Category Archives: them crooked gobblers

Some Thoughts on an Obsession

It’s a total cliché to call turkey hunting an obsession. There is a camo pattern bearing that label, there is a web series about it, and there are thousands and thousands of people who have written about it, many of them in arguably better fashion than I have.

Yep, it is an absolutely tired cliché. But the reason it is tired is because it is all-too-true.

I’ve always thought of myself as reasonably level-headed.  On occasion, especially in my much younger decades, I did some unusual things. Early in my turkey hunting career I was obstinate and inflexible, and it cost me birds.  I still sometimes have impulses like that, even though I seem to have learned that a hunter has to sometimes adapt in order to kill turkeys. Last year was one such example, and it paid off in absolutely unexpected success.   But this year, through a combination of opportunity and frequency, I can say without reservation that I was officially “obsessed”.  This obsession was with three ornery tom turkeys that live around a patch of ground I hunt in Simcoe County.  This is my tragic story.

I was in my local spot on the opening Saturday of the season with my Dad a few hundred yards southwest of me.  This spot is on a privately-owned chunk of hardwood and some swamp surrounded by a couple fields and some more privately-owned hardwoods and fields.  The other locations are closed to us, although I have seen vehicles in the past parked at those areas so no doubt other turkey hunters frequent them on occasion. Access locally can be tough, so we’ve always been very cautious about staying on ‘our side of the line’, but that adds to an already challenging hunt. My first solo tom came off this local property and I’ve had frequent close encounters there when, through fate or hubris, I was not able to seal a bird.

Just a few days prior, Dad had been in a run-in at this location with a couple of cagey toms that snuck in silent on him, and he couldn’t contort himself into a shot.  It was a frustrating hunt he said, but it gave me hope that birds would be frequenting the area.  I settled in against a large boulder as the breaking dawn brightened everything around me. As if on cue, three gobblers fired off at 5:20am in the posted land to the north.  They gobbled well, once breaking into a musical round that saw one tom finish and another immediately start, only to have the third bird holler as the second finished his chorus.  It was “Row-Row-Row Your Boat” wild turkey style, and it went on for three minutes.

I had chills and I could sense I was grinning idiotically behind my camo face mask.

Their gobbles changed as they hit the ground and then they fell silent.  A hen rasped away in the woods behind me and the toms briefly made their way in my direction.  They went quiet again before moving off to the west, and I got a text message from Dad that he could see them half a kilometer away strutting and not showing any interest in moving our way.  We called it a morning.

The weekend after, I killed a bird on the Bruce Peninsula in very memorable fashion, and it gave me hope that I’d be able to tag out on a Simcoe County bird with the remaining three weeks of turkey season still laid out in front of me.

The following weekend, while my brother and father were on the Bruce Peninsula themselves each harvesting turkeys, I was back at the local spot.  Once again, the three gobblers were loud and proud, roosted in the exact same property north of our access that they had been in the weekend before.  Once again, they were responsive on the roost and once again they flew down and showed passing interest in my calling before once again heading due west into inaccessible areas.  Of course, while all this was happening I was fortunate enough to be treated to a wonderful, if not slightly cool, spring morning with sightings of deer, coyotes, waterfowl, and hundreds of raucous songbirds.  That afternoon, my six-year old son went with me for his first ever turkey hunt, and although a hen circled us at twenty yards for a good fifteen minutes, the gobblers were silent.  Driving out, I spotted them in that same area they had been moving to every morning.

They had a pattern, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.  Not legally, at least.

Fast forward ahead to the next weekend, a glorious three-day weekend with the promise of incredible turkey hunting weather. The forecast was sunny and calm, but also just a few degrees on the cool side.  I love this as it keeps the mosquitoes down in the swampy spots of the property.

For a third hunt, the toms were in the same tract of hardwoods and for the third time they flew down and went north-west.  I held out just a but longer in the morning and fired them up after 8:30am, but a single shot from where I last heard them quite literally crushed my spirits.  They went silent and I packed up my things and moped to the car.  I drove out past the block where I had last heard them and was shocked to see the three birds strutting in the block just adjacent to where the shot had come from. I was grinning like an idiot again, because either a fourth bird had met his end in that area or some unfortunate hunter had missed. I’ve felt the sting of the miss myself before (and probably will again before I shuffle off) but I was pleased to see three longbeards alive and well within earshot of my preferred patch.  I resolved to be back on the holiday Monday.

It was a carbon copy of the previous hunt.  Gobblers hollering in the hardwoods to the north, that flew down into the field, gobbled some more, and never paid my calling any attention.  They were telling me something and I resolved to get out at least one more time and put a theory to the test. You see, previously, I had waited for them to gobble before calling back, and the result had always been the same: lukewarm to moderate interest in my setup before heading northwest of my direction into places I just cannot go.

Next time out I was going to be the one to wake them up.

I got in extra-extra early with my Dad on the last Saturday of the season. This time it was offering to be hot and humid and I had my Thermacell loaded and ready to do work.  I also had my mind made up that those birds were going to hear me long before I heard them.  After all, what was there to lose?  At the precise moment legal shooting light hit, I thumbed the shells into the 870 that makes every trip with me, and I pulled out a crystal pot call.  I tree yelped and did a fly down series at just barely past 5am; even at that early hour, the late-spring morning was bright.  In those moments between calling and waiting for an answer, I was a jumpy bundle of nerves.  I was waiting for the response that had come so predictably every other morning of the season.

Nothing.  I ratcheted up the volume on some yelping.  Still nothing.  I cutt hard and rasped so loudly on the call that my ears tingled just a bit.

From the hardwoods to the north came the shouted response from that trio of birds, and I exhaled with a smile.

They answered every cutt and yelp, and on fly down they showed more interest than at any other time this year.  They slid off slightly just before 6:00am, but they were still answering when I went into a fighting purr sequence (which my pot call does so well that it almost isn’t fair), and they thundered back.  Before I could call, they hammered again, closer this time.  I set the call down and steadied the gun.  Again, they gobbled, and they sounded angry then. I was sure they were in my field for the first time all season, and my heart picked up the pace just a bit. I cut my eyes left, hoping to see their forms heading into my hen and jake decoy setup.  They gobbled hard and they sounded to be nearly in range, but still I did not have a visual on them as they approached from my left.  I steadied the gun in their direction and twisted my left shoulder imperceptibly towards them.

Then, it all went to hell.

In that slightest movement a white-tailed deer busted from less than fifty feet to my right and ran out of the woods, on a bee-line between the decoys and where I had last expected to see those three gobblers. Tail-up and bounding along, snorting all the way, the doe crossed the field. I held the gun steady in the last spot I’d heard a gobble. Everything was so blasted silent that it made me temporarily believe that the turkeys had simply vanished into thin air.  I had not heard them putt and I had not heard them fly, so I clung to the hope that the deer had not pooched my whole hunt and they were still sneaking in.  For ten minutes I was silent, waiting to hear a turkey drumming or for another gobble to ring out.  Eventually I clucked on my mouth call and nothing happened.  I yelped louder, and still nothing happened.  I cutt and yelped and the three birds responded…hundreds of yards to the northwest, headed to where they had gone every other morning this year.

I lowered the gun, muttered an unrepeatable swear word and resolved to apply for a doe tag for that WMU so that I could come back and turn that deer into backstraps.

Shortly after Dad came by and I told him my pathetic story.  He’s always been fatalistic about things like that, and with a shrug and soft smile he said “if they were easy to kill, there wouldn’t be any of them left” which is true but was of cold comfort to me in the moment.  I was pretty annoyed at the turkey-hunting gods by that time, having just gone through the full emotional wringer in a matter of a few early-morning hours and been oh-so-close to actually laying eyes down the gun-rail on those three birds that had occupied my thoughts and mornings for the whole spring. But it was not in the cards.

In the self-reflective moments of the drive home, I realized how obsessive about these birds I had become and that through the lack of Sunday hunting in the township, along with work and family commitments, I was not going to get another crack at them this spring.  There was closure in that, and I was simultaneously frustrated at the outcome and grateful for the opportunity to tangle with them.  Aside from one of them actually dying at the end of my shotgun, they really were everything us turkey hunters hope for.  They were vocal, they had personality, and they were some of the most challenging birds I’ve had to work against.  My wishful thinking imagines them as hardy four-year-old birds with dragging beards and wicked hooked spurs, brothers that had lived their whole lives in the area and that I may have had run-ins with in prior springs. They very well could be, or they could just be unpredictable, contrary two-year-old toms that like all wildlife don’t really have a set of rules that they follow and just do frustrating things to people like me.

I wish for them to make it through the next ten months or predators and cars and another Ontario winter, so that come next April I will find myself seated in the same spot sparring with them once again; all I can do is hope that by then perhaps I’m a little better and that maybe they have an off day.

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.

Them Crooked Gobblers, Part Four: Jakes

A misconception about me is that I’m some sort of old-timer, a man who has been chasing gobblers since he was old enough to walk, and one who has matched wits and resourcefulness against countless wary tom turkeys over several decades.

I frequently receive reader emails asking or asserting as much, so now it is confession time.

I’m a kid, relatively.  Not even forty years old yet.  In terms of my turkey hunting pedigree, I’m just safely beyond the realm of novice; not quite a veteran and definitely not a professional.  The modern turkey hunting tradition in my home province of Ontario is not quite thirty years old, and I’ve only been after them for not even ten of those seasons.  Rabbits, deer, grouse, and waterfowl dominated my early hunting experiences, and turkeys have become a recent, if all-consuming, addition.

And now that my credibility is shot to hell, let me tell you a secret.

I’ve still been whipped by birds, probably more often than most and most certainly as a direct result of my clumsy, neophyte bungling.  I’ve jumped into turkey hunting with both feet and I’ve nearly drowned on several occasions.  The birds do that to a man as susceptible to the sickness as I am.

The primary culprit in several of my misadventures are adolescent turkeys.  Jakes.  Jacksons.  Shortbeards.  Whatever you call them, those spur-deficient gobblers drive me nuts.  You’ll see why.

The first bird I ever missed was a jake.  To date it is the only bird I’ve ever missed, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.  I was in my second season in 2008, and I already thought I was a hot-shot.  I’d tag-teamed a hard-gobbling two-year old with my Dad in my first season, and in the summer of 2007 I walked on and finished second at a couple of turkey calling contests.  By 2008, I was then focused on drilling my first solo bird and it was going badly.  My calling was good and I was reaching out to birds, but I was spooking them like mad at the last minute, setting up in bad positions, and getting generally worn out by turkeys on the Bruce Peninsula and in Simcoe County.

I found myself in the former location one sunny May afternoon late in the season, and I was getting desperate.  My uncle had harvested a bird from a spot just outside of Cape Chin, and he had said that a gang of jakes was running around the area.  I just wanted to hang a tag on a bird by then, so my good friend Brian and I made the drive in and hopped over a corral into the property in question.  We sorted out a plan before leaving the truck, and then we snuck in as quiet as ghosts.  I saw a flash of red moving away and was sure we had been busted, but was relieved to see it was just the red face crest of a Sandhill Crane departing from the field edge.  We made our way to a low copse of conifers and sat at the base of a broomed out cedar, facing opposite directions and hoping for a show.

We got one.

Brian scratched out some yelps on his slate, and I cut hard on a box call.  A veritable chorus of choppy gobbles screamed back at us, and they weren’t that far away.  I sawed on the box call again and they hollered back, much closer.  I had no difficulty ascertaining that the birds were running our way, looking for the seductive hens they had heard.  I faced the east and Brian basically to the west, and the birds of course showed up on our south side.  Brian whispered, and I could tell the excitement in his voice.

“Jakes,” he hissed. “Two, no three…wait, four.  Four jakes all in range!”  My heart was hammering in my chest. “Can you turn?” he whispered?

“I’ll try” was all I could whisper back.

And with that I painstakingly inched my butt around the tree, until I had the bead of my 870 in an opening that they would have to cross.  A few minor clucks came from the band of juvenile delinquents, but so far as I could tell the low limbs of the cedar masked most of my awkward fumbling, or maybe those birds were just young, horny, and dumb.

I’ve been there before myself.

For a few seconds, my bead hovered in openness, but eventually the jakes seemed to sense something was amiss.  They starting filing out of there, and one of them was on a beeline for the opening I was covering.  As he entered the opening with his head down to pick at the ground, I yelped softly on my mouth call, and he gave me a full-periscope shot.  A shot which I promptly buggered up by sending a load of #6-sized lead shot over his head.  I said a bad word and for a moment pandemonium reigned as turkeys putted, cackled and ran frantically about.  For my part, I scrambled to my knees and sent another salvo downrange.  It wasn’t even close.

I saved my third shell, while the gang of shortbeards re-consolidated and gobbled ludicrously.  We tried to call them back, but perhaps they weren’t as dumb as I’d thought.  I just sat there, flabbergasted at my poor shooting and thinking of a way to politely kill Brian so that this embarrassment wouldn’t get out.

The problem with jakes is that they are always in groups, it seems.  Or at least in doubles.  There are just that many more eyes and ears to beat…and they are always willing and lusty gobblers, with choppy ‘hee-haw’ gobbles exploding out of them every chance they get.

The hardest gobbling bird I ever encountered was a jake, and he seemed determined to steal all the air in the Simcoe County forest with his constant gargling.  He sounded like a bunch of pebbles being rattled around in an old tin coffee can, and he hollered at every sound I made, as well as at every crow, blue jay, and car he heard.  I sneezed once and he still gobbled, although after that he moved off.  He was still loud-mouthed, even though he slowly faded from earshot.

In the last two seasons, I’ve had a couple of memorable run-ins with jakes, and while I closed the deal on one, I flailed and bungled the other.

The day after my mother died from cancer in 2013, my father and I went out for a ‘therapy hunt’ as I call it.  A silly jake showed up, running with two longbeards.  While the mature toms hung up well out of range, the subordinate jake made a surreptitious sneak on my decoy and I whipped his head around to his derriere with a well-placed load of Federals.  It was special to get a bird that day given the emotions of the previous weeks and months.

Last year, I was working my tail off trying to get my buddy Lucas Hunter his first turkey.  Lucas has done photo work for this blog in the past, and some great design work in the recent move to the new site, but we were friends and former coworkers from long before that.

We had hunted fruitlessly for almost two full days, with some pretty dim weather dogging us.  Two hours before we planned to head home, we were around a block not far from the family farm property.  Through binoculars we could see a group of five or six jakes milling in a field edge between two bush lots.  We made a circle and parked before scrambling into our gear and stalking into position.  I yelped on a mouth call and the jakes answered resoundingly.  We tried to close just a little bit of ground on them and get into a position that would be reasonable for Lucas to get a shot from, but those pesky jakes were on a dead run in our direction.  Like idiots, we bumped them as we tried to get into position.  The gobbled in surprise and started bobbing along at a jog to the west side of the field.  We cut through the mix of hardwoods and cedars and got to a spot that seemed to be promising.  Now firmly set up and perfectly still I yelped again.  Nothing.  I cutt harder and put in some aggressive purring.  Still nothing.   We trudged back to the vehicle and drove the block once more, but all the activity was off the stage now.  It was as though the birds had disintegrated into thin air.

For a second I wondered if they had ever been there at all, but that was jakes for you.

In a little over six weeks this is all going to start again in Ontario.  Every season I hear friends or acquaintances that I share the turkey woods with tell me their disdain for jakes.  How a gang of juveniles ran off a lone tom, or how they screw up hunts by gang-raping a hen decoy, or how these hunters somehow feel that dangling a tag from a jake bird’s leg is below their aristocratic standing as a turkey hunter.

But not me.  Bring on the shortbeards.  They gobble hard, run in eager, and taste great on my fork.  I have a love/hate relationship with them sometimes, but I’m not above bearing down the rail of my shotgun at one if I’ve got a tag to fill.  If it is legal where you hunt, hammer down I say.  You may never have a more memorable hunt than when the jakes show up.

Them Crooked Gobblers, Part Three: The Surprise Bird

While the previous two installments here were about birds that worked long, or that were repeat offenders, this chapter is about a bird that was in my life for all of twenty minutes, but it was still twenty very intense minutes that taught me a lesson that I put to good use in future seasons.  Although this bird beat me, what he taught me helped me to kill other birds after him.  This particular hunt took place on the Bruce Peninsula in 2008, and although I would tangle with a few other hard-headed gobblers up there in years to come, this was the first time a longbeard put a good flogging on my psychological state.
It was the perfect time of the spring season in Ontario.  Sometimes the first week or two is still drab and cold on the Bruce, with patches of snow in the bush, and the woods shaking off the last lingering hangover of winter.  I’ve been on damp, chilly, windy hunts under low slate grey skies on those early days, and although birds can be killed then, I’ve always had my success (or shall we call it luck?) later on in the season.  Late season can be tough too, with the last week often inordinately warm and the biting insects really start to feast by then.  But those middle two weeks of the five week spring season are just my absolute favourite time to be out there, and they are fast approaching pole position as my all-time favourite part of the hunting calendar, although a Thanksgiving waterfowl hunt still holds top spot…even if just barely.
I had hunted a field edge on the family property that Saturday morning in mid-May and had not heard any turkey activity at all, not even a lonely hen responded to my flock talk.  After sitting from before dawn until nearly 10am, I made a plan to roam around the hardwoods to the south of the farm, with the hopes of at worst getting a line on a couple of likely spots for the rest of the season, and at best of striking a tom turkey with my calls.  I was travelling without a decoy, and unfortunately, I had left my mouth calls in the farmhouse that morning, such was my haste to get out into the forest.  But I had a box call and I had a slate, so I made for the hills.  My uncle lives in the farm house year round and he had told us all of sporadic sightings of a nice gobbler as it crossed from our family property onto adjacent ones and back again throughout the late winter and into the spring.  That longbeard was just doing what turkeys do, and the hope was that he was still wandering that local (albeit fairly large) area between the southern limits of Lion’s Head and the northern edge of the village of Barrow Bay.  I had often wandered those fields and trails as a youth hunting rabbits, I’d chased ducks and geese in a few of them, and sometimes as a youth I was just hiking around behind my father so I knew my way around and I knew the properties I could frequent, and the ones I couldn’t.  I had a spot or two in mind, for sure.
I made a large loop of the big woods to the south and east of the farm, calling as I went along, before coming out just west of a Bruce Trail parking lot.  Not a single gobble had rung out, although I did kick up a few small groups of ruffed grouse and had spent some time watching two blue jays harass and chase each other through the budding green treetops.  It was a fairly humid, somewhat grey morning, but sporadically the sun did shine through the clouds.  When I broke out onto a gravel road, I unloaded my gun and slung it over my shoulder.  Walking down the gravel road I resolved to cross Bruce Road 9 and stop in to a chunk of hardwoods where I had hunted a few weeks earlier in the season.  I had experienced no action there on that previous day, but it seemed like a good idea; it would be a logical stop on the loop back to the farm for breakfast at the very least.  Crossing Bruce Road 9 on the curve south of the Cemetery Road, I popped into the woods, loaded my 870, and began a slow walk inside the tree line.  I had only walked for about ten minutes when I reached down and pulled out my box call.  I ran a string of seven or eight yelps on it, and was just reaching down to put it back in my vest when a gobbler hammered at me.  He was close enough that I could hear him clearly and I yelped once more, peppering a cutt and cackle into the mix.  He hollered again, and he was closer.
For an instant I panicked.  I had not really put any thought into what would happen if a turkey answered me and I looked frantically for a spot to get situated.  I finally found a big stump that just a little shorter than my sitting profile, but amply wide.  I ran the box call again and once more the gobbler answered.  I was facing a rocky saddle and he seemed to be coming down a little bush road that came around to the left of it, so I nestled into the stump and pointed my barrel in that direction.  I was fairly sure that this tom knew that the game was on, and I set down my box call so that I could secure both hands on the gun.  He gobbled again unprovoked, and he was definitely close, so close that, aside from my heart beating in my ears, I could hear him walking towards me.
I still had not laid eyes on him, and when he gobbled again I had another moment of panic.  He seemed to have diverted from the bush road and he was now sliding towards the other side of the small saddle to my right.  I’m a right-handed shooter, so that bird going to my right was the worst thing that could have happened.  I secretly wished for a mouth call, just to see if a few purrs would have straightened out his line, but in hindsight I realized that he already knew where I was by ear, and that I was going to have to get creative.
He gobbled again and it was now obvious that he was going to pop around the bottom of the saddle in area that I couldn’t swing my gun into.  I’d been in that crossed up position before while deer hunting, and now I found myself in it again with a fired up longbeard within twenty steps of me.
I resolved to scooch my behind around the stump so that my gun would point to where he seemed to be heading.  I made a bit of headway, and I took my hand off the stock and placed it down to stabilize myself while I shifted.  When my hand brushed and scratched a few leaves the bird went berserk; he bellowed a double-gobble and literally ran up over the top of the saddle, again in a place where my gun was not pointing.  At least I had a visual on him now.
For a brief moment his eyes and mine met; I could see his fiery red head, the top of his breast feathers, and the upper part of his beard.  His head craned back and forth and his body moved in a jerky, startled fashion for a few steps, and he began to putt loudly.  I knew from that sound and body language that I had just a few short seconds to make my move, so I slid the safety off and tried to pull the “spin move” on him, hoping to put the bead on his neck and fire in one seamless motion.
I failed.
While I had visualized a smooth transition and a peach of a shot, he had dropped off the saddle and was sprinting back from whence he came before I had even swung halfway to him; I never even yanked the trigger.  He gobbled as he ran, and I clicked the safety back on and sprinted the small saddle myself, just in time to see his sleek black back and red legs becoming one with the underbrush at a distance of nearly 100 yards.  I swore, I shook my head, and I sat down on a rock near to where I had first seen him.  I waited five minutes and ran a long string of yelps on my box call.  Nothing.  I looked at my watch: the whole thing had happened in under half an hour.
I hiked the twenty minutes back to the farm in that fog of self-loathing and hard, psychological self-analysis that any failed turkey hunter knows all too well.  How had that all gone wrong?  I went from having a lusty, willing gobbler essentially running to my calls to a fleeing bird that had me clumsily sprinting up a hill in desperation.  Even for me that was “bugger up” of legendary scale.
Then it dawned on me that I had ‘overthought’ myself into failure.  Now this is not something that I am the sole exclusive owner of; plenty of other hunters overthink.  They believe they know better than the animal, and they try to outsmart a bird that while supremely adapted, unbelievably wary, and maddeningly unpredictable isn’t really that smart to begin with.  Which actually makes it all the more frustrating when that gobbler kicks your ass.  I’ve always held that the worst thing that can actually happen when you overthink a gobbler is that you still actually kill him in spite of your error.  This just goes to cement a practice that is patently absurd.
Turkeys aren’t smart in the way we think of it.  They are creatures of adaptation and habit, they have wickedly impressive eyesight and supernatural levels of hearing, and they have a memory and attention to detail that to my mind is unmatched in the inventory of game animals in Ontario, and maybe the nation at large.  But they don’t do trigonometry, they don’t use deductive logic, and they don’t function on an intellectual plane of cause and effect so far as I can tell.  All they have is one reaction to anything that seems even slightly abnormal: be paranoid and run from it like hell.
In the days, weeks, months, and let’s be honest, years since I’ve realized over and over again the things I did wrong that day, and forgetting my mouth calls on the table was probably the least of my errors.
First, I was prospecting for a gobbler with no actual plan of attack should one answer.  Now, before calling I map out a few likely scenarios and setups should one sound off in response.  On that Saturday in mid-May 2008, I may have been better off backing away slightly to a spot that wasn’t squarely facing a saddle; as I look at it now, I only had a 33% chance of having my gun in the right place when the bird popped up; if he came to the wrong side of the saddle I would have been crossed up, and if he popped over the top (as he did) I would have had to make a move, which I did and failed at in epic fashion.
Second, I was trying to be predictive in how the bird would react, and in so doing, I had actually forced myself into a reactionary situation.  By trying to extrapolate (from no facts at all I might add) how this bird was going to behave on approach, I essentially put myself in a position that enabled my failure.  The goal now is that when a gobbler answers, I try to put myself in a spot that has several easy outs.  This includes concealing myself better, positioning the gun in a spot that doesn’t have me locked into one area only, and generally letting the hunt develop a little further before committing to a shooting lane or a physical position.
But even then, turkeys will be turkeys, and I’m going to have to suffer them being frustrating and unpredictable.  Because that’s why I love hunting them.