The Dumbest Turkey In The World
In a lifetime of hunting, I have learned to use every trick in the book to get to and take the game I am after. As a youth, just getting to the game was a problem. I was too young to drive and my family were not hunters. I had to go it alone and on foot. Learning hunting skills was also a problem, as there was no one to teach me, man to boy, and I was too bashful to ask for help. Most of what I learned came out of books and from the Boy Scouts, who taught trapping and tracking skills as part of the outdoor experience at the time. The little book, ‘Wilderness Wisdom’ was a goldmine.
I often found myself hunting alone, or at best in the company of other puerile young men who usually knew less and had experienced less than I had. A map was unthought of. Research into the location, quality and quantity of sought game was unheard of, other than through local gossip. Ballistics was an unknown and unthought of science. The arms available were whatever was available through the family, new ones were out of reach in those high school days when work at the local grain mill paid 65 cents an hour and a used Winchester 70 cost $60.
This didn’t change much until I was out of high school, college and medical school and finally residency. Even then, entering practice was rough on hunting because of lack of time. I worked 80 hour weeks in the late 60’s, on call every third or fourth day and week-end, clear up until the late 90’s. There just wasn’t the time and sometimes not the energy to hunt near as much as what I would have liked. I remember being jealous of a local extended family, most of whom farmed a little and worked in construction during decent weather. Hunting was a family affair for them. The skills were taught early, and the time to use those skills was amply provided. For them, the construction and farming season ended about the first of September, then the whole bunch would disappear into the mountains until the deep snows finally drove them out.
The exception were the few years when the US Army sent me to Alaska. The pay for a young Medical Officer was so poor that we were literally forced to live off the land. Salmon, caribou and moose became a staple. I quickly learned that big antlers mean poor eating. We hunted like wolves, seeking the young, tender and stupid. I soon learned that, generally, the only critters we killed and the only fish we caught were the idiots, young, inexperienced and only occasionally the unlucky.
And so it was that I found myself sitting in a crude ground blind in southwest Texas waiting for a turkey to show up. It was Spring 2009. The weather was lovely, the time unhurried, (I had discovered that I can unhurry time by turning off the cell phone), and I was hunting an area that had previously been productive. I was hearing a few gobbles off in the distance, towards a group of roost trees a few hundred yards off and knew that the turkeys were on the ground. There weren’t a lot of gobbles, we were early in the season and at the worst time of the Solunar, but there was water and feed close. I knew from past experience that eventually, all Texas birds come to water.
This hunt was just the last of many that I had made to this particular area. The country was dry and sere, big jackrabbits aplenty but only a few cottontails, a rattlesnake under every bush (or so it seemed), everything around scratched, raked or itched but I loved it. What I especially love are the salt of the earth people that live here. They are as dry and tough as the countryside and I glory in visiting with them. What has started out as a one time foray into unknown country has since blossomed into many friendships and many turkeys.
Early on, I learned that turkey hunting is not in the shooting or killing. Being a good shot meant little, not as compared to the long range shooting that I had occasionally encountered in northern Canada and Alaska. A modern shotgun made the task seem too easy. The simplicity and relative sureness of ignition and pattern made the task all too mundane. As usual, I found it easy to fall into old patterns, taking by far most Toms with a flintlock, a few with a percussion and a decided minority with a modern gun. I had usually used the modern gun only when I was forced to because of weather or local circumstances.
The problem was that I didn’t have a turkey killing flinter in my possession when the 2009 season approached. I had hunted the year before with a wonderful 44 inch barreled 12 gauge doglock flint gun done in the early New England style. It copied a flower butt carved gun that had shown up in a new book on flintlock fowlers, called exactly that, “Flintlock Fowlers”. The photography was wonderful and crafting that gun was a delightful experience. I made the lock, tempering the springs and hardening the frizzen myself, as well as doing the ordinary metal and woodwork. Carving the buttstock was a new adventure, too., far different that the usual Georgian-Rococo scrolling that I usually do on Jaeger and Kentucky rifles.
It shot as good as it looked too, throwing 2 oz of #7 nickle plated shot over 110 gr FFG Goex so well that 45 yard kills were easy. I had taken 3 Toms with it in this same area with three shots after proving the gun with two shots just prior to the hunt. The first bird had come running to a few peeps just at sunrise. There wasn’t any gobbling but the action was fast, he surprised me and getting the gun up before he got too close was the problem. He screeched to a halt when he saw me move, but couldn’t reverse course before the fast firing doglock boomed his doom.
The second bird, came in the next day more leisurely, giving me lots of time to get the gun into position before he came into range. I had time to enjoy seeing him strut and gobble as several hens came in with him. He was a big one, with a ground dragging beard and a fine fan of tail feathers. I waited until he turned away from me to get the gun into final position, the click of the big doglock cocking bringing his head up, looking straight at me. He was only 30 yards away and the dense shot pattern took him down instantly.
The third bird was the hardest. That big tom came striding through a bunch of hens with travel on his mind. He came silently, no gobbles, appearing from around a brush pile then hurrying past the hens. I don’t know where he was going but he was sure in a hurry. I had to swing the gun into position, establish a decent lead and pull off the shot as he strode past. He was a good 45 yards away when I finally got the shot off but went down with a half dozen #7 shot in his head. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that muzzleloaders won’t kill turkeys.
Alas, now that fine doglock was gone. Lost to someone who wanted it worse than I did. I learned long ago never to pass up a sale, I can always build another one. And that is what I was faced with , building another one. Unfortunately, the Spring of 09 had been particularly busy and I let the chore go until way too late. The only complete set of parts that I had on hand for anything that looked like it might kill a turkey was for a 20 gauge French Fusil. And I had never tried hunting turkey with a gauge that small. I had no doubts that the Fusil would handle well. After all, it was probably the most popular trade gun around in the northern areas of the American continent in the 1750’s. The French were the leaders in gun design at the time and it was imported by them in quantity, to the delight of the Indians, who found it easy to carry and useful with either ball or shot, and to the chagrin on the English and Americans, who had to face it in the incessant guerilla warfare of the times. One thing about it, I knew from long experience that there are few limits on what kind a of a load you can put down a muzzleloading barrel, as long as you can stand the recoil.
With that in mind, I hurried the Fusil into production. Fortunately, the flintlock did not give me any problems. Nor did the barrel. Construction was straightforward but I still didn’t have it done by the time we were ready to leave. The gun ended up with a single coat of stain on the maple, a single coat of brown on the barrel and no oil anywhere. I would have to take care with the weather. Getting the gun wet would mean a re-finish job after the hunt. I would also have to shoot it when we arrived, as there had been no time to shoot it in at home.
As soon as we arrived, after a 20 hour drive, I took the new gun out to the range at the ranch. I loaded it with 90 grains on Goex ffG black powder, 2 felt 1/8th inch Wonder Wads, a 20 gauge plastic shot cup with the base cut off so I could get it through the .580 super-full screw-in choke at the muzzle, 1 ½ oz. of #7 nickle plated shot and a card top wad. To my delight, the combination put 9-12 shot into the turkey target’s head and neck at 40 yards on the first two shots. That was enough to prove the gun would do it. The recoil was not bad at all, thanks to the superb design of the fusil’s stock.
As great as the gun turned out to be, the hunt turned out to be just about the opposite. That evening, I sat in that crude ground blind it seemed like forever, until my butt was so sore that I could not stand it any longer. I looked at a my watch. It was 7 PM and not a turkey in view. No calls either, the gobbles dying away with the settling of the sun. I thought about changing locations, but discarded the thought. I called a few times, doing it cautiously, thinking that if the birds were not calling a whole lot on their own, a lot of calling on my part would probably spook them rather than attract them.
Well, that’s what thinking gets for you. The sun sank behind some low lying clouds and it finally began to get dark, time to think about picking up the other hunters. I was getting ready to get up when it occurred to me that a final effort wouldn’t hurt anything. I decided that I would ‘success visualize’ a turkey in.
Success visualization is a particular mental technique that I use a lot. It involves seeking success in any endeavor by visualizing success as if it already has happened. You see the clay bird break before your eyes before you call for the real bird to be thrown. You see your hands using the misplaced tool that you can’t find before you ever start looking for it. You visualize a happy , healed patient before you ever start the surgery.
So I settled back, cleared my mind and mentally saw a tom bite the dust before my eyes, 35 yards out, beautiful shot, dead on arrival. Saw another hanging from my hands, so heavy that it took both to hold him up, then saw another poised with hunting bag and gun set up as if for a photo. Only then did I get out my favorite box call, the loud raucous one, and blasted out a series of boss hen calls, you know, the bossy sounds that the boss hen makes when she’s feeling her hormones. Reminded me of my mother in law when the kids were getting too rambunctious at a family party. Right bossy. Righteous indignation. Mind your manners. I really ripped one off. Don’t know why I did that, My mind must have told me to.
It must have hit the spot. It got an almost immediate gobble from the right. An anxious gobble too, followed by a second gobble then a double gobble. Suddenly the bird came into view, coming at a dead run down the trail that I had followed to the blind. He was about 50 yards away when he first appeared and he was coming fast. I threw another boss hen cluck at him. He screeched to a strop, triple gobbled and broke into a strut, 30 yards away and looking hard for the boss hen and all the others that should have surrounded her. I couldn’t move. The gun was in my lap, muzzle pointed to the left, the gun’s butt at my right elbow, my hands full of box call. I was camo’d up but right out in the open, if I moved, the tom would see me and bye-bye. I would have to wait him out.
I carefully dropped the call into my lap, waiting for the strutting tom to turn his back. Once he did, I grabbed the gun and got it part way around before he turned towards me again, repeating the performance until I had the butt up against my left shoulder and the bead under his chin. I was wondering if strutting made turkeys blind when the gun went off and the tom went down, cloud of smoke, beautiful shot, dead on arrival. And from the left shoulder, too. I broke into a horselaugh. Wow. That bird must have been out looking for a hen when I called. He was hot as a firecracker. How lucky that I thought of a last minute effort. Or was it the ‘success visualization’?
Next morning came early, up in the dark, breakfast quick before driving to the blinds. I was in a different spot this morning. It was 100 yards from water and food but the so called blind was just a pile of brush with a hole in it so you could hide low to the ground. Knowing that I would have no rest for my back, I brought along a low riding beach chair with a camo cover. Love that chair. Makes it easy to sit half a day without moving. I also brought along a perforated camo cover and a tom decoy with real tail feathers. The camo was great but the decoy was a bummer.
Daylight saw a few hens in the distance, with nary a gobble heard anywhere despite a big roost within 400 yards. I tried some sexy early on the ground peeps but got no gobbles. I tried clucks and squawks with the same result. The few hens I did see went right to water. I thought maybe a gobbler was hiding in the nearby brush behind the hens, so tried some boss hen calling, hoping to get a boss hen upset enough to come and investigate the intruder in her territory, bringing the gobbler with her. It didn’t work. The hens paid no attention. Eventually it became obvious that the strut was not really on, at least not this morning. I even tried some jake gobbles, hoping to bring in a bigger gobbler looking for a fight with a younger bird. I was answered with profound silence. I changed locations, putting myself within 40 yards of the water. Good hide, very effective camo. Except that as soon as I did the hens started appearing where I had been before.
It was about halfway to lunch when I decided that I had to try success visualization again. I wasn’t at all convinced that last night’s performance confirmed the success of the concept. I found it hard to believe that I could call a tom turkey in to his own death just by thinking about it. Of course, I understood that thinking was not the issue, but that the technique depended on the liberation of knowledge and experience from the unconscious mind. And all this because the unconscious remembers everything: everything that you read, hear, glance at, experience ,etc. to the point that it will remember the contents of a full newspaper page even though you only purposefully read one article from that page.
I was mentally seeing a big tom out in my front coming into a strut when I realized that what I thought was mental was real. I don’t know where that bird came from but there he was doing that half hearted strut thing, as if he was convinced that strutting wouldn’t do him any good anyway. Hey, this success visualization thing worked too good, too good to be true. I had hardly got my mind cleared and started seeing a fictitious bird when he was really there.
No matter, there he was and here I was with gun almost in position. There weren’t any hens with him. When he dropped his strut and started off towards the hens in the distance, I got the long gun up, cocking it at the same time. I led his head a foot and pulled off the shot. He was only 25 yards away and the dense pattern of #7 shot took him down in a pile. He hardly even wiggled.
There were three of us in our party. We traded positions and territory every morning and evening so everyone had the same chance of success. That afternoon saw me setting up a new ground blind near an almost dry waterhole. I found a good place under some mesquite, cleared the area for snakes (had one sneak up on me once- but he was more scared of me than I was of him, so it worked out), set up my camo beach chair and draped my camo perforated cover adroitly on the mesquite. I slipped on headcover and gloves to match and sat back to enjoy the rest of the day.
I had picked this particular location because it was on a trail that the local turkeys often took on their way back to their evening roost. It turned out that I was off their route that day. After sitting for a few hours, I began to hear the puttering of feeding birds. No gobbles but I could hear the hens. If I can hear them with my poor ears, even with hearing aids, that means they are within 200 yards and usually closer.
After a bit, there was a gobble, then an answering one from further away. There was too much brush to see, but it was obvious that the birds were trailing back to the roost well out in front of me. I called a few times, doing the feeding hen thing, but got no responses. I tried calling in the boss hen, but it didn’t work either. There were a few gobbles but they were weak and further away each time I heard them. Well, back to success visualization. Why not?
I cleared my mind. Except you really can’t clear your mind, there’s always a thought there of some kind. So what you do is relax, shut out all the extraneous noise and think of the finest thing that ever happened to you, or that you anticipate might happen. The thought has to be good, in the wholesome sense, can’t be negative or evil even if it was fun. The human mind does nor hear a negative and if you think evil that’s what you will get in return. Allow that scene to picture in your mind only briefly, then focus on the current situation. Once again, I threw up a vision of a big tom out in front, a cloud of smoke and the turkey going down. I did it several times then sat back to wait. Nothing happened. The hens still talked out in front on the other side of the brush. I repeated the visualization and still nothing happened.
Than it occurred to me that I had done nothing to change the situation. I had forgotten that the visualization has to be accompanied or at least followed by action. I picked up my call, the box call that I favor. I thought about which call to use, feeding hen, sexy hen, gobbler challenge. My repertoire of calls is not great. I often had thought that any tom that came to my calling was only proving how stupid a bird can get. I sighed and broke into a series of boss hen calls.
I had learned the boss hen call years before when I luckily found myself hid up between three competing hens, all of then loudly calling to the other. I decided to join the fray, mimicking their calls with my old box call. The two hens behind me soon concentrated on each other, I could hear the fight back there in the brush. The hen to my left responded to my challenge. I saw her about a hundred yards off, a strutting tom right behind her. She would stop and call every ten yards or so, but came closer with a decidedly determined air.
I was hiding behind a big sagebrush. She ended up within three yards, looking straight at me. I figured she could hear the thumping of my heart but in a bit she wandered past, still looking for the other challenging hen. I had lost track of the tom, until his head popped into view right where the hen had been, three yards away, looking right at me. The bead of my percussion White Tominator was right under his chin and I jerked the trigger hard.
Oops, the secondary safety was on, and the jerk only produced enough motion for the tom to suddenly recognize the threat. His eyes bugged out and his beaked dropped open. He turned and ran, wings akimbo and head stretched out to the front. It was so funny that I couldn’t shoot. I was doubled up in laughter.
Back to the hunt: I couldn’t tell that the boss hen calls I was emoting were any different than others that I tried before. But I got a response. There was a series of angry yelping from the other side of the brush, many yards away, or at least it sounded far off. A second set of yelps sounded closer. I yelped back, doing my best to sound irritable and cranky, but young and inexperienced. A red head appeared through the brush, a bluer head behind the red. I couldn’t see the hen, but she was close, her calls louder and more strident.
Usually, I see the challenging hen first. This time the gobbler appeared first. The red head I has seen turned into a youngish tom with a 6 inch beard, probably a two year old. Behind him came an older blue headed tom with an 8-9 inch beard. I had never had two come in with a boss hen before.
Neither of the toms were strutting. The hen still was not in view and had shut up. She was probably looking right at me but I couldn’t see her. This time I had the gun in position, cocked and ready before the toms ever showed.
I had to wait until the two toms separated enough that the pattern would not kill both. Then the shot was easy. Mr. blue head went down with a crash, a dozen shot in his head and neck. Success visualization had apparently worked, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure how. I could only guess that the technique enhanced the calling. Surely it didn’t communicate with the turkey!
The next morning was the last day of the hunt. The weather was clear, bright, cloudless and hot. I didn’t hear a single gobble all morning. Not one. A few hens wandered by in the distance, I could hear their quiet peeping as they fed along but never did see one. It was nearly midmorning before I did success viz again. This time I saw myself posing with a table full of turkeys. Then I saw myself posing for a shot with a tom in each hand, big foolish grin on my face. Nothing happened. Not a sound now. Everything was quiet. Even the bugs were quiet. I peeped a few times, using a slate call, then peeped a few more, trying to sound like a lost young hen
I was half dozing with the heat, when a tiny rustle sounded near my right shoulder. I jerked awake and involuntarily whipped by head around. Such sounds are alarming in this country, especially when you are low to the ground. The snakes get big and I don’t like snakes. Could have been a little bird, too, but anyway I found myself staring into the face of a gobbler not ten inches from my eyes. His head was twisted off to the side, as if he was trying to figure out what this fool thing was that looked like a pile of weeds but sounded like a lost hen.
Probably I looked as startled as he did. He whirled around and took off running, heading off to my right. I jumped to my feet, how I got there is a mystery because normally jumping to my feet is a long and laborious process because of a knee replacement and age. But there I was up with gun to face and bead on red head, didn’t feel the trigger pull, or feel the flash of the pan or the recoil of the ounce and a half of shot as it blasted out of the fusil, crossed the 33 yards of space between me and the running bird and crashed into the back of his head. He went down just as he was cresting a little rise that would have hidden him if he had made it across. I suddenly realized that the flintlock was right in front of my nose, not on the other side of the gun as usual and that the butt was in my left shoulder. I had taken a running shot left handed!
I was flabbergasted. I don’t practice shooting left handed much. In fact, only rarely will I shoot a rifle left handed, and hardly ever a shotgun, although left handed pistol shooting is a given in the Cowboy game. I was also delighted, to say the least. I have been long convinced that, for the bigger part, the only game we kill and the only fish we catch are the idiots or the profoundly unlucky. This last tom was probably the dumbest turkey in the world, getting that close before discovering that he had been humbugged.
I began to wonder if success visualization goes beyond just enhancing personal performance because it awakens the unconscious mind. Maybe thoughts really are as concrete as some philosophers insist. That what we think really does project out into the great beyond, to vibrate across distance and time and never completely die away. Could I really influence the behavior of a bird, especially one that values his life just as much as I value mine? Could I influence him enough that he would walk unknowingly in to his own death? Am I really that good?
Or maybe the dumbest turkey in the world is…….. No. Unthinkable. Surely not me!