IVE TAKEN QUITE A FEW gobblers over the past twenty-five years, but the following hunt was one of the most unusual and rewarding. It wasnt the size of the gobbler; it was, rather, the hunt itself, which began three years prior.
It was the 2003 season, and I was hunting with my mentor and grandfather, Lloyd Lefty Richter Jr. We have hunted together since I was twelve but he had me in the woods much earlier than that, but our years together in the woods have now come to a halt due to his health. But in 2003 these events unfolded, all with no indication at the time that they would pay off for me in 2006.
Every year, spring and fall, found us hunting an area that borders State Game Land 51 in Fayette County, Pa. We had a lot of success, but there were four birds that, simply put, would never cooperate. Many times wed watch them at mid-morning and ponder where they came from. And wed always end up hunting other birds. Even on the days of total silence, wed watch these birds strut, but they would never leave the area.
What these birds frequented was a very steep and high-reclaimed strip mine property that had become a beautiful full field full of grasses and clovers. The hill has a slow rolling top with a flat area about fifty yards in circumference. Some scattered cherry trees grow on the far side that years ago were an old fence line. The trees are the only cover on the hill. Once up there, the birds had a 360-degree view. On a clear day a person up there can see downtown Pittsburgh in one direction and the windmill farm in Somerset County the other. To say the least, the gobblers had a huge advantage.
Over the three years we made a couple attempts to get those birds, but they all failed. For some reason the birds never showed when we hunted that knob, but whenever we left and hunted around it, within and hour or two they were back up there.
During scouting trips one thing became apparent. I noticed that whenever I drove up the hill before daylight, the birds would never show. This told me that they must be roosting somewhere around the edge, and that the vehicle lights must have spooked them. Those birds never seemed to gobble from the roost either. They seemed to let loose only after they had hit the hill at first light, and as much as I tried over the years to figure them out. They seemed to never roost in the same spot.
Well, in 2006, I decided to hoof it into the area instead of driving, just in case they were along the edge. That morning I set up under an old apple tree we labeled The Elbow about 400 yards below the knob, overlooking a small field separated from the strip mine reclamation by a 40 yard wide stretch of woods. It was a very desolate morning for me, in no small way due to the fact that it was my first season without my grandfather along.
At dawn I heard the first gobble sound off in a field across from me. Then all hek broke loose, and the excitement really started to mount when I spied three birds coming my way. The excitement left, however, when they got close enough to see that all three were jakes. They came into my little field and started fighting, kicking and clucking right in front of me only 30 yards away. I didnt want to harvest a jake on the first morning, so I just watched them disappear into the woods.
Things went really quiet then, but that doesnt mean the excitement ended. As I was pondering my next move I looked across the field and noticed movement. Two coyotes were hunting slowly along the tree line 70 yards away. I didnt budge and the wind was just right. They were quiet as they searched through brush piles along the edge, every so often stopping to watch over the field. After they left, I began packing up to head to another spot. Before leaving, however, I noticed movement again!
This time it was two very small bear cubs. They were rolling around, grunting and playing right in front of me. I thought how neat it was, but as they got closer, I got concerned. Where was momma? The cubs were only 40 yards away, making all kinds of racket. I didnt know what to do. As it turned out, I didnt have to do anything. I looked over at the tree line and spotted their mother. She stood up and looked my way, but I am sure she was looking at the cubs. They immediately went running over to her and headed off into another field. The morning was still young but very exciting to say the least. I decided to hoof it out to the other side of the knob, where I thought I heard a gobbler early on.
As I left the field I walked through the strip of woods and immediately noticed something on the knob. It was a full-fanned tail of a gobbler. Here we go again, I thought. Another morning of watching them display from 400 yards away. I decided to just sit down and watch, and noticed three fans going back and forth up there. All I could see was their tails against the gorgeous blue sky. I then realized that they were on the far end of that little flat spot, which meant they were 50 yards from the edgeand those cherry trees. It was a slim chance, but I figured it was worth a try. I had to cross the knob to get to the other side, where I had planned on hunting anyway.
I stowed my calls and backed out of sight of the knob, then moved to the left along the field edge until I reached the tree line. If I could make it up the tree line a couple hundred yards undetected, I thought I just might have a chance. The first 150 yards was easy. I was completely below the birds view, as they were in the only spot on the entire place that would make such a move possible. If they moved a little to their left, I was done. In addition, I figured the only chance I had was if they were all alone. They always had hens up there, and bringing them downhill was nearly impossible. I had to get as close to the edge as possible.
It seemed like it took an hour to slowly move up that tree line, but it actually took about 20 minutes. I was now within 60 yards of them, and on my knees looking for the right spot to set up. My heart was thumping, and I could feel the blood pumping through my neck. I saw a 12-inch tree with a big rock at the base, so I moved to it. I tucked away my orange hat and pulled on my facemask, but when I reached for my gloves, I discovered I had left them at the apple tree. An omen for sure I thought.
After settling in, I didnt quite like what I saw. I was still a tad too far below the edge and couldnt see that flat, but I knew time was an issue, and at that point I didnt know where the birds were or even if they were still up there. It was now 7:15. I grabbed my McLaughlin Game calls Raspy Red glass call and gave a soft simple purr. Nothing happened. I gave another. Same result. I figured they had moved off or I had spooked them, so I got more aggressive with my calling. I gave a few louder yelps and the silence was broken. I was greeted with three distinctly different thunderous gobbles, still on the other side of the knob. At least they were there; my plan was working so far. I gave a couple purrs and really got their attention. They started gobbling and I could see tails coming my way. Four birds, and all facing me. For the first time in three years, I was able to get within range of these birds.
Wishing my diaphragm call was in my mouth and not my vest, I made a couple more clucks and purrs with the glass call, and every time I did, the birds turned and came a little closer. Now the heads were visible. The game was on. The birds were within 20 yards, but there was a problem. Two hens I hadnt noticed were with them. The gobblers slowly displayed and moved to the edge of the flat spot. I waited for the bird on the far right to turn, and when he was almost facing me, I placed the aimpoint red dot on his head.
Just as the bird turned and I spotted his beard, I moved the gun two inchs to the right. The others went on alert, but it was too late. I heard the putt-putt. But it was drowned by the roar of the Winchester 1300. I ran up the little hill to my long beard. After three years, the hunt seemed so easy, or it was just luck? Ill never know, but rest assured, Ill never forget. As I stood on what felt like the top of the world, overlooking State Game Land 51 and Pittsburgh some 50 miles away, it was bittersweet, as I realized why these birds love this spot so much.
The bird weighed nearly 24 pounds and had a heavy ten-inch beard. He was a fighter, as he was missing two tail feathers and one spur was only a inch round nub with the other being a 1 inch hook.
Later that day my grandfather called this bird my silver gobbler, because it marked a milestone in my hunting life. It was my 25th strait Pennsylvania gobbler, and probably the most memorable. Even though pap didnt hunt with me that day, he played a huge part in it and, ironically, I had borrowed his Model 1300 for that season.