By Steve Sorensen
The second gobbler became confused and didn’t fly.
He ran in a couple of circles and veered my direction.
Take your choice when hunting fall turkeys. You can locate a flock, bust ’em up and call them back to the shotgun, or follow a track ’til you have ’em dead to rights. The first is way more popular; the second is my favorite – and a rewarding method of acquiring Thanksgiving dinner.
The first is a shotgun sport; the second is a rifleman’s game because a turkey’s eagle eyes make it almost impossible for a tracker to get within shotgun range. A fresh snowfall during turkey season helps a lot, but, I’ll tell you a story about tracking in leaves, not in snow, so tracking is a method that can work even when snow is absent.
The hilltop behind my house holds oak, cherry, beech, ash, maple and grapevines, but that year none were producing. I was down to the last day of the season, and I had seen neither wattle nor feather all season long. Where were they? Maybe they were scratching for bugs that lived under the warm blanket of needles beneath the tall hemlocks.
I knew where a patch of hemlocks extended from the bottom of the valley to the crest of the hill, so on the morning of the last day of the season I walked out the back door with a new idea and renewed commitment. As soon as I crossed the creek and started climbing, I found where turkeys had turned over debris on the forest floor, leaving dinner-plate sized bare patches with leaves stacked up on the downhill side. That meant the turkeys were moving uphill.
The flock I was following probably had no more than four or five turkeys. I kept a slow pace, casting eyes as far ahead as I could see. They led up the hill beside a deep ravine – a cleft in the hillside that timbermen used a hundred years ago to slide logs down to the bottom.
About halfway up the hill, some scratchings veered to the left and dropped down to a bench. I followed that, thinking that if I could spot the birds below me, I’d be able to pick my shot. When I reached a place where I could see, I paused to watch, but thick brush made visibility poor without snow.
I committed a half-hour to this diversion, then returned to the main tracks. As I crested the hill, the hemlocks transitioned to hardwoods. I knew there would be nothing for them to scratch for in the hardwoods, and I’d be hard-pressed to continue tracking.
It was noon, a good time to stop and assess the situation. I sat down and rested against a big hemlock for a few minutes. My teeth were closing on the first bite of a ham sandwich when I heard a turkey yelp down below. Was it the raspy yelp of an old gobbler? The assembly call of a brood hen? Or the lost call of a lone bird?
I quickly replaced the sandwich with a diaphragm call and offered a few yelps to get its attention, ending with a high-pitched “kee” of a young turkey. I followed that with the sound of a mature gobbler – one deep raspy note.
I was facing downhill so the ravine was to my left about 100 yards away. Along that edge came two beard-dangling gobblers scavenging tidbits from the forest floor. These two birds must be the ones that had broken off from the others earlier, and now they were seeking to rejoin them.
My rifle, a .222 Remington, could easily make this shot. I slowly raised the rifle and watched the birds work their way along the edge of the ravine. With the crosshairs on the wing butt of the lead gobbler, I squeezed the trigger.
Just as I pressed the trigger, the turkey reached down to peck something from the forest floor, and my shot went right over the top of him. I had blown my chance. He flew across the ravine and was gone. But the second gobbler was confused and didn’t fly. He ran in a couple of circles and veered my direction, angling downhill. He ran about 60 yards and then stopped behind a stump. I could see nothing but his head, 70 yards away.
In the rustle of preparing for a follow-up shot, I had somehow moved away from the tree that had been supporting my back, and was now holding the rifle freehand. I considered placing a bullet in his head, but could not hold steady. I feared that the eyes of this desperately worried turkey would pick me out if I moved to get a rest for the rifle. When I could hold it no longer, I slowly, imperceptibly, eased the rifle down.
For three-quarters of an hour this turkey and I were at a standoff. He was waiting, so I had to wait as the sun shone through his red wattle and lit up his noggin like a neon light. Finally, he took one step, then another, then turned and started walking away. I put the crosshairs on his spine and applied pressure to the trigger. Down went the biggest fall turkey I’ve taken to date.
What were the keys to taking this great fall gobbler? Next time, I’ll write about the lessons I learned and give you the tips that will increase your odds when you track your next fall turkey.
About Steve Sorensen
Outdoor writer and speaker Steve Sorensen writes an award-winning newspaper column called “The Everyday Hunter®,” and he is the editor of the Havalon Post. He has also published articles in Deer & Deer Hunting, North American Whitetail, and many other top magazines across the USA. Invite Steve to speak at your next sportsman’s event, and follow him at www.EverydayHunter.com.
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