Gobblers cooperate on Holy Thursday

April 25, 2017

Faith Outdoors

This 23-pound gobbler fell on Holy Thursday.

This 23-pound gobbler fell on Holy Thursday.

In 30-plus years of hunting wild turkeys, I have learned one simple lesson:

Turkey hunting is hard. At times, it may SEEM easy, when the birds gobble hard and come quickly to a call. But, I liken it to trying to hit a knuckle ball. It can appear to float in pretty as you please. Then, just as you start your swing thinking you’ll drive it out of the park, it darts or dips and your bat hits nothing but air.

I have learned to keep this truth in mind whenever I chase these wily birds. As dawn broke on Season A April 12 near Red Wing, I was painfully aware of a longbeard drought going back to 2014. I took three birds total in 2015 and 2016, but all were jakes (first-year males with short, stubby beards). Any turkey is a good turkey, but I always want to take at least one mature tom in a spring season.

But, I got blanked two years in a row, and I was looking to end that streak. I went back to the property where I had shot a jake last year. A group of gobblers had come in, and the one in front was a longbeard, but the bird turned away from me and did not offer a shot. The next bird then appeared in my shooting lane, and I fired when I saw its red head. I was happy with the bird, but knew I had missed a chance at a mature tom that was right in front of him.

All those thoughts drifted through my mind as I headed out to my blind in the darkness on opening day of my seven-day season. I like to get into my blind super early in case there are birds roosted nearby. Turns out there were, and they started sounding off right about at the start of legal shooting hours.

My brother, Joe, was with me, and we thought we were in business. Some birds started moving our way, and I thought I would pull the trigger and end my longbeard drought in the first hour. But, as happens so many times, the birds did not come into view and instead moved away. However, three jakes came out into the pasture a short time later and put on quite a show, strutting and gobbling for about half an hour. I tried calling them into gun range, but they stayed put at about 75 yards. Just as well. I wasn’t going to shoot one of the jakes anyway.

Eventually, the woods fell silent, and the dreaded mid-morning lull that all turkey hunters disdain set in. The only action was a gunshot a few hundred yards away at about 10:15.

I worried that might spook the birds, but decided to hang in there and wait for things to quiet back d0wn again. About an hour later, after calling about every 20-30 minutes, I heard footsteps behind the blind. It was either a deer or a turkey, I thought. I waited to see if whatever it was would appear. Then, to my left just inside the woods, I caught movement. I trained my eyes on whatever it was as it walked through the brush. Then, I saw green.

Another hunter! I was deflated as I came to grips with the fact that I was competing for birds with at least one other person. At that point, I decided to get out of the blind and move it to the far end of the property. My brother and I hustled out of the blind, and packed it up in my car. We quickly drove to the spot where I had set it up last year, and I put it back up. We then left the property so I could get my brother back to the cities and his afternoon shift at work.

Wouldn’t you know it? We spotted a gobbler strutting in a field only about 100 yards from the road on our way out. If we had time, it would have been a nice stalk through the woods. But, alas, we had to leave. My brother was bummed, but I was not. Tomorrow would be another day.

On day two, I flew solo. Again, I got into the blind very early to take advantage of the darkness. As dawn broke on the cloudy horizon, birds started gobbling. There were lots of them, and they were close. I also heard gobbler yelps on the roost. These are shorter sequences, and the yelps are more drawn out and have a deeper, courser sound than hen yelps. It takes a trained ear to identify them and, fortunately, I have heard them before and know what they sound like. It’s a skill that would pay off later that day.

I was using my brand new Dave Smith Decoys, and I was sure the birds would fly down and walk out into the cut soybean field and to my decoy spread, which consisted of a half-strut jake, leading hen and breeding hen (laying down in a breeding position).

Unfortunately, I forgot my knuckle ball analogy. The birds flew down and some were walking in the woods behind my blind. I had my windows open toward the field, and I didn’t look out the back because I was convinced the birds would come out into the field.

They did not. Instead, they moved farther back into the woods and shut up. A few minutes later, I heard a hen yelping, and I knew why the toms went that way. You can’t compete with a live hen.

So, things went quiet and the lull began. I waited for about four hours, finally reaching that late morning period when hens start moving away from the toms and to the nests they are starting to build for laying eggs.

Sure enough, at 10:15, I heard some gobbling to my right down in a ravine. I called, and the birds answered immediately. We went back a forth a little bit, and they finally came out into the field about 150 yards away. I saw first one head, then two more. But, their bodies were still not visible.

At last, they popped up over a little rise, and I could see their bodies — three longbeards!

They kept walking toward my decoys, strutting and gobbling along the way. Perfect! At just over 50 yards, they stopped, and I pulled out my rangefinder to verify the distance. I generally like to keep my shots at 50 yards and under, so I waited. Besides, they were coming right in, so there was no reason to think they would hang up now.

But, that’s exactly what they did. They turned and walked to the edge of the woods, clucking as they did so. Intense gobbler clucking usually means they don’t like something. So, if you have a chance to shoot, take it.

I ranged one of the birds at the edge of the woods — 56 yards. Too far for me. I have never patterned my gun at that range. Even though I know I have a tight pattern, and have killed a bird or two in the 50-yard range, I didn’t want to risk missing or wounding a bird. So, I didn’t shoot. It was the right decision from an ethical standpoint, but it also was very painful watching those birds walk into the woods and out of my life.

I probably have as many “almosts” as any turkey hunter in the woods, and this was yet another. But, I eventually got over my disappointment and continued my vigil in the blind. Most guys get out and start walking around when things go quiet, but I have learned the value of patience and persistence.

It was tested, as I spent the next several hours waiting for another tom to show. At 1:30, a hen appeared and I called her in to my decoys. She hung around for more than an hour, eventually laying down next to my decoys. Then, about 2:15, two more hens came out into the field and I called them in, too. It was fun having that many hens around, and I figured a tom wasn’t far away.

I also knew that my time in the woods was going to end soon. I was planning to go to the Holy Thursday Mass at 7:30 at my parish, Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul. I was hoping to get home in time for a nap, dinner and a shower.

So, I planned to get out of the blind around 3 or so. I could push it to 4 if I was working a bird, but I decided to leave at 3 if I didn’t see or hear a gobbler. Eventually, the hens walked away from my decoys and into the woods to my left. No toms. At about 2:40, I gave what I thought was my final call of the day.

Nothing answered, and I started thinking about packing up. Then, a ways back in the woods, I heard a sound — a gobbler yelp, perhaps? I’ve learned that if you think a sound might be made by a turkey, respond with some calling even if you’re not sure.

Because of the distance and faintness of the sound, I made a decision to pull out the loudest call in my vest — a custom long box call made by master box call maker Marlin Watkins of Ohio. I had ordered this call back in the summer, and had paid a pretty penny for it.

It was time to see what this call was really worth. I did some very loud, aggressive calls, mixing long and loud yelps with sharp cutting. I like a long box for this reason. Not only is this a very realistic sounding call, but it’s very loud. In this case, I wanted all the volume I could get.

Not long after my calling sequence, I heard more gobbler yelps, this time closer and more distinct. The birds were coming!

By now, I knew these were gobbler yelps. Once again, I thought the birds would come out into the field and to my decoys.

Once again, they did not. They got to about 20-25 yards from the blind in the woods, and were pacing back and forth and yelping. Finally, I pulled up the fabric in the back of the blind just enough to look out. I saw two red heads bobbing through the brush in the woods behind the blind. They were angling away from me at about 20 yards, and I didn’t have time to take a shot.

As they moved away, a large shape to their left caught my attention — a gobbler in full strut! First, I saw the tail fan, then the red head.

This was the bird I wanted! I watched him for several minutes, thinking he would keep on walking toward the field and give me a shot.

He did not. Instead, he stayed put and pivoted with his tail fanned out. There was some heavy brush between me and the bird, so I knew I would have to wait. Finally, he took just a step or two to the right, and I could see more of him.

Quickly, I pulled the windows in the front of the blind shut, and cracked the back window just a bit. When hunting out of blinds, you always want the part of the blind that’s behind you to stay closed, so that your body doesn’t create a silhouette that the birds can see.

After maneuvering the windows and my swivel chair into position, I cracked the window facing the strutter. I was going to wait for the right shot, rather than rush it. The bird wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was I.

Finally, he took just a step or two more, and his head and neck were in the clear. I raised my gun and took aim. Then, he pulled his head out of strut just a little bit, so that it was positioned straight up and down.

That’s perfect for a shot — head and neck broadside and pointing straight up and down. I fired, and saw the bird drop and start flapping.

Yes!! The other two birds started alarm putting and moving off, but I kept my attention on the downed bird. I couldn’t see him anymore, so I got out of the blind as fast as I could. I ended up tripping over the entrance and damaging the zipper. But, I hustled toward the bird as fast as I could.

When I was more than halfway there, a bird flew up and away, like it never had been hit. My jaw dropped and I stared in disbelief. How could a bird that went down and was flapping fly off like he was perfectly fine?

I was puzzled, then decided to keep walking to where I saw the bird go down. I took just two or three more steps, and there he lay! Turns out there were four birds instead of three. I never saw the fourth bird until I was almost to where my bird went down.

Spurs on this bird measured 1 1/8 inches.

Spurs on this bird measured 1 1/8 inches.

I turned the bird over and saw a nice, 9-inch beard. He also had a good set of spurs on him, indicating he was probably 3 years old. And, he was nice and plump, weighing in at about 23 pounds. I was absolutely thrilled with this bird, and proudly took him back to my car.

And yes, I made it to church on time. It was a glorious service, and I was able to make the transition from turkey hunter to worshipper. Two days later, I took my son, Andy, out for the only day he could hunt. Again, the birds were roosted close, but it rained hard most of the morning, which seemed to shut the birds down. We saw a total of four hens all day, and no toms. That’s how turkey hunting goes sometimes.

This Thursday, my son, Joe, and his wife Val come into town from Dallas, and I am going to take him turkey hunting Friday, and Monday if needed. We’ll be hunting a property I have been deer hunting for more than a decade, but only turkey hunted briefly one year. He has a large field of alfalfa, which turkeys love. I’m optimistic, but we’ll have to see what the birds do.

Can’t wait!




About Dave Hrbacek

Staff photographer and writer for The Catholic Spirit. Also, avid outdoors enthusiast with a passion for hunting, fishing and photography. Married to Julie and have four children, three boys and a girl.

View all posts by Dave Hrbacek