The equally obsessive William Humphreys wrote of a giant trout that stole his every waking moment in My Moby Dick, published in 1978.
Now its my turn to tell you a bit about My Moby Tom, a monster of a wild turkey that has possessed me rather thoroughly for the last couple of weeks, so thoroughly that I have passed on a good number of fine gobblers in search of My Moby Tom. But first, a couple of related stories.
While I am every bit as tormented as Ahab and as obsessed as Humphreys, I am most of all extraordinarily privileged to enjoy the friendship and generosity of a rancher who regularly encourages me to use and hunt his 2,000 acres of oak woodland and grasslands as if they were my own. As hunting privileges go, it is tantamount to being given a license to hunt big game in Yellowstone National Park.
Since I could never afford to pay the price such a privilege deserves, he allows me to work off my debt by pretending to need my assistance at the annual round-up when a fresh batch of calves need to be vaccinated, fitted with an insect repelling ear tag and in the case of the young males, castrated. In the midst of all this, my benefactor found something for me to do and feel important.
My role is that of “ear marker.” Calves selected to join the herd will later be branded, but the vast majority are destined for market, so some ranchers opt for an ear mark that will identify the ranch the calf is from and quickly quiet any discussion as to ownership. A decade or so ago, I was handed a sharp pocket knife in a bottle of alcohol and directed to take a narrow slice off the top of each calf’s right ear while it lay sideways on a tilt table for the aforementioned processes. More than once the struggling of the calves caused me to lose control of the knife to such an extent that I am fortunate to have any fingers left for the keystrokes required of this keyboard.
I knew immediately that for the future well being of my hands, an alternative was a necessity. Enter my game shears, little more than heavy duty scissors similar to poultry shears. My alternative to the jackknife quickly became a source of derision based on the notion that I must also be able to sew and darn the occasional sock. Over time, ridicule gradually gave way to grudging approval as the game shears resulted in a quick and straight cut that even our six year old granddaughter could produce under the same circumstances. One experienced cowhand even opined, “that’s the best new idea we’ve had around here in a long time. In fact, its probably the only new idea we’ve had about the way we do things.”
Enough about my contribution to the American beef industry. This is about My Moby Tom and the stories that surround him.
The ranch is loaded with wild turkeys – toms, jakes, hens and in a few weeks poults, some of which will survive to become next season’s hens and jakes. A very few will survive at least one more year to become toms, strutting and arrogant adult males that like the strutting and arrogant males of the human species can be counted upon to lose all common sense when in the throes of the mating urge. It is then, when the brain signals for blood from other areas to rush into certain parts of the anatomy that the males of both species become myopic, confused, foolish and most vulnerable to receiving their comeuppance.
I suspect and would like to believe that a majority of the readers of this blog knows or can figure out where that throbbing blood rushes to in the case of the human male, so I won’t delve into that topic here. In the case of the male turkey it goes primarily into a neck and head that becomes engorged and turns the brightest hues of red, white and blue.
As with humans, it leads to the conclusion that one is irresistibly attractive to members of the opposite sex and the unfailing and equally mistaken belief in most cases, that one can dance.
As I arrived at the ranch one recent morning, such a dance was in progress. It was brought to my attention by the squealing tires of a sports car that nearly ran off of a paved public road that bisects the ranch. Taking up both lanes of the road were three big toms that fanned their tail feathers, fluffed, strutted and danced for three nearby hens that quietly chatted among themselves, pecked unconvincingly at the road’s center line and pretended not to hear the music. Off to the side was an obviously forlorn and smaller tom.
In due time, and after the difficult passage of a few more cars, the turkey hoedown moved from the pavement to the corner of a pasture, a distance of about 30 feet. I had stopped my truck on the dirt road that goes through the same pasture and with the aid of binoculars was able to get a better look at the participants. The three larger toms were resplendent with their iridescent feathers, fully fanned tails, red, white and blue heads and long black beards that appeared to be all of ten inches at least. The hens finally began to take notice and allowed the handsome trio to share their personal space, a privilege that was not shared with the smaller tom who could not hide the fact at least two feathers were absent from the middle of his tail fan or that his stringy beard was only about six inches long.
As things heated up on the dance floor, he tried to cut in, only to be rebuffed by the bigger and obviously tougher boys whose aggressiveness relegated him to wallflower status at a distance of about 25 feet, but did not prevent him from continuing to show off his less than impressive wares and dance form.
Everyone at the ranch is familiar with this particular group of birds that I like to call the postal flock for their penchant of hanging out around the ranch’s mailbox. To their credit, they are there through rain, sleet or snow, arrive by nine every morning and are there every day, including Sundays and holidays. Until I examined them more closely with the benefit of eight power binoculars, I’d not realized just how big the larger toms were or the length of their beards. Fact is, I pretty much ignored them in favor of a larger tom I’d seen on opening day, that had teased and tormented me on several subsequent hunts and had become my sole mission and target – hence the title – “My Moby Tom.”
Despite my best efforts and given my inability to fool him, I was weakening, and the surprising size and quality of the three postal toms weakened me to the point that I decided to give them a shot. I backed up the truck until I was out of their sight and was fortunate that a small hill kept me out of sight until I got within the range of the extra full “turkey choke” in my shotgun.
On hands and knees, I crawled to the crest of the hill. The three handsome toms and the hens were clearly on a romantic triple date that did not include the wallflower tom. I pegged a hen decoy into the crest of the hill and backcrawled until I could rest my back against a fence post.
I figured I’d give a few calls with the hope of drawing up one of the larger toms, but thought it would be most likely for the wallflower tom to try to get his dance card punched after becoming little more than a frustrated peeping tom while watching the three blissful couples nearby.
Using a box call, I offered three chirps followed by aan alluring purr that was answered with full throated gobbles from all four of the toms. I laid down the call, got my gun into position and almost immediately, there was another gobble. I was hoping I’d gotten the attention of one of the larger toms and that it would be racing toward the counterfeit hen in order to beat out the smaller tom.
It was just a minute or two until I saw a bobbing head cautiously peer over the crest of the hill and knew immediately from its duller coloration that it was the wallflower Tom. As it approached the decoy, I waited with the hope that one of the other gobblers would be close behind. After looking over the hen at close range for a few seconds, the wallflower tom decided she was just too good to be true and began walking away in the direction of the paved road, each stride a bit longer than the last. Crawling back to the crest of the hill, the three big guys were still just 30 yards away and still putting on quite a show for the girls. A shot at any of them would not have been difficult, but I’ve bushwhacked some big toms in the past without the satisfaction of calling them so that they arrive with the intent of making love or a good fight.
If I couldn’t attract them, I figured it was not my place to disturb them. I backcrawled again, retrieved the hen decoy and retreated to my truck. I watched them in the rear view mirror as I drove away in the direction of the strutting ground favored by My Moby Tom, which finally gets around to the point and title of this story.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen three different gobblers that I believe to have been larger than all others that I have seen. I saw the first one on my first day of turkey hunting. I’d gotten into position along a creek that offers a large sycamore that has historically served as the roost for a large flock of turkeys. Shortly after fly down I saw what appeared to be a Volkswagen bug-sized gobbler strutting about 50 yards away. In response to my call he charged directly at the hen decoy I’d placed in front of me, but I made a foolish false move that stopped him cold in his tracks and sent him on his way. The following week an archer took a huge gobbler that I believe was one and the same on an adjoining property.
The second big bird had eluded me on several hunts until I finally found myself in a good position above him, but at maximum range for a fair shot and I fired. The shot rolled him, but he quickly rose to his feet, set his wings and sailed deep into a canyon.
I found the third bird, aka My Moby Tom, on the opening day of the current season. Spotted at considerable distance, I worked closer until I could watch and size him up with my binoculars. He was alone so there wasn’t any thing to compare him to other than my memory, but he looked larger than most and his beard appeared to easily reach the ground.
Whether in reality or in my mind which occasionally flirts with reality, he is one of those rare, almost bigger than real specimens that keeps you daydreaming about him. I’ve pursued him on several occasions the past two weeks. One time I arrived too late and another I left too early. Another time he was one of a group of gobblers and jakes that began coming toward my decoy and call, only to turn at the last minute and head in the opposite direction. As I began to question whether I had spooked them, the answer came in the form of a coyote that arrived to sniff the decoy and was surely seen by the turkeys before they turned.
And then on the last hunt, after passing on the postal turkeys, and later a smallish tom that arrived with two jakes and a pair of hens, I got high up on the side of a mountain and walked down an abandoned road that eventually gave me a view back toward the strutting ground where I’d seen him before. I’d set up there earlier in the day, but foolishly became impatient and began looking for him rather than waiting for him to look for the comely hen I was attempting to impersonate.
Focusing my binoculars, I could hardly believe what I was seeing at a distance of 150 yards down the mountain, but should have come as no surprise. There in the shade of the same sycamore where I had set up my position earlier, a hen was being courted by My Moby Tom.
A week from today we will be leaving on a vacation that will extend through the end of the season, leaving me at most two more days of hunting. On those days, I will give it my best effort and if I can connect with him, that will be terrific. If not, I will hope that he will survive the mountain lions, golden eagles, bobcats, coyotes and other perils of his life, and that next season I will again find My Moby Tom.