Forty-five years ago, The Pennsylvania Game Commission ushered in the very first spring gobbler season. I was there. In fact, I was in the woods the very first day of that very first season, the very first minute, and perhaps witnessed the very first bearded bird succumb to a dose of #4 shot. That love-sick turkey was taken within seconds of the legal starting time, and I would venture to say that he was the very first gobbler shot and tagged during the Keystone State’s first spring hunting opportunity. That’s right. I lay claim to witnessing the very first spring gobbler killed in PA. I didn’t even have a gun; I was just a witness. But I was hooked forever.
The next week I was in the woods with two local farm boys. They appealed to the hunter in me with, “Them turkeys are gobblin’ down in our south sugar bush. Ya oughta come over and hunt ’em.” So I did. For two weeks we were in the woods before daybreak. Every day we heard gobblers respond to my calls, but they never came close enough to present a shot. I hated the early hour, and I hated leaving the woods by 7:00 a.m. to shower and shave for work. But I was hooked.
Dark-thirty start doesn’t bother me as much since I’ve retired and I rise each day before daybreak anyway. The slow and measured change from dark to light is irresistible...the best part of the day, I think. I love to go on pre-dawn hikes over woodland trails and along the edges of strutting fields. I might hear a deer snort and exit the field, angry that I disturbed its morning chow. In the distance, a coyote howls a plaintive goodbye to the night. He is answered by the yip, yip, yip of pups. I smile and savor the sounds of the first songbirds, waking up and announcing the first trickle of light. A few more sneaking steps and I listen to the first brazen bronze bird almost whisper tentative chirps and clucks. The soft calls slowly build to a crescendo as the sun nears the mountaintops to the east. Bit by bit, daylight slowly drives out the dark night. A hen turkey joins her friend in the concert with a few clucks. Smaller birds are silenced, maybe startled at the deep gobble of the hens’ suitor revealing his location. Every bird is still perched high on a tree limb. It will be a few minutes before full light. A skunk, ending his nocturnal forage, hurries to his den before the sun beats down on the dew-covered grass.
Stationed against a tree, dressed head to toe in camouflage, I call. My turkey vest has all the essentials from pot calls with slate or glass and a variety of strikers, to box calls, to mouth calls, to a gobbler imitator, to decoys. I can stay longer in the woods now, and I like that. Most of my scores have been recorded between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Many toms seem to have “wised up” and sneak in silently. But I still hear the gobble-obble-obble of a tom in search of his harem or a lone hen needing some love. I’ve learned to count the day a success if I hear a talking tom. I’m hooked.
By the second half of the spring turkey season, I no longer try to get in the woods before the turkeys leave the roost. I can be just as successful with a mid-morning start. Know that I fish; I hunt; I recite poetry; I sing; I write and edit in my head. And I do it all in the spring-green forest. But I’m out there, rain or shine.
We had had a week’s worth of rain and the brooks and streams owed chocolate brown and raged toward flood stage. Fishing was out. It was still raining...hard. There had been some flooding and road erosion. The short respite from rain and the few hours of sunshine between storms hadn’t dried the backyard. The shine had lasted only long enough to give the clouds a second wind. The grass in my lawn had grown to first-hay-cutting height. Besides, it was gobbler season and I hate mowing.
Longfellow once wrote, “The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.” I thought not. Maybe I could call a gobbler in the rain. I donned my camouflage pants and shirt. My beagle took notice and hopped off her napping nest in the padded rocking chair. She savored the scent of woods on my pants. Between sniffs she looked up expectantly, tail wagging. When I grabbed my hunting boots, she started to whine and look anxiously at the back door. “No, girl,” I said. “No bunnies today. Dad is going after turkey.” She didn’t understand. I pulled on a rain jacket and headed toward the door. “No, girl, not today.” She lowered her head, disappointed. It damn near broke my heart to close the door and leave my rabbit dog. But then, as good as she was in the fall rabbit season, she would be no help in the spring.
I’d been working on three tom turkeys in a friend’s woodlots. One, the dominant bird, had answered my calls the first morning and had ventured just into range. I could see his red head, a good sign that the bronze bird was a gobbler. I waited to see a beard though, and, every time he turned sideways so I might see his beard, his body was behind a maple trunk, his head and long neck presenting a tantalizing shot. I had been in a hurry in the dark daybreak woods and had neglected to set out a hen decoy. at detail might have drawn him in. But he slowly sidled out of range, then out of sight.
So that day I moved to another woodlot a quarter mile away. I had seen two toms together, both fanning. They were obviously brothers from the same clutch. No luck. I had tried for the twins on three other occasions. Twice I saw them just out of range, but I could draw them no closer. en, the night before, I had brought them within range, and I could hear their puck, puck, puck, looking for the hen that had called. The black birch, beech, and berry brambles had leafed out and obscured my vision, leaving me with a thirty-yard view at best. No luck on the twins again.
And now I faced lousy weather with the skies spitting a hard rain. I decided to go out anyway. I know more than my fair share of spring turkey hunters, and a number of them had been successful in the rain.
I had been working on the big gobbler in a small patch of woods. And today, I went for the big boy. I sat down in the rain and called. Song titles trickled through my head between calls. “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” started the medley followed by “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Halfway through the lyrics of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” I called again. Nothing. I called again. I had taken the precaution of choosing a spot among the oak and maple that was open. Visibility was about seventy yards all around. And I had set out a hen decoy, just in case. My shotgun was nestled in my shoulder and pointed toward the big boy’s hangout. I rested my arm on my knee to help support the barrel, but my biceps begged for relief.
Then, to my left, and within range, I spotted a gobbler obviously circling the hen calls. I noted movement below him, but I was zeroed on the bearded bird. When he walked behind a big hemlock trunk, I slowly swung the Remington 870 downhill. When he emerged from behind the tree, I lined up my fluorescent beads and squeezed the trigger. Tight-patterned shot put him down. Then, I noticed his twin fly off. It was the pair from the night before. I must have called them over 600 yards to get that shot.
By the time I tagged the turkey, climbed up the hill, retrieved my decoy, hoisted my prize over my shoulder and hiked out to my truck, I guessed that my gobbler weighed forty pounds. As it turned out, he was a not a particularly braggin’ big bird. His measurements indicated that he weighed nineteen-and-a-half pounds, sported an eleven-and-a-quarter-inch beard, and only one-and-a-quarter-inch spurs. Gasping for breath, I loaded everything into the truck and headed home, humming the Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain,” an old 1960s hit, and I wished that I had the body I had in the ’60s. The rain had stopped, and I smiled at the rainbow over the woods.