By: Otha Barham
Remembering wild turkey gobblers that we have called to bag is an unsurpassed pleasure. But the memory of those that got away by outsmarting us may be even more appreciated and enduring.
Deer, for example, either show up, or they don’t. Or else we stalk and find them where they live. Yes, a very few are grunted or bleated or rattled up, but typically they don’t call back. They are largely silent participants in the hunt. But spring gobblers speak to us, and as we speak back, we get to know them through language; some just a little bit, and others, over time, almost as if they are our brothers.
These kindred birds are the ones that elude us day after day, week after week, and sometimes even year after year. We pattern them. We talk different talk to them. With our best imitations of their language, we entice them and tempt them and plead and threaten and curse them and pout and insult them.
One of these marvelous birds that I never brought to bag roosted in a giant beech tree. He had a little air strip for his takeoffs and landings that consisted of a flat place on a wooded saddle that was swept free of leaves from surrounding oaks by the winds that moved from one hollow to the adjoining one. The spot was almost level with the bird as it sat in the tree, the base of which was far down a steep cliff.
There was little cover on the saddle that would hide a hunter, so when the tom would pitch there of a morning, he had to be called into shotgun range. The spring that I became his pursuer, he had already had a couple of seasons under his belt dealing with men like me who aspired to kill him. He was smart.
I chose my 12 gauge over/under for the job, with its 30-inch barrel and single selected trigger. In the upper barrel I placed a 3-inch magnum Winchester shell that I had reloaded with 1-5/8 ounce of copper-coated #6 shot. I used 36.8 grains of Winchester 571 powder with Winchester 209 primers and Remington R12H wads. In the lower barrel went a backup shell with less power for in-close shots.
As with all turkeys that local hunters call “bad” because no one can kill them, this one was assigned a name. I called him the beech tree gobbler, “Beechnut” for short.
Beechnut finally tired of dealing with me each morning on the saddle and began flying from his roost downhill instead. He could sail far down the swamp from his hillside tree, all the way to the pasture beyond the swamp’s edge if he chose. But he always landed short of the field, the edge of which likely held coyotes lying in wait for early rising turkeys. Beechnut began his day in a tangle of little trails that twisted among scattered briar patches.
That first season came and went, and I never tricked Beechnut into so much as showing himself. My second season in pursuit went pretty much the same way, except that I finally saw him. He acquired an additional roosting site some 150 yards into the swamp in order to introduce me to the game of guessing which tree he would gobble from each morning.
The cover was thick in every direction from Beechnut’s new roosting spot. I never knew which way he was going to fly down from his new roost. To make matters worse, he would switch back to his old roost tree on the cliff seemingly every day that I went to his new spot. And when I crept toward the old beech on the hill at daybreak, the rascal would gobble down in the swamp.
This was the case the morning I finally saw him. After hearing him in the swamp while I sat near the beech tree at daylight, I made my way to a field near his new roost. At mid-morning, he and his considerable entourage of hens came into view. They were emerging from the swamp across a big creek that bordered the field. I am not sure whether they were responding to my intermittent soft calls or not.
The big gobbler looked magnificent, strutting and puffing up almost to the bursting point while his pregnant hens fed casually at his side. He strutted right at the limit of my shotgun range, so I could not be certain of a sure kill. I held my fire and the group fed back into the woods.
These addictive birds lure us back to their haunts day after day with a new plan. A fresh approach to kill that single gobbler. We can’t abandon our hunt for him because he is all we think about. Were we to go off and hunt another tom, our thoughts would be with that exceptional bird, and we would be distracted.
And so back we go, on and on until we begin to walk into his woods with absolutely no confidence that we will kill him. He has trained us to expect defeat.
I never saw Beechnut again. That year I had hunted only that one gobbler, determined to forego easier toms for a chance at this fine bird. It cost me over 35 bird-less days, a total blank for the season. I was determined. But determination was not enough. I worked him for one more season, my third one with him. Day after day I hunted, and then he was gone. A friend killed him when a strong young tom was challenging his dominance of the territory. The two combatants were gobbling insults back and forth. Beechnut screamed back to the point of lividity. My friend sat down between them and gobbled. Beechnut thought the young tom had advanced, so he came charging in, and that was that.
If by chance or luck or by a flawless application of our skills we or someone else should kill the bad bird, we are both happy and sad. Killing him is both our gain and our loss. We touch his brilliant breast feathers with reverence and thank him and God for giving us so many of our finest days. And then we mourn his death. And then we set about hunting the more cooperative gobblers for a while; until the next bad one comes along.
Otha Barham is a retired entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture writing from Meridian, Mississippi. Contact him at: OthaBarham2017@gmail.com.