HERMON, Maine — Before the glorious parade of six love-starved male turkeys, before shots rang out, ending that parade, before two friends congratulated each other on a job nearly well done, there was the wakeup call to remind us that this wild turkey hunting game isn’t for the faint of heart. No matter how many times I do it, 3:30 a.m. is always too early to clamber out of bed.
Until, that is, you look back after a stellar day in the woods and remember all of the wonderful things that transpired while you could have been sleeping.
After all, opening day of Maine’s spring wild turkey season only rolls around once a year. And if we want to be in position to talk turkey to some birds before they figure out that there are camouflage-clad humans out there, dressed like trees and trying to do them harm, it’s in our best interest to get out there before the sun comes up.
On Monday, that’s what my friend and co-worker Pete Warner and I did. We rose early. We drove to a spot to which another colleague had offered us access. That colleague had a turkey problem, she told us, and wanted the birds evicted from her property.
“Kill them all,” she told us, only half in jest, and we agreed to try to eliminate a bird or two and provide our families with some organic meat in the process.
And after setting up our ground blind, putting out a couple of decoys and settling into our chairs, we sat in the dark, waited for legal shooting time, and hoped for the best.
We didn’t have to wait long.
Over the past 10 years or so, my turkey hunting — and Pete’s, as well — has been limited not by a lack of interest, but by a lack of available land on which to hunt.
Our knowledge of these local turkeys was pretty basic: We knew they were on this property most every day, and that there seemed to be four toms among a sizeable flock. Shortly after legal shooting time, a half-hour before sunrise, Pete decided to a bit of vocal prospecting, and pressed the “owl” button on his digital call.
The theory: Turkeys will answer back to nearly anything (even a slamming car door).
The imitation owl hooted. And immediately, two … or three … or more loud gobbles replied from the not-so-distant woods.
A couple of hen yelps from Pete set the toms to gobbling again, before we decided it wasn’t yet light enough for us to distinguish toms from hens, should they show up. A brief pause in our calling seemed to be the best course of action.
During that 10-minute calling hiatus, however, the turkeys grew bored and walked away. When Pete let loose a series of yelps after the sun had risen a bit, we got an enthusiastic reply from several gobblers, but it came from far down the hill, toward our colleague’s home.
A few minutes later, she texted us a photo of the birds. They had decided to spend some time in a neighbor’s field, and had seemingly forgotten all about us.
It was time for Plan B.
What is Plan B?
OK. Calling the remainder of the hunt Plan B, or Plan C, or Plan Z is a bit grandiose. Fact is, we had no backup plan.
We weren’t going to relocate into her neighbor’s field, and we didn’t want to set up shop right behind her house, so Plan B really consisted of more of the stuff we’d been doing.
Yelp. Raspy yelp. Gobble once in a while. Hope for the best.
In between, as the turkeys meandered around in a distant pasture, we took the time to sit and listen to the woods come alive around us.
A crow often answered our calls. Two woodpeckers got to work on trees in different parts of the nearby woods, seeming to keep perfect rhythm to the cadence of our calls. On a nearby pond, loons began to call. And before long, geese joined the choir, honking away.
In the large ground blind, we each stood up to stretch our legs, and looked down the slope, toward the field where the turkeys had set up shop. And there, 150 yards away, the birds began to show up, one by one.
And they were heading our way.
Pete got back on the call, and the birds answered enthusiastically. Seven birds had broken ranks with the others, and were methodically working their way up the hill parallel to our spot.
We grabbed binoculars and began trying to see how many toms were in the group. In order to shoot a turkey in the springtime in Maine, you’ve got to make sure it’s got a beard, which males typically do.
“Tom, tom, tom,” Pete began, as the birds grew closer. “Buddy, six of the seven have beards. Six.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Then I checked through my own binoculars, and watched as one lone hen led her six bearded suitors up the slope, about 60 yards away.
Our goal was to get them within 35 yards, but the birds didn’t cooperate. Instead, they walked past us, up the hill, paused for a bit, then began to parade back along the same path they’d just covered, setting up in a little valley where we couldn’t see them. For about 20 minutes, they stayed there, answering to calls, but staying put.
Then they began to march up the hill again — still out of shooting range — before turning to their left and traversing the top of the lot.
“If they clear those trees, they’ll be able to see our decoys,” I told Pete. “This could be good.”
And finally, it was good. Very, very good.
The six toms looked down the hill, saw the two hen decoys we’d deployed, and abandoned the hen that had led them on their early morning march. Down they came, toward us.
Quickly, Pete and I formulated a real plan. Pete, who was sitting to my left, would take the first bird, but only after it crossed in front of us. That way, he wouldn’t be tempted to swing his shotgun to the right, toward me. And me? I’d take the second bird as soon as Pete told me he was ready.
As plans go, that one was adequate. Alas, I forgot one thing: We had no mechanism for telling each other when to fire. No countdown. No “take him.” Nothing. Therefore, we realized muchy later, the chances of both of us shooting at the exact same time was essentially nil.
And then things got a bit more complicated.
“Look at that!” Pete whispered urgently. “Uphill. Three deer! No. Four. Four deer! You’ve got to be kidding me.”
For the next 20 seconds or so, our attention was divided between the marching turkeys and the rapidly approaching deer, which had stepped out into the field and seemed intent on watching the opening-day drama play out.
After a few more seconds, we refocused on the turkeys.
“I’m on him. I’m ready,” Pete whispered as his bird stepped into range, about 30 yards away and directly in front of him.
“I’m good,” I replied, raising my shotgun and releasing the safety.
Then I pulled the trigger, a half-second or so before Pete did the same. That timing miscue led to two things. My bird went down. His bird, startled, made a quick sprint for the woods, and left Pete with a shot that was nearly impossible.
Ten minutes later, the deer returned, but the large doe was clearly uncomfortable, as she glared in our direction, stomping and blowing.
The turkeys, however, were done for the day. We hunted for a couple more hours, but they never returned to give us a second crack at success.
The bird I shot was my biggest ever, weighing in at 19 pounds, with a 9-inch beard and 1-inch spurs.
And both of us have continued to replay the morning, including all the different wildlife we saw or heard, and all the things we’d do different the next time around.
Luckily, our colleague still has a turkey problem.
And luckily, she’s still eager for us to come back and try to help her solve it.
One bird at a time.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.