Everywhere I go in Vermont I see turkeys. There was a time, not too many decades ago, that turkeys could not be found in the state. Hunting and loss of habitat had pushed them out. But the turkey reintroduction program begun in 1969 was wildly successful, and for the past few years they have been about as ubiquitous as squirrels.
Apparently the state wildlife biologists have noticed this too, because after first expanding the fall shotgun season for turkeys from nine days to 16 in most of the Champlain Valley wildlife management units (or WMUs), they have now also expanded the bow season from 14 days to 21.
That’s three full weeks I can now spend in frustration. Because the chance of me actually drawing a bow on a turkey without spooking it are very small. And the chance of me releasing an arrow and hitting a turkey that is running, after the inevitable spooking caused by my drawing the bow, is essentially zero.
The problem with turkeys is fourfold. They have phenomenal vision during the day — much better than that of a deer. Not only that, but like most animals that live as prey rather than predators, their eyes are set on the sides of their heads so they can see on both sides. And in the fall, during the bow season, they also travel in flocks. Thus even a small flock of six birds has 12 eyes pointing in different directions with excellent eyesight. Unlike with other animals — again, I use deer as an example — the bow hunter can’t wait until they are looking the other direction to draw. There is always at least one eye looking at you.
Oh, and they also have fantastic hearing.
I’ve harvested my share of turkeys with a shotgun over the years. Both fall and spring. But never with a bow. The closest I ever came was when I saw a flock moving across a cornfield near my house one evening. I used my keen hunter’s sense to determine where they were likely to emerge from the field and head into the woods to roost for the night. (That’s a euphemism for “I took a wild guess and got lucky.”)
The lead bird left the cornfield about 35 yards away from where I waited, and started up a trail on the other side of a brush pile. I had picked my spot perfectly. Its trajectory was going to put it on a lumber trail about 12 yards away. At such a close distance, that’s a high probability bowshot even for me. Even better, the brush pile gave me cover to draw my bow without being seen.
I waited until I could hear the turkey just about to emerge, but before it could actually see me, and I drew. And that was when the turkey stopped, its beak and eyes sticking just barely past the pile of brush. I held still, bow drawn, waiting for it to emerge. But the turkey chose that moment to put on an incredible display of patience. The sort of patience that enables a wild bird to pass on its genes.
My arm, with bow drawn, started to tremble. It started to shake. It screamed out at me in agony. I ignored it as well and as long as I could. Finally I had to let up. The moment I did, the bird caught the movement, and bolted across the trail. The rest of the flock, sensing commotion, took off in all directions. Some flying. Some running.
And I walked home and told my wife we’d need to have pizza for Thanksgiving.
More usual are occurrences like this morning. I headed out to my deer stand about 40 minutes before dawn, climbed up, clipped my harness in, pulled my bow up, and sat down. Sixty minutes later, six turkeys — which had almost certainly heard me walk underneath them with their keen hearing, and had then spent the next hour nervously watching me and wondering what I was going to do — finally glided out of their roosts (almost directly over my head) and landed about 40 yards away.
And then, just to taunt me, they spent the next hour meandering in a wide arc 180 degrees around my deer stand, keep about half again as far away from me as the outer limit of my accurate shooting range, before disappearing into the trees.
I’m not sure I can take three weeks of this.