Turkeys by Proxy

Mentoring, First-Time Turkey Hunting, Sharing the Outdoors

Scott Gerlt called in this feisty gobbler on April 22 at a farm in southern Cole County, Missouri. Watching him work the bird, his first bird, and then close the deal was sweeter than shooting one myself.

I don’t recall exactly when I started deriving more pleasure from game shot by others, than from animals I bagged myself.  I suppose it was inevitable that the switch to proxy hunting would begin with the wild turkey, whose pursuit offers rewards too abundant and varied for one person to enjoy properly.  The current 2016 spring turkey season is a good example.

You might think that Missouri’s three-week turkey season would be enough for any sensible person, but turkey hunters are not a sensible lot.  Most of the hunters I know extend the fun by scouting birds they plan to hunt days or weeks before opening day.  I started this year’s turkey season a week before opening day, shadowing a tight-lipped gobbler that had been roosting with five hens about a quarter mile southwest of my back door.  His presence was indicated as much by history as by observation.  His voice had only wafted through my open bedroom window twice, but the biggest, baddest gobbler in our area always roosts in that spot.  A gobble or two was all I needed by way of confirmation.

Old gobblers are choosy.  The long-standing roost near my house has offered a long line of big toms multiple fly-down options: three pastures, a tiny forest clearing and oak-hickory forest, plus dense cedar thicket.  It has something for every combination of weather and mood.

The backyard gobbler’s mood the week before opening day was taciturn.  With all those hens around him, he had little reason to gobble other than pride, which old toms are keenly aware goeth before a fall.

Nevertheless, I had him pegged.  He and his hens were on an unusual pattern.  Thanks to the fact that my neighbor had cattle in all three pastures that ordinarily were the landing strips for the birds.  With dozens of large ungulates cluttering their runway, the yard birds were flying down into the woods and heading north through the woods directly behind my house.

This couldn’t have been better.  Thinning and periodic burning have kept my 5-acre oak-hickory wood lot open and uncluttered by undergrowth.  You can see pretty well from one end to the other, with the exception of declivities between minor ridges.

Opening morning found me snuggled against the trunk of a red oak 50 yards from my back door.  My ghillie suit rendered me virtually invisible.  I have never owned such outlandish garb before this year, but I also have never before hunted turkeys with a crossbow.  I thought I could use the added edge if I was going to be poking a 2X4 up to shoot (I could have used a ground blind, but that violates my personal definition of fair chase unless I’m teaching a wiggly kid to hunt).

A light ground fog shrouded the tree trunks at dawn and my bird issued his first challenge at 5:48 a.m., precisely as he had done the previous morning.  He was on the ground by 6:20, and he and his entourage came straight to my calls.  I know he wasn’t merely following the hens, because his was the first head to appear over the slight rise 25 yards in front of me.  I had him dead to rights, but I was holding out for a jake.

“What?!” You might be thinking.  Here is where the proxy hunting comes in.  This particular tom is the only active gobbler in the area where I have permission to hunt around home.  I’m saving him for my son-in-law, Major Dwight O. Smith, U.S. Army-Retired.  The “Retired” part is brand new – like two weeks ago.  After multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Dwight left his band of brothers for civilian life.  Naturally, I’m grateful for his service, but I’m doubly grateful that my daughter’s husband will be with her, out of harm’s way – or at least as much as you can be out of harm’s way with Beth!

So the yard bird is safe, at least until Dwight finds time between selling a home in Virginia, buying one in Kansas City and starting a new job and come to central Missouri to hunt.  In the meantime, if a jake is foolish enough to respond to my calls, he will become dinner when Dwight visits, but, given the relative scarcity of birds around home, that probably won’t happen.

Fortunately, I have another proxy-hunting option.  More than 20 years ago, I met a young man who needed an outdoor mentor.  His family are fine folks, but they don’t happen to be interested in hunting and fishing.  Scott Gerlt was more than interested.  He was obsessed.  I knew the symptoms from my own youth.  So Scott and I became hunting partners.  On balance, I’m sure to have benefited more from our relationship than he has.  Not only have I rediscovered the excitement of first-time outdoor experiences through Scott’s eyes, I now have someone who can teach me about fly fishing.  More important, he calls me and gets me to go do things I wouldn’t do on my own.

As the first weekend of turkey season approached, Scott called and asked if I wanted to hunt with him.  I did.  But since I was saving my yard bird for Dwight, I did something I wouldn’t have done otherwise.  I called friends in southern Cole County and asked if Scott and I could hunt their 400 acres of prime habitat.  “Come on down,” they said.

Tom and Susie Schulz have carried on the work her father, groundbreaking quail biologist, Jack Stanford, had started on their farm.  They have made it a paradise for game from quail and woodcock to deer and turkey.  Unlike my home area, you can take your pick of gobblers to hunt at Tom and Susie’s farm.

Scott and I were there well before dawn, standing in a tunnel-like logging road, when the gobbling began.  We counted at least five toms sounding off from various compass points.  Picking the nearest one, we hot-footed it down the two-track to shorten the distance the gobbler would have to travel to meet us, and hopefully his untimely end.  We set up in a tiny clearing.

Scott Gerlt Tele-checks his gobbler with the Missouri Conservation Department before heading home.

Our gobbler came to us in textbook fashion.  He moved perpendicular to a line between his roost and our calling until he hit the logging road, then turned our way.  We spotted him at about 70 yards, parading back and forth as if in a shooting gallery.  Both our hearts were thumping like trip hammers.  That part of the hunt never changes, never gets old.  What a thrill.

It took 30 minutes of judicious calling to break the gobbler loose and another 15 minutes to lure him another 30 yards down the path.  When the gobbler turned his back to show off his fan, I whispered to Scott to get his shotgun up.  “Don’t you want to shoot him,” he asked.  That’s Scott, always considerate. “No,” I whispered, “I’d rather see you shoot him,” which was the plain truth.  A well-placed 3-inch load of buffered No.  6 lead shot ended the gobbler’s earthly travail.  I’ve shot bigger gobblers, but I have never enjoyed a hunt more, except for the first birds I have helped other new hunters kill.

I was out in our back 40 this morning shadowing the yard bird.  The cattle are in a different pasture now.  The big tom has moved his base of operations, abandoning not only his travel route, but his roost as well.  Seems like the occupant of that roost does the same thing about this time every spring.  It makes hunting him next to impossible, due to topography, but I wouldn’t want Dwight’s first turkey hunt to be too easy.  He’d get the wrong idea about the sport and I have a feeling he will take to the challenge.

When he does shoot his first gobbler, I will commemorate the event with a First Turkey Certificate generated from the Missouri Conservation Department’s website.  I’ll probably be more proud of it than he is.