Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thunder Chickens Dancing In My Head

NC longbeard! One week before opening day, 2009. (Photo by Mark Degan)
As the light breaks on yet another hunting season, let's get something straight; I hunt turkeys, but I am no turkey hunter. Over the course of my 10-year turkey hunting career, that has ranged across the Carolinas both North and South, I have been guilty of just about every mistake a person can make when it comes to harvesting a spring gobbler. In my defense, the wild turkey is considered among the toughest quarry to kill on the continent. I've heard and read that a mature tom turkey can see you blink at 100 yards and hear your heart beating at 50. It's been said that if turkeys could smell a hunter like a deer can, no one would ever kill one and I believe that is true.

Let's take a look at a short list of my most recent infractions in the turkey woods that resulted in blown opportunities, fleeing gobblers and rough language:

My first turkey hunting partner, Dave, and I make our inaugural attempt at his hunt club property in Jones County, NC. In the lead-up to opening day (2002 I think) Dave has self-taught himself to proficiency with a diaphragm call, while I have convinced myself the squeaky squawks emanating from my shiny new box call sound exactly like a hen turkey. As dawn approaches, half a dozen gobblers are sounding off from their roost trees all around us. We call back to them like anxious school boys so that by the time the birds fly down to start their day, not one of them thinks we're anything but a couple of idiots - which we are. Over the course of the next four hours we  1) try to close in on a gobbler we think is several hundred yards away, only to walk right into him as we come around a blind corner in the service road,  2) miraculously get four gobblers to commit across an open field until they halt just out of shotgun range. I work the box call one too many times and they spot my index finger move at 50 yards - game over,  3) spot a tom turkey in full strut at the other end of an open field and decide to belly crawl 30 yards with no cover, place a decoy in the dirt and crawl back into the treeline to bring him in. By the time we settle our backs against the tree trunk, the turkey is nowhere to be seen - imagine that.
Hopefully Sue "The Turkey Ninja" will join me again this year.
The next year, Dave and I are back again. We are supposed to sit in a ground blind on the edge of a field and wait for the gobblers to come out and strut. The blind is pad-locked and Dave has forgotten the key, so we try to conceal ourselves up against the side walls as daylight starts cracking all around us. In the pine stand behind us, the first turkey starts to gobble. he is answered by two others, then another, then another. We can't stand the pressure and convince ourselves to pull up the decoys, grab the gear and race back into the woods to be closer to the birds when the fly down from their roosts. We set up so tight to the turkeys, we can hear them flapping and hitting the ground. One by one, all five gobblers head out in directions opposite to us. We sit for awhile, call a little too much and then decide to pick everything up again and go after the only bird we can still hear in the distance. Predictably, our pursuit comes to naught. On our way back through the woods, we come around a bend in the trail where we had been an hour before. There stands a magnificent male turkey, puffed up, in full fan, glowing in the sunlight. He is displaying to the hen that had been calling so incessantly from this spot just 60 minutes ago. Our eyes lock. The turkey runs away.

2008 - Warren and I are hunting mountain birds in western NC. We haven't heard a gobble all morning, so we've gone mobile. We go slow along the path and I call a little every 50 yards or so to see if I can get a turkey to respond. We cover ground in this fashion for an hour or so. As we crest a short, but steep hill on our way up the mountain, we come face-to-face with the biggest gobbler either of us has ever seen at 20 yards. Had we been hidden and in position, he would have come straight to us. Instead we are busted. We drop to the ground (because maybe he didn't see us?) and listen to the bird, known forever more as "Gobzilla," run down the slope to somewhere across the state line.

I am on my own, sitting under a huge white oak in the middle of a creek bottom in Onslow County, 2009. I know I'm in a good spot because I could hear a turkey gobbling away from this creek bottom the day before. This morning I have moved to the place I think will be perfect to kill him from. I've learned a lot about turkeys since those early years. I am in position early and I don't even think about using my call. Dawn breaks and I still have yet to hear my bird. It's 7 a.m. when I finally break my silence. I throw out a beautiful sequence (I've learned a little about calling too over the past few years) and put the box call down. I nearly crap myself when the branches above me explode in a chaotic buzz saw of flapping wings and alarm clucks. My gobbler flies out of the creek bottom to parts unknown, never to be seen again as I kick myself for setting up directly underneath him. Later that same morning, I hear a distant gobble. Figuring I have plenty of room to close in, I race toward the sound, gradually slowing until I stop and give a soft yelp to relocate the tom. It's 9 a.m. and he's still in his roost tree, which is news to me when he too blows out of there like a missile. He watched me coming the whole way from his perch. I am a fool.
Friends, the list goes on, but after awhile such stories of failure grow tiresome and defeating. Better to think positive thoughts of the season set to begin in just over a month. During the next five weeks, I plan to pull out my calls and practice at least 15 minutes a day in full "battle rattle" so I can be confident (or at least cognizant) of my abilities going into opening day. How the neighbors will react to me, camouflaged from head-to-toe, sitting against a tree in the backyard, making noises like a chicken with emphysema, remains to be seen. I will make at least half-a-dozen pre-dawn trips to our property in Cleveland County to stand in the darkness, listening for tom turkeys as they gobble from the roost. It's the best way to pattern the birds and come up with a game plan that has some chance of success. Heck, there might even be success, though I'm pretty sure there'll be some failure. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it.


  1. Great storytelling fella. I'd love to hunt with you one of these days, animal would be safe but we'd have a hoot

  2. SB-Dub - Thanks for the kind word. I seem to remember a story you wrote about squirrel hunting that rang familiar.

  3. Please oh please harvest that Gobbler from the pic in 2009. HE IS STILL THERE....laughing at me.

  4. 6 hours to the east, I'll be doing the exact same thing. Birds are gobbling good now...but still grouped up tight.

  5. Birds are already mounting hens here...I hate turkeys.....season opens here in 2 days in south florida and on the 19th for the rest of the state... warm weather has them active early....I too will be scouting this saturday and practicing.... I am that guy that has the turkey calling cd in my car and trying to practice for season... Love Sausage... i still cant figure out how to post on here

  6. Great post.

    Sounds like your turkey hunting career has run along the same lines as mine! Just when you think you figured it out, they change the rules... and that thing about "if turkeys could smell"... well, nothing could be more true!

    Anyway, good luck with 'em. I'm looking forward to getting out at least once or twice this year!

  7. I'm there with ya.

    Worst FAIL ever was a hunt where I thought I was gonna get it done. BUT gobblers were set up and silent by 8am. I bailed out of the woods at 1100am (we can only legally hunt until 12pm). The farmer called that afternoon and asked "how big is he?" I said "No, didn't kill one." He said, "Really? I got home at 1130 and there were 30 of them standing where your decoys were this morning."

  8. All I can say is, fellas, let this be our spring of redemption. I'll surely be posting here about my season - the good, the bad and the ugly. Good luck to all.