I killed my first gobbler in 1970 or ’71, I think—an 18½-pound jake that gobbled for an hour just like an old ground-raker. That was also a first and last, because that was a BIG jake. I haven’t killed a juvenile gobbler since that would tip 18 pounds on the scales.
A week or so later I got my first mature tom, and I can remember it like it was yesterday. I figured there wasn’t much to this turkey hunting business and expected to get one every time I heard a gobble. In the years that followed, I learned about all the things that keep turkey hunters humble. Indeed, it is sometimes the easiest thing in the world to call in and kill a wild gobbler. And then sometimes it seems next to impossible, no matter how much you know, or the amount of experience you have.
A lack of patience was always my ruination; it still is today. A hunter who can sit still for two or three house and envision his gobbler only 70 or 80 yards away even after the gobbling has stopped is the hunter who will enjoy a great deal of success. But me, I give up on one too quickly and figure there might be another old tom sounding off in another valley, just over the ridge.
Positioning was another problem I had. It didn’t take long to learn that you didn’t sit in the sunlight or hide behind a tree you had to peer around. Somehow, a hunter has to hide where he can get the best opportunity to see the gobbler and shoot it. As simple as that sounds, it may be the most complicated part of turkey hunting. If I hear one gobble close, I too often just plop down anywhere that offers some cover.
After learning all these things and overcoming the worst of my shortcomings to some degree, I found other mistakes to make. For instance, novice hunters hear a gobbler and very often try to get within 50 yards. It seems like a good idea because then you only have to call the tom 15 yards or so. But it seldom works, unless the wind is blowing very hard and there’s a large rock wall between hunter and turkey. They can spot a movement in the woods at unbelievable distances. And they can tell whether or not it’s a hen turkey. If it is something else, they have no curiosity at all. It is best to try to call the gobbler a bit farther and not risk making him suspicious by getting in too close.
I am not going to tell you how many gobblers I have killed in the spring, but I will tell you that in those many years I worked as a turkey hunting guide I called in a lot of gobblers for clients, and quite a few for non-paying friends. I also called in a few that got spooked or got missed. I will never forget the time I saw an eight-inch hickory tree take a full load of number six shot as a gobbler stepped behind it, only 20 yards away. There are a hundred or so stories like that. I wrote a book entitled, “The Greatest Wild Gobblers, Lessons Learned from Old Timers and Old Toms.” If you would like to find out where to find one, call my office and have Ms. Wiggins, the secretary, give you the information.
In that book there is a chapter telling how you can make a little cedar box call that I have used all these many years, a call that you can make in 10 minutes or so. I’ve probably made a few hundred in the last several years, new ones each year for new gobblers. It is a soft call you can’t hear a long way off, but gobblers can. Hunters who complain that they can call a gobbler from a half mile away but can’t get him to come the final 70 or 80 yards are almost always too loud, most using mouth calls.
Other problems that new turkey hunters face include using 20-gauge or open-bore shotguns; a smoker’s cough; and the tendency to doze off when it gets warm and still on a beautiful spring morning.
Many hunters who fail are hunters who like to sneak up on turkeys or come in for breakfast at 9:30 in the morning. This time of year, plenty of turkey hunting stories begin with, “I should’ve…” or “If only...”
They end with “next time…”
In the Ozarks this year there’s the problem of declining numbers of gobblers. It has been happening now for six or seven years and it is serious. Next week I will write about why I think it is happening.
In feeding and photographing winter turkeys all over for the past ten years, I have seen a real decline, in some areas where there were winter flocks holding 10 or 12 mature gobblers, the number has dropped to three or four.
That is a tremendous drop in numbers. But in this day and time, few turkey hunters, and few wildlife biologists, spend enough time outdoors to know it. I hope it changes but I don’t think it will be any time soon. Why? More about that and what I think we should do about it, in next week’s column.
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