Zen and The Art of Turkey Hunting

I don’t know how I ever got the bug to want to shoot a turkey, or whether it was ever of any importance. I mean, l like eating turkey well enough, you know, at Thanksgiving and Christmas and once in a while in between. But I never had an inkling of a thought that I could ever get such a bird even if I had wanted to. It’s the why that still has me wondering.

I thought it was some exotic form of hunting left to extreme, crusty old hunters and members of elite hunting clubs well stocked with the appropriate game that are let out of their pens right before shooting time. But this was the year that I decided to reenter the hunting experience. Ducks were the first birds on my list, and when I saw that the season would be ending soon I realized I needed something else to pursue in the wild, but what?

The quail hunting in Florida is mythical at best or so it seems. I spent a day hunting a quail enhancement area in a wildlife management property and ended up unknowingly hunting snipe. I couldn’t hit one of those either. Contrary to popular belief it doesn’t involve a gunny sack and a flashlight.

There’s always dove hunting. It’s supposed to be the most hunted bird in the US, which I found hard to believe because even though I used to hunt dove with my deadly Benjamin Pump BB gun as a kid, I never realized there could be large enough numbers in Florida to make it worth the effort. The harvest numbers of birds per hunter is 1.3 or something like that. I think I could do better with my BB gun around town. I think the season was closed, anyway.

But, turkey, now there’s a bird I’ve seen around on my scouting and camping trips, but always on the run out of range, mostly viewed from the front seat of my truck as they peck at the grass along the roadside. Was it even possible to get close enough to bag such a thing with a shot gun that has about 40 to 50 yard effective range? The challenge was intriguing. I started researching online, getting the lowdown on the feat required to fulfill this quest.

They say that if a turkey could smell as good as it can see, no one would ever shoot one. That means they can see really well. No nearsightedness tendencies with this bird.

The first thing you need to be is “unseen”. That means camouflaged for the untrained. You have to be invisible to this bird that has binocular, 270 degree vision, and can see your pot bellied silhouette a half a mile away. Ok, it would spot you even if you had spent several months pumping iron and riding the stationary bike in the gym. I needed the kind of camouflage that would make the invisible man envious. Yes, there’s a certain voyeuristic element involved with this, to observe without being seen. What color down are you wearing?

This brings up all kinds of possibilities. There’s camouflage for woodlands, camouflage for marshy areas, grassy areas, semi grassy, semi woodland, fall, spring and winter camouflage patterns, three d patterns, Marpat and Cadpat. There’s a whole science behind it. The military takes this stuff very seriously.

Next, you have to remain absolutely, completely still because motion is the first thing a turkey can pick up, which means it can catch you picking your nose at three hundred yards. Have you ever tried to remain completely still for hours on end? To sit, just knowing that that one slight facial rub just scared away the only gobbler you were going to get a chance to shoot this year. I mean, Christ! What were you thinking!

I anticipated this predicament well in advance and bought one of those folding camouflaged blinds with a woodland pattern that set up by pulling on the top ring in the center of a small bundle and, presto, an instant four man blind complete with top materializes. There was only one small problem with the first tent blind I had purchased. It didn’t want to dematerialize back into the tidy bundle from whence it came.

The directions were useless, the pictures too vague. By pressing back in on each side pole like this, the tent should collapse like that and oh shit, nothing. I studied this situation carefully. I pressed this way and that, again, nothing. I took a deep breath and after fifteen minutes of monkey wrenching, had it collapsed partially with two sides sticking out in either direction, more like a large umbrella blown inside out. This was ridiculous! I was taking this piece of crap back to the store. But it wouldn’t fit through the front door of my house. I had somehow turned it inside out, and after deftly folding up one of the sides heard an uncharacteristic crack, like the sound of a fishing pole breaking in half. Odd, I didn’t remember reading anything about any cracking noises in the directions. But I was on to something.

One more cracking maneuver and I was able to slip it out the front door and fit it back under the tonneau top of my pickup for safe delivery back to Dick’s sporting goods. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. I decided to experiment with a different brand of camouflage blind. This one turned out to be much sturdier and more idiot proof. I was able to open it up and collapse it back into its carrying case several times as long as the tape I wrapped marking the top handle stayed secured so I would know where the top was and which side to pull on, and not open it upside down again. But could I do this in the dark? It was crucial that this worked.

You see by being inside of a tent blind, you could move around, get a bite to eat or drink, check your stock portfolio or Facebook account on your electronics, whatever. Also I would be bringing my 15 year old son I’ll call ” X-man” because he made me promise never to use his real name in any of my stories, and I know he can’t sit still from our experiences in the duck blind. But I digress.

So now that we had attained manufactured invisibility, we needed something to bring that gobbling fool within striking distance of my vintage 12 gauge, over and under. It’s twice as old as my son, but still shoots wonderfully. What we have to do with this spring love turkey is sweet talk it with one of the many types of calls available. X-man elected to try the mouth diaphragm calls which he practiced exuberantly all 45 minutes back from the sporting goods store. It was like Donald Duck on steroids and helium.

I decided on something simpler, called a pot call which is a small round disk of slate where you take this hardwood stick about the diameter of a pencil and like fingernails on a blackboard make the familiar sounds of a sex starved hen turkey looking for some action. It takes a while to go from a screeching noise to that familiar yelp of a female turkey. Let’s see, there’s the yelp, the cluck, the cutting call, the purr and the assembly call that make up the main repertoire of their vocabulary. Yes I know there’s something called the fly down cackle, the tree call, kee kee, and basic gobble gobble but let’s keep it simple stupid.

Next and newest in the turkey hunter’s arsenal are decoys. No kidding. There are only about a zillion different types and brands out there. Trust me, I spent hours researching for just the right one that didn’t require selling a kidney to acquire. They make them with real feathers, moving heads, flapping wings, fanning tails, foam, plastic, rubber, strut, turn, wiggle and everything in between. I finally settled on a trio of a rubber foam type that roll up for easy storage and unroll and assume their natural position when you take them out and fluff them up a little. They sit on little plastic poles that hold them on the ground, two hens and a jake which is an immature male that make the toms mad as hell for hanging around the hens. This of course causes the tom to run into the decoys in a death like charge to claim his territory. It’s what the decoy add claimed anyway, and they even had a video to back it up.

On a good day my decoys will tell me which way the wind is blowing because they pivot in a natural way on their perch with the breeze. But I don’t think they’re supposed to spin around and around when the wind really picks up.

Now once you have acquired all of the basic equipment, all you need to do is find out where these wily birds hang out. Once again, researching the online oracle provided me with everything I needed to know.

Turkeys like to live near water. Turkeys like to sleep high up in big trees with big branches over water. In the early morning they will fly down from their perch to begin their busy day, foraging for seeds and insects. Turkeys like some open ground next to a thick forest to strut their stuff. In spring, the tom turkeys are on the prowl rounding up their multiple mates.

You find out where all this is taking place at, set up your gear and your turkey practically stuffs itself.

That last thought brought a thin smile inside my Sniper Ghillie suit as I sat in my camouflaged beach chair in the palmettos. I had evolved way beyond the tent blind thing. X-man had already said to hell with this turkey hunting sit in a blind for four hours being quiet thing. He lasted longer than I had thought on our first couple of hunts in the Ocala National Forest where we received a couple of gobbles of inquiry but no takers.

Half the challenge is scouting the areas for these turkeys. We drove down roads that should have been marked four wheel drive, finding squatters’ vehicles and sleeping accommodations in the middle of nowhere. “boy, ya got a purdy mouth.” I could almost hear it as we drove out of there, making frequent stops with me walking into the woods to scout for signs while X-man and his buddy we brought with us I’ll call “The Joker”, sat in the truck and listened to their rap music. All I had to do was hike a couple hundred yards, look for tracks and poop, yes poop. Did you know that their poop can reveal information about these fowl? If it’s long and curls slightly at the end it’s likely a tom, if its clumpy like popcorn it’s liable to be a hen. The poop I found the most of was big, cylindrical and full of berries, which according to my poop dictionary belonged to a species of black bear.

Turkey hunting can be dangerous. But luckily bears are shyer than turkeys which didn’t even bother to respond to my frequent crow calls which are supposed to drag a reply out of the most despondent gobbler as are owl calls. But after digging my truck out of the mud, I finally found them. Tracks, big three toed tracks, middle toe about four inches, has to be a gobbler according to my animal track dictionary.

I set up my newly purchased game camera in a perfect location to catch his good side and gleefully walked back down the road, already envisioning the many poses I would see the next time I checked the camera. The following day I returned and snatched the camera card out of my game cam and told X-man to high tail it back to the truck to pop it into the camera while I stayed and looked for poop.

“Just great, dad,” X-man proclaimed over the two way radio we carried into the woods “you have 64 pictures of grass weeds. You take lousy pictures, dad. You should have listened to me. You should have put it higher.”

“That god damn game cam is supposed to be infra red with the latest motion sensing technology!” I whined in exasperation, “Shit!”

“You put the camera too low, dad.” X-man explained, as if he were trying to speak to someone with a two digit IQ.

But on my trip back out I spotted enough poop to decide to give it a try the next day.

We also brought “The Joker” who sat in our tent blind patiently on the next two mornings, announcing every new tick he spotted on his legs. I can still hear his little voice behind my chair remarking, “Yep, found another tick.” Two minutes later, “Found another tick on my leg”, two minutes later, “Yep found another tick on my foot this time.” This went on for about two hours.

Apparently “The Joker” was some kind of a tick magnet. Or we had just set up our blind over a tick mound if there is such a thing. It made our skin crawl.

The final straw for X-man was at a place called Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. This is a large area of potential turkey habitat. We had chased a dozen hens down the road a few months before on our snipe hunt, and we had just seen a large tom in the same area on a recent scouting trip. Apparently so did a few hundred other hunters. At five o clock in the morning there was already a dozen vehicles parked at location A and location B of my coveted scouting areas.

This left me with my last choice, the most southern place you could drive and park before walking. It was still dark when we arrived and parked a ways down a very sandy road that was meant for four wheel drive vehicles. A quarter mile along the edge of a cow pasture on the edge of thick forest into cypress over water and we set up. It was picture perfect, open grassy field right in front of the entrance into cover, until the sun rose. Then it was turkey calling madness. There was a gobble to the left, a gobble to the right, an owl call to the right of that, a purr, a cluck a yelp, and a crow. I called to them and they called back. Oh how I wished for my duck calls.

I don’t know just how close everyone was to everyone else because there was foliage all around us, but I think if had thrown a rock in any direction, I would have heard a human cry out in pain.

On our way out we saw their vehicles littering the side of the road. We must have been the first ones in and everyone else parked up on the main road after.

This was really too much. If I had any hopes of bagging this creature I would have to come up with a new scheme.

Which lead me away from Three Lakes to a location so secret, so remote, I won’t reveal it under any condition. Okay, if you water boarded my ass I’d tell you in a second. Drill holes through my fingers, definitely, isolation with extreme rap music blared at high intensity, absolutely. Make me look at one more picture of turkey poop on the Internet, I’ll draw you a map. Let’s just say, I won’t bring it up in normal conversation.

But I had seen the signs and the signs had spoken.

I had hiked two miles in the dark with all my gear neatly fitting into a High Sierra day hiking backpack; beach chair, camouflaged netting, Ghillie suit, water, breakfast bars, bags of cookies, MRE’s, decoys, calls, three different methods for starting a fire and even a blow out kit in case I shot myself. I could last for days out here. I had found the perfect spot, unfortunately I had scared a young raccoon up a pine tree a few yards from my perfect spot but I wasn’t about to let him ruin my day. I figured he’d soon leave once I disappeared into my Ghillie suit, fat chance.

I settled into my beach chair with my water bottle, and turkey call on hand and as usual having to take a leak right as the sun came up. Shit, fumbling with a Ghillie suit and jeans with gloved hands, holding a shotgun can be humiliating. But at least the gun wasn’t loaded yet.

NOW, I was ready to load my gun. Number 4 turkey loads with real lead, baby, not that pansy steel they make you use for waterfowl. Now I was ready. Early morning in the woods is a magical time. If you listen carefully you can hear nature at its best, a cricket off to the right, an owl in the distant trees, the insects, birds, there’s a lot going on, and if you listen hard enough, if you’ve mastered the art of quietness, you can even hear the turnpike in the distance.

But the birds, this part of East Central Florida in spring has a dozen different species singing before the crack of dawn. I looked up toward the owl sound and only saw the raccoon draped over the lower branch either asleep or it just died. Good grief.

I sat back and just listened. Two hundred years ago you could have been sitting in this very spot, looking at the very same terrain wondering the same thing.

“Where the hell are the turkeys? Why am I here? Did I leave the stove on?”

… Something caught the left corner of my eye as I strained not to move a muscle. My internet sniper training had paid off. Whatever it was, it was very close. Was it a gobbler? Slowly, ever so slowly I turned my head just enough to see it. Oh great, it was a rabbit, a little cotton tail rabbit and it hopped slowly toward me stopping to rest at my side while it nibbled on the grass by my feet. I could have reached out and petted it. But they can bite can’t they? Maybe it was rabid.

What was this? Had I finally achieved full invisibility? Had I entered the realm of the supernatural, gone through the crack in the cosmic egg or achieved the third degree of Tozan or something?

There’s a sleeping raccoon above my head and I’m lounging right next to another wild creature, watching the sunrise, totally unnoticed. Is this a Disney film? This suit works better than I thought. What’s next; Bambi? Then I remembered something X-man had said to me the day before

“Dad, there’s a 99.9% chance you won’t get a turkey when you go hunting.”

I quelled a sudden desire to laugh insanely.

“No, X-man, I think the probability is a little higher than that.”

But, hey, I didn’t come all the way out here to fail miserably. I decided it was time to crank up the turkey call. I pulled the slate and stick out of the plastic bag, and by the time I began striking my turkey melody the ambient humidity had rendered my device completely useless. No sound at all. It required several sanding applications with my high grit sandpaper to finally draw out the first clucks of the day.

Now I could just sit back and wait for that tom to come dancing into the decoys to show its stuff.

An hour later I couldn’t stand it anymore and let loose with what I thought was a fairly decent imitation of a yelp. And ten minutes later I heard it, that indescribably delicious sound of a gobble, gobble in the distance, like candy to a child or bright colored lights to a fool. I couldn’t determine how far away, but it was out to the left.

An hour and a half later there was no turkey in sight except my three decoys rustling in the light breeze. I tried a purr on the call but it sounded rather pathetic so I shut up. Patience was the key here. I would just have to wait this sucker out and hope it was in the mood.

This is the part of the hunt that test men’s faith, the last wait, it’s eternal. A long while passed. Nothing, it’s not coming in, it had other plans. Maybe it met someone. I could see eighty yards in one direction, thirty yards right in front of me and twenty to the right. If it came in behind me I would surely hear it through the palmettos.

I began to relax again, my mind not focused on anything. I wasn’t asleep, I just wasn’t that conscious. Maybe I had dozed off. I became alert enough to slowly scan the area moving only my eyes, nothing but my four decoys standing watch.

What? Four? My mind struggled to understand the implications. Was there an imposter out there? Yes of course. There it was, to the right, the fabled tom turkey, Franklin’s favorite, the Thanksgiving special, that gobbling gadabout, that gallinaceous roustabout checking out my spread, just daring me, tweeking my nose. All I had to do was point and shoot. I pushed the safety on my shotgun to off. My gun had been in a relaxed position resting on my bent knee, pointing in the general direction of where I thought I would see this fowl. But my shot was going to require a 30 degree rotation towards the right.

I remembered what the old turkey hunter I had met at the campground in Ocala had said after taking a long drag from his cigarette and then coughing spasmodically for what seemed like an eternity before spitting up what I could only envision as blood,

“Don’t try to move slowly to shoot. He’ll see you and run. Just bring your gun up, put a bead where its head goes into its body, and shoot, that’s the best way. I’m telling you, it ain’t got nothing to do with the turkey. Never turn your back on a charging turtle. Things aint what they appear to be, ya know. You want to know the ultimate secret of it all?” He asked quizzically, almost conspiratorially and then slipped into a coughing and convulsing fit just as my son began badgering me on the radio to come and pick him and the Joker up at the swimming hole. Shit, now I would never find out the ultimate secret.

I should have asked him what to do about varmints up in trees because just as I was picking my gun up to rotate, I heard a scraping sound in the tree to the side of me, kind of like a lumberjack sliding down a tree trunk in full climbing gear. That miserable raccoon had awoken from his slumber.

I fired at thin air. Kaboom! And the tom was gone. Into the palmettos it had run. Well, if I wasn’t going to be eating turkey today, how about raccoon, some parts are edible. I strained to shoot again, at the tree this time but the angle was just too much to get off a decent shot, which never stopped me before. Kaboom! That little bandit had slipped away as well.

I sat there in silence for a moment trying to make sense of what had just happened. I remembered part of an old poem my fourth grade teacher Mr. Miller had made us memorize.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;

But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

I heard a cow moo in the pasture behind me and it all became crystal clear.

© 2012 forge