I figured I would bore everybody with my "first gobbler" story from way back in 1975. I wrote the story then, in an effort to preserve the details of the hunt in my memory for when I got older (although I do not readily admit it, I may be beginning to reach that point!). Anyway, here it is,... if you have the patience to read through the whole thing.
The alarm clock jolted me awake at 5:05. Peeking out of my sleeping bag, I glanced out the window of my old '63 Chrysler where I had spent the night curled up in the back seat. The full moon illuminated the surrounding pine forest outside the car, making me think that dawn would come early on this last day of the New Mexico spring gobbler season. The date was April 27, 1975, and this was once again the last straw in a long series of attempts on my part to grasp what for several years had been my holy grail, to call in and harvest a Merriam's gobbler from these southern New Mexico mountains.
My makeshift camp was at the end of a rough two-track jeep trail that dead-ended on the edge of the Black Range Primitive Area, a portion of the wilderness complex that comprises what is generally referred to as the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. Established some half century earlier by Congress at the urging of Aldo Leopold, this giant block of unfettered mountains and forest was the first federally protected wilderness area to be established in the United States. White-rumped Merriams turkeys roam here, along with a wide assortment of other large and small game, and I had spent many an enjoyable, but so far fruitless, morning wandering these mountains, and others like them in southern NM, in an effort to entice a lovelorn gobbler to my turkey call.
Rolling down the window of the car, I immediately heard what I had been dreading since sundown the previous evening. A cold, howling wind roared through the tall pines surrounding me, sending me diving back under the sleeping bag and hurriedly rolling up the window. I lay in the bag, cursing the wind and my poor luck, and contemplating resigning myself to another annual defeat and rolling over and going back to sleep. In past years, I would most likely have done just that, but this year I had become more determined in my quest. Regardless of the conditions, I was going to try.
Fumbling for my camouflage clothing, I began to prepare myself for the morning. I soon had added enough layers to keep out most of the cold and wind. As I stood outside the vehicle and readied my pack and gun, I heard rumbling from up the two-track road and soon saw the headlights of another vehicle coming my way. There were three hunters inside, whom I had met in the area before. We were all going the same general direction, even though they were planning on hunting a different major canyon drainage than me, so I waited for them to gather their gear, and then the four of us headed down the trail into the primitive area.
Daylight was still nearly a half-hour away, but I had most of that in distance to walk to get to where I wanted to be by the time the gobblers awoke. After a fifteen-minute walk together, the other hunters and I separated at a trail division and went our own ways. Another ten minutes of hiking put me on the ridge point from which I had heard gobbling the previous morning. As I overlooked the deep canyon that sprawled out below me, I realized that it would take a serious stroke of good fortunate to hear a gobble over the roar of the wind. As daylight slowly crept over the eastern horizon behind me, I strained my ears and listened until nearly full daybreak, but my fears were confirmed.
I had heard a gobbler the day before on the south ridge of the canyon below me, so I began making my way down the steep slope toward that area. For thirty more minutes I hiked steadily downward, pausing occasionally to yelp loudly on my box call. Finally reaching the canyon bottom, I contemplated my next move under the horrendous conditions. A small spring fed this section of the canyon, and the water trickled along the bottom for several hundred yards on down below me. In this country, water is a precious resource for wildlife, and I knew that the turkeys in the area liked to frequent this location. I Decided that my best course of action was to work my way along the watercourse, continue calling loudly with the box, and hope to hear a response over the wind.
Easing along, I looked for fresh turkey sign, called occasionally, and watched for birds down the canyon in front of me. At one point I came around a bend, and picked up movement ahead of me. A single animal darted into the brush seventy-five yards ahead, but in the momentary glimpse I had, I could see that it was either a small cougar or a large bobcat. This sighting did not increase my confidence in finding turkeys. Discouraged even more by the continuing bad last-day luck I was experiencing, I nonetheless continued on down the canyon.
Soon the trickle of water in the bottom began to disappear, and before long it had vanished underground entirely. The canyon was narrowing, as well, and the nice, turkey-attracting openings I had been walking through were diminishing. I estimated that I was now three miles from the vehicle and it was two full hours after sunup. A final sense of defeat was starting to set in.
A lone spot of sunshine was hitting a small opening ahead of me, and I decided I would find a spot in the warming rays of the sun, make myself comfortable, and rest for a few minutes before heading back out. I again called loudly on the box, and then set it aside and leaned back to soak up the warmth.
I don't know for sure how long I sat there, my thoughts drifting off in review of the season that was about to come to a close. In resignation, I arose, gathered my gear, and took the first couple of steps in the long journey back to the vehicle. Suddenly, from up the steep south ridge of the canyon, I thought I heard the faintest of sounds. It was one of those distant noises that we all have heard, one that makes us pause and ask ourselves whether it was real or imagined.
Scooping up the box, I proffered several loud yelps up the slope. I listened intently, willing the noise I had heard to be a gobble and to be repeated. Minutes passed and with them my hopes, when again the muffled sound came from up the ridge above me, but this time I was certain it was the gobble of a tom turkey.
Quickly, I evaluated my situation and options. Glancing below me, I spotted a small clearing in the canyon bottom forty yards away. Thinking this would be ideal for my set-up, I headed towards the clearing. Half-way there, I was startled by a clear gobble from up the slope, much closer than the first two had been. I dashed toward the clearing, and a small, scraggly pine I had identified as my hiding place, praying that the approaching bird would not see me before I reached it.
Settling into the limbs at the base of the pine tree, I quickly readied myself, grabbed the box, and sent out another series of yelps. An even louder gobble resonated into the canyon. This gobbler was definitely on his way towards me, sending a thrill though my body that I had never experienced before. Finally, after all the years of trying, it looked like I was about to have my first encounter with a called-in gobbler. I had to mentally tell myself to get control of my emotions and focus on the moment at hand.
As I stared intently up the slope for the bird, the unmistakable sound of air rushing over wings came from above me. The shadow of a large flying bird passed by me on the ground and I glanced back just in time to see a gobbler land on the hillside not fifty yards from where I had been sitting in the sunshine minutes earlier. As quickly as he hit the ground, he disappeared into the trees behind me.
I froze in place and waited. Minutes passed with no sight or sounds from the gobbler. I pondered my predicament and decided to chance the movement needed to yelp with the box call. I called with no response....waited, and called again. Nothing.
Fifteen minutes passed and I was now convinced that I had somehow blown this rare opportunity. I sat dejectedly, going over the encounter and the possible mistakes I had made, when again a distant gobble sounded from up the ridge where I had heard the original sounds. I grabbed the box again and yelped loudly. Within seconds, another gobble echoed from the ridge, and again it was louder than the first. I was confused at the goings-on, but was once again "in-business" with an interested gobbler, or so it appeared.
A small secondary canyon ran up toward the ridge from about seventy-five yards to my left, and the next gobble I heard was from up this small cut, but was again closer. I decided to play coy and wait for the birds next move. Five minutes passed and then another gobble rang out directly up the hill above me, perhaps a couple of hundred yards away. Again I peered up the hillside and waited.
It was about this time that I realized that the howling wind had somehow abated momentarily, and with its absence, I suddenly could hear a faint rumbling sound fading in and out from up the hillside. A thrill raced through me as I realized that I was hearing the gobbler's drumming as he ballooned into full strut.
The sound grew louder as I strained to see the bird. Suddenly, there he was, walking from behind a large ponderosa pine. Slowly, he descended the hillside, pausing often to look for the hen he had heard below. Eventually he reached the bottom, fifty yards from me, and began to strut, drum, and gobble back and forth in front of me. I was enthralled by it all and excitedly took in this spectacle that I had waited so long to see take place.
The gobbler moved slowly back and forth for a while, going out of full strut only on occasion to look for the hen he was determined to impress, and never quite closing the distance between us to what I considered a comfortable shooting distance. I was afraid to try to call to him, thinking that the movement needed to work the box would catch his attention and send him scurrying back up the hillside.
Eventually, he tired up waiting, folded up, and started pecking at the ground. Instead of moving closer toward me, he turned and began feeding away. I was at the proverbial "moment of truth". I had to do something or he was going to leave, so I reached down slowly, picked up the box, and softly sent him three yelps.
Immediately, he raised his head and spun around toward the sound, staring intently in my direction. He gobbled magnificently, inflated into strut, and headed back my way. Pirouetting back and forth and slowly moving toward me, he began to cut the distance. Sixty yards....fifty....forty....and on he came in indeterminately slow motion. The show he put on for me was classic. Strutting, gobbling, drumming....the whole works.....and ever so slowly, on he came.
The set-up I had chosen turned out to be perfect. I had climbed into the canopy of pine limbs in such a way that I was quite well hidden from the gobbler, even though I could see through the foliage well enough to get a spectacular view of his courtship ritual. At this point, however, I had become well aware that my options for actually shooting at the bird were somewhat limited. There were only a couple of openings in the screen of limbs through which I could shoot, assuming I could get my gun "poked through" the limbs into one of the openings without spooking the bird.
Fortunately, beginners luck was finally completely with me, because the gobbler generously decided to stop and strut at fifteen yards with his head right in one of the six-inch-wide openings. It was now or never, so I deliberately brought the Model 12 20 gauge up and over one limb, slid the barrel into the opening above another, centered the bead on his head below a third, and brought the curtain down on the show.
To say I was elated, astonished, and in disbelief would, even to this day, be an understatement. I may have been more thrilled at some point in my life, but I cannot honestly say when it might have been. I don't remember how long I sat an admired that gobbler....the size of the bird, the coloration of the head and feathers, and their iridescence, the beard and spurs...but it was a long time. And when I finally picked him up and headed up the steep canyon and ridge to my car that was parked four miles away, I don't remember that I felt any weight at all.