Four Hundred Turkeys

Never leave birds to find birds. Right?

[by E. Donnall Thomas Jr.]

I RAN INTO BILL EDGARS AT THE FEED STORE THE OTHER DAY,” said my wife’s ex-husband, Pete. It was the morning before Montana’s spring turkey opener, and we were sharing coffee in my kitchen. “Says he had four hundred turkeys in his yard out on the divide.”

I was in the process of organizing my turkey pack for a pre-dawn departure the next morning, and had not yet decided where to hunt. Like many Montanans, I have lost access to a lot of property in recent years, but I still have four great places to pursue turkeys. Three of those are foothills ranches owned by old friends, and one of the three adjoins Bill Edgars’s place.

“How many did you say?” I asked, looking up from the pile of diaphragm, slate , and box calls spread across the counter, each ready to test after what had been a long hibernation. “Four hundred,” Pete repeated.

There has never been any animosity among Pete, Lori, and me following a rearrangement of marriages two decades earlier. The three of us hunt and fish together all the time, and I had no reason to suspect deliberate inaccuracy in his reporting. Nonetheless, that’s an awful lot of turkeys. Privately I cut the number in half, because all hunters are either flat-out liars or subconsciously prone to exaggeration, or both. So maybe two hundred turkeys. Then I halved it again, because the information came thirdhand. One hundred turkeys.

“I was rusty, and my turkey intelligence was badly outdated. Four hundred turkeys sounded too good to ignore, no matter what the actual number.”

That’s still a lot of birds, but the number was not implausible. Although wild turkeys have thrived in Montana since their introduction in the 1950s (I can see the original release site from my house), they are not native to the state. They couldn’t survive long periods of deep snow on the high plains until ranchers gave them the gift of feedlots. During the winter now, it’s not unusual to see large congregations of turkeys picking through cow turds for food when the landscape lies blanketed in white, an image best suppressed when preparing a spring gobbler for the table. Those big flocks usually disperse rapidly and head for the hills once the snow starts to melt, and it had been an early spring. Still, I could believe a hundred turkeys right across the fence from my friend’s property, which would ensure a target-rich environment for whatever calls I chose from the pile on the counter.

That evening, by the time I started to grill a backstrap from the previous year’s whitetail, I’d made up my mind where to hunt. Lori and I had been back in Montana for only a couple of days after several months of travel, and I had not done any scouting on my own. Furthermore, I’d completely missed the last three spring turkey seasons while chasing steelhead in Alaska. I was rusty, and my turkey intelligence was badly outdated. Four hundred turkeys sounded too good to ignore, no matter what the actual number.

It was a pleasant spring evening, and I suggested that we move our meal onto the deck overlooking a coulee on the west side of our property. In truth, I had an ulterior motive beyond the appealing weather. The last on my list of four great turkey spots is my own backyard, and I couldn’t think of a more enjoyable way to scout than by sitting down to listen with a glass of Malbec in my hand.

Lori and I took our time eating, the backstrap from a big ol’ buck cooked rare, sliced thin, and delicious. The deck sits within sight of our kennel, and the Labs and wirehairs were already lined up to see who could offer the most heartrending appeal for leftovers. Lori was reflecting upon our busy winter when I rudely interrupted her with a loud shhh! and an upheld hand. She knew what I was up to and did not take offense.

“Where?” she whispered quietly. I pointed toward the southern end of the coulee. Years of shotguns and aircraft engines have taken their toll on my hearing. Lori can hear bugling elk and buzzing rattlesnakes better than I can. Yet somehow I have retained an ability to hear gobbling turkeys, as if that elusive, mercurial sound somehow bypasses the usual route from the real world to my brain.

Even so, I could not yet confirm what I’d heard or exactly where I’d heard it. But the next gobble left me with a reasonable estimate of range and bearing, and that was all I needed. Dusk was rapidly enveloping the landscape, and the gobbler had to be near his roost tree.

“What are you going to do in the morning?” Lori asked. She was still whispering, even though the bird was a long way away. I simply pointed south up the coulee. “What about the four hundred turkeys?” she asked.

“Don’t leave birds to find birds,” I replied as I scraped the leftovers onto my plate and headed to the kennel to pick a winner of the hungry-dog contest.

YOU HUNT SPRING TURKEYS WITH YOUR EARS. The increased level of attention and concentration demanded during a turkey hunt opens the hunter up to a whole new audial world of wildlife activity before dawn. The beginning chorus of awakening robins told me when to start listening seriously, for I seldom hear a gobble from a roost tree before the robins have started to sing. There followed the eerie quavering of a courting snipe high overhead, a distant coyote’s howl, and a bronk from one of the geese nesting on the creek nearly two miles away— a testament to the acoustics of a crisp, still morning. Then two ravens started to quarrel at the head of the coulee, bringing me to an abrupt halt midstride. Raven calls will often elicit a shock-gobble from a roosted tom, and sure enough it did. The tom was farther away than I’d estimated the night before, but now I knew exactly where to be. Like a vampire scurrying back to his coffin before sunrise, I broke into a trot so I could set up under the cover of darkness while the bird was still in his tree.

And I made it—barely. Deciding when to keep moving on a roosted tom and when to stop and prepare an ambush evokes an adage from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

More than enough means blundering into the bird, spooking him, and ending the hunt before it starts. Decades of experience have left me all too familiar with the problem. Enough means getting sufficiently close to the bird to attract its interest during the brief chaos that ensues when a flock of turkeys flies to the ground at first light. However, the greater the distance from the roost tree you set up, the tougher the calling will be. Getting it just right is like deciding whether to call for another hit at the blackjack table. Since even a little not quite enough works better than any amount of more than enough, I stopped a conservative distance away, stretched a strip of netting around the branches of a fallen pine, and set out three decoys 10 yards in front of me.