The 2006 Illinois Spring Turkey season arrived with the long awaited opening day hunt. As most Turkey Hunters anticipate all winter long, the arrival of spring and the gobbling Toms in their favorite hunting hide-a-ways, I too, had been itching to hit the woods and lure a Tom close enough to harvest. Never could I have dreamed the events from the 2005 Spring Season would carry over for one of my most memorable hunts.
Last season, in 2005, my son Joe McDaniel and I sat across from each other in a large bottom-field. We listened to three roosted birds sounding off with every passing crow, cardinal, and soft yelp from the roosted hens. He or I could never have imagined the bird that was about to appear. One by one as the birds pitched out, … one odd bird flew over that clearly had some white tail feathers. It landed about 100 yards out in the field and was heading toward my son's position. The flock worked its way toward my son, as he and I both called trying to coax them in range. I knew my chances were fading fast, as they were working in closer and closer to my son. I quit calling and sat back to enjoy the show. He harvested a nice Tom and the flock bolted from the field. Once he and I joined up, my son wondered if maybe he should have taken the "white bird". He was 16 during the 2005 season and has taken several nice Toms in his earlier years. He knew to harvest a Tom, but stated the "White" bird was a Jake and he really looked odd. I only caught the back view, as it walked away from me. I thought it was a hen. He said it had a small beard and the wings were white, along with part of its tail feathers.
From that day on, the hunt for the "white" bird was on. I had another tag in the fourth season, and my oldest son had a fifth season tag. We encountered the "white" bird two more times in the 2005, but never could lure him into range. As the 2005 season concluded and the door was shut, I wondered if this bird would make it through until next season and would his plumage mature or would his distinct coloring loose it's luster returning to the normal Eastern patterns?
The 2006 Illinois Spring season couldn't get here fast enough. I secured a first season tag for my younger son and I, and we were out opening day. Birds were plentiful, but as many hunters experienced too, groups of hens seemed to keep the Toms clear from our calling. But, on Thursday April the 13th, I sat along the creek edge watching two Toms strutting about 300 - 400 yards away. On the distant hill, something caught my eye. The sun had just reached the treetops and was showering the fields with golden light. Across two fields and a county road, the sunlight seemed to be illuminating one distant Tom. I reached for my binoculars and peered at the flock. As the Tom puffed up and spun his fan out for display, it was clear the "white" bird lives! I sat there and had two choices, be patient and hopefully harvest one of the nice Tom's that were strutting just a mere 300 yards out or go after the "white" bird. Without hesitation, I grabbed my gear, stood up and gathered my decoys. The birds in my field scattered and I begun a jog to the truck. My morning plans were thrown out the window with the sighting of the "white" bird. And oh, his fan looked awesome. He was more beautiful than last year. I reached the truck unloading all gear except my calls. In my excitement of spotting the "white" bird, I pushed towards them too fast and yes, busted the flock. With a few head jerks and zigzag running, the flock disappeared into the timber and the day was done. That was the last time I saw him with the first season closing the next day. He was absent from sight through the second, third and fourth seasons as well.
It was May 6th, Saturday with the fifth and final season in progress. I had been chasing turkeys for nearly a month. Though one weekend was spent giving the "white" bird a rest. My son Joe and I traveled to Kansas to pester some Rio birds. But that's another story. May 6th found me hunting with my fifth season tag with hopes that the "white" bird was in my area, but in my heart, I thought my opportunity on April 13th was it and had passed. The sun was breaking the eastern sky, and I had already nestled into the same field from the 2005 season. I hoped and prayed the "white" bird would return to the area where he surely must have grown up. With hunting pressure high, mostly from me, I remained quite waiting to see of any Toms would sound off on their own. They did. At least three maybe four were roosted above me, on the steep ridge that always seems to hold birds. I had decoys out, and waited ever so patiently for the action to begin. And with high hopes, the birds one by one pitched out into the field where I had sat up. My son, declined to rise out of bed, as the month long assault was wearing him out. Then to my surprise, the "White" bird came off the roost. This was the closest I had been. He was only about 75 yards out when he lit. I couldn't believe it. I'd been hunting turkeys since the late 80's when the seasons and counties were being made available in Illinois, and this bird was making me shake. I called and he responded. Then three more Toms approached. Four different Toms were strutting almost in range, and all responding to my calls. I was in heaven. This beautiful bird mesmerized me. It was like no other bird I'd ever saw. He seemed to be glowing, radiating, compared to the other Toms around him. It was awesome. I couldn't even focus on the half dozen hens milling around in the field as they were sliding around the decoys as if they knew something was a miff. I had the gun up and needed at least twenty more yards cut off the distance to confidently harvest the most awesome bird I'd ever saw. My eyes were glued, affixed to the "White" bird. Then, just as if notified something didn't seem right, the strutting Toms, including the "white" bird veered and skirted around the decoys letting the hens lead them to safety. I now was in hell. My heart sank. I could do nothing but watch the flock disappear in the timber along the creek edge and cross into the neighboring land. The neighboring land was also not available to hunt by me. Now you know why I was in hell. I stayed put but as the morning progressed on, so too did the hope of harvesting the one bird that has caused my blood pressure to rise, loose sleep, and think and re-think my hunting tactics.
That evening I told my 17-year hunting buddy, my son who chose to sleep in, you are going tomorrow. You have a tag, I have a tag and maybe one of us can get him. I told him where the "white" bird was that morning and that I didn't pressure him, and, that I let them walk hearing no other shots in the area.
We arose Sunday morning hours before daybreak. We positioned ourselves in the same field from the morning before. The same field that produced the first glimpse a year prior. The rules were simple. The rules were clear. Whoever can take him, take him. We won't wait for a double or worry if one of us doesn't score. Take the "white" bird if the opportunity is there. If the flock does hold two or more Toms, and a double can be done, by all means that's the goal, but the "white" bird is the first and foremost goal. To my surprise and delight, the gobbles rang loud. The flock was there. They pitched out again, seemingly one by one. And then, as if a ghost was floating out of the trees, the "white" bird floated out, seemingly in slow motion, landing in full view again. He strutted and gobbled announcing his presents. As my son and I sat close together, we coaxed the flock with soft and easy calls. The entire flock was working toward the creek crossing from the day before. The creek crossing that we were sitting next to as well. As the flocked worked our way, the hens on this day were curious of our calls. They worked to with ten yards of our position. They were actually too close as the Toms were not keeping pace. I was starting to worry that they would spot us. Luckily the Toms and the "white" bird inched into range. Though it wasn't a comfortable range and then we were spotted. One of the hens picked something out. Maybe our gun barrels moving as both of us were trying hard to steady our shaking hands. Or maybe my son's or my eyes blinking? At any rate, she started long necking our position and acting a bit skittish. With two tags we wanted two birds if they came into range, but with the hen reacting a bit skittish, my son knew to shoot. He had position as they approached from his side and the bird was clearly within the single shot ten gauge's range. I was further away and was hoping he'd pull the trigger. I knew I didn't have a shot, but hoped he would know to shoot. He did. The shot sounded loud and strong, and the "white" bird went down. He yelled, " I got him, I got him." He or I couldn't have been happier.
Neither of us could get there fast enough to see up close the fruits of our labor. It took us 54 big steps and though I do not recommend shooting past 50 yards, the gun and loads were tested at further distances with deadly results. At 17, my son Joe has been my best partner. He's been on many hunts in his young life and has many trophies to show for his efforts. May 7th 2006 will go down as one of the most unique and most satisfying hunts I'll ever participate in. I'll remember this hunt forever and am happy that I witnessed my son as he harvested the now known " Silver Phase Tom ".