June 15, 2012
By Jon Henderson
In the early morning darkness I make my way quietly along a firebreak through a stand of 8-year-class loblolly pines. The tangy scent of the pines hangs in the still air, accompanying my every step. The north Florida air is cool, and I catch glimpses of a crescent moon rising ahead in the east. I break out into a transition area of scattered hardwoods beyond which is a 15-acre stand of thinned 20-year-class pines with moderate undergrowth. These pines in turn are surrounded on three sides by dense hardwoods, setting the ideal stage for a successful turkey hunt.
I place a couple decoys at the near end of a plot of oats, then settle into my blind under the overhanging branches of a small live oak located near the edge of the older pines. A short time later the barred owls begin the early morning woods concert. After about 15 minutes the whippoorwills take a 5-minute turn calling, followed by the mourning doves, before the crows and various song birds take over.
The concert is forgotten when the first gobble echoes through the woods and raises my hair. Two hundred yards, straight out! I impatiently wait a few gobbles to ensure there is adequate shooting light before offering a couple clucks and three yelps with my mouth call. The gobbler's reply is immediate.
Over the next 15 minutes I respond only three times but do my best to sound like a coquettish hen. He's moving my way, until a very insistent hen begins calling from the northeast and he moves in that direction.
More toms are gobbling in the distance. For the next hour and a half, "my" gobbler moves back and forth, running the hens. Occasionally I send a few yelps to let him know I'm waiting, but he's generally holding 200-300 yards to the northeast. Finally he starts moving my way, and fast! Through the pines I see several hens moving rapidly west, generally toward me but to my left. Tom's right behind, and the gobbling is booming now.
I see him in full strut 80 yards north of me as he approaches the brushy fence line that runs north/south and passes about 10 yards in front of me. My venerable Model 11 rests on my knee, half shouldered, and I pick the first partially open spot on the fence line, roughly 20 yards away where, if he comes my way, I'll get a shot.
It's suddenly quiet and the hens are out of sight. A light breeze stirs the undergrowth and I hear the breeze humming through the pine tops. I wait a few moments before performing a little cluck and cackle combo. Ten yards away, a doe steps directly in my line of fire, looks around then peers into my woody blind. She's uneasy and goes back the way she came. Behind her are two hens 20 yards out on my side of the fence, but no sign of Tom. The hens mill for a moment then cross the fence about 15 yards away and move to my right. Perfect! Old Tom is sure to follow. I'm still focused on my gap when he steps partially into view. I can see his brightly colored head, bronzed feathers and a portion of his beard-- Boom!--and he goes down. Immediately another bird jumps into full sight stretching upward to inspect the turkey I just shot. It's clearly a jake. Damn. I'm still hopeful, but it's a bad sign because jakes and gobblers don't mix this time of year.
The jake circles cautiously, returns to inspect the bird on the ground once again and moves on. Forty yards further down and still out of sight, my gobbler calls a final time and departs. My pleading, begging yelps are unanswered, leaving me to wonder if he knowingly allowed a pair of jakes to cut in front and into my ambush. Fifteen minutes later I retrieve my jake. Not a bad bird for a jake, 5 ½-inch beard, but several pounds lighter and a lot dumber than the bird I'm after.
The next morning I'm at it again. Thinking I know Tom's pattern, I set up to the northeast and fully within the thinned pines. The morning woods wakeup ritual is pleasantly the same, but Tom counters my move by holding court beside my original blind. Shortly, he moves into dense hardwoods. The hens aren't helping, either. They stay on the move feeding, but I suspect they're on to me.
I switch calls occasionally but to no avail. There's plenty of gobbling, with three birds in the general area, but this has gotten personal, and I'm after one particular bird. I relocate a couple more times, and am rewarded by seeing Tom strut and drum for one or more hens, but always out of range. The afternoon and the following morning hunts is more of the same. Jakes come and go, but I can't entice Mr. Tom to come within range.
On the last morning I have six jakes within 10 yards, all peering into my vine-covered hiding spot, clucking hopefully for the lonely hen that called. They finally move away, and it's time for me to go, too. No gobbler, but it was a great hunt and next time it'll be a different ending. Look out Tom, next time you're mine.