The day started like most serious hunting or fishing excursions do. With silence. Filled only by still darkness, a few early morning grumblings, and the tension of hopefulness.
Would today be the day? Would we be successful in our pursuit of the sought-after Florida game species, the Osceola turkey?
Along with Mike and my brother, JP, we arrived at the private property where we would spend the morning testing our abilities as outdoorsmen (aka turkey hunting). Acting as our guide and "turkey talker," JP navigated us to an oak hammock where he had hunted before. “They roost in there. We’ll set up on the edge so we can keep an eye on the clearing."
The oak hammock offered plenty of natural cover from the downed trees left in the wake of Hurricane Irma several months prior. After a momentary gameplan whispered through camo facemasks, we spread out and settled in against some big oaks and palmettos.
Within minutes, we heard a few gobbles from the direction of the roost. This was a good sign. No longer than 20 minutes on the ground and two gobblers crossed out of range and into the open clearing on the opposite side of our position. One of the birds was clearly a mature gobbler with the longest beard I'd ever seen in person.
The adrenaline rush was immediate, followed by subtle shakiness, heavy breathing and an increase in body temperature. This biological effect can be easily triggered when spotting the prime target of one's hunt, even in the most seasoned sportsmen. I've learned to talk myself through it, breathe deep and stay calm until I regain composure. The key is to make quick, calculated decisions, but not based on impulse or fear of missing the opportunity.
Turkeys are skittish creatures with keen vision and a heightened sense of hearing. Any sudden movement or sound could signal danger which is why turkey hunting requires the utmost stealth and patience.
The toms were held up by a few hens, too far out of range, about 60 yards. Rather than pursuing them, we decided to sit tight and see if we could sweet talk them back into the oaks. JP attempted to lure them toward us with a series of yelps on the box call. Puffed up and strutting around, they appeared too content to pay us much mind.
Eventually, the window of opportunity closed. The flock made their exit, moving away from us until their sounds eventually tapered off in the distance.
It was time for the fun part. We would pursue the flock quietly and attempt to reduce the distance between us in hopes of getting close enough for a shot. The three of us camo-clad hunters walked softly through the trees, until coming to a pond surrounded by large dirt mounds.
The sounds of gobbling were close again. Mike army crawled to the top of the berm to assess what lied ahead. When he signaled us to join him, we knew we must be closing in. Across an open field, a ravine and a few smaller dirt mounds in the distance, were the two gobblers.
If we were going to have any chance at sealing the deal, we had to close the gap between us and the turkeys. They were moving toward a small pond encircled by the dirt mounds. With no cover and the fog burning off rapidly, we knew what had to be done.
“This is our chance,” JP cautioned, “as soon as they get behind that mound, we have to run across this field, fast. If they catch one glimpse of us, we’re done.” We nodded in agreement, grabbed our shotguns and, as soon as their bodies disappeared out of sight, we took off in full sprint.
“HEN!” JP whisper-yelled, midway across the field. Simultaneously, we all dropped into a crouching position and froze. In our excitement over finding the gobblers, we failed to take notice of the hen in the distance who was in plain view of the birds we were after.
Spooking her would signal danger and scare off any prospects within hearing distance. We waited, still crouching, for her to exit the clearing so we could resume motion. As soon as she did, the toms came strolling around the mound, just barely out of range from us.
And just like that… we were caught in a standoff.
There we were, three humans frozen like squatting, camouflage statues in the middle of an open field. We couldn't look at each other, let alone breathe too deep or communicate in any way.
And the two birds were paranoid, wary of movement and ready to flee at the first sign of danger. The younger one was skittish, standing tall and alert, looking at us as if he knew we hadn't been there before. The longbeard toggled between concerned and hungry, pecking the ground for food.
I gripped my gun tighter, tilting my head down to shield my eyes from their suspicious gaze. My heavy hunting jacket was a bit overkill for this mild Florida morning and the sweat dripped down my face. My left foot was tucked under my butt, supporting the weight of my entire body. I ignored the tingling numbness and kept telling myself "don't screw this up."
The Final Draw
Minutes ticked by and, for a fleeting moment, the young tom looked away, giving me the chance to drop to a knee. JP had his box call already in-hand and struck a few short clucks to entice the longbeard to move closer. He puffed up in response, searching for the signaling hen.
From my right side, JP whispered, “On my count.”
"This is it," I thought, clutching my gun tighter, pressing the safety off and slipping my finger on the trigger.
In what felt like complete unison, I lifted my gun into shooting position, aimed at the gobbler's neck and fired. He dropped into the ravine and proceeded to flop around briefly.
It took me a few seconds to process the outcome of my shot. I stared at the scene before me, then fell to the ground and smiled. I finally looked around at Mike and JP who were smiling, too.
High fives and photos ensued and a little bit of watery eyes. The feeling of victory doesn't come often or naturally to me, so when I do occasionally pull it off, I thank the good Lord first.
We made it back to homebase for a celebratory breakfast of bacon and eggs and to recap the story with our friends who had so kindly invited us to hunt their land.
My very first Osceola turkey measured in with a 9.25" beard and 1" spurs. We harvested the breast which will provide for our next "wild game dinner" with friends. I kept the tail fan, beard, shotgun shell and spurs to create a commemorative display.
Even days later, I reflect on how much I love hunting and how far our society has drifted from engaging in this tradition of primal instinct and living from the land. I'm proud that I was raised to respect and carry on this tradition. And, one day, you can bet your sweet knickers I'll be teaching our unborn children the same.
Thank you to our friends, Hays and Catina, my brother, Justin, and my fiancé, Mike, who each made this one of the most treasured hunts of my life.
What is your most memorable hunting or fishing experience? Share it with me in the comments below!