Monday, February 15, 2010

The Hallelujah Longbeard

If you've hunted turkeys for long, you've probably had at least one very memorable bird strut its way into your life. Whether it strutted back out or not may be part of the overall memory, but I tend to best recall the longbeards I was able to carry out over my shoulder. Here's one that was on the losing end of Devine Intervention. Really. After all, it's my story...

In 2007 my brother accompanied me on a trip to my favorite out-of-state turkey stomping grounds, Pulaski, Tennessee. Early in our trip, Ricky and I each killed respectable longbeards, but then the weather pulled off wet and cool, and the birds got tight-lipped. We spent a couple of days running-and-gunning various parts of Giles County, but to no avail. Late on a Saturday afternoon I took a forced march to a green field about a mile behind the house we were staying in, and retreated deep into my GoreTex as a late-day drizzle turned into something like rain.

Nestled under an old "wolf" oak tree on a pasture fence row, I let the frustrations of the past 2 days soak in. Truth be told, if I'd been back home in Indiana I'd have headed back to the house. But since I was on a turkey hunting trip, after all, and had paid the hefty cost of the out-of-state license, I guilted myself into staying put.

To occupy the time, while I prayed for day to fade to dark post-haste, I did my best to catch a nap. Try as I might, the incessant roll of raindrops off the bill of my camo baseball cap kept me suspended in that melatonin-hazed netherworld, just between wakefulness and full sleep.

After a few neck-jerking exercises, I started to pull hard toward full consciousness. With my eye lids balancing about 50-50 between open and closed, I started to rally around the thought that I was hearing far-off gobbling. Eventually my brain and ears collaborated on that distant noise and concluded that it was indeed gobbling I was hearing. After 2 days of sitting the bench, I was back in the turkey hunting game!

I hit my feet, grabbed my weathered 870 and headed toward the long, narrow-spined wooded ridge that I knew the bird was on. It was 30 minutes before sundown, and I suspected the overcast conditions would bring dark to the Tennessee hills just a little sooner than usual.

Knowing the terrain, I was expecting the gobbler to head right down the spine of the ridge he was on, ending up in a fairly broad and open flat at the ridge's northern terminus. And I knew that if I didn't double-time it I'd never make it there without him seeing me cross the pasture valley between "his" ridge and the one I was currently standing on.

As I stopped to catch my breath, and course the bird, I was encouraged to hear him still gobbling - alot. But it didn't take long to figure out that he was stalled out on the ridge, and already too close to the flat for me to get there. I was going to have to roost him and come back in the morning - or was I?

No sooner than I'd caught my breath, the gobbler turned and headed back south. Both his ridge and mine curved away to the west as they ran south, and I thought there might just be a chance that I could get around him and cut him off in the last 20-odd minutes of the day. I could stay put and roost him from a distance, or go after him and try to get the job done. If I didn't kill him, I'd at least get close enough to him to know which tree he was in for a morning set-up. I started the 1/2 mile end-around.

The first part of the run was easy - mostly down-hill, and all in open fields or on well-worn cattle paths. But getting back up the hogsback ridge that loudmouthed gobbler was on nearly popped the lungs on this Indiana flatlander. But with every gobble I felt more and more like I was being taunted, so on I went.

When I finally reached the top the bird was still gobbling, but it quickly became obvious that in going far enough past him to insure I wouldn't accidentally bump him, I'd blown any chance of killing him before dark. As that reality, like evening darkness, was settling in, the sound of distant wingbeats cut through the heavy, damp Tennessee air. Despite my heaving lungs, I held my breath, hoping I wasn't the cause of those wing sounds I was hearing. A few seconds of waiting allayed my fears - "g-g-g-g-o-o-o-o-o-b-b-b-b-b-b-l-l-l-l-l-l-e-e-e-e-e-e-". He was roosted, and no more than 75 yards from where I stood, panting.

I eased forward, slow and steady. Just a few yards down the old ridge-top logging lane, I spied him, all alone, and still singing his one-word song. Content with my afternoon's progress, I turned around and began the long walk back to my home-away-from-home. It was poker night back at the house, and with a lonley, loud-mouthed tom roosted, I was feeling plenty lucky!

The plan for the morning was simple. I was going right back to where I'd stood at dark the night before, and let my brother have the north end of the ridge in that open hardwood flat toms so enjoy strutting in. We figured that if I didn't kill him at flydown, he'd head back out the ridge, and right into Ricky's lap. Foolproof. Foolproof?

As the eastern horizon slowly brightened, I settled quietly into the fold of a ridgetop oak and waited for the show to start. As expected, the longbeard, still in the same tree - different limb - sounded off only slightly after the neighborhood songbirds started in. There I was, undetected and within 75 yards of a head that begged for jellying.

He didn't wait long to fly down. I somehow managed to keep my diaphragm call in my cheek until he hit the ground. Then I gave a soft series of yelps that was met with an instant, roaring response. I felt almost guilty; this was going to be easy.

This has become a long story, so let me hasten the ending a bit. Instead of walking into my lap, that longbeard "yo-yo'ed" back and forth between my brother and me, always staying just out of shotgun range of either of us. Just as I'd expect to hear my brother's gun break the Sunday morning stillness, I'd hear the gobbles coming back my way. We were being played!

Nearly an hour into the hunt I decided it was time to make a move. After all, I'd only stayed put this long because my brother was on the other end of the ridge. With my anxiety growing I reasoned that even if I bumped the bird he'd still end up in Ricky's vicinity. So as the sound of gobbles became ever-more distant, I made that bent-over shuffle we've all made, from tree to tree, cover to cover. I advanced my position about 75 yards and settled back in.

Sure enough, it wasn't 2 minutes before that darned bird reveresed course and headed right back my way. I gave him a few reassuring yelps, then stuck my call back in my left cheek, while bringing the gun to my right. And sure enough, here he came. I was going to get a shot - but as it turns out, it wasn't going to be easy.

About 50 yards up the ridge the old road split, with an almost undetectable old lane running west, downslope, toward a small pasture field. Instead of walking into my lap, the gobbler veered to his right and proceeded to edge off the ridgetop. I knew the distance was "iffy," but the woods was clean and clear, and I had him dead in my sights. With a squeeze of the trigger I sent a swarm of Federal Heavyweight #6 shot downrange. I was hitting my feet as the old ridgerunner was hitting the leaves.

This is where it get's almost surreal. The bird was flopping, and I didn't want his downhill momentum to give him any chance of escaping. With sleep-tingled legs, I stumbled my way to my feathered prize as fast as I could. I'd no more than gotten my hands around the longbeard's legs than, as loud and clear as if I'd been standing under a church steeple, the sound of the Hallelujah Chorus came spilling in over the south Tennessee hills.

Standing there, hands on turkey legs, I let out a whoop to reassure my brother that he could get up and head my way. Then I simply stood there while Handel's famous overture filled the air. The timing was so perfect that I figured the Good Lord must have willed this turkey into my life. Now I know, sceptics will say that Christ Himself wouldn't do such a thing, but if you'd been there that morning, praying like I was for the chance to put a tag on that longbeard's leg, you'd know Devine Intervention is possible, even in the turkey woods!

This is the church from my story - see the loudspeakers on top?!

To better explain the source of the music, one ridge over from where I was hunting stands a beautiful old country church. In fact, it's the one my friends Andy and Audra were married in. Each Sunday morning their loudspeaker system broadcasts beautiful praise music across the entire neighborhood before the Sunday services start. It just so happens that the first song that Sunday morning coincided with that longbeard singing his last praises; If I hadn't already been a convert, I can promise you I'd have become one that day!

Hallelujah indeed!

Friday, February 12, 2010


I'm not too proud to say I've shot a jake (or 4 or 5) in my turkey hunting career.  In Tennessee a few seasons back I killed 2 on consecutive days.  I'm trigger happy, and make no apologies for it.  But I don't normally try to transfer my blood lust onto others.  I say that as preface to the video you're about to watch, taken on my 2009 trip to Tennessee.

The hunter is Sean Collins, and this hunt took place on his farm in Giles County.  Tennessee regulations allow a hunter to kill 4 spring birds, and at the start of this hunt, Sean had already tagged 3 April longbeards.  That previous trio fell to the miracle of modern smokeless powder; for the 4th, Sean was toting his Hoyt Alpha Max. 

When a gang of jakes showed up in our decoys spread, Sean decided, without any help from me, to thin the juvenile population a little.  But he needed 2 tries!

Hey, sometimes it's nice to take a break from the pressures of chasing limbhangers!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Several years back my brother and I took a May trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota to chase the subspecies of turkey named in honor of the late zoologist, Clinton Hart Merriam.

Meliagris gallopavo meriami, or the Merriam's wild turkey, is one of the 5 subspecies of wild turkeys that compose the slam most turkey hunters aspire to.  Our 2002 trip was the first time either my brother or I efforted to bag this beautiful, white-accented cousin of the Eastern subspecies we routinely chase back home here in Indiana.

While the weather was fickle, and the birds scattered, we did have a great time in the beautiful western hill country of South Dakota.  Ricky managed to tag a nearly-beardless 2-year old tom during a snowstorm, but try as I might, I couldn't connect.  It was an awesome trip, regardless, and I wasn't even back in Indiana yet when I started making plans to go back.

So in 2003 I returned to the Black Hills with another hunting buddy of mine, Andy Edwards.  Just 2 days into our week-long trip, Andy managed to connect on a beautiful bird that I had heard gobbling at dark the night before.  Andy and I spent the next few days driving around the Hills in search of another lonely longbeard, eventually ending up back at our jumping-off point near the town of Lead. 

The last day of the hunt Andy dropped me off, before daylight, in a spot that had proved to hold birds the year before.  His plan was to trout fish most of the day, but check in on me at noon, and every 2 hours after that, in case I killed a bird.  We had a designated meeting spot about 3/4 mile up the access road from where I was hunting, and Andy planned to spend about 15 minutes sitting tight each trip in, giving me a little flexibility for showing up.

At about 2:10 that afternoon, I was surprised to see my white Ford truck coming across the valley bottom I was watching.  I stood up and waved for Andy, and he quickly drove to meet me.  "Man, I was sitting in the truck playing tennis on my cell phone when a longbeard started up within 50 yards of the truck.  I figured I'd better come see if you wanted to go after him."

That's all it took.  By 2:20 I was sliding off the bumper while Andy drove on.  But try as I might, I couldn't seem to strike that bird.  I did a nearly mile-long end-around, covering the entire circumference of the roadside "bowl" Andy had heard him in earlier.  In disgust, I walked back down the logging road and stood at our pre-arranged pick-up spot to wait for Andy to come back.  The only problem was, in our hurry to get back to the bird before he shut up, we hadn't make any plan for exactly when Andy would return.

As it turns out, it didn't matter.  No more than I'd hit the bend in the road where I'd been dropped off, that longbeard lit up all on his own about 1/4 mile east of where I stood.  He was in a big cutover, full of a thick stand of pine regrowth.  I headed up-hill to get above him, hoping I could make him come back toward the road where Andy had heard him earlier.

My first set of yelps got a quick response.  By now the bird had been gobbling just fine on his own, but when I gave him the proper incentive, he started a darned-near maddening series of gobbles that would last until I pulled the trigger nearly 90 minutes later.

The hill I was climbing, now trying to cut him off as he streaked back my way, was the tallest and steepest around.  Try as I might, I couldn't get to the top, or even far enough around the side, to get in front of him.  Gobbling with every breath, that Merriam's longbeard proceeded right around me on the opposite side of the hill, then across the road and back into the bowl he'd been in when Andy first heard him.

I followed.  He gobbled.  I snuck closer.  He moved away.  I followed.  He gobbled.  I snuck closer.  He moved away.  This cat-and-mouse game went on for over an hour, with me worrying all the while that Andy would drive back up the road and bump the bird in the process.

Then, with only about 30 minutes of legal shooting light left, the tom crossed back over the road and started making his way east toward a mature stand of conifers.  I figured he was headed to roost, and I might just as well see where.  If Andy was willing, I could extend our trip by 1 morning, hoping to get a crack at this roosted bird.

So as the longbeard started putting ground between me and him, still gobbling his fool head off, I crossed the road and headed straight back uphill, hoping to get high enough to give him a good listen.  In over 70 minutes of chasing him, I still hadn't layed eyes on him.  For me, just seeing him was going to be a moral victory.

As I dashed toward the crest of the hill, I could tell the bird had changed his course a little.  Slowing down to get a better fix on him, I was stunned to figure out that he was actually getting CLOSER.  And, he wasn't wasting any time in doing it.  I parked my camoed hind end against the nearest pine tree, and heart racing, barrel swaying, pointed upslope toward the approaching turkey.

At about 40 yards that gobbler finally showed himself, strutting down off the edge of an old logging lane.  It took me a second to comprehend that he was actually standing there, in full bloom, with nothing between me and him but the clean cool May air of the Black Hills.  "Never shoot a strutting bird" did enter my mind - for a second - when I centered my sights on his slick, red, strutting head.

I did pay him the courtesy of letting him touch off one last gobble before I snapped that thin clean line between sear and firing pin.  As my payload arrived, feathers flew, and the gobbler started rolling downhill.  I pounced.  Only a couple of hours before I was facing the reality of going home from my second South Dakota trip without tagging a bird.  I wasn't about to let this one get his feet, or wings, under him. 

Post-mortem pictures show that, in my exuberance, that tom lost a few neck feathers.  About 4 days earlier I'd poked fun at Andy for "denuding" the bird he shot as it flopped toward the edge of a pretty deep ravine.  I knew the payback was going to stink, but with a huge "whoop" of relief I threw my partially-plucked longbeard over my shoulder and darn-near floated the 100 yards back to the access road. 

No sooner had my boots hit the gravel then Andy came driving up.  I figured he'd been waiting patiently back at the main road and heard my shot-and-holler.  Turns out, he was just coming back in to check on me.  Had he done so 5 minutes earlier he'd have ruined my hunt for sure.  As it turns out, his timing was perfect.

It was nearly dark before we could start snapping pictures, but I'm not sure there were 2 happier turkey hunters anywhere in the Black Hills that night.  As we drove back into Lead to get a hotel room - and a for-real shower (not just milkjugs of water dumped over our heads), we kept reliving the highlights of our trip.  As we dug deep into the back of the truck for our "going to town" clothes, I asked Andy where he'd put my gun.  Let's just say that Andy got the first shower that night.  I got to drive 30 miles back out to the top of a nice green hillside, complete with scattered, white-tipped feathers, to retrieve my favorite fowling piece.  It's a trip I'd make again in a heartbeat.