Last spring I located a flock of turkeys roosting on a northern facing slope in the Ozark foothills where I hunt. During my pre-season scouting, I setup a ground blind near the spine of the ridge where scraggly cedars transitioned into oaks. These giant trees form such a canopy that the forest floor stays shaded and practically bare for most of the growing season…perfect for sticking a gobbler with archery tackle.
My first morning there was frenetic. Too anxious to stay in bed, I was dressed and on the road way before I needed to be. I didn’t mind having more darkness to work with though, it helped me slip into the blind and gave the turkeys time to forget about the bipedal shuffling they heard on my approach.
When the dark woods softened to grays and dull greens, the birds started calling to one another. I knew where they were, strung out on the other side of the ridge anywhere from 60 to 200 yards away. From the gobbling, could make out three distinct toms. I’m addicted to gobbles, so I hit the owl locator tube once, just for kicks. They went nuts and so did I.
Soon the flock was flying down and close enough for me to hear their shuffling in the leaves. Two hens popped over the ridge at 40 yards to my right, bothered by a strutting gobbler who only ever crested the ridge enough for me to catch a glimpse of his red head and tail fan. No shot.
The gobbling continued but on another trajectory than my 40 yard kill radius. Each subsequent call confirmed my fear that the flock was moving east toward an open field almost bringing an end to my morning hunt.
I say “almost” because I didn’t walk out of the woods empty handed. Walking over to the decoys, my eyes caught the familiar cream colored convolutions of a single morel mushroom poking up through the dead leaves. I stopped in my tracks and began to sweep the area and saw another, and another and another. I may not have had a gobbler over my shoulder, but I had a turkey vest full of delicacies. Before I left the woods, I repositioned my blind further down the ridge with hopes of intercepting the birds the next day.
The older I get, the more of a challenge it is to roll out of bed in the morning. It’s amazing though, how motivating it can be to know where turkeys are and know that your blind is setup right outside their bedroom. I was in the woods that next morning again way too early.
Just like the morning before, the tree calls and gobbling began in earnest just before their fly down. I watched my decoys, half pretending that they’d turn into real turkeys, then fantasizing about coming to full draw on them. Am I the only turkey hunter who thinks about shooting his decoys only because he wants to shoot a bird so badly?
The flock began its morning constitutional walking east, but now much closer to me. They remained on opposite side of the ridge and crossed over even further down than the morning previous. The three gobblers were following hens out of range and it looked like I’d be foraging for fungus again instead of bringing home meat.
Despite the disappointment, I stayed in the blind anyway, and kept calling. Maybe it was the actual desperation in my voice translating into my diaphragm call, but the caboose tom peeled away from his buddies and headed back over the ridge.
He was gobbling.
My pulse quickened and I struggled to moisten my tongue and lips enough to keep the mouth call going. My eyes strained for any glimpse of where that bird was. I could approximate his location in this game of Marco Polo, but I needed to lay eyes on him.
Then, in a direct line beyond my decoys, his red, white and blue head popped up at 50 yards out.
Another gobble. A cock of the head, then an indignant flourish of plumage. He was not okay with the sight of my foam jake courting two foam hens on his turf.
Concerned his focus might shift beyond the decoys and into the blind, I froze with my bow resting vertically, the cam seated on my knee and my release hooked into the D-loop. He began circling the setup to my right. Once he closed some ground and passed behind a tree at 25 yards, I drew, brought the peep sight to my eye, then waited for him on the other side of that trunk.
Breaking the plain of the tree, he made a right hand turn to face me in full strut. I preferred a broadside shot, but wasn’t going to run the risk of him getting suspicious and walking off. The slider pin on my sight was set at 20 yards. I hovered the bead a little high on his chest then began pulling into the backwall of my Mathews Creed to break the trigger on my release.
The bow went off and the red nock on my arrow streaked forward and disappeared into his black chest amidst flapping wings and whirling feathers. The instant smacking sound confirmed what my eyes were telling me. This bird was hit, but it took off running nonetheless.
Turkeys aren’t as easy to track as a wounded deer. Their dense feathers soak up fluids making a blood trail almost impossible…and they can fly. Determined not to lose this gobbler, I dropped my bow, flipped the ground blind over my head like a portable ice fishing shelter and started running after him.
It’s amazing how quickly the human mind can process thoughts under duress. I distinctly recall watching my turkey running through the forest and thinking:
- I will not lose this bird.
- He’s not flying, so it must have been a good hit.
- He picked the wrong guy to try to outrun (I’m a marathoner.).
- This pursuit has to look ridiculous.
I caught up to the tom after an 80 yard dash. We circled one another, like a cheesy knife fight from something off-Broadway before I lunged in and grabbed his neck to dispatch him like they used to chickens on the farm. I wished he could have died peacefully after bedding down feeling overly tired, but I couldn’t bear the thought of him sneaking away someplace to die just to become coyote food. I had to stick with him.
Surprisingly, when I inspected the damage the arrow did, he was run through completely, front to back. How that old bird mustered the energy to do anything after a shot like that is beyond me, but reaffirms my sense of urgency and decision to run him down. He was a beautiful bird and I couldn’t have been more proud to take him with a bow. It was a hunt I’ll never forget.
This spring, as turkey season approaches, I’m sorting gear, treating my camo with bug spray and packing calls into my vest. Toms are gobbling on their early morning roosts. Morels are magically appearing for their brief moment in the sun. I am so ready for this game to start again but I’m faced with one dilemma: This year when I venture out into the turkey woods, do I wear my hunting boots or my running shoes?