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When the Smoke Cleared

New Hampshire’s 2008 spring gobbler season began in December 2007 — at least for me it did. That’s when I resurrected a Belgian (circa 1890), 15-gauge, side-by-side muzzleloading shotgun that my father had picked up for me many years ago.

Although mechanically sound, the piece had suffered from years of wear and tear, and I had never deemed it truly worthy of a place in my gun locker. However, that changed one dreary New England winter day when I was drawn to its longtime resting spot in the locker’s corner.

I had glanced past the old-timer countless times before, but now suddenly felt as though it was asking for a second chance.

I spent the majority of a snowy December refurbishing the gun. The traditionally refinished stock and furniture and newly matte-browned barrel resulted in a showpiece that my father proudly proclaimed suitable for hanging in a fine library.

A visit to the Track of the Wolf Web site yielded the various off-sized 15-gauge wads I would need to put my  project to use. After experimenting for a couple of weeks with different load configurations, I finally tuned in a proper powder and shot charge that I knew would do the job nicely out to about 25 yards. With my partner all decked out, I just needed to find a way to pass the months until the May 3 season opener. As it has a mysterious way of doing, time did pass.

Opening morning found me in the woods well before daylight, about as rested as an 8-year-old on Christmas morning. But I knew no matter what happened on this day, at least the anticipation was finally over and I had all month to hunt if necessary.

To make a long story short, I was working six gobblers up from a hollow at dawn when my hunt was interrupted by someone sneaking along a nearby dirt road in a pickup. I have no doubt his windows were down, and when he heard the thunderous group he must have slipped down into the woody bottom and tried a jump shot.

As the birds scattered in every direction, he quickly got back into his truck and left. I pulled a cigar from my vest in an attempt to calm down and clear my mind. Funny thing though — I don’t even remember striking a match. I must have been mad enough for that cigar to spontaneously ignite!

I no longer had to contend with the Truck Bandit on the second morning, but now it was a heavy rain that aggravated me. With the exception of the rainfall and my periodic calls, the woods were silent. I put in two hours trying to keep my powder dry, and then called it quits for that spot.

While driving to my next setup about a mile down the road, I caught a glimpse of what looked like a tom’s head popping up from behind a knoll in the middle of an open field. I stopped the car, capped the shotgun and began a slow, military-style crawl up the short hill. Inching forward, I got to the crest of and peeked over to see two hens pecking away in no apparent hurry toward the woods line about 75 yards from me.

I put out a quick series of mouth calls, and laid flat in the short, wet grass. The hens reversed direction, and within moments crested the knoll, appearing only 10 feet away. The pair seemed to have made me at one point as they scurried away, but they hurried back for a second look before slowly meandering off as if they had seen nothing of any interest.

And then I heard something that made the entire morning worthwhile — the loud cracking of a double gobble from the field bottom, only 50 yards over the hill in front of me. I nearly blew the rubber off of my diaphragm call with excitement, and the boys hammered back furiously.

Still lying flat in the open meadow, and in the midst of a heavy, spring rain, I eased the gun to my shoulder and kept a bead on the grassy hillside opening to my right. The first to emerge into view at 27 yards was an excited jake, and following a short distance behind was his confident senior partner.

I dropped the hammer on my right barrel and released 1¼ ounces of No. 6 shot. The black powder created an especially thick cloud due to the dampness of the air, which completely blinded my view and seemed to hang for an eternity. I could only hope the tom was down while fearing that a follow-up shot would come too late.

But eventually I saw that my other barrel could take the rest of the season off, because that 21-pounder was down for good … when the smoke cleared.

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