by Mike Tontimonia
A wild tom turkey is a real piece of work. He’s a bird with an attitude, a big bird that’s often given to strange behavior. He’s predictably unpredictable, obstinent, ugly to a fault but equally beautiful to behold, and downright perfect when it comes to being a worthy challenge for hunters. Indeed, the wild turkey is considered by many hunters to be the most difficult of all game birds or animals to kill. A 20 pound bird looks twice that, armored by nothing but feathers and a brain the size of a plum. And yet he’s the toughest of all targets. It isn’t because he’s smart, however; it’s because he’s one of nature’s most alert and wary creatures.
A tom turkey, or “gobbler” as he’s called by all who have thrilled to the unmistakable sound of his rattle-like call, lives in constant fear, surrounded by an unforgiving world full of dangers. From the instant he breaks through his shell as a chick, he’s alert to that danger. If he’s not, even for a minute, he’s dead. Wild turkeys are meat for nearly every predator in the forest. From fox to hawks and from stray cats to sneaky coyotes, there’s not a single predator that doesn’t covet the tender flesh of a turkey. And because of it, turkeys don’t last long, not if they blink.
Some make it for weeks, others for months. A few see a second year and a very few a third. The birds that live beyond that are survivors — tough, alert birds that seem able to sense trouble a mile away and stay well out of harm’s way rather than run from it. These especially wary birds, big birds with telescopic eyes and super-tuned ears and instincts sharpened by the scarring lessons of the near misses and mistakes of a cruel natural world, are called “long beards” and “boss toms.” They rule the roost, so to speak, and indeed they are the preferred breeders that pass the right genes to keep their kind alive.
Every day of every year, a boss tom has but one job: to survive. He’s got to live each day to live the next. And he lives all of them so that he can breed. That’s his purpose in life, his role in the grand scheme of things natural. But in that period of time when he fulfills his duty, a brief few weeks in the spring of the year, he’s at his worst, his most vulnerable.
For in the spring of the year, a time when the forest is waking, sprouting from the earth in blossom and bulb, so is a tom turkey sprouting with glory. It’s then that a tom turkey, filled with lust and the need to do something about it, gobbles and struts and thumps his wings and sticks his neck out like a multi-colored periscope and more than anything, anything at all, he looks for trouble. And surely, if a boss gobbler could talk he’d say, “so many hens, so little time.”
Now enter the turkey hunter. A camouflaged guy in greens and browns with a pocketful of gimmicks, the most deadly of which is his favorite call. Indeed, it’s by yelping and clucking that a hunter brings a boss gobbler to his gun.
Here’s why it works. In the morning, the first part of morning when there is just the slightest hint of a coming day, the wild turkeys begin to stir. From their night perches high above the forest floor, the big birds awaken and prepare to fly down for the day. The hens drop first, fluttering down with the grace of feathered bowling balls. As they gather themselves into a flock of sorts, some of the hens may whisper one, maybe two nearly inaudible clucks. If they were words, they would say simply, “I’m here, right here, come hither.”
A quiet hunter, in position well before the dawn, can sometimes hear the hens as they fly down, he may even hear the first quiet cluck of the day.
And even if a hunter is not there to hear it, rest assured there is a gobbler who can. Last to leave the safety of his roost, he’ll sometimes fly down to the hens. Anxious to fertilize the hens, he’s apt to dive right in. Or if he’s in a more playful mood, he’ll gather himself like ba wind sock and fire off a gobble or two, raspy yodels that can split the silence of an awakening forest like a hatchet splits hickory kindling.
A good gobble starts in the tail feathers of a hot gobbler and gathers steam as he pushes it through his plumbing. A good gobble straightens a tom’s neck like a piece of pipe as it passes and turns his head a series of bright colors as it jumps forth in wild song. And that’s just a good gobble. You ought to hear a great one.
On sunny days a tom turkey might gobble a dozen or more times from his roost, teasing the hens and generally arousing himself. Most often, if he’s flirting big time, he’ll cause the hens to begin calling, flirting back with rows of high pitched yelps and clucks. Oh there are lots of other calls the birds use to communicate, but the yelps and the clucks and the gobbling of males is all the banter most birds need. The morning then becomes a time for turkeys to meet, to feed and to lust for each other. The hens cluck; the toms gobble.
In nature, the hens seek out the gobbler. He’ll often follow somewhat of a circuit, cruising his territory, offering himself to the hens. From a clearing, if he thinks there’s a hen nearby, a gobbler will strut about, stiff legged, fan tailed, and puffed up like a new down pillow. His head will glow red, white and blue; and for all intent and purpose, he’ll show off for himself and any other turkey in sight. And surely, no hen can resist his virile charms.
But once serviced, the game is over. Each hen in the area will avail herself of a gobbler, then proceed to feed her way back to a nest, a simple bowl in the oak leaves where she will, over several days, deposit a daily egg until she has dropped 12 to 14. Only then will she forget further fertilization and begin to sit the nest around the clock.
But spring is more than breeding season: it’s hunting season, the one time of the year when hunters can pursue gobblers only. And of course, they do it by sounding like a hen, clucking and yelping and trying their hardest to tease a gobbler into committing.
Most spring gobbler hunters try their best to roost a bird in the evening. That means that they study the edge of the forest calling like mad crows or hooting like a deadly owl. A gobbler can’t help himself. Instinctively he’ll gobble in response. And thus the hunter has his location, at least a guess. Unless disturbed during the night, the gobbler will still be gripped to the same limb in the morning.
A hunter, a serious hunter, will beat the turkeys to the morning’s dawn. He’ll be sitting against a big tree, camouflaged to the max long before the birds waken. And instead of a real hen sounding a love-sick yelp in the morning, it will be the hunter who says through the scratchings of his call, “Come hither, come find me.”
Indeed, hunting wild turkeys is full of surprises and thrills, the biggest of which is watching a big tom approach, gobbling and strutting and fanning his tail feathers. With luck, a good caller can bring a gobbler within shotgun range. But luck is hard to come by in the turkey woods. That’s because wild turkeys are well, wild turkeys. They have no curiosity, none. Given even a suspicion, they are gone. One slight movement, one reflection off of the lens of an eyeglass, one lousy note on a call. Gone.
But if it were easy, wild turkey hunting wouldn’t hold the spot it does in hunter’s hearts. The reward of a successful hunt is obvious, a tasty meal for family and friends. But more than that, the rewards of wild turkey hunting are in the chase. Indeed, the sounds, the sights, even the smells of the spring woods are enough to cause a turkey hunter to reach for his favorite call.