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Turkey hunting just ain’t the same

** Editor’s note — In all honesty I must disclose that this article is a reprint. I wrote this story two years ago. While it’s said that time heals all wounds, the fact is it rarely does so without leaving at least a small scar. That’s the case with this story. Missing my hunting buddy and friend Joe Straughan has perhaps grown easier day to day, but come spring turkey season and I can guarantee that those memories of great early-morning spring hunts will come rushing back to mind.

“Hey buddy, you wanta go turkey hunting?” I could look forward to that question every spring about this time. It’s been a few years now since my turkey hunting mentor and buddy passed away following a lengthy illness. I miss his hunting invite each spring, listening to his countless stories of stalking and calling in gobblers, and time spent pursuing big toms together on his magnificent farm.

Over the years I’ve turkey hunted many places. Growing up I’d occasionally scour the wooded hillsides of the area around my childhood home. My dad never was a turkey hunter, so he lacked know-how when it came to using a turkey call, how to set up a decoy and other related turkey hunting skills. My early attempts were misguided forays based on advice I heard from other guys at school or old-timers in the community.

But about 12 years ago all that changed when I met a real turkey hunter. Joe was a veteran of spring turkey seasons and went about the hobby with the ease of any professional who is deftly familiar with the tools of his trade. Our upbringing, as well as our lives at the time, were about as different as daylight and dark, but we both shared a tremendous appreciation for being outdoors … and soon he’d be responsible for teaching me the exciting sport of spring turkey hunting.

“Are you going turkey hunting?” he asked one late March evening. “I doubt it,” I answered. “I’ve never had much luck at it. I grew up fishing and hunting, but my dad never turkey hunted and so I never really learned to call that good.”

“Why don’t you go with me? I’ll teach you how to call and we’ll get some birds,” Joe replied. At that point I had no idea where we’d be hunting, and was just intrigued about the chance to learn the necessary skills from an experienced hunter. Within a couple weeks I was sitting on a foggy ridge as the sun came up, listening to gobblers responding to hens and flying down from their roosts for miles around.

Let me just say Joe was an amazing farmer and steward of the land. His savvy business sense had allowed him to accumulate hundreds of acres of farm land, including a tract of roughly 800 contiguous acres about 12 miles from town. The farm consisted of a few hundred acres of hay fields, three sizable stocked lakes, a rustic cabin which overlooked one of the lakes with a walkway leading from the front porch down to a floating fishing dock, horse barns, equipment sheds and a caretaker’s home. All the lakes were stocked with bass, panfish and catfish. His other animals included a couple farm dogs, barn cats, a few cattle of assorted breeds, a small herd of elk, the usual woodland creatures including at least one bobcat, a population of whitetail deer and, of course, lots of turkeys.

My friend Joe was one of the most organized men I’ve ever met. His barns were designed and positioned to allow prevailing winds to sweep through and keep the air inside healthy and fresh. All the gates and outbuilding door hinges were angled to allow them to slowly swing shut if left unattended. The lawn around the cabin, lakes and fields were completely free of junk and debris … with everything kept neat and tidy at all times. His farm equipment, from tractors and dozers down to a jacked-up, camouflaged electric golf cart complete with gun racks that we used to ease in and out of the woods while turkey hunting, were maintained in good repair and ready to use at all times. The property’s wooded sections included some 16 miles of dissecting logging roads and hunting paths. Each March would find Joe making the rounds of the paths on his tractor to assure all were free of any downed limbs or trees and deep ruts well ahead of the arrival of turkey season.

Joe was semi-retired and self-employed. His schedule allowed for much more hunting time than mine did. I’d often not make it to hunt until the first weekend of the season (which starts on a Monday each year). By the time I could hunt, Joe had often already harvested his first bird of the season. We’d meet at his house in town well before daylight on a Friday or Saturday morning. After a stop at a gas station on the way to fill our thermoses with coffee, we’d arrive at the farm still long before first shooting light. He’d park his truck near the equipment sheds, slowly slide open the well-oiled door to the main barn, make his way to the battery-powered cart and unplug the charger. We’d secure our shotguns in the gun rack and stow away the surplus of piping hot coffee and snacks. Still some 20 minutes before the sun would even begin peeking over the highest ridge to the east we’d roll out of the barn and make our way silently up through the fields to a high distant ridge where Joe had heard or seen the most turkey activity in the days prior.

As the sun rose we’d be sitting on a ridge sipping coffee and listening for birds. Soon the gobblers would begin calling, either in response to the cluck of a hen nearby, or maybe in response to some man-made noise on a distant farm or sawmill. A good strong “gobble” was enough to get me and Joe out of the cart and easing in the bird’s direction with shotguns in hand (if he hadn’t already taken his bird for the week, otherwise he’d simply go along to help with the calling and offer guidance). We’d try to ease to within 50 or so yards of the bird, on the uphill side if possible because turkey’s tend to shy away from moving “downhill” to a calling hen. Once close, we’d hold up and find a good place to sit.

Joe would start calling occasionally with a comfort and skill that only comes from time spent in the woods or field edges listening to and hunting birds. Don’t call too aggressive or often, that’s a key to remember. More than once he called a bird in so close that it would walk past Joe and continue on in my direction without even noticing he was anywhere around. Anyone who has ever turkey hunted knows how wary and skittish a wild turkey can be. Then again, even with his great skills, occasionally an alert hen would notice movement or sense our presence and let out the all-telling “putt” distress call, sending any nearby birds in search of cover and safety elsewhere. But that’s the life of a spring turkey hunter … you win some, and the birds win some too. On those mornings we’d ease to another ridge and start the process all over again if time allowed. If not, we’d ease back down the hill to the barn and spend the next couple hours drinking coffee and discussing turkey hunting, our families, our jobs and life in general.

Unfortunately death is a part of life, and all too soon my friend Joe became ill and — despite a valiant battle — he eventually succumbed to the sickness and crossed over to the other side. I think about him often, especially when the peep frogs begin singing at night and the Easter lilies start to bloom in my wife’s flower beds. When that happens I know it won’t be long until spring arrives and with it will come turkey hunting. There’s a lot about life and death that I simply don’t know. Like, I’m not sure if there’s turkeys in Heaven, but, if so, I bet Joe is getting just as excited about the prospects come April as I am.

Doug Smith lives in an old house, drives an old truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, hunts and fishes often, and can be found on any given day wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat (except during turkey season when he temporarily swaps his red and black plaid for his favorite camo pattern).

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