Tagging a tom tops youth hunters' wishes
When I take a kid hunting, as I always do during New York's weekend youth turkey hunt, I try to remember what it was like to be a 12-year-old hunter, or 13, or 14 or 15, because the mindset of a kid is dramatically different from a veteran hunter, especially one who has killed scores of gobblers.
Yeah, we all try to convey to the kids that it's not about the kill, that just being out there enjoying a spring morning in the turkey woods is enough. But when you're a turkey-less or deer-less or pheasant-less kid, you want to put a tag on something and are hell-bent on getting that chance. Kids define a successful hunt quite differently than we do.
Still, along the way we point out things like scratching in the leaves that show, at least, where the turkeys have been. And we educate the youngsters to listen for other signs, like crow calling, blue jays doing the same, hawks screeching from high above. Every step of the way we coach, advise, lecture and mentor – especially about keeping your hands off the truck's radio dial when it's locked onto a country music station.
This year's youth hunt started on a cold, blustery Tioga County morning with 15-year-old Luke Devita in a blind tucked into a creekbottom field, out of at least some of the wind. As is the case every year, optimism reigned, even when we heard nothing off the roost.
But it didn't take long for the action to heat up. A gobbler finally fired up at about 7:30, across a paved road from where we expected him to be roosted. A Friday evening storm may have sent the birds up earlier and away from their traditional trees, but at least we were in the game. Luke's eyes widened as he watched the bird strut his stuff and occasionally sound off, but I knew this was far from a done deal, having seen a couple hens in our field on our side of the road.
Eventually the tom picked up those hens and went silent, drifting off into the woodlot about 100 yards from our blind. Luke was excited by the encounter, but I'm sure he wanted more.
We got more, but not what we were looking for. Around 9 a.m., the farmer-landowner putted down the hill on his tractor – towing a manure spreader. He was about to literally dump on our hunt.
Luke's shoulders sank. I told him these kinds of things happen, and we should hope this guy lives to be 150, because over the years he's allowed us to hunt his spectacular parcel and we've tagged plenty of gobblers and whitetails.
Of course, the farmer was apologetic – even unaware of the youth hunt dates. We chatted for a good 30 minutes, which is about average when you encounter him, and then packed up and headed back to the truck.
We still had options, but I knew our Chemung County hotspot would be wind-blown at best. We scooted up the road after a quick drive-thru McDonald's run, met by about as much wind as I expected, and some snow flurries to add to the challenge.
It was about 10:30 when we started trolling for a response by cranking on a box call. Nothing. I was already making plans for Sunday morning's hunt when we bumped a pair of hens to add to our frustration. I explained to Luke that this happens, too, and the odds were stacked against us.
It was about 15 minutes later when the kind of thing happened that continues to solidify my reputation as an idiot savant of turkey hunting. Moving up a ridge, calling sporadically, hoping to find a spot out of the wind, I peered over a deadfall and there, standing motionless in a thicket where you'd least expect a gobbler to be hanging out, was a turkey.
And, I thought, a jake.
Certainly not the kind of classic hunt I was hoping to show Luke. But he wasn't worried about style points as he lined up the 30-yard shot at a bird that, for some reason, didn't spook. The Remington 20-gauage roared, the bird tumbled, and Luke was certain this was the best turkey hunt ever.
Without raining on his parade, without dampening his thrill, I explained to him that he would go on to kill many gobblers – and this one wasn't, in fact, a jake, but a 3-year-old, black-spurred beauty – and this isn't normally the way it happens. He would have better, more exciting hunts. I'm not sure he believed me, but he'll understand later in life when filling a tag isn't nearly as important as experiencing the encounter and the turkey woods.