Turkey Teamwork

It’s a beautiful thing when a plan comes together and last weekend, our plan turned into turkey dinner. Me and fellow packgoat maniac, Brandon Arn, and turkey master, Chad Gooch, headed to eastern Oregon for a weekend chasing wild turkeys. People who have never hunted wild turkeys sometimes mistakenly equate them with the docile domestic turkeys grown in pens for Thanksgiving dinner. The differences between wild turkeys and domestic turkeys are like night and day. Wild turkeys are crazy smart, sneaky, and tough. You’d better bring your “A” game if you plan to put one in the freezer.

When I first started hunting turkeys three years ago, I was stunned at how the slightest movement caused turkeys to spin around and walk quickly in the other direction. Any more movement, and they stick their neck straight out, crouch low to the ground, and sprint with amazing speed. These are birds that know how to stay alive. If you’ve never been around wild turkeys, check out the PBS video called, My Life As A Turkey, about naturalist, Joe Hutto, and his two year experiment raising wild turkeys. It’s a fascinating look at these amazing birds.

So, we drove to eastern Oregon with a simple plan: locate turkeys, call turkeys into range, convert live turkeys into turkey dinner. We arrived on Friday afternoon, setup camp, and quickly found a tom strutting that evening. It was game on! We circled above him in the trees, then setup to call him in: Chad was calling, I was sitting with my back to a tree about 20 yards in front to the right, and Brandon setup on the left. Since Brandon hadn’t bagged a turkey yet this season, he was on point with first choice on where to setup for the best shot. Chad started making “cutting” calls with his box call and the tom fired back a gobble immediately. That tom had probably never been hunted since he gobbled back steadily for ten minutes as Chad called to him. Gobblers that have been shot at once or twice quickly learn to be more quiet and wary. Lucky for us, this tom was ready to dance.

Chad called steadily and the tom and his hen worked their way toward us. The hen walked right in front of Brandon, but the tom was farther back (around 60 yards – too far for a shot) and wouldn’t come closer. As the turkeys walked out of sight, we ran through the woods and then setup again. The tom would answer, but not commit. We chased and called him all evening and then near dark, he flew up in a tree to roost and we left him for the night.

Calling in toms that already have one or more hens is tough. The sequence often goes like this:
[Caller, making cutting hen sounds] “Hey big boy, I’m over here, want to party?”
[Tom turkey] “Gobble!” (Hell, yes I want to party!)
[Hen] “Well, run over here, I’m ready”
[Tom] “I’ll come over for a peak. Do you have sexy brown feathers?”
[Hen] “You know I do, come check me out”
[Tom] “I think you should meet me halfway. Where are you?”
[Hen] “I’m right here, come on up”
[Tom] “I think you should come down here and caress my caruncles”
[Hen] “Oh, I’ll sex up your snood big boy, get up here!”
And so it goes, back and forth until the tom walks in or loses interest and moves off. If the tom already has one or more hens with him, the hunt gets exponentially harder because he won’t want to leave his hens to investigate your calls.

Using calling setups to lure in wild animals is a true art. When a calling setup is perfect, it looks easy, but setups often don’t work. Sometimes the birds hang up just out of shooting distance for what seems like no good reason. Maybe they expected the hen to come to them. Maybe they picked up on a slight movement or sunlight glint off the gun. Or maybe they’ve learned to err on the side of caution after narrowly escaping hunters in the past. Each bird is different and each day is different. We worked setups intermittently on that same tom for three days without success. He was close to death several times, but ultimately walked away with all of his feathers intact. Rather than give him a PhD education, we moved on into other areas, looking for other birds.

On Saturday afternoon, we split up in different directions to quickly scout a new area. Forty minutes later, Chad arrived back at the truck with this gobbler in the bag. It was downright shocking how quickly he got’r done. He walked into an area where he’d never been before, located, called in, shot, retrieved, and walked back to the truck in 40 minutes. Holy crap, it was impressive. Chad was a little sheepish about it, as he was mostly trying to help me and Brandon get a bird. And of course me and Brandon took full advantage and gave him a good-natured verbal thrashing as though he had done something wrong. When you’re The Turkey Slayer, you’re The Turkey Slayer…what are you going to do? [Call], BOOM!, [flop]. No problem.

On Sunday, we went back to the area where Chad whacked his bird and we found another tom in the same location. Same setup: Chad in the back calling, me and Brandon up front sitting with our backs to trees, guns up and ready for the tom. I’ll tell you, it’s a heart-pounding, exciting hunt when a tom is gobbling closer and closer and you know he’s coming in. And this tom was on fire! He came in fast and we could hear him coming up the draw toward us, circling to the left, right in front of Brandon. Closer, closer, and just when he poked his head up, something scared the daylights out of him and he turned and fled like his feathers were on fire. Dang! We looked and looked, but couldn’t figure out what spooked him so badly. Sometimes setups go wrong and that’s just the way it is.

No problem, we got on more toms that afternoon, gobbling in the timber. We chased those turkeys up and down the draws, trying to get ahead of them, but always ending up too low and too far back. There must have been some sort of monster mosquito hatch that week because as we hunkered down in the timber looking for old sneaky snood, we got chewed on like mice in a snake pit. Sorry, Red Cross, we already donated two quarts in the woods. We called and chased, called and chased, ran, hid, sneaked, crept, scurried, weaseled, and hunted ferociously, but ultimately ended up with no bird that afternoon.

There’s a basic rule in hunting: hunt first light, last light, and everything in between. Never, never, never skip first or last light, ever. No matter how tired you are, cold it is, or sore your muscles are, get out there at first and last light. The animals are more active at those times and what happens during twilight sets the strategy for the next hunt.

Sunday night found us out in the woods until dark and it paid off big time. We found the turkey honey hole, where several gobblers went to roost in the same draw. One of them had a beard so big, it swung back and forth like a rope. He walked right by Chad at 25 yards and since Chad had already filled his tag, he couldn’t do anything except watch (now that’s painful!)

At first light the next morning, we were on that draw like a hobo on a ham sandwich. Chad and Brandon went after Old Rope Swinger and I went after a different tom that I put to roost the night before. Chad did the calling and Brandon setup out front, while Mr. Big Rope gobbled and worked his way closer. They worked and worked that bird. At one point, Brandon decided that the tom might be hung up, so Brandon Indian-sneaked closer, and when Old Big Rope popped his head up, BOOM! Dinner in the bag!

One of the hardest parts of doing calling setups is knowing if the setup is working and then deciding if or how you need to adjust. Brandon moved perfectly, at just the right time and he sealed the deal. There is no book or video that can teach you how to do that successfully. It’s something that has to be learned and ingrained as a sixth sense. Learning to call in animals to within 60 yards is within the capability of most people who work at it, but learning how to close the gap and make the shot is what separates the hunters who go hungry from those who fill their tag. Call it “spidey sense” or just plain skill, it’s essential to hunting success and Brandon nailed it that day. Great job!

Chad’s calling and turkey hunting expertise made that trip a big success for all of us. I didn’t bag a bird, but I learned a ton. Three hunters bagging two turkeys in one long weekend is terrific, especially in a brand new area where none of us had ever been before. And did I mention, we had a great time on this hunt? Hunting, laughing, sitting by the fire, it was all great. I’m sad that our 2012 spring turkey season is over, but I’m happy that’s been great for all of us. We all bagged at least one bird (including our buddy, Barry, who couldn’t join us, but filled his tags in southern Oregon) and we’re already making plans for the hunt next year. Great friendship and great hunting, who could ask for more than that?

For more photos of the hunt, check out the link here.

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