If you think turkey hunting starts on Opening Day, you’re wrong. The most crucial time is the days leading up to the opener, when you’re scouting the woods and looking for tracks. Luckily, turkeys are not as fearful of trucks driving the dirt roads as they are of humans, so I took advantage and drove our hunt club property as often as possible, trying to see where the birds travel and roost. I find it also helps to look for turkey poo. Interestingly, a hen’s poo is curly like popcorn, while a tom’s is long and thin. It sounds weird, but it helps in understanding their habits.
In South Carolina, private hunting in my zone started on March 22, and initially, I didn’t have much luck except to call in some very angry hens that must have wondered who the new she-devil was in their neck of the woods. I took it as a compliment that my calling was realistic enough for the hens to get that upset.
Every year, I challenge myself in some way, trying to make my turkey hunting more exciting and rewarding. Last year, I successfully learned how to use a scratch call and was able to call in a gobbler for myself and a friend. This year, my challenge was to solo hunt the woods instead of a blind, and to hunt without a decoy. Depending only on my calling, this would be the ultimate challenge.
I have a wonderful collection of slate calls, including some personalized ones handcrafted by my brother, Jim! Slate turkey calls have typically been my go-to calls, and I’m biased since my brothers own a quarry and supply manufacturers with much of the slate used to make turkey calls.
During the first week of the season, I was driving the property early one morning and was very excited to spot a gobbler in the woods about 40 yards away. I drove about 300 yards past that location and parked my Jeep. Then I methodically prepared for a hunt, putting on my Próis turkey vest and ensuring everything I needed was in my pockets. I quietly walked into the woods and found a spot near a pine tree that looked inviting—well, as inviting as possible- considering most of us think there’s a timber rattler under every log, and ticks on every piece of pine straw. I slowly moved the pine straw from the base of the pine tree to double-check that everything was okay, and ran my eyes over the area looking for those dreaded anthills.
I settled in and began making soft purrs with my slate—I always do that in case I blow a lousy note with an inadvertent loud screech. Once I know I’m hitting the sweet spot on my call, I start to build up to my best turkey cadence. It took very little time for an angry hen to start yelling loudly! I ticked her off by repeating every sound she made.
I tried to keep my eyes on her through the thick brush, and then, like magic, I heard it—a tom’s gobble! Oh, perfect, I thought—I have a real live decoy in that hen. I competed with the hen a few more times, and the gobbles were getting louder and closer. This hen was aggressive and determined that no one else was getting this tom. And then I saw him, about 60 yards away through dense brush. He was in full strut, and the hen was all over him. I never take a shot I’m not entirely confident I can make, so I waited a few seconds to see if he would move away from the thick underbrush. I was devastated when I saw my gobbler and TWO hens moving about 100 yards away through the woods. I immediately thought of the old saying: A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. Still, I was excited to have had this thrilling interaction!
Four days later, I once again drove down the same woods road, and what do you know—about 40 yards into the woods, there he was, but this time, he was already with a hen. I was a bit disheartened since I’ve hunted many times when a gobbler was henned up, and typically in that situation, it’s hard to pull them away.
I put a lot of distance between the birds and me and parked my Jeep. I prepared for the hunt and looked for a good spot to sit. I casually hit a few soft purrs on my slate. What? Did I hear something far off? No, probably not. My gaiter was snug over my ears, so I must have been mistaken. I made a few more soft clucks and purrs, and boom, a gobble!
I’m a sexy hen, I thought to myself. I kept my hands off the call, waited, and then waited some more. Is he coming? I made one more soft call and realized this tom was on fire. There was another gobble, and he was closer! No more calling. I have no idea how long I waited, but I knew I had to do absolutely nothing. Now I sat motionless and waited. The next thing I knew, I heard him drumming. Oh my goodness, he’s all in! He was drumming, and my heart was pounding.
This time, I told myself I was not letting this tom get away. In the woods, it’s hard to estimate distance with the many layers of shrubs and trees, and especially the uneven terrain, but I figured he was at least 50 yards off. I started to feel very exposed, but I was grateful for the wispy dog fennel bushes ravaged from months of cold weather, which made the perfect cover for me.
The anticipation was almost more than I could stand. Once I saw his blue head, I slowly raised my shotgun and slid the safety to Fire. I took a deep breath and slowly squeezed the trigger, holding the gun’s bead squarely between his neck and head. Bang! The tom went down. My heart was pumping fast, and I ran across the uneven pine forest floor as quickly as possible to ensure I’d made a kill shot. It was a direct hit, so I was sure he wasn’t getting up and running off.
Something happens to you when you kill a turkey—you momentarily lose your mind. That’s what happened this time, and I grabbed his legs, ready to haul him out of the woods. Before I knew it, his wings started flapping as if he’d come back to life, and one of his spurs got caught in the glove of my left hand, twisting the fabric tightly around the joint. With all his violent thrashing, pain shot through my thumb, and it felt like he was pulling it out of joint.
Then it all came back to me—a flashback! I remember seeing plenty of chickens running around with their heads cut off when I was growing up on our farm. This was the same thing I was experiencing with this bird. Even though my tom was dead, his nervous system was sending messages to his spinal column, and his muscles were in overdrive.
After what felt like an eternity, I managed to free his spur, and tore off my glove as soon as he stopped for a second. Believe it or not, he continued jumping for a few more minutes before I could drag him out of the woods. Once I returned to my Jeep, I inspected my wound. It was a scrape, but no blood was seeping out. I rinsed it with peroxide to ensure it was bacteria-free, but my thumb joint will hurt for a while.
I always think back on my hunts and try to see what I was proud of and what I could have done better. With this hunt, I was happy with my discipline in not overcalling, my patience, and my perseverance. Hunting solo in the woods without a decoy and depending on my calling was profoundly rewarding. Taking photos with a tripod is not easy, and I had a bird to clean, so I needed to wrap up the hunt quickly.
My biggest takeaway is that no matter how many hunts you’ve made, there is always something to learn or remember. This case was a great reminder to take a deep breath and take time when handling wild game. Stay in the moment!
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