Spring Gobbler and Ol' Beard DraggerMay 01, 2020 10:52AM ● By Don Knaus
It was late May, nearing the end of spring gobbler season. I looked at my wristwatch. Eight o’clock. My rear was sore. I’d been sitting against the oak trunk since five a.m. I’d watched the sun rise, listened to the morning tweets of woodland birds, watched a skunk meander near, and heard three gobblers show off their voices from the roost. And I’d only clucked and putted twice. Ol’ Beard Dragger had taught me that, at least.
Who? Well, I first saw Ol’ Beard Dragger the previous spring. Actually, it’s possible I saw him as a poult years before. I might have let him pass as a jake, the spring I shot his grandfather. But, on the first day last spring, he came readily to my calls, gobbling a steady beat. At fifty yards he spread his tail and stopped. “Just five more steps,” I whispered. He sensed that something wasn’t quite right and proceeded to walk away. Every time I hit the call, he spun around and angrily gobbled at me, quite out of range.
Then, on a scouting mission in early April, I saw him and named him “Ol’ Beard Dragger.” The dirt road leading to Ol’ Beard Dragger’s field was solid ice. I parked at the end of the road and walked up the lane. Where the sun had fought through the trees, the farm road was almost clear of ice and snow. The spring-soft silt made for silent stalking. I neared the edge of the field and saw seven hens scurry off. “There’s got to be a gobbler or two to love ’em next month,” I mused. I tiptoed to the field and saw more turkeys to my right. One of the birds was huge, nearly twice the size of the others. Binoculars up, I zoomed in on the big guy. “My God! He’s got a beard so long it’s almost dragging on the ground.” I eased back to my truck so as not to disturb them, especially Ol’ Beard Dragger. Then and there I set my sights on taking him in May.
Unseasonable rain and cold weather plagued this particular spring gobbler season, more rain than had ever been recorded since they began keeping records back in 1854. On one brief respite from the drizzle, the sun emerged for a couple of hours and I called in Ol’ Beard Dragger’s son. I messed up and missed Tom Turkey, Jr., a.k.a. “Dragger, the Younger.” He sported a medium-sized, six-inch beard, but I would have been proud to tag him.
Several days later, I returned to the field. I went the long way around, skirting the edges to avoid exposing myself in the open. A smaller field abutted the thirty-acre field, separated by a fairly thick hedgerow. As I eased along the hedgerow, I saw Ol’ Beard Dragger himself and two smaller gobblers, working the insects in the meadow. Hidden by the dividing bushes, I called. When I imitated a lonesome hen, Ol’ Beard Dragger went into full strut. His tail fanned out, his head turned blaze red, and he spun in a slow circle. I felt he was ten yards beyond the range of my 3½-inch magnums. “C’mon…take just a few steps toward me,” I whispered. I offered another enticing call. He took two steps toward my position. “I’ve got you now,” I thought. Then, he must have felt something was amiss. Ol’ Beard Dragger and his two buddies slowly sauntered away and disappeared into the woods.
The season was nearing the end. I returned the next morning before daybreak. I chose a set-up facing the small field and sat down. The calling hadn’t worked the previous day, so I determined to just sit and wait. I heard three hens give just two clucks apiece and shut up. They were sitting on their nests and silently waited for their boyfriend to visit. Way across the field, I saw a turkey walking down a rise. I saw him fan out. He got closer. He walked within range and I could see his red head. I knew it was Ol’ Beard Dragger, but the grass was so high, I couldn’t see a beard. (A spring turkey must have a visible beard.) I let him walk into the woods to breed with the sitting hens, and then snuck out. “I’ve got the old boy patterned,” I told myself.
The next three days were a repeat of crashing thunder and torrential rain. Finally, on the last day of the season, the weather report bode well. I was in position before daybreak. I sat three hours. After hearing the three toms gobble, I called, just once. Finally, at eight o’clock, two boys called again. I responded with my best imitation of a lonely hen. “Must be the hens have abandoned their brood and are re-nesting after all that rain,” I thought. The sun, an infrequent visitor, had popped out and it slowly burned off the haze. I was ready to quit.
Then, I noted movement coming toward me. It was a male turkey with a six-inch beard. It was the last day, so I took aim when he got into range and shot. I jumped up and ran to the flopping, fluttering bird. As I did, a big bird was getting airborne. I stood by my downed bird and noticed the flying turkey had a beard hanging down to his knees. Had I waited a second or two, I could have had a shot at Ol’ Beard Dragger. “Next year, old boy,” I said as he disappeared into his oak and hemlock hideout.