One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
It was the day before opening morning of Texas’ 2006 spring turkey season and Mossy Oak’s Ben Maki and I were counting gobblers as they flew from their roosts and congregated with what appeared to be about five times as many hens in the field we were watching. I’d come to San Angelo on the heels of a 4-day hog and javelina hunt at the Herradura Ranch ((830) 373-4590)near Cotulla, Texas, and since I’d arrived a full day before the season opened, Ben and I were doing a little pre-season reconnaissance.
The majority of the toms we saw that morning entered the field by walking down a 45-yard-wide clearing between the tree line and the fenceline that enclosed the field. It didn’t take us long to realize that was where we needed to be in the morning.
And a half-hour after our alarm clocks buzzed early the next morning, that’s exactly where we were—trudging our way toward our fenceline ambush by the light of the pre-dawn sky.
As daylight began to break, Ben filled the air with soft yelps and clucks, but for the most part, the field that had been full of turkeys by this time only 1 short day before, was now empty and painfully silent.
“Where are the birds?” Ben asked, to no one in particular.
As those words left his mouth, I looked to my left and saw a turkey sprinting toward us as fast as its legs would carry it.
As the bird got closer I could see a thin beard hanging from its chest, so I pulled the stock of my Browning 12 gauge tight to my shoulder as I waited for the tom to get to us and stop. And at 35 yards, he stopped behind the only turkey-high bush between him and us. And he stayed there for the next 2-3 minutes before his curiosity finally got the best of him and he poked his head up just high enough for me to find it in my scope. I clicked the gun’s safety off, took a deep breath and pulled the trigger.
I know it’s been said that if you hunt turkeys long enough, you’re eventually going to miss one, but you’re still never quite prepared for it when it happens. At least I’m not. After I shot, I sat in absolute horror as I watched the bird take flight, completely unharmed and untouched by the load of pellets I’d just thrown his way.
Dejected, I stood up and walked over to where the tom had stood. Not even a feather. Our only explanation—true or otherwise—was that the bush must have deflected the pellets. That, or I simply missed, which is far more likely.
Ben and I spent the rest of the day calling to and sneaking up on various other toms, and while we got close on a few occasions, something always seemed to get in the way of a shot opportunity.
A New Day
The next morning, Ben and I were joined by Mossy Oak’s Darrell Daigre. Before daylight, the three of us set up shop in a clearing a few hundred yards from a flock of birds Ben and I had watched roost the night before. A layer of fog had moved in overnight and while our visibility was restricted, we could still hear both hens and toms in the distance. Ben and Darrell began calling to them as soon as they hit the ground and while we couldn’t see them, we could tell they were coming our way.
The first turkey that materialized through the fog was a hen. She was less than 50 yards away, yet I could barely see her silhouette through the thickness of the fog. A few seconds later, more turkeys—hens and jakes—began appearing through the fog. It was without a doubt one of the most captivating sights I’ve ever seen in the wild.
After the last of the hens and jakes broke through the fog, I saw three big toms ghosting their way through the fog and toward the rest of the birds. Their appearance caused me to momentarily lose track of the 20-or-so hens and jakes that were still very close to us and as such, I swung my gun a little too quickly. And when I did, the birds raised their heads in unison and looked directly at me.
That’s when I heard Darrell.
“Cory, you can’t move like that.”
He was right, of course. I’d moved much too quickly and was now frozen with fear as the whole flock became visibly nervous. I knew I was within inches of blowing the whole setup.
“Do not move a muscle,” Ben continued to call while Darrell coached me on how to get out of the mess I’d gotten us into. After several long seconds, the birds finally calmed down and went back to feeding. I looked for the toms and found them now 20 yards behind the other birds. As I waited for an opening, I saw another tom by himself out of the corner of my eye. In one fluid motion, I swung my gun on him, found his head in the scope and pulled the trigger. He dropped without moving a feather. After the shot, I saw a blur of Mossy Oak camouflage rush past me. It was Ben and he was on the bird almost before it hit the ground.
As Ben retrieved the tom, Darrell walked over, pulled me to my feet, smiled and said, “Nice shot.” They didn’t give me much time to celebrate my first Rio, though, because once they settled down, Darrell said he expected the birds to eventually work their way back to the clearing. And since I had another tag in my pocket, we set back up, called and waited. But the birds never returned and after an hour, we packed up and went looking for other toms to harass. We never found any.
Before daylight the next morning, Ben, Darrell and I found ourselves in the same exact clearing and sitting against the same exact bushes as the morning before. And as the sun began to rise, the same exact scenario that had played out the day before began to play out again, line by line. The only thing missing was the fog. And like clockwork, hens and jakes soon began streaming out of the woods just as they had the morning before. I had a pretty good idea what was coming next.
The two toms walked by at 20 yards, side-by-side and in full strut, spitting and drumming the whole way. But this time, there was nothing between me and them but open air. And when one of the toms fell behind the other, I found his head in the scope, pulled the trigger and “hit” nothing but open air!
As turkeys took flight all around me, I began looking for the nearest hole to crawl into. It’s one thing to miss a turkey by yourself, but it’s quite another to miss one that’s been put in front of you on a silver platter by two expert callers. Perhaps sensing my embarrassment, Ben and Darrell walked over and attempted to cheer me up.
“Look on the bright side,” Ben said. “I came up with a title for your article: ‘Catch-and-Release Longbeards.’”