Scratchings From The Roost – A Collection of Stories From An Unforgettable 2020 Turkey Season

Posted on May 26, 2020

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“Every hunter knows them – those days when fickle fate sees fit to shine, however briefly, on his efforts. Such fleeting moments we cherish for their magic, even as we stoically acknowledge that there will be other times which by comparison seem tragic. The resiliency and selectivity of the human mind is such that failures are forgotten as successes stand forth with startling clarity. Mental gymnastics are an integral part of the turkey-hunting experience.” – Jim Casada

 

My Big Bird

No, this is not about the giant yellow Sesame Street bird, this about the heaviest turkey I have ever had the privilege of taking. It all began on Monday, the opening day of turkey season (I’m not counting the gift day of Saturday the Governor gave us), when I found myself seated in the pre-dawn light in my most favorite location. I have come to call it my turkey hunting oasis. Many a grand bird has provided me sport hunting of the finest kind on these lands of rolling green fields, hedgerows, and woods.

 

I had not hunted here for two years due to filling my tags at other locations, and because of that, was eager to return to this enchanted land. With my dummies set in place, which consisted of a jake atop a hen to mimic a breeding pair along with a single hen, I sat against a stone wall in anticipation of the gobbles I’d soon hear emanating from the pines on the hill behind me.
But no gobbles came from there. Gobbles came from far distant trees on the opposite side of two fields separated by a hedgerow. Gobbles came from way off to my left, but yet, none from where I’d become accustom to hearing them at approximately 5:05 a.m. each time hunting here. A little disappointed, I assured myself that if there was no action after three hours I would pack up and head to a different location.
So, with a brightening sky and good shooting light upon me, I began to yelp every few minutes and wait for a reply. I surely did not want to insinuate to a possible suitor that I was some desperate hen that needed a gobbler now, just enough seduction to get him heading my way was what I was attempting.
Forty-five minutes into the hunt, a living breathing hen came out 30-yards to my left and began softly yelping. At this point, I began mimicking whatever she was saying. As the two of us engaged in a verbal dueling match a gobble broke out from the far side of the back field. Encouraging to say the least. Our duel continued and the gobble was getting closer. By the sound of it, he had come across the distant field and was near the hedgerow.

 

I continued to call, the hen responded and so did not one, but two gobblers. Wow, now the adrenaline was beginning to flow as it was sounding like the game was definitely on. I made one more series of soft yelps followed by some purrs and then left the rest to the real hen. As she continued to verbalize in turkey talk, I saw a red head and neck rise above the hill directly in front of me. And then, its entire body, a really big, fully fanned gobbler dressed in all his glorious colorful attire.
He stopped long enough to surveil what was below him. First the ole boy glanced at the real hen and then quickly directed his attention to the jake atop the hen. Hmmm, which will he go to, I thought. In that moment of indecision on his part, another tom joined the party and was now standing atop the hill.
A tom that’s been around for a few years doesn’t just come barging in, he weighs out what his eyes are showing and couples that with what his ears have been hearing. And this bird, on this day, made the conscious decision to come for my decoy setup. I was honored, and hopefully would be able to provide him with a one-gun salute.

 

With a steady, confident gait, the gobbler walked down the incline directly for the dummies. When he got within gun range, he stopped and began to fan. That’s when I saluted him with a Federal #6 magnum load. His partner disappeared back over the hill, the hen became silent and I had just taken the heaviest bird of my turkey hunting career, a tom that tipped the scales at 24 pounds. Today was a good day to be a turkey hunter.

 

The Old Man

I truly love my friends. I enjoy their company and sharing hunts with them. And there is no one that I’d rather have by my side to chase long beards with than my long-time buddy, the Silverback. When he arrived at my house to stay for a couple of days, I told him that come morning, he would get first crack at the first gobbler that came in. I was already on the board with a bird.

 

Of course, he began to balk, and so I told him, “If you don’t shoot, than the bird will just walk as I’m not even raising my weapon.”
So here we are, on the edge of a gorgeous field, one we hunted last spring where the two of us observed a whole lot of long beard action. While the Silverback was getting our turkey loungers (comfy chairs) set along the wood line, I meticulously put the same combination of dummies out: jake atop a breeding hen, along with a feeding hen.
At daybreak there were gobbles, but again, not near the same amount that we’d heard a year ago in this location. But it must be remembered, patience is a virtue and turkeys definitely do not march to the beat of any kind of timetable.

 

I will now jump ahead in the story so as not to bore the reader with nearly two hours of unanswered calling. Following a series of cuts, yelps and purrs, we got a lone gobble from a couple hundred yards to our right. If you are indeed a turkey hunter, that sound, that close, raises your heart rate immediately, and trust me, it did ours.
Hart gave a toned-down series of soft purrs and instantly we got a response gobble as the tom stepped into the field. He was a deliberate gent and surely took his sweet old time making up the distance but come he did.

 

By the time he was in shooting range, he had fanned out and began to strut. As my pal was just about to shoulder his weapon, the bird broke strut, and began side-stepping toward the decoys. In the process of his dance, his head began to get really red, and he was coming awfully close to where we were seated. And then, he dropped his tail feathers, turned toward the jake on the hen and ran past us, up to the fakes and commenced to beating my dummies. With him now distracted, the Silverback got the bead on him and delivered the death knell from 20-yards.

 

Now remember, it was me that demanded my pal be the one to shoot the first bird, right? Well, he did, and it ended up being the oldest turkey he’d ever killed. This nearly perfect old gent had (are you ready for this?) 1 ½-inch spurs; a true limb hanger with the probable age of five years. We deceived a gobbler that had lived through five seasons, eluding death until this very moment. It truly was haunting! And I’m so grateful that my friend of 34-years had the opportunity to take such a magnificent specimen.

 

Tight Quarters/Fast Shooting

Following me photographing Hart with his bird from our successful morning’s hunt, we packed up and headed for another location. The spot I wanted to get to would require a mile hike to reach. We took our time walking in, stopping every few minutes to call. It’s almost like trolling for fish, you never know if one is going to bite, but you keep trying to entice any interested game.

 

Once we reached the knob on the hill adjacent to the field, a nearly perfect turkey location, we set up a hen and jake dummy, sat down an began to call. And call we did for over two hours without so much as a cursory gobble. As I looked at my watch, that now read 11 a.m., and listened to the rumblings of an empty belly, I suggested we begin to slowly make our way out in the same fashion we’d come in, trolling for a bird.
The Silverback and I had no more descended down an old skidder path, filled with forest debris in the thickest part of this particular piece of real estate when we heard it. The weirdest sound followed by a gobble. It was as if the bird was clearing his throat prior to sounding off.
In lockstep, we both looked at each other and stated the obvious, “This bird is right here!” Hart exclaimed, “We’ve got to sit down, NOW!” While he unfolded our turkey loungers, I got the bag of dummies off my back, and in unison we both sat down facing the oncoming gobbler.
As Archibald Rutledge wrote in Magic Moments, “Practically all the wild turkeys that are killed are turkeys that never see the hunter. To show yourself is to lose your chance.”
In order not to be seen, there was no time for any decoy to be set or opt for a better shooting spot. Once a turkey hears what to his ears is the love language of a hen, he knows, with pinpoint accuracy exactly where that sound came from. An old woodsman once said, “There ain’t a surveyor who can run a straighter line than a gobbler will make for a hen.”
Hart barely finished a few soft purrs when the tom gobbled right in our face, yet, due to the thick cover we could not see him. Another enticing purr and here he came like an out of control locomotive.
At 10-yards his white head came into view, but not long enough for a shot. He then headed up to his right with only his legs visible. I took this window of opportunity to shift in my chair and put my gun up to the next available opening.

 

There is something to be said about 52 years of hunting experience where muscle memory and instinct take over. The safe was off, shotgun leveled and when he hit that opening, as tiny as it was, with his entire neck and head visible, I sent the death messenger.
Following the shot all I could see were leaves floating in the air as my pal excitedly exclaimed, “You rolled him!”

 

Walking the short 10-yard distance to the flopping creature, with his final breath ebbing from him, revealed a very nice paint brush beard, and spur length indicative of at least a 3-year-old specimen.

 

Things can and do happen quickly in the turkey woods, and the hunter who is looking to be successful can never become discouraged, but ever ready for anything at any moment. This was the third bird of this age bracket, in this location, that gobbled at 11:00 a.m. and ultimately lost its life coming up this hill. I think that this is a pattern to pay attention to going forward.

 

It’s A Wrap

With but one tag left to fill, it was with high hopes and optimism that Hart and I marched into my enchanted location under the light of a sinking full moon. Yet again, I set the same dummies up in the exact location as my first day’s hunt. This time, with my tags filled, I would simply be Hart’s cheerleader and an eager observer.

 

Sitting in the pre-dawn is always a bit melancholy, at least for me. Waiting for the start of a new day, wondering what it will bring. We only have just so many sunrises that should never be taken for granted, but rather appreciated.
I was knocked back to reality when the first gobble reverberated across the clear sky. I never grow tired of hearing that sound. Soon, other toms chimed in from near and far with their own tonality. We were still about ten minutes away from good shooting light when the Silverback gave a hushed series of yelps just to let the boys know the girl of their dreams was here and available.
Although we mentally expect a hunting situation will repeat itself as it did prior, seldom, if ever will that be the case. When it comes to a wild turkey, they are as unpredictable as a roulette wheel in a casino, and today would be no different.

 

As the day began unfolding, there were a few hens that were looking for attention, which now made Hart’s job of calling that much tougher. He had to convince a mature gobbler to come to his hen talk rather than the real deal squawking in front of his beard. So, for the next 30 minutes the battle was on with more and more gobbling. As the crescendo of noise became louder it was evident that the action was definitely closing in on our location.
The way I figured it, with this many toms converging, one of them, just out of sheer curiosity has to come give our set-up a looksee. Finally, Hart yelped, and a gobble came from just over our left shoulder and not more than 50-yards distant. Hart yelped again and was met with the same responding gobble. That’s generally a good bet that this guy is going to come to the dance.
And then we heard it, the sound of feathers rattling as the male began spitting and drumming. Slowly, ever so slowly, with a great bit of deliberation he came walking in. He would stop, look all around, look straight at us, look at the dummies (the decoys, not Hart and me) and then fan out again. And now, Hart is in a bit of a conundrum, the bird was close enough that he could pick out even the slightest movement, which prevented Hart from getting his gun shouldered. The suspense was building. One false move at this point and the whole party gets blown!

 

The tom once again inflated himself into full strut mode, his head turning fire engine red as those iridescent feathers shined in the golden rays of mornings first light. As I sat motionless observing my buddy trying to get the gun up and onto a bird that was no more than 12-yards away, one that was seemingly in no hurry to go beat up on the fake jake, the tension was almost palpable. How was this story going to end, I wondered?
I did not have to speculate long, as behind the red headed gobbler walked an actual hen who suddenly clucked. That one noise caused the tom to immediately turn his back to us, raise his long neck up just as a deer pushed the hen with its nose causing her to go air born and in that instant, Hart’s gun went off sending the gobbler into eternity.
In three days, the two of us were blessed to have taken four mature gobblers, a pair of three year- old’s, a four-year-old, and a five-year-old, each under very different circumstances.

 

At the time when Rutledge was a man of my age he wrote, “Turkey hunting has been with me a kind of religion ever since a hatchet was a hammer; and perhaps I have learned a little of the art. Yet even after almost a half-century of hunting the noblest game bird that graces America’s wild, I am going to confess that I am still in the kindergarten; and I doubt if any human being ever acquires a complete education in this high art.”

 

It may appear to look easy, but let me assure you, it is not. And when we look back on this turkey season, it will indeed, in many ways, be, a season to remember!

 

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