“Don’t hunt proud.” These were the words of a very wise turkey hunter I know with scores of birds to his credit, and many dozens more called-in as a Black Hills, South Dakota guide of over 15 years. What brought that statement to bear, was a conversation we had several years ago regarding tough birds. While I don’t remember the exact words, he went on to talk about his strategy regarding “bad-birds,” moving-on until he found one that was “right.” You’ve heard a bird that was “right” before. He gobbles on the roost, usually earlier, longer, and louder than most of the birds around him. Fly-down comes and you’re surprised to hear him continue to gobble with no regard for his vocal chords or how much air it takes to keep a turkey from suffocating. Your every call is answered immediately, and with gusto, until he proceeds with a stiff-legged, hard-gobbling, death-march to the end of your barrel. These birds, typically two-year olds looking to show off their new-found talents, are every turkey hunters dream come true. They make you look better than you are, and offer us time and again a glimpse of why we enjoy turkey hunting the way we do.
After arriving mid-day, I had the pleasure of hunting some other property with fellow IDO Pro-staff member and friend Brad Juaire. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve hunted birds together, and I always enjoy hunting with someone who’s a true student of the game like Brad. While an especially accomplished deer hunter, Brad’s been killing turkeys for a long time as well, and he knows the birds in that area far better than I ever will. So it was that we’d setup on an oak flat off a field edge, between the field and the roosting area they tend to fly up to. Oak flats such as this are perfect congregation spots where birds mill around as early as mid-afternoon, gathering to feed before heading up to the roost location. Wouldn’t you know it, we had barely been setup and still for 15 minutes when a hen came wandering through on a mission. Was she being followed? Was this the sign of things to come? Not tonight, but that setup will kill birds often and we just got the wrong night. Did I mention this is the same area where Brad has had a gobbler at 30 yards twice in two days prior?!
Finding the right bird then was my primary goal for the last 1 ½ days of my WI hunt, and particularly, I wanted to call in that bird with the farmer/landowner present. He enjoys hearing them gobble in the morning, and hasn’t seen too much in the way of a classic turkey hunt. That goal seemed a touch high considering my recent success, but even loftier knowing the farmer had to head back for chores at 7AM. We were lucky to have them sound off on the roost so early. It really gave us a head-start in setting up on them, but also meant they were already up and at ‘em. Even though the woods was incredibly sparse, we were able to get within 100 yards of a bird just off of a wooded ridge that butted-up against an alfalfa field; only to find out he had several friends and a hen or two. The bird I wanted in the 5 total toms we heard gobbling, was roosted off by himself at the tip of the ridge, a short 100 yard walk down the open ridge-top to our location. Surely if we could fire him up we’d have our hunt. As so often happens right off the roost, birds got quiet, and the hens that were with the bigger group of birds vacated the toms while the gobblers walked the other direction. I’m guessing they were led off by even more hens. Typical of my 2011 season thus far, giving chase proved fruitless. 7AM came all too fast, and we were walking back to the barn before we knew it.
After a few days of getting my tail kicked, this whole continual snubbing thing was getting old. By 7AM on May 7th, I’d lost track of the large numbers of birds I’d worked to no avail. Worst yet, knowing better, I was starting to doubt everything and lose a touch of faith. The last slump I hit was about 5 years back, and was far worse, but this rut was starting to seem eerily familiar. You forget the vast libraries of experiences you have to draw on, and start focusing on miniscule events. You change cadences and rhythm in the hopes of a gobble, you relearn the same lessons. All of which are tough pills to swallow. Until you’re reminded why turkey hunting is so great. The zero to hero feeling you get when all of the sudden a bird is doing just what you want it to, where you want it to. As we were walking back, we see two toms and a hen near the woods edge. They see something, but aren’t sure what we are, casually sauntering back into the woods. Just before getting to the edge, the last tom rose to full-strut and waddled his way into the woodlot. That’s my bird, a dumb one you can half booger and still get to strut!
I left the farmer, regrettably, and headed around the wooded point opposite of where the birds walked down and into the woods. We were on a hilltop, where the point formed the head of a large and deep ravine leading down to a small grass/alfalfa opening about ½ mile down. This was dangerous territory, the woods were wide open. The wrong move, and they’d pick me off from 150 yards or greater. So I eased into it, slipping less than 100 yards into the woods and down the ravine, still on the far side of it from the turkeys. I wanted the high ground, a strategic calling position for me most often. One in particular gobbled. At everything. They were moving, both of them to the base of the ravine, about 100 yards below me. Hung up now, but gobbling to beat the band. I shut down my calling, hoping that it would pique their curiosity just enough to come trudging up the hill, to no avail. They worked back to where they came from, and up to the field edge where we originally saw them. Taking the opportunity, I slipped in a little closer and called, same result, except this time I had some help. No less than 1 hawk, 10 crows, and 1 tractor working the field just above them got the birds gobbling up a storm. For nearly 5 minutes straight they gobbled at that tractor moving away from the tractor and in my direction the whole time. A tractor drive? Never heard of it, but I’ll take it.
Eventually, things calm down and they walk back up their little fold of the ravine. I walk back up to the top of mine to rethink things, and hear them gobbling much farther off. I made too much noise. I needed to close the distance, but the woods was so wide open, and the calm weather made every step I took sound like bigfoot. I took a chance, and got to near the base of the ravine where I hung them up originally. This is great. It’s been my experience that showing up and calling at a location any tom has gobbled at for some time, greatly increases the odds you’ll kill, as you’re responding just as a normal hen would. Go to the spot of the last gobble and call. Once again, the tractor comes by and gets another assist. They shock gobble at it, working their way down the ravine and towards me, though this time I’m much closer yet in a terrible position. I’m half clutching for life above a ten foot drop to the bottom of the dry run. The tractor surprised both of us. Now I know why they wouldn’t cross, it was a canyon! Eventually, they worked back up the ravine (again), and I was able to reposition (again) to have a shot at the trail they initially worked to. Now it was time to work them, and work them I did. Taking their temperature, I found out quickly that while they gobbled at everything, short 3 yelp, 1 cluck series had them cutting me off. Conversely, loud and aggressive calling had them gobbling, but with a delay. Find the button and press it right? Soft and seductive yelps, almost tree yelps. Kee kees mixed in. Short phrases, and I could see the hen. She took the other gobbler away and worked the other direction, but the one that was left was on fire. He stayed high on the hillside, across the ravine from me, spitting and drumming more than anything else. Three soft yelps, and no sight of his pals broke him loose! All of the sudden he was 80 yards above me across the ravine working from right to left, gobbling and strutting every ten steps. When he eventually hit the logging road I was sitting on, he was too high above me, 60 or so yards away. Directional calling down the ravine had him headed back down to a flat on the road at 50 yards. Here he was mostly obscured with brush, and he played it cool. He was there too long for my comfort, and when I could see his head unobstructed, I took my first best shot later ranged at 49.5 yards.
A heavy tom, this bird had 7/8” spurs, a 9 ¾” beard, and weighed between 24.5 and 25.75lbs (depending on whose scale you believed). But I didn’t care. I was happy to have experienced such a show that took nearly 2 ½ hours to complete. I was more happy to reaffirm the turkey hunting fact that everything can change out there in a matter of seconds, including your luck. Staying in the woods, riding out the lows, and living up the highs is the only attitude us turkey hunters can possess. For me at least, lessons like that are powerful medicine, meant to be taken from time to time when things aren’t going quite right. I’d like to claim that I never make the same mistake twice, but it seems like those are the most worthwhile to keep re-learning.