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The Bird in the Hand

By Jim Spencer, contributing editor
It was windy but not too much so, and I was in a good listening spot on a long finger ridge.  I had no trouble hearing the gobbler when he started sounding off a little past cardinal time.  He was a long way off and the light was growing fast, but the going was easy and there was a hiking/horseback riding trail to follow along the ridge.  I made good time scooting down the trail, but he got to the ground before I could close the gap enough to make a set-up.

Jim Spencer, T&TH contributing editorThe turkey was pretty vocal, so before I made a call, I stopped on the trail 150 yards from him and tried to determine his direction of travel.  It sounded like he was moving parallel to the trail, heading toward the toe of the ridge where it pitched off into the U-shaped valley below.  He was far enough from the trail that I could move ahead of him without getting burned, so that’s what I did.  I got to the end of the ridge well ahead of him and made my set-up with all the over-confidence that comes when a near-rookie turkey hunter has four or five gobblers under his belt and thinks he’s got good shapes on a hot-gobbling bird.

I had good shapes, maybe, but it didn’t matter.  The gobbler answered everything I threw at him, but I called too much and he got suspicious.  After coming toward me until he was just out of sight, he changed course and followed the curve of the hill.  He passed by me just under the break, maybe 60 yards away.  He was maintaining altitude, neither climbing nor descending, crabbing his way around the toe of the ridge from west to east.

Once he got past me, I quit calling and let him move on around the ridge.  When I figured he’d gone far enough for the curve of the ground to hide my move, I dropped down to his level and tagged along behind.

Falling in behind a traveling gobbler isn’t a very high-percentage play, but I didn’t know that at the time.  Before the morning was over, I learned it.  He led me around like a goat on a string for three hours, and I finally lost him when he crossed onto a property I couldn’t hunt.

The second morning was a replay, except I started out farther along the trail and so was able to set up on the gobbler before he left the roost.  He roosted in what sounded like the same tree, and I made my set between him and the toe of the ridge, on what I thought had been his line of travel as he paralleled the trail on his way to the end of the ridge.

It was a good plan, but not good enough.  My set-up was on a wide, flat bench, and the gobbler had too much visibility and wiggle room.  He was responsive to my calls, and since I was calling from the direction he wanted to go, he approached me willingly enough – up to a point.  I saw him at 90 yards, strutting along behind a subordinate longbeard that was walking and pecking but made no attempt to either strut or gobble.

Turkey & Turkey Hunting magazineThe two turkeys skirted me at about 50 yards on the uphill side of the bench, looking intently for the hen they could hear but couldn’t see.  When they were out of sight, I took rounders and hot-footed it to my set-up of the day before at the toe of the ridge.  By the time I got there, the gobblers were already past it.  They headed around the ridge on the same route they’d used the previous day, and again I fell in behind and followed them until I hit the property boundary.

The third day I waited on the trail until I heard the gobbler leave his familiar roost tree and start toward the toe of the ridge.  Then I moved quickly to the drop-off, went downhill 50 yards and made my set as close as I could to where I though the birds had come through the previous two mornings.

Again, though, the bench was too wide, and the gobblers took advantage of the space.  They veered 50 yards downhill of my calling position, looking hard for the vocal but invisible hen and refusing to approach when they couldn’t see her.  For the third day I found myself eating dust as I tagged along and called forlornly at the retreating gobblers.

Day four was my last day to hunt the area.  I waited on the trail for the familiar routine to begin, and when it did, I backed off and dropped straight down the east side of the ridge until I came to the path the gobblers had taken the last three mornings in a row.  Each morning, the turkeys had been funneled into a narrow flat space between a rockslide and a 10-foot ledge, and each day I’d followed them through the 40-yard gap.

I found a comfortable set-up at the entrance to the gap and settled in to wait.  With the big ridge between us, I couldn’t hear the dominant bird gobbling, but I hoped he’d maintain his pattern.  He did.  As soon as I heard him gobble far down the ridge ahead of me, I gave him an answering series of yelps.  He answered quickly, and we talked back and forth as he approached.

When he was still more than a hundred yards away and still out of sight, I dummied up.  I remembered his reaction the past two days to invisible hens, and I didn’t want a repeat.  I hoped that by not calling I could make him think the hen had wandered off.

My set-up was just over a slight rise, and the gobbler got louder and louder as he approached.  I could hear him drumming, then walking in the leaves.  Finally I saw him coming, walking erect, looking alertly and anxiously for the hen.  I was watching him over the gun barrel, standing straight as a heron, when I heard the drumming again.  That’s when I realized I was looking not at the dominant gobbler, but at his subordinate.

I waited.  The drumming continued, but no second gobbler appeared.  The boss bird was hanging below the rise, waiting for the satellite gobbler to move forward before topping the hill himself.  Number Two seemed hesitant, though, seemingly smelling a rat.  I mentally weighed my options, thusly: Longbeard under the gun, 25 yards, easy shot, last day to hunt.

It was a no-brainer, and when the gun went off I never saw the dominant gobbler leave.  But his buddy weighed 23 pounds, had a double beard measuring 11-1/4 and 7-1/4 inches and carried sharp, 1-1/8-inch spurs.

This particular Bad Bird taught me several lessons, among them humility, patience and the wisdom to know when to settle for a bird in the hand instead of one still in the bush.  Two days later, a friend of mine I’d told about my ordeal went in there and killed the dominant gobbler.  He was by himself, and he came hurrying to the call like an opening-day two-year-old.  He weighed 17 pounds, was missing half his tail feathers, had a nothing beard and blunt, broken spurs – in every way, a much less impressive specimen than his silent, subordinate buddy.

I figure I got the best end of the deal.

Jim Spencer is executive editor of Trapper & Predator Caller magazine and contributing editor for Turkey & Turkey Hunting magazine. Read each of his Bad Birds columns in his new book, Bad Birds, available at TrebleHookUnlimited.com.

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