A Royal Turkey Rumble in the Hills of Pennsylvania
Austin Passamonte 05.03.12
The alarm clock rang at 4:00am just as we instructed it to. No matter… it was late or I was early, having already been up and showered with hot coffee in hand and boots pulled on by the time that noisy little clock tolled for thee.
My breath hung heavy and suspended through the frigid air, which measured 22F in the wee hours of that starlit morning ahead of the spring turkey season opener in Pennsylvania. I was here with a plan, on a mission and determined to right some wrongs from the prior season.
Pennsylvania, late April 2011: opening day of spring turkey season found me on a high hillside in northern Tioga County. Warm, clear, sunny weather with active gobbling that echoed across the hills and valleys. I was set up near the crest of a steep hill which overlooked a grassy pasture section roughly two hundred yards in length from west to east and one hundred yards wide from north to south. The field in view is not quite flat: it crowns a bit towards the top (north) which leaves a blind spot in the depression where upper edge meets a wood line.
Above me to the north there is a mixed stand of hardwoods to create said wood line. To my left (west) there are a series of pasture grass and tilled fields. Below me (south) is an overgrown woodlot which was once someone’s extensive apple orchard, now in the middle stages of overgrowth with multiflora rose in the lower canopy and various species of ash trees reaching for sunlight above.
On the eastern edge to my right, a thin woodlot connecting the hardwoods ridge and apple orchard below is right where birds tend to roost and stage soon as they fly down. This day was no different: predawn vocals had birds calling from all around, and I watched them gather some eighty yards in front of me before they strung out and walked off in the wrong direction for me to get things done.
It was barely past 6am when the entire flock of turkeys flew into the grassy field’s southeast corner as I expected they would. Seven hens and two mature toms quickly gathered and began making their way in my direction, before veering off course and slipping single file into the ancient apple orchard below me, never to be seen again.
I spent the next hour of daylight softly calling, listening and scrutinizing every stick and twig while waiting for a red and white head to appear. Alas, it was a futile wait as I never did see those birds again. The remainder of that day turned up absolutely zero further sign of them. I stalked around the open field edges across that entire hillside until noon came, eventually leaving empty-handed.
Pennsylvania, late April 2012: opening day of spring turkey season in the exact same location…one year later to the very day, that lesson learned about setup on that staging area from last season burned in the back of my brain ever since. It was an unscratched itch, a sand burr stuck, a nagging two-foot putt left hanging on the lip.
Same story this time as before. My partners dropped me off at the bottom of that hill, 5am EST sharp. I hot-footed my way upwards and arrived on-site around 5:20am. This time I slunk over to the extreme southeast corner where birds all stacked up and marched through last time around.
As I arrived on scene and surveyed the immediate area for a good place to sit, I almost pressed it ten yards nearer to the wood line than where I presently stood. A little voice inside my head spoke of bad experiences learned before when crowding edges led to toms spooked off the roost. That kept me from closing the distance any further, and it’s a good thing. My very next step in place cracked a small branch that was answered by a thundering gobble from just sixty yards away, in the same direction I almost crowded. Pretty good chance that bird would have flown off the roost by the dawn’s early light had I tried getting too close.
While I sat there in the cold frozen air waiting for first rays of sun to peak over the eastern horizon, a tom in front of me to the north and the bird in my back to the east traded gobbles back and forth. I gave two series of soft yelps followed by clucks and purrs on the slate call, then kept quiet.
Around 5:45am I heard several birds fly down through the hardwood branches uphill from me to the north. Five minutes later, the nearby bird on my right followed suit. Now it was time to sit perfectly still, not move a muscle that might rustle leaves and twigs made crispy by the heavy frost which might give my position away.
Right at 6am, two toms appeared from the southeast corner of that field on my immediate right. A young tom with a 6-7″ beard was quartering towards me on a slow walk inside of forty yards. Dead bird, if I wanted him. But just inside the connecting tree line edge was a fanned-out strutter with bright white head glowing in the still early dawn. At fifty-plus yards and inside the trees, he was not in range to harvest yet.
Both birds spent about five long minutes staring hard in my direction, looking for that feathered seductress who purred at them while still in their trees. The lead tom at 35 yards gave my half-hidden blob the hard stare with no apparent reaction either way.
Suddenly, both toms took off running uphill in front of me like they were coyote spooked. My heart sank as what seemed to be the perfect plan coming apart and redemption from last season’s near miss in real danger of repeating itself once more. I quickly looked north and thru the hardwoods there saw another tom entering the field with other birds.
“Oh great,” I thought. “Here’s the boss tom with several hens, all of them with join up and walk away from me in the opposite direction of last year.”
“Drat!” Or at least I quietly muttered something like that to myself.
Turns out there were no other hens to rival my attention… it was four more toms and now a total of six gobblers all congregated in the middle of this field right in front of me. For the next fifteen minutes all six birds engaged in an epic battle where they took turns hopping and pecking and spurring and wrestling one another. Gobbles and yelps and growls and sounds I’ve never before heard a turkey make rumbled across the hillsides. Feathers flew and floated in the air as the six bird melee worked its way north and away from me.
It was one of those epic moments in the woods we all dream about. I had never witnessed a group of wild toms all fighting en masse before, and probably never will see it again. Those birds were so loud, efforts to yelp and cluck to get their attention were drowned out and ignored.
By now the birds had worked their way over the crown of that field and were just barely out of visual sight. The perfect opportunity for me to slightly shift my body position, get the blood flow restored to numbed body parts and prepare for what may come next.
Suddenly, a goshawk or sharp-shinned hawk swooped into view above the toms and let out a couple of screams. At first the toms totally ignored that, but then grew quiet as the royal rumble paused. Here was my chance to get some hen talk heard, so I laid on the slate call with yelps, cackles and clucks.
No response. All I saw was empty, frost-covered field ahead of me.
A few more minutes passed and the sight of heads and tail feathers started to appear above the field’s knoll. The gobbler group heard me, settled their differences and were joining forces to find that willing hen. Six big toms were standing on the crest, some sixty yards uphill and all staring hard in my direction.
Both of the initial birds which walked past me earlier led the charge back down that hill. Same lead bird walking, same strutter fanned out in full display following. They soon closed the distance to roughly forty yards and hung up sideways right there. With a lead bird I did not want to harvest blocking the path to rear bird targeted, I laid there patiently and waited.
Soon the birds separated enough to offer clear shots at either one, and I sent a 3.5″ round of hevi-shot 5,6,7 blend towards the strutting tom still in full display. Same result as usual with that load from my Remington 870 Supermag: hevi-shot out, very dead bird on the ground.
To be honest I never once saw the beard or spurs on my harvested bird before walking up to fill out the tag and take possession. He remained in full strut the whole time I saw him, which was good enough reason to choose that bird for me. It wasn’t the biggest boss bird ever, a nine inch beard and 7/8″ spurs along with broomed-off wingtips made him a respectable harvest all the way.
I spent the next little while enjoying the actual sunrise, soaking in my view of the surrounding hills and valleys that stretched for miles far as the eye could see. At the precise spot where last year’s Pennsylvania birds walked on out of my life, this year’s bird lay resting and tagged. An entire year spent relived, planned, strategized and visualized in my mind had come to pass and come to completion. On this particular day I had just witnessed an epic scene played out in front of me that most hunters never have the privilege to see.
It was a great day to be alive, on the mountain side and part of the great outdoors experience.
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