The "shoulda been here yesterday" gremlins caught up with me as I crossed into Iowa from Illinois. That's where the rain started. By the time I'd turned south off of I-80 on my way to Missouri, the wind had kicked in, and by the time I reached Unionville it was pouring sideways. It wasn't a huge front because the next morning was crisp and clear -- gobbling weather. Unfortunately, no on had told the turkeys.
"I stood here yesterday and heard six different toms" Ernie Calandrelli whispered as we stood on a hilly point overlooking 1,000 acres of northeastern Missouri's prettiest turkey ground.
The hills, awash in pink light, were as pretty as they were silent, except for the echoes of unanswered locator calls.
"Front must've messed 'em up," Ernie grumbled. "But man, you shoulda heard 'em yesterday."
If you believe the stories, northeastern Missouri is Turkey Central. Because of the sheer numbers of birds and ideal habitat -- hilly pastureland interspersed with big timber, small woods, agricultural fields and lots of creek bottoms -- I have no doubt there's a lot of truth to those stories that make it sound like killing a turkey there is as easy as breathing.
So, I thought, if I go there and team up with a former champion caller who hunts a dozen states every year (and gets to do it as part of his job for Quaker Boy Game Calls), the hunt should be as close to a slam-dunk as there is. But I hadn't taken into account those other days when turkeys are just being turkeys. If I hadn't flipped though the Unionville Sportman's Club logbook the day before and read the stats on the jumble of turkeys the members had been killing for the past couple of weeks, I'd have sworn there wasn't a feather within 10 miles.
Even when northeastern Missouri's turkeys are shut-mouthed, you're apt to bump into a few without even trying. But Ernie and I were trying -- without a lot of results. The toms were just acting "fruity," to coin a phrase Brian Lovett often uses to describe birds that do everything opposite of what you'd expect.
After two days of frustration, Ernie pointed out that although we'd messed with a few gobblers, we hadn't truly worked a bird. It was irritating, but it was also creating some pressure because we both had Iowa tags too and we were anxious to fill them. Our plan was to hunt Missouri each day until we were successful or until the 1 p.m. closing time, then jump in the truck and head just a few miles up the road into Iowa, which allows all-day hunting. Adding to our anxiousness for action was Josh Catogni, a cameraman working for Mark Scroggins' Gobblin' Fever TV show. Scroggins and Quaker Boy work together to accumulate video footage for Gobblin' Fever, Quaker Boy DVDs and Quaker Boy's new TV show, Born to Hunt. Josh and Ernie had already had the kind of season most people can only dream about. Hunting several states with assorted guests, they had already laid out a few dozen toms on camera. And then I came along and we could hardly get a bird to gobble. Figures.
I did finally kill a turkey in Missouri. And I did fill my Iowa tag. But the hunts were so different they could have taken place on two different continents.
The first day, which I dubbed "the non-gobbling day," after waiting on the hilltop for birds that never sounded off, we set off cross-country trying to make something happen. As we slipped up to a woods edge, we spotted a hen pecking her way across a big fallow field. After she disappeared into the opposite tree line, Ernie suggested we sit and cold-call for a while. We set up on the woods edge, and Ernie occasionally broadcasted a series of yelps for the next half-hour. Several minutes after his last call, a tom sauntered into view 100 yards away.
"Here we go," Ernie whispered.
"Perfect. I'm ready," I replied, gun on my knee.
"If he doesn't turn I'm going to give him a call," Ernie said.
As the tom worked his way past us, still a football field out, Ernie gave him the lightest of yelps, just enough to help the bird find the hen ... and the gobbler tore into a world-class sprint.
"Huh," Ernie said, unfazed.
"Fast, isn't he?" I said.
"Huh," Ernie said again as the tom disappeared into the adjacent woods.
There was nothing else to say.
The next morning we got kicked around again. After an uneventful morning, we decided to build a blind on a hillside overlooking a picked cornfield where Josh could set up his camera when we came back the next day. Suddenly, Ernie ducked.
"Get down! Gobbler right there!" Ernie whispered excitedly as he looked across the field. Lying on my back, I peeked down through the grass and saw what looked like a glistening black beach ball headed straight for us. We'd been calling on and off for a while with no response before we'd started to build the blind, and apparently this bird had been willing to make the trek.
The tom continued striding between two rows of cornstalks that were funneling him him right to us. At 100 yards, he slid over a couple of rows but kept up the pace. He took two steps forward and moved over a row. Two more steps forward and over a row. Repeat. It looked like he needed straightening out, and I still had my mouth call tucked in my cheek.
"I'm going to call once," I whispered to Ernie.
"Go ahead," he said.
I let slip the most innocent of all yelps ... and the bird took off zig-zagging through the corn rows, looking not unlike a mouse in a maze for 400 yards before disappearing in a ditch line.
"Huh," I said.
"Knucklehead," Ernie said. He didn't explain whether he meant me or the bird.
We went back to the hillside again the next morning, and this time we heard birds gobbling from every direction. Ernie threw out some yelps and cutting with a paddle box call and the gobbling continued. And then some more gobbling, but closer. Looking through my binoculars in the same direction the spooky bird had approached from yesterday, I spotted a black blob working our way. He was more than 300 yards out, but with nothing but cornstalks separating us, I felt optimistic.
The bird charged ahead 20 yards at a time, stopped to gobble, and then continued. When the tom had closed to 200 yards, Ernie whispered, "That bird's fired up! That's where that knucklehead came from yesterday, but there's no way that's him again."
Ernie yelped softly. The bird gobbled and closed to 150 yards ... then 100 ... Suddenly, a mob of jakes burst into a squawking match on an adjacent hillside. Our good-as-dead gobbler took off on a dead run 200 yards across the corn rows and charged up the hill to the jake fight. The squawking intensified and moments later here came our gobbler again, still sprinting like a scalded cat. He retraced his path across the field, zipped in front of us and kept on going. For all I know, he's still running.
About noon, as we drove down a gravel road and I was lost in thought, wondering how I could stumble around Turkey Central for three days without getting a shot, Ernie hit the brakes and half-shouted: "There he is with a hen again!"
He was talking about a gobbler we'd tangled with both previous days. The big bird hung out on a high, open flat visible from several directions, which made him unapproachable. We'd tried to work him from a couple of different fingers of timber, but he always had at least one hen with him. He'd courtesy gobble like crazy, but stick with the hens. This time was different. As we slowed to look, the gobbler took off running north and a hen went south. Bingo!
We pulled the truck into a small depression and hustled up a ditch below the flat. "We've got to move fast before that hen circles around and gets back with him," Ernie gasped.
We set up in some scrubby trees and Ernie immediately cutt hard on a box call. Nothing. He cutt again and, barely audible from over the hill, came the faintest of gobbles. And then another, this time louder. Ernie gave the bird more of what he wanted to hear. I wanted to believe this bird was going to die, but I was skeptical, and I think I had a right to be. But this time, the gremlins left us alone, and when the fast-moving red head popped over the hill, my shot concluded what was perhaps the shortest setup I've even been involved in.
Fields of Opportunities
Iowa's growing reputation for great turkey hunting is well-deserved. I wondered if that was why the sign on the state line proclaims Iowa is home to "Fields of Opportunities." But after two windy afternoons there I was wondering if I'd be eating my tag. I think the turkeys there really wanted to cooperate with us, but we just weren't letting them.
Jason Maddy of Centerville joined us to hunt on his friend's farm the first day. Jason suggested that if we really wanted to work a bird on camera, a good bet was to hunt near a recently planted oatfield on the back side of the property. His "sure thing" idea sounded good, especially to Josh, who hadn't been in on our quick Missouri kill, but the farm's mixture of hills and hollows seemed to just beg for running and gunning.
"Let's try the oatfield first," Ernie said. "We can always go exploring later."
We were so intent on our destination that we bumbled over a rise without peeking first, just in time to see a wad of 30 hens and gobblers run out the far end of the oatfield.
"Um, I guess that's the field you thought we should hunt," I said.
"Well, it was ... " Jason said.
"Let's try it anyway," Ernie suggested. "Obviously, they want to be here, and there's still four hours of daylight left."
We set up on the narrow end of the field while Josh readied his camera equipment. And then we sat. And sat some more. After two hours of intermittent calling, we couldn't take it any more and got up to leave ... and spooked a gobbler that was walking up the hill behind us.
"Huh," Jason said.
There was nothing else to say.
By the third day of hunting the Iowa farm, we still hadn't done much exploring. The wind was brutal, and the more we stumbled around the more we wondered how many birds we were bumping. So we returned to the oatfield and vowed that as long as the wind was blowing, that's where we would stay.
We set out two hen decoys, Josh prepared his camera and Ernie and I set up on opposite sides of a huge oak.
"So far, not one thing has gone the way we planned," Ernie said. "We have 400 acres we could be hunting and we're right back at this field."
"Fields of opportunities," I reminded him. "What else are we supposed to do when the wind is howling like this?"
Three hours later, the wind was blowing harder than ever. Even so, I was ready to beg that we go for a walk. Ernie, to his credit, had been calling every 15 minutes or so, mixing it up with ringing box-call yelps and diaphragm cutting.
Then, like a mirage, a pair of hens walked out on the rise 150 yards away.
"Hens," I sighed with disappointment, but then, finally, I saw what we'd been waiting for -- a tom in full strut was following. The hens paid no attention to our decoys until Ernie laid the cutting on thick. At first I wasn't sure they'd be able to hear him above the wind, but then the gobbler paused. He looked at the hens, then at our decoys, and then back at the girls who had led him here as if he couldn't believe his good fortune.
Still in strut, the tom stutter-stepped a few yards in each direction. Would he follow the hens or come to the decoys? Ernie hammered at him with his mouth call and the tom committed, one agonizing step at a time. This was enough to get the hens' attention and they too turned toward us.
It seemed to take forever, but finally the gobbler was in range. He'd never dropped from strut from the moment I saw him, and I didn't know if I should laugh or feel sorry for him as he struggled forward, his fanned tail making every step a struggle against the wind. I held the red-dot sight on the birds' wattles, waiting for Josh to let me know he had the tom in the frame. I waited ... and waited some more as the bird pirouetted around the fakes.
"Shoulda ... "
"He's on him," Ernie whispered. "Here we go." He cutt hard one last time, just enough to get the bird to raise his head so I could cut loose a swarm of 6s. The 24-pound, 3-year-old was worth every second of the long wait.
The next day, driving back east on I-80 in a raging rainstorm, I stopped for gas and ran into a Wisconsin hunter at the pump.
"Coming or going?" I asked.
"Just got here," he said. "I don't think this rain is going to help me much."
"No, things aren't looking too good," I agreed. And then, without thinking, I added, "You shoulda been here yesterday."