Friday, May 23, 2014

2014 Merriam’s Turkey Adventure, Part Two: Pain, Frustration, and Beauty

Day Three
The plan had been to get up earlier than we had the previous day, but even then arising at 4:15am put us to our parking spot with too much daylight to make an unnoticed entry to the woods.  Luckily a dense fog draped over the area and we geared up and stalked our way in.  Every now and then we paused and I blew out the tell-tale notes of the barred owl.

Not a turkey responded.

We began to move through mixed stands of aspen and pine, with open meadows interspersed throughout.  Chris led the way often, as he was familiar with the property, and at one point he suddenly stopped short.

In grizzly bear country, when your guide freezes up, you pay attention.

But this was no bear.  Rather, the dark form of a cow elk began to emerge slowly from the fog, her silhouette ghostly in the gloaming pre-dawn fog.  She was alone and apparently unalarmed by our presence in her woods.  After briefly sizing up our shapes, she calmly ambled away to our left, her form being re-enveloped by the fog as she departed.  For a second I was fairly certain I had just hallucinated the entire encounter, but Chris turned around with a broad grin on his face.

“Pretty cool, eh?” was all he said.  I had to agree that it was.

We discussed our next plan, and Chris suggested an open field that was nestled at the bottom of a flat ridgeline and across a stream.  Not being one to argue with local knowledge I bade him to press onward; and I was soon faced with a daunting chunk of landscape.  It seems that in order to access the previously mentioned field, a hunter had to scale down an incline that was, to put it euphemistically “steep”.  Think winding one track game trail with a downward slope of around 65 degrees.  Now make it scraggly and stretch it out for two hundred yards or so.  Add to that mud.  That’s what my ankles had to look forward to at 5:55am on a Sunday.  Chris mentioned that this was the fastest way down, but he also cheered me by mentioning that the return journey would not be via the same route.

And with that, like a mountain goat, Chris was rapidly down the singletrack nightmare, while my descent, while not comical, was not precisely rapid either.  I made it to the bottom with ankles, knees, and collarbones intact, so I considered it a success.  The bottom of this cliff (for lack of a better word) a wide field shrouded in mist greeted us.  Chris motioned to a bridge across a creek (a bridge he built by the way) and we made for the crossing.  As we approached we both noticed that forty or fifty elk were bedded down just across the bridge, and to get to our intended location, we were going to have to get past them.  Neither one of relished a climb up to higher ground, and the elk obliged us by moving quietly away.  Several times we were within seventy-five steps of them, and never once did they break into anything more than a walk as they moved away from us.  For a moment it seemed like Chris and I were just another part of the wilderness landscape, with game indifferent to our presence.  We made for a small copse of aspens next to a watering hole, and we placed the decoys out in front of us.  The mist was so thick that all of my gear was becoming damp, and when I pulled my slate call from my vest, the surface instantly bore condensation on it.  So much for that call, I thought. Luckily my box call was waterproof and I let a string of yelps pierce the fog.  Nothing answered.

A pair of Canada geese noisily lifted off the water hole behind us, and circled the field, landing two hundred yards from our decoys before proceeding to feed on the wet grass.  The silence was periodically punctuated by clucks and honks from those two geese, but otherwise the silence was perpetual.  In time the geese began to get quite excited, and their honks and growls escalated in volume enough to draw my attention; it was then I noticed the large and very healthy looking coyote that was trotting towards them.  He made no attempt to stalk the geese and as he continued on across the field he also trotted close by the group of elk that we had encountered first thing in the morning.  He disappeared over a hill in the field and although we saw him twice more, he really did not cause any trouble to anyone.

In time we decided to move on to another spot; heading for the mountains again with the hopes of working through a large piece of public land adjacent to our set up from Saturday.  We encountered more elk and white-tailed deer as we arrived, but the weather looked to be on our side as the earlier mist had lifted and we were greeted by blue sky and sunshine.  A light breeze had developed, but nothing that would discomfort us in our hike through the area.  We set up initially for about an hour, but hearing nothing we opted to move through the forest, prospecting for turkeys, and watching out for sign.

We encountered no turkeys, but the wilderness was in full ‘display mode’ for this flatland dwelling Ontarian.  We came across more elk and deer sign than I thought was imaginably possible, and the highlight of the afternoon was finding an open meadow rife with wild morels.  I harvested about three dozen of them, and though I’ve seen morels in the past, never had I seen them in such abundance.  After making a long circuitous hike that was punctuated by several stunning vistas and more than a few uphill slogs, we opted to finish the day back where we had ended the previous afternoon.  It was, after all our only stop that had yielded any consistent turkey sign and also the only place where we’d heard a gobble.

Arriving at the trailhead under a beaming sun, I shed a layer of clothes in the truck before even venturing out, and I was pleased that I did.  Thirty minutes into the hike and we stopped for a water break which was more than necessary, even though I was down to the bare essentials of shirt, pants, socks, boots, hat and vest.  As we stood quietly looking around, movement caught my eye to my left about fifteen steps away.  An unformed gray shape was moving slowly through low brush, and I initially dismissed it as a rabbit.  I glanced again and as the shape cleared the shadows of low trees, I realized that it was the head of a hen turkey, the rest of her body was hidden by a low mound.  She did not alarm putt, and she did not sprint away, but rather she purposefully and directly headed up a steep ridge to my left.  I looked in vain for an accompanying gobbler, and within moments she had disappeared from sight.  Frustrated at this chance and all too brief encounter, but buoyed by actually spotting the animal I had come to hunt, Chris and I resolved to put in a sit at a bend in the trail a few hundred yards up the road.  We again placed decoys, concealed ourselves at the foot of some trees, and I went to attempting to call in a gobbler.  After ninety minutes of silence and stillness, voices up the trail prompted us to backtrack to a picturesque seasonal pond, where we again did some prospecting and calling.  With no success there, we made for an even more remote clearing with a pond, in a place where Chris mentioned he had harvested his first deer.  Curious to see the place and having no other option but to keep pressing on, we made the move, but not until after we took a few photos of the spot.  The pictures capture the essence of the whole trip perfectly; a clear sunny afternoon in a stand of greenery, while snow-capped mountain peaks and a silent pond stand as the backdrop.  For our own part, Chris and I stand together wearing smiles that are far too wide for our respective faces.  It is pretty obvious that we’re having fun, in spite of the turkeys playing stingy with us.

On our walk to what would be the final stand of our day, we crossed a muddy flat, and came across the fairly fresh, large and unmistakable track of a large bear.  I photographed the print, and put my size 12 left boot alongside it for scale.  The track was essentially the length of my foot, and we would later identify the track in a field guide as that of a grizzly bear.  To say I was a little more comforted by the can of bear mace at my right side would have been an understatement.  The next kilometer or so of hiking was filled with Chris recounting the stories of the five or six people he knows who had themselves been mauled or had had loved ones involved in bear maulings.

Chris knows how to put a man’s guard at ease.

We made the final clearing with the sun descending low on its ecliptic, and to be honest my heart was a bit out of it.  We had to that point of the day put in over thirteen hours of hiking and travel, and the fleeting hen aside, we had little to corroborate the statement that Merriam’s turkeys did in fact live in that region of British Columbia.  I was hungry and in need of a beer, and although he wouldn’t say it, I felt that maybe there was some pressure building on my friend. Eventually we headed for the truck, and my feet were throbbing from all the ground covered that day.  I had never anticipated an easy go of this trip, and I was getting just what I had guessed.

That evening I cleaned up the morels before frying them in butter, salt, pepper, and lemon juice.  This was accompanied by wild rice, honey-glazed carrots, and some jalapeno-cheddar sausages made from last fall’s venison.  A cold local beer found my stomach, and my stomach was glad for that.  We were down to our last card in the deck, and we decided to go all in on the spot we had just left.  No place else had held recent turkey sign, so we planned to get up the earliest we could and prospect the morning with locator calls, before settling into the pattern of alternately prospecting and sitting over decoys.  It was our best shot.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

2014 Merriam’s Turkey Adventure, Part One: High Country Self-Realization

Day One:
I boarded the Beechcraft 1900 with some level of trepidation.  I fly a lot in my career, but never in a plane so small.  Another first for my aviation experiences was when Air Canada removed one of the passengers and re-routed them to another flight for “weight and balance precautions”.  I was glad I hadn’t had that chocolate chip cookie with my lunch.

I was tucked into seat 1A, meaning that I was directly behind the pilot; I could see every instrument and dial, and his view out the front windscreen was the same as my view out the front windscreen.  The plane rose sharply off the tarmac in Calgary, where I had just completed an hour’s layover.  We broke into a cloudy sky and bore slightly to the south west. I was headed for Cranbrook (YCR for all you airport code junkies out there) where my childhood friend Chris Bosman was waiting to pick me up and guide me around on a four day mountain hunting trip for Merriam’s turkeys.

Forty five minutes later, we broke out below the clouds and I watched our descent from the second-best seat in the plane.  Within ten minutes of landing, my shotgun and suitcase came along the luggage conveyor and we bundled all the gear into Chris’s truck before scampering down a rainy highway towards his house.

After unpacking and scarfing back a short lunch, we headed for one of several Crown land areas near Jaffray, BC.  These expanses of wilderness ranged between approximately 3600 and 5000 feet in elevation, and they redefined the meaning of the word ‘rugged’ for this flatland-dwelling, lifelong Ontarian.

Having only about four hours to hunt on that first afternoon, our first stop was a large block of woodland adjacent to a privately owned ranch, with the plan being to prospect along through the field edges and game trails (of which I would see hundreds in that four day trip) in the hopes of triggering a response from a turkey.  Although we saw fifteen deer and a pile of elk, turkey sign, and notably any turkey calls, were lacking.  I was jet-lagged from my all-day series of flights and layovers, and by the time the sun was setting I was leg-weary from the winding climbs and descents of this landscape that I had never before encountered.  But the views and the abundance of game had me exhilarated and after a quick dinner I hit the hay.

Day Two:
4:30 in the morning came a lot faster than I had anticipated, but I was keyed up to hit an area that, on Google Earth at least, looked promising.  It was in area of Crown land about forty-five minutes from the our home base that housed a series of lakes and uplands, with some sustained climbs overlooking clearings that would be ideal for glassing and cold calling.  This was the area that Chris had seen the most turkey sign in during his pre-trip scouting, so we got in in the dawn to make a setup with two Avian-X hens.  Another parked truck greeted us on the drive in, but we pulled off a different road and headed upwards, unfortunately spooking several white-tailed deer as we went along quietly.  On a sidebar, I have never in my whole life seen as many white-tailed deer as I saw on that four day trip.   Once we were set up in the fairly open understory, we started calling.

After twenty minutes, I heard movement behind me to my left, and turning my head ever so slightly that way I was surprised to see five or six whitetails cautiously feeding their way into our decoy set up.  Eventually one got into our scent column and the group bolted but it was exhilarating to have that much wild game in such close proximity.  After another forty minutes or so, we packed up the decoys and made towards a valley field.  In that area we found our first set of promising sign in the form of turkey droppings, a few tracks, and a dusting area.  We headed up a hill and stopped for a morning snack; I laid back and drank in the mountain scenery, spring sunshine, and cool mountain breezes.  This trip was a much needed respite in a period of pressure and career stress.  Although the climb had tightened my legs and lower back, my shoulders and soul were loosened by the quiet skies and craggy grandeur of the area.

When we resumed the climb, we headed up and made for a high ridge that was overlooking a series of small lakes and swampy areas.  We set up again at 10:00am, and just as I sat down (and without any prompting from my turkey calls) a gobbler sounded off in the valley below us.  We sat down quietly and I started working my slate call, hoping to draw the bird uphill.  Chris heard him once more behind us, but still down in the valley.  Eventually the bird moved off and we were left to ponder what happened.  But some days turkey hunting is just like that.

We moved down off the rocky bench and into the bottom from which we had recently heard the bird, cautiously moving along in utter silence.  As he passed under a fir tree, Chris’s pack caught on a dead branch and it broke off with a loud snap.  Immediately to my left and at less than twenty yards, a head popped up unexpectedly, but it was not the head of any game animal, but rather the unmasked head of another hunter.  He gestured a greeting as Chris and I walked over to have a brief chat with him.  He was there from Alberta and he was with a local friend of his and they were out after turkeys with their compound bows.  They had not heard the gobbling that we had, but they had only been on the spot for forty minutes, and they admitted that most of those forty minutes were spent having a late-morning nap.  As it turns out, these were the only other hunters we would encounter in the four days we hunted.

I want to raise a couple of points now.  First off, I was secretly pleased with how slowly and quietly we were moving through the bush, as anyone who knows me as a hunter is probably aware that silent stalking is not always my strong suit.  But that we were unwittingly able to stalk up on two other hunters (albeit sleepy ones) gave me some satisfaction.  Secondly, I’d like to point out that we were hunting in the literally hundreds of thousands of acres of Crown land in the area.  That we ran into any other hunters is coincidence enough, that the local friend of the Alberta hunter was a known acquaintance (a fella named Aidan, I believe) of my guide/friend is even more unbelievable.  Talk about a small world.

After a ten minute chat with our fellow hunters, we said our ‘good luck’ farewells before Chris and I continued up into an even higher region, with the plan being to eat lunch and glass some ridgelines, before dropping down onto another series of small lakes and ponds.  Mother Nature, though, had other ideas.  As we ate our packed lunches, the breeze took a distinctly frosty turn and whipped up into a low howl.  Looking northeast, we could see dirty weather coming over a snow-capped ridge top, and in a matter of seconds, pea-sized hail began to ping off my hat and sting my ungloved hands.  I slipped my heavier jacket on and tucked my face down in my chest, while more ice pellets strafed the back of my neck and slipped down the back of my shirt, finding their final resting place in the crack of my behind.  Chris pulled on a windbreaker and threw a warm hooded sweater over that.  With no sign of the precipitation letting up, we shared a knowing glance and made for the truck.  On the way out the hail subsided, and as we kicked up another dozen deer or so and found a few more turkey tracks in the roadway we thought perhaps we were vacating the situation too early.  However, we got into the truck just moments before the rain showed up and started teeming down in waves of wind-driven misery.

Back at the home I caught a much needed hot shower and fell into bed for what I thought was going to be a short siesta. Almost three hours later, I came to.  Feeling awful for sleeping the afternoon away, I was relieved to hear that the rain had not let up and that the afternoon was essentially rained out.  Sunshine was the order of the day for the rest of the trip, so over a venison dinner (and with a few local brews thrown in for fun) Chris and I surmised a plan to hunt a new area the next morning on a property owned by Chris’s former employer, The Nature Trust of British Columbia.  A pine and aspen forest on an upland bench overlooking a floodplain was the dominant feature of the area, but it was not until the next morning that I would find out how dominant it was.

We chatted about family and life for a while before I shuffled off to bed, not frustrated, but not as blindly optimistic as I had been before the trip. One lesson had been taught in those first two days, and that was that my lifetime of languid hunting in the simple fields and gently rolling woodlands of southern Ontario had made me woefully unprepared in environmental, physical and tactical terms, for the rigors of a DIY public land hunt in the Purcell Mountain range.  My unhealthy relationship with barbecue and whiskey probably wasn’t helping things either.  One fact was certain though and that was that things were going to get harder before they were going to get easier.  With sunny weather forecast for Sunday and Monday, our plan was to stay out and hunt all of both remaining days.  My legs were already complaining at this rigorous climbing and hiking over varied terrain, and Chris was quite blunt that there was going to be a lot more effort to come in the next few days.

I was scared and exhilarated simultaneously and as I drifted off to sleep, I pictured the various scenarios that could play out in the remaining two days.  Even in my dreams though, I could not have predicted the events of the Sunday and Monday hunts.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Opener

A light drizzle carried by a chill wind greeted me when I went out to load my shotgun and decoys in the car.  It was 4:40am and I was heading out to get my dad so that we could kick off the 2014 spring turkey season at a local haunt where we’ve often tagged gobblers.

I kissed my wife on the cheek before I left and for the umpteenth time in our marriage her muttered, early morning farewell to me was “You’re crazy…”  Maybe I am, but the pull of turkey hunting overrides any of my common sense affinities for a warm bed and a peaceful sleep.

The previous night at around 9pm, my brother and I had stopped near to this particular hunting spot and I had fired a few notes from an owl call.  Despite the steady tapping of the nighttime rain, we both heard a distant gobble and I was confident that I’d have at least a chance at the bird that sounded off from deep in the woods.

My cellphone buzzed, and it was an early morning text message from my Dad.  He had decided, on account of the cold drizzle, to forego the morning hunt.  My brother was working.  It was just me and the birds now.  I drove in and opted not to tempt the mud of the narrow lane, instead parking on the shoulder of the road, where I quietly suited up in my vest and slung a decoy over my shoulder.  I pressed car doors and trunks shut oh-so-softly, and slipped behind the gate.  Just inside the treeline, I stopped and pulled my facemask up.  Checking my watch I realized I was legal to load my shotgun, and as I reached into my pants pocket for a shell, a gobbler thundered overhead, just twenty paces away.  My heart attempted to make an exit via my mouth, but I managed to thwart its escape.

It was not the same bird that had gobbled to my owling the night before.  Oh no, this one was much closer to the roadway, and I now more than ever regretted not owling a little before I walked in.  Although it was great to hear a gobbler so early in the morning, I was deflated and pretty certain that this particular bird had seen (and heard) me pull up, suit up, and walk in.  I was pretty much hooped, or so I thought. 

Still I pressed on, and if I had been generally quiet in my earlier entrance to the woods, I was now achieving ninja-like levels of stealth as I slowly and in near-perfect silence made my way to a spot some 200 yards or so from where the gobbling was happening.  The bird kept gobbling as I walked away, but I resisted the urge to call to him.  Finding a nice sturdy tree to lean against, I set out my fake hen, eased my butt down onto the damp forest floor and got comfortable.  The plan was to not call at all until after the bird flew down, and then just try to get him within sight of my decoy.  It was a long shot, but it was all I had in the tank at the time.

For twenty minutes or so the bird gobbled sporadically, and then some hens fired up from the treetops as well.  Any hope I had that I was targeting a solitary, and hopefully lonesome, gobbler went out the window.  But I couldn’t be mad because I was turkey hunting and it just sometimes goes that way.  I heard the faint wingbeats as the birds left their roosts, and the longbeard’s gobble changed in tone when he hit the ground.  Fearing competition from the live hens he was with, I slowly started to call, quietly at first, but as soon as he answered I picked up both the urgency and the volume.  Being well-hidden in a blow down at the base of that sturdy tree mentioned above, I cut hard and loud on my mouth call, and miraculously, the gobbler started to get closer.

I was pretty sure that he was on the same trail that I walked in on, and he was slowly but surely closing the distance.  To my right an unseen hen started yapping at my calls, and I cut her off every time, hoping to not only fire up the gobbler but to get her in a state where she may have also come looking for the loudmouth hen that I was impersonating.  As is often the case though, she moved off the other way, taking the gobbler with her.  As his voice grew fainter and more distant through the woods, another gobbler fired off behind me.  This bird, I surmised, was west of my position, likely in a field that is usually overseen during turkey season by either my father or my brother.  This second bird gobbled repeatedly as well, and the first gobbler answered him call for call.  In my mind’s eye I could see what was happening and in time both birds were gobbling from the field.  They eventually closed ranks altogether and moved off to the southwest through a series of fields punctuated by treelines.  I called hard and loud for another few minutes, but hearing nothing I decided to move to their last know whereabouts; the field to the west of me.  My watch told me that it was 6:45am.

I gathered my decoy and made the move through the trails, noting the patches of snow that lingered as stubborn but fading reminders of the brutal winter that southern Ontario went through in 2013-2014, and I called sporadically as I walked with no response from any turkeys.  Getting to a spot that gave me visual access to both the last field the birds had been in as well as an adjacent field where I had tagged gobblers in the past, I placed the decoy and sat in a brushed in depression five yards inside the trees.  I called and waited, and nature gave me a show to pass the turkey free hours.

Six drake mallards in full plumage circled the field in front of me for a full ten minutes, and they were a sight to behold.  Their heads were a deep, almost iridescent green, and their rust-coloured breast feathers contrasted sharply with the powder grey of their underbellies.  They gabbled in that soft, nasally quack that drake greenheads have, and their wings whistled in unison as they made broad swings over the field and then above the trees behind me.  On at least a half-dozen occasions they were within 15 yards of my gun barrel, and if I weren’t such a terrible wingshooter I would have fancied a double or better had it been October instead of late April.

Chickadees tittered and fluttered around me for a while as they hopped from limb to limb, either oblivious or uncaring of my presence.  Just out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a muddy patch of ground that was moving and as I focused in on the spot a frog poked its head up from the muck, crawled out and hopped away.  An alarmingly red cardinal swooped around and sang its tell-tale song and far off in an adjacent swamp red-winged blackbirds greeted the arrival of spring.  Spring turkey hunting, especially in the early part of the season before mosquitoes and the powerful late May sunshine attempt to drink all my blood and melt me respectively, has always crept into a deep part of my brain as the wilderness shakes off winter and goes back to living instead of simply surviving.  For a full two hours I took in the spectacle, only briefly chiming into the chorus of wilderness sounds with some turkey calls of my own.

My heart was light, and even when fifteen minutes of pelting rain gave me a thorough soaking I still felt happier than I had since the last time I was turkey hunting.

At 8:30am, I made a series of yelps and clucks on my mouth call, and to my left a distant gobble answered.  A few minutes later I yelped and threw in a bit of loud cutting and the bird gobbled again, this time closer.  I turned left and balanced my shotgun on my knee.  I’d hunted this spot dozens of times and more often than not gobbling birds from that side of the property will cut the corner of the two fields in order to avoid a narrow creek and a swampy area near there.  This time was no different and a string of turkeys appeared a few hundred yards down to my left and they began to make their way up the field edge.  Four or five hens were trailed by three gobblers, only one of which was doing all the strutting.  The strutter would run ahead of the pack, gobble authoritatively, and puff up his feathers, only to have the whole procession march past him without so much as a moment’s hesitation.  He would run back ahead of the parade and start strutting again, only for the same result to happen.  This went on for a few minutes and as it became apparent that this whole line of birds was going to skirt me at 200 yards and head into another field, I bore down hard on a series of cutting, yelping and aggressive purrs.  All the birds stopped momentarily and cast their eyes towards my decoy, but they just as quickly resumed along their chosen path and disappeared through the trees into a field that I do not have permission to hunt on.  Once they made that field and for a full hour after I lost sight of them, they made such a racket of raspy hen yelping, thunderous gobbling, and excited flapping that I was certain they were being attacked or at the least involved in a serious physical altercation.  I tried over and over again to aggressively plead with them, hoping to peel just one of those three longbeards away.  In a desperate, ‘everything-including-the-kitchen-sink’ approach, I even broke out my gobble call and blasted an aggressive double gobble at them.


Eventually the whole noisy party of birds moved north through the fields and out of earshot.  For an hour I sat and called with no avail.  A cool breeze picked up and since I was already soaked from the earlier rain I developed a bit of a shiver; I had been out in the woods for nearly six hours and although I was hungry, cold, and defeated, I was not discouraged.  I picked up my decoy again, bagged it and slung it over my shoulder.  Walking across a wet spot in the trail, three whitetail deer bounded away and snorted their displeasure at me.  Deer are funny like that.

Arriving back at my car, I shed some of the wet gear that was weighing me down, and then I took off my muddy boots and wet socks.  With my feet in some dry shoes and the car heater fan warming me up, I put the vehicle in gear and made for home.  I would have very much enjoyed the weight of a gobbler over my shoulder that morning, and I was wrestling with a certain level of consternation at the bird choosing to roost so close to the road that previous evening, but if I’ve learned one thing as a turkey hunter it is that wild turkeys are maddeningly unpredictable sometimes.  If they were easy to kill, there wouldn’t be any of them around.

All that aside, I was hunting again, and that was pretty much all I cared about.  The birds had been vocal and I had been treated to an experience that was both entertaining and educational.  I made a quick drive to a couple of other likely spots that I could hunt, and finding nothing that piqued my interest, I made for home.

A warm shower, a mug of coffee, and a lunch of some hot and spicy noodle soup were all waiting for me, and when those are the rewards, the results (unlike turkey behaviour) are never unpredictable.