The Old Man.
We overcomplicate spring turkey hunting. Trying to out-think an animal that does not think is the supreme exercise in futility. We postulate and propose various scenarios that do not take into account that the damn bird does not know what he will do next, regardless of weather, temperature, time of day or phase of the moon. The premise is so simple we miss it completely: if the bird is ready to come, he will come. Period. If he is not ready to come, you may be able to do something with him, but the smart money is on the bird.
They gobble on the limb like there will be no tomorrow, answering every call, then fly down and strut for three or four hours, ignoring even the live hens standing around them, then stand around silent and look at each other from eleven ‘till four, then stagger around for another four hours, gobble like hell for 30 minutes and then fly back up in the tree. Their brain is the size of a medium shelled peanut; eat, screw, roost, repeat − that is the life of a turkey gobbler.
I hold the television hunting shows responsible; aside from the fact that hunting is not a spectator sport, and the fact that I would rather take a beating than sit in a pop-up blind over a bait pile adorned with rubber turkey dummies, the Jeeters on the boob-tube only show the kills so they can sell the latest gee-whiz junk for the greenhorn and never show the reality of the situation, that the tom turkey will kick your ass 99 times out of 100 legitimate, fair-chase hunts. A friend once said if you need a dose of humility, try golf; obviously he never tried to best a good tom on his own turf. So much for the top of the food chain. It’s a wonder we figured out fire.
The Hell Hole is aptly named and has been called by that name for more than 50 years. It is a hunter’s dream come true, where deer, bear and turkeys die of old age and never see a human. It is hell to get into and hell warmed over to get out of. Every step you take down into the Hole will cost you three to get out. You can listen from around the edges but you can’t hear it all from any one point; if you go into the Hole to hunt, you cannot easily buzz out to another vantage point; once you commit, you are committed. It is the place that has taught me patience and perseverance and the true meaning of faith; it is where young turkey hunters go to prove themselves and where old fat men go to die. I am a fat, old man.
I heard the bird the week before the season opened on a frosty Appalachian mountain dawn, listening, as my son put it, where I shouldn’t have been listening, given the impossibility of the terrain. The year before I did battle with what had to be the same bird, calling him in three times out of six trips into the Hole and every time coming up empty. I saw him during the summer near the top of the mountain, so close to the logging road I could have killed him with my childhood BB gun, and during deer season twice more, and three times during the late grouse season, once so close that his black eye looked at me with a hatred no game animal has ever shown me:
“That’s right, you bastard, you can’t kill me, try as you might. I know every stick and stump in this thousand acres and I will never be fooled by the likes of you!”
We’ll see about that, damn your black soul. We’ll just see.
I am a serious turkey hunter. Not serious as in studious or by measure of intelligence, but serious because I have, since 1963 at age eight, measured my life by the 50 Aprils and Mays that have passed since that tender age, when my father took me to the New River hills for my first spring hunt. Using a P.S. Olt F-6 turkey call (which I still have) I was privileged to call in a monster tom, down to the opposite shore of the river, and watch him display for over an hour. From that time forward I was dedicated; I would learn to love to hunt other game, but nothing after that morning would ever compare to chasing big toms. It had to be done right, it had to be done fairly and it just had to be done. In those 50 springs I’ve had some success and many, many humbling failures, but every bird has been different and the challenge has never dimmed. I am proud to be a turkey hunter.
My black Lab, Zack, taught me in 1990 that one should not store turkey beards in a shoe box. I came home one fine day after work to our new home and found Zack sitting proudly on the living room carpet, surrounded by tiny shreds of shoe box and wet wads of regurgitated beards, and even a couple “Labrador Loaves” that bristled like hedgehogs were strategically placed on that new carpet. Four of those 37 beards had come from the Hell Hole. Zack survived the incident (he had the kids to thank for that) and subsequently I bought a Vietnam-era ammo can for beard storage. That can now holds 34 post-1990 beards and the new Lab, Buck, shows entirely too much interest in that can. I have to lock it up in the safe with the guns, just to be sure.
The author’s beard trophies with his dog-proof ammo can.
I am “old school” when it comes to spring turkeys, not because it may be fashionable but because it fits me. I like single-shot or double barrel shotguns and box calls and would not be caught dead with a decoy, although I have no problem with their use; it’s just not for me. I had killed six spring gobblers before I owned a single stitch of camouflaged clothing and I have no problem with the killing of turkeys with the rifle, muzzleloader or handgun, if it is legal; indeed, my son and I built my dedicated turkey/squirrel rifle in .38 Special using an original low-wall action, a half-octagon barrel he machined and a burl walnut stock I hand-carved. My favorite turkey gun is my 40-year-old Savage 24V combination gun, a .223 over 20 gauge, and the lion’s share of my birds have been killed with the 20 gauge barrel within 25 yards. If the game department didn’t want you to kill them, there would be no season. Use what works for you.
The author’s “old school” turkey gun.
Opening morning I took the plunge, an hour before first light, one step at a time down, down into the Hole. I eased up near a short saddle on a finger ridge and evaporated into the base of a monarch hickory, perfectly camouflaged and as still as a petrified stump, waiting absolutely unmoving through the light of shooting time and sun-up, hearing the tanagers and pileated woodpeckers and drumming grouse and the beating of my heart. After three hours of this nothing, near the bottom of the Hole, a thousand vertical feet below me, straight-line distance maybe 500 yards, he gobbled strong − that deep-bass roar of an old tom that knew he was the boss.
I ignored him. Five minutes went by then he gobbled again, then again in two minutes. He roared like a tiger and even the crows shut up when he answered their harassment. I waited an extra five minutes then I yelped so soft on the box I myself could barely hear it; he triple-gobbled in reply. I let him gobble for 10 minutes then gave a near-silent single cluck. He went berserk. I could measure his progress up the finger ridge toward me, gobbling like a two-year-old bird as he climbed the hill. I stood pat.
At 250 yards he started a broad semi-circle to the west below me, then back again to his original spot, then east about the same distance as his western ploy. I gave him a three-yelp, held off five seconds, then cackled. He shut up. The next time he gobbled, 45 minutes later, he was at 50 yards, across the little hollow to my right, just out of sight over the crest of the next ridge. I did nothing. The next time he gobbled, 30 minutes later, he was across the little hollow to my left, just over the crest of that ridge. I scratched in the leaves. Five minutes later he gobbled right behind me, as God is my witness no more than 10 feet from the tree that was my backrest. I almost stroked out.
Twenty minutes later I glimpsed a large black blob ghosting through the beech whips 35 yards below me to my left. When it disappeared behind a 30-inch red oak I smoothly moved the single-shot 16 gauge to intercept him when he came out. What came out was a 450 pound black bear. We made eye contact and he bounced on his front paws, popping his teeth like a starter pistol. I took the hint, snapped to my feet and waved my arms and said, in a calm, reasonable voice:
“Prithee, Mr. Bear, it is I, man, surely you can smell me with this load in my pants; please reconsider coming any closer, as I will have to shoot one of us.”
Or, something to that effect.
The bear swapped ends and evaporated over the ridge. It sounded like a transfer truck going down through the rhododendron. It took me almost two hours to get back to the truck.
It rained like hell for the next three days and I stayed home, stewing in my own juices, planning and plotting. I did not sleep. I barely ate. Luckily I was able to hold to a strict bourbon and cigar regimen to keep my edge. A new approach was called for; I would enlist the help of number-one son. He remained dubious.
With a worthy adversary on his back, the author climbs back up out of the Hell Hole.
That faithful morning, once again an hour before first light, Wade slipped down the old road bed in the bottom of the Hole while I eased down from the top, one ridge to the east of my recent stand. I found, through feel, mostly, and with the help of a waxing gibbous moon, where the old tom had spent so much time strutting four days before, and took up residence where I could command not only the strutting ground but also the open timber ridge below it. This time the bird started gobbling on the roost just at shooting light. After 10 gobbles I heard the first crow and Wade’s tree-call; the bird stopped gobbling. Five minutes later I once again heard Wade call, this time a cackle and some light cutting. Nothing. Ten minutes went by and with the Gobbler Cleaver I clucked once; the bird instantly gobbled right in front of me, no more than 40 yards away. The gun was in my lap and I could not move.
He stepped out from behind a big black cherry and cruised into the strutting ground like an aircraft carrier, a warm morning stove with a softball on the first pipe joint, then he turned his back on me, his broad, spread fan hiding his head as he came into full strut. Smoothly I brought the 16 gauge to shoulder and cocked the hammer; he came out of strut and focused that big black left eye right on me, recognizing the change in the landscape, and we both knew how this would end.
Somewhere across the river, if you have lived a good life and paid attention to the important things, like your children and your honor, you will find there is a mountain cool and green, and on the south side there is a long, steep, deep and rough hollow where the faint of heart will never tread. If you get this far you will know that you are in God’s favor; and if you look close you may see an old, fat man striding up out of that canyon, a big turkey on his back and a smile on his face.
It might just be Heaven.
Walt Hampton is a retired wildlife biologist and gunsmith from Virginia's Appalachian Mountains. He has been writing for the outdoor market since 1990.