Monday, April 13, 2009

Most evil turkey on earth lives in Napa

Boyfriend and I were back in Napa this weekend to see if we could help our vineyard-owning friends by taking out a few of the turkeys that chomp on their grapes.

Boyfriend had a cool head about the whole thing. He is all about fishing and pig hunting right now. Bird, no bird? Whatever.

But me? I was filled with that insane optimism turkey hunters get, where we succumb to the naive belief held by non-hunters that just because we can see the birds means we should actually be able to shoot one of them.

So, here's how it went:
5:45 a.m.: We walk up the hill from our guest room and set up. Boyfriend is at the base of the oak woodland next to the vineyard, maybe 100 yards below where the birds were roosting last time. He's in a little grassy depression, his back against a giant oak trunk.

I head into the woods 100 yards above the roost tree.

It should be pretty light outside because of the moon, but there is a fog clinging to the hillside - and keeping the forest floor damp and quiet. I'm grateful for that. Still, I hopscotch across rocks to avoid crunching leaves, and pirouette around the dim shadows of poison oak, which has been the bane of my outdoor life.

I find the perfect place: A tree to back up to, and in front of it, another tree that has fallen, leaving a little hollow spot for me, and a quiet place to set my feet up.

In minutes, we are rewarded with the sound of gobbling from the roost tree.

We begin to share, 200 yards apart, the joy of the woods waking up.

8:07 a.m.: Boyfriend texts me. "They seem to b gone."

Crap. I was hoping my experience with Sarah two weeks earlier had been an anomaly, but apparently, this was their pattern: They fly out of the roost tree straight to another piece of property. We can hear the gobbling dimly, but neither of us has seen one.

I text back: "I'm gonna walk around up here for a bit."

I go out on the open hillside next to the woods. I climb rock formations. I spy a hidden bed of cala lilies - just in time for Easter - and drop down for a closer look. I hear gobbling again - maybe on the property, maybe not - and head back into my delicious spot in the woods.

8:49 a.m.: Boyfriend texts me: "I am about done."

Ooooooh, I hate giving up early. But he's already thinking about the dinner he's going to prepare for our hosts. Or maybe he's just desperate for a cup of coffee.

I look around. I twist my neck around stretching it. I see a turkey 50 yards in front of me, behind some brush. I have just been moving! It looks my way for a second - not revealing whether it has the requisite beard - and drops behind a low rise.

I text Boyfriend: "I see 1."

Could this be a lone tom looking for the hen I'd been imitating periodically? I hit the call, to see if I can bring him over that rise.

Two shapes move near me, closer and closer. They are quail. Fat little yummy out-of-season quail. They meander through the woods about 10 feet from me, never realizing what I am. Brilliant camo!

But the turkey doesn't show.

Boyfriend has given up and is drinking coffee by now. I concede defeat as well and leave the woods to head down the hill. Where I see the turkey. Two hundred yards away. Really close to where boyfriend had been.

10:16 a.m. I text him from the top of the hill: "(Bleep)(Bleep) is at the seed pile!"

"Kill him," he texts back.

But there was no way. Chasing turkeys has been a losing proposition for me. I keep an eye out for him on the way back to the house, and head in for breakfast. During which we hear incessant gobbling.

12:15 p.m.: "I'm going to go out again," I tell Boyfriend and my hosts. "Just to make a quick sweep."

I head up the dirt road, and as I come over a rise, I see a turkey trotting away from me, about 20 yards away. It's not stopping to show me whether it has a beard. Dammit!

He - I'm sure it's a he, and I'm sure it's the same apparition, the same lone bird I saw in the woods earlier - heads up a tiny creek bed, where I quickly lose sight of him. Meanwhile, I hear gobbling elsewhere so I continue with my walk.

Then I decided to go back to that creek bed. I've heard that spooked turkeys will eventually come back. I set up under a tree in the creek bed. It is a funnel. If he comes back, he'll have to come past me. I think.

The breeze is lovely. I look up the hill on the opposite bank of the creek and see blue sky over the stone wall topped by deer fence that lines the property. I entertain fantasies of seeing the turkey fly over that wall and shooting him like a duck.

Forty-five minutes pass. Dinner guests will be arriving soon. I need to pack it in.

I walk up hill from the creek bed and squat briefly in the shade of an olive tree to take one last look around. Three hawks are circling low overhead. I gaze up at them. Another one swoops in from behind me, flying really low, toward the vineyard.

That's when I see.

It's the turkey.

Getting farther and farther away.


© Holly A. Heyser 2009


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Are you allowed to nail them with a .22?
The kiwis swear by it

SimplyOutdoors said...

To be honest, this sounds like every one of my turkey hunts:):) It is still fun trying, though.

Holly Heyser said...

Bushwhacker, we can use an air rifle, which I will probably get before the next season. I'm not sure that would've helped me here, though, because I never saw the beard.

And Simply, it is fun trying. Because honestly, if I'd stayed put five more minutes, I would've seen the beard on that boy that flew over me, and I would've taken a shot. That would've been a GREAT story. I still can't believe he did exactly the ridiculous thing I thought he'd do.

Albert A Rasch said...


While hunting.

You kids crack me up!

Convenient though, isn't it.

The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
The Range Reviews: Tactical
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit

Holly Heyser said...

Yeah, I know it's crazy. But when you have to split up, it's a good way to stay in touch.

suzee said...

Sure have enjoyed your accounts of your turkey hunts! I've never been turkey hunting and have been thinking of giving it a try this opens here in Idaho this Wednesday.I've heard it compared to elk hunting... and from your stories it seems pretty similar to the way a lot of our elk hunts have gone!

Holly Heyser said...

Well, I haven't gone elk hunting, but I'm guessing the biggest difference is scale. I didn't have to hike all over God's creation for this hunt. Just up and down a hill a couple times.

Anonymous said...

Those turkeys are smart birds. Sorry you didn't get him, but it made for a good story. The bit where he flew over your head was pretty good.

Hubert Hubert said...

Watching the Easter sun come up over a vineyard in the Napa Valley? Lord God, I wish it could have been me!

Blessed said...

That sounds exactly like the kind of turkey hunts I have.

Hubby now, he finds a spot, sits down and stays all day and right before the end of shooting time they all come strutting to him... it works every time for him, unless I'm there too :)

Phillip said...

Gotta stick it out... resist that temptation to wander around, because, honestly, spot-and-stalk hunting for turkeys is a fool's gambit. It can be done (and I've done it), but it's a low odds proposition at best. You have to let the birds come to you.

Of course, when you do stick it out, and the bird comes to you, well... then you gotta actually hit him when you shoot. Therein, apparently, lie my personal demons.

Tammy Sapp said...

Just wanted to say that it's probably not the turkeys who are doing most of the grape eating in the vineyard. NWTF did a study a few years ago and the photos showed the biggest culprits were coons, foxes and a few squirrels. Ryan Mathis has the scoop on that!

Othmar Vohringer said...

Great reading Holly! Turkey hunting can be very frustrating, but after 15 years I am still as addicted to it as on the first day. Phillip is right. The most foolish thing a turkey hunter can do is to try to stalk the birds. Unless you have very good cover, and I mean very, very good cover, forget it.

Here is tip that I pass on to hunters in my seminars and on my blog. Whenever possible set up in such a way that the turkey has to walk within shooting range to see where the call comes from or where the decoy is set up. Most turkey hunters make the mistake to set up in such a way that they can see for a long way when the tom is coming. Big mistake!! If the hunter can see a long way then so can the tom.

Good luck next time. I ma heading out scouting this weekend and hunt in another week from now. The season is open but there is still snow everywhere.


Holly Heyser said...

Sadly, I didn't have the option of sticking it out - Hank was cooking dinner for nine and spending the whole day out there when guests were arriving wasn't really in the cards.

If I actually had time to go back before the season ended, I've learned enough that I might stand a decent chance at success. But that was probably it for me - my free time has run out.


Spencer said...

This is great! Turkey hunting is the best. Also how did you do that hide feature on your blog? I didn't know that you can do that.

Holly Heyser said...

Spencer, email me here and I'll send you the instructions for inserting code into your template. Blogger doesn't make it easy by giving you a button you can click to do it. But after spending a couple hours searching around the Blogger help forums last week, I got good instructions.

hutchinson said...

I have to agree with Tammy. Although there are ongoing studies such as the one at UC Davis, exploring the crop damage done by wild turkeys, a number of studies suggest that turkeys are mistakenly blamed for these crop crimes, by virtue of their visibility and proximity. Having worked closely with these beautiful and brilliant animals in a rescue setting, I do hope turkeys are ultimately found innocent in this regard. Particularly since they have no culpability in their non-native placement and population imbalance, having been unnaturally introduced for hunting.

Holly Heyser said...

I haven't seen the studies - I'd like to - but I did see this synopsis in a Department of Fish and Game report:

"In 2000 and 2001, the National Wild Turkey Federation
(NWTF) investigated reports of damage by turkeys at 28 vineyards. Remote cameras were also
set up in four study vineyards to document species causing damage, both during the day and at
night. Several species of wildlife were documented consuming grapes. Although turkeys were
among the most reported causes of damage by vineyard owners, information collected in these
investigations suggests that turkeys are blamed for more damage than they actually cause. In
these investigations, several other species were also documented consuming grapes, including
deer, raccoons, ground squirrels, song birds, and jays. Turkey damage was higher in the
vineyards adjacent to turkey habitat, but damage from these other species was more widespread.
These preliminary findings regarding turkey depredation are consistent with reports in other
states to other crops (Tefft et al. 2001), whereby turkeys are blamed for damage largely because
they are the most visible diurnal animals."

I added the italics to highlight the situation at this vineyard, which you can see from the photo (and maps) is enveloped by habitat. Napa is not like the Central Valley, where you have vast vineyards carpeting the valley floor as far as the eye can see; Napa has tons of vineyards abutting wild areas.

The crop loss (from any source) makes sense; people who develop - whether it's homes or agriculture - next to habitat end up having more encounters with wildlife. When they plant things wildlife like to eat, wildlife obliges and eats it.

Personally, I don't hunt turkeys because I think I'm eradicating vermin; I hunt turkeys because they taste good, and obviously, because I'm a masochist. The turkeys-eating-grapes issue is merely what opened the door to us at this vineyard.

Holly Heyser said...

P.S. That DFG report is here and the paragraph I cited is on the 25th page of the pdf (marked as page 21 in the report).

Anonymous said...

I thought turkeys used to live in California but something preceeding human history wiped them out. All we've done is welcomed them back to an area them that their ancestors used to roam. Is it so different from the condor issue?


Holly Heyser said...

I believe they were here about 10,000 years ago - they've found tons of turkey bones in the La Brea Tarpits in L.A.

But the new variety of turkey imported to Cali is a LOT sturdier than those poor condors!

Jon Roth said...

NC - when you said "Turkey at the seed pile" I'm curious what you meant? I'm sure it was grape seed or mustard seed, or some other non-grain seed, right??...

Holly Heyser said...

Oh, no, we baited with corn.

Psych!I was wondering if anyone would ask about that. This is a working vineyard, with a winery on site. When they've finished fermenting and pressing the grapes, they toss the seeds and skins in a pile. A big, lovely purple pile. I've seen enough turkey sign there to believe they enjoy plucking bugs out of it. It's kinda like a big compost heap.

hutchinson said...

You know I have to put in a plug for the turkey. It's my style.

I've raised wild turkeys from babies (orphaned babies) for re-release -- and found them to be remarkable animals. Your writings suggest the same -- in reference to their intelligence.

One of these days, I'll stop reading your blog. I promise. I keep hoping to return one day and find some commonality and reconciliation that might settle the issue for me once and for all. But it just doesn't happen. Isn't that the definition of insanity? Expecting a different result from the same old behavior? I must be the real masochist here.

Each hunting season brings with it, its challenges for us non-hunters who happen to work with wildlife. I spend much time in wetland and riparian areas for my work and research in the winter months. And I deal (although not always perfectly) with the gunshots and visuals throughout the winter migration of ducks and geese. I get just a bit of reprieve in the late winter, and then in the spring, my work continues in areas where turkey hunts occur. I realize there's nothing I can do about it. Hence, the permanent conflict to which I alluded earlier. I guess I could quit my job . . . or live 3/4 of the year with earplugs and blinders.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh yeah, turkeys are pretty smart - except when strutting toms let their guard down. But it's the same way with so many animals - including humans - isn't it?

And Hutch, I'm sorry to keep disappointing you. In my experience, usually the best thing that comes from a civilized discussion, as we've had, is not changing people's positions, but increasing understanding of and tolerance of other people's positions. And I think we have achieved that.