Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Not To Hunt A Wild Turkey

Turkey sex toy.
Well, you want the long version or the short one? Wait a minute, this is my blog. You'll get both.

The North Carolina wild turkey season is just three days old and already I feel as if I've been taken to the wood shed. If I could draw a comparison to a current sports storyline; my season so far resembles the Boston Red Sox - full of promise, short on success.

In the days leading up to Saturday's season opener, I drove through the pre-dawn darkness three times to my happy hunting grounds. I located at least 11 different gobblers sounding off on or near the property and devised a game plan to put me in the meat.

On turkey opener eve, my beautiful wife, Sue, a.k.a. "The Turkey Ninja," announced she wished to join me as an observer in the morning. This was welcome news. In my efforts to introduce her to the world of hunting, Sue has proven reluctant. Turkeys seem to be the exception though, at least once a season anyway.

On the drive out, I hit a rabbit. It was not an auspicious start, as Sue is loathe to harm any creatures trying to cross her path. It may seem like a strange reaction for a woman on her way to presumably watch a wild turkey get shot in the head, but it's really not. The hunters I know consider all lives to be precious. Any animal killed accidentally or through negligence is to be mourned as a wasted life - very different from a life taken intentionally for our sustenance. We continued on the drive in silence for awhile, then I broke it to ask if Sue was still on my team. Her response was noncommittal. I needed to rally.

We settled in at a spot very close to where I'd heard a gobbler on the roost the week before. As we awaited the sunrise and the gobbling to commence, the surrounding hills came alive with birdsong. The second week in April is prime time to meet the northbound migration as it passes through western North Carolina. From our ambush, we could hear whip-poor-wills, a wood thrush, northern parulas, prairie warbler, black-throated green warbler, yellow-throated warbler, a broad-winged hawk and finally, a wild turkey. But it was not the turkey we had planned to target. He was down slope and distant. I knew we were in the right spot and fought off the urge to chase the gobbler.

By 7:15, it started to become obvious the turkey I expected to be roosted in front of us wasn't there. The old tom down the hill, however, was still gobbling up a storm so I finally broke out my trusty box call and gave a loud sequence of clucks and yelps. He responded with a resounding gobble and, after some 20 minutes of convincing, started heading our way.

From his incessant cackling, it was easy to follow the tom's progress as he trekked up the hollow and then turned left into a narrow gully that led to Sue and I. He went quiet for five minutes or so, then the ground shook when he fired off again; very close, but still unseen. He was pacing around just below us and needed to come a few more yards for me to have a shot. I whispered to Sue to cover her ears, as I anticipated a shot to my left and across her body. The turkey gobbled again and again. I could hear his footsteps right below us but there was no way I would risk trying to belly up to the lip of the gully. Turkey hunting is all about patience and I was pretty sure at that point we had game and set and were just waiting on match.

What do you mean, 'That's it?' I thought you said we were gonna get him.
It never happened. The bird kept right on gobbling; answering every yelp and cluck I made with my box call, but it became quite apparent he was moving away from us, back down the gully and out into the larger hollow. We tried moving in behind him to see if we couldn't rekindle that spark we had before, but the turkey kept on moving out in front of us and finally went up and over the ridge at around 9 a.m., never to be heard again.

I had Sunday to reflect (there is no hunting on Sundays in NC - gasp!) and then went back after them yesterday morning. I was on my own and started in a new spot that had three toms gobbling from their roosts back during my scouting days.

It didn't take long for the birds to fire up and I made my approach up the hill and across several ridges until I felt I was in a prime spot. When it sounded like the birds were gobbling from the ground, I called to them and they answered enthusiastically. After an hour of talking back-and-forth with the gobblers, it became apparent that two of them were starting to close the distance. Within minutes, I was back in the same position I'd been with Sue the day before - gun at my shoulder, pointed downhill, just waiting for one of those old longbeards to step into view. Instead, the birds stayed on the other side of the slope and kept on walking to me. Now they were parallel and on my right. I shifted to point the gun barrel that way and thought about how great it was going to be to drive home with a turkey that morning. But the birds kept on going and soon they were above and behind me - gobbling to beat the band. The hairs on the back of my neck were at full attention.

I had to decide on an all-or-nothing maneuver. The gobblers were behind me, in range, but there was nothing I could do about it unless I turned to face uphill. I could also have just stayed frozen in place and hoped for one of them to come back down, but I went for all the marbles and shifted to my butt in a fluid motion that pointed me in the right direction. I was too late. The birds had already crested the rise and they must have watched my little pirouette with smug amusement. In the half-second it took to situate myself, alarm clucks and footsteps running away were the last I heard of those turkeys. I'd been busted.

I was dejected. It was the closest I'd come to killing a wild turkey in three years and I'd blown it because I hadn't shifted my ass in time to keep up with the birds. It was only a little after 8 a.m., however, and a gobble off in the distance indicated the game was still on.

To keep an long story only slightly less long, I won't bother to detail the four other times I had gobblers responding to my calls. They all stayed off in the distance and nothing came of it. I will, however, tell you of my final, heart-breaking encounter of the day.

I was exhausted, having climbed to the top of the mountain and back, and the sun was high enough to have the sweat pouring down my face. I was hungry too. All I'd had to eat since I woke up was a mug of coffee and a lousy pear. On my way back to the truck, I came up short. A hen turkey was standing in the middle of the trail. I threw the gun up, just in case it turned out to be a jake (a 1-year-old male turkey - legal fodder) and watched her as she fled up the slope. It was 11 o'clock. I thought to myself, "I wonder if she just left a gobbler." I hit the call and a thunderous gobble erupted to my left. It sounded like he was just across the creek, so I slipped into the woods, forded the creek and put my back up against a pile of rocks. I yelped again and he answered. He was very close. I put the box call down and got ready. I waited and waited and waited. I should have waited some more.

I grew impatient after 10 minutes and slid my hand towards the call to try to give him some soft yelps and get him to gobble again. As my hand inched away from my body, I saw the feathered velociraptor slipping through the rhododendrons, just 20 yards away. Our eyes met at the same instant. He had me pegged the instant I moved my fool hand. For several long seconds we were frozen like that, then he turned to run away and I brought the gun up to my cheek and pointed it at his retreating head. It wasn't an ethical shot and I checked myself from taking it. Instead, I watched the big tom cross the trail I'd just come off and head up the slope to safety. I was busted again.

I nearly cried. I know damn well not to make a stupid move like that when a gobbler is close at hand. I don't know why I did it. Maybe I just wanted to hear him gobble again. Maybe I'm just an idiot. Maybe I'll never kill another turkey for as long as I live. I had to take today off from hunting to let my mind settle and body recuperate. Tomorrow I'm going back in. Some people are gluttons for punishment.
This was waiting for me back at the truck after Day 2.

Editor's note: If you want to see some real turkey hunting, check out this video link sent in by Bumbling Bushman pro staffers, Brian and Nate. With Nate on the camera, Brian shot his first archery gobbler on opening day in eastern North Carolina. Obviously, a turkey dies in the video, so consider yourselves forwarned. Enjoy!


  1. That's why turkey hunting is the greatest cat and mouse game ever played and the exact reason why I love it!! Good story even if you are still birdless!

  2. BB
    That's why it's called hunting - not shopping! At least you got a great blog post out of it. If it's any consolation your record is far far more distinguished than mine. Please pass along my congratulations to Brian, he must be made up.


  3. Thanks SB! Unlike Jamie, my plan of attack actually worked perfectly. Days like that, an extremely rare feat in turkey hunting, makes a plan that comes to fruition that much more rewarding.

    Jamie, I lookward to your call tomrrow morning recounting your success!


  4. Magnificent tale. Even camo can't hide your wife's lovely visage...better luck next Tom.

  5. Reminds me of my hunt Monday. My story will be up on the blog on 4/28, this Thursday is reserved for someone who did get one! Good hunting!

  6. They'll make fools of the best of us, Jamie! And catching them flatfooted without solid cover is a real tricky proposition. It's do-able, of course, but tricky as hell.

    The good news is, you have birds in your area. Now it's just a matter of persistence, patience and luck coming together with serendipity. Nothing to it.

  7. Good story, JamCam. Great hunt with Carolina Rig the other day, glad to have caught it all on video (but would have rather had a working gun...ugh). I need to get back out in the woods.

  8. Brian

    the gods are toying with you, when a hunting plan comes together it's just to lull you into a false sense of good fortune, before the next disaster.


  9. Thanks me boyos. I take all of your well-wishes into the field with me next time. As for now, this is all I can muster for a response, after having my ass handed to me yet again this morning. Thank you all for commenting. More turkey season updates later. Right now i need a drink.