Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Opening Day 2008 - Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

My anticipation for my fourth turkey season (and hopefully my third longbeard) really began to escalate a few weeks ago when I visited the at-home gun range of Thrill Kill Decoys creator, Randy Dickson. There I had the opportunity to interact with 14-year old Baleigh, Randy’s niece. The two of us spent some time that day patterning and practicing under Randy’s supervision. Following a late afternoon walk through a Starke County woods to look for signs of turkeys, I was definitely anxious for the impending season opener.

On the eve of Indiana’s youth season, I revisited Randy’s gun range to put my mind at ease in shooting my Mossberg 835. Later that evening, Randy and I picked up Baleigh at her Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and the three of us set out to roost turkeys in preparation for Baleigh’s first turkey hunt the next morning.

Randy dropped Baleigh and me at one location, and he headed down the road to another. At the farm where Baleigh and I remained, we sat quietly by a giant rock and in only a few minutes of waiting were rewarded with one or two male birds and a few hens entering a cut corn field in the distance. Meanwhile, I was receiving text messages on my phone from Randy with such content as: “Mother lode here.”; “5 long. Many jakes.”; “6 toms I think. 1 monster.”; “An embarrassment of riches.”

Needless to say, the location Randy scouted that night is where he, Baleigh, and six Thrill Kill real decoys were headed on opening morning of the youth season. In the pre-dawn hours of the youth opener I was at home in bed, restless. Every time I stirred from my slumber, I’d check the clock and imagine the status of Baleigh’s hunt. I was excited to receive my wake-up call that morning with Baleigh on the other end informing me of her first-ever turkey hunting success! Later that evening, Randy showed me some awesome video footage of the allure of Thrill Kill Decoys to wild turkeys and Baleigh’s sharpshooter shot. (Her younger brother Brandon, a seasoned turkey chaser at the ripe old age of 13, got a gobbler, his fourth, later that afternoon. Ironically, he killed it at Schafer’s, the location Baleigh and I had scouted the night before.)

With the only two youth hunters I knew seeing their success during the first day of the youth season; it was now full steam ahead to the regular season opener on Wednesday…

I met Randy at his house around 5:45 on Tuesday morning and the two of us headed out to locate gobbling birds. Living in western Porter County, I’m not blessed with turkey-populated woodlands out my back door like my hunting partner happens to be around his Starke County home. For nearly every morning the past 3 weeks Randy had greeted the rising sun somewhere in nearby turkey country. He sent me to my spot knowing that area winter flocks had only recently broken up, and that the longbeards were trading roost spots almost daily. My job was to find out if the birds had returned to their most consistent evening haunts the night before. While I observed turkey tracks and strut marks in a sandy clearing in the woods and a few male birds strutting in a nearby field, gobbling was slow, and birds weren’t doing what they were, according to Randy, supposed to be doing. But longbeards strutting on the property was good news, even though they’d roosted in an unusual spot in a sparse wooded copse in a large CRP field across the rural gravel road.

Randy saw some hopeful signs at his site too. Two toms with a handful of hens pitched out of small pyramid of hardwoods, directly into the greening cattle pasture. Taking advantage of the field’s rolling structure, Randy quickly backed out, bolstered by the recent arrival of this small flock on what is, in the fall, one of his favorite goose hunting destinations. During winter months larger aggregates of birds normally inhabit a larger, more heavily timbered section south of the “goose field.” Until the last few days, turkeys here, like the Starke County farm I was scouting, had held in the winter formation.

Not long after full sun-up, Randy motored back to pick me up, with me anxious to show him the strutting birds in the field I’d been covering. But our watching was short-lived, as work commitments forced us to temporarily shift out of turkey mode to attend a meeting at Purdue University, nearly two hours away.

Work responsibilities behind us, we arrived back at Randy’s on Tuesday evening, quickly donning our camouflage and jumping in the truck. Our evening spots were a repeat of the morning, with our hopes now centered on roosting birds for opening morning. While I heard and saw little at the woods, Randy roosted two toms, a jake, and four hens over at the goose field. With the birds put to bed, it was time for the hunters to get a few restless hours of sleep before the required 3:00 a.m. wake-up time.

The day had finally arrived; it was Wednesday, April 23rd, the opening day of Indiana’s 2008 turkey season. We were in the truck and headed toward the pasture site by 4:00. We had to be in place extra-early, as we would be setting up very near to where the birds had roosted. The primary objective for the day was for Randy to bag a longbeard with his bow and for me to capture it on video. The aforementioned objective entailed plenty of gear that had to be stealthily carried to the hunting site: four Thrill Kill real decoys, a bow, a blind, a shotgun, a tripod, and a video camera, not to mention all the other gadgetry that turkey hunters tend to carry. If things went well, we would have even more cargo on our way out of the pasture!

Once the blind and the decoys were set up, we stepped into our hide and tried to get all our equipment situated in the most effective way possible. After readjusting ourselves and our gear a few times, and after I nodded off a time or two, there was finally beginning to be enough light outside to watch the birds on the limb that Randy had roosted the previous night.

Fly-down seemed to be a bit later than anticipated due possibly to some early morning cloud cover, but soon enough the birds were on the ground. Once off the roost, the toms and jake Randy promised would be there began to put on a show for four hens, also promised. As the males strutted, with the hens feeding around them, I began to capture video footage of the turkeys’ springtime ritual – display, gobble, display, gobble. Eventually, the birds began to slowly work their way toward the Thrill Kill decoys that were set within 10 yards of the blind.

As the gobblers strutted calmly in our direction, Randy contemplated a head shot versus a body shot, while continually ranging the yardage and feeding me the distances. “The bigger longbeard is 29 yards. Now he’s 25,” whispered the bow-toting hunter. Soon, the two lead hens arrived in our decoy spread, towing the most aggressive and dominant tom behind.

As a hen pecked at the head of a real hen decoy, the gobbler postured for the tom decoys, but only briefly. Before I could adjust to the closeness of the live birds, the strutting and purring longbeard crushed Randy’s semi-strut tom decoy, bowling it over and onto the dew-soaked grass of the pasture. The fighting purring grew louder as the other male birds, also within killing range, added their voice to the donnybrook going on 10 yards away. With the fighting-mad tom pacing quickly around the decoy, head bobbing and pecking at the now horizontal feathered imposter with nearly every step, Randy opted for the higher-percentage body shot. My heart threatened to leave my chest as Randy came to full draw, placing his 20 yard pin just below the drumstick-body convergence.

The bow’s report, even though anticipated, caused a shudder to course through my tensed body. The 125 grain Vortex broadhead found it’s mark, knocking out both legs and clipping lowly through the gobbler’s vitals. This being the first longbeard bow-kill I’d witnessed, I was amazed at how quickly the stick and string dispatched the bird. He travelled no more than 20 yards from the decoy he’d accosted, and the last flicker of life left his eyes as he tucked his blood-red head under his chest and expired without the “death throes” I’m accustomed to. How awesome!

But while the image of that bow-kill is forever etched upon my mind, the video footage only partly supports the visions trapped securely within my synapses. We’d organized things so that I videoed from Randy’s left. The bearded bully, at the time of the shot, stood left of the decoys and the open corner window of the Double Bull blind. The frame shows the image of Randy’s arrow zipping cleanly through the opening, and the doomed longbeard thrashing back into view for an instant, but though I leaned as far toward Randy as I could to try to get an angle on the bird, things just didn’t go quite as planned. Following a well-worded lament, Randy remembered that he’d told me at the hunt’s genesis that making the killing shot was more important to him than my capturing it on video. It would have been great video, too.

But before we took time to review the footage, there was still the small matter of a second longbeard zigging and zagging anxiously just outside of the blind. Randy muttered something about me getting my gun, but his words were unnecessary. I had exchanged the camera for the scattergun moments after Randy’s bird was down, and was now focusing on tagging a tom of my own. Again, I had to lean toward Randy to get a clear line of sight, now for my two-power red dot sight instead of the viewfinder. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking clearly and I didn’t have my safety off when I tried to pull the trigger. (A lesson learned that I would have the opportunity to apply later that very day.) During this cognitive lapse, the tom wandered further away. And so I botched a Randy-Joan opening day double for the second consecutive year.

After the post-hunt photo shoot and video commentary, we packed it up and headed back out of the pasture with Randy carrying roughly 23 more pounds of happy burden with him than he had on the way in.

Meanwhile, Randy’s brother Rick (Baleigh and Brandon’s dad) had filled his tag on their family’s land in Starke County. Little did he know when he eased into position that morning that he would be sitting directly under roosted birds. Lucky for him, he had snuck in undetected and managed to shoot a strangely spurless longbeard right after fly-down.

Back in Randy’s truck, we were on the road heading away from the goose pasture. The woods I had visited twice the previous day stood between the site of Randy’s kill and the nearest check station. As we got nearer to that woods, Randy encouragingly asked me if I wanted him to drop me at the woods rather than have me hang out with him while he cleaned his turkey. Though I was hesitant, I decided I needed to have a little faith in myself, and I agreed to trek out on my own. Before parting, I made Randy commit to joining me with the video camera as soon as his bird was checked and cleaned.

Armed with my shotgun, two Thrill Kill real decoys (a semi-strut tom and a hen), a Gatorade, and a turkey vest containing more stuff than I’d ever need, I set out across the field toward the woods. Once inside the woods I found my way back to the sandy clearing where I had observed tracks and strut marks the previous morning. I surveyed the zone and opted to set the decoys facing each other near the edge of that sandy blowout.

With the decoys in position about 20 yards (slightly downhill) from where I was going to park myself, it was time to take a seat by the tree that was going to be my support until the sun went down or I shot a gobbler, whichever came first. I checked my watch; it was around 9:00 a.m. Once I was sure I was all set up, I made a few yelps and clucks on my mouth call to see if I’d get a response. Nothing. I kept my eyes and ears keen to my surroundings while I waited another 15 minutes before doing a little more yelping. Still nothing. I continued to watch the time and yelp occasionally.

As it neared 10:00, I heard rustling in the dried leaves on the far side of the sandy blowout. I very slowly turned my head that direction to see two birds rushing straight toward the Thrill Kill decoys I had set up. After spotting red heads and beards on both birds, I knew it was go-time. I quickly yet cautiously switched on my red dot sight and slid my safety into the ‘off’ position (I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice in one day!).

The two longbeards headed straight for the semi-strut Thrill Kill tom without hesitation, and began to show him what you get when you infringe on their territory! I knew what I had to do, but the two birds were too close together to pull the trigger on one. “What would my mentor Randy do?” I asked myself. I putted a few times. It didn’t faze them; they were totally involved with the Thrill Kill decoys! So I putted again slightly louder, hoping for separation and hesitation. One bird was receptive to my calling, and he became separated from the other as he hesitated. I put my red dot on him and pulled the trigger. The other bird took off in the direction they had emerged from. My target lay flopping in the sand.

I didn’t immediately check the spurs or look at the beard; I was too stupefied by the fact that I had just accomplished every turkey hunter’s objective all by myself. Though this was my third tom in four years, this was the first time I had succeeded without my coach at my side. I was sure proud of myself, and I hoped Randy would be proud of me too! So the first thing I did was call him. I don’t suspect that he was expecting that call so soon, and I didn’t want him to worry about why he was getting a call, so as soon as he answered I blurted out, “Hey, we got us another dead turkey over here.” He asked me about the spurs, and that’s when I took a look at a leg. My response was something along the lines of “In my opinion, they’re pretty frickin’ huge…and sharp!”

By this point in time, Randy and his brother had accomplished little more than checking their turkeys. Regardless, Randy told me to stay put and that the two of them would come to my location to get the full on-site report and to conduct the now customary post-kill photo shoot. With a grin that couldn’t be removed from my face, I relaxed by my tree while I awaited their arrival, and contemplated how I was able to accomplish this solo feat…

When Randy first started coaching me in “outdoorsiness” a few years ago, he once told me to learn something from every outing. From that point forward, I made an effort to reflect on every experience, find at least one or two key learning points, and consider how those lessons could be applied to future outings. Thanks to Randy’s mentoring, even though he wasn’t by my side for my hunt, he was still in my head. Without his guidance, I might not have made the decisions that resulted in the longbeard that was lying peacefully on the ground next to me.

Soon I heard the sound of the two brothers making their way toward the sandy blowout. Once the guys looked over my limbhanger and began to comment, I knew that my harvest was really something! Once I had retold my story of the magnetism of the Thrill Kill tom and the territory-defending longbeards, and the photo shoot was complete, it was time to throw that bird over my shoulder and make our way back toward the truck on this unseasonable warm northern Indiana April day.

As we would learn at the check station, my bird weighed in at 27 pounds, had very sharp 27 mm spurs (which equates to about 1-1/16 inches), and an 11-inch beard. And with that, before noon on opening day, turkey season drew to a close for me, with thoughts flowing through my head of all the lessons I learned that day and how I’d be tested by turkeys again in less than 365 days!

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