Harvesting turkeys requires different techniques
By: Richard Ledbetter Photography: Richard Ledbetter/Courtesy Of Arkansas Department Of Parks And Tourism
Sitting for long periods under a big tree in the woods gives a man ample time to think. While waiting for a big gobbler to show up last spring, I wandered down memory lane, recalling some 30-plus years as a turkey hunter.
Back in 1983, when I first took up the pursuit of the wily birds, there weren’t nearly as many turkeys or hunters as we see today. With no practical experience of my own or previous background with turkey hunting, there proved to be a great deal of trial and error to the learning curve. In an effort to improve my skills, I spent time with older gentlemen in the community, seeking their advice on where and how to actually bag my first bird. Best bit of advice they gave me? Keep the calling to a minimum, and once a bird answers you, put the caller down, stay put and wait for him to come looking for the hen he thinks he responded to.
That old-school method requires a good deal of patience, more akin to traditional deer hunting than the excitement expected of a big tom coming in hot and ready, gobbling, drumming and strutting all the way. It proved effective, though, and I finally bagged my first bird after a few unsuccessful seasons of hard hunting.
A dozen years passed with a like number of gobblers added to my tally. It was about that time I met up with one Vernon Burford. Vern had bagged his share of south Arkansas gobblers, going about it with an entirely different method from the one I’d learned years earlier. I looked forward to the opportunity to spend time in the woods with a legend, learning his way of doing things. I paid close attention and came away with an alternate brand of hunting. Accordingly, my turkey harvesting numbers went up exponentially after just one season following Burford around the sticks.
Vern’s idea was to aggressively call to and move quickly on a bird once it gobbles. He’d go at full gallop to get to a spot to lure the tom out of the roost tree, then make quick work of it. He was a pretty fair hand at getting into position before the gobbler arrived. Of course, knowing the lay of the land is of utmost importance when hunting this way. It’s kind of hard to beat the bird to his intended destination and know where that might be if you’re not mighty familiar with the terrain required to cross to get there first.
Another 50 turkey beards have come to hang on the walls of my log home since. I amalgamated both the “old school” patience and aggressive “move on the bird” techniques into a blended style incorporating what I believe to be the best of both worlds. It’s just such a combination of techniques that served me well on a hunt made this past spring.
The morning broke crisp and clear, and I set out after a gobbler that had eluded me the previous day. I hadn’t quite been in the right location when he gobbled and didn’t manage to move on him quick enough to close the deal before he hushed up and disappeared. From my preseason scouting trips in the neighborhood, I’d become pretty familiar with his usual habits. He liked to roost on a tall hilltop in a stand of pines on the crest of the rise.
Many folks will tell you how smart an old gobbler is. I tend to think of them as far more patient than overly bright. Its not how much smarter they are than their pursuers as how they’ll give a hunter all the time he needs to mess himself up. As I sat there waiting for what seemed an interminable length of time, I began to second-guess my plan, thinking perhaps I’d picked the wrong place to set up that day. At the same time, I reminded myself the importance of giving a plan sufficient time to prove out, so I waited quietly a little longer.
After another half-hour, the woods erupted with his gobbling through the tall trees all around. With my back against a 4-foot-diameter loblolly, shotgun perched on an upraised knee, I spied his silhouette strutting back and forth along the crest of the ridge above and in front of me. I froze in place, silently clicking the safety off my Remington 12-gauge. I expected him to swagger down the slope within gun range and I’d have my opportunity.
After a few minutes of continued gobbling, he wandered further along the ridgeline and entered the adjacent clear-cut. I called softly in hopes of drawing him in my direction, but watched helpless as he made his way quickly down the hill and along the wood line heading north. I let out my breath, relaxing at his exit, thinking how my patient “old school” method had failed. But still, all was not lost. He hadn’t seen me, so he wasn’t spooked. It was time to take more aggressive action.
I got to my feet in a crouch and climbed the steep slope darting from big tree to big tree for concealment. I made my way along the ridgeline to the edge of the trees with camouflage mask still in place. There he was, dark feathers glistening in the morning sun, some 200 yards distant, pecking along next to the pine plantation at the far end of the clear-cut. My blood again rose realizing the hunt wasn’t done.
With a new plan in place, I began to trot in full gear, shotgun slung over my shoulder and a hunting vest loaded with various turkey calls, bottled water, insect repellent, extra shells and seat cushion. I stopped at intervals to breathe and briefly look over the rise to check the progress of my quarry. I was pleased to see him slowly but surely making his way ever east toward where I expected.
I pushed on through briars and low hanging limbs, hurrying as silently as possible down the hillside and along the diverging trails. Stopping to catch my breath, I crawled quietly the last few yards into position to look out over the clear-cut. I got into a somewhat comfortable position with my back against a pine sapling and a low-lying hedge of blackberry vines in front. The only drawback to my plan was the gobbler had two ways he could turn when he reached the gravel road. Sometimes it all comes down to luck.
I watched him pecking his way toward the road as patiently as I could, my elevated blood pressure slowly returning to normal. He occasionally disappeared behind foliage but soon again reappeared as he made his way steadily east, stopping occasionally to strut and gobble. I took a few swigs from my water bottle and readied my call to encourage him in my direction if need be. As he came to the road some 65 yards distant, I readied my gun. The bird pecked small stones for his craw and flared his feathers in silence, making great display of his plumage in the late morning light. He stalled in place, walking round and round at the trailhead. I took up my Lynch box-call and gave him some cuts, clucks and a yelp. He perked up and fluffed out his feathers but didn’t make a step in my direction. This went on for another 20 minutes before he slowly began to wander away.
Once more I let out a breath, thinking at this rate he might live to gobble another day. Taking a few more moments, I decided we weren’t yet done. Giving him sufficient time to disappear up the road, I emerged from the cover and slipped across the opening to the pine plantation at the far side of the clear-cut.
Once more, my knowledge of trails through the plantation thickets facilitated my movements to get ahead of the bird’s path. As I stealthily slipped along, I paused at times to listen for his gobbles. He obliged me, revealing his whereabouts in relation to my own. Racing forward I intended to head him off and be ready for his appearance.
Remembering his habits from previous days, I could only hope he’d complete his circuit around the plantation and make his way back into the north end of the 80-acre forest where we’d first begun our dance. I backed out of the pines and made my way toward a spot where the plantation, clear-cut and big woods all joined on each other. With any luck, he’d eventually end up right at that intersection. As I made my way for the ambush spot, his continued gobbling indicated the direction of his trek might just bring my plan to fruition.
With gun at the ready, I put my back against the base of a great spreading oak near the edge of the mixed stand of timber. After only a short while, I heard him strike up gobbling hotter than he’d been all day in one of his favorite strutting zones some 100 yards west in the midst of the tall trees. I waited and listened while he went on for another 10 minutes double and triple gobbling. It was enough to make the whole ordeal worthwhile. I clucked on my slate a few times to excite his interest. He answered me twice with double gobbles, then went silent.
In another moment, the underbrush parted, and the bird came through the big trees at a steady trot, its long, thick beard wagging back and forth. I followed his progress with my gun barrel as he stepped out into the clearing 30 yards distant. Easing off the safety, I squeezed the trigger. He staggered but failed to drop. I drew a second bead and let fly. He dropped dead in his tracks, barely flopping in his death throes, lifeless before me in the corner of the cutover. I leapt to my feet and bounded toward the harvest. Elation washed over me to see the 7-hour hunt come to satisfactory culmination. He was a fully mature 3-year-old with an 11-inch beard and inch-and-a-quarter spurs.
Following a long employed ritual, I pulled my hunting license from a shirt pocket and retrieved a condiment pack of salt from between its folds. Tearing it open, I emptied the contents over the head and feathers of the bird in a Native-American salt blessing tradition, saying a prayer of thanks to the Creator for the creature who gave up this gift. I filled out my tag grinning from ear to ear and slung the beautiful trophy over a shoulder before striking out on the mile walk back to my truck.
Persistence paid dividends. Worn out from the adventure, I slept the sleep of the righteous that evening.
SAFETY IS KEY
Hunting is some of the best fun anyone can have, but it comes with a great deal of responsibility. Practicing good firearm safety techniques can mean the difference between a great story to tell and tragedy. Play it safe!
Ten Commandments of Firearm Safety:
Treat every gun as if it were loaded.
Always be aware of where the gun’s muzzle is pointed.
Unload guns when not in use.
Be sure the barrel is clear of obstructions.
Be sure of your target before you pull the trigger.
Never point a gun at anything you do not want to shoot.
Never climb a tree or fence or jump a ditch with a loaded firearm.
When hunting in a tree stand, verify your gun is on safety before climbing. Maintain three points of contact at all times while climbing; either two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand.
Never shoot a bullet at a flat, hard surface or water.
Store guns and ammunition separately.
Avoid alcoholic beverages before and during shooting.
For more safety information, visit the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at afgc.com.