Six Lessons Learned From a Fruitless Turkey Season
Monday, May 15, 2017
I was humbled this year like never before - schooled by longbeards. They out-waited me. They outwitted me. They beat me like a worn box call.
But even in defeat there are lessons learned: here are six I gleaned from pursuing Merriam's this spring in the grassy meadows and ponderosa woods of B.C.
1. Public Land Toms aren't your Garden Variety
Non-hunting friends often joke: "Why don't you just run them down on the side of the road?" From a strictly non-sporting, meat-in-the-pot perspective, that's not a bad idea.
But of course we sporting types adhere to a certain creed - a creed that sets us apart from Asphalt Warriors and Weekend Hillbillies. A turkey has to be taken the right way. It has to be truly wild, for starters, and not shot while eating chicken feed tossed off the cabin porch. Unfortunately, it's become commonplace in the Kootenays for people to domesticate Merriam's turkeys, which then spend most of their lives perched outside the screen door. You know a turkey's lost it when it plays with the family Lab.
Truly wild turkeys demand athleticism and savvy. 'Run-and-gunning,' constantly re-positioning to stay ahead of moving or hung-up gobblers, is exhausting: Tamara and me often log hundreds of vertical feet sneaking up and down steep, forested hillsides. You need tough clothing and good tweezers to remove the thorns and bristles.
"Why bother?" non-hunting friends ask. "You can buy a turkey at Safeway."
Because it's worth the bother, believe me.
2. Gobblers are as Weather-sensitive as Whitetails
I crept to within 25 yards of two roosting gobblers last month just before dawn. They preened and stretched in the ponderosa boughs. Tamara softly yelped on a glass pot call about 200 yards down the ridge. The turkeys gobbled simultaneously. We had them pinned - positioned for flydown.
Then it started to rain. Hours crept by and the Toms still hadn't budged. They out-lasted Tamara and me, watching the downpour from their sheltered perches. When they eventually flew down we weren't around to see it, having retreated to the woodstove.
Most hunters realize that turkeys don't like moving in the rain; other weather-related quirks are less obvious but worth noting: incoming cold fronts will put them off and reduce gobbling activity; high pressure systems - those blue-bird days of spring - tend to have just the opposite effect, and the woods can come alive with turkey talk.
Generalizations, true, but still worth observing if your hunting days are limited and time of the essence.
3. The Broadhead Debate is Endless - And Potentially Expensive
I wounded a longbeard last week. It was the lowpoint of my season.
I'd worked the Tom for 30 minutes as it circled the hen decoy, performing a complete 360º around me before finally closing the distance up a small draw in the woods. When it crested the lip of the draw, 10 yards out, it turned its fanned tail to me and I drew my bow. I held until it quartered again, angling its bronzed feathers, and fired. The arrow struck with a resounding thwack and the longbeard lept in the air. I started to place my bow down and fist-pumped.
The Tom sort of shook itself, righted, and hobbled off, the arrow sticking from its side, the illuminated nock glowing red. I couldn't believe it. I grabbed the bow and quiver, but by that time the injured gobbler had beelined for the edge of a bluff. The blood and feather trail ended there; by all indications the bird had toppled into the creek far below. I spent three hours searching to no avail.
The shot had seemed like a good one. Almost two inches of expanding mechanical broadhead. But not good enough. In hindsight, the broadhead probably clipped a lung before lodging in the breastbone. It might not have fully deployed at that angle. I should have waited for the Tom to turn broadside. Excuses, excuses. The turkey got away. I lost a $15 tip, a $10 shaft, a $12 nock. Inconsequential compared to the guilt. Like all ethical hunters, I hate losing wounded game.
Mechanical broadhead or fixed? Most turkey hunters prefer the former, but I'm not so sure: the lost Tom was a case in point. Mechanicals have their limitations, too - usually to do with premature- or non-deployment.
I lost another longbeard a few years ago that I'd hit with a fixed blade; it also staggered off and got away. It's bowhunting. We handicap ourselves but we owe it to our prey to strive for humane and quick kills. Both of the turkeys I've arrowed and lost haunt me. I'll continue to search for answers, for the best equipment available.
But in the end it boils down to killing shots, regardless of the choice of broadhead. No excuses.
4. Decoy Tactics Change by the Hour, Let Alone the Day
A lone hen. A hen and strutting gobbler. A hen and jake. No decoy at all. Decisions, decisions. Decoy decisions.
Sometimes it feels like rolling dice. With the odds constantly stacked against you. Turkeys are notoriously unpredictable, so it only figures that decoy placement should be as well. Again, time to generalize: strutting Toms seem to work best early in the season, when dominance is at stake and spurs are flying. Their usefulness declines as the season progresses and the pecking order has been established.
I don't own a jake decoy, though I probably should. Since we do mostly run-and-gun hunting, we try to keep weight to a minimum. We usually go with a lone hen or no decoy; the rare times we hunt from a blind we like to place at least one decoy in the obvious shooting lane to concentrate the birds.
One problem I frequently encounter with a lone hen decoy is that it does a great job of attracting hens and jakes but hangs-up wary longbeards; they'll watch from a safe distance while the ladies and young'uns purr and putt at their newfound friend. To that end, I find that the best time to toss up the fake hen is later in the season, when real hens are nesting and solo Toms often wander the woods mid-morning looking for unbred females. Those Toms can be susceptible to patient calling by well-concealed hunters.
Sometimes no decoy is the best option. If you've worked the same longbeard several times and he consistently shies from the decoy(s), ditch them. Try soft-calling him to the general area in hopes that he wanders within range. Of course the drawback to this approach, especially from a bowhunter's perspective, is that he could be 10 yards away but unshootable if he's behind brush or behind you.
Decoy use is part experience, part intuition, and part luck. It's like fishing in that you'll never fully figure it out, and anyone who says they have is kidding themselves.
5. Don't Picture 'The Picture'
The picture below wasn't taken this year. I wish. Imagining 'The Picture,' your grinning mug perched behind a fanned and perfect tail, is a hunting death knell - yours, not the turkey's.
It's tempting to get ahead of yourself when that Tom is closing in, thrumming like a distant bee hive, eyeing the hen decoy and getting ready to hammer her into submission.
"Of course I was thinking of 'The Picture,'" Tamara says, pulling her arrow from a root ball after it deflected off a twig five yards from her strutting target. "It's only human. Who wouldn't?"
Resist the impulse. It's my experience that as soon as you picture 'The Picture,' something goes wrong. The arrow deflects. You're busted on the draw. The Tom turns tail and walks away. It's a Murphy's Law of turkey hunting, the equivalent of a trout-of-a-lifetime flopping off the edge of the net and throwing the hook.
6. I Have a Man-crush on Aaron Warbritton
Who wouldn't? As the face of Cabela's Spring Thunder, he routinely slays public-land longbeards like Apollo felling dragons.
Indomitable. Square-jawed. Humble. Aaron is the modern embodiment of a Greek hero. Each week on his show and blogs, Aaron and his band of Argonauts chronicle their exploits chasing some of the wiliest Toms in America.
The fact that these are mostly public-land birds sets him apart from lesser outdoors' personalities - people who hunt private farms where the 'wild' turkeys behave like penned chickens. The giveaways are power lines and blinds propped next to vegetable gardens. You can almost smell the eggs and bacon sizzling in the nearby kitchen.
Aaron, on the other hand, goes the extra mile. Or two. Or five, if that's what it takes. He's stalked gobblers by kayak, by canal, by crawling on his belly through waist-high grass. He's unsuccessful more often than not.
He is, in essence, mortal. And I love him for that.