A Special Turkey

When I rolled out of bed at 0430 and peeked outside to check on the weather, I saw nothing but a very dense fog. Sleepy and tired, and never having been a morning person, I almost wrote the hunt off and rolled back into my snug, warm bed. This was the last day of the early fall turkey season, though, and it might be a lot colder when the next opportunity came along, so I got on with it. Quickly dressing in my colonial garb, I headed for the farm, some 30 miles south. Arriving there forty-five minutes later, I found the fog just as dense. I geared up and headed off into what was an impressively dark night. If I hadn't known the place so intimately from years of use, it would have been a real problem to find my intended hunting spot. As it was, I managed to get within 50 yards of my stand, but only because I was traveling in the open. Upon reaching the edge of the woods I needed to penetrate, about 20 minutes later, I had to stop and wait for a little light to happen.

When dim outlines began to look familiar, I slowly eased my way through the fringe of weeds and briars and stepped into the woods, right under a tall, leafless tree. I was immediately startled by a great thrashing and crashing over my head, and a roosting turkey flew through the tops of the trees toward the next high ridge, striking limbs and making a lot of noise as it went, vaguely silhouetted against the early sky. Damn! That's bad luck! I knew turkeys did occasionally roost in this area, but why did I have to walk blind under the very tree with the only bird? Oh, well, nothing for it but to do it, so I pressed on.

The area I was entering consisted of a small feeder stream in the bottom of a narrow valley, approximately one hundred yards across, I guess. I made my way down to the flat at the bottom alongside the stream, pulled my foam hen decoy out of my haversack and assembled it, stuck it in the ground with its tail in the weeds so wind wouldn't spin it, then made my way back up the slope about twenty yards. I picked out a fat cedar tree and set up my hunting spot at its base. It was still about twenty minutes until legal shooting time and fifty until sunrise. I relaxed and watched the slowly gathering light bring the scene into recognizable focus, listening for any sounds of game. Nothing but tweety birds beginning to stir and mumble. It is always a pleasure to sit and watch the birth of another day in the woods. The scene which appears is seldom exactly what you expect.

When shooting light arrived I primed my gun and began to put on my neckerchief which I use as a face mask while hunting turkeys, but it wasn't in my haversack. Drat! I must have dragged it out when I removed the decoy. Well, I don't want to move right now, so I'll do without for a while. The gun I was using was my 20 gauge flintlock fowler built by Ron Paull, my regular gun for turkey hunting. I had taken seven birds with it, and have always been very pleased with the way it functions. Ron does excellent work. The barrel is a special turkey barrel by Colerain, 38 inches long and strongly choked. I had loaded the gun four days before with 80 grains of FFFg Goex, two 1/8" card wads, 1 1/2 oz. of #6 lead shot and a 1/64" overshot card. It hadn't been fired since spring turkey season some seven months before.

Right after first light a feisty grey squirrel came down a tree directly next to mine and barked a few times. Ten minutes later another did the same on a tree thirty yards to my right. Sunrise brought more light, but it was a very diffuse light, no direct sunshine because of the thick layer of fog still covering the area. At about this time I did go down to the decoy and retrieve my neckerchief.

Fall turkey hunting has always been a bit of a puzzle to me. I understand the plan behind making sexy hen noises to attract gobblers driven crazy and stupid by their hormones in the spring, but how do you attract them in the fall? I had never successfully done so up to this point, so I wasn't the most confident hunter in the woods that morning. All I knew to do was make turkey noises in the area where they were known to have been seen and hope for the best. With that as my master plan, right at first light I began making intermittent soft tree noises, those noises hens make before leaving their roost in the morning. At intervals of about twenty minutes thereafter, I made a series of yelps, or the longer series known as 'lost yelps', and in between times just played softly with the box call, making whines, purrs and putts like feeding birds.

This area is a favorite of the deer on the farm, and I've frequently seen them here, even killed a couple close by. I wasn't surprised, then, to see a deer approaching down the bottom of the little valley about fifty yards away and heading for me. I pretended to be hunting deer and began to ease my gun and shift my position so I could shoulder it and bring him under the sights. I managed to do that as he slowly approached and then stopped twenty yards away and broadside. I never check the wind when turkey hunting, so my scent was blowing in the light breeze directly toward him, but he never caught it. He was a nice one, 8 point eastern count, with a fairly thick beam and a rut-swollen neck. I shot him dead several times as he stared at my decoy and then turned and made his leisurely way up the slope to pass behind me.

I had been on stand about an hour and forty-five minutes by this time, and I was getting a little chilled and uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because sitting on the ground on the down-slope side of a tree on a smart slope, you keep sliding downhill. I got tired of that, so I moved ninety degrees around the tree so I could sit with my legs on the level and could lean against the tree with my left shoulder. To solve the chill, I put on my 'match coat'. I've been toying with the idea of adopting one for my persona, and had cut one from an old WW II surplus blanket. The color is wrong, but it worked well for a trial. I didn't fasten it on in the usual way, just folded it double and draped it around my shoulders like a poncho, pinned it closed under my neck with my blanket pin. That felt good, mighty good. So, I laid my gun down on the ground on my right, snugged my arms up under the blanket and relaxed in the pleasant warmth.

Of course, you don't have to be told that this was when the turkey came.

Some slight noise or motion caught my attention, and I slowly, slowly turned my head to the right, only to find myself eyeball-to-eyeball with a big tom turkey. He was standing there eight yards in front of me on the deer trail, neck stretched and head high in the air, long beard hanging down, looking for all the world like those pictures of "longbeard" gobblers on alert. And staring me in the eye.

When I bought my farm in 1980, there were no turkeys in the entire area. There was a healthy population of whitetail deer, but even those were scarce in my immediate area. Hunting on my farm was limited to rabbits and squirrels, an occasional surprise covey of quail and a few passing doves each September. It was two or three years before we saw deer on the farm, and more than ten before I collected my first deer there. The deer population continued to grow steadily until now there is an abundant, sustained herd using my place. Turkeys were much the same. First restocking in our area occurred about fifteen years ago, but it was not until about ten years ago that we saw our first hen with a large brood of poults. Since that time, sightings have been sparse and scattered, seeing no turkeys most years, a few in some years. About four years ago the first gobbling tom in the spring was seen strutting in one of the hay fields, and two years ago a large group of birds were seen roosting on the back of the place during December deer season. All of this was hearsay to me, because they were all seen by the young man who lives on and watches after the place. I had never seen a turkey on my farm until ten days ago, October 25, 2003. Hunting deer in the edge of a cedar thicket on another very foggy morning, I stood up at 11:00 o'clock and saw that characteristic wedge shape of a longbeard tom with his neck stretched, about a hundred yards away in the fog. He disappeared like a puff of the fog, having immediately spotted my movement, but I was thrilled to actually see a turkey there after all the years of looking for them.

I came to turkey hunting late in my hunting career, having tried for them first in 1998. Once I got started, though, I really got hooked. Somehow, having wild turkeys on my farm was a most wonderful thing, harkening back to a much earlier time before the flock was eradicated. Wandering around on the place in colonial garb, hunting with my flintlocks or just spending the day on a casual trek, it always felt better, just knowing they were around, seeing occasional sign. All my turkey hunting, though, and all the turkeys taken, had been on the land of a friend a few miles down the road. The idea of taking a gobbler on my own land somehow got a firm grip on my imagination, and, over the last couple of years, I've frequently said that this was my last hunting ambition. There are a lot more hunting years behind me than there are ahead, and this had assumed unusual importance in my scheme of things. All of which is to say I wanted that turkey in the worst way. I'm usually very relaxed about such things, and have a grand time on most hunts whether I collect game, or not. Not this time.

So, finally presented with my very first chance at a turkey on my own farm, there I sat with my gun on the ground and my arms wrapped like a Christmas package! Trying not to let him see the slightest motion, I slipped my right hand behind my leg and down to the wrist of the gun. I managed to pull the cock to full cock and get the wrist of the gun in my hand. While I did this, the bird first stared, then moved a few steps in my direction, put his head down a bit, then raised it again. I began to ever.... so.... slowly.... slide my left hand toward the forearm, but the bird was having none of that. I saw him suddenly get about four inches taller, his wings opened just an inch, he turned his body a few degrees away from me and he looked light on his feet. He was going to explode. I knew there was absolutely no way to get my gun on him while he was on the ground, probably not while he was in the air, but, having no choice, I grabbed for the gun and tried to throw it to my shoulder. Because of the blanket wrapped poncho-fashion around my shoulders and arms, I could not get the butt to my shoulder, it was tangled in the blanket. The bird was too far to my right, too, so that I could not easily have brought the gun to bear on him if I had all the time in the world. I had to twist to the right, but couldn't do that because of the way I was sitting. The effort caused me to fall over on my right side a little so that I wound up half sitting, half lying down. I felt submerged in drying rubber, as though I was swimming in molasses. Of course the bird was in the air by this time, all noise and commotion, turning away from me and gaining speed and altitude like a rocket. In desperation, I snapped off a shot, because it was that or nothing. I shot with the butt on my right titty, my cheek nowhere near the stock, looking down on the top of the gun, my left arm swinging the barrel, trying to bring it to bear, all while toppling to the right. Thanks to good design and preparation, the flintlock fired instantly, but the muzzle looked as though it was pointing five feet to the bird's right. The bird was thirty yards away and twelve feet high by now, and traveling fast through the trees, but, astonishingly, I saw him drop like a stone. I threw down the gun and dashed after him, caught him in a few seconds and grabbed both his feet. Boy, they are strong! I whipped out my trusty scalping knife, reversed it and bashed his head with the handle. He quickly subsided.

I had killed my first turkey on the farm, my first flying turkey, my largest gobbler, and had made what has to be one of my best shots, ever. Sixty years of handling guns paid off, in spades. I was so excited that all I could do for several minutes was walk in jerky circles and exclaim, "By god, I don't believe it!" And laugh out loud. I still laugh when I think of it, and I still don't believe it!

I threw the bird over my shoulder and headed for the car, but decided I wanted some pictures on site, so hiked up and brought the car and camera to the bird, instead. I did take a few pictures, and field dressed the bird. Taking the pictures of the spot where he first appeared, I realized I'll never be able to hunt in that area again without recalling the vision of that beautiful big longbeard, standing on tiptoes and staring me in the eye. Pictures aren't necessary, that one is burned in my memory for all the years left to me.

The bird wasn't my fattest, weighing only a bit less than twenty pounds, but his beard, at eleven and one-half inches, was my longest. I am very proud of the fact that I've killed ten wild turkeys, all with a flintlock fowler. Each was a special bird in its own way, each kill a special one. Combining all the elements, though, taking this bird while dressed in full colonial kit, taking it with a flintlock fowler, taking it on my own place and by making such an unusual shot all make it the best one yet. Turkeys are my favorite game, and this was my favorite turkey. That makes him a very special turkey, indeed, very special.

Copyright © 2003 B.E. Spencer, all rights reserved

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