Turkey hunting school is back in session in Pennsylvania
As we descended upon the woodlot under a cloak of darkness, the field grass’s fresh morning dew moistened our bootlaces and pant cuffs. A chirping chorus of peepers down by the farm pond played their opening number while a nesting Canada goose hailed out her first wakeup call of the morning.
We paused in the dim predawn twilight, contemplating our next move, as the songbirds began to tweet and flutter through the dense underbrush. We knew it wouldn’t be long until the gobblers began sounding off from one of the surrounding ridges.
Their exact location was unknown, since the previous evening’s rainstorm prevented us from successfully roosting any birds. But turkeys were there – somewhere – and my brother Travis and I were determined to get our 12-year-old nephew Mitchell a shot at his first spring gobbler.
This day being the special statewide junior hunt for bearded birds, the basic plan was for Travis to call in a gobbler, Mitchell to shoot it, and me to capture everything on film. It was doable, since Travis and I are both experienced turkey hunters, and Mitchell already proved himself a steady shot under pressure, when he harvested a nice 7-point buck during opening day of this year’s rifle season.
Our preparatory practice sessions with the shotgun went well, and I was confident in Mitchell’s ability to make his shot count when given the opportunity at an approaching tom or jake.
All we needed was one hot and bothered, unpressured gobbler to come storming in on a string to Travis’s seductive hen chatter, and the rest would come down to timing and shot placement. On paper, it sounded pretty simple.
Unfortunately, as all turkey hunters know, spring gobblers are often anything but simple creatures. Their temperament and willingness to cooperate from day to day makes them an unpredictable, sometimes difficult-to-hunt game species. Like flipping a coin, a turkey hunter can never truly foretell the outcome of a day’s hunt until he gets into it.
Such was the case when the first gobbles of the morning hammered off from the far corner of the property.
In fifteen years of turkey hunting, I have never gotten past the heart-pounding, exuberant feeling I get each time a deafening gobble rattles through the treetops. I could tell by Mitchell’s eager reaction, that the echoing decibels had instantaneously reached out and grabbed him by his inner fibers as well.
Travis and I made the quick decision to cut the distance and get into position, opting for a hurried two-decoy setup along a field edge that cattycornered the hollow from which the roost gobbles came.
After several minutes of subtle tree calls and yelps, it became evident the birds were more interested in moving out across the opposite flat than flying down to join our two imposter turkeys in the open field.
We tried calling from two more locations around the farm without success before deciding to make a move to another property. As luck would have it, we spotted a small group of gobblers on our way back to the truck, so we quickly circled out ahead of them, using a dip in terrain to our advantage, and eased into position along an open flat we hoped they’d travel across.
Mitchell and Travis were hunkered in side-by-side, decoys were in place, the gun was up on steady shooting sticks, and the film was rolling. As Travis worked his magic, the band of six redheads hailed out a thunderous reply, indicating they were interested and on their way in.
With sunbeams emanating through a bare canopy above and the fresh scent of moist earth rising from below, I momentarily flashed back to my first turkey hunt- a day which included my big brother calling for another wet-behind-the-ears youngster and a big tom falling to the very same Mossberg 12-guage my nephew now eased to his shoulder.
I well understood the range of nerves and emotions that must have been surging through Mitchell’s young mind. As the gobblers cautiously bobbed into view between the thicket and field edge above us, my hands shook uncontrollably, leaving me yearning for the tripod I foolishly left behind in the truck.
One by one, the jakes materialized through small openings in the brush, three pausing in a tight group together mere inches apart, with three others looking on from a distance in the field. Mitchell had a bead on the closest birds, but the brush obscured them, and their crowded proximity to each other made shooting too risky.
As much as I would have loved to end this story with the birds spreading out or working below us onto the open flat for a clean shot, it simply didn’t happen. Just as they arrived, the birds exited the brush directly away from us in a crowded cluster, never offering Mitchell an ethical shot opportunity; so he held his fire.
Though my nephew didn’t kill a gobbler on his first turkey adventure, the hunt was far from a failure. Mitchell learned a hard lesson in hunting discipline – how respecting the animals we hunt is more important than filling a tag if it can’t be done cleanly. Had he fired, he could have wounded a bird (or multiple), and that would have been a disaster. I am proud of him for doing the right thing.
Best of all, Mitchell got to spend a morning in the outdoors with his two uncles who love him. And if only a small bit of our passion for turkey hunting rubbed off on the little guy, he’ll earn his stripes soon enough.