“Come on,” my friend, Rocky Drake, urged me on, “let’s go.” I’d spied something in the dirt and had turned around to check it out. He already was 15 or more feet ahead of me, when he noticed I was no longer behind him. He’s always walked quickly, though.
By Alan Clemons
Unlike him, I walk slowly. And on this morning, with seven or eight gobblers sounding off around us – literally surrounding us in the rolling south-central Tennessee hills – I was stopping. The trail we were on was a cow path or horse path – some kind of animal path – strewn with rocks and bare dirt, with dew-covered grass on either side of its roughly 10-inch width.
My toe dug into the edge of what I was sure was an old horseshoe. It was. Rusted, with that old patina mixed with dirt – buried for who knows how long. I didn’t care. It reminded me of seeing horseshoes above barn doors and house doors when I was a kid. Supposed to bring good luck, y’know. A lucky horseshoe, here, on a turkey hunt when God knows I could use every bit of luck I could get.
I slipped it into the back of my vest and caught up with my friend. By now, the gobblers were on the ground and we were late.
Over the Rise and Out of Sight
The south-central Tennessee hills aren’t big, but they are fine and fit for turkeys. For whatever reason, the area where we were hunting was known for multiple- bearded birds, and plenty of them.
There aren’t many guarantees when hunting legitimate free-range wild critters, but if you had to absolutely kill a multiple-bearded gobbler that area would have been the one I’d recommend. Genetics, I guess. Maybe the dirt. They make good whiskey not terribly far away, too, so possibly it’s something in the water. Whatever the reason, it was, for a while, a turkey haven.
The population’s down a bit now, and state biologists are trying to figure out what’s going on. There still are birds in the area, but something’s playing crazy with them. Still, it’s a beautiful part of the Volunteer State and this outing remains one of my most memorable turkey hunting trips ever.
Drake is a longtime taxidermist and diehard hunter. We’d arrived before daylight, of course, and stood near a tree listening. One gobbler. Two. Three, four, five, six, seven. A few more well out of range, but answering the morning call nonetheless. We grinned and picked one to try. And then Drake lit out, camera and tripod on his shoulder, with me doing my best to keep up … until I was sidetracked by that rusty horseshoe.
Drake had invited me on the hunt with no guarantees of anything other than definitely hearing birds and having a chance. Now, he was chuckling a bit at my horseshoe revelation and urging me to catch up. A fat guy trying to keep track with a quick-stepping partner is no match on a hill, though. But I finally caught up as we eased within view of a gap between two plots of hardwoods.
The gobbler was walking away from us, over the hill, out of sight. I could blame the horseshoe or my lumbering steps. Maybe I could blame a hen we didn’t hear that enticed the ol’ boy for some morning frivolity. Whatever. We stood silently as it disappeared and we plotted.
“Call to him and see if he responds,” Drake said. I yelped a few times. Nothing. Yelped again. Nothing. That gobbler had lust on his mind and paid us no heed. Turkeys do that, of course. By now, the other umpteen birds were all silent, each no doubt on the ground heading to strut and preen for hens in the dew.
Suddenly, a booming gobble to our right shattered the silence. Unless the first tom had decided to hightail it across the opening and into the woods, this was a different bird. Luck was turning. Maybe.
Whatever “The Book” says about turkey hunting should be taken with a healthy dose of salt, because things usually don’t go by any preconceived ideas. A turkey gobbles and should pop out into the open? Naw, not on this day.
We plopped down against the closest tree in what, in hindsight, was a cruddy setup. We were exposed, with a bird to our right in the trees, not really knowing where it would come out. In front of us? Behind us? We were trapped and at risk of blowing a second opportunity, a gift from the turkey gods on a glorious morning.
Mask up and Remington in hand, I softly yelped a few pleading notes. This time when the turkey gobbled he was closer, having cut the distance, still in the woods behind us. Quick shift, we thought, to get into the tree line and try to cut him off? We jumped up and scampered toward a chest-high mess of thick weeds before being frozen by another gobble.
The tom was coming hard and fast, on the proverbial rope, and all we could do was stand there. Tripod down and camera on, Drake started filming as a bobbin’ head appeared 15 or so yards away just inside the tree line. How that turkey never saw us on the other side of that chest-high mess, I’ll never know. He should have seen us. But they have lust in their knobby heads in springtime, y’know. Turkeys aren’t stupid. Lust makes males of all species go bonkers.
We could see him walking back and forth, wearing a path inside the trees. Big bird, full of vigor. I yelped. He yelled back. I yelped a little more. He thundered again. Back and forth, with him gobbling at my pitiful excuses for hen calls. But I’d obviously tripped his switch, and he wasn’t planning on going anywhere.
Five, then six minutes went by. Drake filmed, I yelped, the turkey gobbled. Honestly, we couldn’t believe it. Things weren’t supposed to go this way. The Book says that by now, a gobbler would have figured the jig was up with no hen in sight and booked to the next county. The Book must not have had a chapter on what this gobbler wanted to do.
Nine minutes, 10, 11, and now we were the ones getting antsy. Actually, we were trying to stifle our laughter. I believe one of us could have howled like a monkey and gotten a gobble in response. He wouldn’t leave – he was dead set on finding that hen that was hiding somewhere in the chest-high mess, calling to him, trying to get him to come out. But he wanted her in that tree line.
“Better take the shot next time he hits that gap,” Drake whispered, and I already was thinking the same thing. He’d filmed 12 minutes of this silly bird strutting like a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall, but the show had to have an ending.
“You ready?” I asked, and my safety clicked. We probably could have nudged another few minutes of the show, but it was time for the closing number. A load of Federal shot flew true, and with a few final kicks the dance ended.
I’m not superstitious and don’t believe in trinkets or good luck charms. I don’t have a lucky cap or nickname for any of my shotguns or rifles. But that rusty horseshoe, which I cleaned and painted black like the ones my great-grandmother had in her home, hangs in my garage with my gear.
It never went on another hunt. But the one that it was on, nudged from the Tennessee dirt and stuck in the back of my turkey vest, well, maybe there was something special to it after all.