John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
My heart began to ache. It wasn’t my life at stake, but my chance at a gobbler. Regardless of the situation, the position I found myself in crunched up against the trunk of that old rotting tree, stretched me as a man. This verse weighed heavy on my chest, as if God had chained a cruise ship’s anchor around my heart. He spoke as the birds hammered just a ridge above us, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” I had not killed a turkey in nearly five years come morning of May 1, 2013 as four gobblers fell into the allure of dueling slate calls.
Ten Hours Earlier
Buzzzzzzz buzzzzz buzzzzz! My phone vibrated on its charging stand. I had just jumped out of the shower after baseball practice. It was Austin.
Text Message: So what’s the deal? Are we going to the cabin tonight?
Austin Groff is one of my closest college brothers and also one of the best hunting partners I have ever had. Since we share the same intensity, passion and drive to go deeper, further and harder to reach places no others would dare dream to set foot, I keep him around. When you and your hunting partner are on the same page mentally, little nuances which may deter others, turn into stories.
Response: Yes, will pick you up in a half hour to get guns.
Despite opening day coinciding with the last day of classes and the beginning of finals week, we decided studying our collegiate material would prove more effective by working in the quiet solace of the cabin, interrupted only by the hiss of a lantern. However, studying became difficult as our excitement, talk of strategy and reminiscing of our hunt the year before took over. The proverbial blanket of sleep eventually found its way over us. Although my excitement for turkey season had me literally shaking with excitement in class a few hours earlier, I fell into a deep sleep. I’d need it.
4AM and painting my face came with mixed feelings. Yes I was beyond fired up to be out turkey hunting, yet I knew I would pay for the early morning when my body would revolt against me during classes and baseball practice in protest. But for the time being I was awake and buzzing with excitement, sipping on my coffee.
Our initial set came not far from camp on one of the best listening points on the property. As a small bench between two deep basins, this allows for us to pinpoint a turkey’s location and create a well thought out plan of attack. At 5:15 am “The Morning Show” began. I had heard exactly one gobble the year before and was a bit anxious to hear the sound which makes me as giddy as country girls at a Luke Bryan concert. “The Boss” started the roost party, he was the furthest away but bellowed the longest and deepest vocalization from far up the ridge directly in front of us. Instantly the basin to our left became an echoing chorus of six different gobblers each trying to compete with each other to prove roost dominance. No need to owl hoot in this situation. Austin and I soaked in the sounds of this glorious noise for several minutes letting God’s personal choir tease us in anticipation. Slowly we began introducing our own melodies of clucks, purrs and tree yelps into the chorus. Several times the birds would give us acknowledgment gobbles, but such is turkey hunting, they mostly fell silent after flying down. I knew we had our work cut out for us. Being an extremely sunny and warm day, temperatures pushing the mid-sixties, I knew from painful experience the birds were more than likely going to hook up with hens quickly and essentially grow superglue around their lips. After letting the woods fall silent we decided to rely on an old tactic of leaving the area and returning in a few hours. More than once in my 19 years of hunting experience has returning to the place of the last gobble mid-morning produced quality encounters. We decided to walk to the basin on our right side and attempt to rouse up a gobble. We did. From the sound of his two gobbles I knew the area he was in. Using a high ridge trail we elected to stay a touch above the bird and use elevation to our advantage so as to call him uphill. Running and gunning all the way to the end of this particular north facing ridge produced nary another peep from the bird. Anyone whose has chased a promising gobble into silence can understand the deflating feeling of “being led on.” Looking back, perhaps this played to our advantage. We decided to head back into the first basin where we had heard all the gobbling off the roost and find an area with sufficient sign to set up and call for a few hours. We never made it back into the basin per-say.
At one particular point on this high ridge trail it develops into a perfect listening and calling area since it overlooks several ridges and basins. As I was about to produce a few sharp cuts on my slate, a raven croaked several hundred yards away over the adjacent hill top. This raven’s guttural croak caused a one of the birds we had pin pointed off the roost to shock gobble right near where we had last heard him. A memory flashed through my mind of locating a bird in the near exact spot two years prior in the epic duel with the bird I have come to call “The Boss.” Gobbling high on the distant hill top, Austin and I started running down the hill, then power hiking up the adjacent ridge. We had a few hundred vertical feet to climb and since the raven had helped reveal the location of the gobbler on his own, we did not have to reveal our own, allowing us to get set in a prime position.
Austin: Did you hear that?
Me: No, where was it?
He pointed directly to the top of the ridge in front of us. We had set up on a small ridge intersecting two old logging roads. I had allowed Austin to use my HS Strut Lil Deuce for the morning and, for being relatively new to the turkey calling game, he was creating seductively alluring sounds from the combination of my wood striker and the slates old black surface. We has set up my old foam decoys, Matilda and Gertrude, in the middle of the small ridge while we slouched against a large rotted leaning tree on the upward slope of the hill.
Austin: There it was again! Did you hear it?
Me: I didn’t hear it.
Austin seemed to think the birds were far away, and since I couldn’t hear the gobble, I pulled out my phone to make a quick mid-morning update video for my Facebook and Youtube communities.
Not twenty seconds after ending the video, he gobbled. Not more than one hundred yards from us, his gobble made me realize Austin was not just hearing things after all. Quickly bringing the stock of my 870 to my cheek and stabilizing the stock across my knee, we began a small series of yelp and purrs. Silence greeted us. Scanning the overgrown ancient log trail in front of our position I knew I would have to be vigilant so as to catch him the moment he stepped into view. However, instead of walking straight down the old log trail, I caught his movement as the mid-morning sun gleamed off his shiny feathers to our right, one ridge above us. At eighty yards and seeming intent on skirting our position, I fed him some soft yelps and clucks. Perhaps the soft calls changed his mind. Suddenly, he cut the distance and ducked behind a small knoll about forty yards away. This was my chance to turn the much needed few degrees to make the shot. Too late. Before I could turn, his patriotic colored head appeared and he was In half strut. I thought for sure he was looking at the decoys and was about to walk less than fifteen yards from the end of my muzzle to be greeted by a tight spread of Winchester Number Fours. He didn’t commit. He continued on his way out of sight offering no other shot. From the time he appeared to the time he left was less than fifteen seconds.
Did I just blow my only chance?
These words began to haunt me. No other calls, no matter how good they sounded, would rouse another gobble from the bird. Close enough was not good enough for me that morning. The end of the semester stress had me in a state of mind of such determination only taking a turkey could help relieve the mental pressure from school. While trying to visualize where the big guy could be, my sudden drop in hope skyrocketed once again not a minute later as three jakes followed the same line the tom had. Although I had my heart of taking a big gobbler, I’d told myself if a jake presented an opportunity, the memory of taking any bird with one of my closest friends would be worth the tag. Also, I had not killed a bird in five years so I was a bit anxious to break my streak of luck.
The three amigos disappeared behind lip of the next ridge. Sliding my Quaker Boy double reeded diaphragm from the left side of my cheek and pressing it against the roof of my mouth, I began yelping and cutting like there was no tomorrow. These jakes could not get enough, every yelp and cut was met with a veracious cluster of gobbles. I was determined to end my streak of bad luck, these little jokers were not going to get away.
Bright blood shot colored heads popped over the lip of the ridge to the right and back of my position on the tree. However, I accidentally flinched to get a better view as they came into view, a rookie mistake I know. They saw me and instantly started to become alarmed. I had no shot. the way I was positioned on the tree and the contour of the land, added with the fact I am a right handed shooter, made a quick turn out of the question.
Crap! There they are, I think they saw me move. Did they? They look alarmed. Would calling at them spook or settle them down? I want that gobbler but this entire set is about to be blown. Should I wait for them to make a move? If they settle down and work to the decoys maybe the gobbler will come back to run them off? Auggggggghh!
I was torn. I had no answers. I wanted to kill a bird badly. Then, those words hit me. I wanted to kill a bird. I was being selfish.
The almighty above entered my troubled thoughts and spoke, ““Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
My Thoughts:But God, I want to tag a bird today. I want to kill it so I can talk about it.
“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
I had become obsessed with killing one for my own sake, I had no idea just how screwed up my thinking had become.
My thoughts: Listen to yourself Jason, these are not the thoughts a man built for others would think. This selfishness is not you, it never has been you. Make the right call before it is too late. “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay his life down for his friends!”
I thought of Austin. Had he not also earned a chance at a turkey? By all means he had. Yes, our goal that day was to let me shoot, yet the almighty calmed my heart. Glancing at the birds, it was now or never. Go home with a bird, or eat cafeteria food for dinner.
All worries and selfish desires had left, like the good Lord had pulled a plug on the heart of my selfishness, draining every last ounce.
Me: Austin, you have to just turn and shoot. It’s now or never.
Austin: Are you sure?
Austin was facing directly away from the birds as they were on the opposite side of the tree. His full cameo 870 express lay sprawled across his lap as his hands where holding the slate.
Gritting my teeth I muttered, “Yes, do it now!”
Knowing I’d just issued the front bird a death sentence, the soft muffled thump of the slate call hitting the ground next to me was followed by one swift motion of Austin’s gun. He really had no idea where the birds were behind him, he acted purely on instinct.
Stone cold dead before he hit the dry brown leaves and nary a flinch. Austin had pulled through in an instant turn of events. Mission accomplished.
Hunting rarely goes according to script. As sportsmen and women, we could spend more time telling stories of game committing from a direction of less than optimal opportunity than the times they actually did read the proverbial script. Austin and I jumped from our crouched positions to claim the bird for good. 364 days earlier we had made magic happen in the turkey woods, and now, less than a year later, we had done it again.
John 15:13 seemed to have a real sense to me as we hiked down the mountain. Sure this may be considered not nearly as significant as other situations in which this verse really holds meaning, yet Austin had a ridiculous smile on his face as he carried his second turkey ever off the hill. His joy made my decision worth the sacrifice.
Where Eagles Dare,PWL.