The woods were still. About 40 yards away, I glimpsed the head of a large gobbler sneaking in. He had a long heavy beard, and I remember thinking, “I could take him right now.” But for once, I was not a hunter, even though it was spring turkey season and I had a gun at hand. I ignored the gnats and mosquitos that swarmed around me as I watched and listened to what unfolded.
Spring turkey season is second only to bow season in my personal ranking of Texas hunting, but like bowhunting, it is a frustrating and sometimes painful obsession. I desperately want to take a gobbler each spring, and I both enjoy and fear the challenge of attempting to entice a gobbler into shotgun range.
These two goals can compete with one another, especially where I hunt now. The small ranch has a huntable population of spring turkeys, but they are not numerous, and there are plenty of other places they can go. For that reason, I limit myself to one gobbler, and even that can be a daunting endeavor − turn down or blow an opportunity, and you may well not get another (just ask me about last year). Shots are taken at the first opportunity, and multiple calls are always close at hand. Watching a tom strut, drum or gobble for an extended period of time (while within range), or attempting to call in a gobbler without using an artificial call is a luxury I could never justify − until April 8, 2012. How that came to be was weird, even for me.
Friday arrived, and I snuck out of work early. It was my first opportunity to hunt, having missed opening weekend. I swear it seems there is a conspiracy to keep me from hunting in the spring. As I packed, I threw in a scoped rifle, my .300 Winchester Magnum. Pigs had moved onto the place in a big way, and I had lost a couple of opportunities to thin the herd trying to “method” hunt. Then the pigs destroyed a feeder, and I was no longer interested in challenges or new experiences where pigs were concerned − I was out for blood. I moved the rifle up next to me when I left the paved road. It was close at hand, loaded with the bolt open, but not chambered.
I reached the ranch around 3:30 p.m. I had just closed the gate and was walking back to the truck when I saw movement in the brush ahead. I grabbed my rifle, closed the bolt and looked to see what it was. I was shocked to see it was a large turkey, heading into deeper brush. Just as I confirmed it was a gobbler with a beard like a small paintbrush, it reversed direction and ran into the open. Then, inexplicably, it stopped. Instinct took over. Safety off, steady hold and squeeze… don’t jerk… that trigger.
Just like that, I had a spring turkey. My self-imposed limit of one, with a rifle. No elaborate setup, no masterful calling, no hours of effort followed by a classic presentation and ended with a shotgun blast.
I was immediately torn by my decision. On one hand, it was legal and ethical to take the shot. The shot had required quick reaction and a steady hold on a small target, and that may have been the only gobbler I would see all season. On the other hand, it was not the classic spring turkey hunt by any means, and unless I was willing to break my self-imposed limit, my spring season was over. I finally decided that I was okay with taking the gobbler, but that I was definitely not taking another, as a sort of penance.
Saturday was spent unsuccessfully hunting pigs. I kept an eye and ear open for turkeys, but the few gobbles I heard were far away and on other ranches. I felt some validation for my decision. I had grilled turkey for dinner, which turned out great.
Sunday, prior to sunup, found me sitting in deep brush, hoping that the two-foot long copperhead snake I encountered on the walk would be the only one I would see that day, and that the pigs would come back to the scene of their crime. The pigs declined, but I enjoyed the morning, listening closely as the woods came to life. I heard a distant tom, and thought he was especially fired up this morning − aggressively gobbling to every noise. Then all of a sudden, his gobbles were closer, only
300– 400 yards away. Like most avid turkey hunters, I have experimented
with making turkey calls with just my voice. That would be the ultimate feat of calling for me. I have never had the courage to limit myself to just my vocal
cords with a big gobbler on the other end of the conversation. Here was my chance to find out. I
attempted some plaintive yelps, and was rewarded with aggressive gobbles in return.
Whether decades of piddling allowed me to sound like a lovelorn hen, or whether the
tom was so fired up, it didn’t matter what I sounded like − on this day, it worked. The gobbles continued in response to each call, and he was obviously closing the distance. Once I felt he was committed, I shut up and
waited. He snuck in a few minutes later. He was bigger than the gobbler I had taken on
Friday. When he didn’t see a hen, he began to put on a show. He was only 30 yards away, and I
had a front row seat. I never thought about the gun across my knees.
The big tom would go into full strut, drum, then stop and look in all directions, gobble one or more times, then start over. For 15 minutes, he was never farther than 35 yards from me, and at times, less than 25. I tried to stay absolutely motionless, almost scared to breathe. It was impressive, it was beautiful, and it was hilarious. The tom knew he was very close to where the yelps had come from and was obviously frustrated that his invisible lady friend had seemingly wandered off. He did his best to call her back, growing more aggressive in his gobbling as time passed.
Finally, he had had enough. He turned and seemed to stomp his way back up the narrow road, still gobbling his frustration. Ten minutes later I could still hear him as he searched for a mate.
I was shaking as I usually do after a close encounter with a spring gobbler. There was a spring in my step and a smile on my face as I headed to camp and back to the real world. I was ecstatic I had been able to call him in with just my voice, blessed with his performance, and proud that I had not even considered taking him. I also had grilled turkey in the fridge, and a turkey beard and spurs in my truck. Sometimes, things just work out.