Sunday, June 8, 2014

Family, Friends, and Wild Turkeys on the Bruce Peninsula

Not even four days removed from the end of what was an epic adventure in southeastern British Columbia, I found myself loading all my gear (as well as my wife, as well as my two sons who are both under the age of five) into the car for a trip to the family farm on the Bruce Peninsula.  Pulling into the laneway, the weather forecast was for sunny skies, but temperatures well below seasonal for the third weekend of May.  I was thankful for the coat and long underwear that I packed as a precaution.  It was the Victoria Day long weekend, and my cousin Dane had informed me that there were a pile of birds around.

Two weeks prior, I had been up on the Bruce Peninsula, ultimately being unsuccessful in helping a very good friend of mine tag his first turkey, while just the previous weekend, while I was slogging my way through the ridges and valleys of the Cranbrook area, my brother had put down a dandy tom turkey on a Sunday morning.  The bird my brother shot had come on a line, marching all the way in to a strutter decoy setup, and Donavon had drilled him.  It was a great hunt, made all the more special because it was caught on film, a first for our hunting group.  I showed the video to Chris that night, and it only fueled our eventual success.  Dane informed me before I arrived on the Friday evening that there was plenty more chances like that to be had.

He wasn’t kidding.

My dad and I decided to hunt a piece of forest and field country just to the south and across the road from the farm, as Dane (who put in yeoman’s work as a scout and impromptu guide this year) informed us that a big fella had staked that out as his territory.  Dad made a move into the bush a kilometer or so from me, while I set up against a cedar rail fence near a clearing that was dotted with cedar stands.  I set up under a gloomy but clear morning sky, with the near-full moon lingering persistently overhead.  As dawn broke, the crows fired up and went crazy, but despite my best efforts to strain an ear, I didn’t hear a single gobble from the roost.  I did some calling sequences of my own, each time hoping to hear an old tom rattle the leaves and make his way over, but nothing seemed to be doing that morning.  I picked up my decoy and began to make my way back to the farm, taking the very long and circuitous route down some gravel roads and through some hardwoods, just in case.

I made the farmhouse and spoke with Dad, who was flabbergasted that I hadn’t heard all the gobbling that was going on over by him; I began to worry that perhaps my hearing was deteriorating.  Apparently, Dad had heard the tom gobble very well on the roost, but after fly down the bird moved the other way and went a bit quiet.  It was nice to know I was near one, but rather than go and put a flash hunt on the gobbler, I decided it was a good opportunity to take my wife and sons into town for breakfast.  While I washed the camo makeup off my face, I received a text from Dane.  He and his brother Lukas had gone out with their brother-in-law (like my BC friend, he is also named Chris) and taken a dandy gobbler using almost the same set up that had proven successful for my brother the week before, and once again, the whole hunt had been captured on video.  This bird had taken a long time to cross a field, but he eventually had to come over and kick the strutter decoy.  As soon as he made the kick on the fake gobbler, Chris took him.  My brother called that video “The Gobbler Landmine” for reasons best explained by watching the video.  The gobbler didn’t even flop, such was Chris’s handiwork on that particular hunt.

I checked Chris’s bird over after finishing breakfast and I had to admit that it was a bruiser.  It had one of the biggest heads I’d ever seen on a gobbler, and he was well-endowed with a thick beard and sharp spurs; as fine a specimen of a mature gobbler as one would find.

Chris's May Long Weekend Gobbler
After reconnoitering at the farm for a while, Dane, my brother Donavon, and I decided to take a cruise all around the local spots and try to drum up some action on a gobbler or two.  Dane had permission to hunt about a dozen spots, and over half of them held toms from time to time.  All three of us exceed 200lbs so when we hopped in the car my wallet winced at the hit my mileage was about to take, but we were hunting, so what the hell.  We cruised through Dyer’s Bay and Cape Chin, stopping often on sideroads and laneways to cold call and listen for gobblers.  We did plenty of glassing as well, hoping to find a lone mid-afternoon gobbler that we could persuade to play our game.  Although we had some visuals on hens and a few birds in a spot that we couldn’t hunt, we made our way into Ferndale for some gas and refreshments.  I chugged back a Gatorade and popped a few chips in my mouth, a regular spring diet familiar to anyone that has tried to run and gun on wild turkeys, while Dane pitched two options.

We could make a move on the bird in Barrow Bay that my dad had heard that very morning, as we had a visual on him earlier in the cruise while he was loafing inaccessibly in a field.  Our other option was to cruise into a relatively unpressured area south of Barrow Bay and try our luck.  Dane had seen birds there previously, but he hadn’t nailed down explicit permission with the landowner.  As luck would have it, we found the landowner in his laneway, and secured the green light to go in and hunt his property.  He was adamant that we shoot any groundhogs we came across as well, and we were all okay with that policy.  Dane had seen two gobblers on the property, and it was situated not far from a Bruce Trail parking lot.  We parked on the side of the road, and quietly unpacked two Avian X hens and the same manufacturer’s jake decoy offering.  By about 4pm, we had found a little hollow that looked promising and set the fakes out at 30 steps before settling into the shade at the base of some broad hardwoods.  My brother remarked in a whisper that this was just the kind of place that felt like it had a gobbler in it, and I hoped he was right.

The sun shone and a cool breeze blew in off of Georgian Bay, but stillness reigned.  Trees were budding, but the leaves were late in coming on, depriving us of the soothing rustle of new greenery in the cool spring wind.  Dane and I alternated calling off and on for about twenty minutes with no response, and I was nearly dozing off in such an idyllic scene, when Dane yelped and cut hard on his box call.  A throaty gobble shook the woods over some ridgelines to our right, and when Dane called again the gobbler cut him off; the tom was closing the distance and he was doing it pretty quickly.  Both my brother and I positioned ourselves for shots; I had the decoys covered dead ahead of me, while Donavon guarded against anything sneaking in from the right.

A pretty decent looking setup that would prove successful.
The tom gobbled intermittently, and at one point he seemed to be hung up at about 90 yards inside the bush, which is a position I hate to be in.  Any turkey hunter worth his salt knows that this is the situation where most hunts end: the tom gobbles well but hangs up in a spot where you can’t see him, but you know damn well that he can see you.  Eventually he sees something he doesn’t like or he just loses interest before wandering off and leaving you to wonder what the hell you did wrong.  For at least a half-hour we called the bird and while he never left, he never came into visual range.  I was in a half-ready position and my arms were getting wobbly from holding mannequin stillness for nearly thirty minutes.  That was about the time I thought that this was going to go to script in a way I didn’t like.  Sure enough the next time he gobbled he was walking away, and then he sounded off again even further off moments later.  Had he caught movement?  Was he bored with a stubborn hen that wasn’t moving towards him?  Who knew, but I lowered my gun, reached for my slate call and purpleheart striker and then started throwing a string off excited yelps and fast, hard cutting at him.  He double-gobbled and miraculously started to come back.  I ran another string of fast yelps and purrs, and he gobbled again, closer than he had been at any time before.  Dane took up the gauntlet on his own slate call and it seemed we had him on a string.

I set the call and striker down and settled into a shooting position again, fingers poised over the safety on my 870.  After a few more minutes I heard him spitting and drumming at about sixty yards away; he was just inside the tree line.  Seconds after that I heard one last close gobble and saw him pop into strut before he made the clearing.  He was puffed up and the late afternoon sunshine made him glow in that coppery-purple sheen that haunts a turkey hunter’s dreams and keeps our like coming back time after time to chase these magnificent birds.  He was eyeing up the three decoys, and although he didn’t gobble again, he spit, and drummed, and strutted at sixty steps for what seemed like an eternity.  In that painstakingly slow way that old, cagey gobblers do he took measured step after measured step towards the fakes closing the distance a couple of feet before going into that stock-still pose that makes you afraid to even blink or draw a breath, lest you spook him at the penultimate moment.  It’s almost supernatural what a strutting gobbler at close quarters does to me, and the adrenalin, anticipation, and even a modicum of fear all make for an intoxicating, addictive experience that only the initiated can relate to.

Step by step he made his way in, and at fifty yards he stopped in half-strut just to my right and didn’t move for a solid three or four minutes.  I was locked up from a positional perspective, because when he broke into the meadow I had my gun muzzle pointed down and to the left of the middle decoy, with my cheek half on the stock.  He had spent fifteen or twenty minutes on closing not even fifteen yards, and I was getting an incredibly stiff neck while my left elbow dug sharply into the meat of my left thigh.  My right side was stiffening up too and it isn’t hyperbole to say that I was suffering physically for this bird.  My pattern is solid out to fifty yards, and for a moment I thought about doing the slide move on this old bird and just whipping the bead onto him and busting him before he knew what had happened.  But a part of me recalled something I had read in Tenth Legion.  To paraphrase Tom Kelly, I knew that this bird was not on a timeline, but I also knew there was no reason for me to force the situation.  Eventually he’d strut or turn his eyes away from me and that was when I’d make the move.  I was hurting, but Christ was he ever pretty just standing there with his feathers glossy and his head glowing like a soft blue light bulb.

Finally, the old tom broke his statuesque pose and started into the jake decoy.  He was walking purposefully at first but at about thirty yards he broke into a jog.  I slid the safety off, and part of me knew that things were going to end there soon.  It was going to end with either a dead gobbler or with me missing on a proverbial lay-up, but it was going to end nonetheless.  My pulse was pounding and my arms were shaking, but I was focused on one thing: making my move as soon as his eyes weren’t on me.

He sidled up to the jake decoy and bumped it slightly, causing the decoy to spin on its stake.  That movement set the old gobbler off and he immediately hauled off with jumping kick and a wing slap to the fake.  As soon as he made the first kick, I whipped the gun to the ready and steadied my arms.

He had no idea I was in his world at that point, so focused was he on flogging the decoy.

As the fake jake spun again, the gobbler jumped right onto the intruder’s back, kicking and swinging his wings the whole time.  Half-standing on the decoy’s tail, and with his head at full periscope and his back to me I bore down and sent the load of #6’s downrange.  He took the hit and rather than flop, he just crumpled down and toppled slowly over, spinning the decoy around one last time as he did so.  I pumped the gun and slid the safety back on.  It had been just under two hours between his first gobble and my shot.

 I'm obviously pretty happy with this.

Dane was certain that I had just shot his $100 decoy, and I was pretty sure that I had just become the new owner of a $100 decoy full of #6 sized holes.  But more importantly, for a second, I couldn’t whoop or shout with joy or hardly express anything.  I was just washed in a sense of relief and reflection; that old tom had made us work for him for sure, and I exhaled a relieved sigh and let things sink in for a second.  I stood up and made a beeline for Dane’s jake decoy to assess the damage; I can say for sure that if I wasn’t sold on Avian X turkey decoys before, I was then.  Either I had pulled off an act of precision shotgunning beyond compare (unlikely) or the peppering of the decoy at 30 steps with a dozen pellets or more hadn’t left a single hole (or even a noticeable paint defect) on it.  The word ‘durable’ immediately springs to mind.

I put my boot on the gobbler’s neck and grabbed his feet, avoiding the spurs that looked like straight daggers to me.  Both would come in at just under an inch and they certainly had a point on them.  He had a nice beard, but again the end was frayed and brittle betraying that perhaps a bit of it had frozen off in the hard winter that struck the Bruce Peninsula this year (check Google Images if you’re interested in seeing some eight foot snowdrifts).  I tagged the bird before we took some photos, and by that point relief had given way to that goofy joy that just makes a successful turkey hunter smile constantly.

We stopped off on the way back to the farm and weighed the gobbler.  He came in just a hair over 21lbs, making him the heaviest bird I have ever shot, and that combined with his flogging of the decoy along with the overall circumstances of the hunt made him a true trophy for me.  Later, it sunk in that I had just managed to take the two subspecies of Canadian wild turkeys in two separate provinces separated by over 3000km in the space of five days, and with no false modesty I can say that I felt pretty damn good about myself.  Even more meaningful was taking photos with my two sons and seeing their interest in the bird’s head, tail, and gorgeous plumage.

Moments like that are what my dad calls “Passing it On” and seeing my wonder, awe, and love of wild game reflected in the eyes of my sons in that moment was a feeling almost as addictive as the one I get from chasing a sun-dappled spring gobbler in the green fields and rejuvenated forests of a place full of my family’s heritage.

And I still had one more Ontario tag in my pocket.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

2014 Merriam’s Turkey Adventure, Part Three: Panic, Elation, Satisfaction

3:15am came far earlier than I had anticipated, but I was galvanized to put in a hard last shift before flying out that night.  I was feeling the pressure to show my friend Chris that I actually knew how to hunt turkeys, and I believe (although he didn’t show it) that Chris was feeling the pressure to put a gobbler in front of my gun barrel.

We made the trailhead in a chilly and dim pre-dawn, previously determined to make it to a clearing for an initial set up on birds that we hoped were roosted nearby.  We began to make the uphill walk to the clearing, and after 300 yards or so, I stopped and got out my barred owl call.  I heard a distant coyote bark just before I made a call, and then, as my owl call broke the still dawn air, I heard the sound that I had been hoping for.  A tom gobbled, and he was inside 100 yards.  I turned to Chris and gestured to him that a bird was gobbling, but he thought I was referring to the coyote.  I was shocked that he hadn’t heard what I had.  I owled again, and nothing responded.  Chris was ready to move on, and I was questioning my own sanity…I was absolutely positive that I had heard a gobbling turkey.

The bird gobbled again on his own, and this time I was sure Chris heard it.  His eyes told me so.

I’m pretty sure I was grinning like an idiot while we exchanged hand signals outlining where we wanted to set up on the bird.  We resolved to move quietly back down the trail to a small clearing that had a convergence of game trails on it, where we set out my two Zink Avian X hens and got ourselves situated under some broomed out Douglas fir trees.  It had been a nightmare deflating, rolling, and packing around the decoys, but I was quite pleased to have them at that very moment.  Within minutes of setting the decoys out, I saw a light frost developing on their backs.  In the excitement of a gobbler sounding off from the roost, I had not noticed that the air temperature was hovering in the mid-single digits.

The bird gobbled steadily as we set up, and after we were comfortable I did some light calling on my box call.  The bird hammered back and then really ratcheted up his gobbling.  I didn’t have any trouble keeping tabs on him when he flew down, and slowly but steadily he began to make his way down towards our position.  Two game trails that I could see converged on the clearing about twenty yards from my position, and as the gobbling came closer I could picture the bird coming down the left side trail, and twice I could hear him walking on the other side of a small ridge.  He moved back and forth, concealed by the ridge, gobbling often.  I moved slightly to get my gun in position, hopeful that by the time he could see the decoys, I could see him. 

If he cleared the trail, he would be in range for certain.

I held the gun steady for what seemed like an eternity, and since the gobbler didn’t own a watch and presumably didn’t care about my aching, trembling arms and increasingly frozen fingertips, he made arduously slow progress towards our set up.

Then I heard a deer snorting behind me.  Close by.  Think inside of twenty steps.  I turned my head to see a doe whitetail standing in our scent column, blowing an alert over and over again.  This went on for a minute or so, and the next time the turkey gobbled, he was farther away…then further still.  I lowered my 870 and yelped excitedly on my pot call, throwing in some aggressive cutting. The next gobble was closer but more to my right.  I shifted slightly while the bird gobbled again and again, seemingly hung up out of sight behind that blasted ridge.  I still had not laid eyes on him, but I was beginning to get a feel that this was as cagey a public-land bird as I’d hunted anywhere in Ontario.  He gobbled hard and kept making a racket, and keeping an ear on him wasn’t tough, but soon my worst fear was fulfilled.

I heard a hen yelping near to our setup, and then I heard his gobbling change.  I was certain that she was taking him away.  Over and over he gobbled, each time further up the hill from where he had been just moments before.  Then he went silent.  He had found his hen, and gobbling just wasn’t something he was interested in doing any more.  My heart sank, and I looked over to Chris.  We nodded to one another before slowly gathering the decoys and strategizing our next steps.

We decided to make a circle around ahead of the birds, and we dropped into a gully off the trail so we could move unseen past the birds.  After moving a few hundred yards back up the trail, I blew a crow call and the turkey let one solitary gobble slip out.  He was perpendicular to our position, across the trail, and well inside of forty yards.  We decided that the best move was to have me crawl up onto the trail side, and hopefully yelp the bird into range with a mouth call.  I silently shed my vest, decoy, and coat before beginning a slow, ten yard belly-crawl up onto the edge of the road.  I poked my head around a stump and saw a turkey fifteen steps from me.  It was the hen and she was oblivious to my presence.  I purred and yelped aggressively and she cut me off every time.  I was hoping she would come onto the road and drag the gobbler behind her.  Instead she headed back further up the hill and into the woods, yelping and complaining all the way.  I still had not seen the gobbler, and in the whole conversation I’d had with the hen he had not gobbled once. I was beginning to fear that he had left the area.

I reverse belly-crawled back down into the gully, and we planned our next move…again.  I was certain the gobbler had made for the hills, and I was thinking of making a very large loop to a spot over a mile away.  Chris had similar ideas but his range was more limited; he was pitching a spot just over a few hundred yards ahead where the pine ridge that the bird had been hunkering in transitioned into a more open, meadow-like area.  He knew the lay of the land and I would have been a fool to second-guess him.

I’ve never moved so quietly and rapidly as I did to make the spot Chris had in mind, and we once again set out the decoys.  We resolved not to call or make a sound for at least twenty minutes, and for that whole time I was cursing the turkey hunting gods.  I cursed them for sending the deer by to snort at me, I cursed them for the wily old hen that had led that gobbler astray, and I even cursed them for providing the gobbler in the first place.  After all, my hopes had been raised, only to be dashed cruelly.  It had been a hard three days of hunting and my feet hurt, which I also blamed on the turkey hunting gods.  I had temporarily forgotten about the beautiful scenery, the abundance of wild game, and the good times spent in the woods, the truck, and the kitchen with a great friend.  But getting beaten by a turkey does that to a man.

Almost in disinterested fashion, I yelped plainly on my pot call after twenty minutes of abject silence.  Before I finished the sequence a hammered gobble cut me off.  The game was back on and the gobbler was in front of me inside of sixty yards.

I shouldered my shotgun again, and within seconds I saw the heads of two turkeys pass quickly through an opening forty yards to my right.  I turned ever so slightly to get the gun downrange on them, while the bird gobbled again unprovoked.  I could see the broad tail fan of a bird that went in and out of strut, and the bright red head of the turkey began to approach one of my fake hens.  I saw the bird gobble again and I began to search with my eyes for an opening that would allow me to slide in a shot.
Another fir tree obscured the gobbler from my sightline, but it also meant that he could not see me.  Eventually, I could see the bird’s fire-engine red head moving out from either side of the tree as he approached my decoy, and I kept the front sight on his throat as he closed the gap.  Finally, at thirty steps, and with both his head, and his tail up in half-strut, I could restrain myself no longer.  My shotgun barked, and the bird dropped out of sight.  I stood up and made a run to an open spot (although in truth, I don’t really remember my feet touching the ground) and I saw a turkey sprinting off before getting up and flying back into the pines from whence the birds had appeared. 

Had I missed?!

About to swear out loud at my incompetence, I looked to my right, and there in a depression next to the tree was the still, lifeless shape of a Merriam’s gobbler.  From my seated position I never would have seen him fall.

“Did you get him?!” was the cry from where Chris was sitting.  Apparently he couldn’t see the downed bird either.

“He’s down!” was all I could shout back.  I let out a whoop of joy and Chris came running over for high fives and slaps on the back.  I wonder if he felt his feet touch the ground either.

Seemed like the most appropriate time to take a selfie.
I put my bootheel on the turkey’s neck and grabbed his feet, whereupon the gobbler lamely flogged my right shin with a wing beat or two.  I was shaking like a leaf, and adrenalin hammered in my veins.  I vaguely recall hearing my heart beating in my ears.  If having a turkey outsmart you makes you instantly and hopelessly cynical, there’s likewise no better route to pure joy than sealing the deal on that same bird.  Even though it had all happened so fast, and just minutes before, we relived the hunt (as hunters are apt to do) and we took dozens of photos.  I notched my tag, and we made for the truck.  I could hardly feel the weight of the bird I was in such high spirits.

He was not a typical bird, and at first I thought he was a jake.  He barely had spurs at all (only 1/8 of an inch on each leg) and his beard was just a 3-inch stub, but he had a full, even tail fan with the tawny, pale signature feathers of a Merriam’s gobbler.  On closer inspection, the beard was rotted and frayed at the end, and my suspicion was that it had frozen or otherwise been broken off (a sentiment echoed by all my turkey hunting brethren when they saw it).  But I wasn’t on that trip to shoot a monster longbeard, or a sharp-spurred limbhanger.  I was there to take on a Merriam’s gobbler on his own turf, and with the help of my friend, I had succeeded.  I pride myself on being eloquent and articulate, but in those moments (and to be fair even still, a whole month later) I didn’t have adequate words to describe the feelings.  I was exhausted, elated, and on the brink of crying tears of joy.  This was a bird I’d wanted to hunt for a long time, and the only other subspecies of wild turkey other than Eastern that lives in the cavernous expanse of wilderness that makes up Canada.  I could say now that I’d achieved a turkey hunting goal, and that Chris and I had done it with our hodgepodge mix of local savvy, woodsmanship, and turkey hunting experience respectively.

The only shotgun I've ever owned, with the only Merriam's I've ever shot
We’d persistently hunted some pretty tough country, and we’d made good decisions (especially that morning) that ultimately brought the game to hand.  I was proud of myself, but I was really happy for Chris.  He had never hunted turkeys before, and I hoped that I had made a convert of him.  The bird, for his part, certainly provided a compelling case for the excitement and rollercoaster of emotions that a successful turkey hunt can bring.  We honored his sacrifice by eating him a mere seven hours later.

Sweet Relief
In the back of my mind, I knew I’d have to get back to work eventually, and I knew that my wife and kids would be happy to see me.  I also knew that I still had at least three more weeks of turkey hunting to do in Ontario.  But as we sat in the sun in Chris’s front yard, cold cider in hand, and our bellies full of wild rice, wild turkey, and carrots I could not help but feel completely at peace with the world.  The stresses of work were several provinces away, the afterglow of a successful hunt surrounded us, and we were in arguably the most beautiful countryside in the nation.  We talked about Chris making the next year’s trip to Ontario for an Eastern turkey hunt, and I can say that it sounded like a pretty damn good idea.

There was nothing that could break the good vibes that afternoon.