Missouri gobbler

Turkeys grow larger in Missouri. This 22.5-pound tom had a double beard, the first the author ever bagged. The smaller beard was 6 inches long and the larger was 11 inches.

When Jim Acker of Smethport first traveled to Missouri hunting spring turkeys it was some 20 years ago. He’d been introduced to a farmer near Browning, Jack Gooch, who had given permission to hunt his land.

Permission is very important in Missouri as trespassing is dealt with swiftly and any guilty parties hauled off handcuffed to jail. Sherriff’s, conversation officers or state troopers respond quickly and without mercy.

Jack drove Jim around the vicinity and showed him his property and corresponding boundaries. Reaching a little creek he pulled over and pointed up a steep hillside covered with cedar, oak, hickory, underbrush and the ever-present thorns and brambles.

Jack pointed: “Follow that fence line up to the hilltop. You’ll reach the top of my pasture there, one of the highest points around. You just might hear a gobbler there.”

Since the two had already seen 30 to 40 turkeys on this short drive, Jim believed him.

The next morning Jim and his son Jay climbed the hill and stood silently at the top. Whippoorwills called in the faint light and then the gobblers began. It was difficult, but soon 24 individual gobblers were identified. Unbelievable!

Unfortunately, times change.

This year Jim and I stood in the same pasture and listened futilely for a single gobble. None came. The once flourishing pasture full of strutting gobblers was now simply grazing land for cattle. The brooding silence filled us with disappointment and sorrow. Two terrible springs with poor hatches had shrunk the once-thriving flock to a mere remnant of what once was.

A sad greeting after our 15 hour drive. However, there were still turkeys around, but hunting would be difficult.

Last year we’d chanced into a neighboring gentleman near Jack’s pasture who graciously gave us permission to hunt his 80 acres. He guaranteed we’d hear gobblers — and we did. In fact, we heard eight. This year it was an easy decision to hunt his property the second morning, especially when he informed us he was hearing gobblers from his porch when we’d asked for permission Sunday.

A 4 a.m. wake-up comes early. We dragged ourselves from bed, dressed, applied tick repellent, ate slices of bread, Amish jam and peanut butter, then headed for our hunting area 30 minutes away.

As we pulled onto the gravel road and passed the second house a black and white cross sheepdog shot onto the road and raced us down the dark lane. His thin frame hurtled along the berm, his body straining as he kept pace with us. I glanced at the speedometer: 25 mph. As we reached the property line he gave a single fierce “Woof!” of dismissal and sat panting, very pleased with himself.

Shortly we stopped at the cattle gate and grabbed our gear. It was still dark as we pulled on camo, loaded our shotguns, checked calls, seat cushions and gloves. The sky lightened, we climbed the gate and walked forward into a dim world of shadows barely able to avoid thick clumps of brambles and thorns.

THE PASTURE was located on a narrow prow of land, sticking out above the bordering trees like a ship’s bow before dropping steeply to the bottom. As we reached the drop we both stopped; turkeys could be roosted on either side of us.

Bagging a sharp-eyed, extremely wary gobbler calls for a great number of decisions, any one that, if wrong, will doom the hunt. Those decisions must be made instantly, acted upon immediately — bringing up additional decisions, many arbitrary, which also must be absolutely correct. The smallest error on a hundred choices brings defeat.

Experience is a great help, but excitement, new territory, foliage, visibility, the mood of the gobbler, dispositions of the hens, fences, brush, streams, the turkeys’ travel patterns, a predator or another hunter all hover over you, ready to pounce and ruin the morning. No other sport harbors as many opportunities for failure as spring gobbler. It can drive you mad with frustration and self-reproach.

“If I only had done that … or why did I ever do this!” are phrases all gobbler hunters know far too well.

We felt exposed in the pasture and moved left into the cover of a small group of trees. Five minutes later a turkey gobbled only 100 yards in front of us. Thank goodness we moved!

We set up and soon could actually see the gobbler in front of us. He strutted on the limb and gobbled sporadically. Then he flew down, out of sight below us. We called and waited.

The gobbler went silent, but could be just out of sight. Another tom began gobbling to our left and was moving closer. Jim shifted to cover that area. I was looking straight ahead when, without warning, two jakes appeared only 25 yards away to my right. When they moved behind brambles I moved my gun and had them covered. Both had 4-inch beards. After three minutes they vanished down over the point.

Suddenly, a brash gobble from the right rear. I began to move when a louder gobble came from the left rear. I froze. Was my poor hearing deceiving me? Jim hissed, pointing insistently to my right and I instantly shifted, pointing my barrel behind us.

It was none too soon. Without warning a big red and white head, thick neck and beard popped up over the crest of the hill and stared in our direction, a second gobbler further behind.

I shifted the barrel slightly, lined up the sights and squeezed. The 3-inch belted my shoulder, rocking me back, but I never noticed the bang or felt the recoil. All I saw was the head instantly disappear behind the rise.

THE GOBBLER to the left called, the hen cackled barely out of Jim’s sight. Then after a minute or two the gobbler accompanying mine flew, big beard hanging. Jim passed up the flying shot as too risky and the other gobbler went silent.

I jumped up and ran to my gobbler. Wow! The bird weighed 22.5 pounds, had two beards — one a thin 6 inches, the other a heavy, paintbrush 11-inches long — with 1-inch spurs. What a trophy.

We reviewed our correct decisions this morning. We arrived in darkness, stopped when we should have, moved out of sight before it grew lighter. Next, we set up silently in enough cover and never moved unnecessarily, not overdoing the calling either.

Not shooting either of the jakes, tempting though it may have been, was crucial. Luckily, Jim’s hearing is sharper than mine and I was able to shift to the rear when the unknown gobblers showed up. Lastly, the real closers were lining up the sights, remaining deliberate and squeezing the trigger.

We didn’t get many opportunities the rest of week and our decision process always involved one tiny mistake, despite all the correct ones. They hurt, but that’s spring gobbler hunting.

Should you take the sport up? If you’re a little masochistic I highly recommend it. Sleep deprivation, lousy weather, uncooperative turkeys, critical decisions, stupid mistakes and frustration come standard.

But, if you bag a majestic gobbler, oh, the rush and thrill will carry your soul up, up and away to ecstasies only the dedicated ever know.

(Wade Robertson is an award-winning outdoor writer whose articles have been published in Pennsylvania Outdoor News, Pennsylvania Game News, Fur, Fish & Game and other publications. His email is wadewrites3006@gmail.com.)