April 01, 2015

Hopefully fellow newcomers to turkey hunting may find this useful, and veteran turkey hunters at least may find it entertaining, or something they can relate to from their own start in this intriguing and addicting sport. I recently became obsessed with these fascinating creatures, and would like to share the story of my first ever gobbler season.

As the old saying goes – it all started innocently enough. After decades of looking and procrastinating, my wife and I finally acquired an affordable country property to build a small “empty nest” home on eventually, and meanwhile enjoy for nature walks and wildlife viewing, camping, target shooting and possibly some hunting.

It wasn’t long before the wild turkeys there started to impress and even amaze me. Their interesting behavior, mostly wary but occasionally appearing really dumb too, their communications with each other, their alone times versus their gang activity, roosting habits I never understood before – for these reasons and others I became very intrigued.

The studying then began in earnest too, reading up on them, checking out captivating videos including calling techniques, scouting them in the woods and fields more and more, it was already too late. I had to try hunting them, also because I learned of their very short lifespan and even got to see how one met the inevitable otherwise, when my wife stumbled on what seemed to be how a coyote put one to good use. I like coyotes too and their feeding habits are only natural, but I bet that turkey wouldn’t have minded our hunting methods instead.

It was time to gear up as well. I already had a suitable 12-gauge, then added camo tape wrap given the great eyesight of turkeys. Camo clothing was also improved upon too, I had a decent start there already but needed a sniper-like hood and better gloves (I didn’t even want the palms to be solid black). Then it was a good call, I went with a box version based on quite a few recommendations I had read for beginners. I also needed a good low lying camo chair, but no blind was purchased since owning the property allowed me to make up my own small blinds of natural materials, though I also wanted to move around and just use suitable trees in different spots too.

Then there were the decoys among the new things. Like everything else, an incredible selection and one could easily invest more in them than the rest of the gear. I went with affordable hen decoys to start, after finding some good reviews, and later added a Jake decoy. Now I had so much cool turkey stuff I needed a good pack of some kind, though for a while I stubbornly stumbled around the place with my arms full of all this (nice to hunt private land with no one around, I’d be laughed out of anywhere else by not just the turkeys, my fellow hunters too).

After reading and researching everything turkey hunting, the figured it was time to gear up; camo, camo and more camo! Joe Bednar photo

I had acquired some shells especially for turkey as well, with extra power and reportedly choking the pattern some more. I patterned my new shells from different positions in my new turkey chair, shooting at my new cardboard turkey head drawings that I made from leftover boxes from buying all my new things.

When the season was drawing near, I was beyond anxious so I went for the early license period. Before learning it was not a good idea to further educate these already wary creatures, I did a little practice calling while out there in the preseason. A Tom came in for a look, silent as a cat, curious and cautious, keeping its distance. My heart was racing, could I actually ever do the rest of this right? A hen also checked me out that day, the same silent and careful behavior. I didn’t do more preseason calling after that, when I read it wasn’t a smart way to pursue a smart bird. But my overall excitement about this grew even more.

Opening day finally came, of course I barely slept. I arrived in the dark and set up, soon hearing distant gobbling in two directions but not apparently in response to my initial calling. Eventually a hen arrived in stealth mode, checking out this beginner’s humble efforts. Equally as interesting, having never sat in full camo nearly motionless on the ground behind brush, the other wild critters seemed to forget I was around and practically used me as part of their natural surroundings, including very close calls from their turds dropping on my new sniper hood. I overreacted to every sound around me, thinking any of them could be an advancing gobbler, but tried to barely move.

The other experiences are too much to cover in detail, and they included hens stopping by and some visits with no sign of turkey at all, as I visited for at least a few hours most days. One time a gobbler responded over and over and seemed to move closer in the woods, but “hung up” as they say, maybe when my best guess on the timing had me stop calling and readying the shotgun sooner than I should have. I also likely called too loudly and frequently in my more desperate times, maybe telling the gobblers some crazy lady was around, likely to be a needy pain if they gave into her screaming demands for attention.

Then near the end of the season, my first real chance unfolded. I had already brought in a hen, then not long after that, what looked like someone in a red hoodie was doing some type of up-down periscope move in the woods far off to my left. I knew what it was, I had seen this behavior in the off-season. Soon two stately Toms materialized from the woods, advancing slowly and silently in full stealth mode. The rolling terrain and my lower spot had me lose sight of them intermittently, and I used those moments to carefully and quietly move my shotgun into position. I mostly kept my nerves calm, but this was getting beyond intense!

I didn’t have that great a read on my self-imposed 35 yard limit based on practice, and because I had marked in the areas around my blinds but not in this new spot. I still thought the first guy was there when his head and neck emerged over a rise, though he seemed to be moving parallel to my decoys, even away at this point, probably leaving! I took careful aim despite an awkward position by then…felt it was that time…and boom!

His head dropped out of sight, I had my first ever wild turkey! I leapt from my spot and looked over the rise…and he and his pal were sprinting away like track stars! I was stunned, had been on target in the practice sessions, but at least he looked untouched, thankfully no sign of any injury. Then to rub it in, upon reaching the truck soon afterwards to call it a night, there they were! They moved off from thick dead grass near where I had parked, then bolted and flew away, I swear they were grinning and taunting me.

I’ll spare you the whole analysis of my failure, but what was probably a bit too long of a shot for me, uphill, in an awkward position, trying for just the head when probably the neck would have allowed more room for error, or so I read later. Another technical mistake occurred as well – I forgot that my camo tape had me using the top half of the sight bead in practice. Using the full bead had me basically tilting the receiver down a bit because of the thick camo tape. Afterwards I took it off the receiver area to avoid that in the future.

Now I was down to my last couple tries, the bottom of the ninth inning, the last weekend of my short early season. In my second to last at bat, there was no sign of a turkey but I did watch a coyote rush out of the woods at a crane in the field in front of me, and the crane barely got in the air in time. I tried to bring the coyote toward me with my turkey call. He advanced just a little and seemed to know from well over 100 yards that my decoys were bogus, so he trotted back into the woods.

On my very last try, drama unfolded again, could my first season really conclude in gobbler glory? Distant gobbling far off in the heavy wind may not have been in response to me, but I continued to answer. Eventually there he was, far off to my right and across the field, maybe 200 yards, carrying on this conversation only one of us understood (and it wasn’t me). He kept coming, slowly and with intermittent strutting and gobbling, I was finally seeing what I had read about and watched in videos. As he got well within 100 yards he looked more like an oncoming buffalo when he fanned out, a huge long-beard! I got to see his head changing back and forth from blue to red too, wow!

I took deep breaths, trying to control my excitement. Other turkey contact there had been from my left so I had the decoys to my right some, hoping to be out of a turkey’s direct line of sight. This big boy came from my right, straight at me against the tree. I even tried to maintain a squint since I feared he’d see how giant my blinking eyes were in my near-panicked state.

Around 40 yards or so he wouldn’t move closer, studying my decoys and the camo blob with huge white strobe-light eyes behind them. I had revised my goal to 30 yards after the big mistake a few visits before, and contemplated what to do next. But the decision was made for me as my neighbor roared out in his quad not far away, and Mr. Gobbler turned around and marched back into the woods, not in a panic but definitely with a purpose. Nothing to lose, I called to him some and he replied just once, maybe telling me where to stick my box call using some form of turkey profanity.

Well that’s about it. No gobbler after all for this turkey hunting rookie in his first season. But an amazing experience I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from. I’m definitely hooked…or pecked…and will continue my quest for Michigan’s incredible wild turkeys in future seasons.n