Turkeys become call shy. It’s a known fact, at least from my experiences. I have had encounters with turkeys where they behaved much more timidly the second go around and are much less willing to dance than at first. Yes, too much calling and too much hunting pressure in general encourage the birds to hush up, or simply get out of dodge. I’m hoping a little stair climbing this winter will fix this recurring problem.
I woke up one morning this past weekend simply not feeling well. I know what it is; I’ve been there before, almost annually. Deer season ends, the holidays come around, a chocolate cream pie here, Christmas sugar cookies there, and Boom! The dormancy of winter has a way of seriously affecting my waistline, and not to its benefit. I also have a fondness for diet soda that, quite frankly, ends up making me feel lousy. Thankfully, I have been able to quit cold turkey (no pun intended) before, and I am on one of those kicks now.
So, I am back to counting calories. Monitoring my intake and calculating my calorie deficit. And walking stairs. Man, that’s fun. I work in a 5-story building, so six times a day I quickly jaunt up all five flights and come back down. I’m huffing and puffing by the time I’m done so I know I am burning calories. It’s worked before.
Why am I doing this? Well, for starters, I don’t like feeling like dog vomit. But more importantly, and this ties into my opening paragraph, I want to chase turkeys where the other hunters don’t. I don’t want to get up in the woods and not have a gameplan if the birds aren’t answering my calls. I want to get moving. Up the ridges and over the mountain, a mile or two deep into the timber. Nobody else goes there, except the turkeys that have been toyed with. They go there and will be more apt to play ball if they feel secure in their environment.
I have been watching the usual YouTube turkey hunting folks and they are doing this. They are getting up ridiculously early and hauling ass to get to places very few have gone before. It’s exhausting work, but they are in shape and can do it. And they see, hear, and harvest more than their share of birds. I’m sold. It’s time to go walk another five flights. Right after I shoo away this Devil Dog.
It was pitch black dark when the horrific sound of the alarm catapulted me out of what was surely a beautiful dream. I looked at the clock. 4:15 AM. The first day of youth spring turkey hunting. The cobwebs beginning to dissipate, I searched in my sleepy brain for a solution to my next problem. How was I going to break it to my 12-year-old son that it was time to get up?
Youth weekends offer an opportunity in my area that I didn’t have when I grew up; a chance to get after the game, whether it be turkeys or deer, before the big boys stormed the woods. While one might think that this would be enough to get my son fired up, it was pretty dark and I’m sure his bed was quite comfortable. Reluctantly, and I must admit, perhaps only because he didn’t wish to disappoint his old man, he started getting dressed.
We decided to hunt behind my house for a couple of reason. First, there would be no travel time, which allowed both of us precious extra sleep. Second, I was aware that there were some birds back there. I had no idea where, but I was hoping the owl call would locate a revved-up tom.
We started out in the darkness and got to the top of the first ridge. From here, the woods, split in two by a power line, would steadily decline to a brook at the bottom, before rapidly rising on the other side. It was not an easy place to hunt, but maybe that would deter others from joining us. I let out my first owl call to hopefully elicit a shock gobble just as day was breaking. Nothing.
We regressed with the landscape, first into a stand of pines that bordered a couple of fields. There seemed to be no turkeys on the entire mountain, at least none that would answer the owl call. Crossing the brook, and climbing up a stand of hardwoods, we decided to rest. It was here that I broke out my mouth call, mimicking a hen that was on the lookout for love. Unfortunately, the only critters that seemed to be in the area were a few squirrels and a noisy blue jay.
We picked ourselves up from our slumber and soldiered on. It wasn’t looking good. I was beginning to worry that I would never get my boy into this. For his part, he seemed to be enjoying the peace and quiet in the woods with his dad, but to be honest, how many early mornings of rigorous activity, while seeing nothing would he partake?
We crossed the power line and sauntered into another patch of woods, one that continued for only 150 yards before we hit posted land. We would have to skirt this imaginary wall, calling blindly, and hoping for the best. In reality, I only had one more play for the morning before I was out of ideas. We were sneaking through a mix of hardwoods, pines, and blowdowns. A field sat just beyond the property line. This would’ve have been an attractive area for a turkey.
I hit the mouth call. Off in the distance to the left, just below the power line we had crossed was a gobble, maybe 200 yards away. We listened. Nothing. I hit the call again. Just over the ridge to our right, and next to the field came a much closer gobble, perhaps 75 yards away! I immediately had my boy sit down against a tree, the old 12 gauge at the ready. I sat to his right, and we waited patiently. He would gobble every couple of minutes.
I finally hit the call again. Gobble! He was closer now, and out in front of us, only a pile of pricker busher and a stone wall prevented us from getting a glimpse. Gobble! He was moving to the right. We shifted our position, with my boy taking the prime shooting position, with me now on the left.
Turkeys never follow a script, and this one was no different. He was moving at his own pace, sometimes going silent, before sounding off again when I quietly clucked or yelped with my call. Each agonizing two to three minutes between calls gave away his position and it was obvious he was circling us, hoping to see with his impeccable eyesight, the object of his affection. We shifted again.
For a 12-year-old to sit silently still for so long is an awfully big request and my son did a fantastic job, although I could hear his heavy breathing and see his chest rapidly rise and fall with each passing minute. The bird was now just out of sight, on a small bank, about 270 degrees from the direction he started in. For those who are not turkey hunters, toms would rather the “hen” come to him, which was the reason for his gobbling. We would need to exercise extreme patience. I decided to go silent to try to pull him in.
It was my son who saw him first, on the bank, about 80 yards away, all fanned out, putting on a show for what he hoped would be his morning rendezvous. Still needing him to close the gap to within 40 yards to be in my son’s shotgun range, we decided to sit quietly. If I were to call at this point, he would most likely hold up. He strutted back and forth, for approximately 15 minutes, his long beard grazing the forest floor.
Finally, the bird started to walk away. We shifted and I called again. He turned, and began walking toward us, a full 360 degrees from our starting position, and through some junk in the woods. A huge blowdown now blocked my son’s view, while I had limited vision above it from my position on my knees, now behind the tree I had been sitting against. He gobbled twice on the way in. I caught a quick look at him coming our way, but the blowdown hindered my boy’s chance to lay eyes on him. Not wanting to be busted by the turkey, I hunkered down and hoped for the best.
When we heard the bird next, five minutes had gone by. He was back up on the ridge, gobbling, but definitely heading away form us. The game was over. He either spotted us or realized the “hen” he had heard was not there. It was clear he had been played with before. I made a last-ditch effort to draw him back, but it was to no avail.
As my boy had baseball practice at 12 PM, and it was now 10 AM, with an hour walk back to the house, we had to head home. My son was disappointed and wanted to pursue the tom. Time and the fact that this bird was probably out of the game for today prevented us from continuing. We did not get the turkey that day, but we came darned close. And I secured a turkey hunting partner that will hopefully last the rest of my life. Now, if we could only see a few deer in the fall.
This past Christmas Eve, Dad and I took a walk in the woods. I wanted to check a few trail cameras, as well as hang up an additional one. As the deer in our region begin to slow down in December and head toward their wintering mode, I didn’t expect a whole lot of action on my cameras and in person.
The woods were eerily still that morning, the only noise the crunchy snow, about four days old, underfoot. The wind was minimal, and the sky was overcast, making for a gray type of day. The color was provided by the greenery of the thick softwood trees, which are always pretty with a coat of snow on them.
We crested a ridge in the walking trail, and I caught movement in a bowl out in front of us. It was a large male turkey, who got a four-step head start, before taking flight across the trail and to our left, crashing tree branches as he flew out of sight. Behind him were four more toms, who turned and jogged up the hill to our right, their beards dangling across the snow as they departed.
I worry about the turkeys this time of year. Some of you may have read my post called, “Hop-along,” about an injured female turkey (hen) that we encountered in 2020. Although the snow to this point is not deep and they can maneuver and find enough supply of food, turkeys will struggle once the snow is deep.
As I am a spring turkey hunter, of course I would come across a plethora of the birds during the off-season months, including winter. While it may seem like I have hit the jackpot by finding these five toms in December, the reality is that come spring (turkey season is May 1-31), these guys will be splitting up in search of hens for mating. Many of these bachelor birds will become mortal enemies and fight each other during this time. Some will leave the group, never to be heard from again, either because of a hunter’s shotgun shells, a coyote, or they may be tired of being a subordinate bird and wish to become a dominant one.
Regardless, I am on the side of the forest creatures for 11 months of the year. I spend many winter days making paths in the snow for the deer, who take advantage. One year, Dad and I were cutting down high handing hemlock branches so the deer could reach and browse on them. After an hour-long loop, we walked upon a pile of hemlock we had cut down and the deer had already been into them. Turkeys, whose chief wintertime hindrance is the deep snow, certainly benefit by utilizing our boot prints that puncture through.
Hunting is not all about killing game. It’s about finding them, and devising strategies that may put them within rifle, shotgun, or bow range. Sometimes, it’s about the peace and quiet that only the wilderness can provide. However, don’t forget about the turkeys, and other wildlife come the off-season, for I truly believe that it is our responsibility as sportsmen and sportswomen to care about the their well-being.