By Mark Overmyer
-- My friend, Roger, has been trying to get me to join the annual spring turkey hunt ever since he got me hooked on deer hunting five years ago. He said, "Hunting turkeys is way harder than hunting deer and way more exciting." I couldn't imagine that. Ever since I had my first taste of whitetail hunting, I've spent all my recreational money and time on pursuing whitetails. But this year, I thought I'd give turkey hunting a try. I should say, I asked my wife, Tina, if she thought it would be okay if I tried it for a couple of days. After thinking about it for a week, she gave her permission.
Roger was right on the first count - turkey hunting is much harder than deer hunting. We started out on opening day in Hoosier National Forest where Roger, Bruce and I embarked on the dual quest of turkeys and/or mushrooms. I was the rookie. Each day I crawled out of my warm sleeping bag at 3 a.m. to wake up, gear up, and coffee up for the day's adventures. More than once I asked myself and those preoccupied zombies around me, "Whose idea was this anyway?" By 5 a.m. we would make our hike in the pitch-black to the "listening post" where it all begins.
The listening post is fascinating. The barred owl sounds his last couple of territorial calls and the whippoorwill winds down the final replays of its annoying soundtrack. Picking up the handoff from the nocturnal birds is the day crew. While standing there, Roger identifies each and every one for me as they sound off. I got my first clue as to how holy this moment was when Roger, after checking his watch, leaned over to me and whispered, "This is my favorite moment of the whole year." He's referring to opening day of turkey season at the "listening post," waiting for the first gobble.
I felt so honored that, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, I said in my most sincere voice, "I'm so proud that you would choose to include me in this moment." Not very respectful of me I know, but understand, at this point I'm waiting for proof that this is really all it's been cracked up to be. Then it happened!
It was awe-inspiring to watch and listen to the forest wake up and then suddenly hear the distant gobblers. The chorus of gobbling tom turkeys announcing their readiness and presence to nearby hens makes the hearts of even the most experienced hunters beat faster. For me, they were announcing the commencement of that for which I'd been preparing these several months.
Speaking of preparing, since Roger had never hunted turkeys with a bow, the only advice he really had for me was to purchase a gun. Well, not exactly. He did, however, have little confidence that a novice had a snowball's chance of getting a turkey with a gun much less a bow. As far as Roger and Bruce were concerned, toting a blind and bow through Hoosier National Forest would be my cardio-pulmonary exercise. Both reminded me that if they called a bird close enough to my blind, that they wouldn't wait long for me to harvest my bird.
Asking for a second chance would really test the bonds of our friendship. So I practiced hard. To increase my chances of retrieving a turkey I might hit and not instantly kill, I attached a Game Tracker to my bow. It's a spool of light yet strong nylon string that attaches to the head of the arrow. If you wing a bird, it increases the chances of stalking it and getting a second shot, because its trail is easily followed. Naturally, the string affects the flight of the arrow, and this has to be accommodated in the aim. So, I practiced some more. Even with the string tracker, I was ready and fully confident - if not only to contradict Roger and Bruce's unspoken but undeniable doubts.
At the first sound of gobblers on opening morning, we three were suddenly peers with quickened pulses, discussing our approach to the first setup. After debating which gobbler was closest, the strategy of approaching the prey was planned. Bruce learned long ago, and I only recently (on this particular hunt to be exact), that when Roger asks, "What do you think?" the proper response is, "Whatever you think."
Simple enough, right? Not if you are me. Restraint in such situations is not one of my strong points. I seldom hesitate to offer what I think - even when not asked. The response, "Whatever you think" is Greek to me. I offered completely unfounded and often wrong opinions about where and how to entice a bird I haven't even seen yet. Sounds stupid, huh? Welcome to my world.
Choosing the best one to stalk, I found, is an art form learned after many years of trial and mostly error. My contribution to the decision always factored in the hills. If the direction of the gobble came from somewhere lower than where I was standing, I favored pursuing that bird. But I could manufacture no more logic than that to support my recommendation and usually lost the vote to my two more experienced partners.
Next was the setup. That means we arranged the decoys in an area that afforded good shooting lanes and cover. I threw open my blind, and in 15 seconds, I am concealed and ready with weapon, chair and lunch if necessary. Then from a motionless position, Roger imitates the sounds of nubile hens hoping that the gobbler is desperate enough to come and find us. On opening day, this went on for an hour with a non-desperate bird that RSVP'd but didn't show.
Sometime early on the third day, I knew I'd had enough. I broke the news to Roger that I'd not be joining him the following day. On our final hike to the parking area on that last day, Roger wanted to know if I would be hunting turkey next year. You don't make snap decisions like that. I postponed my final answer. But based on the lack of results (another curse of my personality), I was not sure the answer would be affirmative. A week later, something happened that changed everything.
While Roger stubbornly returned to the State Forest, Bruce and I made plans to meet at one of our local private deer hunting properties for a morning hunt - a single setup. It would be so much more simple than the all-day experience; it could hardly be considered "turkey hunting" as I'd come to know it. Within minutes, we'd made the 250-yard hike to the setup spot. I had my pop-up blind and Bruce was behind me. We were overlooking a grass field bordered by woods on two adjacent sides. It was 5 a.m. - perfect!
Immediately, a gobbler starting announcing what we already sensed: "It was morning, and it was going to be a good day." It wasn't long before two other gobblers answered the first one. All three birds were within 100 yards of our position - almost too close. After maybe 50 gobbles and a couple hen calls, the first tom fluttered from its roost into the field. I heard him but didn't see him. Within seconds, seven birds were in the field from their nocturnal roosts high in the pine trees. What a sight as they congregated not 50 yards away from us! The dominant tom was clearly visible as it immediately began strutting its stuff with the other birds coyly avoiding him.
He was beautiful and easily within gun range of Bruce, who was now struggling to keep his heart inside his chest cavity. He knew that if his first shot preceded mine that my first shot would be readdressed in his direction. Later, I found out how hard he had to fight down the impulse to fire on sight. As a good friend, he waited until I could launch an arrow.
He didn't have to wait long. I nervously attached the Game Tracker string to my Easton aluminum shaft and readied the angle of my shot. The dominant bird was clearly my desired goal. There was only one problem: another smaller bird was making its way toward the decoy, only 10 yards away at a 10 o'clock angle from my now-open shooting window. Because he was closing the distance fast, I had a quick decision to make. Do I wait for the larger more desirable bird? This option I quickly dismissed reasoning to myself, "Here I am a rookie turkey hunter about to have my first opportunity - and I'm going to be fussy about how big it is? I may never get another shot my whole life." Besides, the closer the first bird came, the less desirable the angle became. It now meant that I had to shoot out the side window, which was only slightly open.
These last minute hesitations are, I suppose, why few people ever harvest a turkey using a bow and arrow. There are so many things that must go right on a perfect day to harvest game with a bow and arrow. Consequently there are so many things that can go wrong. And because of that reality, I will remember every single successful archery hunt for the rest of my life - this one included.
Before the jake reached the decoy, at about 15 yards, I released the tethered mechanical broadhead and watched it slice through the air in a perfect arch that seemed to sever the head of the intended target. I was sure I'd decapitated the bird, as it fell immediately to the ground and began flopping furiously - like the proverbial headless chicken.
Immediately, two other toms began to spur my bird by jumping all over it feet-first. It should be noted at this point that though some of my less loyal friends have suggested that these two birds are responsible for the death of my bird, I categorically deny that theory. I guess the turkeys assumed that in this small and competitive flock, it was their chance to gain dominance.
While I marveled at the ultimate fight club match before me, I also wondered how long Bruce would wait until firing. Half eager to see the effect of my arrow, and half wanting to rescue my bird from these attackers, I urged Bruce, "Shoot! What are you waiting for?"
A moment later, the blast from his Remington 870 brutally pierced our solitude and cruelly interrupted the odd display of the pecking order. The cloud of downy feathers made it clear that the 31/2-inch magnum had accurately delivered its load into at least one of the attacking birds, who would no longer be a threat. Strangely, however, the only other affect on the surviving members of the flock was a heightened anxiety. Knowing something was wrong, yet not exactly sure what, the five remaining birds simply browsed away from us.
Bruce excitedly joined me inside the blind where we watched the flock's retreat, slapped high-fives and clutched congratulatory handshakes. Neither of us could believe what we'd just witnessed and accomplished. Two birds in one setup - one with a bow and one with a shotgun. The time was 5:30 a.m. We would be out of the woods in just a few minutes drinking coffee, while awaiting the opening of the closest check station.
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Northwood, New Hampshire