Sunday, May 14, 2017

Four For Four

When Lexi and I reached the truck there was a scramble for the remaining water bottles, still cold they went a long way to re-hydrating this pair of dry turkey hunters. That morning found us walking and calling through familiar territory. A fresh skiff of snow lay at our feet and a cold wind falling off the snow covered peaks above reminded us of similar opening weekends in the past.

This year however was different. As we walked from one glassing knob to the next, calling in between, we never heard a reply or saw a bird. As the leaves had yet to fully break out and with a blanket of new snow spotting a flock of turkeys should have been as easy as opening a door. The absence of any tracks or droppings, usually so profuse over the years that we hardly ever stopped to notice unless the track was large and fresh giving us a clue as to what potential mature gobbler may be that area.

Two miles from the truck we stood at the edge of the historical breeding center for that group of ridges and valleys and so far the place was as quiet as library. My daughter took the lead and we dropped into a sheltered valley that held a small meadow not to far from a roost site that is the hub of activity in that part of the ranch. If there is no sigh there, then what ?

Sure enough at the edge of the maples we find tracks from what appears to be three hens and one big footed gobbler from the night before as they headed to roost. Lexi picks a familiar path up an old two track the leads us higher up the mountain. Every now and then I send a string of yelps into the forest around us, there are no replies. In previous years we'd be hearing gobblers and hens all around us at this point on the ridge line but this morning the lack of any tracks in the road leads me to believe the long, cold protracted winter has taken its toll on the bird population. Birds on this property usually winter 3 miles from here in a flock of one to two hundred strong. I fear there are lot of breast bones to be found lying in the new spring grass. 

We do our usual loop, glassing and calling as we go higher up the mountain. We flush three mature hens on the walk and finally reach the Frog Pond and find it free of ice despite the cold spell. Lexi spots one of the ponds name sakes and lifts it from the shallows. In a frozen stupor the frog shows no reaction other than to press itself closer into her palm that is no doubt radiating a radically different body temperature.

We skirt the pond and soon come upon fresh turkey tracks from two hens heading north. With the property line only 150 yards away I give a half baked series of yelps to see if the birds are still in the area hidden in a stand of aspens. As the last yelp fades we are answered with a single gobble from what sounds like a mature bird and very close. We quickly find cover, set up the deeks and I begin to call. In retrospect we should have just sat down and called and forgot the deeks. The bird never answered us again. We stick it out for 45 minutes hoping that the bird might be coming in silent but any gobbler moving towards us would have been easily seen against the new snow. We finally picked up and worked our was around that patch of aspens to see if we could locate him from another ridge and then make a plan. The noon sun felt good as we glassed the area and badgered some crumpled sandwiches. With no bird in sight we back tracked then headed over to where the bird should have been. I gave a couple soft yelps and we received a muffled reply from far down the valley, this bird is traveling. With tracks to follow we finally topped a small ridge and I spot the gobbler loafing in the sun picking at some new grass shoots all by himself across the draw.

We drop into an aspen thicket out of sight and creep within a 150 yards of where he should be, set up and called for quite some time. Changing up the calls I broke out a 50 year old Lynch box call, an equally old cedar push pin and an old slate and peg. All have different tones and tonal change can make a difference at times. Over the next hour I softly call in the cadence of what I think sounds like a lonely hen, the gobbler unimpressed remains silent.

Has he gapped it again ? We finally picked up and slowly walk into a flooded meadow that offers a view of where the bird had last been feeding. I spot the long beards big bronze backside hot footing up the hill away from us clearly spooked. On the long walk back to the truck we spot two more sets of hen tracks in the rapidly melting snow. It's been a good day, we found a frog-sickle and enjoyed the exercise, often that's all you can expect. 

Lexi had to Life Guard the next afternoon until 3:30, when done she changed into her greens and we lined out for the woods. The plan this afternoon was to hunt near the roost where we found the gobbler tracks the day before. This plan is a long shot and has never worked in the past but its the last day of the youth season and we're limited on daylight. We roll the dice and start boiling up the valley floor. When we're 400 yards from our destination I hear a faint gobble across a swollen stream above us and to our left. Instead of trying to set up on this bird we continue up the valley and break into a tiny meadow at the base of three ridge fingers. As we enter the meadow another bird, this time a hen begins an alarm putt to our left and across the stream. She is concerned but doesn't bust out and flush.

Once in the meadow we bank hard right, slip up the hillside and onto another connecting two track. It is here we stop and I look for a suitable location to build a quick blind. In years past I have called in and killed two gobblers in the meadow below right at the crack of dawn but any evening attempts to date have always resulted in seeing birds but never closing the deal as you never know what direction the birds will come from. The roost is located another 175 to 200 yards steeply uphill behind us and out of sight. However over the years I have noticed that any birds across the creek will often come down one of the finger ridges dropping into the meadow will sometimes feed, loiter and display in the meadow until just before sunset and then as if pulled by a tractor beam walk swiftly uphill towards the roost site. The route taken to fly up is determined by the individual bird or birds. In short, its a crap shoot as to where you park your bottom. This afternoon I elect to set up just inside the edge of the trees slightly above the meadow and well downhill from the roost. Crowd the roost and scare the birds and you can kiss that spot goodbye for the rest of the spring. 

I pick a spot in a tangle of fallen limbs and drop our gear into the center of the nest. I walk forward to set up three Avian-X decoys, two hens and one Jake 25 steps ahead of us. Lexi clears out litter from the hide and drapes some lightweight camo netting on the front and sides of the limbs to further break up out outline. She pulls up face mask, slips on her gloves then settles in for the rest of the evening. I look over the set up one last time slip in the back of the hide and take my seat slightly behind and to her left. 

For the next hour we sit in silence. I then pick up a call and send a few soft yelps into the trees with my old Lynch box and see my daughters head slowly swivel to the right. Without any doubt she hears a reply while my 60 year old ears have detected exactly zero. For ten long minutes she never moves then slowly turns back to look at me. "Hear one ?" I whisper, she rolls her eyes, nods and just then I see a mature hen enter the meadow below us from our right. The hens feeds and softly yelps ever so often and I reply in kind as it begins to lightly rain.

Soon the hen has had her fill and walks back out of the meadow and vanishes. I then catch the glimpse of two younger gobblers entering the meadow from our left. Maybe one of these birds I heard on the walk up the two track earlier in the afternoon. The toms peck and scratch in the new grass and are soon joined by another pair of mature hens. Lexi is now on high alert, shifts her sitting position slowly and raises the butt stock off her thigh for a little more maneuverability. The rain stops the same time the boss gobbler arrives. He enters the meadow from our right coming off the end of one of the small finger ridges. 

He struts into the meadow and both the younger gobblers evaporate. No doubt this big tom has been kicking butt in the team ranks lately. The hens pay him little attention and all three birds begin to feed in our direction still well out of range. The long beard gobbles faintly twice more as he feeds in our direction. Lexi's barrel is now tracking the birds every step. The two hens slip into a draw out of sight and if the gobbler follows their path Lexi will never get a shot. I purr just a couple of notes and the tom raises his head looks in our direction and veers ever so slightly towards us. The sound of the safety going off sounds like a cymbal clash to me but the gobbler keeps feeding uphill in our direction. 

I think of all the afternoons that I have sat in this very spot only to have the birds slip around me just out of range time after time it's hard to believe we now have one almost in our laps. Then the bird notices my Jake decoy for the first time and its all but over. He drops into a display stance and drags his wings over the bank and into the two track. The bird is now well within range, almost to close really, I'm beginning to count backwards with anxiety as my daughter calmly aims down the rib waiting for a clear shot so as not to ventilate my decoy spread. The tom steps to the left to come at the fake Jake from another angle.

The bird never hears the shot, never flaps a wing, never kicks a drumstick, he simply folds up graveyard dead before he even hits the ground. A few neck feather drift on the breeze severed by the Heavy 7's. Lexi stands up for the first time in hours and walks over to the fallen gobbler. I sit in the blind for a while just to watch this kid of mine. The gobbler is as big as one can expect from our area, I myself have killed some as large but I've never shot a bigger one. Mature in every respect with a broken up burly beard and rounded over spurs he is packing around some serious heft. I muse that he should be as tender as Carbon-14 and my daughter laughs out loud but knows you thankfully take what you are given with appreciation whenever it's offered. Lexi is all smiles as she tags the tom and we recount the last half hour as we slowly pick up our kit for the long walk out. 

Soon we're walking down the valley as the sun begins to set behind us. We stop ever so often just to listen in the settling gloom. The words are few as we slip further down the valley, the bond between us woven just a little bit tighter this afternoon on a chilly hillside in a place we happily call home. 

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