Secrets to Hunting Tough Gobblers
Gobblers I Loved To Hate
Editor’s Note: The gobblers I've fought the hardest through the years always have taught me the most. Although each season my hunting partners and I battle bad gobblers, we’ve also realized that often these birds hold the secrets to bagging other tough toms. To take a bad gobbler, you must get inside the bird's head.
For four days, I hunted Old Slick with Joe Smith, my turkey-hunting buddy from Union Springs, Alabama. This bird, one of the smartest turkeys I ever hunted, gobbled from his roost like the barker at the circus every morning. He gobbled so much and so loudly that I wondered how he could breathe between gobbles. Four small green fields surrounded Ole Slick’s roost tree. Each morning he'd fly to a different one of those green fields when he pitched off his limb. For three consecutive mornings, Smith and I went to the green field where he’d flown to the morning before, called to the gobbler and listened to him answer us and then fly off the limb to a different green field from where we’d set up. A dead silence always followed before he answered our calls briefly and then vanished. On the fourth morning of our hunt, while riding to do battle with Ole Slick again, Smith announced, "I had a vision last night. The Lord told me how to take Ole Slick. There's only one field that gobbler hasn't flown to, and that's where we’re going to hunt today. The vision also told me that the gobbler flies to the fields where he doesn't hear a hen calling. Today we're not going to call to Ole Slick."
I understood not calling to the gobbler. But moving to a field, standing near a small clump of trees and waiting on the turkey to show up didn't seem like the most-productive turkey-hunting tactic to me. However, I didn’t doubt Smith's vision. He'd hunted turkeys at White Oak Plantation near Tuskegee, Alabama, for many years and had a Ph.D. in "Bad Birdology." Just before daylight, Ole Slick, a nickname Smith had given him because no one had taken him all season, careened from the roost. I fought my natural urge to call to him. In a soft whisper, Smith said, "John, don't pick up that call. Let's just wait.” After about 30 minutes, I heard Smith whisper from beneath his head net, "There’s Slick. Just let him come to us. I knew he was coming. I saw him in my vision last night." As Smith had predicted, Ole Slick marched right across the green field to within 20 yards of us. I introduced him to a lead biscuit for breakfast. Smith had seen through the obvious and gone inside the gobbler's head. He’d determined where Slick planned to go and why he wanted to go there. I hated Ole Slick, but I loved the knowledge that he and Smith taught me that day.
The Ridge Runner:
This turkey lived in the Tombigbee River swamp. I could find the Ridge Runner easily, just like Ole Slick, because he gobbled well before daylight and continued to gobble for 15 or 30 minutes. But, the Ridge Runner lived on a 400-yard-long ridge in the middle of a swamp, loaded with pin oak and water oak acorns. When the murky water from the Tombigbee River ran into this area, the acorns floated to the surface and formed what looked like a bathtub ring around the edge of dry land. The Ridge Runner had plenty of food on the ridge. At the water's edge, he had safety, and he could call in his harem of hens every morning. He had no reason to leave his ridge. When I turkey hunt in the spring, I assume I'll get wet, either from the rain or by wading through water. So I didn't hesitate to wade across the swamp to reach the ridge. I warred with the Ridge Runner for eight days. I tried to call him off the ridge and across the water toward the woods where I’d set up, but that didn't work. When the turkey gobbled on one end of the ridge, I went to the other end of the ridge, waded the water and tried to get on the ridge to call him. Due to the openness of the swamp, when I attempted to wade to the gobbler, he or one of his hens would spot me about 150 yards from the bank. If you've ever dealt with a bad bird, you know he can get into your mind, keep you from sleeping and prevent you from concentrating.
Finally, I decided to take that Ridge Runner turkey no matter what I had to do. I checked my calendar and saw that I had seven days before the dark of the moon. I went to the edge of the water where I could see the roost tree. Then I moved about 100 yards down the bank and took a compass reading on the route I would travel to get 100 yards from the gobbler's roost tree. I found two big beaver sticks, 4-foot-tall tree limbs that had the bark gnawed-off them. I forced those beaver sticks in the ground to make a large white "X." I wrote down the direction I needed to travel to reach the beaver sticks. Then I turned around, with my back to the beaver sticks, and walked a straight-line compass course to the road I needed to take to get into the woods. Using the heel of my boot, I made a giant "X" in the middle of the sandy dirt road. I also used my GPS to create a trail. I got up at 2:00 am six days later on the dark of the moon and arrived at my first "X" in the dirt road by 2:45 am. In the pitch-black woods, I used a small red penlight to read my compass. I had plenty of time to reach the island before daylight. I walked slowly and quietly toward the beaver sticks before setting my compass course.
Next I waded quietly through the swamp to the ridge where the Ridge Runner lived. I belly-crawled from the water to a large white oak on the crest of the ridge, leaned my gun against the tree and found some small bushes I could cut with pruning shears to make a small blind. Once I set up against the white oak, I got warm and comfortable and slept a half-sleep. Shortly before daylight, the Ridge Runner acted as my alarm clock when he gobbled from his roost. I saw the bird on the limb. When he turned to gobble away from me, I got my 3-inch magnum on my knee. I watched the hens fly to him and land below his roost tree. When he finally pitched off the limb, the Ridge Runner and his harem of hens began to feed toward me. Then less than 30-yards away, the gobbler moved to the side of his harem and offered me a clear shot through the timber. When the gun reported, and the Ridge Runner went down, I felt the relief that only a turkey hunter who ever had won a war against a bad gobbler could know. I hated that old bird, but I loved what he taught me. To get in close to a tough turkey, you may have to wait until the dark of the moon and use a compass or a hand-held GPS to navigate your way to him before daylight. Oftentimes, the planning you do before the hunt influences the success of your hunt more than the actual hunt itself.
Tomorrow: Call-Less Turkey Hunting