The best time of the year is on the horizon. After waiting nearly a year, the end is in sight, rather, the beginning is in sight, the beginning of turkey season that is. Last turkey season was not nearly as successful as I hoped it would be. I do consider the season partially successful, though, because, although I did not take a bird last year, I did learn a lot. When I think of some highly qualified and skilled turkey hunters here in Butler County and consider these guys who usually take their limit on gobblers only got one or two, then I feel pretty good.
As with any hunting season, the year started off with promise. Pre-season scouting trips were rewarded with plenty of turkey signs and early spring mornings were full of gobblers rocking the timber with their morning calls.
The first morning yielded a tom very close to where I had set up to listen and he sounded hot! Every yelp I sent in his direction, he answered and it seemed like he was going to come in. From where he was sounding off, it followed the pattern of a turkey I had gotten on late the previous season after having harvested an old boss gobbler from the same area. I was situated on the edge of a food plot and things were looking good. As I continued to work the tom, I heard a flutter of wings behind me and chanced a look over my shoulder and there, floating into the plot, was a hen. I felt pretty good, not only had I gotten a gobbler to answer my yelps, but I had also fooled a hen into thinking she had some company. She settled into the food plot and began to yelp along with me trying to coax the tom down to where we were. One of the first things I learned in my short turkey-hunting career is, if a real hen wants to call gobblers into gun range, let her, but remember, now your chances of those sharp eyes detecting any slight movement have just doubled. Every now and then, I would yelp, just to let her know she wasn’t alone. She was very close and I was able to listen to her calling for better than a quarter of an hour. After a short while, I was able to duplicate not only her rhythm but also her pitch. After a while, the tom refused to cross a small stream and moved away from my new friend and me. The last I saw of that young hen was a look in my direction that looked like she was asking her sister, "What was wrong with him?" and walking off in the opposite direction. I sat there with every call I own and tried to duplicate her sounds while it was still fresh on my mind and finally was able to do it and was rewarded by an answering gobble, but was unable to call the bird to me.
After several more attempts to harvest this turkey, I have convinced myself he must be a big old boss gobbler because he has a set routine he follows most mornings and when he gobbles, every other tom in the woods shuts up. The season ended with me concentrating on him so his reign of terrorizing every other tom in the woods would end. I finally found the tree he liked to roost in most evenings and the problem with that is it is very strategically located with plenty of visibility for this bird to wait until the sun comes up and hens fly down, then he can decide where he wants to go. This is a gobbler that makes the hens come to him.
Finally, I decided I had him figured out. He roosted in that one tall pine tree that gave him a commanding view of a hardwood bottom. He could sit there until sunrise, talking to his hens and when they flew down, he could fly down near them, gather them up and take them to a hill top where he could strut and drum to his heart’s content for them.
The last day of the season rolled around and, while I had gotten on a gobbler in a different spot, I still had no luck in taking him either. Having chased the old boss for six weeks of turkey season, I finally had a plan to get him. I planned to get into the woods before dawn and get around him, before he could see me from his crow’s nest of a tree and beat him to his favorite hilltop.
Morning arrived and I actually got to the woods a little later than I wanted and had a mile or so to walk to get into position. When I reached the bottom of the hill I was aiming for, it was beginning to break daylight. I hadn’t heard him gobble, so I didn’t know where he was and hoped my gamble had paid off. Suddenly, once again his now familiar gobble shook the trees; he was behind me, I had gotten around him without him seeing me; I was fired up. As I eased up the hill, I got to a spot where the ground was all torn up and there were not only wing drag marks, but also tracks and a couple of feathers. If you are an experienced turkey hunter, you know what I found. I was standing in the middle of the holy grail of turkey hunters, a gobbler’s strutting ground. All the while I was hearing this bird behind me tearing up the world gobbling and I haven’t hit a lick on a call yet!
My original plan had been to sit at the hilltop and wait with an occasional yelp from the call I had learned to exactly imitate that hen from the first day of the season. He was at the bottom of the hill, but apparently having trouble rounding up his hens because he would not start his daily trip up the hill. I knew he would eventually come because I was sitting next to his strut zone. One of the other first things I ever learned was: never give the high ground to a gobbler. Fighting all my instincts, I decided to get up and move down to him. Just as I got to the edge of the food plot at the bottom of the hill and yelped at him, he gobbled. He gobbled about 150 yards south of his strutting ground and about 75 yards above me. Fortunately there was plenty of cover between him and me, and I was able to hotfoot it back to my original position. At this point, I started yelping to him and got no answer. It was almost as if he had disappeared from the face of the earth.
I looked at my watch and it was nine o’clock and I hadn’t heard anything from him for some time and was coming to the conclusion that turkey season 2009 had come to an end. I was sitting there enjoying my last morning in the woods trying to talk myself into getting up and heading home, when movement caught my eye and I saw a red head moving through the pines. It was the gobbler! He moved behind some yaupon bushes and I decided he couldn’t see me and to shift my position slightly. As I was shifting, he appeared with three hens in tow. Now I had eight pairs of those eyes to avoid. After being in a half crouch with my gun at my shoulder for about ten minutes, my arms were telling me something had to change. I quickly calculated the range and decided he was close enough to kill. I took the shot. My last vision of looking down the barrel as the gun went off was the bead was about an inch over his head when my finger squeezed the trigger just as my arms were giving out. I missed the bird entirely. I count the hunt as almost a success because I had outsmarted him and caught him with most of his guard down. It had taken me all of the season, but I had figured out what call he was vulnerable to, what his movement patterns were and almost how he thought. I tell folks the last thing he expected on that hillside strutting zone was a twelve gauge shotgun being pointed at him and going off.
I hope a gobbler’s memory is as bad as they say it is, because I know where I’ll be on the morning of March 15th, I have even found a quicker way to get to my spot. I’ll keep you posted, so keep on the lookout for a photograph.
Ralph Ricks is the manager of Quality Cooperative, Inc. in Greenville.