Three tags filled and one left. I was sitting on my tailgate in front of my uncle’s tobacco barn in Montgomery County, Tenn., as we looked at the three Tennessee toms laying on the ground.
The hunt had been a dandy and like the year before while hunting my uncle’s farm I had bummed my right knee up.
Swollen and barely able to walk at this point, my uncle, James, was concerned about my knee. Cell phones had just been invented a few years earlier and my phone began to ring.
It was a man from back home in the Ozarks of Missouri that had given me a pass to hunt a super-secret farm on the Tennessee-Alabama border. It was on!
It was getting late in the evening and I quickly cleaned my birds and hugged my aunt and uncle goodbye and hit the road.
My road trip would be a straight line south, driving from one border of Tennessee to the next. I knew Tennessee was a pretty state but driving back roads through the heart of Tennessee that evening gave me an opportunity to see new country.
Tennessee is a beautiful state. It was nearly 10 p.m. when I found the farm. I parked my vehicle on an old road in the middle of a very large stand of pines.
The wind and rain was relentlessly pounding my vehicle that night so I opted to pass on putting my tent up and just slept in my rig.
The alarm went off at 4:30 and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into this property. Never being here before I was at a disadvantage and it quickly became apparent as I stood before a four-foot deep ditch between me and the big field on the other side of the ditch. I had to cross that ditch.
On the other side of the ditch was a big, pretty field with a dominant ridge I later named Boomerang Ridge because it was shaped like a perfect boomerang.
Bitting the bullet, I stripped down and put all my gear above my head and waded the ditch in the night alone. It was a 160-acre field. Much bigger then a 40-acre field and it wrapped around the the base of Boomerang Ridge.
In the night the ridge loomed in the distance and it became very clear to me how this was going to work. They roosted on that ridge and the field was where they would head to (in most cases, I would soon find out).
Making my way to the other side of the field to the base of the ridge I came to my second obstacle, a deep-cut bank creek that I would use to my advantage in all future hunts on this farm.
Really, the turkey had the upper hand on me because of my lack of knowing the lay of the land but it wouldn’t take me long to figure out that part.
One quick snappy hoot from my throat and the ridge came alive. At least six toms began to sound off but instantly I singled one of the gobblers out.
He was an odd-sounding turkey with an extra long gobble and he gobbled only a few times. But there was something different about this particular tom’s gobble and I needed to get closer for a better hear of his gobble.
He was roosted at the top of the ridge in the bend of the big Boomerang Ridge. As I inched my way out of the bottom onto the side of the ridge, I decided to wait for just enough light to see the ground for a better feel of my surroundings.
There was a minor shelf on the side of the ridge before me and strut marks were in the leaves, so I decided that was good enough for my first setup.
As the sun came up the old bird never made a sound. The other toms up and down the ridge had all gone to the ground to begin their daily activity and it was evident they had made their way to the big field.
All at once the big tom sounded off and he had a peculiar gobble, as if he was gobbling in a tin box. For another hour this bird remained on the limb.
For me, I simply hate calling to a bird while his toes are still wrapped around the limb, but against my better judgement I made two soft yelps and instantly the old tom double-gobbled.
Anticipating him to jump off the limb and head my direction I settled in for the finale when all at once the ol’ Tin Box Tom pulled something that had never happened to me.
He did a fly-by.
The rascal glided off the top of the ridge through the tree tops and soared directly over me. As I looked at him I could see his beedy eyes look right at me as he clucked really loud in mid-air directly above me.
The sucker pegged me. He landed in a tree over the edge of the field within clear view of me. I was stunned. Never had a turkey done that to me.
I had to kill that bird I realized at that very moment.
You have to respect a bird like that. Once in a blue moon a tom comes along that just goes against anything you’ve ever encountered and ol’ Tin Box was one of them toms.
The field was shrouded in fog and ol’ Tin Box kicked off the limb and flew into the cloud bank, disappearing somewhere in the middle of the field.
From the safety of the side of Boomerang Ridge I contemplated how I was going to kill that tom. I was far enough along as a hunter to no longer settle for just a regular tom and was learning to set my eye on the better birds in the area I was hunting.
I could have easily filled my last tag in Tennessee with one of the lesser toms but after having Tin Box fly over me and peg me, I had to have Tin Box. So how do you kill a bird that sits on the limb until 8 a.m.? How do you kill a bird that pulls a fly-by on you?
I spent the remainder of the day watching the movement of the main flock of birds and studying buck rubs and turkey scratching, basically just familiarizing myself with the home of these particular birds while they were safely out of site in the middle of the field.
From the top of the ridge I watched all the birds in the field. Seven strutters in all and Tin Box was clearly king of the flock.
That night I sat around my campfire alone and watched the flicker of my fire in the pine trees that surrounded me.
My knee swollen and hurting from the four days prior in the northern part of the state, my mind drifted off to a hunt in Missouri a few years earlier.
It was a fall hunt that started out in my tree stand. I noticed a half-mile away a winter flock working their way up the tree line.
Very quickly I shimmied myself down the tree, back to my truck and grabbed my long gun and headed toward the flock. It was a classic bushwack hunt in the Ozarks, is what I thought to myself!
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I’ll bushwack the ol’ Tin Box tom from that creek if all else fails. That night I pulled a three-inch magnum shell out of my chamber and set it on my tag so they could get to know each other.
Without one, the other is useless I told them.
The next morning I stoked the fire and, knowing the lay of the land and having a game plan, I enjoyed a few moments in the pine and looked at the three-inch magnum setting on my last Tennessee tag.
At 5:15 I was about to lean over and grab my tag and shell when ol’ Tin Box broke the silence from Boomerang Ridge.
I took that as a sign.
Learning my lesson from the morning before, I decided to not call to the old tom that morning until his feet hit the ground. Standing at the base of Boomerang Ridge, I waited.
Something else had also sidetracked my mind. Across the field I could see movement, I thought. For nearly 20 minutes I watched from 600 yards away what I thought was someone erecting a blind in the edge of the field.
Through the fog I could make out something happening, I thought. From one side of the ridge a tom glided clean across the field in front of what I had been watching and nothing happened.
What I later realized was it was not a hunter and a blind, it was on old grain bin that had collapsed and appeared like a blind from a distance.
Your mind can and will play tricks on you while hunting if you don’t watch it.
Hoping ol Tin Box would jump down so I could work, him I waited. I was hoping and anticipating him to not fly into the field like he did the morning before. But he did.
I guess in any other circumstance they would have hit the ground and walked out into the field but the terrain made that not so easy.
That big creek served as just enough of an obstacle for the birds that they would bypass walking and just glide out there into the field.
It was okay because I had a plan for that also this time. Can anybody say “Bushwhack City”?
Making sure I wore my knee-highs that morning in case I needed to navigate in the creek, I quickly jumped down in the water in the creek and stayed parallel with the sound of the birds.
Again, the fog was present but patchy this morning compared to the morning before. The hens were the fist to emerge from the fog toward the tree line and I knew that somewhere in the fog behind them was ol’ Tin Box.
Dunking down out of site I maneuvered toward where the hens were within 40 yards. From the tree line I felt like it was a done deal.
My three-inch magnum was ready to make the thunder roll around Boomerang Ridge. The subordinant toms were the first to follow the hens out of the fog and would periodically fan out, but with caution.
Being in the presence of a tom like Tin Box, a lesser tom will get his tail kicked really fast so they kept their distance from Tin Box.
I waited and could hear my heart pounding in my chest through my open mouth.
It was time. Out of the fog was a site to behold, shacking and drumming the ground loose and in all his glory, Tin Box emerged from the fog in full strut, never coming out of strut.
He would shuffle and twirl, twirl and shuffle. Spitting and drumming as the fog shrouded him. With my long gun he was already dead and didn’t know it.
I could have killed him right then but didn’t want to gamble. I had the upper hand as he inched his way ever so closer to his first and only ride back to Missouri.
My long gun has killed many birds at 50 steps but those were have-to situations. I knew in another two minutes that he would be at 30 steps… 50 steps, 45 steps, 40 steps and he was coming on.
At about 32 steps I decided it was on like Donkey Kong. With a loud voice I hollered, “Hey, Tin Box Tom” and he came right out of full strut and telescoped his head up high and… time stood still for just a moment.
With my finger slowly squeezing the trigger, the thunder rolled.
The three-inch magnum that set on my tag the night before was ignited and my long gun kicked. In an instant Tin Box’s head was full of #6 BBs.
The remainder of the flock quickly exited the field without Tin Box. Tin Box was now in his death throws as he beat the ground with his wings.
The echo of my long gun faded off into the distance as I climbed up out of the cut bank creek and into the field.
Sitting down beside the old tom as the last bit of life flopped out of him, I sat and reflected.
With Boomerang Ridge in my view and my tag in my hand, I pulled the smoking three-inch magnum shell hull out and gave thanks to another day that the Lord had made for me in the hills of Tennessee.
Richard Whiteside lives in Doniphan, Mo., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog can be followed at www.ozarkriverman.wordpress.com.