Stupid Birds! Even Gullible Gobblers Can Drive You Mad
Stupid turkeys are a lot easier to hunt than smart ones, but there’s no guarantee you’ll put a tag on one, as these four stories of dimwitted toms attest
Any turkey that I can trick into gun range is, by definition, stupid. That’s true now, and it was truer years ago, when my law-student friend asked me to guide him to his first turkey. Seeking my help was Cody’s second bad decision of the spring. Turkey hunting while trying to pass the bar was the first.
On opening morning, I picked Cody up at 4 a.m. He’d been studying all night. Along with his turkey-hunting gear, he brought a stack of index cards covered with case law and Latin to read by dome light while I drove us to the public-land reservoir.
If turkeys gobbled at all on that cold, windy morning, we couldn’t hear them. Blind calling along a series of field edges seemed like the best course. After a couple of sits, during which we heard and saw nothing, Cody went back to studying his index cards. I called. My foam decoy whirled on its stake. Occasionally Cody nodded off, and a gust would pluck a card from his hand and carry it away.
Out of good ideas by late morning, I decided we would walk along the lakeshore, hoping to spot a bird. It was a Hail Mary, but Cody didn’t know that. And he never would because a gobbler flapped into view five minutes into our walk.
I tried to act like I’d planned it this way while I watched, astonished, as the tom glided to a landing 200 yards in front of us. It ducked into a long, narrow strip of dead trees running parallel to the shore. I told Cody we would backtrack around the trees, sneak as close as we dared, and set up. If I called quietly and we were patient, it could work.
The trees in this odd woodlot had been planted at the same time and all died in the same flood. Their trunks were uniformly gray, wrist-thick, and densely packed. We found a spot where enough of them had fallen into a jumble on the ground and where we could see a short distance. I could not imagine a less likely place to kill a gobbler, but there was one nearby, and I had no Plan C.
I called every 15 minutes for an hour or more but eventually gave in to the effects of the early wake-up and fell asleep. When I awoke, the tom was standing at the edge of the clearing in quarter-strut. Who knows how long it had been there? I looked over at Cody and he was out cold, head slumped, gun in his lap.
Unfortunately, I had placed us 10 yards apart, well out of elbow-to-the-ribs range. With a turkey looking at us, I couldn’t throw twigs at Cody to rouse him either. I had a gun, a tag, a turkey standing at 20 yards—and a dilemma. My shooter was sound asleep. As much as I wanted to pull the trigger myself, there was no way I would wake Cody with a shotgun blast for him to see his turkey flopping on the ground.
The question became, How loud can you talk without scaring a turkey away? The answer, in the case of this bird anyway, was very.
“Cody,” I whispered.
“Wake up,” I whispered louder.
“THERE’S A TURKEY IN FRONT OF YOU!”
Cody’s head jerked, his eyes bugged out, but he kept his composure. For what felt like a full minute, I held my breath as he inched the gun to his shoulder. The turkey did nothing other than helpfully stretch its neck and stand a little taller just before Cody shot.
“I thought I was dreaming,” he said, after the backslapping was over. “At first I didn’t know what it was. It was huge. I didn’t know they had blue heads.”
His gobbler tagged, Cody soon passed the bar. The turkey was at the graduation party, smoked. I came too, with a card and a gift—a portable alarm clock. On the card I inscribed Horace Kephart’s quote from The Book of Camping and Woodcraft: “In the school of the woods there is no graduation day,” to which I added, “but you have to be awake to take the tests.” —P.B.
Three and Out
There may be nothing uglier than a soaked turkey. While a spring gobbler strutting in the sunshine is my favorite sight in all of hunting, the bird I was looking at from my truck window looked as hideous as it did miserable, standing in the pouring rain.
But he was a gobbler nonetheless, and heading for his roost a half hour before dark on the eve of a two-day public-land draw hunt. I’d heard him gobble in the same place at daybreak while scouting earlier that week too, and now, I figured, all I needed to do was show up in the morning and shoot him.
I got there two hours before daybreak, and the rain still hadn’t quit. Twenty-two pickup trucks sloshed by me in the dark, most headed toward their own version of defeat, but the traffic and the rain both slowed at daylight. I waited on the edge of the tiny field for an hour, with no sign of the tom. I should’ve stayed put, but I was impatient and decided instead to drive a loop and look for another bird. By 8 a.m., the sun was peeking out and I was circling back. I almost ran over the gobbler, which was now standing in three-quarter-strut on the shoulder of the road where I’d been parked.
Three hens were picking through the trees ahead of him, headed right for the tiny field. When they were out of sight, I slipped into the soggy woods and caught up with them in the next field over. This one was in plain view of the road, and the gobbler was strutting as if he intended to sire three broods that very morning. I knew I didn’t have long before someone else drove past and saw him.
I yelped, and he gobbled, and the entire flock broke my way. Soon the hens were walking through an easy shooting lane, and the gobbler just needed to take a few final steps. I’d already flicked the safety off when I heard gravel pop under truck tires. Everything deflated at once, and the turkeys scurried away. I watched them through my binoculars as they ran across the road, again right past my truck, and up and over the ridge on the other side.
My only hope was to chase them. Two guys were pulling vests and guns out of their truck when I darted across the road past them and up the ridge after the birds. I had little hope, but as I neared the ridge peak, the tom gobbled from the other side. I slithered to the base of a black oak and had curled into position when he appeared not 15 yards away. I aimed carefully, knowing I could miss at that distance, and the $12 TSS shotgun shell misfired with a click, proving that recurring nightmares can come true. The gobbler slunk away again, gone forever, I assumed.
But then a box call sounded from the bottom of the ridge, and the same tom gobbled out ahead of me. I crawled 40 yards to a new tree, yelped three times, and he roared back. I saw him coming, 70 yards away, then 50, and then he flanked back over the ridge to my left and out of sight. I twisted into position just as his fan unfurled 10 yards away. When he stretched his head into view, I fired—and my entire pattern smashed into an unseen sapling inches from my muzzle.
For such a stupid, ugly, soaking-wet turkey, he flew away with remarkable grace. —W.B.
My brother Dan and I have been hunting together for decades, and in that time we’ve developed certain roles that we’re both comfortable with. Dan is the one who misses things, and I’m the one who laughs at him when he misses things. So the fact that I had just missed a turkey put us in uncharted territory.
I didn’t totally miss, by the way, at least not initially. When the tom came in, gobbling hard with two others, I rolled him good. But when I stood up to get him, he stood up and bolted. It was the follow-up shot I totally missed. Not sure what to do or say, Dan tried his hand at consoling me.
“What do you think happened?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Got excited. Didn’t really aim, probably. I think I hit him in the shoulder.”
“Well,” Dan perked up, “the shoulder’s not that far away from the head. I mean, you could have missed him altogether or hit him in the wingtip or in the toenail.”
I told Dan I wished I had missed him altogether, and that if I couldn’t hit him in the head, I sure as hell couldn’t hit him in the toenail. Dan agreed that hitting a turkey in the toenail would be a very hard shot indeed, and we left it at that.
The next morning, we headed back to the same general area. I knew the odds were minuscule, but I was holding out hope that we might find the bird I’d rolled. Also, we knew that no one had ever hunted this property before us and that we were probably dealing with some naive birds. Maybe one of the two toms I didn’t shoot at would answer a call. But all was quiet as the morning dragged on.
Around 10 a.m., we relocated slightly, both of us sitting with our backs to the trunk of a huge maple. I took out a slate call and decided to teach Dan, who was learning to call, how to make a fighting purr. I started in, getting progressively louder. Then Dan took the call and scratched out a string of earsplitting screeches. Then I purred and Dan yowled on the call for a while, with something like a purr at the end. Then I purred and Dan purred and screeched and purred again. We went back and forth like this for about 10 minutes and must have sounded like a pack of jakes fighting a herd of cats. But as Dan finished his sequence, three toms hammered back at us from way down the hill.
Dan scrambled for cover 30 yards to my right and tucked himself so neatly into the lower branches of a leafy tree that he disappeared altogether. The toms ran to us, gobbling, and finally popped into view just 30 yards off, moving in Dan’s direction. It was his turn to shoot first, so I waited—and waited, while the toms closed to within 20 yards of him. Still, Dan didn’t shoot. Then 10 yards. Nothing. Pretty soon, all three gobblers were standing 5 yards from Dan’s tree, craning their necks, looking for the fight they’d heard.
Not being able to see him, I started to wonder if Dan was even still there. Maybe he’d passed out or fallen into a crevasse. Then, suddenly, the birds started flapping and putting and a gunshot rang out and dirt flew around them—and in single file from my right to left, the toms started waddling away.
“Shoot again!” I called to Dan. But he didn’t.
“Shoot!” I yelled. Still nothing. So, I put a bead on the head of the last bird and dropped him. Dan clawed his way out of the branches, ran over, and lifted the tom by a leg, in triumph.
“What are you doing?” I stammered. “What the hell just happened?”
Dan explained that the branches around his tree were so thick that he couldn’t see the birds, and despite all their gobbling, it didn’t occur to him to get his gun up. When they suddenly appeared at 5 yards, he decided, after considerable thought, to try to quick-draw them. “Worked out perfectly,” he said.
“What? You never touched that bird,” I told him.
“Had to,” he said. “He was only 5 yards away.”
Before I could point out that the tom had been walking fine when I leveled him, I noticed that a scale was askew on the leg Dan was holding. We took a closer look and, sure enough, Dan had grazed the tom in the left leg. And not only that: On the same foot, there was a perfectly round hole right in the center of the bird’s middle toenail.
When we cleaned the tom at home, we found a couple more of Dan’s lead 5s in the bird’s leg. We dug a couple of my copper-plated 6s from the head and neck, too—and several more from a fresh wound on the turkey’s left shoulder.
“I should have tagged this bird,” I said to Dan as he fiddled with his own tag wrapped around its leg. “I hit him in the shoulder yesterday, and when he was dumb enough to come back in today, I hit him in the head.”
“Anyone can do that,” Dan said, giving me the cockeyed stare of someone who thinks he’s one-upped you. “I hit him in the toenail.” —D.H.
The Barnyard Bird
“I can’t tell if that bird is crazy or mean,” the landowner told us, pointing at the wild gobbler strutting 10 paces from his pickup truck. My buddies and I had stopped in at Bruce’s place, after a long drive from Minnesota, to make sure it was OK for us to hunt his Kansas farm, as we had in the past. But as soon as we wrapped up the initial hellos and requisite dirt kicking, all attention turned to the barnyard bird.
He was part of a flock that wintered in the cottonwoods around Bruce’s house, and when the other birds scattered in spring, this one decided to stay. “Every morning when I come out on the porch, he flies down from his roost and lands at my feet,” Bruce told us. “He pecks at my boots and legs so hard that I have to kick him off.”
The gobbler pirouetted in tight circles while we laughed at it. “Other days, he’ll wait until I back the tractor out, then he’ll fly onto the cab and start strutting and gobbling while I drive around doing chores,” Bruce said. “I guess if you guys run into a few of his kind, you won’t have any trouble filling your tags.”
I’d been chasing gobblers for years, but my neighbor Dave and cousin Scott had only a little turkey-hunting experience between them, and my buddy Tom had none. We were hoping to punch all four of our tags with Rio gobblers during the first five days of the Kansas early archery season, and we were going to need a brain-dead bird or two to have any chance.
Amazingly, we ran into three. It was snowing on opening morning, and the wind was hurtling tumbleweeds across the landscape so hard they barely tumbled. We split up, and about an hour after first light, Tom and I spotted a pair of black silhouettes on a distant ridge. “Gobblers,” I said, staring through a binocular. “But there’s no way they’ll hear us calling from here.”
To prove my point, I pulled out a boat-paddle box, stuck it out the blind window and cranked so hard my wrists hurt. When I traded the call for the binos, I stared in amazement as the pair ran to the edge of a small cliff, set their wings, and sailed right to us. The biggest one was dead in the dekes before we had time to get cold.
The second morning, we switched up partners. I drove Scott to a favorite creekbottom roost, and we opened the truck door to the sound of gobbling. A small open knoll was the only spot that offered decent shooting with a bow, but we’d have zero cover getting there and staking our blind. “Let’s go for it,” Scott whispered.
The roost went silent the second we stepped into the clearing, and I figured we were finished when a couple hens started putting. But it only seemed to fire up the toms, half-a-dozen of which chain-gobbled down the length of the bottom. I called twice, then risked a peek out the blind window to see birds pitching right to us again. Two for two.
The third bird was mine and accounted for one of the most undramatic turkey hunts I can remember. One minute my cousin Scott and I were sitting in our blind waiting for something to happen, the next we heard drumming—close—and then the sound of wingtips brushing the fabric our blind. I dropped the bird in the decoys, and when we stepped out to retrieve it, there were three more toms staring at us. One of them broke into a strut and his buddies gobbled when Scott yelled at them to leave.
But there was no stupid bird for our buddy Dave—or at least none that he could hit with an arrow. On the first morning, he missed a gobbler at 10 steps. That afternoon, he clipped feathers off another bird’s chest, and then the same Rios that had acted as naive as chickens suddenly morphed into birds that could rival any hard-hunted Eastern. By noon of the fourth day—after he ten-ringed a jake decoy while a gobbler attacked it—we knew our buddy was in full meltdown. He needed an intervention if he was going to kill a last-day tom.
I went to Bruce and, swallowing deeply, hinted that maybe a go at the barnyard bird might be the answer to Dave’s problem. “You know, you’re probably right,” he said. “And normally I’d say yes. But my kids get a kick out of that bird. Besides, that turkey is mean as a rattler. If Dave misses or clips him, you’ll probably have an attack on your hands.”
“No problem,” I told Bruce. “We’ll find Dave another bird.” But we didn’t. When it was time to turn the truck toward home, we drove past Bruce’s farm, but the barnyard bird was nowhere to be seen, which was just as well. There was no use in Dave being taunted by the tom he couldn’t hunt. But then Scott looked behind us and said, “Well, will you look at that.” I glanced at my rearview mirror—and there he was, chasing us down the road, a plume of dust in his wake. —S.B.
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