If there is one thing that I have learned from turkey hunting over the years, it is that there are no guarantees. On some days, the stars align and it all seems too easy. On other days, any number of things can mess up your hunt . . . rain, predators, other hunters, fences, canyons, miscommunications between you and your buddy, poor shooting, and gobblers who refuse to live up to their name. At one time or another, I’ve experienced them all.
The weekend before last, my good friend Matt Lucia and I had the opportunity to chase some turkeys in Southeastern Idaho on some prime private property. Neither of us had hunted this particular property before. On Friday morning, we arrived later than we’d hoped, but immediately commenced our hunt. As we donned our camoflauge gear at the truck, we both clearly heard one gobble in the mountains to the south. There would be no easy riverbottom hunt for us this morning . . . the hills were calling.
As we worked up the switchback dirt road, we listened carefully without calling to see if our quarry would give away his position once more. Out of shape from winter’s inactivity, I sucked in the fresh air, but the exercise felt good.
As we steadily made our way up the mountain, we distinctly heard a hen call, Rrt Rrt Rrt rrt. The hen was less than seventy-five yards away and was oblivious to our presence. Matt suggested that we set up in some trees off the road and see if we could call in the hen and, of course, any nearby Tom.
Sometimes, when turkey hunting, you feel like a camoflauged ninja.
As we positioned ourselves, with me closer to the calling hen, and Matt behind me, we heard a mature gobbler fire off his lusty call to the hen. Gobblblblblblbl! Things were looking good as we were only twenty minutes into the hunt and we had yet to make a call.
While we sat, the distinct sound of footfalls came down the game trail off to the left. At first, it seemed that the rapid movement might be the turkeys, but we quickly realized that it was two coyotes- a bedraggled female out in front and a male in pursuit. Our camouflage worked superbly as they did not notice us. Not more than a minute later, the flirtatious couple circled back around and came down the same trail. However, this time the curious female veered off the trail in my direction and stood not ten feet from my position–so close I could hear her breathing. Had I been hunting coyotes, she would have been dead. Worried that she might attack me, I whispered: “Get on out of here!” The already ghostly coyote quickly assessed her danger, tucked her tail between her legs, and blasted back up the trail. Unfortunately, we soon heard the distinct call of frightened turkeys as they fled from the four-legged pursuers. The hunt for these particular birds was over before it even began! This was not the first (and I’m sure it will not be the last) time coyotes have ruined one of my turkey hunts. Matt and I hunted hard for much more of the day, with no workable birds.
The view from up top was worth the effort to attain it. You gotta love idyllic Idaho!
That night, from the road, we listened for toms gobbling in the roost and again heard one faint gobble on the same ridge we hunted earlier that morning.
Early Saturday morning, we quietly hiked up the dirt road in the half light of dawn. Matt and I enjoyed the sunrise as we worked our way up to an open flat area with good sign. Although myriad rooster pheasants called like there was no tomorrow, some from groves at the very tops of the mountains we climbed (I kid you not!), the turkeys were silent. More than once, we commented on the pheasants who seemed to think that they were grouse by the coverts they had chosen. “How do you explain that?” I asked Matt, “Are these birds-because of the loss of farmland habitat-adapting to a totally different terrain?” “I don’t know.” Matt honestly replied.
As we stepped onto the open flat, Matt pointed to the crest of the ridge that lay before us. Silently working their way over the summit were approximately ten to fifteen turkeys. One lone bird-we guessed to be a mature Tom-stood on the skyline with his neck outstretched like a periscope and watched warily as we stood dumbfounded. In a word, we were Busted!
In our defense, we were very quiet in our hike up, but the wary birds were absolutely silent. We had no idea of their whereabouts before they were on to us and over a hundred yards away straight up the steep hillside.
We worked our way up to where the birds had crossed over into the steep narrow valley below. At the top, as he crawled on his hands and knees, Matt heard one nervous hen yelp. Rrt rrt rrt. . . and then the birds were silent. No doubt, this flock of turkeys would be near impossible to hunt.
As any experienced turkey hunter will tell you, when a particular group of turkeys will not cooperate, look for some more. Don’t give up because things can change in a hurry! With this in mind, we decided to work our way around the bowl-shaped ridge top and listen for other gregarious birds. This plan quickly panned out as we distinctly heard a gobbler two ridges over.
“Let’s work our way around this peak and not call until we get over to the ridge where the turkey is gobbling,” Matt suggested. Looking at the task before us (and clinging to the principle that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line), I asked, “Would it be better to just hike straight down this draw to the other side?” “No, if we work around the bowl, we can hear the gobbler, better locate him, and set up on him. Down in that canyon, we won’t be able to hear anything.” Seeing the steep terrain ahead, I stated with a sigh, “It’s gonna take us a while to get over there.” Even as I said it, I knew this was a good plan, so I sucked it up and kept moving.
As we hiked around the bowl, we bumped numerous blue and ruffed grouse. . . a good omen. Upon reaching the far ridge, where the gobbler had first called, Matt and I broke out our box calls. Matt uses a Billy White box call, which sounds and carries better than any call I have ever heard. To our delight, the Tom liked what he heard and instantly responded, Goblblblblble! But he was still a ways away.
I steadily made my way through the trees to an opening on the desired ridge. I could hear hen calls at various intervals and, having lost sight of Matt, I couldn’t tell if it was him or a real hen. Meanwhile, the gobbler was firing off at each call and rapidly getting closer. I slowly walked downhill towards the calls, hoping to discover Matt’s whereabouts. Soon enough, Matt whistled and waived me to him.
As I quickly bridged the thirty yard gap between us, the now extremely close Tom, gobbled just below a patch of scrub trees that we stood at the top of-the only cover now separating us from the fired-up Tom. Wanting me to get the first shot, Matt whispered with confidence, “Andy sit right here in this thicket. The Tom will come up this open two track to our right.” Matt then positioned himself about fifteen yards behind me beneath a tall sage brush and started to purr and putt with his slate call. With every call, came the thunderous reply, GBLBLBLBLBL!
As I sat there, with the high sun blaring in my eyes, my heart pounded as the gobbler approached. Any second I just knew that his read head would appear . . . would I make the shot? However, the cracking twigs soon declared his approach was not coming from the two track to my right, but from behind me to the left. Our quickly thought out plan to put me into shooting position had failed. Instead, the sneaky gobbler worked his way up a narrow game trail that cut its way through the thicket on the left and caught Matt off guard just as he was setting down his slate call. At that instant, the redheaded lovestruck bird realized that something was awry and he putted once, stuck his head up to assess the danger, and Matt quickly put the bead on his head and pulled the trigger. . . . Boooom!
“Did you kill him?” I asked to confirm what I already knew. “Yep!” Matt replied. We ran over to the downed bird, a beautiful Merriams with a creamy band along the fringe of his fan. “Alright Matt, good shot! We got one!”