I am the world’s worst turkey hunter. I get a gag reflex when I try to use a diaphragm call, hopeless…but it really wouldn’t matter, because I’m not only deaf but tone deaf, so the strange sounds I make with box calls and slate calls probably sound really weird to a turkey. If that’s not bad enough, I have a really hard time sitting still! However, I keep trying, and it’s important that I keep trying, because turkey hunting is the All-American Springtime Sport, after the whitetail probably the second-most important and popular game in North America.
We speak of the comeback of the wild turkey as one of our greatest conservation success stories, but that’s a gross understatement. By the early 20th Century, turkeys had vanished from much of their native range and the total population was down to perhaps 30,000. Today there might be ten million birds but, as important, they have not only been returned to virtually all their native range; they are found in many areas that never had turkeys before: California, Hawaii, all across southern Canada. When I was a kid there were no turkeys remaining in my native Kansas. Now we have plenty, but I remember when Dad and I went down to the Missouri’s Ozarks for their first modern turkey season, I think it was about 1964. We had no idea what we were doing (even less then than now), but we made strange sounds on box calls and I managed to call up another turkey hunter.
The Wild Turkey Federation, state game agencies and so many other groups and individuals have done a marvelous job bringing back our turkeys. I think it’s extremely appropriate that our SCI record-keeping system recognizes the wild turkey, this for several reasons. First, in many ways they are hunted more like big game than gamebirds. Second, they are generally hunted selectively…it isn’t particularly common to be able to see and judge the spurs before the shot, but it’s easy (and in most states legally required) to tell a gobbler from a hen, and the beard can usually be seen and judged. Third, and perhaps most important of all, turkey hunting has become its own culture and industry in this country, an avid pursuit for millions of North American hunters…and thus right up our alley as SCI First for Hunters.
Under the heading of “blind hogs find acorns” I’ve shot a lot of turkeys over the years and, I’ll admit it, guides and friends have called in some of them for me. I’ve tried to pay attention, and I keep trying. Maybe I’m actually getting better because this was my best spring season ever. Hunting in Georgia and on my place in Kansas, I actually called in five gobblers and shot three. My Georgia bird from buddy Zack Aultman’s place was the best, but my second bird in Kansas was the most exciting.
I roosted some birds the night before, so well before daylight I crawled into the place we call the “Pecan Grove,” set out a couple of decoys, and settled my back against a stout tree. I had an owl hoot, but there was no need to use it; I had heard birds fly up, and a real owl had gotten one of them to gobble. Maybe it was the same owl that hooted that morning, but in the pre-dawn blackness a bird gobbled, close enough that I wondered if I’d gotten too close. But now it was too late to do anything about it, so I waited until it was starting to get light, then hit the slate gently.
I saw movement through the trees when the gobbler came down, but it looked like he just dropped off his perch. That’s the only one I saw, but I heard others come off the roost deeper in the grove. Nothing for a while, and then a hen started calling off in that direction. I talked, she talked…no sound from the gobbler. The hen wasn’t far, but invisible, and she was totally off-key. Geez, she sounded worse than me, and I was reminded of my first turkey hunting experience in Missouri a half-century ago. Except this was my place, so I was calling in a poacher instead of another misguided pilgrim.
Well, not much to worry about for the moment; dressed in camo with gloves and head net, for sure I didn’t look like a turkey. Then I realized that, along with a hen decoy, I had a redheaded jake decoy out in front of me and this joker sounded directly in line. I’d long since quit calling, but my trespasser was still clucking and purring away, doing a terrible job of it…but getting closer. I was just about to stand up and holler when the hen came into view.
She stood with the decoys for long seconds, and then moved off to the right…and then I saw the gobbler in full strut, but about 80 yards out, at the limit of my vision. When he passed behind some thick stuff, I reached for the slate and stroked a couple of soft purrs. Then I put the slate down carefully and slowly drew my knees up, sliding the shotgun over them. A few tense seconds seemed like hours, and then the redhead floated into view. Honest, I was about to die from excitement…you would have thought it was a monstrous buck or a record book ram! He was just beyond the decoys, a bit past 20 yards, when I shot him…and I was just as pleased as if he’d been a huge buck or a big mountain sheep. I’m not kidding myself; I’ve still got a lot to learn about turkey hunting, but maybe I’m making progress!–Craig Boddington