He was out there.
We could hear him teasing us with his full-throated gobble that carried easily through the scattered pine trees and across the darkening sky that spit rain in our squinted eyes.
Trying to close the distance, we busted a hen that glided downhill toward the tom, its large wings set as if keeping such a fat, feathery body aloft was no problem. We sped up, skidding down a steep, slippery hillside and into a brush-choked gulch while still trying to be somewhat stealthy as we walked through the dried yellow grass.
But the tom turkey was always out of sight, no matter how much ground we covered, despite plaintive imitative turkey yelps made with mouth calls in a failed attempt to lure him closer. He knew we were fakes. This tom was just messing with us.
We even tried to cut off his retreat, dropping down a ridge and circling up through the cut of a small stream to get in front of him. Still, no sight of him, even when his gobbles helped us zero in on a specific area.
That’s how he earned his name: The Phantom Gobbler. I imagined him wearing a cape and a Zorro-like mask, the initials PG carved into the fluff of his puffed-out chest feathers, defying camouflaged hunters across the state, much to the adoration of his gaggle of clucking hen fans.
On the run
The Phantom Gobbler may have made an earlier appearance on opening day, as well. While crossing the trickle of a small, steep-sided creek bottom we heard a gobble and breathlessly hurried uphill, trying to zero in on where the tom might be over the loud noise of our pounding, winter-hardened hearts.
Then there was a loud shotgun blast. Someone else had been luring the tom. Crouching down we saw a stunned-looking gobbler wander dazed and confused out of the trees. He glanced in our direction with his bright red head and then took off. Had he been saved by The Phantom Gobbler who swept down at the last minute to clutch his fellow feathered friend in his claws and drop him out of the hunters’ range?
A second blast was either a desperation shot at the fleeing Phantom or a kill shot inflicted on the tom’s friend. Maybe the Phantom could only save one bird, often the plight of superheroes who must make difficult choices: Save Lois Lane or a bunch of unknown city residents.
Disappointed but glad we had at least seen the subject of our search, we returned to the truck and drove to another area. On the way we saw a family of yellow-bellied marmots who had taken over an abandoned house. They seemed to like the porch on this sunny afternoon, just like the former owners probably had.
Just behind the house a flock of turkeys, accompanied by three toms with their tail feathers fanned out, strutted across a pasture as green as a golf course fairway. The hens seemed unimpressed by their male counterparts, even when the gobblers stood right in front of them all puffed up as if to say, “Hey ladies! Look at me! Am I not impressive?”
This group of fowl John Travoltas were not having any luck inducing Saturday Night Fever in the hens, no matter their disco-worthy moves or shiny black, bronze and white suits. But the gobblers were as relentless as telephone solicitors, constantly restating their case by fanning their tails and singing their warbly song of love.
Those turkey tunes were often drowned out by the loud calls of the nearby sandhill cranes, a trilling sound that can carry more than two miles on a windless day. The red-capped, long-legged birds were spread along the creek bottom and also whooped through the sky as if trying to assert their presence after a long winter’s absence.
White-tailed deer crowded another nearby field as if it was the only place that contained anything nutritious to eat. So many deer in one place was unusual for this area, but the gathering indicated the animals had survived a long, extremely cold winter.
Along another route three bull elk, all of which had shed their antlers, stood on a hillside shaggy and ruffled as they shed their winter fur. One already had 6-inch long nubbins from a growth of fuzzy new antlers coming in. As we began to leave another bull, this one still carrying his antlers and looking more regal than his bedraggled friends, came into view standing broadside. We were a long ways away, yet they still looked concerned.
One biologist told me that in really tough winters it seems like elk are slower to shed their antlers. Many sources say that male elk, deer and moose lose their antlers when their testosterone levels drop. That’s typically in the winter for deer, but may not be until March or April for elk.
The most colorful wildlife we saw on the drive between hunting spots was a male ring-necked pheasant. In its full-colored breeding coat, with its bright red face mask, blue-green and white neck and coppery breast feathers, the male pheasant is the bird equivalent of (insert sexiest male actor you know here).
Kilroy was here
Even the colorful ring-necked pheasant was no match for The Phantom Gobbler, though. That tom has charisma, machismo and a gobble so alluring that suckers like me will walk miles over hills, through the trees and down into brush-choked drainages riddled with thorn bushes just in hopes of catching a glimpse of him.
“So it’s hunting season already?” a clerk at the nearby gas station questioned me as I entered the establishment at the end of the hunt dressed in head-to-toe camo.
“Yep, it’s the opening day of turkey season,” I told him.
“Huh, I didn’t know they had turkeys around here,” he said.
“They don’t,” I replied. “At least not any that I can sneak up on. They’re like ghosts.”
He gave me a strange look, shook his head and walked in to clean the bathroom. There on the wall of the men’s stall was a name freshly scratched into the gray paint: “The Phantom Gobbler.”