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Bringing the noise

5/12/2009

This is Part I of a six-part series chronicling Steve Bowman's six-day chase of one elusive turkey.
Follow Bowman's Turkey Trek: 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1

BALD KNOB, Ark. — It was opening day in Arkansas, and our turkey trek was basically on its first steps.

The trek had already seen its share of hardships. The early spring had been one severe storm after the other in the places where turkeys like to gobble. Hunts were postponed because of tornadoes, hail storms, and rain that fell sideways and every other direction.

You want to know why the drought has ended around Lake Lanier in Georgia and Lake Hartwell in South Carolina? It's because the turkey trek had scheduled trips in the neighborhood. Same goes for the unnatural weather conditions that accompanied the Bassmaster Elite Series Lake Wheeler event in Alabama.

This trip was different, though. This was the day when I was home. The stop was at my club, where I own 200 acres and lease another 1,100 contiguous acres. This is where I felt like I knew the turkeys, where in year's past, sans turkey trek, I start the year more often than not with a bang.

And the weather was perfect.

The area doubles as a duck and deer club, where most of the acres are flooded during duck season and occasionally during turkey season. It is highlighted by a big creek bottom full of oaks and outlined by agricultural fields and several CRP pine plantations sitting on the high ground.

When the area is flooded, our turkeys like to roost over the water, flying off the roost and spending the day along the creek bottom edges and in the pine plantations. From a hunting standpoint, it can be pretty simple terrain to pattern a turkey.

But that doesn't matter. Every hunt here is special. Partly because when you do it on your own land, it just seems more personal. And partly because almost every year, this piece of property serves up something unique and exciting.

My first turkey hunt there is a prime example. I had been taking care of these birds for almost 10 years, and almost reluctantly decided it was time to take advantage of the hard work.

I remember it was Monday morning, my work and church duties keeping me out of the woods on opening weekend.

Jeryl Jones was with me to capture the hunt on video. We set up on the edge of a pine plantation, looking over the creek bottom. I didn't know it at the time, but we were far too close to the roost.

When the morning started breaking I could hear turkeys rustling in the limbs. And after years of shotguns going off near my ears, if I hear a tree yelp I'm practically sitting on the roost tree.

This morning I heard tree yelps from real hens. I tried to melt into my tree, looking for any hint of an exact location but mostly listening for a response. Interestingly enough, no gobblers responded.

I kept listening, watching. Another series of hen yelps and no response. Then crows started cawing and a turkey gobbled hard. A hen tree-yelped and everything was silent. An owl hooted and the turkey gobbled.

It went this way for several minutes. I had my diaphragm in my mouth, a slate call on my leg, but they seemed useless at the moment. A crow would caw and the gobbler would hammer. An owl would hoot, the gobbler would bellow. A hen would tree yelp and everything would be silent.

Turkey hunters often do things they shouldn't. I'm virtually renowned in that respect. With mouth call in place, I gave a coarse, loud but precise series of yelps. Many turkey hunters would advise against it. This time it was the perfect thing.

Not only did the gobbler gobble (I guess a little peeved that one of his girls would get out of line) but the same hen that was tree yelping earlier started scolding me.

I froze for half a second and started scolding her back. And within moments I was in a cat fight with a nasty-talking hen. It was yalp-yalp-yalp, cutt-cutt-cutt with a mouth call followed by identical responses from her, or was it the other way around?

Either way, Jones joined in with his mouth call. I added scratching on a slate and Jones did the same.
The two of us were scratching and calling, and the nasty hen just kept scolding. Several of her girls pitched in to help her. And in the background, the gobbler never let up rattling the woods.

This went on for several minutes and the pace picked up when the birds hit the ground.

Crows started pitching into trees, cawing and sputtering their own mixture of calls, while watching the activity on the ground. I could mark the progress of the turkeys on the ground, by the crows in the trees.

It got better. A group of eight barred owls flew into the mix — this is the first time I've seen a flock of owls. They were all hooting and laughing.

Within minutes, there were at least six different gobblers gobbling, more hens than I could count cutting and cackling and all the crows and owls you could want in the biggest ruckus of wild noises I'd ever heard.

The hen showed up first strutting — the first time I've ever seen that type of behavior from a hen — with her little covey of hens backing her up. Not far behind were two big gobblers, the bigger of the two bringing up the rear.

It was a pretty nervous situation. The cacophony of sounds was deafening. There was a peeved hen strutting and cussing 15 steps in front, all sorts of eyes from the party of hens with her and a couple of spooky toms, just wishing the girls would straighten up so they could get back to the business of being turkeys during breeding season.

I took the first shot I could on the lead bird, opting for the sure thing instead of taking a chance on the bigger bird. I can remember wanting so bad to pull the trigger but at the same time, not wanting any of it to end.

It turned out sort of nice, though. The bird weighed in at 24 pounds, with an 11-inch beard and 1 ½-inch hooked spurs. And he was the smaller of the two. The "sort of" part came in when Jones realized he'd never turned on the camera in all the excitement.

Since that day, every turkey hunt is judged by this one, even more so when I slip into those woods.
I would have no idea that when this season started that one of the descendants from that first hunt would create a new standard on how I would chase a specific turkey almost to an obsession.