The call of the Butterball: Hunting and turkey talk

rphillips@idahostatesman.comMay 9, 2013 

Dawn broke and a long johns shirt and light jacket felt like overdressing. The woods were alive with songbirds. Despite a long drive, late arrival the previous night and fitful sleep caused by a tennis ball-obsessed Lab, it was cool to be in the woods at sunrise.

My friend, Jesse Taylor, and I were hiking into one of my favorite turkey hunting spots near Riggins.

I've always found birds there. Getting a shot at them? That's another matter entirely, but that's the fun and challenge of turkey hunting.

Taylor was a complete rookie, and I have been hunting them off and on for about a decade. But if I were an NFL team, my win/loss record would earn me a top pick in next year's draft.

SILENCE IS NOT GOLDEN

The sunrise symphony of songbirds greeted us as we hiked through the woods, a little late, but still during turkey prime time.

My confidence was high, and Taylor was excited to head into first-rate turkey terrain after spending a couple days of fruitless hunting earlier in the season.

I've been hunting long enough to know there are no guarantees, but the lack of turkey tracks, scat or sounds was a little unsettling. A sure-fire way to jinx yourself is to over hype a hunting spot.

At this area, I don't typically hunt the traditional way of scouting birds and figuring out where they roost the night before and then sneaking in before daylight the next morning. It is a fairly long hike to the spot, and I just take it on faith the birds will be there. That faith thing, it can get you into trouble. Doubt started creeping into my optimism as my calls went unanswered.

"Don't worry, they're in here somewhere," I told Taylor.

It's not like the woods were barren or boring. A cow elk slipped into the brush below us as we hiked, and then we were spied by the rest of the herd, which acted more curious than alarmed.

The crazy flag of a white-tailed deer whipped back and forth as it bolted through the brush, and the tweety birds continued serenading each other.

THE GAMES BEGIN

The sound of an unprovoked gobble cut through the forest. I could barely hear it, but seconds later, it was confirmed by a second one.

In the classic turkey hunt, we would have had this bird located the night before and been sitting concealed nearby. But we're more run-and-gun turkey hunters. I've never seen another hunter in this area, so I was confident it was a real bird we were hearing.

We slipped through the woods, and I got the tom talking. He was fired up.

The game plan was simple: Close the gap, set up, and get the tom to come to us. It's easier said than done, especially considering the tom expects the hen, which we were imitating, to come to him. At some point, we would have to coax him to us.

I called and he gobbled. There are few things more exciting than talking directly to a tom, and having him talk back.

I told Taylor to be ready to shoot any time that I signaled him to stop. He's a former Marine and one thing I like about hunting with Marines is they're always ready to shoot.

I wanted to creep over a finger ridge so we could hide, see the bird approaching and then close the deal.

Unfortunately, the bird may have had the same idea, because he was on the opposite side of the ridge, and we came into sight of each other at about the same time.

He flushed. Before I could cuss, we spotted a brilliant red head of second tom and Taylor fired a quick shot. No luck. The second one soared away, too.

The flush and flight of a turkey is surprisingly quiet and graceful. I know. I've seen it too many times.

TURKEY MULLIGAN

We sat down. Outsmarted, but not defeated. Soon we heard more gobbling from a different direction. We tried to learn from our mistake. Taylor was carrying a couple of decoys. This time, we would set up the decoys and wait for them to find us.

I called, and two birds answered from different directions. We called, they answered. We called again. They answered again.

We repeated this sequence several times.

This sounded great. Only problem was, the gobbling didn't seem to be getting any closer.

Surely we could appeal to their competitive instincts. Two males, one imitation female. Numbers were in our favor.

Nope.

The lower tom shut up and the upper bird kept gobbling, but he wouldn't budge.

This is when patience is your ally; unfortunately, I don't have any.

We crept up the hill. I called, he answered. He was way up the hill and it was steep, thick terrain.

His call seemed more of a taunt than an invitation.

I think we'd found Idaho's first cross between a turkey and a chukar.

Taylor and I argued back and forth with the turkey before we realized this relationship just wasn't working out.

BACK TO THE BAT CAVE

We were staying in a cabin in the hills near Riggins, and it was a great place to regroup.

We knew two things: There were birds where we had just left, but it's a fairly long hike in, and we had spent most of the day hiking.

In the past, I had seen birds closer to the cabin, but in steeper terrain. This was the Salmon River country after all, and if you want flat terrain, you have to bring it with you.

DUSTY'S ON THE BENCH

Up to this point, my Lab, Dusty, had been relegated to the dog box. She saw shotguns and knew it was game day. It's hard to explain to her she had to sit on the bench during this hunt.

I figured if we were just scouting, she could tag along. We drove back roads looking for sign and spotted one lone hen. We hiked around and Dusty ran and sniffed like Labs do. It's fun to watch their brains process all the information coming through their noses. She was a sniffing-and-wagging machine.

We didn't hear anything and didn't see much sign in our new spot. But last year, I had called a tom in the area, and the last I saw of him, he looked and sounded very healthy. Smart, too.

We went back at dusk and checked the same area we had scouted during afternoon. Suddenly, the woods exploded with a gobble.

Not sure who was more fired up, Taylor or the tom.

"Let's go," he said.

"No, we have to wait until morning," I said.

"Why?"

To be honest, I couldn't remember why you didn't go after them in the evening, I just knew the unwritten rules of turkey hunting say you roost them in the evening, then come back in the morning.

"Because it won't come to us. We will just spook him," I said.

"Let's just try," he said.

"No," I said.

I thought I might have to put Dusty's leash on Taylor to keep him from bolting after the bird.

He had a case of turkey fever, but he relented and we decided we had our morning hunting spot.

We crashed early, and looked forward to morning.

STORM WARNINGS

The wind came up in the night, and we awoke to rain pelting the cabin window. It seemed like the cabin amplified the noise, which made it harder to get out of bed.

What happened to our perfect spring weather?

We dressed and got ready, a little sore from hiking and less motivated knowing we were in for a soggy morning.

We loaded Dusty in the truck and headed to our new spot. We decided to park well above where the bird roosted so we could call him uphill to us.

Taylor loaded his decoys, and we headed downhill. He blew a crow call and got a shock gobble, which is a turkey's natural reaction to a strange noise.

We had his location pegged. Now it was just a matter of setting out the decoys, settling in and calling the bird within shotgun range, which is standard protocol in the unwritten rules of turkey hunting.

BUSTED AGAIN

Our post-hunt review was inconclusive. There may have been two turkeys, and we may have been outwitted by the first. Or the first and second birds may have been the same one, and we spooked it out of the area.

We didn't know.

What we did know was there was no more gobbling where we first heard it near the truck, but there was gobbling farther downhill. A lot farther downhill.

I always hear about turkey hunting like it's a gentleman's sport. Roll into Farmer Fred's back pasture before sunrise and set out a decoy or two. Sit and call in a bird to blast, then head back to farmhouse midmorning for a breakfast of biscuits and gravy.

Somehow, I always seem to hunt turkeys in elk country. We were above the head of a canyon that was so steep you didn't walk straight down it, you zigzagged.

I called and he gobbled like crazy. It sounded like he was answering my calls, but maybe he was answering scrub jays, or low-flying aircraft or maybe the voices in his head. He was making quite a racket, but he wouldn't budge. I was starting to get a complex.

We tried not to repeat our past mistakes, but it seemed like our only two options were closing the gap, or just sitting, calling and hoping he moved uphill before he got bored listening to us babble pseudo turkey talk.

Down we went.

When we finally spotted him, he was flying out of a tree, and he landed well below us where he was blocked from view by a brush patch. What the hell? He was in a tree? Late sleeper? We didn't know, but it looked like we were busted again.

I was baffled. I guess that explains why he wasn't budging, but what was he doing in a tree midmorning? I thought they always came out of the roost at daylight.

I figured he was gone. We started sidehilling across the slope. I looked down and saw a dark silhouette that appeared to have a blue head. Then there was a second silhouette.

Sure enough, it was our turkey and he was strutting.

THE FINAL STAND

There was one large ponderosa pine between us and the bird, and Taylor stationed there while I stayed above and called. There was no place I could hide except using the contour of the terrain, which meant I couldn't see the bird. So I sat on the open hillside and called blind.

I clucked loudly and he answered. Then I tried a soft, purring sound. I heard nothing and waited. Nothing happened.

At that point, I couldn't see Taylor or the bird, so I just kept calling - loud, then soft. The loud was answered by a gobble, then nothing else happened.

I was ready to admit the obvious - I'm not a very good turkey caller. And then I heard a boom. I stood up and ran to where I could see. Taylor shot a second time, and a turkey tumbled down the hill with Taylor chasing it.

I zigzagged downhill and found them both near the bottom of the canyon. He was holding the dead turkey.

It was a jake, which is like a teenaged turkey. Jakes aren't known for their cunning like a wizened-old tom turkey.

But we were happy. After a string of entertaining failures, we had success at last.

"That was awesome," Taylor said.

We shot photos, tagged the bird and loaded it into Taylor's vest. I realized we were only a five-minute walk from the cabin. What a lucky break.

Then I realized Dusty, the truck and the decoys were still at the top of the canyon.

We stopped by the cabin, dropped off the bird and any gear we didn't need, then started hiking up hill.

It was like a victory lap, only a lot steeper.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service