Bill Marchel: When hunting turkeys, persistence pays
Now and then a tom or toms would gobble from the direction of private land, but never seemed to get any closer. We were getting discouraged.
PINE RIVER — Rolf Moen, of Nisswa, and I stood in the gray predawn doing what turkey hunters do; listen for the gobbling of tom turkeys as they announce the start of a new day from lofty perches.
Using a diaphragm turkey call placed in my mouth, I shattered the silence with my best imitation of a coyote howling. In the distance, we heard a turkey gobble back. This was May 4, the second day of our seven day season.
Wild turkey toms are odd in the fact they often “shock gobble” in response to loud noises. Some hunters use a crow call, others imitate an owl. Turkeys often gobble back to geese honking, sandhill cranes bellowing, and other loud sounds. In 1981 I shot my first wild turkey, a bird that revealed his roosting location when he responded repeatedly to a horse whinnying from a nearby pasture.
Rolf and I listened as the gobbler sounded off a few more times so we could better pinpoint his location. We surmised the tom was roosted in a woods about one-third mile from where we stood on the edge of a wheat-stubble field.
Legal shooting time was approaching, so we made a decision to move down the field edge to a rock pile located directly across from the gobbling tom. I placed an inflatable hen turkey decoy in the field, and Rolf and I quickly sat with our backs to large rocks, shotguns propped on raised knees.
“I doubt I’ll be able to call the tom across 400 yards of open field,” I whispered to Rolf.
Moments after we took our positions, we realized we were hearing gobbling from more than one tom. Curious to see if I could spot a roosting turkey, I raised my binoculars. There, across the field, roosted on the bare branches of several aspen trees were not one or two, but eight turkeys.
Minutes later, as dawn arrived, it was time to fly down for the turkeys, and one by one five of the birds flew down to ground. Because of a rise in the field, Rolf and I were unable to see the turkeys on the ground. For whatever reason, the remaining three waited maybe 10 minutes before leaving their roosts.
I started calling to the birds sending soft hen yelps using a diaphragm turkey call. Oftentimes, especially in early morning, hen calls are subdued, and sound like the birds are still half asleep. At this point I assumed there were two toms and six hens on the ground behind the hill, and one or both of those toms often answered my calls with lusty gobbles.
In all my years of turkey hunting with a gun, bow and camera, I’ve called in a flock of turkeys maybe only four times. Usually, when a tom has a hen or hens with him, there is no reason for him to come to calling and a decoy. He already has a girlfriend. So, I had little confidence in luring this flock into gun range for Rolf and me.
Then Rolf whispered “There’s a tom on top of the hill.”
I slowly raised my binoculars and spotted the tom in full strut, tail fanned to its fullest, feathers puffed, and wings drooped. He was roughly 300 yards away with nothing but a bare stubble field between him and us. I watched as he slowly strutted in our direction.
Now, to the left of the tom, I spotted three more gobblers, also strutting. In front of three toms were four hens. The entire crew was slowly moving toward us.
The hens were calling with more gusto now. One ploy turkey hunters use is to imitate the hens calling with our own turkey calls. Supposedly hens get upset with what they assume is the new girl on the block, and come for a look. I’m not sure what was going through the four hen’s heads, but each time they yelped, I immediately echoed, and the flock kept advancing slowly. I also threw in some “cutting” which is a hen’s version of “come and get me.” The four toms would gobble back.
One tom was about 50 or so yards ahead of the rest. I was amazed he just kept closing the distance, strutting his way along, with his entourage in tow.
But when the big bird was about 35 years away, he broke into a strut and raised his head to an alert position. It was now or never, even though the three other toms were not yet in gun range.
Rolf took the shot. Wild turkey stir fry was now on the menu.
The tom weighed 21 pounds, sported a 9-inch beard, and long, sharp spurs. Its beautiful iridescent feathers glowed in the morning light — shades of copper, green, gold and purple.
Rolf is relatively new to turkey hunting, but even he realized our morning hunt was very unique.
“That might have been the best turkey hunt I’ve ever had,” I said as we walked side by side toward the truck, Rolf’s gobbler thrown over his shoulder.
BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.