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"Hot" Gobbler" June 2002
John Heffelfinger  

I was heading up the Zane Gray Highway (I-260) when I first saw it . . . . a large plume of smoke above the Rim, coming from the vicinity where I was to meet Ray Cernansky for our final attempt at bagging a 2002 spring gobbler. We had been unsuccessful earlier this month and were going to hunt the final days of the season in hopes that the hens would be nesting and the gobblers would be growing horns. But the sky kept filling with smoke as I made my way towards the Rim, ever fearful that the forest was ablaze and was going to end our hunt prematurely.

Ray was driving up from Prescott, where he had participated in a high-power rifle match that morning, so I drove alone from Phoenix. We planned to meet at our campsite around 5:00 PM. The closer I got to I-87 the more aware I became of "other" traffic: it was all headed DOWN the Rim - I observed no other vehicles heading towards the Rim. I hadn’t heard any fire announcements nor forest closures before leaving Phoenix, nor had I heard any on my truck radio during the drive up. Did these people know something I didn’t (but which I should have known?), or were they simply returning home from their weekend in the mountains?

After turning North on I-87, I passed two fire pump trucks, two hot-shot trucks, and half a dozen other forest service vehicles . . . . all heading south (was I getting paranoid?). I couldn’t distinguish the smoke plume from the clouds any longer; the sky was a solid gray. I pulled off at Clints Well and learned that the fire was headed the other direction, towards Payson (actually, towards West Clear Creek). It looked like Ray and I could proceed with our hunting as planned. What a relief!

5:10 PM: Ray had reached camp just ahead of me and had started unloading his gear. We got our camp set up before dark and then, over dinner, discussed plans for hunting the next morning. Earlier this season Ray had heard gobbles near his favorite area (where he’d shot his turkey last spring), so thought he would work that area again in the morning. It would take about 15 minutes to walk there from our camp, so he’d head out around 4:45AM and set up before the turkeys flew down from their roosts. I’d leave camp at the same time and head west, either to hunt the ridge or perhaps the tank on the other side of the power line.

I heard the first gobble at 5:00 AM, a distant one coming from the direction that Ray was hunting. Ten minutes later I heard a gobble coming from my side of the mountain, so it was settled . . . . I’d hunt the ridge.

I found an open spot, with game trails leading to & from it, and set out a decoy (a single hen which I placed 28 steps from a good sized oak tree where I’d be sitting). I took the various calls from my pack and arranged them on the ground, where I could reach them without making a lot of movement. There was a slate call, a box call, and a yelper. I gag on diaphragm calls, or I would have had a couple of them along also. I hadn’t used a decoy before, but my neighbor had this one and insisted that I take it with me. He also wanted me to take his slate call, even though I’d never used a slate call before in my life.

There was an occasional gobble from both of the toms but neither seemed to be coming any closer. So I began playing around with the calls. I’d make an occasional series of yelps, clucks, and purrs, alternating between the box and slate calls, just to pass the time away (it was kind of a "kick").

Around six o’clock I heard yelps coming from somewhere between where I was setup and where Ridge Tom was. I figured that Ray had worked his way towards Ridge Tom and was calling to him. So I’d play his game, and made my hen calls sound more aggressive than his. He continued making hen yelps and I’d respond with more aggressive hen yelps, then his turn, then my turn - more aggressively, etc., etc. At least it was something to pass the time away with, and it was a kick. Oh yeah . . . . and Ridge Tom would let out an occasional gobble.

After awhile I sat there quietly, thinking various thoughts that hunters often think about while waiting for that monstrous trophy to walk into our shooting lane, when I caught movement off to my right side. There, 15 yards from me quietly walked a lone hen . . . the one that I thought was Ray. She passed behind me without detecting my presence. It was 6:15 AM.

After that little experience my confidence in using turkey calls increased significantly, so I continued to make hen calls. I tried imitating the hen that had previously been Ray; and Ridge Tom’s gobbles continued, seeming to get a little closer. He wasn’t a "hot" tom (i.e. his gobbles didn’t interrupt my series of hen yelps), but he was out there and it really seemed as though he was headed my way.

Since he appeared to be closer now, I stopped using the box call, and "softened" my calls with the slate. "Purr, purr, cluck, cluck, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, purr, purr".

THERE HE IS! About 85 yards away! There, through the trees! Look, he's coming!

"Purr, purr, purr." GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE! He’s closer now, I can see him gobbling and strutting. A few more soft clucks and purrs and he’s about 45 yards away. He stops and gobbles, then stands there and looks for a while . . . he sees the decoy. He stays about 45 yards out, all blown up, gobbling . . . strutting, . . . gobbling.

The wind has blown the decoy so that she’s facing away from the tom, . . . ignoring him, . . . and she has stopped talking! GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE! GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE!

My shotgun had been leaning over my knee, I raised it into shooting position and sighted across my fiber optic sights. I then glanced back at the tom -- he’s coming closer. GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE! GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE! Still she ignores him.

Now my shotgun barrel is aimed closer, but not quite at him. I again sight down the high-viz sights. My vision begins to blur, my eyes start to water. Blink, blink, blink, I hurry to clear my vision. GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE! He’s less than 10 yards from the decoy. Still she ignores him! Now my shotgun barrel is aimed directly at his neck, as he reaches a point 3 yards behind the decoy. BANG! He’s down!! It's 6:50 AM.

I tagged the turkey, gathered up my calls, decoy, and shotgun, then slung the turkey over my shoulder and headed back to camp. Shortly after I arrived at camp, Ray showed up. He had started back as soon as he heard my shot, knowing that we were the only hunters in the area. He congratulated me, and the photo session began. I then field-dressed and plucked the tom, putting the meat in my ice chest. I saved the wings, beard, tail-feathers, and feet. The beard is 9", the spurs 1-1/8". We didn’t think to take a scale with us so I don’t know how much it weighed. Next time we’ll take a fish scale along (hmmmm, I wonder if my neighbor has a fish scale). It was 8:30 AM and plenty of hunting time remained, so Ray went back out to see if he could find a turkey.

That afternoon it got real windy, with gusts reported in the 40 - 45 mph range. That didn’t do to good for Ray’s hunting (Ray hates hunting in the wind!). The next morning we went out together, Ray, me, and Deke (decoy). We went back to Ray’s favorite area and set up while it was still dark. On our way, I heard one gobble from nearby -- we might be in luck!

Ray selected an open area to put up the deke, and then sat down against a small group of trees about 18 steps away. I sat against a tree twenty yards from Ray, but I couldn’t see the decoy because there was a large tree in the way (since I wasn’t carrying a shotgun it didn’t matter if I could see the decoy or not).

We sat there, watching the darkness turn to light, waiting for that tom to gobble again. Daylight came, but no gobbles. We waited a while longer, still no gobbles. It was time to try some hen calls. Out came the slate: "purr, purr, cluck, cluck, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, purr, purr".

I saw some movement in the trees 100 yards ahead of us, and I motioned to Ray. I didn’t know if he could see it or not. I called some more: "purr, purr, cluck, cluck, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, purr, purr, purr". We heard several loud clucks in response. THERE THEY ARE, TWO TURKEYS HEADING TOWARDS US!

"Purr, purr, purr, cluck, cluck, cluck, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp, purr, purr". They stopped! . . . looked into the clearing, . . . spotted the decoy, and came running. I couldn’t tell if they were hens or jakes, but I could see Ray raising his shotgun and take aim as they ran to the deke.

They came right up to the decoy but I couldn’t tell what they did when they saw her, the tree was blocking my view. They continued past the tree, clucking, and I watched them until I couldn‘t twist my neck around any further. They were hens.

We didn’t hear any more gobbles that morning, didn’t hear any more yelps or clucks either. The wind was kicking up again, even stronger today than yesterday (did I mention that Ray hates to hunt in the wind?). We went back to camp and sat inside our tents to keep out of the wind (Ray really hates the wind!).

That afternoon I went to Clint’s Well to replenish the ice for my bird, while Ray stayed at camp and washed up. After icing down my bird I went next door to the Forest Service and inquired about the fire. In spite of the extreme windy conditions, it hadn’t gotten much bigger the past 2 days, approximately 200 acres were burning. I guess the wind in that area was near the ground and the fire didn’t spread as much as it would have if the wind had been at tree-top level. The fire was about 45% contained.

One thing I did learn while I was there, they were closing the forest at 8:00 AM the next morning! The forest is just too dry and the Forest Service was taking this action until sufficient rain fall occurs.

Our turkey hunt was ended prematurely after all, just as I had feared two days ago as I was driving up I-260 (except I‘m returning home with a mighty nice turkey in my ice chest!). We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the monsoons hit real soon and that the drought doesn’t effect this September’s archery elk or deer hunt too.

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