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How’s Your Turkey Season Going? Yeah, Me Neither

Highly successful turkey hunters are as rare as hen turkey teeth, and they will earnestly tell anyone in earshot that it is a pursuit only for the crazy. Spring gobbler hunting is tough, for so many reasons. Very tough. The weather is often cold as hell in the dark pre-dawn, you must sit unmoving for hours, call perfectly, but then move very slowly and correctly only at the precise moment when the shot is offered, and then eventually the temperature warms up and the swarming bugs come out, ticks crawl up your butt crack and into your armpits, etc.

The wild turkey itself is a fickle and troublesome quarry with the tolerance for anything being even slightly out of sort measured by the millisecond, etc. Wild turkeys can go from standing still to 50 miles per hour in about a second-and-a-half. So when they detect something wrong with the set-up into which they have been lured by the hunter’s calling, they can get out of Dodge with amazing speed. They are also incredibly tough and can withstand tremendous punishment before actually giving up the ghost. Even when they are shot fatally, a wild turkey can run or fly out of reach of the hunter.

So turkey hunting is an almost guaranteed skunk right off the bat, with success rates in Pennsylvania just above zero percent. To really effectively hunt wild turkeys in most places, and especially in Pennsylvania where hunting competition is thick and fierce, a person must have the patience of Job, the grit of Rooster Cogburn, and the faith of Moses. Not to mention the time needed to finally orchestrate the one brief moment where all these qualities briefly line up with your shotgun barrel that is itself lined up on a turkey’s neck about thirty yards distant.

Because spring turkey hunting is more than a fad, something slightly less than a religion, and has the word “pursuit” in virtually all of the turkey hunting gear companies gear descriptions, I thought I would share with the three readers of this website my own recent turkey hunting experience. It was almost like a bad dream.

It started with me falling asleep in the blind I set up on the southern side of the ravine, through which Sheep Hollow runs. My two hen decoys were 30 and 40 yards distant, on the other side of Sheep Hollow, stuck into old stumps for extra elevation and visibility. I use a slate call, and am good enough to call in some turkeys who die at 40-45 yards out with the most skeptical looks on their faces. Turkey hunting is nothing if it isn’t an excuse to get some shuteye in some really uncomfortable surroundings, surrounded by annoying insects, with hidden tree roots exploring the hidden recesses of one’s posterior and lower back. It’s great!

So there I was, head lolling around like a Hershey Park kiddy ride, chin on my chest, alternately dozing and suddenly jumping awake with a start, wondering if that crunching leaf was a sneaky gobbler (it never is). This happened a dozen times until I fell deeply asleep.

Far into one of my deepest REM sleep modes, an uncommon noise on the far side of Sheep Hollow caught my slumbering hunter-sense, and my head automatically raised up. My eyes slowly opened to slits, to look through the bug netting. Suddenly my neck extended three times its normal length as my head craned to ascertain that in fact a mature gobbler was consorting with the decoys. Like most guys on the make, he was playing both and as yet uncommitted.

Slowly I brought the shotgun barrel from its resting place on my knees to a place where it was resting on the wooden crossbar and burlap, and generally pointing at the gobbler. Then my eyes were focused and working pretty well in concert with my head and hands to align the front barrel bead with the gobbler’s head and neck area. This happened in silent, slow-motion seconds.

But, turkeys being what they are, which is essentially a CIA spy satellite with wings, complete with the latest in high-tech optics and listening capabilities that miss absolutely nothing within a 300-yard radius, the amorous gobbler went from struttin’ his stuff to suddenly looking my way. Then, mimicking my own startled reaction just seconds before, his own head telescoped three times his neck’s normal length as he stared in alarm at the strange object thirty five yards away. His big eyes bulged as he saw through my contrived hiding place and into my very soul.

I fired just as he collapsed his neck in preparation for high-velocity lift-off, and the shot pattern just clipped his neck area. It was not the solid hit it would have been if the dang bird had just stayed focused on the rubber chicken thingies meant to deceive him. So he hit the ground, rolled downhill, and began to thrash wildly in what were either death throes or an intelligent effort to escape. Anyone who has hunted wild turkeys for a while knows this moment: The hunter is either a hero, or is about to behave like the clumsiest brute in the wild woods, because the turkey is either about to die on the spot and be tagged, or it is about to lead the hunter on a merry chase across hill and dell.

The bird opted to turn me into a clumsy brute as it staggered to its feet and began heading down Sheep Hollow in a drunken stagger toward Route 414 and Pine Creek beyond. And so I played my assigned part and I myself staggered out of the blind, swatting burlap out of my way, my legs numb from being asleep for two hours. Partially running, partially bouncing off of trees to steady myself until the blood flowed back into my independent-minded feet, I headed on a downhill sidelong trajectory meant to intercept the wounded animal and quickly bring it into my death embrace.

Almost like a cartoon rendering of a buffoonish hunter after a smarter prey animal, the turkey caught my drift and picked up speed, stumbling and rolling faster down the ravine and closer to the highway. I slid on my ass down a large smooth rock face just as the bird flopped out onto Route 414. From there it was literally all downhill. Instead of some locals driving by in their pickup and jumping out to grab the bird for me, no one happened by and the bird crossed Route 414, bounced off the guard rail, and then pitched down over the tree-studded sheer cliff face to the Pine Creek rail-trail below.

Meanwhile I was still trying to cross Route 414 while pulling clumps of leaves and twigs and other forest floor detritus out of my pants. Upon reaching the guard rail I looked down and saw the turkey laying in the middle of the rail trail. He was not looking real healthy and it was possible he was going to simply peter out there, if left undisturbed for a couple minutes. Then I could tag him and lie about what a perfect shot I had made on him to my friends.

But such are the plans of mice and men, or something like that. Because what is a rail-trail if not a place for humans to ride their bikes? Especially when it is the only brief moment in the year the place must be left undisturbed for just a couple minutes. The rail-trail is not the designated dying area for severely wounded wildlife. And so when the nice lady in her pink Gore-Tex get-up came riding her bicycle along the rail-trail, toward the listless creature, and making a gentle crunching sound in the fine pea gravel that even I could hear a hundred yards out, the bird felt like it was being pursued once again. And it decided that, in fact, rail-trails are not the dignified place to die. So it weakly flopped its way over the rail-trail and down to the edge of Pine Creek.

Meanwhile, I had seen what was coming. Determined not to lose the bird to the rushing water, I sat down and again rode the next steep incline down on my butt, and once again bouncing from tree to tree in an effort to slow down my headlong speed and prevent serious breakage of some part of my body. This stretch of the rail-trail is actually part of our property, and it is also about the most useless part of our tax parcel. Except for now.

Of course I reached the margin of the rail-trail in a dramatic flourish of flying leaves and branches, a mini avalanche of stones and dirt and curses, just as the pretty in pink lady on her bike arrived. The dying turkey heard the commotion and rolled down the stream bank and into the edge of Pine Creek. Now a dead animal at the water’s edge is nothing new and no big deal. But a dead or dying animal out in the current is something else altogether, and so not having time to explain my bizarre appearance to the nice lady, who had come to a stop to either gawk at the camo-clad madman or ask if I needed medical/ mental help, I bolted across the rail-trail and once again pitched head-first over the stream bank. Launching myself head-first at the turkey, whose carcass lolled gently with the stream current against the bank, my fingers came up just inches short as the rest of my not-insignificant bulk made its crash landing in the rocks and thorns along the stream’s margin.

With its last ounce of dying energy, the turkey rolled itself out into the stream current and immediately began floating away at a rapidly increasing clip. My friend Scott and I had just floated Pine the week before, casting for trout (thank you to the Big Brown Trout Club run out of Wolfe’s General Store at Slate Run for the amazing fish we caught), and the substantial rains over the past few days had turned a high but fishable river into a near-maelstrom with a really fast current. So I crawled on my hands and knees into the water and then rushed toward the disappearing turkey carcass.

Down through the run we went, bird, white caps, and human in pursuit. Under normal conditions, this part is a good fast stretch with trout under the trail-side cut bank and beavers denning on the far side bank. But today, it was practically a white water, with literal white caps from the high speed water slamming into boulders under the surface. Although at one time I had taught lifesaving and certified lifeguards, and I had been as comfortably aquatic as a human can be short of being a trained Navy SEAL, I was quickly beginning to doubt the wisdom of my ways. Pine Creek was at about 48 degrees that day, and despite my ample natural insulation against cold, I was beginning to really feel the chill tug at my willpower to continue. In fact, I was starting to wonder if I was going to drown. Making the situation worse, I passed an otter laying on the edge of the little island we had now reached. Never have I seen more disbelieving eyes in human or beast than the look on that animal’s face as the bedraggled human (me) splashed by.

Comical sounding yes, but at that point I was actually scared that the one minute I had presently spent swim-chasing after the now-dead gobbler was going to be my last on earth. My physical ability was rapidly diminishing. But all good things come to an end, and the powerful run quickly petered out at the end of the island, where Pine becomes a large pool below Miller Run Natural Area. It was here that the high-velocity turkey suddenly became just a piece of random flotsam that I was able to splash my way up to and grab.

With my prize finally in hand and dragging lifelessly in the stream behind me, I sloshed my way to the shore, clambered up the bank, dropped the turkey at my feet, and laid down on some large rip rap boulders. How long I huddled there, soaking wet in the thin sunshine, I don’t know. Probably fifteen minutes had gone by before I had the strength to look around and get up the nerve to collect the bird and head up to the cabin. But my wet camo and death-like stillness had fooled one more animal, the otter I had passed on the way downstream, who came in at a mad dash along the boulders, grabbed the dead turkey, and dove head-long back into the water.

And oddly enough, my only thought was “At least I didn’t fill out the tag yet, and my season is not over, so I get to keep hunting.”

Like I said, spring gobbler hunting is for either the mentally retarded or the crazy. Whichever I may be, go ahead and be the otter. Take your pick. I stopped caring.

 

 

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