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.

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