Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
With Less Than An Hour to Hunt, It Was Still Worth A Try
McGREGOR, IA. — April 13, 2015; the long awaited Opening Day of the Iowa spring turkey season. Turkey openers are always a big day on the outdoor calendar, and the 2015 kickoff would mark the 36th consecutive year that hunting partner Steve Schutte and I have been attempting to match wits with the elusive bluff country gobblers of Clayton County.
Unfortunately, I was running late to the event. But I didn’t realize how late until Schutte called to say that he had already enjoyed some gobbler close encounters and had just bagged a hefty 3-year-old tom. It was late-afternoon and although close to being there, I was still on the road. Steve had phoned from town where he was currently getting ice for his bird. Since I didn’t plan on hunting until the following morning, we decided to meet [in town] for supper.
Once we were finished eating, we stayed at the table for another half hour or so and reminisced. Recounting those tales of past hunts must have gotten me excited, and I suddenly decided to attempt an evening hunt. We were sitting about seven miles from camp. We took off and by the time I actually arrived at the woods, less than 30 minutes remained until sunset. Since Steve was temporarily tagged out, he decided to come along to see what my 11th hour hunt would bring.
Hustling down the ridge line, we hadn’t gone more than 200 yards before bumping three hens. The sun was beginning to dip and we were rapidly running out of time. We were moving well below the ridge top and because we still didn’t know what else might be over the crest, we decided to set up below the skyline. Hurriedly picking a spot, we popped up the blind, set out a single jake decoy, and crawled inside. The clock was ticking; and I was feeling the crunch. While still organizing my gear, I decided to immediately let anything within hearing range know we were there. Grabbing a wing bone yelper crafted by Dave Thomas, I fired off a rapid series of calls. What happened from that moment on can only be described as amazing.
I was still getting situated when less than five minutes of our arrival, a hen turkey suddenly appeared on the skyline. About 30 yards away, the hen was followed by a second, third, and fourth companion – all hens. A second or two later, a magnificent gobbler came into view. Walking at a steady gait, the tom was obviously following the hens to roost. When I called again the bird halted, emitted a single gobble, and immediately went into full strut. The hens also stopped and began scratching for insects while the tom continued to show off. Needless to say, the five turkeys made for very impressive viewing.
A minute later, another hen suddenly appeared on skyline. Happily, the hen had a second huge tom – a real Long Beard — firmly in tow and following a few steps behind. Instead of staying off to our side like the others, it appeared as if this latest hen was going to walk right on by the front of our blind. She did, and within another minute or so was passing at 20 yards.
When the trailing gobbler had approached to within 25 yards, I began calling again. Incredibly, the bird immediately quit following the hen and veered toward the decoy. Still scrambling to put on my jacket and shooting glove, I was in a panic. By the time I was all set, the gobbler had closed the distance to less than ten paces.
But about the time I had become thoroughly convinced that gobbler would come all the way to the decoy, the advancing tom suddenly remembered the hen who continuing to walk, had moved another 20 paces down the line. Losing interest in the plastic jake, the tom angled back in the direction of the retreating hen. I realized that he would never come back, would never be closer; and that each new step would take him further out of my life. Time to make a decision.
The gobbler was now at 15 yards, quartering away – a long enough shot but still doable. Bringing the bow to full draw, the shot looked and felt good. I released the string. The arrow flew true to its mark; the broadhead passing through the rear of the rib cage and angling forward through the entire length of the body cavity. As the arrow struck home, the huge bird ran forward three or four steps, launched into the air, and then fell – stone dead – back to earth. From arrow release to crash landing, the entire scenario had played out in just 4 or 5 five seconds.
The sudden commotion had now caused the first gobbler to come out of strut. Standing at attention, the tom was making a concentrated effort to determine the cause of his rival’s bizarre behavior. Finding no cause for alarm, the gobbler promptly went back into the strut and remained that way until the hens eventually led him out of sight.
Still sitting in our blind, Steve and I were jacked out of our minds. In spite of having to race the clock, the last minute hunt had paid off. We could scarcely believe the amount of close range gobbler action we’d encountered during our minutes long outing.
Now that all turkeys had left the scene, we lost no time in exiting our hide. I knew the tom was going to be a good one, but I didn’t realize just how good until I rolled him over and saw his spurs: they were long, curved and needle sharp.
“Lowell, I think you’re going to have to hunt for a lot of years before you’ll shoot another turkey like this one,” Steve announced as we savored the moment. I agreed. Although we didn’t have a scale to determine the bird’s weight, we were able to take some measurements. The tom sported a ten-inch beard. Best of all, the razor sharp spurs measured 1 ½-inches; what Southerners call a genuine Limb Hanger. When weighed the following day, the field dressed turkey tipped the scales at 28 pounds – making him the second largest bird I’ve shot in 36 years of turkey hunting. The largest gobbler, shot just two ridges to the east seventeen seasons ago, weighed one pound heavier.
By the time Steve and I returned to camp, it was pitch dark. After gutting and filling my turkey with ice, we sat down to relive the events of the day. Miracles happen and bagging two gobblers on the opener was a phenomenal beginning to our spring season. One story led to another as the night flew by. We’ve been camping, off and on, in this same spot for over thirty years now and there were plenty of stories to retell.
High above our camp, a million white hot stars twinkled against the cloudless jet black backdrop. We marked the rotation of major constellations while a few yards distant, a crystal clear trout stream gurgled past. Down the valley, a band of coyotes provided a nighttime serenade. As we sat completely surrounded by these spectacular examples of God’s marvelous and complex creation, it made it seem – even more than usual – that it was good to be alive. We both agreed that, for this moment in time, Clayton County was the finest place on earth.