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Sierra Bullets
Rifle Magazine
May - June 2004
Volume 2, Number 3
ISSN: 0
Number 9
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Cover Photos Donald M. Jones
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I have never been bitten, so to speak, by the turkey hunting bug, at least until now. In the past, I have hunted these great birds many times, successfully, but they were usually taken with a rifle or handgun and were simply stumbled onto while in pursuit of other game such as deer or javelina or while just kicking around in the hills. As a result they were shot at longer distances, and there was little or no challenge in anchoring one, as they’re an easy target for an iron-sighted revolver at 75 or even 100 yards, or several times that distance with a modern scope-sighted rifle.

This has all changed since last spring, when friend Kevin Howard extended an invitation to try a new .44 Magnum hunting load from Winchester Ammunition. We would be hunting in Texas for a variety of game. He emphasized the heart of the hunt would be for turkey, to be called in close and taken with a shotgun. I thought little of it at the time, but in the back of my mind I knew this could bring a new aspect to hunting these great birds, as they are wary, smart and possess incredible hearing and eyesight; and to speak their “language” by gobbling would be challenging.

After arriving at the ranch in South Texas, we took opportunity to select a shotgun and sight it in before hunting. This is an important ingredient to success, as turkeys are big and tough, and if not hit directly in the head and neck with enough pellets, they will likely escape wounded! I selected an autoloading 12-gauge Browning Gold Hunter Turkey Series Camo shotgun. Besides being camouflage (Mossy Oak), which is ideal when working in close proximity with these remarkable birds, the Gold Hunter has fully adjustable Hi-Viz sights, so the pattern’s point of impact can be brought to center on the turkey’s head and neck. In other words, it is sighted in just like a rifle. It features a 24-inch barrel with an Extra Full interchangeable choke to keep patterns tight at shooting distances.

That evening we drove around the ranch, periodically stopping to listen for a gobbler going to roost, or as an experienced turkey hunter would say, “put them to bed.” Kevin gobbled several times and had toms respond from different areas. We even spotted a couple of really great long beards before they took roost in trees. I was getting the fever, the kind doctors have no cure for!

The next morning in the predawn hours, Browning Arms Company’s Travis Hall and I hiked from a remote road into an ideal area, before the birds were off their roosts. We were dressed in full camouflage and armed with a variety of calls. After finding a secluded place on the edge of some thick brush and among tall grass, we sat down and covered our hands and faces with camouflage gloves and netting and got into the “ready” position. This included a round in the chamber, the safety in the ON position and sitting so the gun could be brought to shoulder and fired with very minimal movement.

Again, not being an experienced caller, I elected to keep my calls silenced to observe and learn as Travis, a real master, began working several birds. It seemed the brush and trees quickly came to life with activity, and we were literally surrounded by the racket of toms and jakes chattering back and forth. We now just needed to extend the right invitation – whether it be the sound of a hen or tom – to get a long beard to come in. This is not an easy task, as their exceptional hearing makes it important to get the right sound, or they probably won’t respond.

The excitement of calling a turkey up close will increase your heart rate. It’s not that you will soon be pulling the trigger and anchoring a bird, but rather it’s that you must talk turkey language, out smart him and bring him in close without detection. This is a challenge, and one must understand the birds to be successful. If you move your hands, even if they are camouflaged, or even twitch your nose, they will probably detect you and high-tail it out of there. Many experienced turkey hunters prefer to just call them in, “catching and releasing” after winning the game, and only occasionally take a bird. This is sport hunting in the purest sense, but today the plan was to catch and not release!

The grass was tall, and we couldn’t see the birds, but we could tell by their high-volume gobbles they were zigzagging, probably trying to get a glimpse of the “tom” they were “stalking.” Nonetheless they continued steadily toward us. I waited with shotgun to shoulder, eyes searching for a head in the grass or the big dark body. They became silent, but instinct told me they were closer than ever, and even though I wanted to glance at Travis’s expression, I didn’t dare twitch a muscle.

Suddenly, I caught glimpses of a handsome long beard coming in at an angle, as if he were going to run right past us. He seemed convinced we were the “real thing” but wasn’t going to charge directly toward us. He was moving steadily at something between 35 and 40 yards, and I had a clear shot at his upper body. The Browning was aimed like a rifle at the head and neck area and fired, which immediately put the old bird down. Travis grinned and, although he never said a word, knew he had just introduced a novice to an addictive form of turkey hunting. We walked to the great bird, shook hands, congratulating each other on a successful hunt. We discussed all the action and excitement we had heard from other birds that morning, then watched a beautiful Texas sunrise and enjoyed the moment.

Over the next two days, each member of our party was successful. The ranch chef cooked the birds into a variety of entrees and appetizers that would please even the most finicky of diners.

Turkey Hunting Comeback

There was a time, just a few decades ago, that turkey populations were low, and great hunting opportunities were limited to select areas. In the middle 1970s, there were an estimated 1.3 million turkeys nationwide, but today there are over 6 million of the great birds, and hunting is better than anyone can remember. Many have contributed to this remarkable population boom, including landowners (willingly establishing correct habitat), wildlife agencies and the National Wild Turkey Federation. The NWTF was founded in 1973 and is a non-profit organization with a half-million members and volunteers. It strives to improve habitat, through scientific studies, and works hard to preserve hunting. (For more information contact the NWTF at 1-800-THE-NWTF.)

Today, turkey hunting is good in most of the United States and parts of Canada and Mexico. The North American species is divided into five distinct subspecies that include: Eastern, Florida, Merriam’s, Rio Grande and Gould’s. While each of these varieties are closely related, each has distinguishable markings, features and colors and has conformed to its given environment. Therefore, hunting techniques vary from one region to another, and calls and techniques that work in one region may not produce great success in another. Dedicated turkey hunters can enjoy the challenge of learning how to hunt each subspecies in a variety of terrain and conditions.

The Eastern turkey boasts of the greatest population and is the most commonly hunted. While its primary range is in the eastern half of the U.S., it has been successfully transplanted to western coastal states including Washington, Ore-gon and California. Mature gobblers usually weigh in excess of 20 pounds and stand up to 4 feet tall.

The Florida turkey only resides in the Florida peninsula. Its coloration gives a better camouflage for the vegetation and colors found in the swamp country.

The Merriam’s turkey is found primarily in ponderosa pine country and the Rocky Mountain range of the western U.S. It is distinguished (from the Eastern, Florida and Rio Grande) by white feather trim across the back and tail feathers. It is generally the same size as the Eastern with mature toms exceeding 20 pounds.


The Rio Grande turkey is native to the south-central U.S. and obtains its name from that great life-giving river that divides two nations. Al-though found in brush and scrub oak and mesquite trees, the Rio often resides in more open country (rather than the wooded country preferred by its cousins). In some
regions it is sociable and nomadic with seasonal ranges and often bunches up in large flocks.

The Gould’s turkey is found in the Southwest – mostly in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico – and is reported to be the largest of the five subspecies. They are usually found in the mountains and can be distinguished by the white tips on the tail feathers and are probably closest in relation to the Merriam’s. Their numbers are comparatively few, but efforts by the Arizona Game and Fish Department and members of the NWTF are working to increase their population, not just in Arizona but any region that may have suitable habitat.

Conclusion

Although I am a novice at calling turkeys, I have spent a fair amount of time among these great birds and have made some unusual observations, developing tremendous respect and admiration. Years ago, my dad introduced a dozen or so wild turkeys (Merriam’s) to our ranch, and they did very well. This was during the 1970s, and scientific transplanting methods were not well published. The young birds were kept in a large chicken wire enclosure for a few weeks, then turned loose to feed and nest in the wooded area along the nearby creek.

I watched them daily, while about ranch work. Some roosted on the lowest tree branches, and the coyotes and skunks got most of them, while the remaining ones roosted in much higher branches. In the spring the hens nested and hatched out successfully.

Most of us are aware of just how protective of young a mother can be, and turkeys are certainly no exception. One hen had set on the edge of our hay field, and we made a point not to disturb her. About the time the young ones were due to hatch, a large hawk was observed circling her repeatedly and began diving to within just a couple feet. I was concerned, but suddenly the hawk dove and just as he was within a few feet of the nest, she flew straight off the ground and directly after the hawk. The hawk turned and flew over our heads in high gear, and the hen was right on his tail. She kept after him until they were out of our sight, which was something close to a mile! A few minutes later, she came coasting in and landed on the nest, as though nothing had happened. Certainly she was lighter (from setting) than her normal weight, but her flight was still remarkable and shows that when forced, the turkey can fly better than many believe.

During the spring breeding season, gobblers can become quite aggressive and have even been known to fly and hit people, then proceed to chase them out of their territory. While I have seen this among turkeys that were transplanted and were somewhat used to people, there are many reports of turkeys in remote areas having done this.

The wild turkey has earned my admiration as a game animal, and apparently I am not the only one who feels this way. President “Teddy” Roosevelt felt him worthy to be our national bird, rather than the eagle. There are currently nearly three million turkey hunters, and it is the fastest growing form of hunting.

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