Turkey season ends almost as soon as it gets started, but late-season hunting can be the best time of year.
No one will ever convince me that there is a tougher game animal on the North American continent than the Eastern wild turkey.
Not whitetail deer, not ducks, geese, moose, bear nor anything else tests a hunter’s skills and abilities to stalk quietly, call precisely, remain motionless for hours, become invisible in camouflage, concentrate mentally and shoot a baseball-sized target after holding an elevated shotgun for what seems an eternity.
If there were ever any doubt in my mind it vanished last turkey season, just like those gobbling ghosts often will do.
Last spring’s turkey season was a highly unusual one for me and the turkey hunting members of the Old Six Hunting Club near Bogalusa in Washington Parish. From opening day right up until the last Sunday’s closing, the toms gobbled regularly.
There were maybe more turkeys there that year than in many years. Some said more than ever.
That can be both a good and bad thing. Good for obvious reasons, but bad from the standpoint that the legal male turkeys, especially the mature long-bearded ones, have a harem of hens to keep them happy. This makes them reluctant to venture off in search of a lonely hen call that turns out to be a well-concealed hunter.
All season long, hunters reported that plenty of turkeys were gobbling, answering calls from a distance and even being spotted occasionally.
That’s not to say there weren’t several jakes spared and allowed to age and advance to the next level. I personally called in three jakes to within spitting distance.
But going into the last Sunday’s final hunt, not a single shot had been fired — much less a kill recorded.
The chances of bagging a dominant gobbler improve as more hens begin staying on their nests. The toms, in their insatiable quest to breed as many hens as possible, begin taking risks when hens get scarce.
Last season that didn’t happen until the last several days. Even so, with zoom eyesight, pinpoint hearing and the ability to run like rabbits, burst into flight like quail and shake off body shots like they’re wearing a Kevlar vest, the wild turkey is the closest thing to Superman.
The weather that last Sunday morning was gorgeous. And it was the two-minute warning for us turkey hunters who were, so far, destined for a shutout.
Like so many other mornings, 30 minutes before daylight I heard a gobble in a creek bottom about a quarter mile away. As I was quickly heading toward the sound, it repeated its morning wake up call a couple of times.
When I reached the bottom I found dry and brittle leaves. If I was to a make a quiet approach to where the bird was roosted, it would have to be a slow one.
Along the way, the bird gobbled again, and one of its gobbles was echoed by a second bird that sounded like it came from the same location.
When I reached what I figured was about a hundred yards from the turkeys, I found an open clearing in the bottom, put out a hen decoy, backed off 20 yards and set a portable mini-blind against a big oak tree.
After about 15 minutes, I gave a couple of soft calls but got no response. I called a few more times, and still no answer from the birds.
An hour into the hunt, I was starting to second-guess myself. Why did the birds stop gobbling, especially since I was calling like the turkey hen’s answer to Celine Dion. Did I get too close, and they had seen or heard me? Why didn’t I hear them fly down — the woods were perfectly calm and silent? Were they still roosting in the trees, or had they silently slipped away?
Turkey hunting isn’t just physical — it’s a psychological game too.
Then the real test of fortitude came when another turkey gobbled quite a ways off from the direction I had come.
Do I stick it out here in silence, or do I make a beeline for the talking bird?
I decided to stick it out, confident that the birds were still in the vicinity but, having survived until the last day, were very cautious.
Minutes later I saw, through some leaves and stick-ups, what appeared to be a turkey silently slipping along the edge of the bottom one super-slow-motion step at a time. I thought I could make out that tell-tale white head of a cautious gobbler, the cone-shaped tail and dark body.
I raised the shotgun and clicked off the safety, but after staring at the motionless figure for some five minutes, it no longer looked like a turkey. No, what I thought was a turkey now looked like a dark stump. Maybe the flash of a bird or squirrel in front of the stump made me temporarily hallucinate.
I put the safety back on and lowered the gun barrel. I again called a couple of times, and still got no answer.
When I looked back in the direction of the stump, its tail and wings folded, and it started walking. It was a turkey after all! It had been in a full strut, except a motionless, statue-like one for what I calculated to be somewhere between 8 to 10 minutes.
In 30 plus years of turkey hunting, neither me nor anyone I know has ever seen a turkey hold a strut that long. It headed behind some thick cover in the bottom and out of my line of sight.
Knowing a turkey could pop into plain view at very close range at any second, I put the gun down and took off the safety. Fifteen more tense minutes, and I gave some of the most romantic hen purrs ever to pass from my lips — but nothing happened.
Did the turkey just walk off? It must have seen the decoy. Was it trying to circle from my back?
About that time, I was startled by the familiar helicopter-like sound of a turkey that looks too big to be capable of flight makes when spooked.
Just 20 yards to my right, exactly in the direction of where the first turkey had disappeared, I could see a long beard on a second turkey as it sailed from its low perch on a tree, hit the ground just beyond the decoy and started walking away partially hidden behind a tree.
I moved the gun to the side of the tree, and when he stepped to the left I could see he was plainly getting out of Dodge. I put the bead over his back onto his outstretched head, and rolled him over with a single shot. As I walked over to retrieve the second bird, the first bird, a much larger turkey, took off flying over a thick cutover.
After taking a deep breath, I got my thoughts together to figure out what happened.
First, I miscalculated the distance between the two roosting birds. While I was maybe a hundred yards from the first bird, I was practically underneath the second one. He must have watched me as I put out the decoy and set up against the tree, and then calmed down.
The first, bigger bird — and clearly the dominant of the two — came silently to my hen-imitation calling, saw the decoy and decided to run off his competition in the tree before approaching the decoy, the reason for the strut.
When he disappeared, he went in the direction of the other bird to chase him off, which he did. But unfortunately for the second bird, he didn’t quite go far enough, fast enough.
As you can tell, there were an infinite number of variables that could have caused this hunt to turn out much differently.
All three of us made our shares of mistakes. But for two of us, the final outcome ended up in our favor.
Like I said nothing else even comes close to turkey hunting, especially when you’re in the two-minute warning.