This is him. This is the single toughest bird I’ve ever encountered.
I hunted him specifically for three years on a little 80 acre lease acquired for the low price of clipping fire lanes and fixing a yellow gate when needed. The characteristics that were individual to him were some of the oddest that I have ever seen. He had what I’ve often heard referred to as a “top hat” or an extensive head crown that folds over the front or side of his face. Some associate this with old age, but I do not know that for fact.
The second oddity being that of the ten to fifteen times I had seen him - both in and out of turkey season - he was running. By running, I mean full sprint, ninety to nothing, for no apparent reason at most times. One deer season, I sat motionless against a tree and watched him run from 100 yards away, directly under my stand, and keep on running until he was finally out of sight and I do know for a fact that he had not the slightest idea that I was even in the world as he ran right past me. He would only gobble on the limb, and I had not once seen him break into strut or even with another turkey at all for that matter. I am honestly not at all convinced that he even entertained the thought of breeding a hen, which made the persistent attempts at persuading him that I was one even less likely of ever happening.
In 2017, it became personal after missing him twice on opening weekend and ultimately realizing that I am pretty good at taking a gun apart to clean it, but not that great at putting them back together. Upon further patterning of that shotgun, my only option was to buy a new one and stick to the basics when it came to cleaning it in the future. I got on him several other times that season only to have him run both to and from a nearby thicket at first glance. I knew something wasn’t right, but it eventually reached that mind-consuming stage when you question every ounce of confidence you have as a turkey hunter. I finally broke down and started changing everything that I was accustomed to doing, from camouflage patterns to new calls, in hopes of also changing the apparent voodoo that this running turkey had cast upon me. I almost even used a decoy one morning, but my pride wouldn't let me do it.
The concept of “pressuring” was now out of the question completely and if the sun was up, I was hunting this bird and only this bird. This went on until the sun went down on May 1st, and I sat there, by myself, defeated for the first time since I started hunting these animals nearly twenty years before, with not one single bird to show for the entire 2017 turkey season. Even if I had killed another long-beard that year, but not this individual one, I still do not know that I would chalk it up as anything other than a defeated season.
This continual defeat continued well into Spring 2018, but on April 28th, the last weekend of that following season, it happened. My dad and two brothers had taken a trip to Quanah Texas to hunt Rios, but I stayed in Mississippi for a moment of closure with this bird if nothing more. That morning, I slipped in after hearing him once on the limb and positioned myself no better than I had the previous 20+ times that I had tried him, but with only the accumulation of a better understanding of what not to do when trying to out-smart this strange gobbler. The two things that were somewhat predictable about him were that he would not gobble on the ground more than once per hour, so help him God, and that, typically, he would not fly down from the limb until a small flock of geese had flown overhead from an adjacent pond to a bigger lake a mile or two away. Why? I do not know, I do not care, nor am I even remotely surprised at this point. There was very little that this bird did that actually made sense.
I sat there silently in what very few people would actually consider "turkey woods" but more of a rabbit patch if anything, with a bird that would rather walk through a thicket than display himself in a strut zone, and waited until those faithful geese finally flew over. Once they passed over, and before he had been given enough time to pitch down, I used a turkey wing that I had cut off of a gobbler that I killed a few weeks before on another piece of land after bumping this one, to imitate another turkey flying down, hoping that he had stuck to his usual regime and had made up his mind enough to pitch down around the same time. Maybe this wing would sound better than the one I had used last year.
I had also grabbed a pretty solid stick when I sat down to try to sound like a turkey scratching. I had found that hand-scratching apparently does not always sound like anything other than a guy scraping the ground with his hand. A sound in which I knew this bird had heard before, because I was the guy scraping the ground with with his hand, as he kindly informed me of that one morning during the prior season. But I had to do something knowing that this was likely it for the season, and for all I cared, that yellow gate could paint itself if it meant spending another nine months of thinking about what I could have done differently.
However, this time, I did the above approach all while refraining from touching a call. Not necessarily holding firm to the unwritten law of not calling to an old gobbler on a limb, unless you plan on sitting there and listening to him gobble on that same limb until noon, or until your legs have bypassed numbness and have lost enough feeling to the point you begin to slide uncontrollably down the ridge in which you have been sitting on the past six hours (that's another lesson learned the hard way, for another day). I just held true to hoping that he flew down around the time that I had perceived to, and to hopefully curate in him the curiosity of not knowing if I were a hen or a gobbler that had just flown down and was willing to play his own game of silence.
I scratched around with the stick one time and sat scared to even blink, knowing that, if it does work, he is more than likely going to appear when I least expect it and that I would not have long to capitalize if he did. About thirty minutes passed and I saw him move in a pine thicket across from a long dirt path in front of me. Luckily, I did not have to reposition or really move a muscle when I caught the glimpse. He made his way to that dirt trail and, of course, ran across the clearing before downshifting to an alert quick walk once he reached his cover - except this time, he had run into the thick woods in which I was sitting, and from an angle that lined flush with the direction I was pointing. From the time I attempted the fly down and scratching, until this historic minute in my lifelong turkey hunting timeline, I did not move my gun barrel. I sat there testing every ounce of patience in my body, simply waiting until his path eventually intersected the path of the bead on my Remington 870, and on that morning, he finally crossed that path.
As I shot, a three-year chapter of my life closed. He did not flop, like most birds do, but rather departed in as calm and noble fashion as I'd ever witnessed. When I picked him up, I instantly realized why he was always running. Though he was very well-educated and had probably lived on that property before I knew it existed, I concluded that his running in a zigzag motion through clearings and open woods was more-so his instinctual method of mere survival - the bird was completely blind in one eye. It was glazed over hazy blue with his notorious top hat tilted over the other, also affecting peripherals, I'm assuming. I couldn't help but laugh to myself when realizing that a handicapped bird had outsmarted me time and time again, but it did make me feel a little better, knowing that I had been battling his survival instincts more than his reproductive drive this entire time.
Standing there, after all of those mornings going back and forth with him, was very reflective, overwhelmingly appreciative, and almost remorseful - like I had lost a close friend that morning. The woods seemed instantly empty for the first time in years. The walk out seemed to be the longest I'd ever made, carrying much more than just eighteen pounds on my shoulders, knowing that I wouldn't be back the following morning to meet again. It was on this day that I realized what turkey hunting was all about. And I can't thank him enough for that.