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
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 18 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 a
new 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
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 tendancies 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
fenceline, 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 tom out in the farthest pasture chasing hens.
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 bellycrawling 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 viscious 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 18 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. 18 years of arguable ineptness, the worst luck, the fatigue of
schleping 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 #5 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 my week had come to a climax.
The neighbors came by and marvelled, and took my picture. I borrowed a
bathroom scale and weighed him. He scored 79: 21 pounds, inch and an eigth
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.
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 Willow Creek still play the hunters for saps in the grey
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.