Tag Archives: Turkey

Taylor-Made Turkeys

cimg1669__KaufmanFollowing the trail in the dark almost by instinct, the hunting group’s muted shuffle of feet on the carpet of newly fallen leaves was all that broke the tranquility of the dead-calm morning. The eastern sky’s somber debut of first light slowly revealed the topographical profiles of the Appalachian’s Endless Mountain Region and the promising hollows bisecting them.

Daylight was approaching quickly, and with any kind of scouting savvy and sixth sense, this starting point would produce a flock of turkeys roosted across the hill above them.  Pausing to catch our breath, the tandem father-daughter teams of Jeff Gettys and 16 year-old Olivia, and 14 year-old Taylor and Craig Kauffman, stopped to scan the broad expanse of the wooded ridge above.

Leading the hike on that November 2010 morning were guides John Plowman, Past President of SCI-Blue Mountain; Scott Basehore, champion call maker, and Scott’s six-month old Appalachian turkey dog, Jenny, a promising new addition to this unique sporting breed that’s specifically bred and trained for locating and scattering flocks of turkeys wherever found.

cimg1651__KaufmanOur hunt adventure actually started four years earlier back in 2006, not out in the woods, but with many meetings with SCI leaders and pro-dog-hunting groups scouting for legislative support at the State Capitol. Backed by turkey dog hunters and Pennsylvania SCI Chapters, Senate Bill 580 was introduced in January 2007 to legalize the use of dogs to locate and break the flocks of turkey during the Pennsylvania fall hunting season.  Working closely with State Senate and House members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, SB 580 breezed through the legislative process in record time, becoming law in time for Pennsylvania hunters to hunt fall turkeys during the 2007 season legally with dogs for the first time in history. The success of that effort was another graphic example documenting the long history of Pennsylvania SCI Chapters working to expand hunting opportunities for sportsmen of the Commonwealth.

Sufficiently rested, the groups divided up. Taylor and I continued our trek uphill toward likely roosting areas while Scott and Jenny went out flanking the side hill.  As we approached the summit, our pace was interrupted as several large turkeys suddenly glided off the hill above us, silently disappearing into the wooded mountainside below. We could not hear the telltale busted-bird bark of Jenny, but were fairly certain that she had located our first flock somewhere above us. Arrival at the top of the ridge found Scott and a happy dog waiting.  The flock break was good, and Scott was confident that success was at hand.  Now the hunt would commence in earnest.

the-hunt-starts__KaufmanQuickly adjusting camouflage head nets and gloves, we scrambled for good set-up locations and began the effort to call the birds back together. In short order, the scattered birds began their calling effort to regroup.  Our side of the bench was relatively quiet, but the yelping assembly call response of the scattered birds indicated that the birds might join up downhill closer to the other hunters’ set-up.

Taylor and I sat quietly as the birds appeared to move directly down in front of Jeff and Olivia.  We anticipated Olivia’s shotgun blast that never came.  The survival skills of the crafty birds somehow detected the ambush and, despite being very close to the hunters, they slipped away unseen, confident that the source of the call was not their dominant hen’s tune.

The sun finally broke above the crest of the adjacent mountains, and the coolness of the morning prompted our guide to suggest an alternative set-up.  We moved farther down the ridge and managed to hear another bird calling across the wooded ravine beyond Madi’s Rock, a prime location on the ridge.  Again, another call-up strategy was established, but our efforts resulted in the same outcome–no birds.  That became the pattern of the morning.  Despite the best efforts of Jenny and the hunting team, we could not bring a turkey into shotgun range for the girls. Close each time, but not quite. Typical turkey tactics!

In analyzing the situation and knowing the girls’ appetites as well as their patience limits, John suggested a break for lunch.  That also would give the high-alert turkeys some time to settle down. With renewed adrenaline and the thought of food at their favorite nearby restaurant, the team exited the mountain with amazing speed.

Rehashing the morning events over lunch suggested that all aspects of our morning efforts could still lead to afternoon success:  willing hunters, a high-energy dog and lots of turkeys.  It just didn’t come together on the first round.  It took some convincing of the girls, but we eventually managed to find ourselves back on the mountaintop for the afternoon round.

into-the-woods__KaufmanTaylor, Scott, Jenny and I decided to head in one direction while John, Jeff and Olivia headed into a distant hollow where John located another group of birds while scouting around earlier that day.  Our pleasant walk out a logging road was short lived.  I paused to show Taylor a fresh turkey track in a muddy spot, when Jenny exploded from the road in the exact direction of the track.  She disappeared over the crest of the closest bench and broke into a series of loud whoops signaling, “BIRDS ARE HERE GANG!”

We quickly eased to that break site to check, but Jenny was passionately running in a wide circle and it was certain that the foraging birds were scattered in an abrupt manner.  Locating a big tree with a good view and multiple shooting lanes, Taylor and I set-up for a safe shot. Scott secured Jenny in her duffle bag and began calling to engage these new candidates. After several tries, we heard one answer from deep in the Hemlock thickets below.  I quietly signaled to Taylor and she acknowledged hearing the call.

As planned, the curious bird began to answer Scott’s calls, moving closer with each response.  Typical of many turkeys, the bird began a wide loop to our left in an effort to locate visually the source of the kee-kee run assembly calls.  I repositioned Taylor to where I thought the turkey would enter the bench, her shotgun wobbling on the readjusted bi-pod.  Our moves were just completed when a large dark bird materialized silently from behind a pine tree 80 yards in front of us.

taylor-&-jenny__KaufmanSilence and stillness marked the standoff.  We were clearly in full view of the bird, but the distance was too far for Taylor to take a shot.  Taylor kept her composure, and after a long pause the bird continued to move in our direction.  Each step closed the gap, and with incredible patience Taylor allowed the bird to close within 40 yards before her shotgun broke the stillness of the afternoon.  The flopping wings as the bird rolled down over the hill confirmed the shot, and a quick retrieval gave Taylor her first turkey to tag…and always remember.  It was a wonderful way to end the day, and a great way to validate SCI’s efforts to expand new hunting opportunities to the next generation. Thank you SCI.– Craig Kauffman

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Look Before You Sit

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The Russian River valley, where oak woodlands like those in the foreground are a preferred habitat of Rio Grande turkeys.

It began like countless other spring wild-turkey hunts I experienced in northwestern California in the Russian River valley, a region where I have hunted Rio Grande turkeys for many years. Early to bed, early to rise and then the much-anticipated uphill trek in the inky black, predawn darkness on a mountainous, oak/woodland dominated property.

Since I began hunting this subspecies of wild turkey in the late 1980s, Rio Grande populations have exploded in Northern California and even reached pest-status proportions in some areas, especially during the past decade.

It was mid-April 2005, a time when during a normal weather year (is there such a thing anymore?) most of the hens are spending their daylight hours either incubating their eggs or feeding rather than cavorting with the single-minded, polygamous toms. The spring turkey-hunting season in California spans late March to early May. Until about mid-April, the dominant toms that do most of the breeding are tending their harems, and are difficult to call in unless a competitive or curious hen lures them into range, an all-too-infrequent occurrence.

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The slate call used to lure many Rio Grande turkeys within shooting range.

As I climbed slowly uphill, I listened carefully for the telltale gobbling of roosted toms, which may begin calling hens nearly an hour before sunrise. Later in the morning, when toms cease gobbling, I invariably glass for them and try to locate their signs, such as their characteristic J-shaped droppings and large-sized tracks.

I reached my intended destination around daybreak and setup against the trunk of a large oak in the same area where I killed my first tom on this ranch years earlier. As daylight emerged, I uttered a short series of soft tree yelps with a 1980s vintage slate call that I favor, to no avail.

Before mid-morning, I spotted two turkeys in separate locations while traversing more than a mile of foothill rangeland. One was far enough away to be of indeterminate sex, the other was a lone tom in a large grassy flat no more than 100 yards away. Neither bird showed any interest in my imploring yelps, however.

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Pairs or larger groups of Rio Grande males engage in cooperative mating behavior during the breeding season, but only one of them reproduces.

Male Bonding

The only encouragement I received, albeit apparently not in response to my periodic calling, was that occasionally I heard some very faint gobbles originating from a ridge high atop the ranch, a climb of perhaps 1,000 feet or more. Running out of options, I decided to explore the ridge top and, I hoped, locate what I now perceived to be two toms hanging out together.

In California, research has revealed that genetically related pairs, or larger groups, of mature Rio Grande males engage in cooperative courtship behavior. This team strategy, as compared with solitary courtship, increases the reproductive success of the dominant male (the subordinate males do not reproduce), and therefore helps to ensure passage of their shared genetic material to the next generation. After the early morning mating dance ends and the hens resume foraging or return to their nests, bonded toms are vulnerable to the call and may provide the hunter with a choice of two or more longbeards.

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The author set up against an oak tree, and prepared to call in a bird.

As I neared the summit and resumed calling, the series of double gobbling intensified and grew louder in response to my yelps. The birds were located in a dense stand of oaks, most of which were too narrow in diameter to conceal the breadth of my shoulders.

After entering the woodland, I quickly located a suitable tree and sat down because the birds were less than 75 yards away. In my haste, I forgot to examine the bark for presence of ants, a cardinal sin for a medical entomologist who, based upon past experience, should have known better. I began yelping, and both birds responded instantly with loud, overlapping gobbles. After a repeat performance a few minutes later, the toms approached rapidly and were about to appear up-close and personal.

An Unwelcome Intruder

Unfortunately, just before they showed up less than 30 paces away, I became aware of my folly. A bi-colored, fairly large-sized wood ant was sharing the trunk-landscape with me, and as I was soon to learn, it possessed a belligerent personality. This ant had not only abundantly infested my camouflage clothing from my buttocks up my backside to the top of my head, but it was invading my head net inside and out. Worse, it was about to reveal its displeasure with my unwelcome presence.

Well, you probably guessed it. By then, the birds had arrived, too. Their beady eyeballs were riveted on me, the source of the seductive, female-like sounds they had been tracking. At the time of their arrival, my shotgun was nestled across my knees with the safety device in the off-position, and I was frozen like a rope in a Canadian blizzard, awaiting the opportunity to close the deal.

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A wood ant (Formica sp.) similar in size and coloration to the species that attacked the author during the hunting experience described here.

Several minor obstacles had to be overcome first, not the least of which was that the wood ants were having a field day, and I was their field of play. I must have either annoyed or squashed one or more of their brethren by my occasional bodily movements because right after the toms appeared, all hell broke loose. Those ants that had managed to penetrate my clothing and contact my skin began biting with a vengeance.

When certain species of ants lose their cool, they release what entomologists call an alarm pheromone. A pheromone is a chemical signal emitted by an individual that influences the behavior or development of other individuals of the same species. Ant alarm pheromones are defensive secretions aimed at recruiting fellow nest-mates to protect the colony. One such alarm pheromone, formic acid, is recognizable by its pungent odor. Some ants that lack a stinger, such as the wood ants biting me, spray formic acid at their intruders or secrete it into the wounds caused by their bites.

I needed to make a decision, fast – should I remove the ants biting me on the face and elsewhere, and run the great risk of having to say goodbye to the two longbeards intently staring in my direction, or gut it out until I could get a clear and decisive head shot at one of them?

It was a no-brainer after I contemplated how much effort I had expended to reach this point of the hunt. But, there were two other difficulties that I also had to confront before I could end what was becoming an ordeal. The two toms were standing uncomfortably close together like a pair of Siamese twins joined at the hip and, to my further dismay, there was a tree in the foreground that blocked my line of fire.

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A mature tom harvested by the writer in the Russian River valley in spring 2011. It weighed over 20 pounds, had spurs exceeding 1 inch in length and sported a 10-inch beard.

Luckily, this standstill lasted only a few minutes, though it seemed like an eternity. The ants continued their unrelenting assault on the source of their discontent. Tiring of the game, and because the toms stood firmly in place, I slowly leaned to my left so that I could shoot around the trunk fronting me.

One of the toms spotted my movement, and promptly elevated its head to get a better look at the moving foreign object. As it did, I aimed my Remington Model 870 Express 12-gauge shotgun high on its head to minimize hitting the other bird, and delivered a load of 1 5/8 ounces of No.4 shot offhand. The tom dropped in its tracks as the other bird ran off into a nearby ravine. I followed the flight-path of the second tom to make certain that I hadn’t wounded it, and thankfully it was nowhere in sight.

The tom I killed was an older bird with a nearly 10-inch, sparse beard and well-worn spurs, one of which was broken off at the tip. Its partner likewise was a longbeard. Over the years, I have taken many mature toms on this particular ranch and another nearby one including several trophy birds. Needless to say, since the incident with the wood ants, I have made it a point to look before I sit.– Robert S. Lane, Ph.D.

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Eskişehir–A Turkish Hunting Delight

Roaring.

The sound shakes the body. It’s not bugling, as done by our magnificent Rocky Mountain elk. Stags roar like lions–powerful sounds volleying from mountain to mountain, like Federer versus Nadal at Wimbledon. The shockwaves get the heart pumping at jackhammer rates. It’s physical. You feel the roar as much as hear it.

I was standing on a slab of rock amid thickets of scrub brush and pines in the Sundiken Mountains. It is about an hour’s drive north of Eskişehir, which is southeast of Istanbul, about halfway between Istanbul and Ankara. This morning I had joined Torben, an experienced hunter from Denmark, and our guide, Serkan Mert, who has hunted many of the most challenging venues in Europe and Asia.

dsc00891_-SabbethThe many roars and their frequency were harbingers of good fortune. It was dark when we arrived but the rosy sunrise was now shoving aside the blue-black night. And the crisp air, which carried the scent of chilled apples, was beginning to warm. A perky enthusiasm pervaded my body and soul, despite having arrived at the Spartan hunting camp just a few strokes before midnight and being awakened less than four hours later. Moreover, I’d had a substantial glass of Raki, a tradition in these parts.

But this morning, in the words of James Brown, I felt good. The hilly terrain and patches of thick scrub demanded slow, attentive steps. You relied on the rifle’s safety. Breathing was slightly labored, even for Torben and Serkan, who had the conditioning of triathletes. We stopped intermittently to glass the mountains. It was early October, the middle of the four- to five-week rutting season.

02-(3)_-Sabbeth-NoWordsStags are nocturnal eaters. The females, to ingest needed sugar, congregate in apple orchards and other locations rich in accessible grass and leaves. During the day, the males roar and rub their horns on trees to get rid of their velvet and to mark their territory. I wonder about the efficacy of their ritual because there are millions of trees and only dozens of stags.

Mideastern stags average 500 to 650 pounds. Significantly larger animals are not uncommon, as I learned two days later. The art is to find the spot where there are lots of females and then stalk through the forest, somewhat the same theory that applies in a singles bar.

A roar that seemed quite close had us focusing on a mountainside about half a mile ahead. We walked quickly uphill, maneuvering through thickets and over sharp glacial rocks that subverted solid footing and threatened to make our boots look like they’d been diced and sliced in a Cuisinart. Another forceful, throaty roar caused us to turn to our left. Torben and Serkan raised their binoculars in unison as if toasting the moment and glassed the mountains. Torben hesitated, and then excitedly yelled, “Stag.”

dsc_0170_-SabbethHe and Serkan took off like sprinters out of the blocks. I was outpaced within a hundred steps. I confess, humbly, that I was not in condition to keep up. I thought of the words of Dirty Harry Callahan–“A man’s gotta know his limitations.” I try to know mine.

I walked back to the road to look for the car driven by the game warden assigned to our hunt as is required by law. I found him leisurely smoking a cigarette in his vehicle. We drove up the road in the direction I thought Torben and Serkan had gone. Fifteen minutes later I got out of the car and walked up the road about half a mile. I stopped when I heard a shot. Then I heard another. Thirty minutes later, Torben found us and took us to his trophy. His stag was 9×9 points and weighed about 770 pounds. It was taken at 200 yards with a Sauer 7mm Remington Magnum.

Torben became poetic as he stated the significance of this experience. “You have a video in the mind with auto playback anytime you want. Any time you close your eyes, you have it forever.” He was expressing a sentiment similar to one described by Ortega y Gassett in his classic volume, Meditations on Hunting,  “Once absorbed in a pleasurable occupation, we catch a starry glimpse of eternity.”– Michael G. Sabbeth

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