The parking area was abandoned when I pulled my pickup next to a patch of state land known to harbor turkeys. It was the same spot Brett French had taken a gobbler during last spring's turkey season, and due to my early arrival for our weekend hunt I was walking it alone.
French and I hiked these same hillsides on opening day. The excitement of the new season had attracted other hunters to the section as well, and I was happy to see the turkey woods empty a couple of weeks later. I was a little better prepared this time around. I invested $11 in a crow call after seeing how effective the screeches are at producing shock gobbles from spring turkeys.
My heart rate and feet accelerated instantly when my crow squawk was returned by a nearby gobble. This tom was hot and alone. He returned my poorly executed chirps from a double reed elk call with excited gobbles. The tom was puffed up with his fan on full display and only 50 yards away. All I needed to do was get him into the range of my old Stevens bolt-action 20-gauge shotgun.
But it didn’t take many of my awkward approximations of a hen to alert the old gobbler of my status as a green turkey hunter. The tom went silent, dropped his tail feathers and walked into a brushy draw never to be seen again.
I wanted to harvest that bird but I was hardly upset with the missed opportunity. The interaction between predator and prey was different from anything I had experienced before.
I had a lot of reasons for chasing gobblers this spring. Among them, my freezer was starting to look empty after several months of daily elk entrees, and I didn’t have any weekend hunting plans ahead of archery elk season. Still, I didn’t expect to get hooked on turkey hunting. The failed attempt at the tom solidified my new addiction.
French and his hunting buddy Uriah Price were waiting at the cabin when I arrived. Price hails from Kansas and speaks turkey as a second language. After shooting light Price kept a few gobblers near the cabin engaged in conversation from their roost. I started to have a new optimism about my chances of returning to Billings with a cooler full of wild meat.
The next morning we set up in a patch of trees close to the neighboring private land where we heard the turkeys gobble the night before. Price threw out yelps, purrs and guttural crow calls to get the unseen gobblers talking. While they were happy to oblige, the toms were unwilling to leave the hens we could hear in their group and come into shooting range.
We hiked a couple other locations throughout the day. Despite several hours of our best efforts we couldn’t scare up a gobble anywhere. We returned to the comfort of the cabin and its wood stove to regroup. Cold beverages and a proposed early elk steak supper nearly derailed our evening hunt, but we managed to get our gear together and hit the woods one more time.
We drove past a block of state land on our way to where I saw the gobbler the night before. A lone tom scurried across the gravel road and stopped us in our tracks. He was headed toward public property but we had to double back a half mile to legally access the land.
It was a fast and strenuous uphill hike. Price moved quicker than French and me, so he was already calling the tom to a clearcut when I joined him on the top of the overlooking ridge.
I dropped down behind a tree and got my shotgun pointed to where I thought the bird would travel. It wasn’t long before the gobbler appeared on the opposing hillside a couple hundred yards away. The tom wasn’t even waiting for Price to finish his call before answering with gobbles. He was desperate for a hen but remained suspicious. He stopped every few steps to look for threats. It took minutes for him to close the distance guided by Price's masterful calling, but in my mind it was hours.
The anxiety chewed on me. I double and triple checked the safety on my gun and started to worry my position behind the tree wouldn’t allow me to get a good shot at the bird. Price had to remind me to keep still.
My suspicions were confirmed when the tom emerged farther to the right than I anticipated. He was just 20 yards away but the tree was between us. I lifted my muzzle and dropped it on the other side of the trunk. I tried to be smooth and stealthy but the bird’s sharp eyes saw me anyway. He turned to run just before I got my shot off and put him to the ground.
I don’t plan on saving any of the meat for Thanksgiving, but I’m thankful for the meals the turkey will provide. I’m even more grateful for the opportunity to hunt with people like French and Price who have helped me find success and meaning in Montana’s timber.