Turkey Hunting: Chess Match in the River Bottom

Turkey Blog with Steve Hickoff

Turkey Hunting: Chess Match in the River Bottom

Posted 2018-05-21T05:22:00Z

Sometimes Turkeys Win and It's Okay

"Turkey hunting is not a game that needs a score or a scorekeeper and does not require the production of a dead turkey to qualify as a success."

— Tom Kelly, "Ethics," The Season

I turkey hunted in Florida this past March, several April states, and like many, I'm still at it here in mid May.

Some Plains states, some in the upper Midwest and many in the Northeast are still open — like New Hampshire where I hunted this past Saturday.

© John Hafner photo

New Hampshire's spring turkey season ends on May 31 at noon.

Here at the wire you have to want it. And want it we do. Sunrise, 5:15 a.m. the day of this hunt and getting earlier each day. Legal shooting a half hour earlier. You get where I'm going with this. Early.

And it takes roughly 45 minutes to get to the river bottom. So sometimes, I do just the opposite of what you might think. I take it a little bit easier. I slip out a little later. Still early, mind you, but later . . .

It's all good, fellow turkey hunters, you know that.

Clear, crisp, cool, sunny — it was 39 degrees when I woke up to let my pup Alphie out. I answered a few weekend emails, dressed, apologized to my bird dog for not taking him and made the drive over to New Hampshire from Maine. I'd tagged out here on the opener.

Forget about the dog-panting heat my southern buds are suffering through right now in their off-season. This is late-season spring turkey hunting up North.

Like many of my friends who live and visit here, I love it.

Game On

No one was at the designated parking spot. Sure, somebody might hunt in from the other side. But I liked how this was starting out.

I eased down toward the river bottom, enjoying the sunlit weekend morning. It was good to be alive. Green leaves popping everywhere. Songbirds calling, doing their thing. Just really nice to still be doing this after hunting other states over the past three months. And decades of it.

A continuum.

I ran a series of yelps, clucks, cutts. Nothing. I did it again. I eased along through the tall green field grass and yelped some more. Slipping down into the river bottom, I called again.

And then a gobbler answered, across the river, in the thick timber, already on the ground as I'd arrived after fly-down.

I stood there thinking for a second, and accidentally bumped my holstered box call, which made a couple quick hard clucks. Pop-pop!

The bird roared back in the still morning air, across the river, closer, possibly closing.

I had several choices: set up right there and try to call the gobbling turkey to the river's edge (it might work, but the view there was limited) and/or across the river (an even lower percentage option in my mind) — or cross the flowing water myself, which was higher than my 18-inch boots.

I walked a bit upstream, ever mindful of the gobbling turkey and waded the river in a lower spot. At first, I managed not to run water over my boots for half the effort, then simply accepted the inevitable: getting wet.

I got wet. Boots dry eventually, big deal. Hot gobblers may not wait.

I sloshed ashore, listened, heard nothing and eased into the timber. Finding a good place to set up, I took a deep breath, waited for the woods to calm down. I called.

The bird roared, but not there in the woods across the river.

It was now on the other side of the river where I'd been. What? Wow. I'm serious. Low percentage? I guess not.

I guess that bird was indeed closing in on my original calling — and then some.

It'd flown over to where I'd been. Mercy.

Two Birds

I was partly amazed it had winged across the river to where I'd first called, and of course fully aware I'd made the wrong choice in this chess match. But hey: how many of you would have gambled on calling the gobbler to the river's edge and/or across the 20-yard river span?

I didn't think so.

But we weren't done with surprises just yet. Right then another gobbler answered the river flyer and me, far, far out through the thick timber, obviously a different bird, on the side I'd crossed over to . . .

And this is why we love run-and-gun turkey hunting. Strategy. And mystery. And unexpected moves by wild turkeys.

So for the next hour, I had birds hammering on both sides of the river. The far bird on my side would come, then drift, come closer, then drift in the thick piney timber (I never saw it). The other gobbler (where I'd originally been) gobbled with nothing less than a roar every so often, obviously looking for the hen where I'd been before my river crossing.

© Steve Hickoff photo

Imagine the luck. Or lack of.

The gobbler did not fly back over the river. That would be way too much to expect.

The other turkey on my side did not come. But we three surely made a lot of lovely turkey racket.

And after a bit, a fourth member crashed the party.

Another hunter. I could tell by the steady insistent calling — over and over and over and over and over. Same tone and cadence. Not bad at all, but clearly the guy had moved in on the gobbling turkeys (and me).

Game over. And so I packed up, done, playing it safe, and waded the river back.

Once there, the calling was coming closer through the woods, more insistent. I whistled the way I do to my bird dogs and it stopped. I whistled again to confirm. Hunter here . . .

And the calling started back up again.

Gobbler for the Win

And with that the other hunter kept yelping. I did an even bigger (safer) loop back to the truck, wading swamp muck on an end-around to the lower field and then easing along the path that would take me out of there.

I didn't want to mess this guy's hunt up. I figured it was an honest mistake. Always mindful of keeping things safe, I also didn't want to bump the original gobbler — the rascal that flew the river.

So much for my plans.

And that's when I saw the big bird in a wary half-strut maybe 150 yards away, watching me from a high field now, head and neck periscoping up, moving away steadily with that hyper-paranoid look we've all seen.

How. About. That.

I love it that they do that. That turkeys are tough. I really do.

I love that some birds, often in big timber, and in river bottoms like this, are truly wild and always should be.

We don't have to fill every tag. We really don't.

Again, as Mr. Kelly said, our turkey hunting tradition, "does not require the production of a dead turkey to qualify as a success."

I had to grin.

My late dad used to say turkey hunting was like a chess match. I've heard others say it, too. And I agree.

But at the tail end of another enjoyable turkey season, I kind of like it when they win.

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