Following the trail in the dark almost by instinct, the hunting group’s muted shuffle of feet on the carpet of newly fallen leaves was all that broke the tranquility of the dead-calm morning. The eastern sky’s somber debut of first light slowly revealed the topographical profiles of the Appalachian’s Endless Mountain Region and the promising hollows bisecting them.
Daylight was approaching quickly, and with any kind of scouting savvy and sixth sense, this starting point would produce a flock of turkeys roosted across the hill above them. Pausing to catch our breath, the tandem father-daughter teams of Jeff Gettys and 16 year-old Olivia, and 14 year-old Taylor and Craig Kauffman, stopped to scan the broad expanse of the wooded ridge above.
Leading the hike on that November 2010 morning were guides John Plowman, Past President of SCI-Blue Mountain; Scott Basehore, champion call maker, and Scott’s six-month old Appalachian turkey dog, Jenny, a promising new addition to this unique sporting breed that’s specifically bred and trained for locating and scattering flocks of turkeys wherever found.
Our hunt adventure actually started four years earlier back in 2006, not out in the woods, but with many meetings with SCI leaders and pro-dog-hunting groups scouting for legislative support at the State Capitol. Backed by turkey dog hunters and Pennsylvania SCI Chapters, Senate Bill 580 was introduced in January 2007 to legalize the use of dogs to locate and break the flocks of turkey during the Pennsylvania fall hunting season. Working closely with State Senate and House members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, SB 580 breezed through the legislative process in record time, becoming law in time for Pennsylvania hunters to hunt fall turkeys during the 2007 season legally with dogs for the first time in history. The success of that effort was another graphic example documenting the long history of Pennsylvania SCI Chapters working to expand hunting opportunities for sportsmen of the Commonwealth.
Sufficiently rested, the groups divided up. Taylor and I continued our trek uphill toward likely roosting areas while Scott and Jenny went out flanking the side hill. As we approached the summit, our pace was interrupted as several large turkeys suddenly glided off the hill above us, silently disappearing into the wooded mountainside below. We could not hear the telltale busted-bird bark of Jenny, but were fairly certain that she had located our first flock somewhere above us. Arrival at the top of the ridge found Scott and a happy dog waiting. The flock break was good, and Scott was confident that success was at hand. Now the hunt would commence in earnest.
Quickly adjusting camouflage head nets and gloves, we scrambled for good set-up locations and began the effort to call the birds back together. In short order, the scattered birds began their calling effort to regroup. Our side of the bench was relatively quiet, but the yelping assembly call response of the scattered birds indicated that the birds might join up downhill closer to the other hunters’ set-up.
Taylor and I sat quietly as the birds appeared to move directly down in front of Jeff and Olivia. We anticipated Olivia’s shotgun blast that never came. The survival skills of the crafty birds somehow detected the ambush and, despite being very close to the hunters, they slipped away unseen, confident that the source of the call was not their dominant hen’s tune.
The sun finally broke above the crest of the adjacent mountains, and the coolness of the morning prompted our guide to suggest an alternative set-up. We moved farther down the ridge and managed to hear another bird calling across the wooded ravine beyond Madi’s Rock, a prime location on the ridge. Again, another call-up strategy was established, but our efforts resulted in the same outcome–no birds. That became the pattern of the morning. Despite the best efforts of Jenny and the hunting team, we could not bring a turkey into shotgun range for the girls. Close each time, but not quite. Typical turkey tactics!
In analyzing the situation and knowing the girls’ appetites as well as their patience limits, John suggested a break for lunch. That also would give the high-alert turkeys some time to settle down. With renewed adrenaline and the thought of food at their favorite nearby restaurant, the team exited the mountain with amazing speed.
Rehashing the morning events over lunch suggested that all aspects of our morning efforts could still lead to afternoon success: willing hunters, a high-energy dog and lots of turkeys. It just didn’t come together on the first round. It took some convincing of the girls, but we eventually managed to find ourselves back on the mountaintop for the afternoon round.
Taylor, Scott, Jenny and I decided to head in one direction while John, Jeff and Olivia headed into a distant hollow where John located another group of birds while scouting around earlier that day. Our pleasant walk out a logging road was short lived. I paused to show Taylor a fresh turkey track in a muddy spot, when Jenny exploded from the road in the exact direction of the track. She disappeared over the crest of the closest bench and broke into a series of loud whoops signaling, “BIRDS ARE HERE GANG!”
We quickly eased to that break site to check, but Jenny was passionately running in a wide circle and it was certain that the foraging birds were scattered in an abrupt manner. Locating a big tree with a good view and multiple shooting lanes, Taylor and I set-up for a safe shot. Scott secured Jenny in her duffle bag and began calling to engage these new candidates. After several tries, we heard one answer from deep in the Hemlock thickets below. I quietly signaled to Taylor and she acknowledged hearing the call.
As planned, the curious bird began to answer Scott’s calls, moving closer with each response. Typical of many turkeys, the bird began a wide loop to our left in an effort to locate visually the source of the kee-kee run assembly calls. I repositioned Taylor to where I thought the turkey would enter the bench, her shotgun wobbling on the readjusted bi-pod. Our moves were just completed when a large dark bird materialized silently from behind a pine tree 80 yards in front of us.
Silence and stillness marked the standoff. We were clearly in full view of the bird, but the distance was too far for Taylor to take a shot. Taylor kept her composure, and after a long pause the bird continued to move in our direction. Each step closed the gap, and with incredible patience Taylor allowed the bird to close within 40 yards before her shotgun broke the stillness of the afternoon. The flopping wings as the bird rolled down over the hill confirmed the shot, and a quick retrieval gave Taylor her first turkey to tag…and always remember. It was a wonderful way to end the day, and a great way to validate SCI’s efforts to expand new hunting opportunities to the next generation. Thank you SCI.– Craig Kauffman