On opening day of turkey season years ago, I decided to hunt this tom. I could have chosen a much easier turkey, but because it was opening day, he was roosting on property I could hunt, and I had six more weeks to fill my tag, the challenge appealed to me. I mean, if I was unsuccessful, who cares? He was roosting with 12 hens not far from a county road. They could have roosted in a much safer place, but no one ever said they were smart.
I had first seen this tom in February when he was still in his all mature gobbler flock. There were 10 other toms with him, but he was unmistakable. He was a bigger bird and had a bushy beard, which you usually don’t see on a Rio. He had won the right to be the boss and have his harem of hens. The pecking order is strong, and he had fought the others. In nature, the strongest get to breed; this assures that the strongest and healthiest survive.
I was up early (4 a.m.) on opening day, not because I needed to be, but because I couldn’t sleep with the excitement and anticipation of the first hunt of the year. I was at my spot early and parked my truck in the road so anyone could see that this is where I was hunting. If someone saw my truck with the personalized license plates (TURKHUNT), they should know what I was doing.
As the birds started to sing, he started to gobble. I knew exactly where they roosted. I was out the night before roosting them. Then came the sound no hunter wants to hear, a truck coming down the road. First it sounded distant, but it got closer and closer. He was driving very fast, probably trying to make up time for being late.
The truck sounded like it could use a new muffler, as for whatever reason seems too often to be the case. When it came to a stop, it had to be parked very close to my truck. They turned off the engine, slammed both doors, and tried a hen call. The gobbler shut up; not a sound. For the next 30 minutes, I could hear gobbles from other places, but he was quiet.
I figured for safety reasons, I’d better wait and see if I was going to have company. Sure enough, two young men came walking in. They were in camo, carrying shotguns. As they got close, I said, “Good morning.” They both looked up at me and the leader asked me if I planned on hunting. I said yes, and if it wasn’t so late, I could go somewhere else, but it was just too late.
He then told me, “Well, we’ve been watching these birds for a week, and we’re going to hunt.” I told them, “I’ve been watching them for a couple of months, and you can hunt if you like, but I know exactly what tree they’re in, and I’m going to get really close.” He looked at me and angrily replied, “Well go ahead, it doesn’t sound like he’s here anymore anyway.”
As they walked away, I wished them well, but they just grunted at me and left. I waited until I heard the truck start and listened as it drove off. It was a calm morning and I could hear the tires picking up gravel for what seemed like 5 miles, before it finally faded off in the distance.
Now I knew it was too late for me to hunt the bird off the roost, so I had to go to plan B. Every morning for the last two weeks, I’d seen the birds on a ‘poop pile’ about a quarter of a mile away. My friends and I had given that name to a spot such as this because turkeys love to scratch and feed there. It was where the farmer had fed his cattle. The tom will follow the hens wherever they lead him.
I knew I’d have to hurry to beat them there, so I took off. I had covered most of the distance, when I came to the river. Usually it would be easy to cross, but this year we had heavy rains. I had to cross and couldn’t waste time. I entered the water and was surprised at how deep it was. I could feel the ice-cold water fill my boots and soak my pants almost to my waist. I figured the hunt should be quick. Win or lose, I should be headed home soon.
When I got to my spot, I was happy to see I had beat them there. I quickly found a nice big cottonwood to sit against. After getting settled, I gave a few soft yelps just to see if I could get a gobble to let me know if they were on their way. To my surprise, I got a loud gobble close. Right after that, I saw the first hen and then another. All twelve entered the poop pile. Then I saw the tip of his full fan. The sun was shining through his fan making it look like it was glowing.
I moved my gun to where I anticipated the 20-yard shot. When he was at 30 yards, he came out of strut. I’ll never know if he had spotted something he didn’t like, or if it was that sixth sense they seem to have telling them something’s wrong. But he was leaving.
I looked ahead to an opening at 35 yards. If I could get him to stop, I’d have a clear shot. I had to be careful, as the last thing I wanted to do was wound this beautiful bird. It’s the one thing that could ruin this great day.
When he entered the gap, I gave a single cluck from my mouth call. He stopped and stretched his neck up to look. I took my time, settled my beads on the base of his neck, and pulled the trigger. He dropped in his tracks and the shot felt good. As I moved towards him, I could hear the hens alarm putting, running, and flying away.
When I got to him, I could tell that he was done. He started flopping as he beat his wings into the ground. In turkey hunting, it’s the sound of success. It always amazes me how much life is left in them, many times flopping for well over a minute.
When he was finally done, I knelt down and thanked the Lord for another wonderful hunt, for a beautiful morning, and a quick and ethical kill. Then I looked at the old tom. He looked huge. He ended up being one of the heaviest birds I’d ever taken. I looked at his long bushy beard and then saw his spurs. They were long, hooked, and sharp. By the length of the spurs, I could tell he was probably at least a four-year-old, maybe five. I thought of how many hunting seasons, hard winters, and predators he had survived.
Then I stroked his feathers and looked at how beautiful he was; all the colors in his head, wattles, and feathers. I went ahead and tagged him, thanked God one more time, and got ready for the long walk back to the truck. I know there’s an easier way to tote your bird out, but I still do it the old-fashioned way, hoisting him over my back, gripping his legs. It’s the way the old-timers did it, and it’s the way I’ve always done it and always will.
Adrenaline had filled my body. The bird felt like he weighed like a feather. I was no longer cold, even though I was soaked to the bone, and I was no longer tired, even though I had very little sleep. I was so happy my plan worked, because 9 out of 10 times, it doesn’t.
In a very short time, another mature gobbler will move in and take over the hens. That’s how nature works.
Later, I cleaned the bird, saving every bit of meat I could. Some will be smoked, grilled, and fried. His fan will be saved to use in future hunts. I found that his legs had several old scars, showing how much of a fighter and how tough he truly was.
Kansas Wildlife and Parks gives a certificate if your turkey makes ‘book’. He has to score 65 points – weight, beard length, and length of spurs. This bird would make book easily. The certificate hangs on my wall, and his beard and spurs hang along side of other toms I’ve killed. As always, every detail of the hunt is forever etched into my brain. Its all a great reminder of the exciting times I’ve had.
For the next couple of days, I would either be on the phone or visiting my closest friends, telling them every detail of the hunt. I’m so thankful for them and look forward to when they call me with their stories. When they do, I remind them not to leave out one single detail.
God bless you all!
Rick Cunningham is an avid outdoorsman from Ellis