Last year around this time I was itching to get out. Between Wilderness hikes and turkey hunting it was clearly spring. This year we had the juggernaut of Coronavirus looming over every facet of our existence. Work was halted, grocery stores had hours limited, public entertainment and dining all but ground to a halt. All while the mountains began to shrug their cloak of snow and flowers began to bloom. We were all stir crazy, and I wasn’t working. So it was time to chase turkeys, even if I’m not very good at it.
It turns out that Coronavirus had me completely off of work for some time, and although I needed to be able to be recalled in the event that work needed me — I was good for a significant radius. I’d spent some time before the season opened scouting some areas both on the internet and in person, so I had some spots in mind. My boss knew I had my iridium enabled Garmin inReach Mini if he needed to get a hold of me and I didn’t have cell signal — so away I went.
What do I say? I woke up opening day of Turkey season thinking that I’d walk into a spot I’d only ever seen on the Internet and probably at least hear a gobble. I got to the trailhead probably around 5 in the morning, expecting a brisk hike in. What I found looked like a used truck lot somewhere in Kansas. Trucks were lined up several deep, and the first truck closest to the gate to get onto the closed road was finishing cooking breakfast and readying their fat tire bikes. Somehow I think that perhaps they’d slept in their trucks. I waved at them, and stripped to my base layers so as not to completely sweat myself out.
Trudging in it was clear that I’d been sitting both on the couch too long, and out of the woods too long. The path to my field was only a few miles, but the up and down of the closed dirt road coupled with being at elevation for the first time this season meant that my legs quickly tired, and my lungs burned. Sweat pooled on my brow trapped by the sweatband of my ball cap. I took a breather when the whir of the three fat tire bikes passed me. Dammit.
I figured as I got closer to my spot that the guys on the bikes were headed exactly where I’d scouted on the map. There were only two fields within a reasonable distance, and they had the advantage. It was still pretty dark, and the area was supposedly littered with turkeys so I found a ridgeline to sit on with a decent clearing below hoping to get a bird off the roost, having abandoned my scouted spot for the morning. While I heard a gobble or two, the sit was largely uneventful. I gave up and started walking back to my truck shortly before noon when a family of three decided to walk right through my setup moseying about despite me waving at the father leading the pack.
It was, in a word, disappointing. The walk to the truck was hot, the cold air having burned off and now the sun was beating down. Spring turkey hunting in this area can be weird, public lands in Colorado really highlight being managed for multiple use more so than I’m used to seeing elsewhere. On the walk out there were dozens of folks hiking, running, biking, bird watching — and me, in full camo with a shotgun. Thankfully onlookers were mostly curious what was in season. I got back to the truck, changed, and headed out. Adding insult to injury, just off of the public land on private property were multiple toms and jakes in full strut in someone’s yard. Ouch. At least I know they’re in here.
The Real Hunt Begins
After a very disappointing opening day filled with people and mostly lacking birds I decided to change it up. Any more hunting that I was going to be doing I had to significantly change my approach. My alarm was turned back from the 0400 alarm I normally run for everyday work life to 0200. That would hopefully give me an advantage. Preparing coffee the night before, laying out clothes, having my gear already packed. Everything shaved precious minutes from my time. Time I’d need to spend hoofing it back into those isolated fields I just knew the turkeys would congregate in.
Having woken up earlier in the morning than usual I drove to the trailhead and was the first truck waiting outside of the gate. Throwing it into park and grabbing my gear I settled in for the long hike. This time I would go to the spot I’d pre-scouted on the map. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Now I had more time to sit and rest, trying to pace myself lest my heart feel like jumping from my chest.
I’d done it. I got to my spot I’d scouted, but struggled in the darkness to find somewhere both comfortable to sit and that had a somewhat protected view of the field. Do I make all the noise now, the same way I would during deer season? No, the turkeys were likely roosted in the pines a couple hundred feet away. The morning was mostly quiet with some far off gobbles.
In the mid morning I was getting some responses to my calls I cut every now and then from the box call at my chest. This was the dance I was looking for. Call, call, call, wait. Gobble gobble! Finally, a little vindication from a spot I’d seen on the map. Around lunch time three guys appeared in full camo and I waved so they would see me.
They looked in my direction and had a dejected look, had a small conference in the middle of the field, and moved on. I decided with people moving through the woods in front of me I might do some more calling, and sit and see what I could bring in. Not much longer something all too familiar slinked into sight, and likely ruined my chances of seeing a bird for the rest of the day. A coyote waltzed right through my set, determined to come after the calling bird, after me. I got up from where I’d sat, fully camouflaged and had to wave my arms like a goon to scare off the curious coyote. By then it was early afternoon and, despite the snow all around me, the sun was bearing down, and I had to head home.
Inspired by my second day taste of success I hiked into my spot and sat down under a starry sky. The hike was long with the gates closed, but barriers to entry keep out the riff raff and allow me an opportunity at a bird. Today the weather was cold and clear, the moon shone brightly above me washing out the small field so I could see perfectly. I layered up and settled in to wait for the sun to rise. About 10 minutes before sun rise I cut a couple of light calls. I got a response.
The sun came up and the white grey of the world turned into a sort of sepia tone photo of reality. I called again, another gobble. The gobbler was somewhere down in the hollow to my right, the field I’d selected had a small drainage in it. In my limited experience water, plus open field, plus high trees ringing it equals turkeys. However, the field sort of melted at one end, and fell off into oblivion. That precipitous drop off to the unknown and private land was where the gobbling was coming from.
I paused for a while, and then I heard aggressive gobbling in the hollow again. It sounded like it was going away from me but I couldn’t be quite sure. Hungry for success I called once more. GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE. That sound went right from the turkey, to my ears, and my brain released some dopamine right to my blood stream. Satisfaction of making an animal respond to your call is hard to beat. I paused in calling again, and the turkey seemed to get anxious and gobble without provocation. It was on. Each time I called and he responded he was just a little closer. A wave of cold hit my body. Was I underdressed for this weather, or was it the nerves mounting from a turkey actually seemingly on a string headed my direction?
If nothing else I was amused. I kept count now as this was the longest string of call and response I’d ever had from a turkey. a dozen gobbles, fifteen gobbles, eighteen. A red head appeared out of the small pines and juniper. He began strutting way out of shotgun range. Back and forth like something from an old timey shooting gallery. I had visions of making Steven Rinella’s turkey schnitzel. I could already smell the hot oil and the fresh lemon oil.
He was a big tom, puffed up for his unseen lady friend. When he turned his fan to me I carefully moved and grabbed my box call. One. More. Call. I lightly scratched out a rack raaaaack raaaaaaaack on the box. He about faced and charged in my direction like the feathery descendant of a raptor he was. He stopped about 15 yard away from me. The tom’s color changing head stared, right at me.
I tried not to fog my glasses breathing through my shemagh wrapped around my face. I thought I was busted. Perhaps I could flash point my shotgun and let off a high brass in his direction? Then slowly the fan opened again, and he began strutting again. He let out a thunderous gobble, and just as he was beginning to quarter on me. BLAM. To me, the turkey seemed to duck and roll a little bit, I waited for the flop I’d seen countless times — and it never happened. Dumbfounded I watched as the turkey ran off into the pines and up the hill across from me. Twenty two gobbles from that bird on one string of calling… and I missed my shot. There are very few times where I’ve thought about quitting hunting. This was one of them.
I packed up my gear, and went looking for my tom. But there was no blood, no feathers. No appreciable sign. I’d missed, or worse maybe winged the bird. I was done for the day, disgusted with myself I walked back to my truck. Later in talking with my dad over it I figure I must have shot over it in an effort to conserve meat with high brass at that distance. But more than likely it was just a miss from nerves.
Days 4 & 5
If you think I’d have quit after the closest experience I’d ever had hunting a turkey, you’d be wrong. Of course I’d thought about it. Hell I thought about Happy Gilmore-ing my Ithaca SKB into the next county. I made the switch from 20 gauge to 12 gauge overnight. The more pellets the better. I wasn’t going to miss again.
Unfortunately day 4 of my season was uneventful, the gobbles shut off at 0930 like a switch was flipped and the temperatures were rising. I figured it had to do something with the higher wind, but after deciding to bag it and begin the hour hike back to the truck it seemed a Tom was feeling froggy. Of course he was right next to the truck. I put my gear away hoping to hear another gobble but nothing materialized.
On day 5 I got to the trailhead early yet again and unloaded. I was sick of being cold so I switched up my mid layer for something I’d worn last year to some effect in the desert. I also decided to switch vantage points this morning to try to get closer to where the birds hang out at daybreak. On the way down I noticed some fresh droppings but heard no bird leave roost. Hopefully I hadn’t spooked them.
The day started to warm up, as did the action. A hen walked by without a second glance at 10:00 walked along the tree line without a care, silently. A half an hour later two hens were working hillside. They didn’t pay me any mind and were walking down valley of my position. The map showed another field down that way, presumably that’s where I kept hearing some gobbles in the morning as they always seem just a little farther away.
I chewed at an RxBar as I contemplated my next move. I hadn’t heard a gobble in hours until… At 11:00 a single aggressive gobble came from above my position. A Tom strutted into view about 100 yards above my position, I put up my binoculars and saw it was indeed a Tom. Whether he saw the binoculars go up or he had another mission in mind he turned on his feet and walked away across the small clearing. The two hens appeared again shortly thereafter, apparently unmolested as they fed back up the valley.
Once more the gobbler appeared fired up and strutting out of the scrub opposite my position. It answered every call from my box call but just wouldn’t get in range. I left the woods that day feeling like something needed to change. I might be able to pull them in with a decoy perhaps.
A Weekend Respite
I sat out on one of the weekends trying to distance myself from other hunters but also from the crew of folks that would descend onto that chunk of public land hiking, biking, dog walking, and generally recreating. I decided it was time to shop for a decoy. Thinking that if I got a hen decoy no one would likely shoot at it, and setting up with a big boulder at my back meant no one would take a shot at me without looking at least in my direction. I could control most of the variables, so I felt comfortable getting a decoy.
I’ve never really used a decoy and have always had the fear put into me by stories told to me by my father about hunting in the 70’s and 80’s mostly on crowded coal country public land. I worried I would get shot. Now, I’m not going to be reaping a turkey any time soon on public land, but putting a rubber chicken on a stick that isn’t even legal this time of year seemed like an okay compromise.
Days 6 & 7
Going into the next week it was going to be unseasonably warm, almost in the 80s. I’d expect that of the desert I hunted for turkeys in last year. Down near Pueblo and Cañon City the weather after 10AM most days was sweltering.
The daylight was coming quicker now as the season wore on, or I was slower to the stand. It was now mostly light at 0530. I had heard hens calling at around nine but nothing after that, and only crows before it. Traffic had started on the seasonal road and I’d hoped it was only maintenance traffic. I was worried that with increased traffic it wouldn’t be long before someone blew up my spot.
On day 7 afield of my season, now several weeks into the turkey season I heard several gobbles before sunrise, was it back on?
I placed my new decoy out but had seen better days. It’s definitely not easily packed in and then primped again. But 24 gobbles before seven o’clock was very promising after so many hours of silence the last few days. Silence, then a shock gobble from the heavy construction equipment on the road. A bird was still somewhere near. I went on a walkabout to other fields to try and find the birds. Had they henned up already? Social media was flooding my coffee drinking sessions in the morning with dead toms. I was happy, if a little jealous.
Locked Out, Day 8
On my eighth day out I figured I’d try something new. I went to a different spot to try to hunt near the snow line in the high country. The previous season I wasn’t able to get into the Lost Creek Wilderness Area due to a stuck and subsequently abandoned station wagon in the middle of the road. This year for turkey, smooth sailing. I wound through the dirt access roads and cut through like a hot knife through butter. The roads were in fantastic shape despite the weather we’d had. There was a spot on the map that I’d been chasing for a while now. It looked promising for turkey, or at least blue grouse, so I gave it my all to at least get there. Until….
Wouldn’t you know it? More seasonal gate closures. I dismounted my trusty Jeep and loaded up. I was in for a hike in the snow uphill both ways. There was only snow just in the shadows until I found it, the snow line at 10,500 feet. From there it was absolutely brutal on my worn boots. Try as I might all I saw that day was sign for elk, moose, and deer. It became an armed hike in and out. I broke out the box call but the world was quiet other than the wind around me.
My Last Day, Day 9
I pulled into the lot at the crack of 4:15, fifteen minutes after my alarm would have gone off had I been going to work. There was already a Jeep in the lot. I had a lump in my throat. Had this person discovered the same public land trove of turkeys that I had? Would they already be at my spot? Hopping out of the car to don my gear I realized the other truck was still running. I had a chance, I knew where I was going, and I already had put in the pain of making the hike several times before.
It somehow felt colder than the 28 degrees I’d dealt with weeks earlier in the season. Perhaps it was hubris that made me cold, thinking I didn’t need as much insulation. The wind cut my gear pretty quickly. I’d swapped out my long sleeve henley for a short one after absolutely soaking it with sweat on a walk out. Spring turkey season in Colorado meant you needed insulated gloves in the morning and a healthy dose of sunscreen by the afternoon.
That day, nothing happened. Nothing at all. No gobbles, no hen putts. No answers to my box call. The next day the seasonal gates would open, and the dispersed camp sites would begin filling up again on the weekends. I wasn’t going to expose my spot to passers by like that. So, walking back in the heat of the midday sun with a rubber turkey in my backpack, I decided to bag it for the season.
In 2020 I was able to spend more time in the woods this time of year than ever before. I’ve learned a lot and had a good deal of encounters with birds, but just couldn’t connect with a magic pellet. Success takes time, and previously I might not have devoted so many days to such a crazy pursuit — but after calling in a turkey to very close range, and having him strut and gobble like I wasn’t even there…. Well, that changed my perspective. I’m going to find it very hard to not want to pick up a shotgun and chase turkey when all the other seasons are closed. The mountains are waking from their winter slumber, and it gets me off the couch back to the places I hold most dear.
|Author’s Note: Sometimes a story just sits in my draft folder for far too long. This is one of them. I spent forever figuring out how to edit my stream of conscious notes from last year’s spring turkey season. The days are not contiguous but each sitting afield during the more than month long season Colorado gives us. As the 2021 season arrives it turns out Coronavirus is still here, but I’m hopeful about my health and about shooting straight.|