At the end of another spring, a veteran gobbler chaser reflects on a half-century of hunting
Maine, Opening Day, 2020
Pandemic, shelter-in-place advice kept some of us turkey hunters close to home this year.
Me, I hit the Maine timber, softly padding over wet leaves from the prior day’s steady rain. Silence. I leaned against a big oak, far from my parked truck, and listened. Geese fired up, then honked and clucked as the false dawn arrived. Two turkeys, not far away at all, shock gobbled as if on cue. Snaking my way through the woods toward the birds, I slipped in tight, and sat down between the birds.
There, strutting, drumming on the limb, silhouetted in view, one gobbler hammered some distance away. Another gobbled back behind me. I made a little mellow tree talk with a slate. Both gobbled. I shut up. Pitt-pitt, the bird in front winged down behind a hilly rise. I mouth yelped, softly, thinking the turkey might skirt my setup, but then it turned … and walked right in. I savored the moment, pulled the trigger, and hustled to the downed bird.
After the shot, five other turkeys fired up, gobbling hard. Another tom worked in as I watched, enjoying the moment. Though I had another tag, and could’ve ended my season right then and there, I let the bird walk. I wanted this season to last.
With my March and April travel plans scrapped, grateful is an understatement for what I was feeling. And it’s then I also thought of my dad.
Pennsylvania, Opening Day, 1971
My dad was at my side during my first spring turkey season.
I hadn’t slept much at all the night before, prepped for the early rising, the morning’s hunt to come. Pre-dawn, dark as a coalmine as we eased up the game trail, rising higher and higher, to a special place reminiscent of the Ned Smith paintings of ridgetop gobblers. It was enough to be out there, hiking the ridges near our north-central PA home, listening for a gobble. Having studied outdoor magazines for the occasional article on turkey hunting, my anticipation was high.
We heard nothing that morning, and found no turkey sign.
No matter: I was out there, turkey hunting, with my dad. Success is how you define it, how it feels to you.
You were always on my mind. A line from a Willie Nelson song is kind of corny, sure. But it’s 100% true. I often remember my dad’s advice while I’m in in the turkey woods. I think of him when I need to be patient while working a gobbling bird: “They’ll sometimes go silent when they’re on their way and coming in.”
More than once that tidbit of advice has put a tough tom in the back of my vest.
Then, Now, Always
There were so many other lessons over the years. My dad was the opposite of today’s so-called helicopter parent. He led by example. You learned the rest on your own. Gun safety? You earned your way into his group of older hunters, men my age now.
That’s how he taught it, how you learned it. Respect. Even a little fear of failure. You only pointed a firearm at something you planned to shoot, period. Loaded or unloaded, to swing a muzzle past another human accidentally was the ultimate sin (and potentially dangerous).
I still size up another hunter this way – including those folks I’ve guided on turkey hunts, both new and seasoned hunters – noting how they carry their shotgun. How they load and unload it. Whether they treat that firearm with the respect given to a timber rattlesnake, or the casual indifference of a house fly in the room. Such times are teaching moments. Pass/fail pop quizzes.
Find your way around in north-central Pennsylvania’s big timber? Forget GPS, Google Earth, and all that. This was the 1970s. Dad taught woodsmanship by emphasizing visual landmarks that were burned into memory. As we squirrel or fall turkey hunted, he’d suddenly ask: “Where’s the truck?”
My mind would race in reverse: oak and hickory woods, barbwire fence, high hillside full of mountain laurel, wild grapes where we’d flush the occasional grouse, rusted school bus, trout stream … and I’d point west.
And he’d grin, his blue eyes sparkling.
I miss you, Dad, and still think of you every time I cue up mental landmarks while hunting. And surely when I crouch down to put my hand on a still-warm gobbler. It all comes rushing back to me. We never killed a turkey together but surely tried. But every bird I’ve ever tagged since then, well, you were right there with me.
And especially when I look around the big timber I’m so often hunting and try to remember where the truck is parked.
Realtree turkey hunting editor Steve Hickoff has chased gobblers all over the United States and Mexico. He was born and raised in northcentral Pennsylvania, and now makes his home in Maine. Hickoff was named the NWTF Tom Kelly Communicator of the Year for 2019, a prestigious award reflecting his longtime work promoting hunting and conservation as a turkey hunting writer, editor and book author.