My alarm barked out and it felt like just moments earlier I had laid my head on the pillow. I groaned and rolled over to silence it, then dangled my legs over the edge of the bed and slid on some socks.
4:20AM. Why did it have to be 4:20AM?
I checked the temperature outside and slipped into my turkey hunting uniform. Warm socks, light shirt, camo pants. The stairs groaned the way they always do in the old farm house, almost as if they were likewise complaining at being called into action at an hour so ungodly, but as my head cleared I became sharply focused on the task at hand.
There were turkeys in the trees behind the farm, and I intended to coax one into shotgun range.
I had a piece of toast and then re-inventoried my equipment. License & tag? Check. Shotgun shells? Check. Various and sundry turkey-noise-making instruments? Check. I was ready to go. Walking out the door I wished my friend Lucas a good hunt with my uncle. They were after a very mature bird in a spot that my uncle had permission on, and rather than crowd the joint I had the previous evening resolved to put a hunt on the birds on the farm property.
My other uncle had indicated that they had gone into the hardwoods adjacent to what we call ‘the hollow’ the previous evening, and I had a good idea of the lay of the land in there from a lifetime of experiences on the farm as well as from recent deer hunts in that exact area. I trudged slowly and quietly throw a planted field, and reached a point of forest that forms the western treeline of the hollow. I owl-called and not hearing a response from the immediate area, I moved quietly down a skidder trail into the enveloping darkness of the hardwoods. It was 4:55AM and just the tiniest slivers of predawn light were filtering their way over the eastern horizon. I placed one hen decoy on the skidder trail and moved about twenty yards away from it onto a ridge. I found a great spot against a broad rock on the ridge and to my surprise it was a very comfortable seat.
I looked at my watch and it read 5:02AM.
For the next fifteen minutes I was absorbed into the dusky wilderness. The soft titterings of songbirds rose around me, and a light breeze tickled my ear, but the overall silence was king. It was not an oppressive, heavy silence but rather a calm edged with anticipation. I closed my eyes for a few moments and when I opened them again the bleary nighttime had taken on cleaner resolution. I thought about the morning to come and, like most turkey hunters, I imagined the various ways that the hunt might go down. The contrast between the darkness in the hardwoods and the apparent increase in daylight on the adjacent field made me second guess my setup momentarily. Then my doubts were erased as raspy gobble thundered from a treetop to the south of my position.
Just over a hundred yards south was a green cedar stand and it appeared that the gobbler was roosted in the hardwood surrounding those cedars. He gobbled again, and I checked my watch. It was just about 5:25 in the morning. Initially, nothing answered his gobbles and a part of me hoped that he was a bachelor that particular day. If I can help it, I’d rather not compete with hens for a tom’s attention. Unfortunately after his third or fourth gobble from the roost, I heard a hen fire up. Softly at first, but soon she was rasping away as well, bringing more distinct hen voices from their slumber as well. I reached into my pocket and pulled out three shotgun shells, placing them in my lap.
I also slid the newest addition to my turkey calling arsenal from my vest. The Woodhaven Cherry Classic crystal call took a resting spot beside my left leg, and after retrieving a striker I made a soft tree call. The gobbler cut me off immediately and a hen yelped loudly over top of my calls. Thinking that picking a scrap with the loud hen might be a good strategy I yelped and cutt and when the gobbler thundered she again called loudly over top of my series. I waited for her to call again and this time I cut her off with a string of raspy, aggressive yelps and clucks. She cutt hard and shouted me down once more, and the longbeard double-gobbled. I set my call down, confident that both gobbler and hen knew exactly where I was.
The only conundrum now facing me was that I had to load my gun. At the allotted hour I softly slid open the 870 action and with a delicateness of hand reserved for handling fine chinaware and newborn infants I placed a shell in and slid the action closed with a firm but quiet ‘snick!’’ Two more shells went into the gun smoothly and a few moments later I heard the birds fly down.
As soon as the birds touched ground, a hen riot the likes of which I’ve never heard erupted. There was yelping and cutting and purring and flapping and more yelping. Some sort of battle royale was going on a few ridges over from me and over it all the longbeard gobbled lustily. I turned my left shoulder towards the racket and brought the gun to ‘ready’ position, fingers poised over the safety. My pulse was pounding and my head was whirring with imagined visuals, such is the effect these birds have on my frail constitution.
A few moments later I heard running in the leaves and hen yelps growing near. One hen, followed by a straggler went through an opening and made their way down a slight hill towards my decoy on the skidder trail. The trotted up to the impostor hen and began yelping and purring, all the while circling and staring at the fake. A couple of more hens fed slowly down that way as well and before long there were five or six hens on the ridge side and trail, all within thirty yards of me. Then I saw the gobbler.
He was out of range and following the hens. This time he wasn’t gobbling. He was drumming and it was the clearest and most audible that I’d ever heard. He dropped behind a bit of a ridge and my hope was that he would cross the same opening I had first seen the hens through. A few moments later I saw the top of his tail fan over a ridge top immediately left of where the required opening was. I estimated him to be about thirty-five or forty yards away, and he was strutting and spinning on the spot. Most importantly, he was not offering me the slightest of shot opportunities. This went on for what felt like a half-hour but was more realistically ten minutes. My arms were comfortable and my left elbow rested on my left knee, but my breathing betrayed my motionless. I was nearly panting with excitement and adrenaline pounded in my brain. I needed him to take just a handful of steps to my right and he would be wide open and in range.
In the meantime, while I was pleading a psychic message to this gobbler, the hens had grown weary of bullying my decoy and when I cut my eyes right I could see that they were starting to move away. To my dismay their movement was not past me to the fields as I had hoped, but along their backtrail deeper into the hardwoods. About this time I saw the gobbler’s tail fan disappear, and knowing he had dropped strut and was likely leaving the hens, I had a moment of panic. I clucked hard on my mouth call, but nothing happened. I cackled loudly and he gave me a full periscope shot, but all I could see was his head, neck and a thin line of black feathers above the hilltop. I had one blaring, conscious thought in my head at that moment.
“DO. NOT. SHOOT. THE. HILLSIDE!”
Instinctively obeying that monologue command, I raised the bead ever so slightly so that it was in line with the point that his jaw met his neck. I squeezed the trigger and what sounded like cannon-fire echoed in the still morning air.
The bird jumped and started running, and the hens putted and sprinted off. I leapt down the ridge side in a bound and ran twenty yards up the trail, passing my decoy before running back up to the spot where he had been standing. I saw the faintest outline of a gang of wild turkeys necking their way through the hardwoods and disappearing from view. My watch read 6:25AM.
I said some bad words.
Looking down I saw the leaves that the rapidly departing gobbler had kicked up and on close inspection of the area I didn’t find one speck of blood or a solitary black neck feather. It became immediately apparent that for the second time in my turkey hunting career, I had blazed a round of copper-plated lead clean over the head of a gobbler.
I said some more bad words.
First I cursed out that lousy, hung-up gobbler, then the skittish, ornery hens and finally, and perhaps most accurately, about the gaping failures I exhibited myself.
Every move and decision I had made that morning put me in a position to succeed, until the ultimate action was upon me and then I had cocked it up. It had been a picture perfect hunt and I failed in giving it the ending it so rightly deserved. I was pissed off, utterly.
I knew that my Dad was across the county road and that he’d have heard my shot. I knew that he’d want an explanation. I knew my buddies were going to ride me mercilessly over this one. I was right on all three accounts. Worse than the ribbing of family and friends (which I have been taking all my life with grace and aplomb) was that although part of me knew I could not have played it differently, the self-loathing inherent in turkey hunting told me I should have waited longer and he would have crossed into a full opening, or that I should have let them walk and tried to circle them, or that all my poor decision-making had done was educate a gobbler and a bunch of hens, making them supernaturally more difficult to kill. At the time it was hard for me to see it any other way than in the negative.
For their part, no one else had succeeded either (although none of them had thrown a few ounces of lead shot aimlessly into the forest either) and when I got back to the farm and had cooled down, we decided to head for breakfast. My cousin Dane and his brother-in-law were out on a run-and-gun for a bird, but my brother, my uncle, my friend Lucas, and my friend Brian had all come up short on tagging a morning bird. We headed to the diner for a bite to eat and as I stepped into the diner parking lot I looked down to see my cellphone ringing. It was Dane.
In a flash hunt, he and his brother-in-law Chris had struck a longbeard and Chris had drilled the gobbler as it snuck in to investigate Dane’s calling. So at least the morning wasn’t a total bust. It was a nice hefty bird, maybe three-years old, with a solid beard and nice sharp spurs.
We had some coffee, toast, bacon, and eggs and I was forced to re-live my failure of mere hours prior. We also all took in the tale of Chris’s bird and we laughed at the inimitable embellishments and narration that only Dane can provide.
With bellies full we headed back to the farm for photos and to clean the bird. A short rest later we planned the setups for the rest of the day.
The afternoon seemed primed for redemption.