It was a wet foggy morning in Central Missouri near where the Ozark River empties into the Missouri when I encountered this curious doe. She crossed an open field walking like a ghost through the mist then entered the trees where I was set up for turkeys. It’s moments like this that keep me coming back to the turkey woods. (Photo by Larry Myhre)
There’s nothing quite like sitting in the dark with your back against a tree in the turkey woods. The whippoorwills are in full throat, their lashing cries piercing the darkness with a cadence only that bird can make.
A barred owl sounds off in the distance and the turkeys answer with exciting gobbles. My heart begins beating a little faster, and I can’t help but send out a tree yelp on the slate call. It is answered by more thunderous gobbles.
There’s a hint of rose along the eastern skyline, but here, deep in the timber, it is as dark as Hades on a bad day.
On the walk in, a coyote had suddenly appeared on the trail ahead, he looked over his shoulder, tongue lolling. Then he trotted off, unconcerned. Was it real or just a figment of my imagination? No, the encounter was ghostlike, but it was real.
Later, I startled a pair of deer, does I think, on the trail. I heard a snort and caught the flash of white from their rumps as they bounced away. In that hour before dawn, the woods are alive.
I’ve encountered all kinds of wildlife in that darkness. It is springtime and wildlife species are on the move. For most of them it is a time of travel. It might be migration time or movement from winter to springtime habitats. The urge to reproduce is strong, and many lose their secretive manners to wander boldly about.
Every outdoorsman thrives on that hour before daylight experience, whether it is a deer hunter on stand or a waterfowler listening to the marsh wake up or a predator hunter waiting for shooting light before sending out a series of injured-rabbit cries. I’ve been there for all of that and, believe me, nothing matches pre-dawn wildlife encounters like turkey hunting.
Take, for instance, a morning I had in Missouri a few years ago. We have barred owls in our area, but nothing like Missouri. Missouri is barred owl country. There must have been a dozen of them sounding off in this valley.
It was a wild and raucous wailing of male owls trying to attract a mate. I listened to them and couldn’t help but join in. If you think all there is to a barred owl vocalization is the “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all,” that we are taught to shock gobble roosting toms, guess again. They have a kind of laughter pierced by shrieks and cries and choreographed vocalizations far beyond “who cooks for you.” And the springtime mating season is when you will hear that expanded vocabulary.
If you have a good barred owl call, as I do, you can join in on their conversation and often bring them to you.
One night in Iowa’s Loess Hills resulted in a close encounter. I was trying to “roost” some toms and stood in the timber working my owl call. Suddenly I felt, rather than heard, something sweeping over my head. Seconds later I got the same sensation and heard a rustling in the tree branches just above me.
No turkeys had gobbled, but something was happening. I couldn’t resist turning on the flashlight. There sat two barred owls, not six feet away from me. Their large, black eyes, blinded by the sudden light, peered down at me with the blank, dead, inquisitive stares of a couple of zombies.
It was just turning light as I rounded the bend in a deep, wooded ravine along the Little Sioux River. A yearling raccoon got the surprise of his life when he looked up and saw me only a few feet away. He panicked and ran for the closest hollow tree. Down the opening he went, only to be met by the angry snarls and barks of another raccoon who had hidden there at my approach. The youngster tore out of there, leaped to the ground and ran to another tree where he found refuge.
On a hunt in Missouri I was tucked into the timber, my back against a large tree at the edge of an open field. The fog was so dense it made the darkness impenetrable. I had no idea where I was for sure. So, I just waited, hoping the fog would lift soon.
As the sun reached the top of the trees, the fog across the field began to thin. Soon a big doe trotted past and then stopped in front of me. My hand slid toward my breast pocket where my point-and-shoot camera was stored. I eased it out and managed to get one exposure before the doe continued across and entered the trees a couple of rods to my left.
I turned slightly and could see her edging toward me, head down and nostrils twitching as she tried to scent whatever it was that had piqued her curiosity.
The fog was thicker in the timber and the whole thing reminded me of a scene straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. As the doe approached even closer I grabbed another exposure which resulted in one of my all-time favorite deer photographs.
Then she caught my scent and wheeled off with a snort and disappeared into the eerie tangle of fog-draped trees, shrubs and vines.
On another morning, the sun had just turned back the darkness. My decoys were placed to one side of me and I looked out across an open field. To my right and behind me was thick timber. A large stand of ferns was growing in the shade of the trees to my right.
I noticed them moving, one at a time on a course directly toward me. I had been making turkey sounds and knew right away I was being stalked by some kind of predator. About 30 feet out, the ferns stopped moving and as I watched I noticed a pair of ears emerging from the leafy clusters. Then a face. It was a large bobcat, and he sat there awhile observing the scene.
I thought he might put a stalk on one of the decoys, but no such luck. He simply faded back into the ferns. I watched them wiggle as he crept away.
A few years later, in the Loess Hills north of Sioux City, I had just put out my decoy after vocalizing a few turkey yelps. As I returned to the tree in front of which I would sit, I had the funny feeling that I was not alone. I was bent over retrieving my shotgun from the ground when I looked under my arm behind me.
There sat a big bobcat on the trail not more than 30 feet away. He was on his haunches looking right at me. Silently, without fear, he turned and trotted away back down the path.
Wow, what an encounter!
It’s the kind of thing that can only happen to a turkey hunter. And it is one of the many reasons I keep venturing into the woods in the springtime.
Perhaps, as I think about it, it is not really the turkeys I am after, after all.