Log of the Hole 19 April, 2002 1300 EDT
Weather: 82F Rain predicted.
Five days of Spring gobbler hunting will make any man humble. Tack on my load of 20 years of self-inflicted bad luck and Friday morning saw a man stripped of all delusions crawl out of bed and catch my reflection in the kitchen window.
The forecast promised rain by 11. The kids were coming for the weekend. It had to be this morning, or probably another week, or quite possibly another season. I checked the doppler radar out of Cincinnati, and there was rain one county over.
I have learned many lessons in 20 years of turkey hunting. The first one of these is that scouting is foremost. In past years, it had been the aspect I tended to the least-not out of ignorance. Ben Rogers Lee once said that a Turkey Hunter needs an understanding wife and a good boss. For most of my life, I’d had neither and stealing a few days each season from work and home did not lend itself to thorough pre-season scouting.
This week had been different. Now, I was the boss at work. I had acquired anew wife that loved the outdoors. We now had a farm just an hour outside Cincinnati with several flocks, and I had a week of vacation left over from last year that I was devoting to turkey hunting. There is truly no price tag a man can put on a front porch where you can get up at first light, grab a cup of coffee and go out and sit and owl, and have 5 gobblers answer.
That’s precisely what I’d done, starting in late February. All through shed season, my wife and the family had helped me comb the woods. I knew where they roosted, fed, dusted, and watered. At the end of a morning hunting, now I could come back and hear big gobblers on my property and the neighbors’ sounding off on the nearby ridges until the heat of the afternoon.
So what had gone wrong? Why hadn’t I gotten a gobbler? The neighbors said my turkey’s were “call -shy” – wouldn’t come to a call. They blamed it on being over-hunted. I’d fixed that for the most part with 100 No Trespassing signs, and quiet talks with the neighbors. Still, most of the week, I’d seen gobblers show interest and then move off in another direction.
I’d tried no-call ambushes at the funnels-sometimes with decoys and
sometimes not. What’s a turkey funnel? That’s a subtle question. Turkeys, unlike deer, don’t stay on a trail. They just have tendencies to this way or that towards favorite afternoon loafs, and so on. Still, if you track them enough during the pre-season, you’ll find places that they frequently pass by. I had a few such places picked out, and they’d all produced good setups. It just hadn’t produced a gobbler. One was a stand of cedar I’d found on the aerial that overlooked a great funnel. The cedars looked like an out-stretched human hand from the air, so The Hand had been named. The
Hand was in the middle of a pasture along a narrowing in the ridgetop. On either side of this narrowing, creeks formed, leading away. Both creeks had ample supplies of acorns and their steep hillsides were natural highways.
When undisturbed, the flocks like to move amongst the open folds of the pasture, between the roost and their afternoon haunt in a protected fallow field. Once they got into that field, they were basically unhuntable-a wide open flat space with no cover. I’d tried a blind, but they were way too smart. In coming years, I’ll build a permanent blind, and plant the field in clover and beans.
Another was a meeting of two fencelines. One afternoon, I’d caught sight of the flock marching towards the fence and taken my position amongst the tall weeds next to a post on the intersecting fence. The turkeys came to the fence line, turned and followed it, coming to the corner where I lay in ambush. A gobbler and two jakes were bringing up the rear of several hens. I let my back hug the fencepost and thought nice wooden thoughts. The hens rounded the corner and one came within a couple of yards of me before deciding I wasn’t worth the risk. The gobbler had been only five yards from the corner and my crosshairs before the hen sounded the alarm.
Wednesday afternoon saw a big gob out in the farthest pasture chasing hens. (Note: This big gobbler ended up as my arch nemesis, Mister Natural) I watched in the spotting scope for a few minutes before heading out in an end-around maneuver that had me sneaking along on my belly through in an old sunken road about an hour later. The hens and gobbler had retired to an old
barn at one side of the pasture to dust. As I got closer, I could see
clouds of dust coming from the barn. I had them cornered. It was right out of an old WWII B-movie-sneaking along the hedgerow, performing a one-man assault on the old barn. I got within fifty yards by edging along the side of the road, and finally belly-crawling the last sixty yards. The gobbler never showed himself at the door, it was too dusty to see in, and eventually the whole flock walked out the back and back down into the cool of the woods without ever presenting a shot.
I’d hunted the classic morning fly-down setups as well. Four mornings had produced four disappointments. One morning, I’d just been on the wrong side of the roost. Another morning I’d been busted by a hen before the final dance had begun. What had finally pulled me away from those flocks and out of that creek bottom was setting up early with high expectations, only to learn that the flock was gone, and I’d been left to enjoy the sunrise alone.
Wednesday afternoon had viscous storms head in late. I’d gone out in the truck and let the thunder shock the gobblers for me. Having located three good roosts, before beating it back in the downpour, I was confident going out Thursday. I got within fifty yards of a gobbler roosting in a creek bottom. I had five seconds of a perfect view of him as he flew down. He then started up the far side of the creek to meet up with hens already milling about. I never saw him again.
That lead me to Friday. I’d followed after the gobbler and found a good blind on top of the ridge, probably left by a neighbor during the youth hunt. I’d resolved to be back at that blind at first light, and intercept the good-sized gobbler I’d seen. It would be raining hard within an hour or two. This was it.
Imagine my feelings as I came to the blind and felt the rush of air as six turkeys blew out of the trees. Not only had the flock moved up to the top of the hill overnight, but they’d roosted directly above the blind. Oh well. I put out my decoys, and just sat down in the blind and waited until the light got good. Perhaps, by making assembly calls, I could get the flock back in. Sunrise came and a couple of hens did too. The gobbler, sadly enough, was far too spooked. The last I heard of him, he was a good 300 yards away, across a large creek and heading away quickly.
As I sat in that blind, pondering the great imponderables of life, and
wondering if I should chuck the shotgun and take up birdwatching for a
hobby, I heard a blast of turkey testosterone coming from the ridgetop I’d followed on the way in. It was a big meaty gobble filled with frustration and loneliness. It spoke of a lifetime of unfulfilled promise and broken love. Over and over the voice of turkey angst echoed across the cedars like an old Frank Sinatra record. The ballad was simple: “Darling, I know your
man has left you. Let me entertain you.” It took him an hour to come in, walking 10 yards and then stopping to gobble.
For my part, I just kept up with the clucks, and lost calls, and threw in a few yelps. At no time did I try to call to the gobbler, rather I was calling low and cool. Sometimes I used a thin single reed Britney Speers before swapping back to the ultra-raspy Sally Kellerman. At about eighty yards, the gobbler began having second thoughts. He couldn’t believe his good luck and began to question what was happening. I hit him with a single horny Eva Garnder cackle and spiced it up by throwing it down the hill behind me so I’d sound like I was heading away. That’s all it took. He walked in and was heading right for me before seeing my decoys twenty yards behind and to my side in a small depression. He veered and stuck his head
out to gobble.
There a few good hard lessons I’ve learned in 20 years of turkey hunting. There’s scouting. There’s putting a little dish soap on my glasses so they don’t fog over just before the gobbler comes into view. I learned that one from a turkey guide a while back after a disappointing incident with 5 toms on an exceptionally cold morning. There’s the one about not putting your crackers in the same pocket with your mouth calls. There’s the one about not leaving your license on your dresser before taking off on a three hour trip. I’ll leave that for another story.
There’s one I never fully grasped until Friday morning and here it is:
there is no replacement for diligence. Even the blindest squirrel eventually gets a nut. 20 years of arguable ineptness, the worst luck, the fatigue of schlepping over the hills of Kentucky for a week, and the stupidity of forgetting to soap your glasses before leaving eventually yield to relentless effort. I didn’t want to blow his head off entirely, so I aimed at the focus of the curve of his head and neck. The blast of #4 Federals flipped him. He caught about a dozen pellets in the head and neck. I was up and ran over to him, jacking another one in as I went. As I stood with my boot on his neck I knew 20 years had come to a climax.
The neighbors came by and marveled, and took my picture. I borrowed a
bathroom scale and weighed him. He scored 79: 21 pounds, inch and an eighth spurs and two beards, 10 and 8 inches. Within a couple hours, he was in the freezer and I was drinking coffee alone on the front porch. It was then, I noticed a voice missing from the far ridge-one big gobbler that was no longer mocking me from his afternoon haunt on the knob at the back corner of the neigbor’s land. For once, my front porch was silent. I cleaned up, fixed lunch, ran a patch down the barrel and checked my e-mail.
Gobber 2002 up close
It wasn’t long however, before a new voice came. It was a bit higher and threadier, but by mid-afternoon, the woods had adjusted to the loss and a new gobbler had moved in. It is now a full week since I took that gobbler. The flocks along Pity Creek still play the hunters for saps in the gray dawn and then retire to my barns to loaf and dust. Over by the Hand, Big Tom and the crew slip silently from one field to the next across the saddle, and the flock I blew out of the roost last week is back in residence and waiting to begin teaching my son next weekend the lessons of humility.
It’s long past noon, and time for me to take my post out on the porch,
scowling at the truckloads of men in camo who drive the roads with maps, and binos, and crow calls hanging from their necks. Some can’t read the No Trespassing signs and need help.