It was a beautiful spring morning as a chorus of robins and song birds ushered in the new day. The previous night it rained and the woodlands had that special earth smell, the kind of odor that is refreshing, exhilarating and new. I set out hen turkey decoy with full fan tom, made a few wake up calls and immediately was answered by a gobble deep in the forest. Soon I could make out the black outline of a monster gobbler headed my direction, then two big gobblers and several hens. I was cool, somewhat relaxed when the birds were far away but as they slowly eased my direction I could feel my heart rate increase. By the time they were in bow range I was shaking like a leaf in a wind storm and
every time the big gobblers would gobble I jumped like I got poked with a sharp stick. I finally calmed my nerves enough to center the cross hair on a big tom and when I touched the trigger the Darton Serpent LTD sent the bolt at lightning speed through the large gobbler’s body. Soon he was down and later I was amazed to
find the big gobbler had five beards and would qualify for a new state record crossbow kill. Wow!
When I think back on the hunt it wasn’t the size of the beard that made me go bonkers but the exciting sight of adult turkeys kissin’ close in full strut. You see, there are few spectacles in nature more impressive than a monster tom in full fan.
I’ve chased them throughout this state with telephoto lens, Benelli 12 ga. bow and crossbow but I still get shook when a big boy gets in close. Sure, I’ve bushwhacked my share by stalking into their strut zone and shooting before they go full fan. Gobblers are far more impressive when their feathers aren’t puffed up like the Pillsbury dough boy and tail isn’t in full fan. When they go into full strut, put tail feathers completely up and gobble loudly in your face and I guarantee your blood pressure will skyrocket.
Some adult gobblers almost have a snarl on their face as if they are portraying the toughest bird on the block. Combine this with spittin’, drummin’ wings dragging loudly on the hard ground and they appear like a tough hombre. They have the ability to puff out their feathers and instantaneously double their size. Back muscles flex to bring black feathers erect and when the dark feathers stand on end a gobbler looks super large, like an unchallenged heavyweight and their side profile reminds me of the huge black hump an adult buffalo has on its back.
Michigan turkey hunters love the sight of wild birds in full fan. In some ways struttin’ toms seem less vigilant, somewhat precarious, preoccupied with mating and perhaps they will slip close for a clean shot. All too often fanned birds are courting hens, could care less about fake calls when hot hens are in plain sight and they follow female birds wherever they roam. Nothing is more heart breaking than arriving in the woods before dawn, listening to turkeys wake up, have birds almost in range but the strutting gobblers move the opposite direction in pursuit of a likely mate. Many Michigan hunters have suffered the agony of defeat, the feeling of humiliation, total rejection as perspective gobblers wobble out of sight rather than responding to calls and decoys.
After chasing wild turkeys with telephoto camera I soon learned how important it was to be fully camouflaged. Most photographers use blinds and I’ve photographed plenty of critters from my Primos Double Bull but I was fortunate enough to be taught advanced stalking skills from my father, Ray Darwin. So, over the years I’ve come to love more aggressive outdoor photography and I take the hunt to the critters. Guess I’d much rather be dancin’ and prancin’ in Michigan’s great outdoors rather than sitting on a seat inside an enclosure. Long ago I learned the importance of full camouflage and I’m probably the only Michigan outdoor writer that camo paints camera gear. I know, you think I’m cuckoo for spray painting my $3,500 Canon long lens but I seek full camo including: hands, face, boot bottom, camera lens, black strap, lens cap, tripod and more. My point is that wild birds have extremely good eyesight. Some say they can see movement 10-times better than the human eye. All I know is adult gobblers are extremely difficult to stalk and capturing mating characteristics on film is a daunting task unless you are dressed like the woods from head to toe. It has long been my opinion that most unsuccessful turkey hunters failed to match clothing with the environment they hunt. Some hunters leave face, fingers and shiny gun not camouflaged which spells certain failure. Michigan turkey hunters that don’t fill their tag often are spotted by wary birds.
Another mistake made by turkey hunters is they call too much. Some feel that the best way to attract a gobbler is to sound off big time. Wild birds will respond with a shock gobble and slowly head the direction of the call but if the caller persists the incoming toms have the callers pinpointed. Using the same call, repeatedly without mixing it up with putts, purrs and other soft turkey sounds often spells disaster. Calling extra loud is not the answer if you want to draw birds close.
Last spring I watched with amazement as six big gobblers courted hens in a Calhoun county field. I returned to the exact spot the following Saturday and found turkey decoys and two hunters peering out a blind window. I watched them at long distance with binoculars. It was a clear, calm spring day and I had no problem hearing their loud yelps, say 6-8 in succession with only a short pause between calling sessions. To me they sounded extra loud and they used the same call over and over. As I drove around the section I encountered a parade of turkeys headed across the road, going the opposite direction of the hunters. Come noon I found the hunters by their vehicle and when I asked about their hunting success they replied” We didn’t see any birds. Don’t understand because there were a bunch of big gobblers in this field last night?” The next day I checked the hot spot again, the hunters were gone and by lunch time the turkeys had returned and were out in the open in full strut. It is my opinion the hunters spooked the wise birds by calling too much, too loudly and not going silent long enough between calls.
When I first started hunting and chasing gobblers with camera the availability of good decoys was very limited. Today the variety is excellent and the major boon for hunters is the introduction of fanned gobblers. The trick is to use a full fan gobbler that has a moving tail that resembles a hot tom henned up with his sweetie. There are a number of decoys that get the job done but you will double your chances of success by simply using the right decoys. If you want more birds in easy range use fanned gobbler decoys. Expect gobblers to attack the breeding tom look-alike. Lifelike hen decoys in a submissive posture will attract gobblers. Use Away Outdoor real feathers on the hen for guaranteed action. Expect love-crazed toms to mount the hen.
I hope it all goes right for you this spring and when a big tom is extra close you too will feel the electricity in the air. There is something powerfully addictive about a struttin’ gobbler up close, in your face. I guarantee he will send chills down your spine when he stands tip-toed and blasts out a gobble that seems to make the Earth shake. Get’em kissin’ close with the sun lighting up his feathers with a kaleidoscope of beautiful colors and you will come to realize this is perhaps Michigan’s most beautiful bird. Your heart will flutter when he goes full fan and shakes his feathers like an agitated rattle snake oscillating his rattles.