I blame Harry Vanderweide. He got me into turkey hunting and it became an obsession, both in the field and in the legislature. I’ve had quite a bit of success in both places. In 2014, the legislature enacted a bunch of changes that Senator Tom Saviello submitted in a bill at my request.
The bill reduced the turkey hunting permit to $20 for both residents and nonresidents, with no additional fee for a second Tom in the spring, expanded the fall season to the entire month of October and added a second turkey of either sex to the fall bag limit, reduced the tagging fee from $5 to $2, extended the spring hunt to all-day (1/2 hour before sunrise to ½ hour after sunset), and authorized all-day hunting for youth day.
What was I thinking? All day turkey hunting? Yikes! Now I can’t get anything done during the turkey season. Well, turkey hunting is lots of fun, especially the spring hunt where you can call in the gobblers with a hen call. In the fall, you have to intercept them or run them down. And yes, I’ve done that. Here are stories about some of my favorite turkey hunts.
My first turkey
I shot my first turkey in the fields above my house in Mount Vernon. Harry and I came down the wooded hillside, before dawn, to see a Gobbler and two hens in the field along with four deer. It was dark enough that Harry could creep out into the field and put up one decoy. And then we were astonished to see the gobbler jump on one of the hens and have his way with her. Amazingly, the deer came over and stood around watching them! Voyeurs! While the gobbler was having his fun with one of the hens, the other hen wandered off into the woods.
When the gobbler hopped off the hen, he started in the direction of the other hen, and I whispered to Harry, “Can I shoot now?” I was sure I could hit the gobbler – he was only about 150 yards away. Well, if you are a turkey hunter, you know that that is a ridiculously long distance to try to shoot a turkey. I didn’t know that at the time.
As the gobbler approached the woods, about 100 yards off to our left, I asked again, “Can I shoot now? It’s getting away!” Harry said to hold my fire. And he started calling. Much to my surprise, the gobbler turned sharply in our direction and started our way.
Twice, before he got there, I asked if I could shoot, and got a firm no. I didn’t ask the last time when I shot that gobbler about 10 yards in front of us! Harry said, “That’s the easiest turkey hunt you will ever experience.” And he was right!
Dad’s first hunt
After my first year of turkey hunting with Harry, when we had great luck hunting west of Augusta, especially in Windsor and Somerville, I tried to interest Dad in joining us, but he didn’t want to pay the $8 fee, so I paid it for him. I never had to do that again! He loved turkey hunting.
That first year with Dad, we had permission to hunt a strawberry field in Windsor, and as we drove along the field, we spotted turkeys up ahead, right near the road. Dad was ready to jump out and get after them, but Harry explained he’d never be able to get close to them. But Dad insisted, so Harry stopped and he hopped out.
Somehow, Dad managed to keep the only big tree alongside the road between him and the turkeys, and when he got to the tree, he peaked around it, raised his gun, and shot. By golly he got a nice big Tom! And he was some tickled. I’ve got another story from this spot to share with you at the end of this column.
One memorable hunt occurred out back of Harry’s daughter Amanda’s house in West Gardiner. We were in a tent, and Harry fired an arrow that passed right through a turkey. But it ran off and we never found it. Yes, turkeys are tough!
Coyotes Joined Us
Ever since this happened, I’ve assumed that coyotes kill and eat a lot of turkeys. Harry, Dad, and I were in our turkey blind in Windsor, in the woods and surrounded by brush, sitting in the dark waiting for dawn, when a coyote jumped out of the bushes and came down right on top of one of our turkey decoys.
He quickly figured out that the decoy was not going to be very tasty and bounded off before any of us could get off a shot at him. The next morning when we returned to the same place, Dad brought a bunch of traps and set them up all around the decoys! But we never saw that coyote again.
One year, I was turkey hunting alone in Mount Vernon, hidden behind a rock wall with my decoys in a field in front of me, when I saw a coyote with a beautiful golden coat emerge from the woods about 200 yards away and start trotting my way. He came right up to my decoys, decided they weren’t what he was hoping for, and turned around, never breaking stride, trotting back across the field and into the woods.
I made the mistake of writing about this in my Outdoor News blog and got roasted by some readers for not shooting the coyote.
Bobcats love turkeys too. One winter morning, I noticed a bunch of turkey feathers in the snow under an apple tree in our back yard. It wasn’t difficult to figure out what happened, from the tracks in the snow. A bobcat had sat in the crotch of the tree and jumped on a turkey when it passed beneath him. The remains of the turkey were in the bushes about 10 yards away.
Chasing One Down
Eventually we spent less time hunting east of Augusta and more hunting around Mount Vernon and Fayette, where we had great luck, including on my woodlot.
One time Harry and I were at Steep Hill Farm in Fayette, sitting in a grove of oak trees about a hundred yards from the edge of their woodlot, looking out at a huge hillside that had been heavily cut. We’d just put out the decoys and started calling when a gobbler answered Harry. The gobbler was in the brush out in the clearcut, so we walked down to the edge of the woodlot we were in and Harry called again. The gobbler answered again, but he seemed further away.
We decided he must be with a group of hens and walking away from us, so Harry stayed put, calling continuously, while I took off after the turkeys. I hiked through the first clearing, then had to wait while they moved through the next one (so they wouldn’t see me). The gobbler was still answering Harry’s calls, so I walked through the second clearing after the turkeys had cleared it.
When I got to the far edge of that cut, the woods were thicker, so I kept moving, eventually getting to a woods road. A sharp hill rose on the far side of the road, and the gobbler was up there, calling back to Harry. So I crawled up the hill, and as I approached the top, I could peek out between a stonewall and a huge downed tree. And there he was! Sitting on a stump just 20 feet away, facing me, calling to Harry. I raised my shotgun and shot through the small opening, and down he went. On my scale at home, he weighed 23.5 pounds, a real beauty.
Harry, his adult daughter Amanda (who had only recently taken up hunting) and I boated down the Kennebec River, stopping here and there so Harry could use his hen call. When we got a bunch of excited gobbles in response, we boated to shore, climbed a hill, and sat. Amanda was about 30 yards to my left, and Harry was behind me, doing the calling.
The gobblers were roosting in trees a hundred yards or so above us, and we couldn’t see them, but they answered Harry’s calls for the better part of a half hour, until I decided to set my gun down and enjoy a cup of coffee. I had just poured the cup when I looked up and – wouldn’t you know it – here came the turkeys toward us, a huge gobbler in front followed by a string of other gobblers and hens. I froze, not wanting them to spot me.
When they got to within about 30 yards, I quickly picked up my shotgun and they turned and ran. The big gobbler disappeared immediately, running toward Amanda. Another Tom took to the air, so I took aim at him and knocked him down. Amanda shot right after me, so I quickly ran to my Tom, lying dead on the ground, then ran to Amanda. She’d made a good shot and her gobbler was dead, a nice jake. After congratulating her, I walked back to my turkey and – Holy Cow! – he was gone. And we were unable to find him, despite a lengthy search.
In the last year I hunted turkeys with my Dad, he wasn’t able to walk far, so he sat in a chair we’d put up along a stone wall at Steep Hill Farm in Fayette, and I circled around, hoping to chase some turkeys his way. As I approached an opening in the woods, only a few hundred yards from Dad, I spotted a whole bunch of turkeys, and as I approached, they headed down toward Dad. So I followed them for about 50 yards, when they picked up speed, still headed toward Dad. But one nice Tom lingered behind the others, so I shot him, and he dropped.
I walked up to him, figured he was dead, and took off after the other turkeys. But I got only about 20 yards when that hunt with Amanda popped into my head, so I walked back to my dead turkey and – Surprise! – he jumped up and started running. That time, I shot him dead.
The group of turkeys passed to the left of Dad, out of range, but he did see all of them cross the woods road behind him. That photo of Dad and me with that gobbler is the one I’ve got up on my Facebook page, and it’s at the top of this column. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be the last turkey we got together. By the next turkey season, Dad was in the Hospice unit at Togus, where he died on the last day of October, 2014.
Dad’s last hunt
Dad was in the Hospice Unit at the Veteran’s Hospital at Togus for six months in 2014. He wasn’t able to hunt that spring but when the October turkey season opened, he spotted some turkeys on the lawn at Togus, and inquired as to whether he might hunt them, but guns are prohibited on the property, so I got another idea.
I wheeled Dad in a wheelchair out to my Subaru one October morning, helped him into the front passenger seat, and we drove around Windsor and Somerville to all the places we’d hunted turkeys with Harry over the years. It was a wonderful morning, full of great memories.
Astonishingly, as we approached the strawberry farm where Dad shot his first turkey, we spotted a bunch of turkeys. I stopped the vehicle and we watched the birds walk down through the field. Dad urged me to get out and see if I could get close. I did not have my shotgun, but I did get out, to please Dad, and crept down through the woods adjacent to the field, getting close enough to the birds to shoot one if I’d had a gun and wanted to do so.
Dad got quite a kick of it. And we counted it as our 54th year of hunting together. Three weeks later, Dad died, the night before the opening day of the firearms season on deer. I’ve often said, I think he died that night because he was so aggravated he couldn’t hunt the next day.
I wear a piece of Dad’s clothing every day now when I’m hunting, so he’s still there, with me.