It was going to happen. I was finally going to kill a gobbler from the first setup of the morning.
Hunter's Specialties pro-staff member Alex Rutledge and I had roosted a gobbler the night before, and now we could hear him drumming in response to Rutledge's coaxing yelps, just 30 yards away below the crest of a small hill. Even better, Wayne Burns from Outdoor Allstars TV was there to catch all of the textbook action on film.
Although the previous hunts I'd been on last spring were successful and educational, they all came down to the closing bell under somewhat "unusual" circumstances. By unusual, I mean that the traditional strategies often practiced in the turkey woods didn't work, so some improvisation (in other words, a ton of work) was needed -- the kind of work that magazine articles and TV shows don't prepare you for. So when I arrived in late April at Thompson/Center's Game Trails Lodge in northwestern Kentucky, I was silently hoping for a bird to finally strut his way to the end of my barrel.
And, it looked as if my wish was going to come true, just as soon as TV's newest star popped his head over that hill.
Of course, the entire scenario was too good to be true. After a solid half-hour of drumming, all went silent, and we knew we'd just been beat. So much for my sure thing.
Two hours later found us crouched in some buckbrush near a field at the very bottom of the Ohio River Valley. Rutledge had his tube-call working well, and a red-hot gobbler couldn't get enough of it. The turkey was about 80 yards away, but the gobbles on top of gobbles said he meant business.
Burns and his camera were directly behind me, and Rutledge was working away from us further into the woods, rolling out excited yelps and cutts in an effort to drag the gobbler into range. Everything seemed to be working.
"Uh oh," Burns said while urging me to look at the treeline on the other side of the field. "See those three hunters sneaking through the woods? I think that's Eddie's crew."
Our fears were confirmed when we heard three soft yelps.
"Yep, that's Eddie alright."
It wasn't long before we heard the shot.
Eddie Salter, another Hunter's Specialties pro-staffer, had heard the bird gobbling at Rutledge's calls and slipped in for the kill. He didn't even know we were there.
"Ol' Eddie, he's gooood," Rutledge said with a knowing smile after he made his way back to where Burns and I had watched the scene transpire. I had to laugh -- two slam-dunk setups, and I hadn't cut a feather.
Midmorning was upon us, and it had been well over an hour since we had struck a bird. I was beginning to think I had jinxed myself with my wishful attitude.
We had just topped a ridge when Rutledge turned back to his tube call. When a booming double gobble from the valley below cut Rutledge off halfway through his string of yelps, the three of us scrambled down the ridge's slope to a makeshift setup next to a large blowdown on the side of a clearing. For the next 20 minutes, the tom hammered lustily at everything Rutledge threw at him, but each gobble came from further down the valley.
I shared a look with Rutledge that suggested we go after the tom, and we were just starting to stand when a piercing gobble lit up the woods from above and behind us. Rutledge and I quickly pulled a 180 to face the newcomer, but I didn't know how this would work out. The gobbler was only 50 yards away, but he was directly uphill.
Fifteen minutes and 20 eardrum-rattling gobbles later, the longbeard was 35 yards below us in full strut. Rutledge had called him downhill right past us, but the gobbler had chosen the thickest cover to walk through and hadn't presented me with a shot -- until now.
After flipping back around to face our original direction, I finally had a bird at the end of my gun barrel.
Our action-packed morning ended when the 19-pound bird dropped at the shot. Little did I know, however, that the excitement on my Kentucky trip was just beginning.
Later that evening, I was tagging along with Rutledge as he called another gobbler downhill -- a much bigger hill -- when fly-up time was only minutes away.
Twice in one day ...
So much for the ol' can't-call-'em-downhill theory, I thought.
Rutledge was calling for Kyle Wintersteen, an assistant editor for the NRA's American Hunter magazine. I wasn't carrying a gun, so I sat in amazement as I watched another bird charge downhill.
When the tom reached 12 steps, I could feel him staring right through me, so I dared not blink. He had closed the last 50 yards silently and had made it into the road ditch, just below Wintersteen's eye level. I had never had a gobbler that close before, and I could do nothing but watch the show and hope Wintersteen would somehow be able to swing his 12-gauge Encore 90 degrees to take the shot.
Well, somehow that turkey sensed trouble, and before Wintersteen could line him up, the gobbler triple-timed his way back up the bluff. With the end of shooting light upon us, we headed back to the truck, talking excitedly about another close call.
"I've never seen anything like that. How'd you ever get that bird to come downhill?" I asked Rutledge as we were walking. "He had no business taking the bait at this time of day."
"That just goes to show that you can catch a gobbler in the right mood at any time of day," Rutledge said. "The key is to stick with it, just like you and I did this morning. With the right setup, they're going to come to your call no matter what the terrain is or what time of day it is. Perseverance is everything. We could have given in to our frustrations this morning, but by sticking with it, I'd say we had a pretty good day."
"Incredible day is more like it," I said.
The next morning, Wintersteen and I headed to the river-bottom ground with Salter. A thunderstorm was imminent, and a heavy fog was billowing through the lowlands. We set up in a finger of woods in the middle of a field where Salter had roosted three longbeards the day before. When he got done placing his Hazel Creek hen decoy in the field, Salter laid out his plan: "If it comes to it, whichever one of you that doesn't shoot should still be ready. One or both of the other birds will probably try and kick the downed gobbler or stay with the decoy. Heck, I might even get a chance to shoot the third one!"
Sounded good to me, and a half-hour later, two strutting forms appeared in the mist and worked their way just out of range all the way to the back side of our finger. Then, three more strutters came toward the decoys to our left. They were in range for about 10 seconds, but I didn't want to shoot because I was hoping for the double. I had confidence that I was above the bird-in-hand rule.
Two hours later, I didn't know how much longer my chest would hold up, because my heart was trying its best to pound a way out. The five gobblers had converged in the opening 75 yards in front of us, and they would simultaneously erupt every time the thunder clapped from the oncoming storm or when Salter offered some coy yelps.
Unfortunately, my attention lay elsewhere -- more specifically, right below me.
I could hear the leaves underneath me shuffling, and I could feel something brushing past my left butt cheek. Problem was, I just couldn't see what kind of critter was trying to say hello -- except for the tiny, red-tinted triangle of a head that poked its way out of the leaves for a split-secound before submerging once again.
I could tell you I didn't move because I didn't want to ruin the hunt for Wintersteen or look like a fool on my first hunt with Eddie Salter, but then I'd be lying. I was simply too scared to move.
"There's a snake crawling between my legs," I gasped to Wintersteen, who was sitting to my right. "What kind is it?"
"Turtle," came the solemn reply.
Having never heard of a "turtle snake" before and seeing that reddish head keep flashing in my mind, my fears only grew: I knew I was going to get bit in the you-know-what and die a miserable death in the woods. Where I grew up, we only had rattlers that would warn you when you were too close and harmless garter snakes, so I really didn't know any better. I simply had to know ...
"Is it poisonous?" I asked in a trembling whisper.
It wasn't until the painted turtle crawled a few more steps and came into full view near my feet that I realized I was going to see another day. To Wintersteen's credit, he only laughed for the rest of the morning.
Oh, and that whole thing about trying to avoid acting like a fool in front of Eddie Salter ... well, I promptly took care of that when I took an ill-advised shot at one of the longbeards when it was still too far away. It seems the attack of the poisonous, man-eating turtle snake had shaken my nerves to the point where I swear I heard a voice saying "Shoot!" -- even though both Wintersteen and Salter had said nothing.
The bird is still alive and well, which is more than I can say about my confidence from that morning.
As we were heading back to the lodge in the now-driving rain, Salter pulled his truck off the road about 200 yards away from a large, open field.
"Why don't one of you slip up this line of trees to that field edge and see if any turkeys are using it," suggested Salter. "And be ready, a big ol' gobbler could be right there with it raining like it is."
Feeling like I owed it to both of them after botching the opening setup, I volunteered to brave the torrent.
I eased up to the field edge, looked left and then looked right -- right into the eyes of a huge, soaking gobbler standing only 20 yards away. By the time I got my gun up, he'd melted into the timber.
I debated whether I should even tell the others about the encounter upon my return to the truck, but my face evidently told the story.
"He busted you, didn't he?" Salter said more than asked with his good-natured smile.
And the rain kept pouring down for the rest of the day.
Looking back, I have a hard time choosing which day I like better: The day I spent with Rutledge when I actually killed a bird on film that we called downhill, or the day I spent reinforcing the ideology behind some of turkey hunting's oldest proverbs.
I don't know if I'll ever be able to decide, because when mixed together, they form one of my fondest turkey hunting memories. In fact, I now question my sanity from the first day when I silently wished the first setup would be all I needed.
Perhaps Tom Kelly said it best: "You ought to realize that time spent in the pursuit of turkeys always pays you back; there is always a return. It is just that sometimes these returns are in the strangest of currencies."
Kelly's right: there is always a return -- even when we least expect it. So be careful what you wish, lest you receive it too soon.