By Jerrod Vila
Eric and Jerrod with their New York record book toms.
Longtime hunting buddy, Eric Lawler, and I set a goal for this turkey season. The goal was to harvest a double, meaning each of us would take a mature longbeard together in the same setup. This is not a new goal, however it is a hard task to accomplish and the probability of it happening is very low. Nonetheless, we still have our group of guys that roll in for the opening weekend of the season each year. Aside from harvesting birds, our other goal is to have a good time, the probability of which is much higher! With all the boys accounted for, there was plenty of time to get out in the woods and roost some birds. While making the rounds through our properties scouting for potential toms, we all ogled in amazement over a Facebook photo of a bird shot on opening day in Herkimer County, NY that sported a quadruple beard. Little did we know how epic our 2018 New York turkey season would become and that we would be ogling over our own photos soon enough.
After putting multiple mature longbeards to bed that night, the anticipation for the next morning was high. Two groups of us set out to brave the high winds of opening Saturday. The normal coffee ritual took place around 4:15 A.M. and we walked into our setup by 4:40 A.M. Eric and I were looking to set up approximately 150 yards off the suspected roosting area since we didn’t know which specific trees the longbeards flew up into the prior evening. From past experiences in the area, we were quite confident they would pitch down and naturally work their way past our location to get out to the known morning strut zones. As we traversed the edge of the woodlot looking for the perfect tree to lean up against, we passed by two giant concrete culvert sections. We both stopped and looked at them, then looked at one another. Instantly we knew what the other was thinking. If we could roll one of the culverts out just a bit, we could sit right down between the two. It was still dark enough to pull off a move like this without getting busted, and that is just what we did. It was the perfect concealment of a makeshift stone bunker. We were all settled in by 5 A.M., just waiting on that first grey light to begin to poke through the eastern horizon. We joked around about how the absurdness of sitting between these two giant pipes could quite possibly be the most comfortable setup we had ever been in. Shortly thereafter, the first gobble erupted from exactly where we thought it would come from, then another slightly farther out. At 5:14 A.M., Eric looked over to me and says, “Hey, one just pitched down into the field already!” All I could think was, “Wow! It’s practically still black out”! Then, 2 minutes later the other bird crashed down through the canopy of budding limbs and into the field. Both birds were gobbling to every call but just out of sight over a roll in the terrain. After 10 minutes or so, rather than working in our direction, they went into an open hardwood flat and acquired a severe case of lockjaw. How dare they! We sat tight for some time only to have a coyote come through and send everything in the vicinity scattering, including the birds. Best to abort this mission and head to another location.
After fueling up on some fresh Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, we parked the truck in a tractor path, shed a few layers and were back out to run and gun some ridgelines and pastures and see what we could stir up. Not long into our next adventure we found a group of 3 longbeards completely preoccupied with a single hen. We called and they would gobble time and time again, but they stood stern and were reluctant to move even an inch.
To pull these birds away from the hen was an impossible task that had us stuck in a permanent stalemate 150 yards away. Belly crawling like a pair of reconnaissance soldiers, we made our way closer, inch by inch. Dirty knees, pricker laden hands, sore elbows, and an adequate number of ticks later, we had closed the distance, undetected by 4 pairs of keen eyes, to only 60 yards. We decided to set up lying on the ground, as the cover was far too sparse to risk advancing any farther. A few soft calls on the slate again elicited more gobbles but the birds still wouldn’t budge. They were all locked hard onto the hen that was just milling around an old apple tree, pecking at the ground. Then one of the tom’s broke off from the group and closed the distance to within 30 or 35 yards but the other two birds remained out around the 50 yard mark. Possibly in range of a 10 gauge load of Federal Heavyweight, but a little too far for comfort, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk of wounding a gobbler. My eyes shifted off the close longbeard for a second to shoot Eric a glance, silently giving him the go ahead to take the brid. My glance was immediately met with the slightest head shake of disapproval. Our goal was “Double” or nothing and we both respected that fact.
All the birds ended up eventually working off over the hill, so we threw in the towel for the day and headed for the truck. It truly was a great and memorable hunt even if the ultimate goal was not achieved and not a single bird was harvested. To us, that fact didn’t matter at all.
Sunday morning found us on the same property as the previous morning. We had planned on going back to our culvert pipe setup again, mostly because it was just so darn comfortable! However upon arriving to our pair of pipes well before first light, we could see the silhouette of a turkey directly above them. We had amazing cover and camouflage from every direction except from above. We knew, without question, that when that bird woke up we would instantly be picked off. A little disheartened that we could not take advantage of the prior days blind, we continued down the edge of the timber, gaining yards on the roosting area. We got to a spot where we felt we had a solid vantage point of the field, but this spot came with greater risk. The last thing we wanted to do was bump these birds out of the roost. We knew they would be awakening any minute, so we needed to make a decision and find a spot quickly. An old stone wall served as the cover this morning. Moving a few rocks around, we made our new spot work but it was nothing like the Lazy Boy setup from the previous morning that was only 50 yards away. The wind was a different direction, our setup was different, and our hopes were high that the gobblers pattern would also be different. They gobbled hard off the roost and stayed up in the trees for much longer this go-round. 15 seconds apart, a pair of mature longbeards glided from the cloak of the treetops and hit the ground strutting. Over the next 5 minutes or so they were joined by 5 or 6 female counterparts. After watching the show for a good half hour the entire group began to move. As suspected, the birds were moving in an entirely different direction than yesterday, however it was not the direction we had hoped. Once the last head disappeared over the crest of the hill, we knew it was time to make our move. This is where knowing the ins and outs of the terrain and having familiarity with your hunting grounds can pay huge dividends. We button hooked hard and hastily covered lots of ground, but to no avail because they had already beaten us to the punch. We slithered over a stonewall through a thick hedgerow to the edge of the corn stubble field. Somewhere along the line, the flock gained another longbeard and a few more hens. We watched helplessly from our vantage point about 200 yards above as they worked farther and farther out into the basin of a giant 30 acre field. The jig was up and we knew it. There was no getting around them to setup at another location. Instead, we hung are heads again, accepted the defeat, backed out, and headed to a different property a few miles away.
We employed the run and gun tactic Sunday morning as well. As we parked the truck, adorned our gear and loaded our guns we didn’t have the slightest idea of what was about to happen. Walking through a small clearing into the woods, we decided to jump down one ridge to take the edge off the wind a little bit.
As I fidgeted with my zippers looking for the pocket where I had stashed my favorite diaphragm call, Eric went ahead and broke out a 20 year old Lynch’s World Champion box call. This is a call that we all give him grief over on every hunt, yet he continues to bring it…Thank God. Three yelps into the sequence we were met by a shattering gobble that was way too close for comfort from the clearing we had just walked through! We looked at each other in complete and utter panic and knew we had to move fast. We haphazardly threw on face masks while quickly moving to a position behind a large downed log on the edge of the clearing. We rested both our shotguns on top of the log and Eric began to give another series of calls on the box. Since they liked it it the first time, it was only fitting to try it again. At about the yelp and a half point it was again cut short by thundering gobbles. We knew they were closing the distance quickly. “Here they come!” I said under my breath. Over the hill, a pair of thick roped mature longbeards manifested from the shaggy dead grass. We had always talked about doing the 1…2… shoot on 3 count. Well, here it was. 2 birds 30 yards out, side by side. This was the moment we had longed for all weekend.
“You take the right and I’ll take the left”
Both birds dropped and flopped immediately. Our shots were so perfectly in sync that Eric looked over to me and asked “Did you shoot??” I excitedly said “Yeah”. I only knew he shot because the spent hull from his 12 gauge bounced off the side of my face and now laid motionless smoking atop the log. After the barrage of high fives and yelling “Double!” and our patented “Dumped’um!” phrase, we ran out to claim our gobblers having no idea what we were about to discover. As we secured the flopping longbeards with our boots, as any turkey hunter does, I quickly glanced down to check out the amenities these boys were sporting. “Eric! That’s a triple bearder!” as I pointed in amazement to the gobbler under his foot. To which he responds “Oh my God! Well that one has 5 or 6 at least!” It was the hunt and harvest of a lifetime!
To be completely honest, we truly have no idea who shot which gobbler. I shot the bird on the right and Eric shot the one on the left. At the time of the shot there was no way of telling that these longbeards were atypical or special in any way. All we knew at the time of the trigger pull that they were 2 mature gobblers. This is where things really took an interesting turn. Looking over these gobblers and coming to terms that we really did have a legitimate sextuple bearder and a very large triple bearder it became apparent that these 2 birds could possibly make the book. We had very roughly estimated the score of the 6 bearded bird to fall somewhere around 110 to 115. As we met up with the other guys in our group at a local diner and looked up the New York State turkey records, we saw that even the low side of this estimate would easily make the top 10 largest gobblers ever harvested in New York. From there, we figured it would be in our best interest to have them both officially scored.
The six beards of the 5th ranked NY bird scoring in at 119.35
The three beards of the 31st ranked NY bird scoring in at 86.82
Coincidentally that very day in Cobleskill, NY, approximately 45 minutes away, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) sponsored yearly contest was being held. An official measurement was taken by none other than the northeast region president of the NWTF, Sean Langevin. The 6 bearded bird came in at a score of 119.35 making it the 5th largest gobbler ever to be harvested in New York State all time and the triple bearder came in at 86.82 making it 31st of all time.
#1: 9 12/16″
#2: 7 5/16″
#3: 5 9/16″
#4: 5 5/16″
#5: 6 5/16″
#6: 6 12/16″
#1: 9 4/16″
NWTF records have been kept for 45 years, dating back to 1973. More than a million wild turkeys have been shot in New York since then, and to take the 5th and 31st ranking birds in a double set is nothing shy of incredible. So, the question that is probably in your mind, whose name will go in the books? Well that is where things get even more interesting! We spoke with Karen Cavender, record keeper of NWTF National, and explained our story to her. We explained that we really have no idea who shot which gobbler and were pushing for having double name recognition on the record. She couldn’t have loved the idea more and just like that, for the first time in NWTF history, 2 names will be listed in the record book for each brid! These are also the #1 and #2 seed gobblers ever to be taken in Montgomery County, NY.
The black wing of the melanistic tom
To make this story even more incredible, right around the time we took our double, another group of our friends were on an adjacent property. One friend harvested a melanistic bird! Melanistic means all black, basically the opposite of albino. The statistical figures for melanistic birds are approximately 1:50,000, making it the rarest color phase of all. The odds of three friends harvesting three such rare and spectacular birds all in the same weekend is unparalleled. What a weekend!