~ By Kyle Hey
The top of the mountain was painted in thick green underbrush opening into a freshly timbered slope that stretched across the posted property line. The section public ground that I was hunting that afternoon was new to me. There was something about that newness that piqued my spirit of adventure, and excited me about the possibilities the ground held.
I would be lying if I said that the yellow turkey tag burning a hole in my pocket was not my primary motivation for that evening’s hunt. However, there is no doubt that a sense of wanderlust encouraged my beeline path to the furthest tip of the public land. And when I arrived at the edge of the public land I stood like a tourist staring at paintings in a museum with my head cocked, trying to interpret the new depictions of beauty surrounding me. Nature’s canvas is always beautiful, yet her complexities and subtleties always tend to reveal themselves after we let ourselves steep in the moment.
On a map, this small sliver of public grounds sticks out into the private property like an index finger pointing south. Distance from the road, slope, and I was hunting the last Friday in May meant that I was the only hunter on the mountainside enjoying the sights and sounds of a late Pennsylvania Spring evening. I was armed both with a tip from a friend about a turkey roosting area somewhere in the back corner of the Game Lands, and a borrowed 12 gauge shotgun, hoping for one last adventure before my daughter was due to be born in less than two weeks.
At 6 p.m., I dropped elevation to an area with good ground level visibility, hoping that a gobbler would feel comfortable using his keen eyesight to approach my setup. My plan was to sit for a few hours, calling periodically, in hopes of drawing a late season bird past my location on his way to roost.
Slipping out my box call, I announced the arrival of an eager hen to the mountainside. Anticipating a few hours of silence, I was daydreaming about my pre-baby to-do list as I sent my first few modest yelps through the oaks and poplars. To my confusion, I heard a distant clatter that seemed to respond to my call. Confused and disbelieving, I waited 30 seconds before sending another round of inquiring yelps.
This time there was no doubt, a gobble boomeranged back up the mountain. The tom seemed to be about 150 yards below me, and after one more call and response I was sure he was interested. The slope between us pitched down into a hardwood creek bottom. In all likelihood the gobbling tom had spent his humid late spring day loafing in the shade near the tucked away stream, enjoying the cooler surroundings.
With my decoy now positioned on a small knoll overlooking the creek bottom, I slumped in the shadows of a large oak and dove into the auditory courtship with the eager tom in earnest. Several yelps later a booming gobble revealed that he had cut his distance significantly.
My next offerings of flirtatious yelps were immediately met with the excitement of an emphatic double gobble. I could not resist seizing on the testosterone baked attitude of this tom, immediately I returned his call with a series of excited yelps, which were interrupted with a gobble yet closer still.
Rudely, I interrupted his response with a short series of loud and bossy yelps, eliciting yet another raucous double gobble. With my heartbeat ever-quickening, I finally admitted to myself; “He’s coming.”
As slowly as I could I moved the box call to the ground, shielding my movement behind my bent legs. I then elicited a few soft purrs from the wooden paddle as my final auditory offerings. Reaching next to the call, I scratched the mixture of dry oak and poplar leaves scattered on the ground, adding realism to my lonely hen persona.
Settling my cheek into the stock of my gun, my eyes darted to cover each detail of the foliage of my surroundings like a hummingbird trying to locate sugar water. Giving himself away, he tom’s rumbling gobble now revealed he was now at my elevation and closing the distance.
My novice knowledge of this new ground had caused me to cast a wager that the gobbler would approach from my left, up a natural depression in the slope. Now, I realized he was threatening my right flank, complicating my position as a right handed shooter.
After several anxious minutes of silence, a white head bobbed in the green underbrush on the ridge directly in front of me. I gripped my gun tighter, finding the trigger guard with my index finger as the tom’s head disappeared into a depression in the terrain.
Moments later, his head popped over the rise just 25 yards away. Searching for my decoy, the tom broke into a half strut, stopping just feet to the right of my direct line of fire. With a tree blocking the gobbler’s view of my decoy, I knew I would have to make a move to close the deal.
As the seconds ticked away the tom’s head bobs became increasingly sharp, personifying his fraying nerves. With the gun already leveled, I made my move and shifted my gun the final distance to the right.
The longbeard’s sharp eyesight easily caught my movement. He let out a loud warning putt and turned to flee, stepping behind a cluster of young trees. Spying a gap in the saplings, I found the bead on my barrel and broke the natural melody of the mountainside with the report of my gun.
In one coordinated motion, I sprung from my seat, and sprinted toward the big bird as he flopped in the leaves. A humane follow up shot brought a decisive conclusion to my deep woods excursion.
Pulsing with adrenaline I called my father to share my success. As soon as he answered I blurted out the question “Dad, do you know why I am calling you?”. Later, I realized that with my 38-week pregnant wife at home, he could have interpreted my question completely differently.
“Did you get a turkey?” he asked after a brief pause, which I took as an invitation to regale him with the details of the hunt.
I emerged from the woods that night drenched in sweat, but my reward was a 22.5 pound tom with 1 ⅛ inch spurs and a beard pushing 10 inches long.
The opportunities to hunt public land in Pennsylvania should be seen by hunters as a great blessing. A meritocracy exists deep within Pennsylvania public grounds, offering great opportunities for adventure to those willing to pay the admission fee of sweat and sore muscles.
If it weren’t for the innate desire to know what is around the next bend in the trail — to go to the far edge of the map– my turkey tag would still be in my pocket. Curiosity may kill the cat, but wanderlust kills gobblers, and I can’t wait to teach my daughter that fact.
Teaching pays the bills, but experiencing the outdoors refreshes Kyle Hey’s spirit. A lifelong resident of Southcentral Pennsylvania, Kyle loves hunting, hiking, kayaking, and pretends to know how to fish. To share his thoughts and experiences, Kyle started Relevant Outdoors, which promotes conservation, hunting, and anything that highlights our gift of creation. To read more of his work and view his blog, click here: Relevant Outdoors.