Two years ago I started my volunteer outdoor writing service through a local newspaper's public blogging site. Unfortunately, through powers beyond my control, my archives from that source are gone and lost forever. Luckily, I saved rough drafts of my work on my computer, and once or twice a week I'll re-introduce a past column back into the wild of the World Wide Web. Enjoy!
Originally Published April 2008
To some, turkey hunting is a religious experience. Hunters develop a deep belief in the suitable manner of harvesting a tom - usually calling them into close range to dispatch with shotgun or bow. Reminds me of a line from A River Runs Through It - no one should be allowed to catch a fish unless they know how to fish. Or something like that.
Turkey hunters, like the fly fishermen in the movie, adopt that mentality as they gain experience. They then tend to get railroaded into the “proper method” for harvesting a tom. In a given camp, hunters preach and debate about the use of decoys, how old a bird must be to harvest it, which calls are the best – the list goes on, trust me, but each argument is assuredly spoken with hallowed conviction from the lips of the faithful.
Most would agree, a turkey hunt hits its climax as a gobbler struts into your attempts at calling. At that point, you’ve fooled Nature. You controlled – to a certain extent – the actions of a wild creature. It’s a unique experience that one never forgets, and to some, anything less is unworthy of the tom or the hunt.
I hear it all the time: “I won’t shoot a bird unless it struts and drums in the decoys, less than 15 steps, has gobbled at least a dozen times and paid due homage to my calling expertise.”
OK, I’m exaggerating a tad. I pride myself on the birds I’ve taken over the years that went something like what’s scripted above, but hunts rarely go as planned, and I’m not one to let opportunity pass me by.
The second bird I shot last weekend came against the Rules of Engagement generally agreed upon. We spotted and stalked him. Never an easy prospect made more difficult by his cohort of always-alert hens, another gobbler and some spooky cows, just for good measure. Lot’s of eyes and ears. I know several hunters who’d preferred trying to set up a decoy spread and call, or roost him later in the day for a chance the next morning. They’d never hop out of a truck and start some foolish quest of sneaking up on a bird with just about the sharpest set of senses in the woods.
The cool, clear early Friday morning arrived in sharp contrast to the wind and rain of Thursday. Nick dropped me off with instructions to sit on a distant treeline bordering a sod field. I had the whole north side of the ranch to myself, so if I heard any gobbles I could re-position, if necessary.
At 6:50, the first gobble – a deep, rolling call – echoed through the pines behind me. I waited until the second or third time he gobbled to post any response. He immediately replied to my slate, so I thought I was in business.
My failure in knowing the lay of the land would be my undoing. As the morning progressed, he’d respond to my yelps and purrs, but steadily moved away. I knew then he was probably henned up.
I picked up one hen decoy and rushed to circle around on him, thinking I was backed by woods, not a gigantic cow pasture. As I crossed a slough, the field came into view and the depressing realization that the bird was in the wide open hit me. I dropped down into a ditch and called, trying to get a bead on his location. He responded on the far edge of the field, now with another gobbler. Time to hatch a plan.
Using cow trails, I could stay out of sight and quietly run the border of a small pine island until I reached a point where the field sloped down to a point and re-deploy the dekes. Odd were they'd work that way before retreating into the cypress for the day. Worth a try, at any rate.
As I neared where I thought I wanted to be, a crusty hen call emanated from in front of me. It reminded me of a kid playing with a box call at Bass Pro or something. My immediate reaction was that I’d busted in on someone else’s hunt, and the call was the Unknown Hunter letting me know his position without spooking the birds.
Startled, I hauled rear back to my original set-up, angry and convinced I’d ruined someone’s morning. The excuse-making began silently as I stewed. I'd just met a lot of these guys. Would I ever be invited back? Certainly, there would be repercussions for a transgression such as this. I’d admonish another hunter who’d done something like that to me, for sure.
A text message to Nick explained my situation with instruction to retrieve me when ready. After he arrived, we collected my decoys, and he assured me no one was hunting there but me. It must have been a real hen call. So now I’d shifted from angry to feeling stupid. That pathetic wheezing hen threw a curve, and I bit badly.
Nick had no luck, but reported that he’d just passed a big gobbler in a field by a ranch road without spooking him – my bird it turns out, as I relayed my story of the morning. And sure enough, as we headed back to camp, he stood strutting with the other gobbler and his hens. They'd done what I thought they'd do, just too bad I was in the front seat of a Silverado and not posted on a pine.
Originally, I wanted to let them be and hunt him again in the morning, but there he stood for the taking. The worst that could happen is he’d spook. In most situations, I’d rather be aggressive and risk scaring him than not take a chance and wonder what could have been. Besides, on this huge place, toms were everywhere. If this one ran off we could find another no sweat.
On top of this, Nick’s brother, Trace, had come down from Gainesville the night before and needed to take a crack at one of the toms. That sealed our decision. We drove a couple hundred yards beyond the feeding birds to a cypress head we could use for cover. If we could stalk to the inside edge of this head without being seen, the birds would be in shotgun range.
We shed binoculars, loaded the shotguns and proceeded into the banana spider woods following cow trails, stepping deliberately to avoid cracking branches and underbrush. No calls, no noise, just sneak through the woods and whack one. Simple.
We picked through the shadows of the trees, until the bright sun shining in the field filtered back into view. And then, a gobbler fed into plain sight. When he’d turn, we’d creep inches closer, freezing if any bird or bovine suspected problems.
As it turned out, the cows proved the biggest challenge. We’d snuck well into range of the one bird and now had all the hens and the dominant gobbler – in full strut and drumming at his lady friend – in sight. But the cattle; can’t shoot the cattle, and they stood behind all targets of opportunity. Also, we had a chance at a double and needed to wait for both the cows to vacate and the toms to line up so each of us would have a clear shot.
The satellite gobbler would wander about, but the bigger bird stayed in strut, turning his attention only to the hen feeding beside him. After what seemed like an eternity, all the stars aligned - the cows moved, and the gobblers came in range. Trace had the drop on the bigger bird. I’d take the satellite.
On the count of three we shot, and I rolled my bird as Trace’s whirled at the blasts and flew off unharmed with his hens. In all fairness, Trace didn’t have a great window to shoot through - that didn’t stop the ridicule for the next couple days, however.
In all, the hunters in camp took 5 gobblers Friday morning. All had ropes for beards, weighed around 20 pounds with decent to excellent spurs. The other 4 birds came strutting into calls in the traditional manner of the sport.
Not many people get a chance to successfully stalk a gobbler. It’s a low success affair. Everything went perfect for us, other than the missed shot. The gobblers just happened to be close to some cover that we could stalk through without making a bunch of noise. They didn’t spook as trucks drove by. The dark shadows of the cypress where we crept and waited hindered the birds’ ability to see clearly as they fed in the bright sunlight; an overcast day and we’d been busted for sure.
Either of them could’ve easily been shot with rifles, legal in Florida, but ranch rules prohibit it, and I doubt I would have anyhow. By my tolerant nature, I have no qualms with others doing it, but the Turkey Hunting Gospel According Ian says it was not the fair thing to do in this situation. Not proper.