Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
The wake-up calls come way too early in spring turkey camp. Today was no exception and I must admit that rolling out of a warm and cozy sleeping bag and into the damp night air presented somewhat of a challenge. But the initial discomfort soon vanished due to the comforting effect of a heavy wool jacket and steaming cup of fresh coffee. And although nearly two hours would pass before the sun would show its warming face above yonder ridge, hunting partner Dave Thomas and I were already stoked to the max. In the sky above our Nebraska hill country camp site, the April full moon was fully illuminating the rolling landscape. You could almost read a book by the light. We weren’t the only ones taking notice the moonlight; a smattering of gobblers had already begun sounding off from their nighttime roosts. Incredibly, turkeys had been gobbling off and on throughout the night. No wonder we were so totally energized for the morning hunt. Another cup of Java and we were on our way.
As always, we each headed in opposite directions. There was plenty of room to roam. The scrub oak, juniper and yucca studded terrain of Nebraska’s hill country is rich in public lands. So much so that turkey habitats are often measured in square miles rather than acres. Our current wildlife area camp site was completely surrounded by more than six square miles of public land. That’s a big space. Thomas and I have been pursuing wild turkeys in this same place for the past seven years, and I’m still learning my way around the area’s vast network of streams, hills and valleys. But don’t get the wrong impression. In spite of the remote area’s abundant bird populations, it’s still turkey hunting. Sometimes we get on birds quickly; sometimes not at all. Today would be remembered as an easy one.
Within minutes of leaving camp, I had hiked to where I could hear turkeys gobbling from all sides. Some were close; others more distant. Sneaking near to what sounded like a lone gobbler, I quietly popped up my ground blind and placed a single jake decoy a few feet to the front. By now, daylight was slowly stealing in. With the gobbler still on his roost, I decided to announce my presence.
Scratching a few hen yelps on my box call, the sound was immediately interrupted by the gobbler’s raucous reply. Things were looking good. As our conversation continued, the chorus was suddenly joined by a second gobbler located atop a ridge directly across the valley. Competitive gobbling ensued which soon escalated into nonstop vocalizations. And there I was; me and my lonely decoy sitting smack in the middle. It was a good place to be.
Before long, it became apparent that the late comer had begun to dominate the predawn gobblefest. A couple of minutes later, and I could tell that both birds had left the roost and were now sounding off from the ground. Although the closest gobbler remained more or less stationary, I could tell that the bird across the valley was moving toward the bottom of the ridge. The bird’s gobbles continued to mark his course until I could tell the turkey had made it all the way to the bottom.
Although the sounds were encouraging, I also realized that we remained separated by a couple hundred yards of grassy meadow and, worse yet, by an even more significant obstacle in the form of a broad fast moving stream. Nevertheless, he seemed interested and certainly worth a try. I continued to throw out calls. The bird kept answering and his gobbles continued to grow louder. Best of all, the turkey was becoming increasingly agitated. At one point, he chain-fired a rapid series of five nonstop gobbles with each sound rolling into the next. Following that dramatic display of bravado, the closer gobbler never made another sound. Seconds later, I realized that the advancing newcomer had actually flown across the stream. I was located within some fairly dense habitat and although I had yet to catch sight of the bird, I could tell that he had drawn close. Needless to say, I was getting a bit stoked myself.
When the turkey suddenly went silent I knew that one way or another, the hunt’s hair raising conclusion was at hand. As I desperately peered into the thick understory, the gobbler’s dark form – like an emerging mirage — suddenly appeared in the midst of the tangled vegetation. Standing tall and motionless at a mere 15 paces, the bird was clearly assessing the situation. Picking up the call, I fired off some short yelps and the gobbler quickly fired back. The turkey was now facing head on. In tight cover and at such close range, his gobbling provided a sight and sound that I’m not likely to forget anytime soon. Going into full strut, the bird began a stiff legged approach to the decoy — his gobbling now replaced by the ominous sound of fighting purrs.
As the turkey began to push and circle my plastic effigy, it was time to think about collecting a roast turkey dinner. Laying the call aside, I loaded an arrow and cautiously brought the longbow to full draw. It was an easy shot. The broadhead found its mark and the bird fell to the ground beside the decoy it had recently planned to trounce. As I gave thanks for a dramatic and successful hunt, the overlapping chorus of distant gobblers continued to fill the morning air. Meanwhile, the impending sunrise suddenly burst into a dazzling display of color. A moment to cherish, the scene was almost surreal.
Could a morning ever get any better? “No, there is nothing in the world that could make a day any better than this,” I thought to myself. But I was wrong. Returning to camp I soon discovered that, yes, things could get even better than they already were. While I was busy enjoying the heart pounding high-octane exhilaration of my daybreak hunt, Dave Thomas had called in and bagged a bird of his own.
Nebraska Hill Country
April 9, 2017