Thursday, May 27, 2021

St. Maries Turkey Hunt

St. Maries turkey hunt April 2011

"We'll be able to shoot them right off the front porch. It won't take more than 20 minutes, I promise." Kevin assured me.
"We'll see about that." I replied with suspicion.
Kevin and I were driving north to St. Maries on a turkey hunt. Our friend Cameron grew up there and his parents still had a place with a little land adjacent to public land. The last time Kevin was there, the turkeys were just hanging out in the yard. Kevin had never hunted turkeys before, and based on what he'd seen there, he assumed it would be a walk in the park. Turkey hunting is rarely that easy.

We arrived near dusk to find no turkeys in the yard. Imagine that. Tim, Cameron's dad, welcomed us and helped us settle in for the 2 day hunt.
"The turkeys haven't been around too much. This time of year I just mostly hear them every now and then. Just tromp around back there in the woods and you're sure to find something." Tim said, waving a hand in a general direction. 
I gave Kevin a look that said, I told you so.  

Tim agreed to take us to a piece of public ground near the lake where he'd seen some turkeys recently. At first light we were walking away from the truck in pursuit of the American Wild Turkey. By noon, however, we'd nearly climbed a mountain and had only seen one hen turkey and found a whitetail deer antler. We decided to return to the house and "tromp" around in the woods near there. We returned to the house to find no turkeys in the yard.
"Hey look Kevin, no turkeys in the yard." I pointed out.
"Yeah, yeah. I see that." Kevin shook his head.

The public land behind Tim's house was a medium sized, forested plateau with a mountain on the north end. Kevin and I headed east from the house, crossed the creek that marked the property boundary and climbed on to the top. Once on top, we found an old road that followed the edge of the plateau. We walked slowly and quietly, calling from time to time. No birds responded, but we did catch a glimpse of a wolf running across a meadow on the other side of a canyon. Kevin and I sat down and began watching the hillside across from us where a big tom turkey appeared and began strutting. He was nearly a half mile away and our calling illicited zero interest. The old road took us to a nice opening that overlooked another creek bottom. It was now mid-afternoon and we were both tired. We each picked a tree to rest against and take a nap, hoping some turkeys would magically appear during our slumber. 

I awoke to a noise on my right. Was that a turkey cluck? I slowly opened my eyes and turned to my right. Fifty yards away, 2 gobblers stood near the old road looking toward the creek. I froze. I looked toward Kevin who was in between the turkeys and myself on my right side. Kevin was also awake and aware of the birds. The 2 birds slowly walked forward and towards the opening in front of Kevin. I'm a right handed shooter, and based on the angle, it would be tough for me to rotate my body for a shot. Kevin had a greater advantage where he was located, so I just sat still. The 2 birds continued nervously forward until they were only 20 yards in front of Kevin. One of the turkeys suddenly took flight and glided across the creek bottom to the other side. Shockingly, the other bird just stood there; a fatal mistake. Kevin's shotgun rang out and in front of him lay his first turkey. 

We took a picture, grabbed his bird and headed back to the house. We breasted and legged his bird, then put the meat on some ice. With just a little light to spare, we headed back out to the woods to locate a bird for me to chase at first light the following morning. Surprisingly, at the same spot overlooking the creek where Kevin had just shot his bird, we heard a gobble. The gobble was coming from somewhere on the other side of the creek or even down in the bottom. As darkness neared, we knew the bird would roost there and be ripe for the picking in the morning. We backed out of the area and had a solid game plan for the next morning. 

At first light, we had our backs to some trees overlooking the creek where the turkey had roosted the night before. In front of us, motionless, stood 2 plastic decoys; a hen and a jake. The morning was very foggy and we could only see a few yards past the decoys. Then we heard him. The gobble carried through the fog, sounding like the bird was all around us. Goosebumps overtook my arms. Kevin clucked back at the bird on his slate call. "Gobble, gobble, gobble" rang back from the bird. We had his interest. Kevin and the bird talked back and forth, each time the gobbles grew louder as the bird got closer. The hill in front of us dropped off and the fog was still super thick. The gobbles were now so loud I could feel them in my chest. Any moment the bird could appear out of the fog. I could hardly contain my excitement. Then I saw him. Out of the fog appeared the tom turkey. When he saw the decoys, he puffed up in full strut, then let out a long, loud gobble. The noise was deafening at such close range. The bird paused for a second and gave me an easy 20 yard shot. BOOOOM!!! The bird expired quickly and our hunt was over. 
"That was so cool!" Kevin said. "I can see why you like this turkey hunting stuff."
"That was much better than shooting one off the front porch!" I replied, still shaking. 

We headed back to the house, cleaned the bird and packed up our things. On the drive home, along the Salmon River, we spotted an
osprey clutching a fish in it's talons as it flew over the highway in front of us. The bird was 20 feet above the road and I assumed he would gain elevation. As I continued at 50 mph toward the bird, at the last minute the bird dropped elevation and smashed right into my windshield. Kevin shrieked and ducked. I closed my eyes for a second and when I opened them my entire windshield was spidered. I slowed my truck and turned around to find a dead osprey on the side of the road. We felt really bad, but at least the bird died quickly. My windshield, though, was trashed. When I touched the cracked glass, small fragments fell. You could even see the slime smear from where the fish smacked my windshield. We looked all over for the fish but never could find it. I drove much slower the rest of the way home.

It had been a memorable turkey hunt. Kevin shot his first turkey and I had shot my second. We had to work a little harder than Kevin had expected, but I think it was much more fun than shooting them off the front porch.  

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Big, Dumb Birds

 North Idaho turkey hunt 2021

The first animal I ever hunted was the wild turkey. As a 13 year old, the excitement of calling in a loud, strutting bird was more than I could handle. I spent the next 10 years a turkey hunting addict. However, as my spring schedule began to fill each year, turkey hunting was the first activity to be sacrificed. It had been numerous years since I had purposely chased the iconic spring bird. My friend Rick had just moved to North Central Idaho and not only did he have land with lots of turkeys, but he wanted to take me to some other areas where he'd hunted them before. This was just the push I needed to free my schedule and make a trip!

Day 1

Although Rick couldn't hunt until Thursday, I decided to head up on Tuesday. I would use the extra days to hunt an area I'd hunted before. Hopefully I'd be tagged out by Wednesday and purchase a second tag for our hunt on Thursday. 

I arrived at the area I planned to hunt around 1 pm. I figured the afternoon would be quiet and in the evening I'd figure out where the birds were roosted so I would have a solid game plan for the following morning. I was pleasantly surprised when I parked to immediately hear birds gobbling down in the creek bottom. Multiple birds. A large smile materialized on my face. I quickly gilly "suited-up" and crept down an old road, found an opening and sat against a tree, ready for action.

I was on a medium-sized piece of State land with a creek flowing through the bottom of it. Relatively steep, forested hillsides climbed up the East and West side of the creek with private land surrounding all of it. By the sound of it, there were multiple gobblers on the opposite side of the creek. With any luck I'd be able to call one over to me, or have another bird appear from another direction ready to play. Not long after sitting, I heard a hen yelping close to me. She and I began to communicate, and after either of us would talk, the gobblers across the creek would sound off. This continued for a while until the hen wandered in front of me at 30 yards. She clearly knew something wasn't right and after some time she wandered off. 

The afternoon slowed and the sound of the spring runoff in the creek began to drown out all other sounds in the woods. I took a short walk closer to the creek bottom and did some calling, but the only gobbles heard were higher up the creek on some private land. I ended up spending the rest of the day sitting against a tree, calling from time to time, hoping a lonely tom would sneak in. As the sun began to set, I heard 2 gobbles on the opposite side of the creek. I would start the next morning in the same area.

Day 2

By first light I was sitting against a tree looking over a nice opening in the woods near yesterday's location. As the sun rose, the sound of gobbles seem to come from every direction, cutting through drumming grouse, robins and other song birds, joyous in the new day. 

I called and communicated with several gobblers. Some sounded like they would approach and then fade in the other direction. I could hear at least 5 different birds but none ever fully committed. By 11 am, I was itching to try something different. I decided to cross the creek and slowly hunt my way up the West mountainside.

I crept up a deer trail through the thick woods to the edge of some private property. I called and a gobbler quickly replied; he was close. I could also hear some hens with him. I decided to slowly walk backwards and call periodically. The gobbler was responding well to my calls and appeared to be on a string to my location. With any luck, I could lure him down to an old road where I'd be waiting. I made it down to the old road and as I got set up, I noticed a gate in front of me at 40 yards. If the bird crossed that gate, he'd not only be legal, but within range. His gobbles grew louder and so did my heartbeats. I saw movement in the brush and a bird appeared on the edge of the road; a hen. More movement; another hen. Three hens came out onto the road and began to feed on the private side of the gate. Where is the gobbler? Then I caught a glimpse of another bird coming through the woods. Through a small opening, I saw a long beard nearly dragging on the ground. My heart skipped a beat, but I was ready. The gobbler made it to the road and then puffed up in full strut for the hens to see. The bird danced around his hens, his attention fully concerned with their approval. I tried to call quietly a few times but this bird was not about to leave real hens for just a sound of a hen. After what felt like an eternity, the tom and his 3 hens wandered back from where they came. Somehow turkeys have a knack for knowing property lines. I got on the road and continued up the mountain.

I worked my way up and up the old logging roads, calling from time to time. Turkey scat was nearly everywhere; evidence of a great number of birds in the area. I made it to the end of the road and had not heard a gobble since my encounter with the birds at the gate. I found a well used deer trail and began to follow it, continuing on my path toward the top of the hill. It opened up onto a nice flat open area, surrounded mostly by wild roses and other medium-sized bushes. Directly ahead, another drainage formed; a perfect spot to call. Hoping for some fresh birds, I let out a long loud yelp sequence. Cutting me off, a gobbler replied, fairly close by. I picked a prime area to sit where I would hopefully see the bird approach. Ready for action, I began communicating with the bird. He would talk back on a fairly regular basis but did not sound like he was getting any closer. Based on how most of the other birds had been doing the same, doubt crept in my mind of the success this "interaction" would have. In fact, the last gobble I had heard sounded like it was further away. I called several more times without a response. Now 1:00, the sun was high and the air was warm. I decided to lay down in the shade of the bush I was under and just listen for a while. 

I had only been laying down for about 5 minutes when I heard some soft scratching in the pine needles and grass behind me in the opening I had just been watching. Please be a squirrel, please be a squirrel. I slowly tipped my head back to see what creature had snuck into my area. Ten feet away stood 2 large gobblers. Rats! Panic flushed through me. I'm such an idiot! The 2 birds were now looking directly at me. They must have been wondering why that strange lump of brush was moving. I had to make something happen, and quickly, but my entire body was supine and facing the wrong direction. My only course of action was to quickly flip over, swing my gun around and hope to catch one of them by surprise. I acted, but the birds were no spring chickens. Before I could even pick a bird, they scattered in opposite directions and took flight. Laying on my belly was no position to attempt to knock one out of the air, anyway. I sat up and hung my head between my knees, defeated. If I had only waited a few more minutes... I remembered that toms sometimes did this; the silent sneak in. Those birds had been on a string to my location and had just decided to stop talking.

Feeling dejected, I began my way back down the mountain. The woods were quiet now, I was very hungry and it was about time to make my way over to my buddy Rick's place. Tomorrow we'd take a boat across the lake to an area he promised would have turkeys.

That evening, I met up with Rick. I told him about all my encounters so far and my failures. His response: "Oh don't get too upset, they're just big, dumb birds. If you're fretting over that, you need to go see someone."

"I think I need to see someone," I laughed. 

He took me to his property shortly before dark to see if any birds were around. Sure enough, a gobbler or 2 and some hens could be heard over on his neighbor's property near where he said they liked to roost. I talked back and forth with them for awhile before realizing they weren't going to come over. 

That night we stayed at Glenn and Jeannie's house. Rick and his wife, Carlene are in the process of building a home on their property. Until then, Glenn and Jeannie have been kind enough to house Rick and Carlene. Tomorrow would be a new day in a new area, giving me renewed optimism.

"Ryan, do you have decoys?" Rick asked.

"Yeah, but I haven't had much luck in this area with them." I replied, thinking about previous bad fortune.

"I'd at least bring a hen with you where we're going tomorrow." Rick said with confidence.


Day 3

By first light we were launching the boat. It was only a short ride to the hillsides we'd be hunting. Glenn said he'd troll for Kokanee Salmon while Rick and I hunted. He'd pick us up a couple miles to the North sometime in the early afternoon.

Rick and I quickly ascended the hillside to some openings he knew. Once there, I began calling. A bird responded a short distance away. We quickly got setup, placing the single hen decoy out towards the opening where a tom would be able to see her as he approached.
I called again and the tom cut me off with a long, loud gobble, this time much closer to us. This bird was fired up and coming in! I practiced aiming my gun at invisible turkeys; I was ready. Then I saw him coming in from the left and he entered the opening on the East side. A big, long beard could be seen as he steadily walked toward the decoy. Wow, is this actually going to happen? Maybe we'll spend the rest of the day casting to big, early spring smallmouth? The tom made it to about 50 yards and stopped. He stared long and hard at the decoy, then let out an alarm cluck. Crap! He nervously walked back and forth with his head high, clearly anxious to leave. The tom started running to the South and then took flight, disappearing forever. I looked over at Rick.
"That was weird. He clearly didn't like that decoy." Rick said with confusion.
"Yep. I've hunted birds that came right in to the decoys and others that ran the other way." I replied shaking my head.
"I guess we won't use that again. That's ok, there are plenty more birds." Rick assured me. 

We continued on, hiking old logging roads towards some more openings. I'd call from time to time, but several hours went by before we heard our next gobble.

Directly below us, a bird gobbled. Then another, and another. Three gobblers could be heard and some hens, all in the same area but on separate ridges. Rick and I crept down to what we thought was about 100 yards away. I talked back and forth to the closest bird but each time it sounded like he was getting farther and farther away. We decided to creep closer.

We made it another few hundred feet lower and stopped and listened. There! Below us another few hundred feet, a bird gobbled. We crept closer and sat. The gobblers continued to descend the hill. These birds were clearly on a march down the mountain; perhaps to get a drink in the lake. 

We jumped up and continued down the ridge we were on, stopping to listen from time to time. Yep, the birds were working their way down. We crept closer and must have gained some ground because the next gobble was close! We sat down and got ready. The gobbler was just below me out of sight, but couldn't have been more than 75 yards away. His gobbles reverberated through the woods, sounding like he was all around me. I was ready. Then, directly ahead I saw movement. It was his tail fan. I could just see the top half of it as he strutted. Come on, just come a little closer you big, dumb bird. I called a little more aggressively. The tail fan slowly disappeared and once again his gobbles got quieter. Rats!

We tried to follow the bird but must have eventually spooked him. The woods had quieted down and so had our optimism. It was now 1pm, hot and we had walked 4 or 5 miles. We hiked down to the lake where Glenn picked us up. The last 2 days had been full of turkey talk, encounters and had honestly been a blast. But I was feeling defeated. They're just big, dumb birds. They're just big, dumb birds. Somehow that didn't help. 
"Ryan, you're welcome to try sitting in the blind in the back yard this afternoon." Glenn said, seeing that I still had turkey on the brain. "There's plenty of toms around. We usually see a few every day."
"I just might. I've come so close, yet it seems so far. I'm eager for redemption, even if it is a 'yard bird'". I replied, shaking my head. 

We made it back to Glenn's house, but a storm was in the future. From my experience, turkeys don't talk much in the rain. But I was desperate, and what better way to spend the rest of the day than sitting in a blind with a glimmer of hope.

Glenn walked me over to the pop up blind sitting next to his wood pile. "Sorry the roof is collapsed. Here are some zip ties. Maybe you can fix it while you're in there."
I was able to temporarily fix the roof without zip ties, so I sat and opened my book, ready for a slow afternoon of turkey hunting. 


I kept an eye out for any silent "sneak in" birds, but my book began to get really exciting. I heard a strange purring noise and realized I hadn't look up from my book for nearly 4 pages. I slowly lifted my head to see a real turkey standing next to my hen decoy. Holy crap! My heart beat fast as I studied the bird, adjusting my eyes from the white pages I'd been reading to the outside lighting. A hen. She approached the decoy with curiosity, circling it and purring. She eventually lost interest and left. That was cool! I need to be paying closer attention if I'm going to make this happen. 

The rain came down in waves and I continued to sit, read and watch. It was now close to dinnertime and I was beginning to gain some serious appetite, while steadily losing hope. I decided to see if I could fix this blind with the zip ties before giving up and going inside. I fumbled with the roof supports and zip ties while holding the roof of the blind up with my head. I was beginning to realize the zip ties were not going to work when I decided to look up. I couldn't believe my eyes; 10 yards in front of the blind stood a large mature tom in half strut, staring at me. Holy crap! I quickly reached down, grabbed my shotgun and sat down in the chair as the roof fell back down. If this bird doesn't spook from this, it'll be a miracle. The tom continued to stand there with curiosity. I wasn't going to waste any time. I shouldered my Remington 870, placed the bead on his head and pulled the trigger. BOOM! The bird collapsed and expired. I sighed in relief and exited the blind. 
"Yay! Wahoo!" I looked over to my right and on the back porch, Glenn, Rick, Carlene and Jeannie stood with smiles. "We watched the whole thing. He came right across the back yard here!" Carlene said, pointing.

It finally happened. The last few days had been wild and fun. To finally get it done in the backyard with an audience was just comical. I'm no turkey expert, but the bird appeared to be an Eastern Wild Turkey, indicated by the darker bands on the tail fan. Idaho mostly has the Merriams strain, with smaller populations of Eastern's and Rio's.

We celebrated with a hot home cooked meal made by Jeannie. What a fun trip! Why had I gone so many years without turkey hunting? After so much fun on this trip, I vowed to make turkey hunting a spring priority again.