Of Loud Coyotes and Silent Toms

by
posted on March 15, 2022
IMG 3607

As the light slowly faded from the tranquil Virginia sky, I found myself lost in thought. My afternoon turkey hunt had started out promising, until a chorus of pesky coyotes had piped up through the thick cover behind me, surely running off any wise old Toms in the area. Nonetheless, I was far from annoyed. It’s not often a busy workday ends with a visit to the turkey woods, and it was impossible not to savor the moment. As a gentle spring breeze played across my face, I sat entranced at the latticework of clouds working its way over the bright green hillsides, which seemed to roll to eternity away from my vantage. You’ll forgive my surprise therefore, when upon turning my head to the right, I spotted a Tom with a veritable harem of hens making his way through the clearing toward me—completely silent.

The day couldn’t have started any more differently. I, along with the rest of American Hunter’s staff had met up some 40 miles distant, to film new installments of our #SundayGunday video series. Never ones to let a little work interfere with a day in the woods, however, our digital producer, Tom Rickwalder, and I made a plan to hightail it to his farm as soon as filming wrapped, for a chance at our favorite spring birds. He had seen some real bruisers strutting the hillsides, and was willing to share the chance at one with me.

SundayGunday guns on truck

As we arrived at his property, nestled into the vivacious greenery of the Virginia piedmont, we hurriedly made a plan. I would take a lower clearing, with a blind tucked into the treeline, while he would make his way to the further reaches of the farm. On the way to my blind, we jumped a hen several hundred yards distant, who receded into the trees like a lost shadow. Turkeys were certainly about. With a muffled “good luck”, I picked my way to the blind, while Tom headed off to his spot.

View from the blind

Everyone has a ritual while they wait for the woods to calm. For me, when in the protection of a blind, it is silently readying my assortment of gear. Today, my loadout was fairly light—all that accompanied me besides my trusty old slate with its assortment of strikers, was the 4Play box call.

Most box calls are just that—a call. They take some practice, and necessitate a few tricks to make them sound right, but at the end of the day they’re a call, pure and simple. The 4Play, as near as I can figure, is an instrument. With a forward mounted wheel, the lid is not limited to one side of the box, but can be positioned on either side. This innovation has allowed the craftsmen at 4Play to give the call a drastically broader range of sound than that of a standard box call.

4Play box call next to turkey feet

Its name comes from the fact that the call does not just have one type of sound rail, but four. Each rail uses a different type of wood, for a completely different sound from each. The lid is White Oak, rubbing against rails constructed from Walnut, Eastern Red Cedar, Sassafras and Poplar. Call bodies, meanwhile, come available in a wide variety of woods, from Mahogany to Mulberry. While to the layman like myself it seems these differing bodies may affect the tone of the call, the brains behind the 4Play have assured me they are tonally interchangeable, as all the woods are of similar densities. I have found no reason to disbelieve them. For sake of reference, however, mine boasted a beautiful Walnut body.

Thanks to the unprecedented versatility of this call, with some dedicated practice, you can not only mimic different types of calls, but mimic different birds making the same call, thereby more convincingly imitating a small flock of turkeys. As I’ve played with the call, I’ve found standard yelps, cuts and purrs to be my favorites. For a How-To on making all the various noises, check out the videos on their website, here.

Sitting in the blind, I began calling, trying to reach out to any birds in the area. Swapping between my slate and the versatile 4Play, I thought I had ginned up a fairly decent racket, and hoped the disparity between this and my one lonely decoy would not rouse the suspicions of any farsighted birds. One can never over-credit the survival instincts of a turkey. Unfortunately, I was doing too good a job. Suddenly, seemingly from out of nowhere, a pack of dogs started up behind me. Though they could not have been more than several hundred yards distant, the density of the cover made it impossible to determine their exact location, as I peeked my head out of the blind to see if I could find a shot. It seemed lovesick Toms were not the only thing scouting for hens this evening.

As the coyotes eventually lost interest, their barks receding into the distance, I slowly (and quietly) began calling again, hoping any turkeys who hadn’t blown out of the area would hear the coast was clear. Alas, nothing elicited a response, and while I kept up my intermittent routine, I started to accept that today was likely not my day, and began to lose myself in the beauty of my surroundings.

This, of course, brings us back to the beginning. In my serene daze, a mature bird—warry enough to approach quietly, but not quite able to resist my decoy and calling—had nearly gotten the drop on me. In all honesty, had I not turned my head when I did, he likely would have been on top of me before I was able to do a thing about it. As it happened, though, I did have a chance to do a thing about it. Sometimes hunting is skill, sometimes luck, and sometimes a little of both. I’ve seen too many animals walk to look a gift turkey in the mouth.

Bird hanging over tailgate

Slowly I shifted my Browning Gold Light 10-Gauge Field, lazily propped low on the ground, up to my shoulder. Inch by inch I hefted it, mentally cursing my poor planning, until finally I pressed cheek to comb. Game time. The Tom strutted at about 30 yards, eyeing my scrawny decoy with poorly veiled ire as he sized him up. I knew it would have to be the perfect shot—this was during the peak of the ammo shortage, and I was firing steel Federal Speedshok waterfowl loads out of my stalwart scattergun, instead of tungsten or lead. Quietly I fingered the cross-bolt. On he strutted, feathers out full, pausing occasionally to turn uphill from me as he fanned. A broken tailfeather sat just right of center, visible evidence of the old fighter’s hardscrabble existence.

Turkey Spurs

When he hit 20-yards, it happened; slowly he rotated uphill and then, instead of moving straight on, swiveled back down toward me, head fully in view. My shot echoed across the hills, as the old Tom expired in the tall grass. He was a beautiful bird. With spurs that measured 1 1/4 inches, a beard of 9 3/4 inches, and a tail full of character to match, I could tell immediately this was a trophy of a turkey.

Herman with bird

As Tom (my coworker, not the bird) and I locked the gate and headed toward a celebratory meal, I was reminded again of the particular joys of a successful hunt. From the time spent in nature, to the camaraderie afforded, to (of course) the thrill of a bird on the ground, there really is nothing quite like our shared pastime. A little skill, a little luck, a lot of fun, and total satisfaction with a day perfectly spent. As I post this, 2022’s turkey season is almost upon us (and in some places like Florida, already is). So good luck out there folks; I hope you come away this year with those exact joys all your own.

Headed home

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