone.  I was greeted by a clear night, a blazingly full moon, and a cold, stiff wind from the northeast on my face.  Throwing everything on the passenger seat, I once again rolled down to the field.  Being extra-paranoid, I shut my headlights off for the last hundred yards of road and then sat in the car for ten minutes after I had powered down before slowly opening doors and unpacking.  I was sure the whole flock had roosted in the hardwood stand west of the field and I crossed the ditch to the east of there and into a triangle of cedars and swampy ground under the weight of two decoys and my vest.  My gun was in a sock tucked under my right arm (such is the law) and that I managed to quietly cross the foot of still water in the ditch without sustaining a soaker is more attributable to luck than to any particular skill on my part.

In the silver moonlight I put out a strutting tom decoy and a lookout hen from Avian-X before settling against a page wire fence under some low cedar boughs.  I was looking towards the setting moon to the west and I was sure that I would hear turkey talk ringing from that direction at sun-up.  In the pre-dawn darkness I tucked my hands into my pockets and, sheltered from the wind in my copse of cedars, I actually fell into a light sleep for a time.  Rousing myself I found it to be that certain shade of purple-grey that means dawn was rapidly approaching and a glance at my wristwatch confirmed my suspicions.  I once again loaded my long-serving 870, hoping I would get to unload my constant hunting companion the loud way that morning.

My gaze was transfixed on the hardwoods to the west and I eagerly waited for the gobbling to start.  Except it never did.  At 5:30 a.m. or so I heard a hen turkey fire up from the block I was watching, and then another joined before a third distinct voice chimed in.  The hens were a cacophony of cutting, whistling, and raspy-yelping and I tried to outmatch them so that the longbeards would come check out my set up first instead of falling in line with the real thing.  Before long those loudmouth hens all flew down one-by-one, making cackles so loud and clear you would have thought they were taping a ‘how-to-call-like-a-hen-turkey’ instructional video.  They hit the field and milled around but never showed any real interest in my setup or my calling.

Still I had not heard a single gobble from the hardwoods to the west.

I tried a few more strings of calling, but still the gobblers remained tight-lipped, and I was beginning to get that paranoia that sets into turkey hunters when they are pretty sure there is a gobbler in the vicinity, but the cagey bastard won’t reveal his precise whereabouts.  At 6:10 a.m. I picked up my phone and texted my cousin Dane to see if he was having any action, and then it all unraveled in such a casual way I could scarcely believe it.

As I set my phone down after hitting “Send” I glanced nonchalantly over my left shoulder and was temporarily stunned.  Two longbeards were sprinting across the field from a position east of me and both were in half-strut while looking at my decoy setup with malicious intent.  They had never made a peep.  I moved both hands onto the gun and slid the safety off, just as the birds approached into range.  At about forty yards both birds quit their sprinting, and as one of them dropped strut and began to slowly and deliberately take a wide circle around the decoys, the other bird held strut and made a bee-line for the fakes.  It had all happened so quickly that I had not even had a moment to get excited, but now my heart was thumping as I eased the gun to my shoulder in as painfully slow a motion as I could muster.

All the while my only thought was “How in the hell did those birds backdoor this setup and just how did they get back over to where I had first seen them the night before?  Crafty.”

When the closest bird hit about twenty-five steps from the decoy, he must have realized something was very wrong because he also dropped strut, turned away, and craned his head up to full periscope.  He started walking straight away but was still giving the evil-eye over his right shoulder to the fake gobbler when I snapped the gunstock to my cheek, found the crease between metallic black feather and red throat with my front bead, and pulled back on the trigger.

I barely felt the gun kick such was my adrenalin response in that moment, but the Remington roared and I saw his head snap forward, hit the ground and flop limply over his wing. His legs had quit on him by that point and he was burying his head in the dirt as I put the gun to safe and jogged out to him.  Amazingly the other turkey had stayed stock still at the shot and simply watched me walk over and put my bootheel on the Ontario longbeard’s neck before he started putting and sprinting off to where I had mistakenly thought they had been roosted the night before.  It was 6:15 a.m. and not four minutes had passed between seeing the birds and pulling the trigger.

Another gobbler falls to the Remington 870.
Another gobbler falls to the Remington 870.

I snapped some photos and tagged the bird before rounding up all the gear and heading back to the vehicle.  In the early morning sunlight the wind no longer felt as cold, the gear, gun, (and now) gobbler were somehow lighter than before, and I could sense that I was grinning uncontrollably.  After stowing all my gear at the van, I sat on the open hatch and petted the bird’s feathers flat where they had ruffled.

My hands were still shaking.

A good end to a good morning.
A good end to a good morning.

He was a trophy tom as well, and although his inch long spurs lacked the scimitar-curve that my brother’s sported, he had a head the size of a softball, his body was long and heavy coming in at 22.1 pounds and his bushy 10 inch beard confirmed that he was a very mature bird.  Statistics aside, though, he was the culmination of what had been a long, frustrating season of lousy weather, bad shooting on my part, cagey birds, bad luck, more lousy weather, and one badly placed coyote.  There was redemption in that hunt, and all the crippling self-doubt that sometimes creeps in during turkey hunting’s lowest moments was washed away.  No one had guided me to him, no one had done the calling or the scouting for me, and when things got unpredictable, I was still able to seal the deal on my best bird to date.  There’s probably a deeper meaning about personal independence or a spiritual metaphor in what I’ve put myself through in the last five weeks, but there’s not much room for that here right now.  A turkey in the freezer notwithstanding, right now all I have is the memory, and I’m going to spend some “me time” with it thank you very much.

That is, until the next early morning hunt when I try to forge some new ones.

Detergent for a Dusty Soul

It is here, or very nearly so.  A time of warbling songbirds, buzzing bees, and the seductively sweet pollen of reborn vegetation.  That time of the season when no hour is too early and no setup too far-fetched in its possibility of success.  A season housing a tradition embodied by two of the most melodious words in the hunting vernacular, two words that set my heart thumping and my eyes gleaming.

Spring. Turkeys.

Esteemed writer Tom Kelly said in his seminal tome Tenth Legion that “A man really ought to start to learn turkey hunting in the fall” and who am I to argue with a turkey hunter and writer of such a pedigree?  However, and to my detriment, since the earliest seeds of my turkey hunting affliction began with no legal options to chase wild turkeys in the autumn months, I am forever and indelibly tainted by the compulsion to chase longbeards in April and May.

What this means is that once I wrap my deer hunting exploits in mid-November, there really is not too much for me to do but sit and stew on the fact that I have to endure five long months before I can feel a warm spring breeze on my cheek and feel warm sun on my legs and all that while I pine for the chance to feel the heft of a tom turkey over my right shoulder.  That those five months are the most barren, dank, gloomy, and miserable months of the year (both psychologically and climatologically) is just a cruel twist of fate that I must learn to endure.

Christmas festivities do little to rouse me from the funk, and the teasing January thaws we regularly experience remind me that while the sun may shine, true spring is still months away.  There are many hard days in that cold winter of discontent and on those darker days I try to make spring turkey hunting seem less attractive than it is.  I remember the unpredictable downpours that early May can bring.  I think of the thin, maddening hum of countless mosquitoes in my ears.  I think of the emotional knots that a hard-headed gobbler can twist me into just by doing what he is naturally inclined to do.  And overall I tell myself that the deed is never going to be as ecstatic as my rosy, optimistic anticipation wishes it to be.

But even I’m not so delusional as to fall for myself being so goddamned delusional.  Rain and bugs are just as frequent in my early season waterfowl hunts, and truth be told, the masochistic urges run strong in me when it comes to chasing longbeards a deep recess in me secretly likes being whipped by the birds.

There is probably a German word for that feeling of proud humiliation, but I don’t have a clue what it is.

So here I sit, less than a week away from lounging under a tree in the pre-dawn hours, cradling a shotgun and making plaintive hen turkey sounds.  When that time comes, if I’ve properly done my homework, I’ll be in the vicinity of a slumbering longbeard.  If I say the right things, perhaps he will wake up and answer my call.  If I’m fortunate and play my cards right there is a chance that he will head my way, and while I sit there doing my best impression of a stump and bundle of roots, with my heart pounding in my ears and my breathing toned down to a tremulous whisper, that bird might inadvertently blunder into my little trap.  Perhaps I’ll have wild turkey for dinner that night or perhaps he will outfox me once again and I’ll shake my head in frustration and respect.  No matter what happens I will fell rejuvenated.

Right now the off-season tarnish and grime that has accumulated on my cynical soul is in need of some spring cleaning.  In five days I just know that I’m going to get right again.