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Turkey Hunting

By Leif R. HerrGesell


When I started turkey hunting in 1987 it seemed like the gobblers were more mouthy than they are today. There certainly were not as many turkey hunters in New York State in those days.

I did not have a lot of spare change to spend on calls and gear, so I built my own box call and bought a Quaker Boy, Boss Hen diaphragm call. If I recall, when I shot that first bird I did not even have the mouth call yet, just the homemade friction call.

My camo was charcoal gray made from a pair of painter pants and an old bed sheet stitched into a smock dyed with RIT. Fancy camo like Realtree was just making its appearance. I daubed charcoal from a cork on my face. My pump gun was a Savage Stevens 12 with a modified choke. I stuffed it with 2-1/4" number sixes. To date the heaviest gobbler I have taken was that first one. I shot him at 24 yards with those black hulled Peters field grade sixes.

He did not come in gobbling or strutting, but snuck in silently. That did it. I was absolutely hooked on Spring gobbler hunting. I remember other birds in those days that shock gobbled at car doors slamming and hammered every time you touched the call. I have hunted every year since that first 22 pounder. I even bagged one a week before I reported for deployment to Afghanistan with the Seabee battalion to which I was assigned in 2010. I came home 10 months later and managed to catch the 2011 season and shot a jake.

I have had some stellar hunts and just as many frustrating days when there was no gobbling or a cagey, shy bird taunted me by staying out of sight or range. I have taken two birds with my old brown Bess flintlock musket, one Jake and one long beard.

The long beard was a strange hunt. I had to back off of a gobbler since another hunter had beaten me to the punch. I waited patiently and listened, figuring I had a side row seat to a good show. After about 20 minutes of intense gobbling there was shot. I stood up, figuring the bird was down. The trees in front of me were a little patch of thumb sized saplings. My jaw dropped open as I saw a gobbler running for all he was worth right toward me. This guy was in good shape and, as my uncle used to say, he was scratching gravel. My uncles taught me a lot of colorful phrases.

I pulled up and put the bayonet lug sight on him, but he was swaying side to side and the little saps were too thick for a sure shot. He got within about 20 yards and pulled a hard ninety degree turn to my right and kept right on legging it for the town line. Just as he was about to disappear over a little rise 20 or so yards distant, my instincts kicked into high and I heard a voice say, "You better take him now or he's gone!" I touched off the shot and between the recoil and the smoke I lost sight of him. As the smoke drifted past my head I saw a flopping bird and began to run. I got my hands on his neck and let us just say I wasn't gentle. A post mortem showed he took one pellet right in the head; it was the only lethal shot.

You know what that hunter said as I stood there holding the escapee by the neck? "You shot my bird!" I was polite and just said something like, "He was running so fast I didn't see your tag on him."

Yep, turkey hunting has been a source of great adventure and utter enjoyment of the woods in the Spring. It is rivaled for color and sheer beauty only by the woods in the early fall.

My best friend and hunting partner sadly passed away while I was in Afghanistan. However, I have a couple of new partners: my two kids who I am teaching to call and hunt.

Turkey hunting has evolved tremendously since I started. As a board member of an NWTF chapter in the 1990s I saw the changes emerge and I even adopted some of them myself, such as Remington Duplex shotshell loads, synthetic decoys, guns designed for turkey hunting and turkey chokes. I embraced magnum loads and by then had purchased a nice vent rib Winchester 1300 dressed and built for turkey.

Things have evolved yet again with the introduction more than a decade ago of pop-up blinds, gobbler decoys and tactical style shotguns with special optics. I have not embraced this and, as a matter of fact, I've gone back the other way.

I do not like things to be easy. There is not much challenge in sitting in a blind sipping coffee. I prefer my back to a tree with a good double gun choked full/modified. Mine is not camo painted and I still only carry about two calls. Too many calls encourages a hunter to try them all and over call.

A blind ties you down. I want to be tactical, as they say now. I want to be able to switch my set up by simply standing up and moving. I rely on mobility, patience, good calling and straight shooting at short ranges. With a standard chamber I am not going to take 40 or 50 yard shots. My dependable Lefever Nitro Special is ninety years old. (For more on the Nitro Special, see "American Side-by-Side Economy Shotguns.") Heck it was almost eighty when I got it and I have shot six big slobs and a few jakes with it. I did lose one to a bad shell. He just laughed at me and headed out on foot before I could recover from the shock.

I added a sling and mid-rib white bead to the gun. I always feed it number fives. I have experimented with a lot of loads over the years and have not found any load to be shockingly superior. As a matter of fact, any field load using number six or larger shot at reasonable range, well aimed, will kill turkeys. Despite popular opinion, they are not Panther Tanks. Shoot badly and you will get the appropriate result. I know. Aim at the head with no intervening brush or other cover, at ranges under 35 yards, and a modified choked gun will drop Mister Tom.

My gun, as mentioned has a full barrel and a modified barrel. In 1924 it was a pheasant and duck gun. Double gunners call it a hardware gun, since back in the day it was sold in a hardware store. Nitro Specials were simple filed guns, too plebeian for the likes of Abercrombie and Fitch, which only sold high grade Parkers, Foxes and the like. For me, it has been a fox and turkey shooter.

This Spring I have not gotten out as much as I would like. Between military duty calling me away from opening weekend and inclement weather, I have not had a lot of days in the field. My daughter and I called in a pair of jakes during the New York youth hunt, but she couldn't put a bead on one. The two adolescents popped up on us as we were getting ready to make a move. The first gobble was within 50 yards in open hard woods and we were flat footed. We knelt and watched the two cowards stroll by, just out of range. Later in the morning we re-connected with the same two, but again they stayed just out of killing range. Emily and I tried again during regular season, but were out of luck due cool weather.

I went out a couple of times near home and heard some modest gobbling. The best day I had, I called in a hen within 15 feet and watched what I think were three jakes across a field. Later in the morning I crossed the same field and sat in the corner of a nice hardwoods. I faced into the trees and had a gobbler a hundred yards to the front when suddenly there was an earth shaking gobble behind me on the edge of the field I had just crossed. I craned around and managed to swivel my rear end so that I could at least shoulder an offhand shot.

I no more than finished that maneuver than there he was, about 50 yards away and fast approaching. He went behind a sizable tree. I got the gun up and he stepped out.

His head was vivid red, white and blue and his body was a beautiful jet black. I got the bead over his head, but the gun was not as settled as I would like, since I was at a hard angle and offhand. I knew he was going to be too far to my right in few more steps and did not think I would be able to make the switch to my natural shoulder. That was a bad choice. I squeezed and he flopped into a thrashing heap as I rocked back. I started to stand and then he was up and out of the gate like a cat with his tail on fire. I wanted to fling another shot, but my brain screamed at me to hold my fire.

A turkey running flat out is not a bird that is hit hard and a sprinting bird offers little to zero chance of being downed, unless he is broadside at short range. I watched him cover a good hundred yards before he was out of sight. I was sick. I have missed less than a handful of birds over the last 27 years and never one as close as that. After close examination and mental replay, I realized that my bead just had not been steady enough and I had selected the full choke barrel when I should have used the modified barrel to accommodate the closer range.

It was not a pleasant walk back to the car, but at fifty plus you learn to put things into proper perspective. I took it as a challenge to get back on the horse. A busy weekend, more rain and a bout with an intestinal bug put my comeback on hold. The following Tuesday, after five days away from the woods, I was ready to try again.

I did not get up early, since I knew the gobblers were with hens and getting one to leave his hens and come in early was not a good proposition. I like the 0730 and onward time frame, as the hens have headed out. I have shot a good number of birds in the late morning and even dropped one with just minutes to spare before the noon whistle.

This particular morning I headed to my usual listening post about 0615. As I peeped out into the field I saw seven birds in the upper portion, under the eaves of the woods. I eased back a step into the hedgerow and gently, slowly hunkered down, got out the calls and made ready. I had just a couple of wands of raspberry in front of me to break my outline. I popped a diaphragm in, but was unable to set up the Feather Flex hen that I had inherited from my late hunting buddy. I could not get the stake in and the bird on it without spooking the turkeys on the knoll to my right front. They were probably 350 yards away, but had the advantage of elevation on me and they were turkeys.

Nothing came of my calling. They milled around and slowly dispersed and faded back into the woods on the knob. Not long after they disappeared a hen called from the corner where I had rolled the gobbler the week before. Somebody up there on the knoll liked it, because there was a nice throaty gobble in answer to her yelping. I waited a bit to ensure no other birds were coming to the field and to be certain they would not spot me in the open.

I hoofed it across the field and entered the wood line about 150 yards below where I had heard the hen call. About 45 minutes had passed since I first spotted the flock. I got into the woods, sat and called lightly and immediately had gobbles on both sides of me. The closer one required me to swivel left around the tree I had chosen. Bad move. The bird never sounded off again. Maybe he was intimidated by the knob boss and maybe he spotted me.

I slowly and carefully moved toward the wooded knob, watching and listening. There was another gobble from the top of the little hill and I moved toward it, hoping I could call him off the rise. No dice. I had set the hen and found a nice tree to rest against, but he stayed on that hill and remained in his strutting area the whole time.

There was probably no more than a hundred yards between us, but he was over the crest and had no intention of putting himself out on my account. When his gobbling had ceased 45 minutes later and I had not heard anything for another twenty minutes, I decided to climb the hill very slowly and see if I could catch him in the field on the far side.

I got to the top without incident, but there was no gobbler evident. I suspected he was close by and just shut-mouthed. The morning was perfect. It was sunny and about 60-degrees with barely a whisper of a breeze, just enough to keep the black flies down.

I waited at the top and did a little calling, but talked myself out of overcalling. I closed my eyes and caught a few winks. I awoke, checked my Timex, and decided I would wait until 10:00 to try again from the bottom of the hill, since there had been a second, more distant, gobbler earlier.

At 10:20 or so, I was back at the bottom of the hill, collected the decoy and moved back the way I had come. By 10:45 I had the decoy set up again and let out a few yelps, but nothing happened.

Another light string of cutting and five minutes went by, then there was a loud gobble about 150 yards to my left. I got up quickly and moved 35 yards to my left and found a nice tree to put my shoulder against.

I let out a string of yelps and then there were two birds 60 yards to my front. They were moving in fast and silent with their heads down, one behind the other. Of course, I knew they were gobblers, but I was thinking jakes most likely. I was okay with that and then up came two red heads; another 10 yards and I saw vivid red, white and blue. Ten more yards and I could make out long ropes dangling from their chests. It was two huge, mature gobblers.

I managed to get the old Nitro Special into play without spooking them. They were crossing my front now, about 45 yards out. At 35 yards they turned 110 degrees and started angling toward my right. I had let out one or two yelps to turn them my way and they obliged.

Too close now to utter a peep. They were also too close together. Clearly, they were looking for that hen at my old location. The one on the right separated a little from the other and my bead settled nicely on his head. The beards were both real long. I felt the distance was right more than consciously measured it. I remember thinking hold steady and squeeze. The shot thundered and he was down in a flapping pile.

The second bird stepped back and froze, looking at his buddy. I saw all of this on the recoil. As the gun came down I settled the bead on the downed birds twisting body for a second, but his head remained glued to the ground while his wings flapped. I was up, safety on, gun at the ready and the second tom decided a retrograde movement was called for. I watched him weave out of sight, as I put my foot squarely on my birds head. It felt good to hold that heavy, copper and black big boy.

Later inspection showed he had a few pellets from an older shot. The copper was slightly discolored and the pock mark entry holes were not fresh. I am certain he was the same bird I had rolled five days earlier. I do believe in serendipity and happy endings. That bird became the longest beard I have shot to date, at 9-7/8 inches. He weighed nineteen pounds with one inch spurs.

Turkey hunting is just about everything a hunter can ask for: excitement, solitude, natural beauty and, of course, second chances. You do not need fancy gear and tactical equipment. You do not need a special gun or two hundred bucks worth of clothing and a bag full of calls. New equipment is always fun, but not a perquisite to success. Patience, good calling and perseverance will get you mornings full of excitement and beauty.


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