Strutting His Stuff
The river bottoms around Nashville, Mo., come alive every spring with the resounding gobbles of the wild turkey. It is a melody that calls me to the woods. Last year, answering its call paid off with one of the largest gobblers ever taken in the state of Missouri.
On opening morning of the Missouri spring turkey season, I chose to hunt near a favorite roost. It didn't produce, so I made my way to a river, where I found myself with a familiar dilemma. Rain had swollen the river out of its banks, but I could hear several toms on the other side.
I finally coaxed six of them into displaying their brilliant plumage as they strutted safely along the opposite bank. Every call I gave was interrupted with lusty gobbling! I played the waiting game for a long time until they finally made their move. One by one they sailed across the river and glided into the woods.
One hour passed before three of the big toms emerged from the shadows and quietly walked my way. At 30 yards, they knew something wasn't right and started to leave. I hurried a shot and caught nothing but dead air.
The next morning found me at the rain-swollen creek again, but this time with a boat. I climbed in and drifted in the dark until I struck the opposite bank. My plan was to set up in the gobblers' main strutting area and not call, a tactic I've used in the past, especially if the birds weren't vocal.
The strutting area was a small meadow in the woods along the river. I made my way to it as quietly as I could under the cover of starlight. At dawn, 12 gobblers sounded off to greet the new day. I tried to make a mental note of the whereabouts of each bird.
After an hour of waiting, a turkey appeared across the field, ambling my way. He quickly closed the distance to about 150 yards. Since the angle he was taking would bring him past my position and just out of gun range, I decided to get him to turn toward me while he was still a safe distance away. I did this by giving two soft yelps on my mouth call.
The big bird immediately put on the brakes and paused to listen. I gave one more soft yelp. He responded by dropping his head and running in the opposite direction, not slowing down until he was safely inside a woodlot across the field.
I realized this must be one of the birds I had shot at the previous morning. Maybe he heard the sweet voice of the same hen that almost had lured him to his death the day before and was a wiser bird for the experience.
It was still mid-morning, and experience was telling me that some of the best hunting was yet to come. I mentally reviewed the roost sites of the gobblers I had heard earlier. Then I decided to sit on a ridge directly behind the woodlot into which the tom had just ran. I was not far from a big oak, where I'd heard a quartet of old toms gobbling at dawn.
I quietly situated myself and placed a decoy on a rise in the shadows of the ridge. This time I pulled out my favorite box call and chalked it. I made two series of loud and lonesome lost calls.
My strategy was to let anything within a quarter of a mile know I was there and then call sparingly. Ten minutes passed before I gave another call, a soft cluck. I was answered by a similar but deeper cluck of a mature gobbler. I answered with three soft yelps and didn't call again for another 10 minutes.
Sometimes not calling at all is the most effective way to bring in a cautious tom.
I soon heard a questioning gobble from the field edge about 60 yards away. Cautiously peering in that direction, I could see two tail fans. I didn't answer their gobbling. They were cautious, strutting back and forth on the field edge for more than 20 minutes before gobbling again. I responded by scratching in the leaves and giving three soft yelps over my shoulder, just loud enough for them to hear.
Finally both gobblers committed to searching for the unseen hen. Their bright red heads peered over bushes along the field edge. The sky was dark blue, and the redbud and dogwood trees were in full bloom, spilling their fragrance into the air.
The birds stepped into the woods to take a closer look. Soon they dropped into a ravine and disappeared from sight. Gun at the ready, I sat motionless. Any movement on my part would end this battle of wits in a second. Nerve racking minutes passed before I heard a welcome sound: Pffest. One of the gobblers was close and in full strut. I estimated that he was about 30 yards out. He was hidden from view in some brier bushes. The other gobbler was holding back, so I knew this one had to be the boss bird.
Even at 20 yards I had no shot. By this time I knew that if I didn't have a shot soon, I would scare him with my sporadic breathing and thundering heartbeat. Then, almost as if answering my prayer, he appeared just 12 yards in front of me. One eye was on the decoy, and the other was looking right through me.
There he was, standing before me in a ray of sunlight. He was a wise old bird, but this time he had been fooled. My gun roared, and a long but rewarding hunt was over.
Before me lay a true monarch of a bird. He had four beards and weighed 25 pounds. I heaved him over my shoulder and walked back to my car.
I knew that the next morning only a trio would sing where the quartet had serenaded the hens, but by next spring, the offspring of this bird and the others would add their voices. The country choir would continue to ring loud and clear through the river bottom and, once again, I would be back in these woods admiring their music.