This may be the craziest October I’ve witnessed in the Michigan woods and I am not usually a fan of hunting this time of year. Warm temps, inconsistent deer movement, and unpredictable weather are usually responsible for dampening the mood. In fact, I’ve often felt I had no business in the woods until a thick frost licked the ground and a wool pullover was required to sit comfortably.
My 2012 season changed all that with the shooting of a doe on October 20th – my first ever taken in month number 10. Even then, nature played a cruel prank on me, messing with my emotions by giving me a morning in the low 30s and an evening in the high 50s. I wouldn’t see another deer until mid-November.
Little did I know how different 2013 would be. While the weather, temps, and traffic seemed similar there was one difference – turkeys. I drew my first tag in the spring and loved it so much I needed to continue chasing them in the Fall. I’d only seen one or two while deer hunting, but that was beside the point. You never knew when one would waddle by and I would be prepared.
But I wasn’t. I ended up seeing one my first weekend in the woods – a lone jake within range – and had yet to pick up my license. I had a similar experience the following weekend when a tom flew down from its roost amidst a flock of hens at first light. I had a tag this time, and made a shot, but suffered the wrath of an unseen tree branch and the season’s first miss.
Both of these are good stories in their own right, but I’ve got a better one. This one begins, like any good turkey story does, with a yelp.
Yelps, to any turkey hunter, are special to begin with. If defining this particular sound by the effect it has on a genuine turkey hunter, “hypnotizing” would most definitely be the superior term. This particular yelp cost me a chance at a deer – three to be precise – for when I rose from cover and turned to the North to see its origin, three beautiful does exploded from the brush in front of my blind and bolted into the pines on the opposite ridge, snorting and wheezing at me for several minutes before exiting.
That is how my morning started. I woke early, took every scent precaution, hit the woods well before first light with the wind in my face, located my blind in the dark, reinforced my cover, and sat motionless for hours in anticipation of a deer; only to blow the entire operation at 10 a.m. because of a yelp. To make matters worse, I didn’t see the turkey who made it.
The doe incident made me impatient. I decided to relocate to another spot across the property while the wind was good, hoping I might catch them in transition that afternoon. It didn’t happen. It ended up being a beautiful morning chock full of clucking squirrels, brilliant Autumn leaves, even the occasional woodpecker, but no deer or turkeys. Then at around 1:00 p.m. the wind shifted once more and I decided it was time to back out while I had the opportunity.
Doing so would take me over a ridge of red pine so littered with discarded needles it had inherited a rusty appearance that never seemed to diminish regardless of the time of year. I frequently stopped there on my way out of the woods and it would pay dividends this time around. As soon as I reached the peak and began skirting down the other side, a flash of gray caught my eye near the blind I’d been busted on earlier that morning. Something was definitely there. I thought it was another hunter at first, but further inspection revealed I was actually staring at several somethings chasing each other around the clearing.
“Turkeys,” I thought. “I’ll be damned.” I thought I’d heard them earlier and there they were, no more than 100 yards away and with enough wind and cover for me to get within bow range. All I had to do was get into the timber at the base of the other ridge, below the flock, which would prove a whole lot harder than it sounds. No more than 20 steps into my advance I noticed a doe rummaging around the brush to the right of the flock. I froze, unable to grasp what I was seeing: a flock of turkeys to my left, a deer to my right, and both on the same ridge. “Now what do I do.” I thought. I’d never heard or read anything like this.
I decided I would let the deer make my decision for me. I sat my hunting chair aside, nocked an arrow, and hid behind a tree to see what she would do. Watching her ended up being a humorous affair. She bounded back and forth across the ridge for several minutes like a penned dog waiting to be fed and then bolted into the brush towards the road. I assumed she’d crossed into the field on the other side, but before I could move she re-emerged from the timber at the bottom of the ridge no more than 15 yards away and would cross me (quartered slightly toward) within seconds. It was time for action.
I readied my bow, waited for her to cross behind a skinny pine, drew to anchor, and released as soon as her foreleg cleared the trunk.
The arrow closed the distance quickly, but not quick enough. Having heard my arrow, she ducked with an almost supernatural speed and I watched in disbelief as my arrow sailed over her shoulder and buried into a tree behind her. She stopped – a bit startled – a mere 15 feet away. I froze, unable to draw my bow. It was then I noticed her horns: two 3″ spikes shooting goat-like out the top of “her” head. She wasn’t a doe at all, but a young buck on the cusp of the rut and most likely smelling the does I’d spotted earlier. As he turned and trotted away I was suddenly glad my arrow hadn’t connected. I had yet to see a buck on that property and his living meant there would be at least one the following year provided he made it through the season. I quickly prayed he would and turned my attention to the turkeys who were still blissfuly unaware at the top of the ridge.
The thick brush and steady wind made it easy for me to creep within 20 yards of the flock where I discovered a small window into the clearing between a large fir and an uprooted stump. It was the perfect shooting lane and, as luck would have it, a Jake waddled into it as soon as I got my bow into position. The arrow was away before I had time to think but it was a touch high. My stomach tightened as I heard the arrow skip into the clearing and waited a minute or two before drawing another. The Jake had skipped away, revealing a much larger male hopping around with a couple of hens on the other side of a sapling. His beard was dragging across the ground and he was absolutely beautiful.
As I crept closer for the shot, ignoring the fantasy of his fan on the wall was nearly impossible. I could hear my heart pounding as I thought about my next arrow and my hands were starting to sweat. Shooting through the branches of the sapling wasn’t ideal, but it was definitely possible with a heavy arrow and I wouldn’t get a better opportunity with an occupied Tom. I figured the shot between 15-20 yards, drew until I could feel the leather of my glove, and dropped the string.
It looked perfect. Hell, it WAS perfect. But fate would once again prove that when it comes to hunting perfect isn’t always enough. Just as the arrow broke through the sapling and reached the unsuspecting turkey, he hopped. Yep…hopped, right into a bedded hen and over my arrow, which stuck into the slope beneath him. Then, as if to add insult to injury, he landed on the shaft as he came back down.
I couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable after all. The kind of story you imagine hearing at the campfire with your cronies, but never actually do. Bewildered, I drew my fourth and final arrow with the thought I might get one last attempt at the turkey of my dreams. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. By the time my shaking hands got the arrow nocked, the flock had tottered off.
I wasn’t sure what to think or feel as I collected my arrows. I was a hero in one hand and a complete failure in the other. The coward in me made at least a dozen excuses, but the hero waved them off until only reason remained. It happened – all of it – and I was happy it did. I did the best I could and there was no reason to be ashamed.
Still…I haven’t used the arrows since. 😉