Atherton: Roll the dice, shoot a gobbler
The first turkey is a memorable one for Rochester hunter Gary Holty.
The gobbler's head looked like a shining red beacon of hope.
I and my hunting partner, Gary Holty of Rochester, had spent an uneventful three hours sitting in a blind east of Oronoco. We'd heard a few distant gobbles from the roost, followed by some half-hearted gobbles once the toms hit the ground, but we'd seen nothing.
It was May 3, the first day of Gary's turkey season. He'd hunted unsuccessfully three previous years, including last year when I guided him for two very dull days a few miles south of Rochester. He's a veteran deer hunter, so he knows how to sit and be patient, but hours of staring at an empty pasture can take a toll on a guy.
Our boredom, however, vanished quickly when I scanned the horizon for what felt like the hundredth time that morning.
"Gobbler coming right at us,” I whispered when I saw a brilliant patch of color some 100 yards away. The contour of the land hid most of the bird, so for a few minutes all we could see was its head as it marched toward my two decoys.
Some distance beyond the decoys was a single cedar tree, and two days earlier I'd paced it off at 45 yards. Gary's gun was loaded with 3-inch TSS loads, so if the bird reached the cedar, I figured it would be in range.
But that's not what happened. Once it was in full view and got a good look at the decoys, the gobbler turned and moved to our right. It wasn't spooked or even remotely nervous, but it showed zero interest in the decoys or my calls and never came closer than 60 yards. Gary lowered his gun as the bird drifted off to the north and disappeared into a hollow.
"He didn't strut, and he didn't gobble,” I mused aloud. “We haven't seen any hens. I wonder if they're done breeding?”
A turkey hunting dilemma
We chatted for a while, and some 30 minutes later I was in the middle of one of my better turkey hunting stories when Gary leaned forward, his gaze fixed to the southwest. “Bunch of turkeys coming,” he said.
Three gobblers were playing follow-the-leader. None were strutting, and again they ignored the decoys and my calling as they browsed on grass and insects.
"They're gonna go past us, just like the other one,” I said. “But they're closer.”
It was a classic dilemma. TSS turkey loads are known for killing gobblers at big distances, but I've never used them and I hadn't seen what Gary's gun could do. While I was pondering the situation, the front gobbler passed behind my 45-yard tree. The second bird was even closer, but still at least 50 yards away.
"Shoot or wait?” Gary asked with his gun raised.
Figuring that we miss 100% of the shots we don't take, I said, “Shoot the last bird. He looks bigger.”
At the shot, the gobbler rocked backward, then took a couple steps before flying. He covered 100 yards, then landed in a patch of woods.
I wasn't optimistic as we left the blind, and we were at least 75 yards away when the apparently uninjured gobbler sprinted away, eventually crossing a road into the neighbor's property.
We did the typical post-miss analysis and second-guessing, then settled back into the blind. "So, does that mean we're probably done for the day?” Gary asked.
I was tempted to say yes, but the weather was perfect and it was barely nine o'clock. “Oh, not necessarily,” I told him. “Birds can come from anywhere around here.”
A few minutes later, I was about to suggest that we move the blind 50 yards closer to what appeared to be the turkeys' preferred travel corridor, when something caught my eye several hundred yards to the north.
"Gobbler?” I asked aloud, almost to myself. It took Gary a few moments to spot it, but he agreed.
"Is that the first bird we saw?” he asked as the tom meandered around, first toward us and then away.
"I bet it is.” I replied. Again, the bird ignored my calls and eventually disappeared behind a grove of trees, then reappeared in the stubble of a picked corn field, now some 400 yards away. It soon was joined by a smaller turkey, perhaps a jake, and both birds began moving east.
Dashing through the pasture
Normally, I don't chase gobblers, especially on small properties like the 40-acre parcel we were hunting. Stalking a bird is a good way to bump it off your hunting land (and stalking can be dangerous on public land), and the odds of sneaking close enough for a shot are very, very low.
But this was an unusual situation.
"Gary, I know exactly where those birds are going,” I whispered. “I've killed two gobblers up there. We can circle back and get into the woods, and there's a trail that might let us get ahead of them without being seen, but we have to move right now.”
Gary didn't hesitate. “Let's go!”
The birds were out of sight as I unzipped the blind, and a few seconds later I was leading Gary at a near-run. We dashed across another pasture, then through a pine grove to the trail I'd walked 100 times in the past decade.
It was a bright day, but the woods were dark. The trail was covered with leaves and twigs, but the ground was soft, so we made good time and little noise. I had no way of knowing where the birds were, but we'd find out soon enough.
We were about 150 yards from our destination when I stopped and waited for Gary to catch up.
"One guy is quieter than two,” I whispered. “Keep going as fast as you can without making noise, and be ready to shoot when the bird crosses the trail.” He nodded and marched silently onward. I waited for him to get 20 yards ahead, then slowly followed.
Gary reached the crest of a small incline, and suddenly his gun popped to his shoulder.
The shot seemed oddly quiet in the woods, and Gary didn't move after he pulled the trigger. I raced to his side, and about 50 yards ahead, I saw wings beating the ground.
"Got him!” I hollered as I sprinted toward the bird. Before I reached it, a jake raced in and began to attack its stricken comrade. The jake fled when I arrived, and when I grabbed the still-flopping gobbler by the neck and lifted it high, Gary hollered in jubilation.
"Wow!” he said as we exchanged high-fives. “That was amazing! He's huge!”
The bird had beaten us to the ambush spot, and if it had crossed the trail just two or three seconds earlier, Gary wouldn't have seen it, let alone gotten a shot.
"He stepped out just as I got to the top of that rise,” Gary said. “I couldn't believe it.”
He wasn't alone. Even as Gary posed for pictures, I still couldn't believe it. We'd gambled on a very low-percentage strategy, and had I been the one carrying the gun, it's entirely possible I wouldn't have been fully ready at the moment of truth. Veteran turkey hunters have plenty of experience with failure, and while we hope for the best, it's easy to expect the worst – especially when you've already missed a bird that morning.
Gary, with the optimism of a novice, had walked up that trail with every expectation of shooting his first gobbler. When opportunity presented itself, he closed the deal.