Outdoor Journal: Washington County safari yields a tom
Last Thursday, I was one of 16 members of the New York State Outdoor Writers Association who visited the Cambridge/Salem area of Washington County for our annual safari.
Each spring in May, NYSOWA chooses a New York county to visit and enjoy the outdoor activities our host county has to offer. Unlike our annual conferences, the safari is strictly a “no business” event in which we just have fun and renew friendships. I’m a bit embarrassed to say this was my first hunting visit to the area, and I live less than 30 miles from Cambridge.
The two primary outings this time of the year center around turkey hunting and fishing, and what better place to fish in May than on the famous Battenkill River. When canoeing, kayaking and hiking trips through those beautiful plush green hills that surround this picturesque area are added, you couldn’t ask for a better place to spend a long weekend.
Our Thursday evening Meet-and-Greet get-together was held at Momma’s Restaurant in Cambridge, where we were welcomed by Christine Hoffer, Washington County tourism administrator, who outlined our busy agenda and introduced the two places where we would be staying — Batten Kill Valley Outdoors (www.battenkillvalleyoutdoors.com) and Battenkill Riversports and Campground (www.brsac.com). The former offers all types of river rides, boat rentals and a vacation rental house we used as our headquarters, and they have quite an assortment of gear and flies in their shop. Battenkill Riversports and Campground is located right on the Battenkill.
After driving up to Cambridge, especially along New York Route 313, where both these places are located, I came to the conclusion that Vermont may be the Green Mountain State, but this southern area of Washington County’s rolling hills are equally as green. The next morning, I found out just how hilly they really were.
Everyone was up early and anxious to chase gobblers or hook up with some of those Battenkill brown trout. The turkey hunters, with the exception of three, headed off with their guides where they would hunt private lands. Melody and Frank Tennity of Honeoye and I were going to be on our own, hunting several portions of state land that had been pointed out to us the afternoon before.
My starting point was the 512-acre Eldridge Swamp State Forest that borders the Battenkill. This area is stocked with pheasants every fall by DEC. And I know that two of them are still alive. When I arrived there just before sunup, I made my way along the edge of the wood line and stopped at a corner of the field to wait and listen.
A morning greeting from a distant owl got me the response I wanted (gobbles) several hundred yards off into a mixed pine and hard woods, and I quickly and quietly headed in the direction of where the tom was still gobbling. I stopped about 75 yards from him, and my first soft yelp got a double gobbling result, and I set out my three decoys. Then our conversation began.
I knew he was coming, but first in was a hen who eyed my decoys. Mr. Jake appeared shortly after, gobbling and all puffed up with his notched tail. He wasn’t what I wanted, but fun to watch, and finally they moved off.
I waited about 10 minutes and began calling again, and I got a
response from the same area, and this one came in on the run. It was another jake, who continued to strut around the decoys. For fun, in a very loud voice I asked him: “What are you doing here?” He actually fell down twice trying to run off.
At about 6:30 a.m., after walking and calling without any responses, I decided to try spot number two, up behind the lodge. It was definitely “up,” and there was no trail. Eventually, I made it to the stone fence they told me about and set up again. I didn’t hear anything for more than an hour, nor was I able to solicit a gobble, so I guessed it was time to do a little walking and talking.
For the next hour, I followed the wall, stopping every 100 yards or so to call, first with a low tone and then increasing the volume. At 8:30, I headed down and back to the truck — time to visit spot number three, the 2.5-mile State Peaked Rock Trail, also in the Battenkill State Forest.
Its peak altitude is 1,100 feet above the Battenkill. As I made my way slowly up the trail, I found these 69-year-old legs were not as strong as they used to be, and believe me when I tell you, there were numerous stops. Up about a half-mile or so from its head, the trail bordered several different green fields on one side and a dried creek bed on the other. At each field, while resting, I made some yelps with my box call. I got one response on the other side of the road on private land.
At the top of the third field, I noticed there was a deep gully leading to the creek bed which had three to four inches of water in it. It looked like a good spot to rest and call.
My normal calling ritual when walking and stopping to call is to begin by making soft yelps, then, depending upon the results, continue to increase the call volume. I repeat the sequence every five or 10 minutes.
I liked the looks of the area, so I decided to stay a little longer and occasionally make a few calls. On my fifth calling sequence, I got a thundering response gobble somewhere above me. I estimated him to be at least 200 yards up, but on the other side of the creek. Every time I called, he responded and was getting closer, but still on the other side of the creek.
Now the “book” says incoming toms will not cross creeks. So I grabbed my decoys, slid down the gully, crossed the creek, set them out on the edge of that side, then I climbed about three-quarters of the way back up from the creek on the trail side and settled in with my Benelli and got him talking again. With all that up-and-down running around, it’s a good thing I don’t use a mouth call. I wouldn’t have had enough wind to blow it.
What happened next was a first for me. The tom crossed back over to my side, and I thought all was lost when he went quiet. I was looking straight to where I heard his last call when out of the corner of my eye, there he was, fully displayed and walking “in” the creek toward the decoys. It was the first turkey I ever shot in the water, and he
was a beauty, even though he was wet.
I can’t remember the last time I shot a turkey on New York state land, and I couldn’t wait to show him off. My Washington County gobbler, after drying, was over 20 pounds, carried a 9 3⁄4-inch beard and 1 1⁄8-inch spurs. Thank you, Jerry Wilson, for your great box call. It did it again (www.wilsongamecalls.net).
You can also see my Washington County tom at http://fishguydblog.-blogspot.com/.
Back at the lodge for lunch, I found out that the Battenkill River and Dead Lake anglers all had some nice trout on ice.
Our afternoon tour of the Quality Deer Management Co-op in Easton began with a most interesting presentation by Tony Rainville, president and founding member of the local branch, and Jami Whitney, local branch director.
What I learned and saw on our walking tour of the food plots, etc., was very impressive and clarified many questions I’ve had. These individuals are a dedicated group that’s truly improving the deer herd, and it’s a LOT more than just developing trophy bucks.
I urge every deer hunter to go to www.qdma.com and see what it’s all about.
Thank you, Christine Hoffer, and all the Washington County individuals who helped make this safari a very enjoyable and successful outdoor experience. I’ll be back.