With the advent of spring comes warmer weather, cloudless skies, sunshine, and for almost everyone, better moods. But to a select few, it means something more – Spring. Gobblers. The obsession of getting up early, hiking into the woods, and waiting hours on end for wild game to cross your path in an attempt to put food on the table seems archaic and primal to the majority of today’s deprived society. Hunting is a dying American tradition: unfortunate but true.
To me, hunting is more than what meets the eye of most. It is a test of commitment, honor, patience, and wit. It pits us against Mother Nature in her eminent domain. It is an attempt at persuading her to reward us with the honor of respectfully and ethically taking a life to provide for families. It is a humbling, emotional, and exhilarating experience.
Knowing that turkey season is just around the corner I can’t help but reminisce on past hunts. Some I’ve ventured alone, others with a hunting buddy; all of which have taught me something. I can’t explain in words what the desire to go out and hunt feels like. It is an emotion in and out of itself. It is one of those feelings you get from head to toe. That yearning deeply rooted in the core of your muscles. The only thing that could possibly come close to explaining the complexity of such emotions to the inexperienced hunter would be the pursuit of procreation. You can’t explain it but the primal instincts within say it’s right. I’m not insinuating any perverse connotation via that metaphor but is the only thing we can all relate to and understand; men and women alike. Hunting is an instinctual way of life. I’d be inclined to argue to it’s in our genetics. A desire that gets passed down to each generation so long the predecessors were regular hunters.
Looking forward to the upcoming spring turkey season, I think back on one particular hunt from Spring of 2020. I did not bag a bird but the hunt was without a doubt one of success. It was nothing short of humbling. It was emotional. It was undoubtedly exhausting and exhilarating. It was an experience that lasted an entire weekend but created a memory that will last a lifetime. It totaled roughly 50 miles over unforgiving terrain, drove my buddy and I to the brink of giving up, but during the last 10 minutes of legal shooting time escalated from physical and emotional exhaustion to pure adrenaline.
My buddy Steve and I started this trip off with a drive from NY to NH on Thursday April 30th, 2020. Yes, we drove 5 and a half hours to try our luck at finding turkeys. Dedication and discipline at it’s finest.
Friday May 1st – “How’d you talk me into this?“
Let me start by explaining that during Spring turkey season hunters are limited to a specific time frame to hunt. You are allowed to hunt from a 1/2 hour before sunrise to 12 noon. Also bear in mind, that turkeys can probably see at 200 yards what we see at 20 AND if this wasn’t good enough they can see 270 degrees without moving their heads… Challenge accepted.
Sunrise was at 5:40am. Dedicated to our cause, we woke up at 4:30am to be in the woods by 5. Deafened by alarms we woke up to horrible weather. It was raining, overcast, and there were heavy winds gusting upwards of 30mph. The avid turkey hunter knows these birds are hard enough to hunt in good weather. Add cold, wet, miserable windy conditions to the mix and they become almost impossible. The heavy winds posed a huge problem by themselves because in the mountains they become variable. With heavy variable winds and tons of trees rustling – you will never hear a turkey cluck or gobble and they won’t hear you calling. The sound won’t be able to cut through the wind and travel. Forget about the fact that in cold miserable weather they are barely vocal from the get-go.
We started by scouting low sheltered areas were we thought turkeys may be seeking cover from the elements and while maintaining an eye on predators.
The first area that came to our minds was close by, convenient, and prime turkey real estate. It’s a spot a few hundred yards behind my cabin that has a stream flowing from bog to the north west down to the lake. This spot also provides a lot of good shelter given the fact that the stream flows right through a pine grove. We b lined it straight for that spot. When we got there it showed an exorbitant amount turkey scrapes in the leaves weaving in and out of all the pines. We figured this would be a good spot to hang out for a bit so we found a couple of wide trees to sit against and began our hunt. When you’re sitting around waiting for game to cross your path time slows down to a crawl but at the same time flies by. We don’t know how long we were there but it felt like a century with the rain and wind. The pine tree was providing us shelter from the rain to some extent but was like putting ourselves through Chinese water torture. The rain slowly dripped through the canopy of the pines, trickled down every tier of branches and right onto us. Slowly over time, we became soaked. I don’t care how much rain gear you may wear, eventually water finds its way in when you sit in the elements long enough.
As we sat, carefully glassing the hillside ahead of us, and making multiple series of soft yelps and clucks for potential dinner candidates, we heard something off to our right side. Focusing our attention in that direction hoping for a turkey in return for our suffering, we noticed something else completely unexpected. A fisher cat was making its way towards us. Now if you don’t know what a fisher is they can be some vicious critters. Practically ready to run across Steve’s lap, the fisher made a last second turn and bolted up the tree he was sitting under. We looked at each other and decided to move on.
We slowly and carefully pioneered our way through scattered oak and pine trees around a bog, up a 400 foot hillside to a logging road, down a couple miles to Wild Lake, followed Wild Lake’s rugged, rock infested, marshy shoreline a few hundred yards and then back down a trail to the first bog only to find a couple of turkey feathers and no other signs.
This process took a grueling 5 hours consisting of walking a short distance, concealing our profile against a tree or rock, getting dripped on, rained on, and blasted by wind. We implementing the only strategy we really could..
Stop, wait, look and listen. Over the course of 5 hours we did not call more than 5 times but moved over the terrain pretty aggressively given the circumstances. Mother Nature won this time. Outwitted, cold, tired, wet, and miserable we called it a day at 1030am regardless of the hour and a half remaining of legal shooting time. We set our course back for the cabin, lit a fire in the wood burning stove and with beers in hand consulted the topographic maps. Accepting the challenge ahead of us we decided to change our tactics for Saturday.
That evening, we attempted something called “roosting.” Turkeys head up to roost around sunset, sometimes an hour or so earlier in bad weather. The process of roosting consists of going into the woods, hopefully with a good idea of where they may be (usually where you last saw them). In our case – we were pissing into the wind. You use either an owl call, or make a loud noise to try to get them to “shock gobble” and give up their location. As crazy as it sounds, car horns, children screaming, doors slamming, shouting “HEY!” and almost any other loud noise you can think of will most likely work. If it does work, you now know where they are sleeping in the trees and can meet them to shake hands in the morning.
The first and only time I’ve successfully been able to roost a bird by getting them to shock gobble as mentioned. Naturally, this only works for me OUTSIDE of turkey season, this video was taken after turkey season ended.
With a potential spot in mind, we drove my ATV’s north a few miles and parked them alongside the trail. We scouted without the atvs (didn’t want to spook anything) along the bench a little way off the ridge line that was also traversed by an intermittent stream. If I was a turkey this is where I’d be. For those who may not know what a “bench” is when a hillside or mountainside slopes down but levels off for a short distance and then continues sloping down again creating a bench or ledge. This provides animals with a path of least resistance to traverse mountain/hillsides. Odds of finding game along this type of structure are in your favor. This particular bench has oak trees, pines, and a stream; a great source of different foods for these walking butterballs. There had to be turkeys around.
Along the way we spotted a black bear with a couple of cubs, this expedited our decision to get the hell out of there and find a different spot for tomorrow. There was something about sitting around pretending to be turkeys with bears in the neighborhood that didn’t sit right with us. We continued walking along the bench down the trail to a valley with what looked like a “converging hub” on the map (where a bunch of ridge lines meet) covering at least a few miles by foot. We had no luck whatsoever. We decided to head back to the ATV’s and go back to the cabin to re-evaluate possible areas to hunt.
Of course the ride back couldn’t be easy. It just had to downpour around the same time it got dark. We made it back to the bog behind my cabin and were trying to cross this rickety “bridge” that consisted nothing more than a bunch of wood pallets that people keep throwing over the mud each year. The pallets by the end of the summer are demolished from locals riding over them with ATV’s. Having no choice we tried to go around the first batch of pallets because they were partially submerged and we weren’t sure if any nails were exposed.
(One of the biggest rules of off-roading is if you can’t see through the water, you don’t know how deep it is, and you don’t know what’s under it… go around it and find a way to access it).
I got stuck. Fender deep in mud. Torrential down pours. Wet. Cold. Miserable. Pissed off. And of course, Steve has the one with the winch. Usually you want a winch on the vehicle that gets stuck because it’s a lot easier for it to pull itself than another vehicle to pull it. This process must have taken damn near an hour or so. The only lights we had were the head lights of the ATVs that could barely cut through the rain. It sucked. But we made it out.
Saturday May 2nd – Where the hell are they?
Still dedicated to our cause we woke up at 4:30am , drove to the trail head and were in position by 5:30am. This time the weather was much better: somewhat sunny, mostly cloudy, and only a slight chance of rain with some winds out of the North West at 20 mph. We Perched up on the bench and waited there for 2-3 hours putting the wind at our back. (you can see the bench in the break of my trick line if you can zoom in. Close topographic lines show steep incline, wider lines mean it’s less steep. You can see how it goes from steep to wide then steep again)
We were hoping from this elevation the wind would carry our calls down into the valley and then across the stream to the other hillside to hopefully draw the attention of turkeys in our direction. As we sat, we were taunted and instilled with false hope by crows who were either alerting us (or the turkeys) that one of us was near (or so we thought). Time and time again you will read that crows often make a lot of noise when large animals are near and it has proven (to other hunters at least) that it is often best to keep still. This proved to no avail.
Assuming this spot was dead we hiked down the trail (found a Moose jaw bone) working the ridge line to give us the advantage of height of eye. We worked the edges of another bog, and followed the trail back along the foothills of the mountain this time. We didn’t find $#%t except for a bunch of moose rubs deep in the bowels of the woods somewhere and we’re probably lucky we didn’t get charged at by one to later actually come across a moose. It is stunning how well the huge animals can conceal themselves in the brush. You can see in the picture it looks almost like a log on the ground at a quick glance .
We were outwitted yet again. Using every minute we had available to us, we called it quits at 12 noon and went back. Combining the lessons learned from Friday and now Saturday, we came up with the Hail Mary of all attempts to find some @#*&@#ing turkeys.
We decided we would combine Friday’s route with Saturdays route. Taking the ATV’s again in the evening we tried to roost some birds along the streams we had stumbled across. Yet again, the butterballs were stonewalling us.
There is something to be said about this. As I’ve said in my other posts life has a strong sense of humor and a wicked way of showing us recurring themes. My wife loves to kill me with silence when she can see I’m getting frustrated because she knows there is nothing I can’t stand more than no answer to a question. These turkeys, under the guidance of Mother Nature and survival instincts, have found that nerve. This is war.
Sunday May 3rd. – Hail Mary, full of grace, are turkeys with thee?
If you’ve ever seen an episode of Meat Eater with Steve Rinella you’d have a good idea of what is about to happen. This plan is one that Steve Rinella himself would have absolutely approved of. We combined all of our tactics after careful evaluation of the previous 2 days.
Since the winds were still on it, the early morning temps were going to be relatively low, we adapted our behavior and instincts to our hunt. We figured the past 2 days we didn’t want to get out of bed so the turkeys were probably doing the same and flying down from roost late. Why wake up again at the @$$crack of dawn to get stonewalled.
We decided to treat ourselves to an extra hour and a half of sleep – screw sunrise. We got up at 7:00am and were on the trail by 8:00 with bellies full of eggs over easy, bacon, toast and coffee. We hiked back behind the cabin to the first bog we tried on Friday, down the logging road to Wild Lake, hiked along the shoreline to the delta of the stream at the north end.
If there was one thing that was consistent this entire day despite the extreme lack of turkeys, it was the amount of coyote scat we came across. This means that pressure from predators was heavy and the turkeys, if any in the area, were going to be quiet with little to no vocalization, stealthy, slow, and alert.
With this revelation came some serious emotional exhaustion. We questioned what we should do. It was time for a break. There’s a humbling essence about the woods. The more time you spend in it the more you realize how insignificant we really are. The woods as a whole is a living, breathing organism that synergistically sustains itself. The result is awe inspiring beauty. This particular spot we decided to take a break in could not have been better.
As I sat, I couldn’t stop wrapping my head around the idea of such a small critter chewing trees down, dragging a bunch of them to a carefully assessed spot, packing them with mud to hold in place, all to ultimately restrict the flow of water. When you think about it the amount of back pressure against these dams is incredible. You begin to really let it sink in when you’re walking through these woods and are eye level with some of these dams. This particular dam wasn’t eye level but along some of the ATV trails in these woods, there really are, eye level.
Completely stumped, with no idea where to go from here we continued to sit for a bit… Hiking numerous miles with no reward does something to the human mind. On the rock we decided to rest against, we were excited to actually find something cool; an owl pellet. I have only dissected these in grade school and have never found one in the woods throughout the 18 years my family has had this cabin.
It was only after I picked it up and examined it closely, crushing it with my fingers expecting to find a mouse skeleton inside of it, that I came to the realization it was not actually an owl pellet. It was a piece coyote scat. Disgusted, infuriated, ready to give up, we consulted the map and my GPS. Gathered our bearings and decided since we only had an hour left, we hiked up the side of this mountain covered by the brush, slowly to the top to intersect the bench we perched up on the other day. This was totally against what we wanted to do because this meant climbing over rocks, possibly slipping, falling, and trying not to get hurt just to stay out of sight of any possible turkeys that may be following the stream looking for insects to eat. Desperate times call for desperate measure… we took the risk.
We called with slate and mouth calls for a soft and loud call approach to be a little more aggressive. We figured if anything, the wind would carry the loud calls or the loud calls would cut the wind. If the wind carried it – great. If it cut the wind, it will be muffled but something near by will hear it. We timed our soft yelps when the wind died attempting to use the soft calls to convince anything nearby that there actually is a turkey around and not a couple of desperate hunters.
All this effort and brain power to result in no physical or audible signs of birds. It took about a half hour to get to a spot about 100 years below the bench where we could catch a break. I sat against the base of a tree to conceal my profile in the event there were turkeys around. Steve managed to take this picture. I’d say I look an awful lot like a tree root.
With 15 minutes left of legal shooting time we gave one last desperate attempt to lure in anything nearby. Steve gave a soft call on the slate (in the picture above).
I followed it up by a loud yelp with a mouth call. We left it at that. With about 5 minutes left, I hear Steve trying to whisper to me (without moving) to get my attention. “Pssst, Mike… there are 2 turkeys over there!” with his hand tightly against his chest, inching his finger in the direction of 2 turkeys, silently working their way in.
These 20 pound birds amazingly, made absolutely no noise until they were within 30 yards. We could barely hear them crunching leaves underfoot and heard some incredibly soft, cautious, clucking. The tom (gobbler) investigated. Our set up was poor due to low expectations and poor preparedness. We had no decoys out to distract them. Our profiles were concealed against the trees but our movements were not concealed from the hawk-like eye sight of these birds. The tom began to look suspicious of situation.
My adrenaline was pumping. I could feel my heart pounding against the interior of my rib cage like it was going to burst. My torso felt like it was pulsating with each pump of my heart. Desperately trying not to shake, in a painstakingly slow motion raised my shotgun. I positioned the bird in my scope, controlled my breath, steadily breathing in, pausing naturally, and exhaled, while having a staring contest with the bird. I gently squeezed my trigger during the natural pause in my breath taking the slack out, followed through without jerking it back, and took the shot.
Keeping my eye steady, I re-racked another round, deafened by the blast of the shot, ears ringing, following the recoil back down, eye still looking through the scope, I caught a quick glimpse of a wing flap as the smoke cleared. The bird was out of sight. Did I get him?!
The shot was from a kneeling position against the tree. The tom was behind a downed log between two trees and an evergreen in the middle. The tom’s head, neck, beard, and profile were completely visible when I took the shot.
I f#@ing missed.
We searched for the next hour to see if maybe the bird was wounded and ran off. We concluded the bird was not harmed otherwise he’d be making noise and flapping around somewhere. We went back to the scene and examined the area he stood one more time to confirm our conclusion. There were no feathers on the ground, no clippings of feathers, no sign of turkey. It turns out my shot was low and to the left. The tree took the hit. What the hell happened? How did I mess that up?
If you read this and you’ve gone hunting you understand and most likely agree.
That’s just hunting. It happens.
Steve and I collectively concur that overall, despite it’s hardships, this trip was a huge success. We proved to ourselves that we can stay committed to an objective whether there is hope or not. Setting emotion aside and honoring our goal, we eventually found turkeys. It is unfortunate the shot I took missed but in the end it was a rewarding experience because it was one of which tested our morals and ethics. If you wound an animal, you try your absolute best to find it. Out of curiosity we “patterned my shotgun” against some targets and found that my scope was somehow no longer “sighted in” most likely the result of getting knocked around throughout the woods.
Hunting is more than just going out to into the woods to try and provide food for your family. This especially, when you hunt with someone else. It becomes camaraderie. You begin to predict what the other is going to do, how the other person is going to react, and what they are thinking. We had some good laughs, drank some good beers, went home turkey-less but stronger as individuals and friends.
If you haven’t tried hunting I highly encourage finding someone who has and give it a try. It will teach you a lot about yourself and those around you. I hope this article persuaded those who may not have hunted yet to give it a try. And for those who have hunted, I hope you were able to learn some lessons.
If you have any turkey hunting tips or tricks please share them in the comments!