By DAVID RAINER
It was the best of times on both occasions for the weary hunters, just different. One turkey had a hearty gobble that echoed through the late-season woods. The other was as silent as a newborn fawn.
Both met their demise on the same cool, crisp, dew-drenched morning.
As is oft the case during the Alabama wild turkey season, plans must change on the fly. Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF), and I were trying to work on a “field turkey” story. I scouted for the field turkeys with binoculars, but the birds were no-shows.
Thankfully, we split up to do the scouting and Sykes had a much better report from a friend’s property in Choctaw County. Lots of turkey tracks and strut marks (wing-tip scratches in the ground) were made after the rain event of last Thursday night and Friday morning.
“Walking in after the rain, I was looking for fresh tracks,” Sykes said. “I found a few single hen tracks and kept walking up the main road that splits the property. I then found gobbler tracks and strut marks. This time of year, when you find strut marks, you need to file that away in the back of your head, because he’s going to spend some time there.”
When that cold snap blew through late last week, it wasn’t unexpected that the turkeys weren’t saying much with temperatures around the 36-degree mark at dawn.
“I’m glad he didn’t gobble,” Sykes said. “If he had gobbled, I probably would have wanted to go to him even though I knew we needed to make a nest and sit right where I’d found the strut marks. It was on that main road, and I knew he was eventually coming.”
Sykes knew the property well. He had helped the landowner enhance his property for wildlife habitat last year, including forest management and building food plots in the strips of cut-out rows after the first thinning in the pine plantation.
“Once the plot was built, it was time to select the right seed product to plant in the food plot,” he said. “Durana clover was designed in Georgia for our harsher climate and conditions. For most clovers, you need to have a perfect pH and perfect growing conditions for it to reach its potential. But Durana grows well in sub-standard pHs, and it grows well in those strips that don’t get direct sunlight all the time. It was planted last fall for deer season, but we also knew the turkeys would be in it. It gives places for those gobblers to hang out while hens are on the nest. It gives the hens a high-protein food source in the clover. And once the hens come off the nests with poults, that clover is going to provide tremendous bugging opportunities for the poults.”
As the eastern skies started to lighten, we set up near a landing site adjacent to a long, narrow food plot. We constructed a blind of sweetgum saplings cut from among the thinned pines, and all the birds were starting to sing except for the turkeys. After giving the turkeys plenty of time to fly down before making the first series of yelps, there was no response. We settled in for what we thought might be a long morning.
To my surprise, only 15 minutes after the first call, a pair of hens appeared almost magically from the green undergrowth in the pines. I whispered to Sykes that there were two hens pecking in the clover.
Less than a minute later, four hens popped out farther down the road. “More hens,” I whispered. “That’s good,” Sykes responded.
Then that glorious sight of a fully spread turkey fan became visible. The gobbler was slowly strutting behind his harem. Then it was decision time about when to take the shot. I could swivel to the right and take a 35-yard shot, which I seriously considered until a briar grabbed my right shoulder.
About that same time, the rear four hens spotted our hen-jake decoys and started to sprint in that direction. The gobbler quickly realized he was being left behind, so he folded his fan and ran to catch up. I assumed my original shooting plan. When the gobbler walked past a tree, Sykes was trying to whisper, “I’ll make him stick his head up.” All he got out was “I’ll make” before I squeezed the trigger. The gobbler hit the ground and hens went in every direction, one almost into our natural blind.
“Taking that turkey was all about good, old woodsmanship, because that turkey didn’t say a word,” Sykes said. “We shot him within an hour of him being on the ground because we read the sign and knew what to do. We waited 30 minutes to ever make a call to make sure the turkeys were on the ground. If I had started calling at daylight, that wouldn’t have been natural, because we were not in a roosting spot. This time of year, whether they’re gobbling or not, I’m going to where the hens are nesting, which happens to be in these thinned pines.
“Anybody can go to a 2-year-old gobbling on the limb. How many people are going to kill a 4- or 5-year-old turkey when he hasn’t said a word? We knew what that turkey was going to do. We knew if we had patience we were going to kill that turkey, based on the sign.”
After high-fives and a photo session, Sykes looked at his watch and then me and said, “It’s still early (8 a.m.). Let’s go see if we can find me a turkey.”
A 20-minute ride later, we parked the truck at the gate and slipped toward another clover field in a pine plantation where we’d set up on a old, drumming turkey two weeks before. That turkey wouldn’t present a shot, so we were going to try again. We quietly slipped into the field, which turned out to be a wise tactic. Halfway down the field, we set up in the undergrowth and decided to see if a gobbler was within hearing distance. Sykes broke out his cherished box call built by Billy White of Abbeville and made a series of yelps.
A turkey gobbled, but the thick woods made it hard to course him. Another series of yelps evoked another gobble and the turkey sounded like he was sitting in the bed of the truck.
“He couldn’t have been more than 75 yards from the truck when he gobbled,” Sykes said. The turkey gobbled at a logging truck as it rattled by on the washboard road, and he continued to respond to the box call, getting closer each time.
Suddenly, I spotted a white head in the edge of the clover. “There he is,” I whispered, just as his fan went full-spread. When the gobbler was hesitant to head toward the decoys, Sykes knew it wasn’t the big gobbler that we encountered before.
“It’s not him,” he said. “The big gobbler would have made a beeline for that jake to give him a thrashing.”
After making the turkey gobble another half-dozen times, it became apparent he wasn’t going to come any closer.
The shot rang out. The gobbler hopped and keeled over backward in a fatal flop.
Despite the fact the second turkey couldn’t help but respond to the box call, Sykes still values other skills above calling.
“Woodsmanship and set-up kills turkeys,” he said. “On occasion, pretty calling may make a turkey do something it wouldn’t normally do, but being in the right location kills turkeys.
“A buddy of mine, who is a heck of a turkey hunter, told me that if he could only have three things to take to the woods other than his shotgun, it would be a good cushion, a pair of binoculars and some bug spray. You don’t even have to have a call if you use good woodsmanship and read the sign. Now I love to call to them and love to make them gobble. But it took as much, or more, skill to kill that first turkey than it would to go into a place blind and go to a turkey gobbling on a limb, in my opinion.”