It was Memorial Day weekend 2017: sunny and hot in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The last weekend to hunt spring turkeys. On my final morning hunt, I parked the truck at the edge of an orchard grass field, walked to the center, and sat down.
It was in this very spot that I was outwitted by a tom turkey the evening before. When I arrived for the evening hunt, he was in the center of the field eating and gobbling. If he hadn’t gobbled, I would never have known he was there. The grass was chest-high at the field edge. I sneaked through the grass as quietly as I could manage, using the sound of passing cars as audio cover for my movement. Following the sound, I was able to pick out the tom’s red head poking up through the sea of green. I crouched and moved, gun forward, eyes always on the tom. I felt like a predator in Peter Capstick’s African hunting classic, Death in the Long Grass. As I moved closer, the tom was feeding away, then toward me, then away again. Despite a lot of movement on my part (which is never preferable when hunting turkey), I was not closing the distance. The center of the field had flooded during the winter, leaving the soil mostly bare with some fresh short foliage now. The tom was picking through it and as I got closer to the short grass, there was less and less long grass to conceal me. Eventually, he saw me and we stared each other down. I stared down the barrel of my shotgun and put the bead on his head. The tom was beyond 40 yards. I knew I could hit him from there, but would there be enough shot to put him down? I wasn’t sure. I’d never patterned this gun/choke/ammo combination beyond 40 yards. Maybe I had a tight enough pattern of shot and maybe I didn’t. I didn’t want to risk crippling the bird, so I decided not to shoot. The tom knew something was there in the grass. He started making a putt putt sound that turkeys make when they are mildly alarmed. He walked up and down putting and looking, fretting, putting, and finally lit out for parts unknown. I was busted and he was gone. My heart was pounding. I love spot and stalk hunting, even when I lose.
It turned out, that tom had been using an empty ditch to traverse the center of the field. It was low enough that he couldn’t be seen from the edges of the field. Sneaky. Smart. I was on to his wily ways.
The next morning, I sat near the turkey trail at first light and waited. It was time for a rematch. As the cool dark morning slowly became visible, I listened to the toms gobbling on the roost, then stopped after flying down to seek breakfast. Some mornings they gobble for hours. Some days not at all. The inconsistency is a mystery. It’s the same with rutting bull elk: some days they scream bugles at each other and some days they don’t. The toms were gobbling just enough that morning to let me know that I wasn’t alone in that field, so I sat and waited. And waited. I was absolutely sure that if I sat there long enough, one of the toms would eventually walk by, but I also knew that that might not happen until late in the afternoon. I didn’t have the luxury or patience to sit there and wait that long, so after a couple of hours, I stood up and decided to go make something happen.
With my shotgun in the ready position, I followed the turkey trail north toward the last gobble I’d heard that morning. Suddenly, three turkeys flushed way out of range, each flying to a different location at the far edge of the field. I knew the red-headed bird on the right was a tom, so I quickly marched over to where I saw him land. At 30 yards, he was well within range and I could just barely see his red head in the grass. We stared at each other in a timeless trance for what seemed like ten minutes, but was probably two. I could have shot him right then and there, but I had a problem: we were at the edge of the field and I knew that somewhere behind the bird was a barn, a horse, and I couldn’t see either one through the trees and brush. No turkey is worth accidentally shooting your neighbor’s horse. The tom knew I was there; no way was he going to walk toward me, near me, or anywhere helpful. If I did nothing, he would soon disappear, so it was up to me to make something happen else this hunt was guaranteed to end in epic failure. I knew right then and there that I only had one option: the Brandon Arn Kamikaze.
I’ve hunted with Brandon for many years chasing deer, elk, bear, and all manner of upland birds. Brandon “gets’r done.” He makes it happen and if he goes home without something to eat, it’s not for lack of trying. In the hunting playback, Brandon has a last resort that I call the kamikaze. I got to witness the kamikaze one September morning while we were bowhunting elk. I was on a hillside glassing a clearcut, while Brandon was on the other side and a herd of elk was between us. The elk knew something was up and they were leaving. Not sprinting, but clearly not sticking around. Movement in the clearcut caught my eye: Brandon was sprinting through the brush and over the stumps. He had a Montana decoy in one hand, his bow in the other, and he was running like the Olympic hurdler, Edwin Moses, straight at the elk. I was witnessing the nothing-left-to-lose-kamikaze. And it almost worked. He stopped the elk, but not quite close enough for a shot. It didn’t matter that we didn’t get to eat elk steak that night. The whole hunt was worth it just to witness the raw desperation of man vs. beast when there was nothing left to lose.
As I stood staring eye to eye with that tom in the grass, I resolved to steal the kamikaze from Brandon’s playbook. I would run straight at the tom, flush him like a pheasant, and shoot him on the wing. With any luck, he’d flush and cross left to right; I’d shoot him in the head as he flew toward the center of the field and away from the horse and barn. At the last second I hesitated and thought, “Am I really doing this?” My resolve answered back, “I’m doing it!”
I took off at a dead run, as fast as I could sprint, eyes fixated on the grass where I knew the tom was hiding. At 20 yards, a hen flushed and crossed in front of me left to right toward the center of the field. Perfect if she was a he, but she wasn’t so I kept on running. The tom didn’t know what was happening. He held his ground until the last second, then wheeled around and fled on foot, running like greased lightning. He was picking up and putting down his three-toed dinosaur feet much faster than I was able to chase in my knee-high rubber boots.
It’s worth pausing here in mid-chase to note the futility of a hairless ape chasing a wild turkey on foot. Turkeys have evaded nature’s fastest, stealthiest, smartest, hungriest predators for the past 10 million years. Our ancestral ape brothers didn’t even think about leaving the trees and walking upright until 4 million years ago. By that time, the turkeys had already been honing their evasion skills for 60,000 centuries. That’s one heck of a head start. I knew I’d never catch him on foot. My only hope was to incite panic, followed by flight.
Back to the chase: clouds of pollen shook off the orchard grass as I thundered my way over rough ground after a bird that was 6x smaller than me and arguably 2x smarter. He ran, I followed, he pulled away, panicked, and burst into flight. He was airborne and quartering away. For half a second I could see his head. Before I could shoulder my gun, he turned and flew straight away over the creek and out of sight. No shot. No dinner. Lots of fun though! Final score: 10 million year old bird with a walnut-sized brain: 1. Hairless ape: 0.
I know where he lives and next spring I’ll be back. Maybe next time I’ll wear my running shoes.