By Lorraine Lawrence
People pretty much fall into one of two camps when it comes to wild turkey. You hunt them, and by that I mean you are pretty crazy about them and everything that has to do with them OR you haven’t really thought about turkey a lot and really don’t know too much about them. There isn’t too much middle ground when it comes to these extraordinary birds.
So lets talk turkey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service says that approximately 21 percent of all U.S. hunters pursue turkey, making it the second most popular type of game after deer. Native, or introduced from trapped wild bird stocks, turkey are found in 49 out of 50 states. With Alaska being the only state missing out on the versatile bird. They extend as far north as southern parts of Canada and south into Mexico. Considerable range for the huge game bird that was once a candidate for our national bird.
My friend Bill and I belong to a lot of wildlife and conservation organizations, among them is the National Wild Turkey Federation. Which is how we came to be at the San Antonio Rodeo doing turkey calls and teaching children about wild turkeys and conservation when a rancher from down near the Tilden area stopped by to see what all the noise was about. We were telling about how turkey calls worked and Bill who was an expert caller was dazzling the crowd of youngsters with turkey clucks, chirps, cuts and gobbles when the rancher made a comment about there being way too many turkey on their place near Tilden. That got our attention, no one ever has too many turkey, well at least not for turkey hunters which both of us just happen to be. We had been looking for a place to take a small group of friends spring turkey hunting. After a short conversation we found out that the ranch was one where their family hunted and carefully managed their white tail deer and they had never hunted the numerous turkey as the whitetail deer was what it was all about for them, and a point of pride for the family. A couple of weeks later and after a few phone calls and discussions we had negotiated to hunt turkey for opening weekend of the spring season on the private ranch that had only been used by family members hunting trophy deer. Indeed it was the deer that made the rancher open to having us hunt a few of the turkey. The ranch had several feeders and he felt the turkey were getting more than their fair share of the feed provided for the deer!
On the appointed weekend our numbers had thinned, one or two friends had been unavoidably detained due to a back injury or other problems that made turkey hunting impossible. Sticking it out we had packed Bill’s SUV with all manner of provisions, sleeping bags and turkey hunting gear. We had not been able to scout the ranch in advance but David Fey our ranch connection had given great directions and was going to be there to show us around when we arrived. Driving south out of San Antonio we were treated with a blaze of color, spring rains and weather conditions had not only made this a great year for spring turkey but a banner year for the famous Texas wildflower blooms. Highway medians, country roadsides and cattle pastures alike were awash in color and variety from the quintessential State flower, Bluebonnets to the vibrant accent of Indian Blanket, Texas Paintbrush and more. At one point we even spotted turkey crossing the road ahead of us, a good sign that wasn’t dampened by the truck traffic of the Eagle Ford oil boom that seemed to be everywhere.
A stop off at a small town BBQ on the way for lunch really showed us how deep we were into the Eagle Ford Shale drilling region… The restaurant was nearly standing room only; we were the only ones there that were not working on drilling rigs, driving oil and equipment hauling trucks. The place was really hopping and sides of brisket were being sliced, stacked and delt out to plates at a pace that would put Vegas card dealers to shame if the smoking hot slices were cards rather than tasty barbecue.
Back on the road we follow a few of the rigs down a numbered country road risking the windshield as the trucks hit patches of gravel. Finally they all turn off to go through various gates and thread their way to rigs or yards with dozens of other trucks. The dust on the road clears and after a few miles we come to the gate described by our friend David. We had called his cell number before leaving the barbecue joint so he is waiting in his crew cab pick up by the gate, it’s diesel engine idling as he climbs down to work the gate for us. “I can give you a little bit of a tour going in if one of you would like to ride with me as we go up to the ranch” We agree this is a good use of our time. Turkey season doesn’t open until tomorrow so we have the rest of the day to scout and make a “game plan”.
As our vehicles raise dust clouds as they snake their way along the caliche and we get a view of the property. The scrubby trees and brush are much taller and thicker than it appeared from the road and the plant life is varied. Occasional stands of Live Oak and other larger trees run along cuts and creek beds where water trickles. A few pastures have a grassier mix and are studded here and there by small groups of cattle. They are supported by livestock feeders with blocks and low water tanks that the wildlife enjoy too. A good sized buck sprints across in front of us, still wearing his hard antlers. Now we can see how the family has an obsession for quality deer. The buck was a magnificent trophy by most standards but David later described him as a “youngster” and needing a few years to “make something of himself”. It has been careful management and attitude like this that has produced the breathtaking mounts we find on the living room wall in the lodge house.
We stow our gear in our rooms and head out for a full tour of the ranch. This time we use one of several rangers or ATVs that the ranch has to go back into the areas that David suggests will be best for Turkey. As acting ranch foreman he knows all the places where there is water and feed, even more importantly where the turkeys roost, strut and head to and from all the locations. As the ATVs are used frequently to check water tanks and other ranch chores the turkey and deer are not disturbed by their presence very much and go about their business until we come very close. Going down the first trail we spot a small flock of turkey at the opposite end of the trail where a small water tank drips into a low trough. As it is getting late in the afternoon they are making their rounds to feed and water before heading to their roost. We are eager to have a look at the two locations David suspects they roost at before any birds show up, so seeing them still at the water trough makes us hurry on our way. We pass through some scrub and come to an old fence line, at one end is the remnants of a brick water tank that still holds some water, across the pasture of low grass and wildflowers is a line of mature trees that follow the course of a now dry creek-bed. While no water flows along it the massive trees have deep roots that go deep down to where the water has retreated. All the plants along this spot are lush, green and wildflowers are massed in huge waves of color. We stop the ATV along the trail and walk the creek-bed to look for signs of turkey. We don’t have to go far before Bill points out feathers, droppings and tracks. A small depression is the tattletale site for dust baths by the large birds. We continue along until at the base of two large oaks we find all kinds of turkey sign. Lots of fresh poop and a few fluffy feathers that have not blown away or been taken to line a nest by other birds show that a large number of turkey were here roosting only hours ago. We beat a hasty retreat as we do not want to spook them from there sleeping place by our presence. Although turkey will occupy the same roost for a time they do move around their territory to various locations as food and other conditions change. A big flock may have several roosts. We decide that the far side of the pasture near the broken water tank may be a good place for a set-up in the morning. There are a number of landmarks that would be easy for one of us to find in the dark and chances are good that a few birds might roost here and head for the water and food down the trail in the morning. Low shrubs and hollows near the tank would be good cover for a hunter that can stay still and quiet. This is my style of hunting, and I make note of a few old fenceposts that are over grown with bushes that would make a good back rest. Bill, who is snake savvy, takes and stick and pokes around the under brush to check for snakes. A point that I wish he hadn’t brought up… After saying someone should set up here the men give me a look as if to say “Ladies first…” so I agree to claim the spot and give it a try in the morning. As we drive back down the trail David points out more features that will be easy to spot in the dark and suggests that I could drive one of the ATVs up to within a little less than a mile of the spot to hunt and park it near some big trees then follow the well worn trail almost to the water tank before having to walk along in the thick brush.
Back on the trail we drive the ATV towards another area that has possibilities, the location of another creek bottom is where we find a second roost. As we go David spots a shed antler of impressive size and we stop to pick it up. He comments that if we see any more we should pick them up. Not as the bonus trophy that many hunters think of them as but because they are a hazard to truck tires as he checks feeders, fence and cattle. “They are much harder to spot from up in the truck” he tells us “and we like try to collect the sheds from some of the better deer to see how they are doing”. That and trail cameras are some of the only glimpse we might get of a few of the better deer he tells us as sizable acreage and a realistic buck to doe ratio keep his trophy deer on their toes.
Bill likes to stalk his turkey and is an experienced bird hunter. Being an excellent caller he is able to talk to the turkey and bring them in. The second location had lots of turkey sign and plenty of structure that turkey love to use both for roosting and for travel to food and water. As we look over the places to hunt from there is a distinctive rattling “buzz” from some nearby brush. Bill’s hunting experience payed off for all of us as he demonstrated his skill with snakes and soon had the sizable rattler dispatched at the ranch owners request. He is the sort of person that finds reptiles interesting and might have simply given the rattler some space. But often rattle snakes and livestock don’t mix and while David said he was willing to give other snakes a pass, the line was drawn at rattlers and he requested that we dispatch any we found. Lucky for me Bill found all the snakes on this trip…
Back at the lodge house we plan what time to get up while we have dinner, and later check our equipment and lay it all out as we will each depart quite a bit before first light to insure we are in position well before birds come off the roost. We had already also agreed on a fence-line and road that for safety neither of us would cross so no one would wander into the others hunting area. The ranch was large enough that this wasn’t really a problem but always safety first. I had checked my turkey vest several times, made sure my gun and ammo were ready and it was off to bed. It wouldn’t be long before the alarm would be going off, signaling the start of spring turkey season!
The sky was still ablaze with stars when I cranked up the ATV. It didn’t make much noise as I idled it slowly down the trail we had scouted the day before. It seemed like a long ride before I recognized the large trees I had planned to leave it near and head on by foot down the tree lined trail until it came out near the broken cattle tank. Things did look different in the dark and I was trying to use my flashlight as little as possible. As I reached the low water trough a coyote called followed by the cackle of nervous turkey a short way off. Although this was all a good sign it sent a shiver up my neck in anticipation. First light was still some time off and a lot could happen before then. I found the spot I had planned to sit and while I still had time I carefully paced off the number of steps that I had patterned my gun for a few days before and made note of a yucca that marked the spot for the optimum shot for my shotgun. I was using a Browning Maxus 12 Gauge that sported an all-over camouflaged finish. Turkey have keen eyesight and this meant I had one less thing to give me away when hunting without a blind. I got to my position and after carefully checking for unwelcome visitors I settled in placing the barrel of my gun in the fork of a short shooting stick. I settled the gun in my shoulder and peered into the darkness. I could just make out the silhouette of the yucca plant which I sighted down the barrel at. I could pivot the gun a fair distance from side to side without a lot of movement. As it started getting lighter I could hear the sounds of turkeys. Each time I heard something I tried to scan the field for movement… still nothing. Then as it was now getting rapidly lighter I could finally see turkey. And it was quite a shock. We had estimated that there were likely a few birds using the area at the far side of the field for a roost. A flock of fifteen or twenty birds would have been my guess. Now what I saw was more like a small army of birds advancing on my location. Something more like fifty was my quick head count as I caught my breath, David hadn’t been kidding when he said he had a turkey problem. This was not going to be easy I realized as I scanned the line for the darker bodies of Toms. The first few birds that were going to come into range were going to be hens… I could see the fanning and strut of the big boys that were following them but some hens would be passing my position as the Toms came into range. It was going to be tricky to get a shot at one without one of the hen seeing me. I would have to be very still and the Tom would have to almost walk in front of my gun. I wouldn’t be able to really pick the bird but after I sized up the three likely candidates still marching towards me I decided it wasn’t a problem. All three seemed to be mature Toms of about the same size… The first one to step out near the yucca was going to be it. I narrowed my eyes and was thankful I was wearing full camo as the first hen walked right past me about ten feet away… I kept my eye on the three toms and where the barrel of my gun was as two more hens walked past my position close enough to reach out and touch.The field now is completely studded with turkeys, and more are coming up out of the creek-bottom. Another hen had just passed me and I can tell she is standing quite close behind me as I can hear the rustle of her feathers just as the first of the three big toms stepped past the yucca bush and in front of my barrel. A crisp pull of the trigger and boom! Suddenly turkey scatter everywhere, though I am quite surprised as not all of them have run off, a few seem not to notice and complete their walk across the pasture. I could have shot two! But as we will be there three days there is not any reason to shorten the hunt. I get up and walk to the large tom laying in the field. When I pick him up I am surprised by how heavy he is. It is a very good gobbler. My license has four spring turkey tags that I can use… and I consider this a good start. Back at the lodge house Bill has already arrived turkey in-hand he had called this one in to him for the shot. He tells me that I have shot a great bird, and from the length of the spurs the turkey of a lifetime. We put the birds in the cooler and start to compare notes on our hunts and make plans for the evening hunt while we eat a late breakfast.
By late afternoon we were ready to get back in the field. I had decided there were such a large number of turkey and they had not seemed to be too disturbed by my taking the one that morning, that I would try hunting the far other end of the same pasture. Still being careful not to be too near the roost but along the edge of game trails that lead to a deer feeder a short walk down one of the roads that crisscrossed the ranch. Bill had planned to go set up near a fence line that was not far from a small pond he had seen on his morning hunt. The fence was along a route he had thought they took to reach the roost on that side of the ranch.
I had repacked my turkey vest, a great piece of equipment to have. If you don’t have one, you should check it out if you plan to do sitting or spot-and-stalk for turkey. After a short walk I arrived at my chosen spot just as the shadows were starting to get a bit longer. I found a small scrubby tree that I assured myself had no other occupants, and settled in for a wait. Being a bit off to the side of where turkey were traveling from the tracks and sign, I had again stepped off the distance for a good shot and made note of little plant that I could easily see from my position. I had good view of several directions without moving too much and started to day dream a bit as I slowly scanned up and down the rolling terrane in front of me. The shadows were becoming much longer and parts of me had started to get stiff from sitting on the ground. I really wanted to change the position I was seated in and was thinking about doing just that when I caught a glimpse of movement up the trail… Turkey. They were being a bit more cautious and moving at the edge of the brush line, but there was no mistaking the large, dark shapes of Toms headed my way. My leg cramp would have to wait if I wanted a bird. I wiggled my toes inside my boots for relief, but it didn’t help much. What did help was seeing the line of birds coming closer to the plant with yellow leaves that I had used to mark my distance… they were taking their time and picking at things on the ground as they took the leisurely walk. This is where patience pays off and not jumping the gun can get you a better bird. The first two birds in range didn’t have full tails, the mark of immature birds or jakes. But about four yards behind them was the prize. Dark feathers that flashed colors when the sun hit them and a full, even tail. I held my breath as he slowly passed the yellow leaved plant and I softly touched the trigger with my finger. Moving only my eyes I quickly looked around to make one last check before focusing hard on the bird and squeezing the trigger. The turkey flopped twice on the ground as the shot rang in my ears. None of the other birds waited around this time.
Back at the lodge I added my turkey to the ones in the cooler. I see that Bill has already come back as another fresh bird is already hanging.
The guys give the grill a workout for dinner and once we all stuffed ourselves and do a short equipment check everyone turns in. Morning comes early for turkey hunters and the morning hunt often has some of the best calling opportunities. I can’t do mouth calls like Bill. So I stick with what I know and find that it works pretty well for me, box calls, a slate and a “push-pin” hen are in my bag of tricks. Any of them used sparingly can get the job done and bring a bird in close for a shot. I have already filled half of turkey tags on my license so as I work my way down the trail in the dark I decide I can do something a little different this morning. I find a concealed spot a short distance away from one of the feeders the turkey are visiting, with more bushes and cover hopefully they won’t see me working the calls and can be enticed into coming over for a look.
Birds begin to show up before the sun is even above the horizon and once there is an audience I start to make a few little turkey sounds. I must be saying the right things as I see a younger male start to do a little strutting and half spread his fan. He turns a few times before he catches sight of a mature male headed his way. He steps off to the side as the big boy struts past and stops to display his more impressive fan. I had the shotgun roughly in position and I have changed from using the slate to my trusty push-pin hen call. I can make just the right call with one hand and keep the shotgun propped on the shooting stick aimed at the turkey walking slowly to me with the other. He is still fanned out looking for the “hen” that my push-pin has convinced him is there somewhere… I wait until his feathers start to lay down and he stands up tall to look around for her hiding spot. Little did he know I was that “hen” as I pulled the trigger…
Three of my four tags filled I was almost walking on air as I headed back to the lodge house with the heavy bird over my shoulder. I am first in and after hanging my bird in the cooler, David and I talk about how the hunt is going. He is pleased to have a few turkeys gone though I am sure with the numbers I have seen several more hunters could comfortably hunt here this season. He mentions that after seeing the results of our hunt that he might bring his son out and hunt turkey the next weekend. He is also pleased that while scouting and hunting Bill has also managed deplete the ranch of several very large rattlesnakes. And we have all managed to pick up a number of impressive shed antlers. We are talking about this when we both spot Bill walking in with a Turkey over his shoulder as well. We are both three for three now! After he hangs his bird in the cooler Bill pulls another set of rattles from his pocket to add to the ones he has already brought in. While I am thankful that he has been doing all the snake finding, I wonder if maybe I have just been missing snakes that were there. What are the odds of that? I think and make a note to myself to be more vigilant about looking for them.
Over lunch we decide to swap sides of the ranch for the evening hunts. We have each been giving reports after our hunts on how many birds we have seen and where the good places are.
It seems like no time at all before the afternoon has passed and it is time to be heading out again, I am going to hunt a fence line that birds walk after visiting a small pond on their way in to the bottom roost. Once again I use one of the ATVs to cover the bulk of the distance, tucking it in a place that will be easy to walk to in the dark, before walking back to the fence line and crossing the dry creek. I can see the bank along the edge of the small pond across a field, over to the right of it is the start of the fence line. I pick a small tree to set up under that is about fifteen or twenty feet off the fence. It puts me in range of the fence line and also affords a good view of the pond and the rolling terrane in between. Although where I am sitting is one of the lower spots I have a panorama view of everything. It isn’t long before I see dark shapes moving long the edge of the pond. I can account for at least six toms in the small group as they walk back and forth along the edge of the water. After a short amount of time the birds move to the right and single file start to walk along the fence towards me, the first group contains three of the toms. It takes them several minutes to close the distance from the pond to the trees along the edge of the dry creek where where I am. As the turkey near I can size them up, all fully mature males they seem near identical. As the first bird stops to make the turn off the game trail along the fence the following birds are held up at nearly a standstill behind him. The shotgun barrel comes to rest on the second bird and it seems like as good of a time as any to pull the trigger. Letting the birds come closer wouldn’t be an advantage. So a gentle squeeze and BOOM! Down goes the middle bird. I fully expected the other two to take off in a flurry so I am surprised when they both jump on the downed bird. It takes me a few seconds to get up from my hiding place and I fully expected that my emerging from cover would send the two birds running, but they seem oblivious to me being there and my trophy is taking quite a beating. I take a few quick steps towards the three birds and still they ignore me. I hesitate for a moment thinking what damage long spurs on muscular birds could do, but I throw caution to the wind and plunge into the fray. I land a well placed punt at the posterior of the first bird that bowls him over head over heels. I turn towards the second bird who now seem to have come to his senses as he stops jumping up and down on my turkey just before I aim a kick in his direction, he turns tail and runs back the way he had come. I look back just in time to see the first bird picking himself up and with one quick fluff of his ruffled feathers he dashes into the brush of the dry creek bed. As I look at their limp and quite dead companion at my feet, I realize anyone could have easily shot the second or even third bird had they wanted and had tags. But that would have taken the best part out of turkey hunting, the HUNT. After arriving back at the ranch, with bird in-hand I found that Bill had also had success and he and David were on the porch talking about taking David’s son turkey hunting the following weekend. David had been inspired by our results, in two days we had both filled all our turkey tags… We had to agree it was a real Tilden Turkey Bonanza!