Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Fall of The Phantom

April 15th, the 21st day of the 2011 California Wild Turkey season at 6:15 am marks the moment in time that I defeated a bird who was a most difficult adversary. I call him The Phantom Tom. PT for short. I had hunted him numerous times over the past four seasons and never got a glimpse at this bird. He always roosted in the same tree, overlooking a strip of meadow grass that sloped down a hill. He could see in all directions anyone who might be coming to challenge his dominance. To take over his kingdom and steal his queens. He had a booming gobble that was very recognizable to me. It had a sort of raspiness. A confidence projected through his gobble that warned all other males to stay away, while gently coaxing the girls to his love nest. I would set up on him time and time again, but he would always do something that was unexpected. I patterned him by the sound of his voice, but each time I set up to cut him off after fly down, he would change it up. 

I consider myself a pretty good turkey caller, not one to win a competition by any means, but I have brought in my fair share of birds of the years. PT would always hang up 50 yards for a while before disappearing silently. I tried setup after setup. Boss Tom decoys with hens. A breeding pair. Hens only. A Jake and a hen. A breeding Jake. A lone hen. Fighting Toms……the list goes on and on. I never tried the absence of decoys…until the 15th of April.

A couple days before, I had hunted PT with a Jack Williams from Outfittershack.com. We set up just 50 yards from his roost, got him gobbling all crazy like, set up a Tom and a hen decoy and waited. Fly down came and he hung up just out of sight while gobbling his mad little head off. We worked him for about an hour and a half to no avail. He made his silent escape. After discussing what in the world his problem was, we decided that maybe the decoys made him nervous for some reason.

Two mornings later I arrived full of anticipation. I was to duel with The Phantom again. Match wits with a gobbling machine. I got my gear on, but left the decoys in the truck, and headed out into the mountains to find The Phantom. I neared his normal roost and right away he thundered out his gobble like a semi truck driver at a cute girl. I quietly snuck into the woods. At this point I was already 50 yards from his tree. I wanted to see exactly where this bird was living so I made my way in ever so carefully, ever so quietly. I stepped on a branch, CRACK!!! “GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE!!” He fired back. He was directly above my head about 40 yards up a tall pine. And there he was in all his featherless glory. And that’s when I noticed the little meadow directly behind his tree that I had never seen before. I quietly backed out of the woods, away from his castle and back out into the big meadow where I always set up in the past. And made my way around to the other side of his little meadow.

I set up about 15 yards from the edge of the little meadow. I found a big pine to sit against, The Phantom was gobbling his mad little turkey brain off at all the noise I was making. He must have thought I was a hen scratching in the leaves because He never busted out of there. I got my face mask on, my gun up and into place, resting on my knee and I waited for fly down.
12 minutes later he stopped gobbling. I wanted to hear him gobble some more so I made a couple of soft yelps with my mouth call and scratched in the leaves with my hands, “Gobble gobble gobble.” He fired off. And wouldn’t you know it, he performed a series of hops and glided down to land 20 yards in front of me and went into full strut. He was spitting and drumming and looking all mighty. He was showing off the fact that most of the feathers were missing from his chest and he was emphasizing the scars from old and new battles that raked his bloated chest. This bird was indeed mighty. He was indeed the king of the valley. He was indeed the ugliest, most horrifying turkey I had ever laid eyes on. He was old. At least 6 or 7 years of age. He was majestic.

 I clucked, he gobbled! I yelped and he went nuts looking for this hen that he hadn’t bred yet. I enjoyed his display and let him play it out. When that time came, where he was beginning to suspect that there might not be a hen around, I placed the bead on his ugly majestic head and pulled the trigger. The Phantom has fallen.

I couldn’t believe that after all of these years of hunting this bird he was finally in front of me. I walked over to him to admire this bird who had probably bred every hen in the valley, and thanked him for a wonderful 4 years and for the meat he would provide. I looked him over and petted his feathers. He had a beautiful full fan, an 11 inch beard and 1.5 inch spurs. I later would weigh him and he would be just near the 25lb mark. He was missing all of his chest and neck feathers, but he was the most amazing bird that I had ever seen.

This fight with The Phantom is one that I will remember for the rest of my days. His Tale fan, wings and beard will sit in my game room in a place of honor to remind me of the greatest hunt of my life. The hunt that lasted four seasons.

I want to say thank you to my wife for putting up with my obsession with The Phantom. Without her support the hunt would not have been as enjoyable.  I love you babe!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You Just Never Know!

3:30 am comes really early when you have to travel 2 hours to get to your turkey hunting area. It was 6 degrees when I left the house. The truck had a layer of shimmering ice that lit up and seemed to glow under the motion sensor light that I triggered as I came out of the garage. It was pretty. I’m always a bit apprehensive when I’m going to hunt with someone that I’ve never met, which was the plan for this morning. I agreed to take someone to my secret turkey hunting spot in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California, which is a big deal. I gave him directions to the spot the night before and told him to meet me at an intersection close by. I’ve invited people before and they didn’t show up, either because it was too early or they wanted to sleep, so I was kind of expecting there to not be a truck waiting for me at the intersection. 

I was wrong. Low and behold, as I pulled up to the intersection (which is very remote btw) there was a truck awaiting my arrival. I was surprised, a little excited, and a tad apprehensive. But after making our greetings and a little discussion, I knew we were going to have a grand old time.

Twilight… 5:45 am. No birds sounding off. We make our way out into a field and start to walk the edge hoping to hear a bird thunder. 6 am I crow call very loudly…Nothing…6:05am I crow call again…nothing. I’m starting to get a little bit nervous at this point. There have always been birds here before…This is Phantom Tom’s classic hangout, but nothing. No gobbles. Silence. I tell my hunting partner for the day that usually the birds are across the field roosted up in that tree over the grassy area. I couldn’t understand why the birds weren’t gobbling. Maybe the recent heavy snow pushed them to a lower elevation? I don’t know.
6:10am, I decide to do something that I almost never do while the birds are on roost. The crow call wasn’t working. Owl hoots didn’t work. I slid my box call out of its holster. Held it up high.  And made a God-awful, super loud, raspy old yelp. A couple of seconds float by of silence and suddenly as if out of a loudspeaker, “GOBBBLLE GOBBLLE GOBLE!” Roared out from the tree over the grassy area to accost our ears. At that moment all nervousness disappeared and excitement took it’s place.

We hightailed it across the field and got into position. My partner set up his video equipment, I set out the decoys, a strutting tom and a hen, and we both found a tree in good position. We sat silently for a while, listening to the tom (I’m pretty sure it was the old Phantom Tom) gobble his turkey head off at every sound. I scratched the leaves on the ground and the bird fired off. A crow cawed and the bird fired off. I gave a quiet little hen tree yelp and the big guy double and triple gobbled. This bird was hot! We didn’t call anymore for about the next 20 minutes. He just kept gobbling and gobbling only 50 yards away from us. We didn’t hear any hens and that was encouraging. So we thought we had it in the bag.

 I heard him fly down off the roost and land up behind our set up. We both started to do a series of yelps and cuts and he gobbled just as much. I was expecting to be shooting a big old tom any second. An hour later, he made his way over a ridge never to be heard from again. 

What the heck went wrong? I knew this was PT because he had done this to me like 10 times before. I have hunted this bird every way possible, and still he manages to hang up, or come in unseen, or simply vanish. We were discussing the situation and figured that this old bird must not have liked the strutting decoy that I had set out. I’ll try something different next time.

Not wanting to quit hunting just yet, we decided to walk and locate another bird, to no avail. Whatever gobblers were around earlier must have vanished with old PT. We walked the old logging roads calling all the way back to the trucks. Nothing. Or as my 4 year old son says, “Nuffin!”

My buddy opted to go and catch his sons’ baseball game since the birds weren’t making any noise. He had wanted to get this hunt on film to post on his website business outfittershack.com, which is a great place to get any outdoor, hunting or fishing equipment that you would ever need, but it wasn’t happening this day.
We spent some time talkin turkey, but he eventually left to see his son’s baseball game. I decided to stick it out because, well, you never know. Right?

I made my way up the old logging road in my truck to another area known to hold some birds. It was about 8:50am when I stopped at the top of a ridge and called from my truck with the same box call from earlier. And wouldn’t you know it, another Tom fired off maybe 300 yards away. Needless to say, I put my vest back on and facemask and made my way closer to cut the distance. I called periodically with my mouth call just to get a response so I could locate him. I got to a little intersection of two logging roads, yelped and got a very loud Gobble just 50 yards out. I quickly found a seat and got ready. 

Just as I sat down I saw a couple of heads bobbing around on the road in front of me. Hens. 6 of them eventually passed in front of me. Next in line, 3 jakes. And following closely behind, the biggest bird I’ve ever taken, heck the biggest bird I’d ever seen came strutting out in front of me. And since we weren’t getting this on film I didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. I harvested that bird at 9:02. That hunt took a total of 12 minutes from beginning to end. He had a beautiful full tail fan. A 12 inch beard and spurs that were 1 ¼ inches long. He ended up weighing in at a whopping 23lbs. I put all of these details into my iPhone SCI application and the bird scored a 44! Whatever that means. I was ecstatic. I got the bird back to the truck and took a few pictures of him before heading back home.

I learned many lessons during this hunt. I learned that even when you think it’s a done deal, that’s not necessarily going to happen. I also learned that even when you don’t feel that the birds are responding, you’re frustrated from un-participating birds, don’t stop hunting. Keep trying. Because you never know what will walk out in full strut.