The Sneak Bird

It was starting to feel like we were jinxed, or at least that our tactics were jinxed. We were almost an hour into our third set up of the morning, and aside from some very curious jakes that were eager to die (and for the better part of twenty minutes I was very, very tempted to oblige them) the mature toms had been cagey and spooky of our positions. The most recent bird had skirted wide of us after initially committing well, and I was questioning everything I knew about the pursuit of longbeards.

The previous evening had held promise; I arrived at the family farm on the Bruce Peninsula an hour before sundown and from the house I could see at least four different mature toms strutting and feeding around the rolling fields. The scouting report from my cousin and uncle had no less than seven different gobblers patrolling through the property throughout the week, and my cousin had killed one of the birds over a jake decoy just five days earlier. I had shot tom turkey off the farm property in 2018 and 2019, and had close encounters for several prior years. Locally we had at least five other properties with permission, and they also held turkeys. My cousin and I concocted a plan for the next morning, which was May 1st, and I was confident that we were going to get an opportunity come sunup.

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We set up before dawn, but even then it did not take long for the early May forest to come alive. Before long, there were four gobblers hollering, each one within 200 yards of our set up. My cousin and I called sparingly at first, and gradually the birds converged on position. I was tucked into the corner of a large rock face, my gun pointed towards the jake and hen decoys in front of us, while my cousin, who shoots left-handed, was leaned against a broad tree to my right. A turkey gobbled hard to my left, but below a rise in the field, and I steadied the shotgun. Suddenly my cousin hissed my name, and I turned to see a tom walking in cautiously and quietly. The longbeard came to within fifty steps of the decoy and then simply turned around and slowly walked away. He then proceeded to walk into the hardwoods behind me, stand on the rock face I was leaning against and gobble and drum for half an hour. A second turkey began to strut in from the right, and did the same button hook turn away from the jake and hen combo, only to meet up with the first bird behind our position before they both gobbled and strutted their way off the south.

We were puzzled but unfazed. Turkeys can be strange sometimes.

We packed up and snuck back to the farmhouse, with a plan to hit another property we had permission to hunt. It often held at least one longbeard, and we’d come close to killing one there in 2019. After crossing a swamp, again we set up the jake and hen combo, before hiding ourselves in the shadows cast by some thick cedars. Once more we called, again turkeys answered, and again two turkeys strutted into the clearing. Their short, nubby beards and slight frames betrayed them to be jakes. With at least two more full days of hunting ahead I opted not to raise my gun at them, but instead watched as they slowly circled the fakes. It is no boast to say that these birds were committed to the set up, and both my cousin and I could have doubled on them, but we opted to pass, until eventually they moved off from where they had come.

With the morning waning and the promise of a warm afternoon in the forecast, we headed to a third property where we had been successful in the past, and it is among my favourite spots to hunt. A broad green clearing, set well back from a two-lane road, and surrounded by an amphitheater of hardwoods it just looks like the kind of secluded place that a tom gobbler would hang out; as it turns out one was.

Within twenty minutes of setting up, a turkey lustily answered our yelping from a distance of over 200 yards. We cranked up the intensity of our calling and soon he was double-gobbling and closing the distance. Eventually he broke cover on the field edge and was crossing our way. I eased the 870 up to my shoulder, my elbows resting on my knees, as he strutted and gobbled his way towards us. He glowed glossy black and bronze in the sunshine, his head and legs bright, fiery red. It did seem all too straightforward for a few minutes, but then, as turkeys do, he decided to be contrary. Perhaps he was waiting for the decoy hen that he could see to leave the fake jake she was with. Maybe it was so early in the season that our shapes were too obvious in the absence of leafy cover, and his keen eyes had made us out. Did the jake decoy intimidate him? Did he just not feel like getting into a fight on a warm, sunny spring morning? Maybe he thought it was all just a little too straightforward himself? I’ll never know, and I long ago gave up trying to ascribe meaning to the deep internal motivations of wild turkeys, but whatever the case, he dropped strut and began to slowly ease away to the right, at a distance of about eighty steps. My frustration mounting, we cutt and called hard hoping to rouse him back, yet he never broke pace, but instead just easily walked out of sight to the east of us. Just as I lost a visual on the bird, I saw him break into a run and I muttered a quiet swear word before turning to my cousin and shrugging my shoulders. He shook his head and in whispers we agreed to wait another half hour and see if we could strike a second bird or call that first one back.

Like most turkey hunters, I leaned against the tree and began to scroll through what meager bag of tricks I held in my brain, trying to collate the experiences just past with what my prior experiences in the woods had taught me. I was unsure of what we could have done differently, and also like most turkey hunters I was pessimistic about our run of poor form. As many as seven birds in close proximity for the morning, and I had not even slipped the safety off. Should we change positions on him? Should we just pack up and try him again on an evening hunt? Maybe I should gobble at him or break out the fighting purrs? Marginally deep in thought, I was startled by when my cousin ripped a loud series of cutts and cackles on his box call. I was even more startled when the gobbler immediately let slip a gobble, well within range and almost directly behind me.

Now this was not unprecedented wild turkey behavior, I am well aware that turkeys are by nature wary, tricky birds and they had done this to me before. It was, however, a sad comment on me as a hunter that I continued to be surprised by that particular trick.

Not messing around, I quickly spun around and pointed my left shoulder at the source of the sound. Straining my ears, I could hear the bird cautiously walking in the leaf litter and I brought the shotgun up once more, nearly holding my breath in case the bird would hear my tremulous breathing. His head and shoulders passed through a brief opening and then he disappeared behind a juniper bush. I swung the gun to the middle of the bush, fully expecting him to sneak a peek over the top. He took two steps out to the right of the bush fully in the open, and with my heart hammering in my ears I nudged the front bead over onto the crease where his black feathers met his wrinkled red head.

He saw that movement and froze, staring at me. He knew he’d been tricked.

I squeezed the trigger, and when the gun barked the turkey crumpled sideways and began to kick air. I’m not proud to say it, but as I pumped the spent shell out of the gun and put the safety on, I called him an unrepeatable name in the heat of that moment. Standing up, I ran to him to administer the near ceremonial “boot on the neck”, but he had caught the whole of my pattern at less than twenty-five steps. Within seconds he flopped no more, and I think I finally let out an exhalation of relief. He had been sneaky, and had he not made that one mistake of gobbling, he very likely would have busted us with our backs turned and lived to thunder at another spring sunrise. After my cousin and I shared some high fives, I sat on the ground next to the turkey, taking the time to smooth his feathers back into place, while inspecting his spurs and beard, all the while soaking in the moment. It had been a perfect morning, with warm sunshine pushing any lingering chill out of the air, and a deep blue, calm, cloudless sky; the kind of May day that seemed tailor-made for leaning against a wide tree, breathing the fresh woodland air, having a nap in the sunshine and most importantly, for chasing wily, sneaky tom turkeys.

Shawn West

I grew up in a family of anglers and hunters, and time spent in the Ontario outdoors with my father, siblings, uncles, cousins, and friends figured large in shaping who I am now. The most valuable lesson of the outdoors that I learned as a youth was that nothing took more importance than respecting the life of the animal that you had just hunted.

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