Double blessing

May 12, 2011

Faith Outdoors

I have heard that male wild turkeys can have two beards or more, but I had never seen such a bird until yesterday. For the first time, I not only saw such a bird, but shot one.

It came after several hours of work trying to call in a tom in Wisconsin. After shooting three yearling toms (called jakes) in Minnesota and Wisconsin, I had one tag left to try for an adult tom (also called a longbeard, in reference to the longer beards adult gobblers have).

Fast start

I decided to hunt a 40-acre piece of property where my son, William, had shot his first deer last fall. Woods surround the property on three sides, with a small cluster of pine trees in the middle of a big field of clover.

Wouldn’t you know it? When I pulled up the long driveway and parked in front of the landowner’s garage, I heard a turkey gobble from that cluster of pines. I tried to figure out a way to get close without being seen. I decided to move away and try to circle around and get to the back corner of the property, which is where I thought this bird would go.

He went there after flying down, alright, but he got there long before I did, and then left the property soon after. Other birds were gobbling on the roost, but they shut up quickly after flying down, except one bird across the road that continued to gobble.

I moved to the woods closest to him on this property, and hoped to call him across the road and up the hill. But, this bird was stubborn and stayed on the other side. Eventually, he quit gobbling, and the woods fell silent.

Waiting game

So, I had to figure out what to do next. I decided to walk the perimeter of the property and listen for gobbles. I walked short distances, then sat down and called.

As I did so, I cleared out spots to sit later if I needed to. I used a small pair of clippers – a very important tool – to trim some brush and give me room to maneuver my gun.

Generally, I like to trim some of the brush, but not all. That way, there is still some left to offer concealment. I figured that if I had some spots cleared out, I could jump into them fast if I needed to later. Hopefully, this prep work would pay dividends.

After not hearing much for about an hour or so, I finally heard a gobble at about 8:30. I had reached the corner of the property and turned 90 degrees to follow the property line. Shortly after doing so, I heard a very raspy gobble down the hill and back in the woods. The brush looked very thick – just the kind of place an old gobbler would feel safe.

I found a small opening along the fence line and set up. I called for a while, but the bird never answered. Eventually, I gave up on him and started moving again.

The right time to move?

Sometimes, I like to sit in one spot and wait for the birds to move through. Other times, I move around a lot to try and find an active bird. Because I wasn’t familiar with this property, I decided to stay on the move. I just didn’t know what areas the turkeys liked to use.

After about 9 o’clock, I started hearing birds gobble again. At the same time, the clouds were beginning to thicken and I started hearing thunder close by. I wondered if I may have to make a quick exit from the field. But, there was only a little rain, not enough to chase me back to my car.

For some reason, the weather seemed to turn the turkeys on. Gobbling picked up, and so did my hopes. Problem was, the gobbling was sporadic and there were birds gobbling in several directions. Seems like I would move in the direction of one bird, set up, then the bird would stop gobbling. Then, I would hear a bird gobble near where I had just been, and I’d move back again.

This went on for about an hour. I was along the back edge of the property and heard a bird gobbling on the neighbor’s land not too far away. But, it didn’t seem to be interested in my calling. It never gobbled right after I called, and didn’t seem to be moving closer.

Costly mistake

Finally, I got tired of this bird and decided to move. I went back to the first fenceline I had hunted, which ran perpendicular to the fenceline I was on. I only went about 125 yards or so, and set up in a thin row of trees and brush between the landowner’s clover field and a picked corn field on the neighbor’s land. I figured the birds might move back and forth between these fields. And, it’s where the bird that was roosted in the cluster of pines went at dawn.

This move turned out to be a mistake. Even though I heard a bird gobble from somewhere on that picked corn field, I soon learned that I gave up too quickly on the last spot. Just minutes after sitting down, I heard a gobble from right where I had just been sitting. That is one of the most agonizing things a turkey hunter can experience.

The bird gobbled twice, and I knew it had come in looking for the “hen” that had been calling. Had I just had a little more patience, I might be putting my tag on that bird right then.


Oh well, I thought. What can I do? Perhaps, I could call that bird over to me. Fortunately, while all this was happening, a gobbler sounded off back in the woods near where I was set up. After gobbling a ways off, it sounded like it was much closer. Now, I had two birds gobbing away!

Not a bad problem to have. I was optimistic that one of them would come in. Sure enough, just a few minutes later, I heard a gobble very close. The volume and clarity of the gobble told me the bird was out in the field. In fact, I was pretty sure he was standing in the corner where I had walked earlier. He couldn’t have been more than 50 yards away.

I turned my chair toward the bird and tucked in next to a big tree. There was a lot of brush in front of me now, as I hadn’t trimmed any in this direction earlier. But, there were some holes in the brush, which would give me a couple of small windows to shoot through.

Time for seduction

Sometimes, when birds come out like this, they will sit there strutting and gobbling, waiting for the hen to show up. My strategy at times like these is to hit them with the soft stuff – clucks and purrs that hens make where they’re content and are interested more in feeding than breeding. In other words, playing hard to get.

I pulled out a little push button call made by Quaker Boy called a Pro Push Pin Yelper, and made a short series of clucks and purrs. The bird gobbled with gusto to these sounds. I’m always amazed at how effective soft calling is at bringing in a gobbler those last precious yards into gun range – and equally amazed at how so many hunters fail to employ the “soft stuff” in their calling arsenal.

Within a minute or two, I saw the gobbler’s head bobbing through the brush. He passed through the first opening and was headed for the second. I quickly pointed my gun at the next opening and took the safety off. Within a few seconds, the bird’s head and neck appeared again, and I pulled the trigger.

The bird went down, and I felt both joy and relief. After making a mistake by moving at the wrong time, I still was able to bag a bird. This has happened before, and most turkey hunters will tell you that mistakes in the field are inevitable. You just have to keep at it. The lesson I have learned over and over again is to be persistent. You can fail nine times, and succeed on the 10th try.

Big bird

This ended up being my nicest bird of the season. It was an adult tom that weighed 20 pounds. Sure, toms can get quite a bit bigger than that – up to 28 pounds. But, this bird was big enough for me.

And, it had an extra bonus – a double beard. That’s a first for me, and another great part of the story. It also had 1-inch, pointed spurs, which likely makes it a 3-year-old bird. The older a tom gets, the tougher he is to fool, so getting this older bird makes the hunt even more gratifying.

More about brush

Many hunters consider brush the enemy when it comes to turkey hunting. I’ve heard many stories about how toms have hung up behind brush and the hunter never could get a shot.

But, brush can be your friend, or, at least, it needn’t be the frustration that many make it out to be. For starters, it’s important to understand how turkeys react to brush.

Even though the toms are very interested in breeding right now, their number-one priority at all times is survival. That is why they are so wary and hard to call in.

And, it’s also why they will often come in through thick brush, even when a more open path is available. Because their eyesight is so keen, they can see through thick brush far better than we humans can. They also know that predators won’t be able to surprise them as easily when they have to move through brush.

That’s why so many hunters have birds come in behind some brush. It happened to my brother earlier this week, and to my son two years ago. My brother chose not to shoot, while my son did, but neither got the bird in the brush. Fortunately, in both cases, they later shot birds that came out into the open.

But, you can actually use a turkey’s affinity with brush to your advantage. I like to set up in some brush, so that the tom has to come in close to see through it, which will bring him into gun range. All I need to do is trim enough of it away for me to move my gun and have a few small openings.

That leads us to the problem of shooting through the brush when the moment of truth arrives. I think many hunters are scared to shoot through brush, and too many choose not to take what I would consider to be a makable shot.

A friend of mine helped me with this concept a number of years ago. He noted that every shell contains several hundred pellets, and that many of them get through the brush without hitting it. He said that, basically, if you can see the head and neck of the tom through the brush, and if the bird is in range, your pellets will bring it down.

That’s exactly what happened for me yesterday. In fact, I was amazed at how many pellets hit the bird. My shot was just a bit low, and I found quite a few pellets in the body of the bird when I was taking the breast out. That’s all the proof I needed that shooting though brush isn’t the vexing problem many hunters think it is. Just be sure that there are no thick branches between you and the bird. Those will, in fact, stop or deflect pellets.

Ending with gratitude

So, I finish my hunting season with all four of my tags filled. As always, I said a prayer of thanks to God in the field yesterday as I was carrying my bird out. The Lord has been good to me, and my prayers for successful hunts have been answered.

I just have one prayer left – for my son, William. He has a Wisconsin tag for this week as well, and I plan on taking him out Sunday morning. I tried helping him get a bird earlier this spring in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, but we couldn’t quite get it done. He did take a shot, but it was a long one and he missed. I’m hoping his next shot will be a lot closer!

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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