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Hike 1/41: Treachery of the Buffalo

May 25, 2019 Comments (1) Blog Entries

The Great Gobble Bobble of 2019

A Bit of History

I’ve never been much of a serious turkey hunter. My father did it a little before I was too young to be in the woods more than an onlooker. He would get up at the crack of dawn in full camo and wander into the woods behind our house in Pennsylvania. Back then there was a 1000 acre farm that abutted our property and we had permission to hunt, hike, and ride dirtbikes back there so long as we didn’t tear things up.

When my brother and I got older baseball season and trout fishing began to intercede, cutting into spring turkey season. The joy of catching even a stocker trout vastly outweighed our ability to sit perfectly still in full camo in the blazing sun with mosquitoes swirling around.

Inception

I always enjoyed turkey hunting, but generally participated in it by way of carrying two turkey rounds with me in my pocket while small game hunting the week of Thanksgiving. Turkey season comes back in during the small game season in Pennsylvania just before deer season kicks off the Monday following Thanksgiving.

Spring season also coincides with PA’s trout season, but it is usually offset from the trout opener. That means that I’d have needed to make a special trip to my cabin to partake. Despite having a family friend who’s one of the turkey killin’est people I know, having achieved multiple grand slams, I just never had that much interest. Until deer season.

This year’s Pennsylvania deer season was rough. They all tend to be on public land in one of the states with the highest amount of license purchases in the United States. Not being able to draw a doe tag in the last several years have hurt the overall chance of success, and hunting the same hollow for 20 years and watching the forest grow up is good for tradition, but less good for ensuring venison in the freezer. However, having a week of solid woods time and the blanket of snow that we received this year in the Alleghenies led to better tracking conditions.

What I saw, staring opening day at a wall of white and brush for hours on end was a troop of turkeys, about 4-5 of them walking skittishly as turkeys do through our valley zigzagging and stopping to feed and look about nervously. The ran the ridges and poked about, scraping up seeds and bugs in the 2 or so inches of fresh snow.

Despite West Nile Virus putting a hurting on Pennsylvania turkeys and ruffed grouse, the population in our little valley was at the very least visible if not actually thriving. I saw sign every time I went into the woods, and most time when I was on the deer stand. Having never really spent much time on it, I decided this year I’d try my hand at serious turkey hunting. Half way across the United States, where the anecdotal evidence of a thriving PA turkey population doesn’t even begin to translate.

Local Research

This spring I read every article I could get my hands on about Turkey Hunting in Colorado. It seemed that most of the eastern part of the state where turkeys were very abundant were draw only, and a few specific properties in the western part of the state were draw only requiring up to six preference points to draw Table Mountain State Trust Land and Beaver Creek State Wildlife Area.

There’s an area sandwiched between draw units that is public land, and doesn’t require six points. The difference? One three-strand barbed wire fence and some elevation.

Six preference points for turkey? Having just spent my first season in the west learning what preference points even meant this seemed preposterous. Preference points are normally given one per unsuccessful application for a species in a unit with a good population of the drawn critter or a population that needs to be carefully managed.

Six years is a long time to wait for a goofy looking bird, but there’s a trick that allows you to halve your waiting time if those draw units are appealing to you, and they darn well should be. If you apply for both spring and fall in those draw units you can collect up to two points per year. I usually don’t hunt spring turkey and hunt fall back east as a target of opportunity but it just made too much sense to do it this way to build points. Colorado also offers OTC turkey tags that encompass most of the state.

Much of the turkey population in non-draw portion of the state can be found south of Colorado Springs to the Utah border. A large population being found around Fort Carson, Rye, and Pueblo according to my research. Access can be spotty for some places with roads to public lands becoming private by way of gates, HOAs, and other restrictions. Or as I found out roads can be simply too worse for wear to take your vehicle on. During this season I definitely traveled a “County Road” that became nothing more than an oxpath that seemed to resemble the Rubicon Trail on BLM property.

The Chase

My full choked Ithaca 37 12 gauge was everywhere with me this season. From the high prairie to the rocky desert.

So far if my season had a theme song it’d be Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me, a little ditty made famous by the TV show Hee-Haw. The refrain sums it up nicely.

Gloom, despair, and agony on me!
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery.
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all!
Gloom, despair, and agony on me!

This season was certainly full of learning new territory, and it wasn’t without it’s ups and downs. I had a chance to hunt the desert which has its own unique beauty. I’d already spent some time this season near Pueblo, Colorado chasing Scaled Quail and rabbits, so I knew a little bit of the area. Switching gears to turkey meant driving two or so hours from my home and waking up at three in the morning with a coffee IV to get there, often after the sun rose. Having spent the first several weeks of the season traveling to Pennsylvania I’d missed out on the prime part of the spring season where the gobblers seem to be more vocal and more willing to come to a call.

A couple of weeks ago I got the urge to make good on actually bagging a bird, so I gathered my gear and set my alarm. I didn’t venture into the woods until long after my social media seemed inundated with pictures of mature Toms spread out next to grinning hunters, some folks tagging more than one in a day where allowed. The turkey population during deer season in our valley in Pennsylvania seemed way above normal from our observations, so I’d hoped it would be a good year for me to finally call in and close on a mature turkey.

I arrived as the sun was rising, racing to a map point that I’d picked out weeks ago. Hopes weren’t high as I drove past camper after camper, fires wispy with smoke in every single field along a creek. I’d found the road I was on by first researching the public land on my map and then pivoting to see if there was any information about this long dirt road. Sure enough there was, it was listed on a repository of sketchy mountain roads. Knowing it was on the radar of off-road enthusiasts meant it wouldn’t be empty during the closing weeks of turkey season but I didn’t anticipate an armada of Buick LeSabres and other low clearance vehicles car camping every wide spot in the road.

The dirt road goes through slabs of stone that were once carved out by hand to allow the passage of trains.

According to articles I’d read I was deep into the turkey territory of South Central Colorado outside of CaƱon City. Cholla and prickly pear cactus mixed amongst conifers, trout streams burbled. It was a dream for turkey hunting, but if only there were turkeys. Had they all nested up by now? The snow had pushed me from the mountains where I’d done more scouting and sent me to where there was a critical mass of birds according to all resources. However, it was also painfully close to some towns and trail heads.

A cholla cactus on public land in Colorado. Prickly, but packing edible buds, and later fruit.

At about 8 am I heard a car door slam. An exuberant eight year old jump from the sedan that had parked right behind mine. Yes, I was still quite close to the car but in full camo. I let out a yelp on my box call, hoping the father would get the hint. Sure there was a trout stream nearby and it’s public land, it’s as much theirs as mine. Ten minutes later I heard the car door slam and the honk of the car being locked. The gentlemen walked within 20 yards of me and started to load a muzzleloader. He seemed intent on shooting it into the field next to me. I let out another couple yelps on my box call and took down my green hood to reveal my blaze orange cap and moved towards him. This is how my season went so far, and this encounter was no different. I exchanged pleasantries with him and went about my business, elsewhere.

One More Time

Yesterday I decided against my better judgement but siding with the little voice inside me that says “C’mon man, just one more hunt. This will be the one!“. I’d been discussing online how hard the season had been, and debating on whether I would go back out for another sit when as if mana from heaven a friend offered me a spot to go check out and told me I should give it a go.

It didn’t take much convincing. The weather forecast was good, and I wanted to get some alone time prior to the onslaught of vacationers into the woods for their first major camping trip of the year. It didn’t help that just this past week we had three inches of snow or more in the Denver metro. When the forecast looked up, I gathered my gear and drove.

Strange Territory

It was below freezing when I arrived at the parking area, so I layered up and unzipped my zippers on my underlayers and threw on my camo. Another truck had a younger gentleman inside sleeping with sleep mask, though it was just after 5:30 and the sun was already beginning to wash over the valley. I’d assumed he was racked out from a previous day of hunting for turkeys or sheds. Taking a deep breath I spun around and marched up the trail, this was unfamiliar territory but it certainly looked good on the map.

Tracks in the sand, only the surrounding land knows where the turkey went.

When I got to my friend’s secret spot within ten minutes I saw turkey sign crossing the trail to get into the mountains. There was a water source and fields like all good turkey setups. By now we’d surmised that the gobblers would either be henned up or nesting, so the typical raucous calling sessions were unlikely to be of value. Hiking the ridge lines above the fields was likely to be much more productive. Eyeing the topo map I gulped. The ridges above the fields were excessively steep, but that’s where the birds would likely be.

Gaining in elevation from the trail below I began to scale the ridges above the fields. Trickling seeps gave music to the day, burbling away and greening up what would otherwise be arid and dry rocky outcroppings. Mushrooms sprang from dead trees and elk scat, but alas no morels to be found. Climbing the steep hillsides the thin soil gave way to the rose quartz, sandstone, and granite rocks that litter the region making progress slow and my breath short. At one point my view went from the hillside to blue sky as I fell over in slow motion. I twisted an ankle, clutching my Ithaca, and bracing myself in a fall with my free hand I tore skin against the rough rock. As I got up I ended leaving a bloody handprint like Tom Hanks on Wilson. If I’d have been thinking about it I should have drawn a beak on it like a Kindergarten Thanksgiving project.

I sat and collected my thoughts, not wanting to break myself weeks before my first child is born. As I rolled I’d struck my left kneecap against the flat edge of a slab of granite, and it was already beginning to swell. This was as good of a time as any to take a coffee break. I managed to cast a lazy loop around the high mountain fields, but no more sign presented itself, nor were there any gobbles to be heard. I had a long drive ahead of me, and at some point the cheap hydration bladder I had began to leak on the small of my back.

Walking in my hopes were high after seeing the initial tracks. Six hours and seven miles of hiking however yielded only the stiff winds through the valley and sign of deer, bear, and elk. For my time I was rewarded with expansive views and a touch of sunburn, as well as a painful reminder on my hands and one of my knees. I am undeterred, if anything my desire to hunt spring turkey next year is even more. I’ve admittedly never killed a turkey, and I’d like to call one in at least once to see what more than a few hunters call “Spring Thunder”.

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