No Jinx

   Until this spring, my turkey hunting can be summed up as dismal and frustrating with the only thing to show for my efforts - chigger bites and poison ivy.  For six seasons I have failed to get a spring gobbler.  My reputation for having bad luck has given me the alias of “Jinx” amongst my friends and co-workers.  My nickname became truly confirmed when the office was having a holiday door decorating contest and my picture was super imposed on a turkey hunter and a photo of a turkey moved daily on the door to demonstrate that I could never harvest this great bird.

   Being a late bloomer to hunting, I never hunted until my early 40’s; hunting turkeys appeared on the surface as an easy pastime.  On TV and the internet I see people bagging trophy birds and their biggest problem is determining which big gobbler to shoot out of a flock.  How quickly my perception changed when applying information on TV and online to real situations. 

    The first thing I learned is that you must have access to property that has some population of turkeys.  Gaining access to hunt areas other than public lands in Virginia is a daunting task.  I followed the guidelines about approaching people and asking permission to hunt their property to the letter of the law.  Despite my noble attempts I was told “NO” every time.  Realizing that the hunting was not an option, I inquired if my son, who was an Eagle Scout, could make plaster molds of some turkey tracks for a merit badge he was working on.  Again the response was a resounding “NO”.  Since we were denied access to even make a plaster mold of a turkey footprint my son adjusted and selected a mammal in order to finish his Tracking merit badge.

    For six long years I would go out multiple times on public lands and have no luck what so ever.   I had the clothing, gun, calls, and equipment needed to bag a bird.  The big thing lacking were birds, call experience, and confidence.

    At the end of winter 2013, call it divine intervention or luck, a guy in my office came to me and said the proverbial “I know a guy” and he might be able to help you get a turkey.  Hearing this… excitement immediately kicked in… but I realized quickly that it would invariably be a bust.  I figured after six years of asking for access to hunt throughout Stafford, Fauquier and Spotsylvania counties the odds of someone “helping” me get a bird were slim to none.    After my conversation I did the memory dump and chalked the offer as being a nice gesture.  To my surprise, two days later my coworker came into my office came to see me and said to call his buddy, Billy.

    After mulling it over for a while I made the call to Billy.  After dialing his number I tried to envision what this guy will be like.  After one ring he answered the phone and we exchanged pleasantries.  Billy informed me: “We need to get you a turkey”.  He then told me about a guy he took out recently and called a bird in but couldn’t seal the deal; Billy’s statement made me leery thinking that if you call the bird in and don’t kill it, how good are you at turkey hunting?  I explained my sordid history of turkey hunting and he listened intently, finally asking as to what was my schedule at the end of the next workweek.  I told him I could take off of work.  We ended the conversation and he said he would be in touch.  I figured that was probably the first and last time I would speak to this guy. 

   Six days later I received a text message from Billy telling me what time to meet him the next morning.  The message said 0400 hours in the Eagles Lodge parking lot.  I texted him back offering to bring anything and as to where we would be hunting.  His response back was to the extent of he doesn’t need anything and we had to make a road trip of about an hour and a half to where we would be hunting.  My mind began racing and wondering as to what did this guy expect.  Strangers don’t just offer to take you hunting and most would accept me bringing something.  He closed our dialogue with bring your gun, ammo, and something to drink; see you in the morning.

     The next morning I pulled into the lot at 0350 in front of the red marquee sign with a digital clock in it.  When the digital clock hit 0400 a white pickup truck pulled in.  I was immediately puzzled because there were two occupants.  I figured that these might be commuters but the truck drove across the big parking lot and pulled up next to me.  The window came down on the passenger side of the truck and the driver said, “Are you Steve”?  I said yes and walked to the truck and extended my hand and Billy Kelley introduced himself.  He then introduced the gentlemen in the passenger seat as Barry Cardel.  I grabbed my stuff, tossed it in the back of the truck and we were off. 

    I sat in the back row of the extended cab.   Billy was 20 years younger than me and looked more like a lifeguard than a hunter.  He was chiseled, focused, and you could easily tell in shape.  Barry on the other hand was a few years older than me and very reserved.  We started with some pleasantries then talked about hunting. I was wondering as to why there were three of us.  Finally, Billy spoke up and said that Barry was coming along to help me get a turkey.    

   The next part of the ride seemed like a confessional.  I explained that I had only been hunting for a few years and that I have never gotten a turkey despite paying my way with various so called experts and my own feeble attempts.  I passed on that all of the experts said I was a jinx because they always got birds.   Barry then spoke up and said that this was going to change.  After an hour of driving we pulled into a local convenience store for gas and coffee.

   Back in the truck for the final leg of the trip to the farm we were going to hunt Billy asked me if I had a valid Virginia hunting license.  He then went through safety and how we would hunt.  The strategy he spoke of was that Barry would be calling and he would sit just behind me and tell me when to shoot a gobbler as it comes in to investigate the calling and the decoys strategically placed near a logging road.  We finally arrived at the farm and quickly collected our hunting stuff and began walking on trails adjacent to some massive fields.   

   One thing interesting is Billy didn’t bring a gun.   Billy pointed to an area full of pine trees and announced that turkey’s roost there and we need to set up about 150 yards away.  Barry, amazingly, without a device, made an owl call with his mouth and the woods erupted with a turkey responding.  Hearing the roosting turkey response we went into the woods and Billy set up some decoys and Barry took his position.  Billy then took me near a tree and brush that could be a great ambush spot when a gobbler comes in. 

   Exactly at legal shooting hours Barry began to call.  Immediately a gobbler responded.  Billy whispered that the bird should be coming off of its roost and heading our way.  The gobbler appeared to be going crazy in responding back to Barry’s incredible calling.  Barry and this gobbler dueled back and forth.  After 45 minutes the woods went silent, nothing.  Billy said that “hot” gobbler should have come in.  He told me to stay put and went over and got Barry.  Both came and got me and we picked up the decoys and headed toward the area we heard the gobbler.  After 100 yards of walking we see the bird flying off of its roost.  Barry said; “In all my years of turkey hunting I have never seen a bird do that…that fired up and not coming out of the tree.”  Trying to make light of the situation I responded that it my bad luck.

   We walked to a clearing and Billy stopped abruptly.  He said he could see two gobblers off in another field.  How he saw it I don’t know.  There was a patch of trees and a creek between us and the birds were 150 yards away.  Billy said to follow him and Barry stayed back, we crossed the swamp and creek over fallen trees.  Billy then set me up on a peninsula and he placed a hen decoy then returned and started calling.  Within minutes the two gobblers went into full strut and they started coming towards the decoy.  Unfortunately for me my vantage point didn’t allow me to see the birds.  Billy kept whispering as to their distance away.  Eighty yards …Sixty…Billy says “get ready your about to get your first turkey within five minutes.” 

   My heart was racing and I was sweating waiting for the gobbler to pass the peninsula to give me a clean shot.   Time began to slow to what seemed like an eternity.  Fifteen minutes later Billy leans over and says; “You won’t believe this, six hens came out of the woods between the gobblers and the decoy and they are just walking in circles but inching their way to the decoy.” 

   Billy said to take a deep breath and wait.  Within minutes Billy leaned over upset saying, “They’re gone”.  The turkeys left.  I stand up and look across the field and we see someone, without permission, walking on the other side of the field.  In short, he busted the hunt.

    We go back across the creek and meet up with Barry.  The experts make a decision to try another place.  We load up the truck and drive a couple of miles to another part of the property he hunts.  Pulling in we notice two gobblers and three hens in the distance.   We back out and relocate the truck in order to not spook the birds and set up another area.  Billy sets me up in a well-covered spot and he and Barry head off to begin calling.  Again, like with the earlier hunt, the birds don’t want to cooperate.

    All of us were perplexed as to the events of the morning.  Barry kept saying, “in all my years of turkey hunting I have never seen a bird do that…that fired up and not coming out of the tree.”    Billy looked at me and acquiesced you are “jinx”. 

     We arrived back in Stafford tired and defeated.  I pulled out my wallet to give some money for gas and the day and Billy put his hand up and said “NO”.    I soon realized was how serious Billy and Barry are about taking me hunting.  What I discovered is that they are a different breed of hunter in this era of “who has the most and mine”.  In fact the best way to describe them is true sportsmen that enjoy teaching others and seeing people have success.  I thanked both of them for the day and started transferring my stuff from the truck to my vehicle.  When I finished Billy asked me if I was free next day; I said yes and he said we were going to try again.  Meet in the same spot at 0400.

   The next morning I make it to the Eagles Lodge with five minutes to spare.  I park my Suburban and open the rear door to allow for quicker unloading.  Moments later another Suburban pulls up next to me and a man gets out and comes up to me and asked if I’m Steve.  I said yes and he said he was there to go with me to get a turkey.  Apparently, Billy got him his first turkey last year.

   Billy’s white pickup truck pulls in and low and behold, Barry was in the truck.  Billy and Barry pull up and we load up and off we go.  I asked as to where we were going and Billy said back to the same farm.  Barry then says that today was the day for my first bird and to get rid of jinx.

   We are almost to the farm right at 0530 and Billy pulls onto a dirt road.  He says I need to get out.  Billy gets out of the truck; grab his gear, and Barry and his friend head off in the truck to set up another area.  We then begin a long walk to the edge of the field that we saw the trespasser walking on.  Billy sets up decoys, comes back, and we set up in some low pines. 

   At legal hunting hours Billy begins calling.  I look over to see what he was using and there was no box call, slate, or other device; just a mouth diaphragm.  The woods exploded like the day before.  Instead of one turkey gobbling he had five.  He pointed out a tree and told me to watch and I saw the birds flying off of their roost.  This was another first time experience for me.   The turkeys came out of the woods and began making their way across the field to us.  Billy said to get ready, don’t make any moves until he says to get the gun up. 

   The birds are about 100 yards away when I hear this ungodly blow of air and stomping.  We both immediately look over our left shoulders and a herd of over 20 deer are running right into the field where the turkeys are.  Needless to say the outcome was guaranteed.  The birds took off back across the field where they came in and vanished into thin air. 

   Billy just shook his head, he was at a loss.  I told him to look on the bright side, he now knew of a great place to deer hunt.  I looked at him and all I could see were these intense blue eyes looking out of his facemask. 

  This next stage of the day two hunt would resonate with me forever.  He said we need to back out of the hunting area away from the field that the turkeys were in and make a loop a half-mile away and re-enter the woods adjacent to where the turkeys came in.  Billy led the way through marsh areas covered in briars, poison ivy and brush so thick that I started to second-guess my decision. 

   We came to the edge of the field that we could cross that was out of visual sight of where we saw the birds.  The field itself was 200 yards across and muddy.  Billy led the way across the field.  His pace was akin to a triathlete.  We finally crossed the field and again, briars, poison ivy, and thick brush.  This patch of woods was so thick we often had to craw to get through it.  Finally we came to the area were the turkey’s roosted.  The ground around the tree was scratched up and you could see the paths that the birds followed.   

    Billy told me to stop and he did an army craw about 20 yards to the edge of the woods to see if the turkeys had gone back into the field.  Billy somehow returned with news that the birds had moved into the field but where about 300 yards away, we need to get closer.  We then retreated deeper in the woods and began to circumnavigate the field.  Again we were going through all types of brush and obstacles.  Billy then said we needed to go back to the edge of the field to see the birds’ location.  We then walked then crawled back towards the field about 70 yards.  Billy put up his hand to stop then crawled the last five yards in some of the nastiest ground I have ever seen.  He reached back and motioned me to come up.  I too got to experience belly crawling. 

   Tucked behind brush we could see a couple of turkeys walking around an elbow shaped outcropping of brush.  When the last one past visual range Billy said we need to move.  Almost simultaneously Billy said “don’t move.”  The mother hen just ran back out and began walking 80 yards in the filed in front of us.  Billy whispered if she sees us she will notify the flock and we were finished.  I laid motionless for about 20 minutes in muck and poison ivy.  Finally she went back to her flock and vanished behind the elbow. 

   Billy said we needed to get closer because we were on high ground and we might get seen.  Again we made a hike through the woods and now swamp to get closer.  This time we were at the elbow-shaped peninsula.  Billy went first on hand and knee, looked, and backed up.  He motioned for me to come over.  I slowly made my way over to Billy and he said to look through the brush, to my astonishment four gobblers were fighting each other, then pause, blow up in full strut, and repeat the process.

    This was surreal. I was witnessing untouched nature.  The peninsula was 10 yards wide and thicker than anything I had ever seen.  Billy pointed to a spot and I set up.  He started making soft calls right next to me and we could hear the gobblers responding.  The patch of woods on the peninsula had a small shooting window.  Billy was next to me saying do you see the gobbler.  I could only see brown birds.  He then said look for a white head.  Billy made a soft call and suddenly a brown figure came into view and spun 180 degrees and started coming towards us.   It was a gobbler in full strut.  I told Billy he was in my sights and he said, “Crush him”.

   I didn’t hear my gun go off; I experienced auditory exclusion for the first time.  The field and brush near us seemed to explode with turkeys running and flying away.   With all of the chaos I thought I missed the bird.  Before I could take a step back out of the brush I saw Billy on top of a downed bird; my bird. 

   I was numb and couldn’t even talk at first.  I ran over to the bird and realized it was indeed a bird.  With my senses in overload I realized that Billy kept saying. “You shot a big bird”.  Finally I let out a scream and hugged Billy in sheer excitement.  There at my feet was a big mature gobbler.  Billy said look at its beard and the size of its spurs.  I then walked back to the area I shot to retrieve the empty shell.  The shot was 47 yards.  I came back and Billy handed me my first turkey.  He said it weighed about 20 pounds.  Being a pheasant, grouse, and woodcock hunter I was amazed by the size the gobbler.  I actually had to make adjustments of my gear to carry it out. 

   Before we moved Billy had me pull out my Virginia Big Game hunting license and remove a notch out of it to indicate I harvested a bird in compliance with game laws.  He then told me that when we get cell coverage I needed to call the bird into the state to notify of the harvest. 

   Over the next 20 minutes we walked back to the truck where Barry had parked.  For some reason the bird seemed weightless and I indeed was walking on the moon.  When we cut through some woods to get to a green filed by the truck Billy said that this would be a great place to take a picture of “Jinx”.  I was finally able to transfer my title to that turkey.  After the picture was taken Billy sent it to my wife via his cell phone with the title of “Jinx is gone”. 

   Billy looked at his watch and asked if I had some time to wait around.  I said yes and he said he needed to hook up with Barry to help his friend get his second turkey.  I continued to the truck and waited for the guys to return.       

   Unfortunately, the second turkey didn’t become a reality that day.  We loaded up and headed home.  On the way home Billy pulled into a seafood distributor and we weighed “Jinx” on certified scales.  I was shocked to see that he weighed 23 pounds and 8 ounces.    

   We eventually make it back to Stafford and we unloaded.  Billy reminds me to call the bird into the Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries.  I followed directions and checked the bird in and headed to my taxidermist.  I decided to have a fantail mount with a beard.  After providing required information to the taxidermist he laid the bird down and took detailed measurements.  The turkey’s beard was 10 ¾” long and the spurs were 1 1/8” and 1 1/16” respectively.

    Those two days of hunting culminated in harvesting a bird that is trophy to me.  More importantly as I reflect on the circumstances there was more than luck in getting that bird.  Some might call it divine intervention or some equivalent; but whatever it was I have learned a great lesson about people.   

   The outdoor sporting industry expounds on taking a person hunting or fishing in this era of declining interests.  Applying that moniker in earnest is a true trophy of life in this age of greed and self-promotion.  People such as Billy Kelley and Barry Cardell epitomize the definition of being a true sportsmen, citizen, neighbor, and now friend.  I wish I had the skills as they do to be able to do the same.

   For the various landowners in the Stafford, Fauquier, and Spotsylvania areas; please at least listen to people that may ask for permission to hunt or take a Boy Scout to make a plaster cast of a turkey track.  Hunting and farming are great traditions in Virginia that need to be appreciated and the importance passed on.   Just as important, accomplished hunters need to follow the lead true sportsmen like Billy and Barry.

   Steve “No Jinx” Manchester resides with his wife Patti in Hartwood, Virginia.  He can be reached at Manchestereagles@gmail.com to talk bird hunting and fishing.  Steve is looking forward to his next turkey and hopes it doesn’t take another six years.