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A Buck, a Bear and a Beard
By Mike Lamade
Sep 30, 2007 – 6:42:16 AM
I remember it like it was yesterday. Like a phantom, the big gobbler disappeared behind the thick stand of thornapples not 40 yards away, giving me a chance to lower my bow to the ground. My arm ached from holding it in shooting position for so long and my knees had imprints of Pennsylvania fieldstone that I knew would be with me forever.
But, I didn’t care how much it hurt-this bird was coming in! I knew that when he emerged from behind that clump of trees, continuing his cautious search for that seductive hen, I’d have to do everything just right if I was to get a shot. I had good cover in the shadows, and if I didn’t move or call again I felt sure he would close the gap to less than 20 yards. My heart was pounding as he tiptoed into the clearing and started toward me, his 10-power optics probing the evergreens where I knelt.
I was ready.
Over the years I’ve been quite successful on fall and spring turkeys, as we have a healthy population of the big birds here in Wayne County. However, I had taken all of my birds with the smoothbore. After reading Jack Brobst’s “Bowhunting for Turkeys” and meeting him at the PBS gathering in Ohio in March of 1987, I was determined to bag a long-beard with my bow.
Besides, I had another, more selfish reason. I was trying to complete a Pennsylvania “Triple Crown”-bagging a buck, and bear, and a gobbler with my bow in the same license year. Events of the past fall made the attempt possible. The buck had been easy. Opening day’s morning stand lasted only 10 minutes, not that I got my deer-what I got was drowned! It wasn’t even light yet when the sky opened up and sent a deluge earthward that rivaled Niagara. I was completely soaked within minutes and returned to my cabin, which wasn’t much of a trip as I was hunting only 100 yards from home. There’s a natural run between my place and my neighbor’s. It comes off the mountain and leads to pastures of timothy, alfalfa, and clover. The corn field and apple orchard directly across the road didn’t hurt a bit either!
The deer bed on the mountain, come down at dusk to feed, and go back up at dawn. I can watch all this from my front window, and in late summer and early fall, I can estimate their arrival within a 10-minute time frame. The final touch to this ideal set-up is the presence of a huge sugar maple 20 yards off the run-a perfect place for a stand. Finally, on that opening day afternoon the sky cleared. Knowing that the deer wouldn’t come down the run until almost 7 p.m., I didn’t head for my stand until 6:30. After all, I only had to walk 100 yards.
I was back home by 7, and my deer season over. I hadn’t been in the big maple 10 minutes when I noticed a sapling shaking vigorously. I then noticed ivory-colored material through the branches. The young six-point buck continued to rub the sapling for another few minutes, giving me time to make a few adjustments in my position. He then stepped out, walking under me at 10 yards. He never made it across the alfalfa field. I could drive my truck right to him. The bear was a different story. We don’t have many bruins in our area. The many dairy farms are separated by relatively small, broken woodlots, which don’t provide enough seclusion needed by an animal as shy and secretive as a black bear. However, 30 miles to the south lies Pike County, a region of thousands of square miles of unbroken forest and dense swap, a region that produces the largest bear kill in the eastern half of the state. Hunting pressure is heavy, due to most of the area being state game land or state forest. Hunting clubs using drivers and standers in the swamps take many bears.
My plans to hunt in Pike County were changed abruptly one week before the season when I discovered fresh bear tracks in the snow, only 100 yards behind my cabin. In fact, the tracks went right under the big maple where I had taken the buck. Lady Luck, the Red Gods of hunting, and a well-placed arrow all came together that day, and the second jewel in the “Triple Crown” was mine. I took the bear within walking distance of my cabin. He weighed over 300 pounds and qualified as Pennsylvania’s first Pope & Young bruin.
I thought of the buck and the bear as I waited for the gobbler to make his move. Again, I was within walking distance from home, but I had walked in a lot of directions over the past week in hopes of this rendezvous. This bird was smart. He’d been playing with me since the season began. He didn’t roost in the same area like most gobblers do, and he never gobbled from the roost at dusk, only in the morning. Not knowing where he roosted, I’d hunt the ridge behind my place at dawn, only to have him sound off two ridges to the east. By the time I hurried to his location he had quit gobbling, flown down and wandered off with his hens. The next morning I’d be on that ridge at dawn, only to have him gobble right behind my house! This repeat performance had a run of four days until I finally got lucky.
The morning of May 10 was windy when I stepped out onto my deck at 4:30. Too windy. I’ll never hear anything. Go back to bed. Then something told me, go anyway. I know some guys who feel guilty when they take time off from work to hunt. I feel guilty when I don’t! That’s why you took the early retirement, the little voice said. This is your job now. Get to work!
I climbed the old logging road to the top of the ridge where I had heard the bird on several occasions, but where I had never been at first light. There was a stand of ancient hemlocks, which provided a perfect roosting spot. I was just taking a chance that he had picked one to spend the night by.
I quietly found a spot among some smaller hemlocks, which would provide shade even after the sun crested the ridge. Pulling on camo headnet and gloves, I settled back against a tree as the songbirds began their break-of-day prelude. I decided not to call. If he was here, I didn’t want him to know I existed.
I was just starting to doubt my position when I was electrified by a shattering gobble gobble gobble less than 60 yards away. I had finally guessed right! I didn’t answer him. He continued to gobble at three- and four-minute intervals. He was announcing to the world that he was in command and he wanted everyone to know it. It was time to make my move. The first soft yelps from my peg and slate call resulted in a loud rustling in the trees directly ahead, followed by the awesome sight of a mature, wild turkey gobbler, flaps down, making a full stall landing in a clearing only 50 yards away. He hit the ground and seemed to double in size as he spread his fan and went into full mating display. The sun glistened on his black and bronze breast feathers. His red, white, and blue head was vivid with a kaleidoscope of hues only found at this time of year-a time to propagate the species. He looked exactly like Ned Smith’s “Spring Gobbler” print that hangs in my living room.
I let the slate call hang from its cord around my neck and slowly placed the diaphragm in the back on my mouth. My bow eased into position.
He answered my first yelp with a challenging double gobble, then another! He strutted and dragged his wings in the leaves.
He looked like a Mummer’s Day Parade prizewinner on New Years Day. For a good 15 minutes I pleaded softly with that tom to come to me, but he refused to leave that clearing. He was just as intent on enticing me to come to him as I was in getting him to come to me.
I decided to change tactics; the quiet stuff wasn’t working. I decided to let it fly, exciting the natural mating urge in that old bird until he had to come to me. I let out the most raucous string of cackles from my double reed diaphragm that I could muster. I was sure it would send him into instant retreat, but?it worked!
His whole body trembled as he extended his neck. Gobble gobble gobble!
He stamped one foot, then the other, slowly moving on a right diagonal. Then he turned 90 degrees, moving left. Each step brought him closer. A 10-inch beard was clearly visible. He came within 30 yards of me and neither one of us made a peep. I tried not to breathe and closed my eyes to tiny slits, reasoning that he wouldn’t see me if I hid behind closed eyelids. He finally stepped behind a group of thorn apple trees ,giving me a chance to open my eyes and rest my bow. This bird was wearing me out!
Within 10 seconds he emerged from the cover, coming straight for me-looking, searching, listening. Closer and closer he came. At 20 yards his red, warty head went behind a small maple. It was time.
I hit full draw, giving a super soft whine at the same time. He stepped into the clear and I found myself looking into the haughty, mahogany eye of the most magnificent game bird in North America.
He had me, but it was too late. The lethal Snuffer broadhead was eating up the 18 yards separating us. The shot hit the spine, putting him down on the spot. I rushed to him feeling a combination of elation and remorse, as most dedicated bowhunters experience after a kill.
He was indeed a blue ribbon gobbler, weighing 19 pounds and sporting a 10-inch beard and one inch spurs. He was a fitting trophy to complete a bowhunting dream-the “Triple Crown” of a buck, a bear, and a beard.
This story was first published in the May 1987 issue of Bowhunter. The Pope & Young bear described in the piece was documented in a story entitled “Tracks in the Snow.” It had been published previously in Bowhunter and appears in this book. The PBS meeting that is mentioned was the first national meeting ever held by the organization. It was my first opportunity to meet M.R. James, Roger Rothhaar, Jack Brobst, Fred Asbell, Dave Samuel, Jim Brackenbury, Jay Massey, and many other well-known bowhunters.
Next Month: Don’t Shoot. A Bowhunter’s guide to responsible shots