I had been watching the old tom for a couple of weeks. I was taking notes in my journal as to what time he awakened each day, where he roosted, what fields he favored during rainy days and which hens commanded his attention from the fly-down to the time they sauntered off to nest in the late morning warmth. He had worn his wingtips down to the heavy-vaned quills from strutting in defiance and aggression, showing the young upstart jakes that there would be no mistake who sat on the throne and ruled this pastoral kingdom.
During the late morning he wandered across the brook where the little wooden bridge arched over the gently gurgling waters below. Dandelions covered the greening field like a bright yellow quilt. In the distance, the Adirondacks glistened in pale blue, almost blending into the cerulean sky with wisps of wedding white clouds hanging above them. With the girls attending to their domestic instincts and dusting their bronze bodies in the light brown bowls of earth, his Majesty would strut amongst the fiddleheads and ramps up and down the streambed.
Late in the afternoon he would meander through the main field and cross into the sprouting soybeans to gather his harem for the night’s feeding session at the edge of the small meadow. Gnats and small insects would hatch off of the twigs of the budding shrubbery, grubs could be scraped up in the cooling earth and the occasional left over acorn might yield its sweet tannin- flavored meat to the flock. They would stroll about, chatting amongst themselves, gently purring and clucking tones of contentment.
About 7:45 the flock would head into the hardwood and conifer woods, scraping the forest floor as they went and picking up the opportunistic earthworm along the way. At the base of the roosting area, they would putt-putt to one another, choosing their trees with a flapping of their decisive, powerful flapping wings. I could hear the wing beats from 100 yards away, as I sat on a fallen log covered with cool moss. Every once in awhile I would catch a glimpse of wings, lifting the big birds up into the dusky horizon to light on a thick branch.
As the heavens turned a dark green and purple, the old tom would start to gobble to let his mates know which tree he had chosen for the evening. I sat quietly, choosing not to employ my owl call and just listen to the birds call to one another using soft tree yelps, which would be punctuated every 5 minutes by a boisterous deep-throated gobble. Then the woods fell silent.
It was dark. The three quarter moon had just begun to crest the Green Mountains to the East. I stood up and quietly walked out of the woods, placing each footfall carefully so as not to snap any twigs. I stuck to the logging road that wended by the old sugar shack. The walk home seemed short, my heart doubling the pace of my steps. I could feel it beating in my chest with the anticipation of the next morning.
This particular year I had not been able to manipulate my schedule to accommodate Opening Day and had to settle for the first weekend. My concern was that any one of a number of other hunters may have already played this bird, but he seemed unflustered and relaxed. My hopes were high as I lay in bed watching the reflection of the LED light on the alarm clock glowing an oddly calming green on the ceiling. As I began to drift off to sleep, a flock of geese flew over the house in the subdued moonlight, headed for the pond out back.
The fluorescent light of the clock read 3:58 when I opened my eyes. The alarm would go off in 2 minutes. No need to wake the wife with the local country radio station wailing the teen angst of some young girl who is “never ever ever getting back together” with some spurned adolescent boy. Maybe if it was Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash, I might consider lying in bed and actually listening to some classic old tune, but I know better these days. The radio stations no longer play the kind of music that soothes old souls. So I turned it off before the inevitable.
I rolled off of the firm mattress and directly into my turkey camo laid out neatly at the foot of my bed on the red couch under the window. The curtain was being vacuumed out through the top of the window by a South wind circling around the house. It would be a warm day. I could feel it in my bones.
Walking down the dirt road, my boots were scuffing the gravel when I realized that it was dead silent and that I was not conscious of creating more noise than I liked. I began setting my feet down with more mindfulness. My plan was to walk the road to the culvert and short-cut through the woods to a slight rise where the birds funneled through the low point to the fence with the broken posts where the barbed wire was torn, creating an opening to the soybean field.
As I crossed through the fence opening and into the woods, I had that sixth sense that I was being watched. I felt my nerves go on edge. Was it a coyote? A roosted hen that had changed its course into another tree during the night? Something felt uneasy. I tip-toed through the moonlit trilliums and carefully placed each step, feeling for branches or twigs through my rubber soles. I stopped to listen for a moment next to an old oak.
My heart jumped into my ears when the owl went off right above me. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you awwwwl?” Then a thunderous gobble echoed through the night air. My heart moved back into my chest and decided to try to push its way out though my ribcage. I broke into a cold sweat and began gasping shallow breaths. “Calm down” I told myself. “Now you know where he is and all you have to do is wait.”
I leaned my vest and gun against the old oak and gently removed the hen and jake decoy from the backpack. I unfolded them and carried the decoys and their plastic stakes,carefully pacing off 20 yards to my left, toward the swale in the ditch. I strategized that he might not cross the ditch but would pass on the opposite side following his normal routine exit to the field. It would leave me with a shot of about 30-35 yards, for which I had patterned my 12 gauge using some 3 ½” #5 ‘s Then I returned to my tree and saddled up against the indentation in the trunk.
I cut a few small twigs with budding leaves out of the musty soil and speared them into the ground in front of me, creating a ring of natural cover. My 3-D leafy-flage suit blended in beautifully. I had loaded my gun back at the house and walked all the way in being ever conscious of the safety as I wound my way through the whip-infested woods edge.
I sat at the base of the old tree and listened to the prelude to a spring symphony.
Every 5 minutes or so, the percussive deep-throated bass of the lead singer would pierce the crisp morning air, ripe with hope.
Soon, I began to hear fly-down cackles and the beat of mighty wings in their descent to the earth below. I counted 6 fly-downs that I could hear. Then an even louder beating of wings and a solitary gobble from 100 yards away. Then silence. His Majesty was being attended to by his harem of hens. The Boss hen clucked loudly to him to follow her directly to the small green meadow.
I clucked and putted gently at first, and then realizing that I was competing with a half-dozen of the real birds, I picked up the tempo and veracity of my clucks. He answered, affirming his dominance with a powerful scream.
At this point I knew I had his attention, but the game was far from over. Was it just a courtesy gobble? Or did I sound more seductive than the real-life ladies around him? I clucked loudly again, with a powerful cut at the tail end of the monologue. Again, he answered. I had confirmed that he knew of my whereabouts and my intentions. Now, the real tricky part of the conversation; saying nothing. At all. For what could be a long time. He had stopped gobbling for about 15 minutes and my heart began to sink.
Had he left his strutting zone to follow his Boss Hen into the meadow? I began to think about my next strategy when a voice from my past, the ghosts of Chris and Curt McCuin, whispered in my head “When they stop talking, they may be coming in. Sit tight and wait.” So wait I did.
Constantly scanning the holes between the trees, the shrubbery and the deadfalls, I began to feel as if I was being watched. Again.
Suddenly a piercing gobble came from right in front of me, not more than 60 yards away.
Then I saw it. Just the top of the fan. It was full and he was strutting behind a downed cedar tree. He must have snuck in using the cedar to obscure my vision the whole way.
I putted gently. He gobbled back.
But he did not move closer.
I clucked and cut. He gobbled back.
But he did not move closer
I purred with a gentle cut. He gobbled back. We were having a conversation about who should go to whom.
He did not move from his strutting zone behind the cedar.
This went on for the better part of ½ hour, when finally I saw him angling away from behind the tree and heading back to his harem.
What should I do?
Dare I try that no-call mouth gobble that I have used to entertain people at parties? The one where I just scream “Owl doodoodooodoodle?”
It was then I realized I had nothing to lose.
I breathed in deeply and tensed the muscles around my diaphragm in my chest, using my intercostals to add pressure. Then I let loose, praying that the sound emanating from my mouth would sound anything like a jake challenging this brute to breed the hen I was pretending to be.
At the moment he heard the scream, he spun around like someone had punched him in the back of the head and screamed back.
Then he began to run, full speed. Around the cedar and right in to the decoys, which he had not seen from behind the tree. He looked at the jake decoy with incredulity and stuck out his chest, reared back on his legs and prepared to terminate the young upstart. He held his head high and prepared to pounce.
It was then that my finger eased the trigger back and the deep barreled gun spoke. Eloquently, powerfully and permanently.
I rushed to his side and sat with him as he expired, praying as I always do.
“Great Spirit, hear me for I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things that you have made. Make my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people. Let me learn the lessons in every leaf and rock. I seek strength, not be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me always ready to come to you, with clean hands and straight eyes, so when life fades as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame. Take this, my brother, back into the Great Star Nation and know that I am grateful for his sacrifice. Great Spirit bless this, the soul of my brother, the turkey.”
In the distance my prayer was answered by another gobble from out in the meadow. There will be a new King this day. Long Live the King!