Humbled By An Old Turkey

The wild places have many lessons to teach. Some lessons we are eager to learn, some we wished we hadn’t learned, and some we don’t even realize we are learning at the time.

If you know me at all, you know I crave my time outdoors. In the spring, amidst all of the crop planting, beehive maintenance,  and fowl raising that goes on around here, there is a ritual that consumes most of my thoughts- turkey hunting. I live close to the Maumee State Forest. It is no secret that there are turkeys out here (judging by the 12 trucks I saw within 1/4 mile of my house opening day.) Thanks to the restoration efforts of the Ohio Division Of Wildlife, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and various other groups and individuals, the wild turkey population in Ohio is usually around 180,000. This is amazing, considering there wasn’t a bird to be found in the state not too many decades ago. Ohio wild turkey facts would be a very long blog in itself and y’all know that I don’t type very fast. Check into it for yourself if turkey facts interest you.

Most people eat turkey every year during the holidays, but know little about them. I like to get to know my food. I prefer to eat things that I harvest myself- plant and animal alike. I am constantly humbled by deer and turkeys. It’s not  barbaric. I kill animals to eat. When I kill a deer, I utilize everything that I can. The meat, tendons, hide, hooves, bones, fat, etc. Turkey feathers become arrow fletchings and wing bones become wing bone calls…the meat is usually fried! I enjoy stalking animals with a camera just as much, but that doesn’t put food on the table.

I was drawn to turkey hunting 12 years ago. I love calling to them and actually having them respond. Echoing gobbles send chills of excitement down my spine every time. Sometimes they’ll scare the crap out of you if they sneak up right behind you and gobble! Turkeys always have a lesson to teach. “Educated” turkeys have a whole curriculum ready to go.

  This year’s turkey hunting agenda was no different. I guide my father-in-law opening day of the season and most days of the first week. I enjoy this because we get to hunt private land only a few miles from my house. If I am not hunting with him, I have to hunt public land- which is way more dangerous and difficult. While I’m on that subject- anyone with a turkey or deer “population problem” on their property, I can help! I am a respectful hunter and will gladly share the bounty. Feel free to contact me.

I was lucky enough to call up a nice 3 year old for my father-in-law opening day. It was his first tom and I’m still not sure if he realizes the magnitude of this gift. Once a turkey gets past the terrible-twos, he is very instinctual and elusive. They don’t often live to be older than 2, because many predators(not just humans) are out to make them a meal.

Now that my “guide service” had completed mission # 1, I could focus on a few of my favorite public land spots and try to get some meat for myself.  Usually, I wait until the second week of season to hunt public land. I know the birds around here quite well. I’m familiar with the roost sites and travel routes. Every year the same thing happens. I start hearing gobbles in March. By the week before season, you can hear a half dozen or so different gobblers being very vocal on public land by my house. Opening day comes and so do droves of hunters. All of the sudden there are 15 new “hens” making noise in the woods(not to mention- snapping twigs, coughing, etc.) The next morning there may be a gobble or two, but nothing like the previous week, and not because they were all killed. They were educated. By day 3, there’s hardly a gobble to be heard on the roost in the morning.

I scout before season, during season, and after season. I found signs of several different hunters in spots I like to frequent. I expect that. This public land is for everyone and I am thankful for it’s existence. We, as hunters(or as people in general,) need to respect each other. Sometimes it is difficult when another hunter ruins your hunt. That is the risk you take on public land and it can be very frustrating. However, these hunters’ habits can be used to your advantage.

Spring turkey season lasts 4 weeks here in the great state of Ohio. The first tw0 weeks, hunters are only allowed to hunt until noon. The second half of the season allows all day hunting. Male(bearded) turkeys only- the hens are laying eggs and ensuring that the species lives on.

                THE TALE OF SIR NOONAN

The first day of season I was back at the house in the afternoon and I heard a gobble. I checked the clock and it was 12:20pm. “That figures,” I said to myself. I swear that the turkeys around here know hunting stops at noon. I heard him gobble a couple times as he made some pretty good distance traveling. “Must be out cruisin’ and looking for the ladies,” I thought. Note to self: mouthy gobbler crosses road close to home around noon. The next 2 days I hunted private land in the morning, but was always home by early afternoon. I heard gobbles between 12:15pm and 1:30pm close to the road both days and now had a pattern confirmed…and an obsession beginning.

I knew this had to be an older bird. His travel route was in some thick cover and that was the only area he felt safe enough to be vocal. I knew where hunting pressure in his travel route was, so I stayed away from the obvious good places to sit.

First Encounter:

I waited until first light to head into the woods. I wanted to see where trucks were parked and footprints were going. I value my life and I really don’t want to be shot accidentally by someone. Surprisingly, there were no trucks parked in the area I wanted to go. I found myself nestled up against the state forest border with private land to my back. The birds head to private land when all the hunting starts. I was hoping to surprise that old bird on his travel route before noon. I didn’t hear any gobbling in the morning. I saw a hen which is always great to see, but not what I was after.It was getting to be about 11:30am and I was beginning to give up hope for the day, when I heard a gobble on private land behind me. It sounded like he was 100 yards away. Normally I would start to call and try to call him to me, but these birds have heard so much calling from hunters they are call shy.

Ten minutes went by and he gobbled again- this time a little closer. I usually leave my calls and decoys at home when I hunt public land. They ruin more hunts than they help. Sometimes I take a homemade wing bone call with me. Not too many hunters use them, so I figure it is a hen call they aren’t used to hearing and may respond to. Having said that, I don’t like to call to them at all out here, but there’s only about 15 minutes of legal shooting time left and I was hoping for a miracle. Against my better judgement, I did a few yelps on my call.

Silence. Silence. More silence. “I blew it,” I thought. “I scared him back to Lucas County for sure.” Then, at 11:55am he gobbled. He was closer, but in brush so thick that I couldn’t see him behind me. I got ready and waited. A few more yards and he would be on public land where I could get a shot. I could hear him in the leaves. Right at 11:59am, I finally got a look and my gun raised at this noisy creature to my right- a fox squirrel. My heart, that had jumped out of my chest was now laying on the ground defeated. The clock rang in the noon hour, and at that same moment a gobble sounded off 75 yards away on private property to the north. After unloading my gun, the usual flood of questions took over my brain as I walked out of the woods- “Does my calling suck?” “Did he see me?” “Does he have a hen with him?”

Second Encounter:

Next time out I picked a different spot and waited for him. I left my call at home so I wouldn’t be tempted to use it. I stayed close to the road where he crosses, but there are several paths he could take in this thicket. Can’t cover them all by myself, or with 3 other hunters for that matter. I waited patiently all morning, but didn’t see or hear any turkeys. Noon rolls around and I unload my gun, pack up my things and head out.  Not more than 20 steps into my journey out of the woods and I heard a close gobble in the direction I was walking. I froze and had a seat next to a tree. He probably saw me. I waited a while, but never heard him again. It was back to the same old pattern- crossing the road just after noon. I gave him the name, “Noonan.” Because it’s always “noon an” a couple minutes after when he comes around.

Once I get to know a turkey enough to give him a name, I don’t think about much else.

Third Encounter:

So, I thought I’d think outside the box a little more. There is a spot where he travels that is really thick with brush and poison ivy(something I am allergic to.) There are not many open shooting lanes in there and that’s probably why he felt so safe. I sat on the ground next to some downed trees and waited, facing the direction he usually travels.  Thick brush was behind me. It was about 11 am and from behind me in the brush I heard a gobble that startled me. He stayed in the thick and skirted around me. Next gobble I heard, he was 50 more yards away and as usual- out of sight. At this point, I still haven’t put my eyeballs on this bird that is consuming my thoughts.

Fourth & Fifth Encounters:

The fourth encounter I waited him out in the same area only to have him scared off by other hunters’ calling. The minute he gobbled, several other hunters started calling aggressively from the well-beaten path and shut him right up.

The next day, I had my fifth encounter with Noonan and I finally saw him. He was actually coming towards me on the path I needed him to travel for a chance. There’s a downed tree that forms a fork in the game trail. Normally I would try to sit right in such an area, but there was an open 15 yards radius with no cover. He chose the path to his right which goes right by me at 10 yards. If he chose left, I would never see him in the thick.

I had my gun raised, safety off, and ready to shoot. I needed him to take about 5 more steps towards me and I would have him for lunch. Just then- “Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp!” from the parking area by the road. That old bird jumped up on that downed tree, ran up it a few steps, and jumped down to the other side and into the thick- like he just saw 10 coyotes. The first yelp and he was gone-diddley-on. Two hunters must have seen him cross the road, slammed on the brakes, and started yelping away. Then I heard 2 car doors open and shut, followed by 40 minutes of yelping and walking the beaten path. My fears were confirmed.

Just when I thought they gave up and were headed back to their vehicle, I heard some crashing in the thick where the turkey bolted an hour earlier. I often hear deer in there and I was hoping that was the case. Nope. Those two green-horns thought they were going to just crash through the thick and kill a turkey. They walked right by me at 20 yards and didn’t even see my blind. I was tempted to scold them, but I just sat and watched them walk by. No need to educate them. “Just weekend warriors,” I thought. No shortage of them around here.

So, now I’ve seen him and the second half of the season is starting. The last turkey I named(Little Geronimo in 2008) is still a great memory, but never became dinner. I was also fearing the “election-year curse.” I have never killed a turkey on an election year. Silly, I know.

The spot where I set up is very thick, I know I’ve made mention of that. This type of hunting is not relaxing at all. You have to be on the lookout and listening constantly, hands on shotgun, ready to shoot. The window of opportunity may only be a couple seconds with one shooting lane between a couple trees just inches apart.  It’s nothing like setting up decoys in an open farm field and calling them in, while catching the occasional nap in the blind. It takes patience, endurance, persistence, and a lot of luck.

Now, I can hunt all day. Well, I mean I could if I had nothing else to do. So I figured I’d start hunting 10am – 2pm every day that I could for the next 2 weeks. That leaves plenty of time for work before and after hunting without having to get up at 4am.

I headed out for my first hunt the second half of the season. It was 10am. I thought I had plenty of time to get set up before Noonan came around. I had never heard him before 11am or so. Just then I heard a gobble from the thick. He was already there. Probably dancing around my blind and taunting me with a single gobble saying, “I’m here dummy. You should’ve been out here earlier.”

I crept into a different place, hoping he would end up there. I never heard or saw him and I was back at home by 1pm scratching my head(and maybe cursing a little.)

Now this bird is really in my head. Sara has heard so many stories about this old bird that I am beginning to think she’s enjoying my tormenting turkey tales. “I wonder what story you’ll tell after today’s hunt,” she’d say. “Hopefully it’s one that involves fried turkey breast,” I’d think to myself.

I couldn’t help but get out earlier the next day. I was nestled in my blind by 8:45am and on high alert. Every previous encounter was going through my head, along with serious doubts that I was ever going to harvest this old gobbler. Then at 10am I heard that heavenly sound, “GOBBLE! GOBBLE! GOBBLE! GOBBLE! Excitement quickly turned to disappointment when I realized he was out on the beaten path. “What!? He avoids that path like the plague! No way!!” I thought. I waited to see if he’d gobble again and he did. He gobbled a few times- at a plane, a lawnmower, and a goose. He wasn’t moving though. He was still in the same area. Did I mention that I had my wing bone call with me?

You guessed it. I decided to try and call him over.  Fearful, because of how I had seen him react to calling. I faced away from him and did a few soft calls. I figured he was used to calling from the beaten path, but not in the thick so I tried it. He shut up. A few minutes(seemed like half an hour) went by and no gobbles. I figured the next one I’d hear would be far away across the street. Just then, he gobbled from the same area. I hesitated on what to do, then made a decision. I put the call in my jacket to muffle it and make it sound like it was farther away. I did a few soft, excited yelps and put the call in my pocket. I stared at my tight shooting lane, gun in hands, ready to go.

I cannot describe the excitement with words when I saw that big red, white, and blue head. He was doing a fast walk towards the super-thick stuff where he felt so safe, but was looking for the maker of those yelps along the way. I had one chance at him- 20 yards out, between two trees 8 inches apart, and I squeezed the trigger.

He disappeared out of sight and a small shadow of a doubt crept in. Did I miss?!? No. He was laying there behind a log where I couldn’t see him. He dropped right where he last stood. One second he was looking for love and the next he was in the wind. I hope I go that quick when it’s my time.

I couldn’t help but cry. I was still in shock that everything came together. I was(and still am) completely humbled by this turkey. He wore nice 1 1/8 inch spurs, 10 1/4 inch beard, and weighed in at 22lbs. Beautiful 3 year-old bird. King of the Maumee State Forest. He was bald underneath from all of the breeding he’d been doing. His seed lives on.

Noonan will never be forgotten…an amazing teacher with a beautiful classroom!

Thank you, my friend.

-Steve

IMG_4727

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s