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Shooting ghosts

CHIEFLAND, Fla. -- At 7:10, the sun was painting the few wisps of clouds stringing across the sky a hue of purple.

Turkey hunters notice those celestial things, even though they don't want to. The only time they pay attention to the color of the clouds is when the turkeys aren't gobbling. If the turkeys are ringing the trees, it's typically dark. By the time the sun reaches the horizon, turkey hunters have other things to focus on.

PHOTO GALLERY

Turkey Trek

Minutes before the first Osceola gobble of this turkey trek, I was leaned against a live oak, looking at the tangle of Spanish moss, listening to song birds I couldn't identify and watching the clouds turn colors.

The surrounding beauty wasn't enough to avoid feeling a little depressed, thinking about a subspecies of turkey that was by nature quieter than their cousins in other parts of the country. Quiet sucks in the turkey woods almost as must as watching pretty skies.

Finding a place to actually get to hunt these birds is a challenge. Getting one to gobble and work, according to reports, can be even more of a challenge.

But at 7:15 a.m., all of that changed. The next two hours would change everything I thought I knew about a turkey that lives far away from most of us.


"The Indians referred to the Osceola as the 'ghost of the woods,'" said Gray Drummond, the man who owned the land on which we were hunting. "Sometimes they only gobble once or twice on the roost. You sometimes can get them fired up once they hit the ground. But more often than not, when you sit down and call, these turkeys are going to quietly slip in on you."

Drummond is from Chiefland and describes himself as a "fifth-generation Florida cracker," a term derived from the sound that ranchers and cattlemen made while using cow whips to drive cattle from the thick cover around the state.

He owns approximately 3,000 acres, where in years past he has operated Rocky Hammock Outfitters. In the past two years, he's suspended his guiding business for Osceolas and hogs on his property to focus on managing for deer.

In the next year, he expects to reopen Rocky Hammock Outfitters and offer Osceola hunts again.

Drummond's advice was similar to many of the things that are offered on websites that have information on Osceolas. As a matter of fact, there's little information on these birds to be found, except quiet and ghostly. As a result, those words stay with you.

The bird was named after Osceola, a Seminole warrior who led the resistance against the U.S. Army and its attempts to drive the Seminoles out of Florida. The Seminoles persevered because of their ability to navigate the Everglades, and they became the only unconquered Indian tribe in the U.S.

In many ways, the Osceola turkey fits the same description.

It is what makes this bird special. That and the fact that the only place they exist is in south Florida. Traveling turkey hunters, especially those who want to take the Grand Slam (an Osceola, Eastern, Rio Grande and Merriam), know all too well that the Osceola is the key.


Turkey hunting is all about communication.

Every turkey hunter knows that. The ability to communicate with one of God's creatures with calls made of wood, slate and rubber strapped over metal, is something that is all too familiar.

It's what intrigues us. But the communication of turkey hunting on a broader scale is often what keeps us in the game.

Tom Kelly, who is arguably the best turkey-hunting writer, calls the communication we're referring to in this instance as "telephonic communication."

That's when turkey hunters from all over utilize the telephone to get turkey information; to find out when they are gobbling, where and who owns what piece of property. The information gained by this form of hunting over the air waves can be as valuable to a turkey hunter as being able to string out the perfect series of yelps on a mouth call.

The Turkey Trek's first Osceola turkey hunt is a testament to that fact.

If you're hunting an Osceola, odds are you're a long way from home and as turkey hunters know everything can't always go as planned.

On this stop, I was slated to hunt with Dave Precht, long-time editor of Bassmaster Magazine and Chris Horton, BASS's Environmental Director. Our plans were to spend two days hunting an orange grove near Lake Okeechobee. Osceolas like orange groves. There's plenty of bugging opportunities and plenty of cover mixed with lots of open areas to display and go about the business of being a turkey.

Turkey season, though, often conflicts with the orange harvest. And our expected piece of hunting ground had been slated for picking oranges on our first day. That left us out in the cold, a place we would have stayed if not for the power of "telephonic communications."

After dozens of phone calls, Drummond came to the rescue. Not only could we hunt an 800-acre tract of his, but he would also open the gate and give it to us for the day.

His southern Florida hospitality went so far as to hand draw a map, noting specific plots and oak hammocks where turkeys liked to hang out.

His parting words as he left us standing next to his cabin (built by his great-grandparents in 1870) was "If it were me, I'd start listening right here. There's not much activity around here and they like roosting in that oak hammock right there."

It was too dark to see where he was pointing, until 7:15 a.m.


Soon after the attention to the colored wisps of clouds was broken, it was followed by the unmistakable cackle of hens flying down. The birds couldn't have been more than 100 yards from the live oak where we sat in a pine plantation bordering the oak hammock.

The expectation was the birds would simply skirt up the fire lane and into the big plot next to the cabin. We waited and listened. Our ghost of the woods was definitely going to be quiet. After 15 minutes of nothing, a series of yelps created a response. Not from the gobbler, but from a hen who didn't like her dominance challenged.

The hen immediately cut the yelps and started sassing the raspy hen calls.

"I've been here before,'' I thought and quickly sassed back. The exchange almost always elicits a gobble. But he wasn't having any part of this catfight. The sassing continued with no movement and not a peep from the tom. And it didn't take long to realize that the hens were going equally quiet.

A last-ditch attempt to mark the turkeys progress, I spit out a "pffft," mimicking the spit and drum of a courting tom. It did the trick and a hollow gobble followed.

It was so hollow you couldn't get an accurate gauge on where the turkey was. But it was enough to let us know the turkeys were moving away and had a good head start on us.

Scrambling, I pulled Drummond's hand-drawn map from my pocket, found the pine plantation and food plot a 1/3 of a mile from where we were and in the seemingly direct path of the moving flock.

I made eye contact Precht and Horton, who were on either side of me, and we knew there was only one thing left to do -- run. Not like Forrest Gump, but like three turkey hunters burdened with getting somewhere as quick and quietly as possible.

The rows of pines were straight as an arrow with the appropriate clean openings in between -- the kind forest managers like and turkey hunters hate. As we ran down the sandy road, we kept one eye to the open lanes and the other in front.

Luck has a lot to do with turkey hunting. In this case, we got lucky. We were able to speed past the open lane the big flock of birds were in and not get seen. At that exact spot, on our end was the only place along the edges of that pine plantation where a thicket of briars were growing. It wasn't much cover, but enough.

A third of a mile later and we were in the food plot, where the only cover was two longleaf pines; each was short and stubby with a canopy touching the ground. Horton took the first and Precht and I took the second, about 100 yards from the corner of the pines and the open field.

After making the necessary adjustments just to be able to poke out a shotgun barrel, we took up guard on each side of the tree. Precht's side was the field side. Mine was the pine plantation side. If the turkeys came through the pines, it would be Horton or me with the shot. If they skirted the edge and entered the field it would be Precht's shot.

I knew the turkeys were still several hundred yards from us and we were reasonably sure that we were in their path. But there's nothing reasonable about turkeys.

That may have been the reason I felt compelled to call, if for nothing else than to reassure myself that those birds hadn't seen us and were still there.

The first series of yelps brought an unexpected gobble from a subspecies of turkeys that are said to be quiet. I whispered to Precht, telling him that they were still there, but with the hollowness of the gobble I couldn't be sure exactly where. Plus it sounded as if the turkey was facing away, making me fear the worst -- the birds had reversed course.

After five minutes, the second series of yelps produced an almost immediate response and this time it was pointed directly at us. "One more call, and if he answers, we're shutting up,'' I said.

A few minutes later and that series of yelps produced an immediate response.

"That's it,'' I said. "He's headed this way, I think."

The next 30 minutes surprised me. At a rate of about every 3 minutes, the gobbler busted loose on his own, racking up another 10 gobbles that kept me wondering if I had gotten on the hottest Osceola in the state.

The next 30 minutes worried me. The gobbles stopped and even though the last 10 had marked a steady progression, I began thinking I should have kept the pressure on. Those thoughts were numbed by my Alabama lesson of how affective silence can be, while staying vigilant for every movement by heeding Drummond's "ghost of the woods" characterization.

I was sitting under my tree, Precht to my left, looking at the same scenery, fighting worry and cramped legs, thinking I had to do something. But I couldn't settle on what that was. The canopy was thick enough on our tree that I felt like I could ease up to my knees, then stand and get a good look at what was over the grassy cover in front of us.

I was halfway up when I noticed hens pecking and moving in front of Precht at 100 yards. I'm all about getting turkeys on the ground and flopping, but I felt a pang of selfishness at the moment. The magnitude of taking my first Osceola was not lost on me.

Of the three of us, I figured I was in the worst position when we started. Now as I watched those hens, I knew that Precht was in the gunner seat. As I glassed the thick grass in front of Precht, I heard the unmistakable "pffft" and resonating drum of a strutting tom.

I quickly hit the ground and told Precht to get ready. "He's close, how close I don't know, but he's close."

I immediately started doing the turkey hunter scan, the one that sees every wisp of grass move, every pine needle drop and concentrated mostly on the area in front of Precht. Then the tom surprised me again. A gobble almost knocked my hat off directly in front of me and my eyes caught the movement of a half circle of feathers as the strutting tom moved behind the grass in front of me.

"Awesome," I thought. "A full-fanned bird, we're not dealing with a Jake."

Seconds seemed like minutes, minutes like hours as I began thinking that this was "my Osceola." I get nervous on every turkey hunt. It comes from the excitement of the hunt. At this moment, though, the excitement level was like the first turkey hunt I had ever been on. It was, after all, my first Osceola.

I swallowed my breath and tried to compose myself as the bird moved into view, a big red head leading a full fan. Painstakingly slow, the bird moved from behind the grass and behind a pine tree and stopped, displaying for the hen it knew had called from that position.

Lessons learned from years ago, told me you don't shoot a strutting bird. But I was getting impatient and more nervous by the second. The turkey ever so slightly moved its head out and away from his strutting posture and I pulled the trigger.

The next few moments were a mixture of excitement, and then disappointment followed by a return to excitement. I quickly covered the 28 steps to the flopping bird and put the ceremonious foot on it, I looked down and physically became ill as a 4-inch beard was revealed.

Curse words flowed. Precht questioned as he followed, "What? Did you shoot a hen?"

"Worse," I said, followed by more cursing until I looked at the legs of my prize and saw 1 1/8-inch hooked, sharp spurs.

I thought I had killed a Jake, but the spurs told me that this was at least a 3-year old. I was happy and excited again.

"I'm going to tell everyone I saw those spurs first,'' I joked with Horton and Precht.

The truth, however, was every indication from a full fan; a dominant gobble and a drooping snood told me that this was not a Jake. I was so caught up in the moment; I never gave the beard a second thought until it was on the ground.

At that moment, it didn't matter. I couldn't even tell you if there was a cloud in the sky and what color they were. I was way above them.