Category Archives: them crooked gobblers

Them Crooked Gobblers, Part Two: The Backdoor Bird

The first installment of this series was about a gobbler I ended up tagging, but this edition is about one I didn’t.  On consecutive hunts this bird did the same thing to me.  On the third hunt I tried to double-bluff him, and he still managed to trick me. Sometimes you can’t win and you just have to tip your cap and chalk up a learning experience.
My only proof that this was the same bird on all three occasions is that he did the same thing repeatedly; not to the point of predictability, as you’ll see, but consistent enough that I just had the feeling that this old gobbler was besting me over and over again.
And I didn’t like it.
When April of 2010 rolled around, I was hungry for success.  The spring season of 2009 saw me whiff on a bird on the Bruce Peninsula, a bird that I’m sure I’ll write about again, and that year I made the mistake of fixating on a gobbler to the point of obsession.  I didn’t get him and I didn’t even try to hunt another bird; I swore it was the last bird that I’d get into a personal battle with.
The opening weekend saw me stationed in Oro, Ontario, not far from where I had shot my first gobbler in 2008.  I got in extra early on that grey and foggy morning, and with a pair of snips I had trimmed myself a recessed nook in the side of shrub line.  Winter had clung on late, and there were no buds or camouflaging foliage on the shrub, but I nestled myself back into the boughs with just the fore-end of my 870 sticking out.  I shouldered the gun and gave a couple of swings just to make sure I could cover most angles of approach should a tom show interest, and satisfied that I was stealthily hidden away, I started some light calling.  Even though it was grey and damp, with a morning rain ceasing just prior to my arrival, as always the spring morning greeted me with songbirds and the stirrings of wildlife, and while no gobblers responded immediately off the roost, some fresh tracks in the muddy road and some pre-season sightings in the area buoyed my hopes that I would score on my first hunt of the year.
Off and on I yelped, occasionally ramping up the urgency and the volume before mellowing the sounds off into some clucks and purrs.  The soft boughs of the shrub were actually quite comfortable and I lounged back into an almost reclined position, while chickadees flitted and fluttered around the area.  One of the little clowns landed on my shotgun barrel and turned his head back and forth inquisitively at me.  Determining I was not a predator, he hopped along the rail and off into a nearby branch.  I smirked and my mind drifted away.  Had the sun been out I may have been tempted to take a mid-morning nap.
In this blissful frame of mind, I was hauled back to reality by a movement to my left.  At the field edge, well out of range, a small clan of turkeys was marching my way.  There were four birds, and the back one was most certainly a longbeard, although to that point I had not heard any turkey vocalizations of any kind all morning.  The gobbler was in half strut as he followed three hens across the field and I could tell from their route that they would pass me out of range.  I yelped softly and the birds didn’t even look my way.  I ratcheted up the volume and the hens looked over but stayed on their determined course.  Reaching a hill opposite me and at a distance of almost 100 yards, the hens popped into the woods and the gobbler took one look back my way before dropping his half strut pose and loping into the tree behind his girlfriends.
They had approached with no gobbling from the tom, no yelping from the hens, and no interest at all from any of the birds.
About half an hour later I heard some distant clucking and yelping as the birds worked their way through the property, and I let loose a string of cutting and yelping designed, if for no other purpose, than to get the tom to gobble, but that effort again fell on deaf ears.  I resolved to put another hour or so on the hunt before working my way back out of the woods to my vehicle, and though I called twice more, nothing answered.
I was at the point where I was just taking stock of the morning, and was very near to getting up to stretch my legs when I was overtaken with a preternatural sense of a presence.  It was not some supernatural moment, it was not clairvoyance, but it was just a sense that I was being watched.  I’ve felt it before while hunting, and I’ve felt it before when I haven’t been hunting and I uneasily dismissed it that morning.  I went back to thinking about the rest of my day, when the air was split by a long, rattling gobble from behind me.  It was close, much closer and louder than I had ever heard.  A tom turkey had essentially snuck up on me and had gobbled in my ear from inside of five yards.  I was startled and instinctively whipped my head around, which was enough movement to give the gobbler as much information as he required; my last sight of him was a sleek black form bobbing rapidly away through the hardwoods.  I spun around and rushed to my knees, but even a snap shot would have been impossible.  Instead I just swore and tried to get my heart out of my throat.  The walk back to the car was a slow, cautious one, but I never saw or heard the bird again that morning.
Two weeks later I was back on the same property, but I had moved to a different spot, more towards the row of trees that the birds had crossed to on the previous hunt.  Whereas the first hunt was grey and damp, that second day found me sitting in the glorious sunshine of an early May in Ontario.  The weather was much improved, but the turkeys were still as reluctant as before in gobbling.  Finally after a few hours of fruitless calling I heard a tom sound off in the distance.  He gobbled again and was closing the distance, and he seemed to be making a broad circle on my left.  A large swampy bottom with a narrow creek runs along one edge of the property and in my mind’s eye I could envision the bird taking the long way around that wet hole.  I moved my left shoulder in the direction of his anticipated approach, and brought the gun to a half-ready position.  He was still gobbling every so often and I had resolved not to yelp again; the goal being to make him hunt for the phantom hen that I was imitating.
His gobbling stopped and the woods were silent for fifteen minutes or so, and all the while I was peering to where I thought he should be popping up.  My arms complained and I got impatient, so being the relatively novice turkey hunter I was back then, I chose to let out one single cluck.  He gobbled immediately from the spot where I had last heard him, and then I promptly heard the clumsy beating of heavy wings before the literal ‘whoosh’ of a bird landing on the trail behind me told me all I needed to know.  As soon as the gobbler’s feet hit the ground, he gobbled again and once more he was directly behind me and closer than I could have imagined.  This time I did not jerk my head around or scramble to rush a shot, but I found myself hopelessly crossed up.  My left shoulder was pointing exactly opposite of where this tom had hit the ground, and my mind was whirring as I tried to deduce my next move.  While I was deducing my next move, I could hear the bird’s feet on the dried leaves and new grass, and he began clucking inquiringly.  From what I was hearing, he was pacing back and forth on the trail behind me, sure that he should have been seeing a hen turkey.  I was suffering from a case of “paralysis by analysis”, and while I shook nervously and tried to will him into the open, he just got bored, gobbled once and trotted off into the forest again.  Once more, I regained my composure and stalked out of the woods, setting up twice to blind call hoping he’d come back to me, but an hour later I found myself at my car, with my mind racing at the events that had just transpired.  In two hunts I had been approached to within feet by a tom turkey and both times he had showed up precisely behind me.  I was beginning to make the same mistake I made the previous year.
This bird was getting under my skin.
I hunted the family farm on the Bruce Peninsula the week after that, and while unsuccessful, I did at least ease my mind about that ruthless old tom in Oro.  I spoke to my Dad and a couple of other turkey hunters and although I’m still reluctant to call what we came up with ‘a plan’ I will say that I got some good advice for going after him.  The following weekend would be the final one of the 2010 season and I was getting close to having to gnaw on another spring turkey tag.
I made the woods extra, extra early and snuck in silently to a spot between where I had first had the bird sneak up on and the second spot that he had ambushed me at.  I had promised myself I wasn’t going to yelp until I either heard gobbling or the sun rose, whichever came first, but in the end I didn’t really need to make a choice.  I had been sitting for less than five minutes when a bird gobbled from the roost.
He was seventy or eighty yards (by my ear) onwards from where I had sat down, and it sounded like he was roosted right over top of the same swampy bottom he had flown across two weeks prior.  He gobbled a few more times before I yelped at him, and he hammered back, cutting me off in the process.  I peered through the treetops hoping to spy him, but I could not get a line on his exact whereabouts.  After a half hour of intermittent tree talk, the tone of call changed and I could tell he had flown down.  My only hope was that he had flown to my side of the swamp and not to the far side.  My suspicions were soon confirmed as I heard him sound off in the hardwoods ahead of me.  I again brought the gun to half-staff, waiting to make a positive ID on him.  He gobbled hard and then something startling happened, again.  Another bird gobbled, once more from behind me.
This bird had never made a sound on the limb, and now he was closing the distance behind me once more.  He gobbled and the original bird answered, and I was in a conundrum.  I had still not laid eyes on the first turkey but the one from the rear was closing the distance more rapidly.  It was decision time once again, and for the umpteenth time I made the wrong one.  I chose not spin and face the bird closing from the rear, but instead I remained steadfastly focused on the gobbling turkey approaching from the front.  They both gobbled again, in a sing-song fashion, when I realized something terrible was happening.  The bird in the ‘front’ was sliding off hard to my left, his gobbled still came closer but he was making for a spot…you guessed it, behind me.
I did a quick butt-shuffle trying to spin and keep my front shoulder facing him, but eventually the two birds met up. I know they met up because they gobbled wildly when they did.
It sounded like laughter.
They headed back into the hardwoods and out of earshot.  It wasn’t even 8am and I was thoroughly defeated.  The mosquitoes had been feasting malevolently on my hands and neck the whole time this raucous show was going on, and I was frankly just fed up with turkey hunting for the year at that point.  I got up, made it to my car, and drove to a public land spot in the Simcoe County Forests near Elmvale, but my heart really wasn’t in it by then.  The whole time I sat in the woods there, I was thinking about what had transpired in the woods back in Oro.
Part of my problem is the thinking, I guess.
I learned a lot about the frustration inherent with hunting turkeys that season, even though I felt that I had learned everything I could from the prior spring.  I knew the bird wasn’t ‘smarter’ than I was per se, and I knew he wasn’t a mind reader.  But I did know for certain, even if I couldn’t prove it, that the “Backdoor Bird” as I came to call him, was just flat out better than I was at the predator/prey relationship.  I kept reliving (and still do) those mornings, and I just can’t seem to pinpoint where things went wrong or what I could have done differently.  It is possible that somebody might have killed him in the years since, but I secretly hope he eluded all of us for as long as he could.  Despite the frustration of the moment, now these few seasons later I can say it was a fun time hunting him; a true learning experience.
Usually my Dad always has good advice in these situations.  But that time, after I lamented my poor luck and the uncanny instincts of that old tom, even he seemed to be at a loss for ideas.  Dad just smiled and said it best.
“Sometimes they do that.”

Them Crooked Gobblers, Part One: There’s Always a First Time

Although Get Out and Go Hunting has taken a brief hiatus (forced by the fact that I have a cripplingly busy winter schedule with my real job; this blogging doesn’t exactly pay the bills), fear not for I have returned just in time for Christmas.
Consider this my gift to you.  A last-minute, thoughtless gift that you probably won’t really use and one you will have a hard time re-gifting to others.  I’m sorry in advance.
My pining for turkey hunting has come early this year, and I cannot precisely pinpoint the source.  Usually I don’t get all antsy to be sitting under a tree on a verdant spring morning until sometime in the frozen depths of February, but this year, I’ve just been sitting around in the evenings, and the mornings, and the lunch hours just reminiscing about gobblers.  So to slake my anxiety I’m going to recall stories about my five favourite gobblers.
Today, I will share the tall tale of the first gobbler I ever shot solo.
I came late to turkey hunting.  Ontario had been offering a spring gobbler season in one form or another for almost twenty years before I started in 2007.  My Dad had been after them for many years by that time and had a nice few gobbler tailfans already nailed to the drywall in the garage, with the year and date of their harvest scrawled beneath each one.  In that first rookie turkey season for me I made a whack of mistakes, spooked a bunch of birds, called too much, and nearly got skunked before Dad and I had a frantic tandem kill on a public land turkey (the tale of which will serialized here for posterity at a later date).  Still, even though I had come into turkey hunting later in my life, I was hooked completely with the experience.  Early spring mornings lured me in, but thundering gobbles and intense close-range longbeard action cemented the addiction.
In 2008 I was focused, and I swore that I wasn’t going to find a way to cock up shooting a longbeard that year, but by the second last weekend of the season I had so far failed even in that respect.  I had bumped two gobblers, shot over the head of a third at 35 steps, and had one sneak in silently behind me and gobble in my ear at just ten paces.  I was beginning to think that like my deer hunting career, my enthusiasm and early promise were going to be false indicators of success as a turkey hunter.
The second last weekend of the 2008 season was in reality the last weekend for me, with my wife’s sister getting married the following Saturday, and with my work schedule not allowing any other days off to ramble after a strutter.  It was crunch time.
My Dad, my brother, and I made our way to a local landowners bush lot early that Saturday morning, and in the dawn I worked some light yelping on a mouth diaphragm.  Not getting much response, I reached for my box call and sawed away a slightly more aggressive string of raspy yelps, with a bit of cutting thrown in.
I laid the calls down and slumped at the base of a pile of old, balled up page wire fence and discarded tree limbs.  I was set up inside a field edge facing north, and the sun rose slowly over my right shoulder; a treeline separated the field I was sitting on from another un-huntable field further north, but aside from the distant braying of Canada geese and the morning serenades of the sparrows and finches, the woods and fields were quiet.  I was still of the neophyte opinion that every yelp I made should get a response and to hear my calls dissipate into the air without a lusty gargle from a fired up tom turkey was disheartening.  Some time passed, twenty or thirty minutes perhaps, and then I heard a faint gobble from beyond the northern tree barrier, or at least I thought I heard one.  Moments later I heard two gobbles from the same spot, only these were closing the distance to me.  I don’t remember with precision what time it was that this happened, and I can’t even really remember the exact spot these calls originated from, but I do remember very deliberately reaching down and picking up my box call to yelp back, and before I even finished the string of notes, I was rebuked with what I was swore were three hefty shouts from beyond the treeline in front of me.  But that couldn’t be, we hadn’t seen three gobblers together on this property, or any adjacent ones, all year.
Still it sounded like ‘they’ were coming.
I laid down the box call and positioned myself with two hands on my Remington 870; it was not mounted to my shoulder but I was ready in case it had to be.  One turkey popped out of the trees at a fast walk about two hundred yards away. I was elated to have had some interest in my calling.  Then another one hopped out of the woods behind it and flapped its wings before falling in line behind the first.  I was even more excited…I mean, TWO GOBBLERS!  I had called up two gobblers!  When a third came out of the woods in full strut, I think I whispered a silent thank you to the turkey hunting gods.  As the trio of longbeards began making their way arduously across the field towards me, I very (very!) slowly began inching the gun to my shoulder.  I had a monopod attached to the barrel, and it was already in the down position so I had a limit to how far I could swing from left to right, but the birds were making good headway in my direction so I was not worried.
They closed to within 100 yards or so, all the while alternating between gobbling and strutting and spinning, before hanging out at that distance for about ten minutes.  They then began marching a line parallel to my position until they were right in front of me, but still at least fifty yards from being in range.  By then I was getting worried.  If they slid any more to my right, I’d have to move to put a bead on them, and with my monopod rooted to the spot that was a task that would be difficult to execute without spooking them into the next township.  I was distinctly aware of a few trickles of sweat inspired more by the circumstances than the pleasingly warm May morning as they rolled down my cheek, and my one foot was beginning to go tingly from being tucked under my other leg for some time.  My arms and shoulders were just glorious though, I had that damned monopod to thank for their freshness.
I made a light yelp and cluck on my mouth call and all three birds hammered back simultaneously, making any adrenaline response I had been having kick into overdrive.  I was filled with a sickly sweet anticipation that I have come to know very well since; it is the excitement of anticipation mixed with the absolute dread of buggering everything up.  It was intoxicating, and for a moment I was afraid to blink or exhale, lest those wary birds make me for the predator I was and have them make tracks elsewhere.
Then, glory of glories, one of the birds started to break the line and walk my way, this made another bird start over as well.  The third compatriot, not wanting to be left out, tried to run ahead of the other two and in short order I had three longbeards bouncing their way towards me at a dead run, gobbling the whole time. 
I slid the safety off silently.
All three broke into a strut in a phalanx at roughly thirty yards and the monopod held my bead in a space between two of them.  I was beginning to rue attaching that contraption to my gun. The gobbler that to my eye was the largest jumped and swung a wing at one of the others and both the subordinate birds broke strut.  It was fascinating to see the pecking order so instantly displayed, and while the one bird stayed in strut safely to my right in a spot where my monopod wouldn’t allow me to get to him, the other two birds began clucking and purring inquisitively.  I had only called two or three times since they had broken into the field, but they had marched and trotted right to the exact spot where their ears told them a hen should be waiting.
Since I had no decoy, the birds saw no hen, and I could tell that the two subordinate gobblers were becoming a little agitated by this, since the tone of their purring and clucking was becoming more, shall I say, urgent.  The big fella just strutted and spun in one spot the whole time.  As the two other birds putted around I noticed that one of them was on a path to walk directly in front of my gun barrel, while the other began picking at some new grass on the field edge.  I figured quickly that the spot the one bird would pass would be well in range and just as he approached that spot were the vectors were to converge I bore down on the bead.  That slightest movement made him lift his head to full periscope and he looked back over his shoulder towards the strutter.
It was the last thing he ever saw.
At the bark of the gun, the strutter leapt into flight and flew over my head into the bush at a height of no more than ten yards.  Had he been a Canada goose, I could have dumped him easily.  But he wasn’t a goose and the law says we can only shoot one turkey per day in Ontario so I listened to his wingtips tickle the trees as he powered out of earshot.  The other gobbler alarm putted and gobbled off through the low brush to my right, and I watched his shiny black back merge into the woods and fade off into the sun-dappled understory behind me.
A still, black form was laying in the grass at the field edge, with the white bars of one wing held up stiffly like a signal flag.  I slid the safety back on, stood and slowly paced off the distance to the lifeless bird.  At twenty five steps I put my bootheel on his neck and grabbed his legs below the spur.  He lamely flogged my shin with his wing for a moment, but he was soon still again.  It was all just too much for me, and standing there with shotgun in one hand and gobbler in the other I let out a war whoop that came from some previously untapped part of my brain.
I was a turkey hunter right then.  Before I had been in practice, an apprentice at the feet of mentors and magazines and often contradictory advice and opinion, but at that moment I’d tasted solo success and no matter what the future held I knew I had that one moment forever.  I’ve been hunting after and writing about gobblers for six seasons since then and I’ve shot other birds since, but I still haven’t found the words that adequately define that moment of ‘the first time’.
I probably won’t ever have another hunt like that, and in some ways I hope that’s the case.  That ‘first time’ was just too picture perfect to sully it with duplication.
As a footnote, that blasted monopod has not been re-attached to my gun since.