A Hundred-Year-Old Trophy
The story of a special gobbler taken with a very special gun.
I began to walk down the back stairs of my father’s house, anxious to get out of his home office filled with taxidermy and into the spring sunshine to check on some food plots I had recently plowed. As much as I enjoy being around his many trophies, it’s much more fun spending time with real animals. Then I remembered the gun. Resting in a wormy chestnut gun cabinet was my great-great-grandfather’s single-shot 12 gauge. As I walked over to pick it up, I recalled the special celebration a couple of years ago when I was presented the gun by my dad, recently cleaned and restored, as a special gift on my 21st birthday.
I knew I wouldn’t ever get a turkey with the gun if I didn’t have it with me, so with a couple weeks left in turkey season, I knew I better go ahead and take it just in case. Moments later I placed the gun in a spare case, placed it on the back seat of my truck and drove home.
It was a cool day for late April. The sun was bright, but the wind gave the air enough of a chill that I kept my windows up in my truck as I drove to go check some fields where I was anxious to plant seed. As fate would have it, in the farthest corner of the last field stood a mature tom, seemingly undisturbed by the presence of my truck which he had probably seen countless times during the recently ended quail season. I thought about the gun that I had placed in my truck only hours before. In the blink of an eye, I decided the hunt was on.
My first order of business was to get out of the bird’s line of sight. After backing out of the field edge, I tucked my truck into a thicket and began changing into my hunting clothes. Shirt, pants, vest, calls and decoys… all the necessary tools to complete the plan I was devising in my head. Lastly, I reached into the back seat and pulled the gun from its case. Certainly more than a hundred years old, it bore not a single identifying mark or name. My dad had discovered it in 1978, leaning in a corner in the back of my grandfather’s old bedroom closet at my great-grandmother’s house in Pennsylvania. He had never once shot it, and as far as he knew, his dad had fired the old gun just once. To test the safety of it, he tied it to a tree, stepped back 20 feet or so and yanked a string he had tied to the trigger. I shouldered it a few times, broke it open and headed in the gobbler’s direction.
Being late afternoon, I wasn’t at all expecting to hunt this bird like so many I had encountered earlier in the season. Turkey hunting for me is being in the woods before dawn and listening to all the animals wake up in sequence. Now, there I was in the middle of the afternoon, and the turkey had a jump on me. I decided to play it safe. I carefully made my way around the wood line of the opposing field, hoping to end up a few hundred yards from where I last saw him. It was feeding time for this bird. He was alone, making his way across a freshly plowed field with little to no agenda. My goal was to pleasantly surprise him with the welcoming calls of a hen in hopes he was in the mood. I was eager to set up on this bird. I belly crawled out into the open field with a rubber hen decoy and placed it on a small knoll, hoping to catch his eye.
Easing back into the shadows, perhaps 20 yards from my decoy, I began a sequence of soft purrs with a slate call. The waiting game began. I was being more patient than usual (at least for me) by waiting five to 10 minutes between calls. The silence on the other end of the line had me worried. I was beginning to think I had spooked the tom when I parked my truck. Or maybe he had turned and fed the other direction.
After 30 long minutes, I emerged from my hiding place and picked up my decoy, keeping the stake intact in case I had to make a quick move. I moved stealthily between trees, using their shadows as cover as I got closer to his original location. Finally I was there, standing in the edge of the trees, looking right where he had been standing about an hour before. There was nothing in sight.
I sat down and began to wonder what went wrong. I thought surely the bird was around there somewhere. I had been priming my mouth call in the side of my cheek since I had left the truck, and decided it was time to let it work. Starting softly, I let out a few sequences of raspy yelps. When I reached the highest decibel of my last call, something extraordinary happened. A gobbler’s equivalent of a lion’s roar echoed across the field coming from right where my truck was parked.
The clock started ticking. I raced to get a decoy out in the field and get back to the tree line and the safety of cover. For the second time that day, I crawled into the field and set the decoy up about 15 yards behind and to the left of my hiding spot. My thought was that even if the bird hung up about 50 yards from the decoy, he would still only be about 35 yards from me. With the decoy in position, I shuffled back to the tree line. Placing one hand on the ground and just beginning to sit, I suddenly had the sickening feeling that I had just blown everything. There he stood in full strut at the highest point of the field. He let out another roaring gobble.
“I’m stuck here,” I thought as he starting his serpentine strutting motion toward the decoy. I knew the movement required to sit all the way down would surely be enough to catch the eye of this old bird. With my arm shaking under the weight of my entire body, I waited for the right moment. Finally, it came when after about five minutes, he strutted and turned just far enough to his right where I felt comfortable to sit. It worked. A few seconds of relief streamed over me as I watched him slowly move across the field. I soaked in the beauty of the situation for a short time before realizing I still had a major challenge ahead. My gun lay open and on the ground beside me, a full arm’s reach away.
I’ve guided several turkey hunts this spring, something that I’m lucky enough to call part of my job. My advice to clients has always been that in the event a gobbler shows up before you have your gun up, do not move to try to get on the bird. In sporting clays, an instinctive raise of the gun to the target will usually result in a much better outcome. That means that when the shot opportunity presents itself, you make a swift and concise movement to the target and take the shot. Despite knowing that I would be far more confident with the antique single-shot already in my hands, I took my own advice and left the gun on the ground.
The big tom closed the distance to 75 yards, and he had been in full strut for close to 10 minutes. Suddenly a gust of wind rushed across the field and shook the low-hanging branches that I rested behind. Instantly, he came out of strut and raised his bright blue and red head. Trouble. In hindsight, I think what saved me is that he was still intoxicated with the decoy and focused intently on her. But, when my decoy became lifeless after the breeze died, he became quite suspicious. I reassured him with an aggressive yelp in the direction of the decoy, which was enough to make him run about 10 yards closer, return to strut, and let out his last gobble. I only gave him about 10 seconds to decide if it was worth coming any closer, but his decision was made faster than mine. He putted twice, a sound in turkey talk that leaves no question of its definition. It was now or never!
Without a second thought or any hesitation, I picked up the gun and let my shooting instincts take over. The 100-year-old action seemed to close much smoother than ever before. The hammer came back with a defining click, and my finger found the trigger, as if I had shot the gun a thousand times. Seconds later a shot rang out. The gobbler dropped to the ground surrounded by a small shower of shimmering feathers back lit against the afternoon sun and blue sky. For a moment I felt like time stood still—even a hundred years of time—and at the same time I knew a family legacy had just been extended to a new generation.
This was not my first and hopefully not my last spring gobbler. I’ve killed turkeys in several states, in many different types of habitat and under dramatically different circumstances. But no matter how many times I am blessed with success in the spring woods, I’m hard pressed to imagine a more meaningful turkey-hunting experience than this one. I certainly don’t know the man who made that old single-shot 12 gauge, nor the many members of the my family who may have hunted with it. But, at least for me, I find it hard to believe that my own Opa’s grandfather’s gun has ever made a more poetic and memorable shot in its long life; a life much longer than my father’s and mine combined.
My dad is having the old gobbler with 1-plus-inch spurs and a 10-plus-inch beard, killed instantly at 55 yards, mounted as another reminder of a special hunt. But for me, that gun is my real trophy, one that represents a legacy passed down through our family that I can only hope will create even more amazing experiences for young hunters yet to come.
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