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Piney woods longbeards.

THE LATE APRIL DAY is dying slowly. A bloody smear stains the clouds behind my blind. In the near distance the evening's first hungry whitetails are filtering into a clearing to feed on green shoots sprouting among yellowed weeds. Off to my left a coldwater creek gurgles with spring runoff, winding through the darkening pines where I sit watching the feeding deer, patiently waiting for the turkeys to return to their cottonwood roost.

Two full hours have passed since I parked my truck and hiked the mile or so to my pop-up blind. Quickly I staked the jake and hen decoys side by side, 16 paces from the shooting window. Satisfied, I moved away, stooped into the blind's dim interior, straddled a stool, nocked an arrow, and laid my box call within easy reach.

I'd been here at cold daybreak, too, arriving quietly in starlit darkness. Morning turkey talk soon began. Eventually I could make out black shapes stirring on leafless limbs. Booming gobbles greeted the wakening day. Hens purred and yelped softly. And with gray daylight the fly-down began. A big tom landed 45 yards away, gobbled twice, fanned his tail, puffing his body feathers and strutting stiff-legged among several hens scratching the ground debris. Once, when the tom pirouetted and gobbled, I could actually see his breath vapor. I shivered with anticipation or morning cold--or both.

Ignoring the drumming tom, the hens eventually moved away toward the grassy clearing, followed by the big long-beard and a trio of apprentice jakes. I'd resisted the urge to call, because I knew I couldn't pull the courting tom away from the feeding females. Instead, I'd opted to slip away once the flock was out of sight. True, this morning gamble hadn't paid off. But I knew the birds would he back. And so would I.

This was a time-tested spot. I'd ambushed and decoyed gobblers here for the past several springs. That lone cottonwood towering amid pines and creekside alders was a turkey magnet. Droppings and scratchings offered mute proof of the birds' presence. And so it was only a matter of time--and luck--before I'd get my shot.

AN HOUR OR SO before dark I reach for my call. Its high-pitched yap-yap-yap evokes a distant gobble. I yelp a second time and then simply lay my call aside and pick up my bow. The long-beard doesn't respond, but that doesn't surprise me. Half an hour later movement snags my eye. Blue-gray heads bobbing above creekside grasses. Hens. I scour their backtrail and am not disappointed. As the whitish pink heads of several nearby jakes come into view, I tug gently on the fishing line attached to my feeding hen decoy. It bobs as if pecking at the forest floor.

Purrrrt. The young toms pause. One emits an eager high-pitched gobble. The youngsters turn and beeline toward the faux hen. Seconds later they are strutting around the foam hen and jake, clucking and purring as they check out the newcomers. None has a beard more than two inches long. Unmoving, I watch--and hope.

Then, a thunderclap gobble seems to shake my camouflaged blind. Shifting only my eyes, I see the approaching longbeard. At 30 yards he fans and puffs into that impressive wing-dragging strut that all turkey hunters know. Even in the ebbing daylight, his dark body glows with an iridescent, metallic sheen. His red, white, and blue head is coiled back above the crimson dewlap, wormlike snood dangling over the front of his beak. A 10-inch paintbrush beard protrudes from his breast feathers. And I can hear my heartbeat as he struts closer.

Leaning slowly away from the shooting window, I ease to full draw. Putt! I am eye to eye with an alert jake standing no more than a dozen yards away. Already the big tom is turning away, but I find him in my sight window. There is a reassuring thump. And wings flailing wildly against the forest floor tell me another spring season is over.
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Title Annotation:Short Shots
Author:James, M.R.
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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