The Hottest Bird in Tennessee
The hottest bird in Tennessee is hotter than a fat man in a wool blanket on a summer day. He’s gobbling, by his own accord, at mid-morning. Which means he’s gassed up for quick love and more importantly for the turkey hunter, killable.
Spring is a time to celebrate. Dogwoods are blooming, as are flowers. Tea olive and gardenia smell so dang good. With the last frost a memory, the hardier vegetables are planted in the garden. Then the winter flocks of turkeys slowly disperse and they make noise again.
I have this friend, Bob. He’s married with kids and has a job at a bank. We get together five times a year, and all but one of those instances revolves around hunting. The night before the hottest bird in Tennessee’s throaty gobbles echoed repeatedly down a long ridge overlooking the Elk River, Bob and I celebrated. Because it’s spring, remember. We listened to music. Built a great big bonfire. Medium-rare t-bones on the grill. Baked potatoes. Sauteed some onions and mushrooms in a pan with butter then added a bit Dale’s sauce that went well with both the steak and the potato. Bourbon interlaced. Bob’s intake was a bit too copious.
Before we know it it’s Sunday morning, the second day of Tennessee’s spring turkey season. Bob’s at the house on the couch with regrets and I’m sitting back off the ridge leaning against a black walnut tree. There were several gobblers sounding off from the roost though they’d largely shut up after fly down.
I feel a ticking in the tree’s trunk and figure it’s a squirrel. It is. He’s a large fox squirrel, mostly gray with a white face. Bob wants to shoot this exact squirrel or maybe its family member saying it’ll look nice upon his mantle. Least that’s what he told me. I disagree. He looks nice in the black walnut tree on a spring morning with birds singing and the sun warming the back of my neck. I close my eyes. Then I hear a gobble. And another and another and another.
What’s he gobbling at?! I don’t hear a hen. My calls are in my vest. I’m really set on relaxing against the dark bark. I feel only slightly better than Bob truth be told.
Gobble! Gobble! Gobble!
If there’s one thing a turkey hunter loves, or should love, it’s a tom sounding off on his own accord at mid-morning. This means he’s looking and all he needs is a hen, or anything that sounds like a hen, to respond and he’ll be along directly. I know I can move out onto the ridge a bit, find a wide-trunk tree to sit against that will eliminate my silhouette, put a diaphragm call in my mouth, pull my face mask up, shoulder my shotgun and rest it upon my knee, make a few yelps, listen to more gobbles and then wait for a blood-red head or widespread fan to appear through the green foliage. The HBT would undoubtedly allow me to do just that. But I want Bob to hear this bird gobbling, spitting and drumming; feel the buck of his Browning BPS when the firing pin hammers the primer on a three-and-a-half-inch number-four turkey load. After all, only one of the five times we hang out during the year is to turkey hunt. And it’s the only time he even goes turkey hunting.
I back out and call his cell. He doesn’t answer. I text him. Thirty seconds later there’s no response. The hottest bird in Tennessee continues his sermon. I know exactly where he is. He’s walking back and forth just my side of a cedar thicket on the ridge, probably four hundred yards distant.
I call again. This time Bob answers.
“Get your stuff and get down to the equipment barn ASAP.”
“It’s 9:30 and there’s a gobbler down here that hasn’t shut up in 15 minutes.”
“If you want to kill a turkey, there will likely be no better chance in a five-year period than the one you have right now if you’ll just get your ass up and get down to the barn.”
“You have exactly three minutes. Hurry!” I hang up and wait.
I’m at the equipment barn when I hear Bob. He’s giving it his all to get there. Got to hand it to the ole boy, he rallied. He’s out of breath when we meet behind the barn, but the hottest bird in Tennessee isn’t.
“You okay?” I ask.
“Yeah. My head hurts a bit.” He grins hearing the repeated gobbles. “You think we can get on him?”
In fact, I haven’t been more certain about anything in quite some time. I can’t stress enough the fact that mid-morning gobbling gobblers are the easiest birds to kill. Of course, easy being a relative term for such a naturally elusive quarry.
We set out from the barn into the woods that slopes down into a bottom where the spring that supplies our cabin’s drinking water spouts from some mysterious underground origin. The area is thick with privet. We push on through to a hardwood flat laden with white oaks toward the ridge where we turn south in the direction of the turkey I’m sure Bob is going to kill. We walk another hundred yards and stop. I softly yelp on my diaphragm and he instantly responds. He’s facing our direction.
“Let’s set up here. You sit on that oak there and I’ll get behind you and keep calling.”
Heck with a decoy is my next thought.
We sit down and go through the setup motions except I don’t shoulder my gun and Bob doesn’t ready his call.
Yelp yelp yelp. A bit loud. An immediate response. He’s already closer.
Yelp yelp yelp. A bit softer. An immediate response. Closer still. I shut up.
Minimalism is one of my life mottos, especially when talking to a tuned-up tom. Say just enough. Let him come find you. It’s the Love Game 101.
The next time he gobbles he’s no more than 30 yards in front and slightly to our left. He was supposed to walk along the flat area of the ridge right up to the barrel of Bob’s Browning. Maybe if I’d put out a decoy is my next thought.
He’s spitting. And drumming. And gobbling his fool head off. He knows a rendezvous awaits somewhere close by he’s just not sure exactly where. So I yelp again ever so softly.
It’s like he gobbles and appears at the same time. He’s to Bob’s left about 10 steps. Steps! HBT is so keyed up he’s looking for any and all movement to reveal where the climax of his morning excitement is going to take place. Bob doesn’t hesitate, he swings the twenty-eight-inch-barreled shotgun the 70 or so degrees he needs to line up the sites and prepares to squeeze the trigger. The HBT sees it coming before Bob is halfway there and he’s already bobbing and weaving back the way he came. He’s at 20 steps when Bob fires… and misses. The gobbler takes flight, up toward the dome of light flooding down through the sparse canopy. For 10, 20, 30 seconds we watch as he sails over the river, across a giant agricultural field and lands at the adjacent tree line and disappears forever.
Bob’s head hangs. I’m trying to replay the series of events. The what if’s begin. What if I’d taken a second to put out a decoy? That sort of thing. I’ve missed my fair share of close encounters. It’s turkey hunting.
I walk over to Bob, sit down beside him and begin telling him about the various shortcomings I’ve had throughout my long and unstoried turkey hunting career. It doesn’t help. How could it? We’ve all been Bob at one time or another.
I can’t say that there’s been any redemption for Bob since that Sunday morning. He’s missed since. Perhaps this is his year, though. He’s already called me several times about it. He’s eager, thirsting for more until he breaks the slump. A lot of guys may have already given it up. But Bob’s no quitter, and I admire that. And one thing is for sure, even a million misses wouldn’t reduce our hangs to four a year.