Turkey hunters have their fair share of things going against them. It is hard enough to just find a place where you can chase these gigantic thunder chickens; especially out here in Colorado where birds like to stay on or as close to private land as possible. Turkeys have eyesight that is second to none adding to the difficulty of taking a mature longbeard. Thier hearing is good as well and if a hunter shifts his weight inadvertantly, a pesky pine cone can end his dreams of fried turkey breasts. And let's not get sucked into that old wives tale that these feathered kin to the dinosaurs are bird-brained. If you have ever tried to match wits with an old, seasoned tom, then you have probably been left scratching your head, wondering what went wrong on more than one occasion. Let's face it... the odds are stacked against us. But when I slowly and deliberately shut the door of my buddy Ryan's truck last fall, the last thing I thought was standing in between us and getting Ryan his first jellyhead, was another mammal.
During the drive to my hunting area, I had explained to Ryan the phenomena of shock gobbling and how I have had toms gobble after shutting a truck door after an unsuccessful hunt. He wanted to slam his door and I advised him not to. By moonlight we both quietly donned our turkey vests and headlamps. Turkey hunters are a breed all their own. We are the gadgeteers of the hunting world. We wear a vest with a million pockets that we fill with every manner of call and tool imaginable. Ryan was new to the turkey hunting woods and in the weeks prior to the opening of Colorado's spring turkey season, we had visited just about every sporting goods store on the Front Range and got him all the essentials ranging from a camouflage face mask to slate and box calls. As we started out into that brisk, moon-lit morning, Ryan was as excited as a ten year old on his first hunt.
It took us about half an hour to cover the distance to the area that my scouting earlier in the year had shown to hold a frequently used roost. We have Merriam's turkey in the mountainous area of Colorado that I hunt. Out east, along the big cottonwood laced riverbeds, Rio Grandes are present. Merriam's wander; much like the first explorers that ventured into this part of the country in the 1800's. They are less sedentary than their eastern cousins. But that doesn't mean that they won't use the same roost on occasion. And when I found it during a late March scouting trip, I could instantly tell that this roost had been used extensively and right away knew that I would be trying to set up on the site during the upcoming season. When Ryan and I had gotten within 500 yards of the roost, there was still about a half hour till the sun would start to hit the surrounding ponderosas' bark; producing that familiar vanilla-butterscotch smell that graces the montane zone on warm spring mornings. I whispered to Ryan that silence was paramount from here on out. We slowly cut the distance between us and the turkey hotel in half; taking much care in the placement of each foot step.
I found a large deadfall with many gnarled branches; an apparent victim of a lightening strike many years prior. This would serve as our ambush site. We silently tucked into the folds of the fallen patriarch and blended into the mountain. Over the next 15 minutes we watched and listened to the woods waking up from its slumber. Ryan almost lost control of his bladder when the first hen let her presence be known. Up to that point, I think Ryan didn't have much faith in this spot. I think his mindset was, "if this spot is so good, than why didn't you hunt it before your tag was punched?" I guess that questioning was fair but Ryan's doubts were quickly squandered with those first raspy clucks. After another hen answered the first's call to duty, I joined in on the consversation. It wasn't but a couple seconds before Ryan heard his first thundering gobble. The toms vocalization came reverberating at us through the trees and I knew that we were at least on the dance floor. Ryan started to shake and I told him that he needed to settle down. Just because the tom had answered us did not mean that he would walk within 50 yards of Ryan's Mossberg.
I used the turkey wing from my turkey from the year prior and beat it against my leg to immitate a turkey flying down from roost. This got that old jellyhead riled up. He let out an earth shaking gobble and then I heard the flock start to fly down from roost. I got on my slate call and worked it passively. The next gobble that I heard sounded like the bird was just over the top of a knoll at about 60 yards. Now even I could barely hold in my excitement. I gently let out some purrs and then I saw movement. The toms head, red with passion, peered above the top of the knoll. He only needed to come about 10 paces closer and Ryan would have a good shot. He had gotten comfortable shooting off his shooting sticks and we knew that his extra full choke produced an adequate pattern out to about 50 yards.
The tom was hesitant to come any closer since he could not see the potential mates that had somehow roosted so close to him without his knowing. At this point, I regretted not setting up my jake and hen decoys but I had made minimizing our noise that morning the priority. He gobbled again and again, staring holes through us. Ryan stared right back at this giant bird down the rib of his 12 guage. Then I saw it... and I knew that things were about to go downhill. Ryan couldn't see it due to a large branch that hung in the air between us and therefore he just kept waiting for the turkey to take the couple steps that would never come.
I whispered for Ryan to take the shot but the shot didn't come. He wasn't seeing what I was seeing; or he would be shooting. Off to my right, and now within 20 yards of the unsuspecting tom, a coyote was getting ready to strike out in pure predatory instinct.
The tom's head jerked to full attention and he let out a noise that I have never heard a turkey make. I like to think that it translated from turkey talk to English as, "Oh $&!#." The coyote sprung from his squatting position and was on the tom in a flash. The rest of the flock took off in a million directions. Upon being pounced on, the tom had fallen back out of sight over the knoll. I jumped to my feet but Ryan just sat there in shock. The poor guy had been in pure focus and was about to take his first turkey when some crazy scene from an episode of Wild America manifested its ugly head. It probably would have been a whole lot worse if Marty Stouffer was present though.
I ran to the top of the knoll just in time to see the tom make it up onto the first branch of a flat-topped ponderosa. The coyote was completely fixated on the bird and did not even notice me. I yelled for Ryan to come but the coyote wised up really quick once he heard me. He wheeled around and took off. Ryan got to the top of the hill just in time to see the tom leap off the branch and glide off the 50 foot cliff just to the west. The tom, the flock and even the coyote were gone.
We were left standing on that cliff face dumbfounded. Peering off into the canopy below, I asked Ryan if he wanted to skirt the cliff face and give him another go after a little while. He didn't. He was emotionally taxed and was done for the day. When we got back to the trailhead, Ryan slammed the door of his truck in frustration. And you can probably guess what rang out from the sourrounding silence. That's right... Ryan got to hear his first shock gobble. And with that vocalization, unlike anything else in the animal world, Ryan's whole mood changed. And off we went in search of another tom, hoping with all our might that the canids that we shared the mountain with did not hear the same thing we just had.
Below is a picture of the turkey that Ryan ended up taking later that afternoon. But that is a story in its own right.