Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The One That Got Away

         I wasn’t going to tell this… thought I would just let it go, since it doesn’t make a very good story.  But there was this big ol’ gobbler, one morning about eleven o’clock. I like to walk and call and walk and call, and explore the country sometimes when I hunt spring gobblers, and upon a ridge-top, I hit my call at the right spot.  I am not sure how to describe the sudden and surprising response of a wild gobbler less than one hundred yards away. 

         It is loud and beautiful and rattles.  It bounces off the leaves and the branches like nothing you have ever heard in the woods.  “A thundering of his passion,” one writer described it.  Well when it is that close, it will put a walking hunter on the ground in a hurry, and I just happened to be in a good clump of buck-brush, where I was so well hidden I just figured I couldn’t even be seen by the sharpest-eyed bluejay, let alone that old gobbler.  

         Oh it was fine… I would call and he would answer, and I could have set there for a half hour or more, even with my lack of patience.  But as they do, when they have been alone too long, that gobbler came slowly toward me and before I saw him I could hear him booming and spitting as he strutted forward through the woods.  But the trouble with late-spring foliage and buck brush is… it hides the turkeys as well as it hides the hunter.           But then I saw him, maybe 30 yards away, and I brought up my barrel as that bright red and white head disappeared behind a big, big oak.  He stepped out from behind it a little and only his head and neck were visible.  That’s enough for any turkey hunter.  I blasted him with a load of 3-inch magnum sixes and on the other side of that tree, another turkey took to flight and soared away through the trees.

         I expected to see the one I shot at flopping around in the leaf litter, but to my surprise, the one that flew away was also the one I shot at.  I surveyed the scene, found no blood and no feathers.  As rule wounded turkeys run, they don’t fly.  There on the south side of that tree were the tracks of a half dozen lead shot.  I was right on him.  All I can imagine is, the big lovesick tom had enough luck that as I squeezed that trigger he pulled his head back behind the tree.  So I just kicked one stump only one time.

         Years ago, when I was young and more of a throbbing gizzard that young hunters tend to be, I would have kicked more stumps, maybe even thrown my old scarred up shotgun to the ground and hurled the turkey call into the tree tops. I was like that back then. 

         Certainly I would have cussed. My gosh I would have hated to have my daughters see me back then when I missed a turkey.  Heck there were times, when I missed a turkey in my twenties or thirties, that I would have been kicked out of that little country church where I went, when the hunting season was behind me and the fishing had slacked off. 

         But when you get that carried away in the quest of a gobbler, you learn that kicking a stump makes you limp home.  It can also loosen the sole on your boot.  Sometimes when you throw your turkey call, you can’t find it!  That day, I sort of smiled and reckoned that I saw a beautiful sight.  In my files, I have a plethora of photos of me grinning at the camera over the spread tale of hundreds of wild gobblers.  They all have smutty, bloody blue and white heads, and a beard sticking out just almost exactly like all the others I have ever seen.

         I do not like cleaning a wild gobbler nearly as much as I once did, and as I recall I have two turkeys in the freezer right now that I have intended to smoke for Sunday dinner.  Why do I need another?  I really don’t mind that he got away.  He will be there this fall or next spring, with longer spurs.  It is amazing what time does to a hunter.  An old friend of mine in the pool hall when I was a boy put it best when he said, “ I ain’t as mad at gobblers and bucks and catfish as I use to be!”

         As it is, I am just barely a little bit mad at that one that got away, and missing him really isn’t that big a deal. I just would rather not have any more pictures of dead turkeys, or dead deer, or even dead ducks and geese.  It is a darn shame what advancing age can do to a throbbing gizzard.

         This year, because of all the bad weather and an early spring, I think the wild gobbler harvest will not be what it usually is.  But I have this theory.  I think it is a different wild gobbler we hunt today than the one we called in so easily 40 or 50 years ago.  I met last week with an old-time writer and a man more obsessed with hunting wild gobblers than anyone I have ever known… Jim Spencer. A true woodsman and outdoorsman, Jim, to me, is the best outdoor writer in the country, since the days of Erwin Bauer and Zane Gray.  He doesn’t live in the suburbs somewhere getting what he writes from the Internet. He has been there--done that… and lives in the wilderness of Arkansas down the White River aways.

         I told him I thought that gobblers are different today, a change brought about by intense spring hunting pressure and natural selection that makes wild creatures evolve just a little in order to survive.  He agreed whole-heartedly.  A gobbler today isn’t entirely a different bird than he was in 1970, but he is a little bit different for sure.   What Jim and I see today is a difference in spring mating. I won’t go into it, but if you are an old timer who did indeed hunt back then, you know that the ratio of hens to toms is very much different.  I would estimate that in the Ozarks it might be as much as 10 to 1.

        Today in late April, there aren’t lot of gobblers wandering around by themselves.  You may see one or two or three toms with 10 or 15 hens!   It didn’t use to be so much like that, and gobblers never claimed to be buddies, they hated one another.  Hunting turkeys today isn’t much what I wanted to do when I was younger.  We didn’t feed them until April, then sit up blinds with decoys.  And while I own enough acreage to do that easily, it isn’t my cup of tea.  I do not like sitting and waiting and ambushing. 
          I like to walk because so may old hunters who get to their sixties cannot do that.  I like exploring and I like hitting my turkey call late in the day and hearing a response from a gobbler that never ever heard my call before.  But if wild gobblers are going to evolve, I reckon it is okay for hunters to evolve a little too.
         I’ve changed myself.  I no longer kick stumps and cuss at all, and calling one up and seeing him is always going to be enough from now on.  In late May, when no one else is hunting gobblers, I will be.  I intend to get a new camera soon and shoot a bunch of them with it.  That’ll teach ‘em.

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