The first hunt is always best

Posted: Friday, July 09, 2004

BOISE, Idaho At about 6:30 a.m. under inky skies sprinkled with stars and wisps of fog emanating from every breath, 13-year-old Bailie Schroeder settles into a blind.

She is dressed head to toe in camouflage, including a mesh veil that covers all but her green eyes. A 20-gauge Winchester pump shotgun rests across her lap.

Expert turkey caller Larry Lansdowne sits next to her and sets out his array of calls. Bailie's dad, ValDean Schroeder, huddles in a nearby blind armed with a video camera to chronicle Bailie's first turkey hunt, which is taking place on the their property near Robie Creek.

It's the opening weekend of Idaho's first general season youth turkey hunt. Only the eighth-grade Eagle Middle School student and other kids 15 years and younger could bag a bird during the two-day season last weekend.

Shortly after settling in, the game begins. A tom blasts a raucous gobble from a nearby patch of timber. The sky is still dark and only the outline of four turkey decoys can be seen in the grassy field where the hunters hope to entice the tom within gun range.

As dawn slowly breaks, the tom's gobbles become part of a cacophony of birds waking from the night. Songbirds chirp and trill while Canada geese honk like baritones in the avian choir.

The sky turns baby blue with pink wisps of clouds when the turkeys decide to leave the safety of their nighttime roost.

With surprising grace for birds of their size, they swoop down and quietly land in the field about 150 yards away from the blind. Lansdowne starts calling to them, soft and tentatively, to let them know he's there.

The tom is accompanied by half a dozen hens, who mill about the field and peck the ground for morsels of food.

But the tom isn't hungry. It's breeding season, and he's looking for signs of a willing hen. He flares his tail into a perfect semicircle, fluffs his shimmering coal-black feathers, hooks his wings and struts back and forth like the hero of a muscle beach.

Several hens wander away, while others stay near him.

Bailie waits in the blind, watching and listening to Lansdowne's conversation with the birds. The cool morning air creeps into the layers of her clothes and her legs start to burn and cramp from sitting in one position so long. She fights the urge to fidget.

The tom is preoccupied with a hen and gobbles to woo her. It works, and the courtship moves into the next phase and mating begins.

The other turkeys meander across the field and turn toward the decoys. Their staccato yelps identify them as hens. Lansdowne mimics their calls, and they cautiously walk among the decoys.

Because only male turkeys can be killed in the spring, the hens are safe from Bailie's 20-gauge.

But Lansdowne knows when the tom is done with the first hen, he will be ready for another. He also knows talking live birds trump decoys and artificial turkey sounds when competing for a tom's attention.

The breeding hen breaks away and quickly skitters toward the others. Another hen hangs back near the tom, and he returns to his strutting and gobbling.

But she isn't interested, and she starts following the other hens.

He trails her, alternating from his fully puffed strut to an ambling, tyrannosaurus gait.

Bailie cradles her gun, preparing to put its bead on the gobbler's red head if he walks into range.

Lansdowne continues calling, trying to lure the tom, but not calling so aggressively as to spook the hens that are within a stone's toss of their blind.

The hens start to meander away while the tom zigzags a random path, seeming to alternate his course between the decoys and the hens, who are now moving out of range.

Lansdowne broadens his turkey vocabulary, seeking a note or phrase that will turn the tom's attention toward the decoys. Bailie sits poised and ready, the morning chill and the cramped legs now forgotten. Her full attention is locked on the tom, which is enticingly close to being in range.

But he veers toward the hens as they wander back toward the timber. The tom drops from his strut and follows behind them, and none of Lansdowne's calling can elicit more than an annoyed gobble as he disappears into the brush.

''That was awesome,'' Bailie said, sounding not the least bit disappointed that she didn't get a shot.

It was Bailie's attitude that helped Lansdowne decide to take a rare day off from his job managing Growling Bear Outfitters in Idaho City. He taught the Schroeders the basics of turkey calling at his weekly seminars there.

''Bailie said she didn't want to just kill a turkey, she wanted to learn how to a hunt one,'' Lansdowne said.

''My dad does it, my brother does it, and they're always saying how much fun it is, so I decided I wanted to try it,'' Bailie said.

And while the tom slipped away unscathed, Bailie knows where it hangs out, and starting today, she can hunt it for nearly six weeks.

''That's one of the luckiest birds I've ever seen,'' Lansdowne said.

''Then when he's on the wall, we will call him Lucky,'' her father said.

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