The Wood Shed

You never know what you're going to find in the pile.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Tale of the Hunt


Wednesday the 22nd of March turned out to be a cold 44 degrees with wind at 15-20 mph under a heavy overcast. Not the best conditions for turkey hunting but Tommy Black, my guide for the two-day hunt at Pushmataha Plantation outside Butler, Alabama, was hopeful that we could locate a gobbler that was willing to play. As we drove through the dark early morning with the wind rocking the truck I wasn’t too optimistic. After driving deep into an area of the managed property affectionately known as “the swamp” we parked and sat in the warmth of the truck for a few minutes waiting for dawn to catch up.

“Hey, the wind doesn’t seem as bad down here in this bottom,” I offered. As soon as we stepped out of the truck the wind came blasting through the trees again. We added any extra clothing that we had grabbed as an afterthought, gathered up our gear, and headed down the dirt road leading through the woods. After walking in a few hundred yards we stopped to listen. On cue an owl fired up, its call booming through the trees and a gobbler answered immediately. From the direction of the gobble Tommy anticipated that when the bird moved it would fly down into a nearby food plot so we kept moving that direction. We didn’t hear any more gobbles as we made our way to the field and at the end of the day that gobble would turn out to be the only one we heard all day. We reached the field and set up in the trees on the edge toward the tall timber where the gobbler was roosted. Once in place and settled, Tommy began yelping to no avail. After about 30 minutes Tommy thought he heard a tom strutting behind us once but after another 30 minutes the only thing we had seen was a doe. We moved on.

The rest of the morning was spent driving through woods, calling periodically and listening hoping to catch a tom without hens. We were both a bit down so I took the opportunity to lighten the mood a bit. Tommy got out to call again and moved around to the front of the truck. He yelped a few times and listened to song birds. He called a second time and as soon as he finished I hit him with a gobble call from inside the truck. His eyes got as big as golf balls and he about jumped across the hood! Then he saw me doubled over in convulsions and knew he’d been victimized. He climbed back in shaking his head and laughing.

Towards noon as we were working our way out of the woods headed back to the lodge for some badly needed lunch we got a call on the radio from one of the other guides that had checked out a new tract of land which logging crews had just completed thinning a few days prior. He had spotted a tom with six hens in a green field on the back of the eighty acres. “Well drive on in there and bust ‘em up,” Tommy replied. As we reached the lodge he got another call. “The tom went one way and the hens went another,” just what we were hoping to hear. With any luck we would be in place after lunch to intercept the tom as he attempted to regroup with his harem. As we parked in front of the main lodge we noticed a twenty pound gobbler hanging from the rail on the front porch, at least one of the hunts had been successful. Turns out the lucky hunter and his guide had called and watched this tom strut the entire length of a 200 yard field straight to the gun with the wind blowing so hard it kept knocking his fan flat. The pair had set up leaning back against a propane tank in the weeds under a shooting house. A rather unconventional hunt with outstanding results plus they were back at the lodge by 7:30 for breakfast. Pushmataha certainly feeds their hunters well and I could tell if the afternoon action was slow I would be fighting a nap no matter how uncomfortable my tree was.

As we headed out to the green field things were definitely looking better. The sun had finally appeared, the wind had dropped a bit, and after a full lunch spread we were feeling good. Plus we were headed to a spot where the odds were high. We parked at the bottom of a hill on the newly cut logging road and hiked in from there. As we approached the green field we could start to see it through the thinned timber and stopped several times to glass the field but saw nothing. Walking up the last hill before the field I thought I heard a hen but wasn’t convinced and saw no reaction from Tommy so I figured it must have been something else. Tommy peeked over the last rise and immediately sunk down to the sandy road. The look on his face told me everything I need to know as he slowly moved back down the hill: we were too late. The tom and his hens were already back in the field. At least the wind and sandy road had masked the noise of our approach. We quickly surveyed our options and came up with a plan. While Tommy belly-crawled to the crest of the hill to stick some decoys in the sand, I moved into the brush on the right side of the road and got set up. Tommy soon crawled into the brush next to me. We could only see a few of the hens, the crest of the hill was blocking our view of the rest of the group. Tommy yelped and the reaction was not what we expected: the entire group looked straight at us for a few seconds and then marched out the opposite side of the field into the woods. We just looked at each other. He later admitted that watching those turkeys turn and walk off really shook his confidence but I’m sure they either saw me moving slightly trying to catch sight of them or maybe it was the jake decoy doing 360’s in the wind that spooked them. Either way they were gone. We were tired and confused. Nothing had gone right. We scouted the field and converted a brush pile into a blind for the next morning’s hunt. Once we had everything set we departed and scouted/hunted our way back to the lodge through the back of the main property. We saw several hens and a few does but the stops we made to call and listen were unproductive.

After another great meal, several drinks, and lots of stories we all headed to bed ready for another early start the next day. Four AM came way too soon for my brain and body but by 4:30 Tommy and I were headed back to the 80 acre tract which was about a 30 minute drive on some lightly maintained county roads. With clear skies dawn was coming fast as we hiked in to the field and the woods were starting to awaken as we set up in our blind. I entered the blind and found an optimal spot based on the anticipated approach and the available shooting lanes. Tommy got comfortable propped up against a small tree in the back of the blind and after about ten minutes I realized my mistake. I was sitting straight up with no back rest and my feet were higher than my butt. This was going to get painful in a hurry. We were waiting and listening but it was too soon to start calling yet. I was slowly shifting position in an attempt to restore feeling to my lower body. With as little detectable motion as possible I twisted to check Tommy. He was nice and comfortable and napping! Must be nice I thought, I’m going to need a chiropractor after this and he’s asleep. Not fair!

Soon enough the crows started their racket and we heard a gobble from the tall timber on the hill to our right. Tommy started calling and pretty soon it was obvious that we had one coming to us. The only problem was the tom would have to come down the road and halfway across the field before he was in the kill zone. The turkey was coming from the south and we had the blind and decoys on the north end of the field anticipating an approach from the northeast. I shifted within the blind based on this new development in order to get an earlier shot. The gobbler answered Tommy again but this time he was farther away. We couldn’t see him through the back of the brush pile but we could tell he was strutting back and forth in the logging road with his closest approach being at the top of the field where he could see our decoys. He was trying to get our “hens” to follow him. Then at about 7:30 he shut down and disappeared. For an hour we heard nothing and I was in pain, I had to move.

Tommy and I decided to work our way out and head back to another group of birds we had jumped the previous afternoon over on the main property. We picked up and eased back out the road. Tommy stopped on a rise about halfway back to his truck and yelped. He heard a tom way up to the north on the back side of the field we had just left. That tom had circled quietly through the woods and was now approaching the field from the north! My heart sank – I knew he’d outsmarted us and there was no way we could get back in place in time. Tommy called again and this time we got another distant gobble from the tall timber on the hill to our south. Ten seconds later another gobble hammered down on us from a hilltop to our southwest and he couldn’t have been more than 150 yards through the newly thinned timber. We were caught in the open standing in the middle of a logging road surrounded by open woods. If that tom couldn’t already see us it wouldn’t be long before he could. We had to move fast. I crouched down and made my way into the woods setting up behind some downed small trees about ten yards from the road. Tommy sat down against a tree right on the edge of the road and as soon as he saw me in position he yelped again. The responding gobble almost made me jump. The tom was coming straight down the hill through the woods. I now realized that I had shot lanes straight ahead and to the right but if the bird came in to my left I wouldn’t be able to do anything. There wasn’t time enough to move so I stayed put and hoped things would play out in my favor. Each gobble was closer and tracking straight in. I finally saw his head moving through the trees and waited for a tree to block his view so I could get my gun shifted without being detected. Tommy saw my shift and stopped calling, he couldn’t see the tom and had no way of knowing that he was still out of range. The tom was working his way down a draw that angled off to my right. Unfortunately there was a rise between my position and the tom. He disappeared from view. I was afraid he was going to top the rise coming right at me which would put him only twenty yards away with open ground between us. All I would see was a head and he was certain to see me shift the gun. If I got a shot it would all be over in about two seconds. Minutes passed with no visual and no gobble. Where was the bird? I needed Tommy to yelp but he was too far back for a whisper to reach him. I was still facing up the hill directly away from Tommy and the road behind us. Tommy finally yelped again and the gobble froze both of us – the tom had followed the draw down the hill to our right and was now only seventy yards away on the edge of the road ninety degrees to my right and ninety degrees off my barrel. We were both badly out of position and Tommy was totally exposed. I looked toward the road and couldn’t see the tom yet. I hoped that he couldn’t see me as I started to shift. Tommy later told me that the turkey was out on the edge of the road staring straight at him. The way he described it had us both rolling in laughter: “I felt like I was laid out on the hood of my truck naked!” There was a wash break between Tommy and the bird so he could only see his head but he was eyeball to eyeball with the tom. He caught my movement out of the corner of his eye and carefully, softly yelped one more time to keep the turkey locked on him. The tom charged toward us and stopped on top of the wash break in the middle of the road, dropped into strut and drummed. A few seconds later he broke strut and took about ten steps directly toward Tommy. The bird started to angle to the opposite side of the road. He stopped, I had a narrow lane between the trees but he was still on the edge of my range shooting 3” magnums loaded with #5 shot. I realized that it was now or never. If he kept moving to my right I didn’t have another hole to shoot through until the angle of the shot would be unsafe based on Tommy’s position. Originally Tommy had been behind me but my last shift put him directly to my right at ten yards. The tom was looking for a hen that didn’t exist and was about to exit in a hurry. I took a breath, covered his head with the end of the barrel, and squeezed off the shot. He went down hard but was flopping with his head up so I quickly closed the range a few yards and fired again putting him down for good.

We stepped off the distance at forty-five yards, a longer shot than I would have liked but that was as close as he was going to get and the high aim had compensated for the distance. We were both smiling, laughing, and shaking. From the first gobble to the shot had only been about fifteen minutes but it had been a long morning prior to calling this bird off the hill. The walk back to the truck seemed shorter, the sun warmer, and the sky a bit brighter after our success. Good company, beautiful land to hunt, and great food were what I’d been promised and Pushmataha delivered all that plus a nineteen pound tom for the table.

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