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!

No comments:

Post a Comment