Gobblers On The River

The region in the Tennessee River valley presents some different challenges for turkey hunters. Here's how a local expert overcomes those conditions. (March 2010)

The Tennessee Valley of North Alabama may not have as many turkeys as some other regions of the state, but the flock has grown a great deal over the years and now offers some outstanding hunting opportunity.

Terry Goldsby of Madison County has seen the growth of turkeys -- and the popularity of turkey hunting -- first-hand in this region. He's been hunting North Alabama since 1977 and has enjoyed very good success in the area.

The turkeys of the Tennessee Valley figured prominently in his bid last year for a single season "Grand Slam," which he was able to achieve. But he got a little nervous about the home turkeys. He had his other three species under his belt and still hadn't taken an Eastern as the final week of the season approached.

But the hunting broke loose and he was able to take three Eastern gobblers in the last week of the season to complete the slam.

Let's join Goldsby as he talks about what Tennessee Valley turkey hunting was and what it has grown into.

Back In The Day

Goldsby's first-ever turkey hunt was back in the spring of 1977 on what was then called the Waterloo Management Area. Today it is the Lauderdale Wildlife Management Area.

"I worked for TVA in Muscle Shoals at that time," he said. "It was an easy drive for me. I roosted a bird on that first hunt and, believe it or not, I killed a turkey on the very first morning I ever turkey hunted."

He was hooked at that point. He'd prepared for the hunt by purchasing a Roger Latham box call that he still carries and uses regularly today. (Cont.)

"I think I paid $7 for it at whatever store was comparable to Wal-Mart at that time," he said. "I've gotten my money's worth out of that call, for sure."

He also purchased one of the old Johnny Stewart game call records to learn how to use the call.

"I hunted the Lauderdale area for two or three seasons, and then they closed it to turkey hunting," Goldsby said. "The turkey population got real low. It wasn't because of me. The turkeys worked on me. I didn't work on them."

Needing a new place to hunt after that, he migrated to the Bankhead National Forest, which also includes the Black Warrior WMA.

"I hunted the Bankhead hard for about five years," Goldsby said. "I would drive from Muscle Shoals to hunt. I think I killed two birds during that stretch."

Technically, he said, the Bankhead contains the Tennessee Valley Divide. Some creeks flow to the Tennessee drainage and some flow to the Warrior.

"I'm sure I hunted some long ridges with one side that was in the Tennessee Valley, while the other was in the Warrior," he said.

Black Warrior turkeys have a reputation as being hush-mouthed or call-shy and Goldsby saw some of that even way back in the 1970s.

"When one gobbled, you could hear it a long way off," he said. "But it could be very difficult to get to it."

He thinks the turkeys act a little differently on Bankhead because they're descended from the original birds that inhabited North Alabama.

"This is a population that was never extirpated," he said. "A few hunters were killing turkeys here back in the 1920s and 1930s when they weren't killing them many other places. The same is true for the mountains where I live in New Market in Madison County. There were always a few turkeys around there, too."

In the 1980s, Goldsby moved to Marshall County to start his business, Aquaservices, which specializes in treating problem aquatic vegetation in both public and private waters, as well as managing fishing lakes. He leased a farm on Yellow Creek near the South Sauty community of Marshall County and had a fine time hunting turkeys there.

"My brother, Stewart, and I killed a lot of turkeys on that property," Goldsby said. "It was good."

The switch from public land to private land was such a good one for Goldsby that he still does most of his hunting on private land today. He leases a number of hunting locations in Marshall, Madison and Jackson counties especially for spring gobbler hunting.

He still has the Marshall County lease on Yellow Creek, but it's not what it once was.

"There aren't a lot of turkeys on that property today," Goldsby said. "Something changed. I don't know if it was poaching or predators or whether the turkeys just changed their patterns, but it changed. That's something that happens from time to time, and we hunters have to adjust."

Turkey Land Is New Challenge

One of the big challenges for an aspiring turkey hunter in the Tennessee Valley these days is just finding a place to hunt. More and more people are hunting now than when Goldsby first started, and there's more competition for the prime spots.

Goldsby has a few farms in Jackson County and a few in Madison County where he's found turkeys and made arrangements for exclusive hunting rights. He always has his eye open for a new place to hunt turkeys.

"Turkeys can't take a lot of pressure," he noted.

In the northern end of the state, it's a big-time problem for small hunting clubs with a few hundred acres and a lot of members who either turkey hunt or want to learn the sport.

That's why most serious turkey hunters chose to either hunt on the big WMAs and learn to deal with pressure, or make arrangements for private lands like Goldsby has. One advantage to hunting the WMAs is that there are thousands and thousands of acres to roam.

An 800-acre deer club that supports five to 10 deer hunters gets real small in a hurry when more than one or two people are chasing the turkeys on it.

Goldsby is not bashful about approaching people if he thinks it will lead to a new turkey hotspot.

"I don't mind stopping and asking someone about hunting if I see turkeys on a place," he said. "You never know what might happen. I got told no three times just this past spring. But I also found that place where I killed the three turkeys the last week of sea

son."

Seasons Of The Turkey

Goldsby tailors his Tennessee Valley turkey tactics to the specific part of the season. He loves to roam logging roads through the woods calling and listening to strike a bird.

There's no question that the first two weeks of the season are among the best to take a turkey, if the weather is conducive to turkey hunting.

"I call a lot early in the season, then tone it down later," he said. "If the turkeys haven't been pressured, they're doing a lot of yapping. But once they've had a few bad experiences, such as running into a man who's calling, or even getting shot at, they get call-shy in a hurry. I go to soft yelping then."

Goldsby was busy chasing Osceolas, Rio Grandes and Merriam's for much of the season last year. When he was home and could hunt, he often found gobblers were "henned up" and not responding to calls very well at all.

"It was tough, but I knew it would break the last week of season when the hens left the gobblers to be on the nest more," he said.

He killed his three gobblers in Madison County in just seven days the last week of the season.

"I got two in the traditional manner of walking and calling," he said.

But the third one came as a result of Goldsby's observation and adaptable tactics. He knew some turkeys were using an old pasture every morning. So, he set up a blind and put out a couple of hen decoys.

"They were really spooky and I knew I'd never be able to call them 200 yards across the field," Goldsby explained. "I didn't call until the gobblers came into the field and then it was just a few soft yelps. Two gobblers came across the field in full strut, but never gobbled once."

Goldsby also adapts his decoy tactics to the specific time of the season. If it's early and an old gobbler is trying to maintain a harem, he'll put out a couple of hens and a jake to try to enrage the bird.

But late in the season, he switches to just hens once the hens have gone to nest and gobblers are roaming looking for some female companionship.

"I don't usually carry decoys unless I'm planning to set up and stay awhile and I know turkeys are using the area," Goldsby said. "I can tell you that I would have killed more turkeys in my career if decoys had been legal earlier on."

Goldsby likes to hunt in eastern Madison County, but maintains leases in the Paint Rock Valley of Jackson County for a specific purpose.

"Our season doesn't open until April 1 in Madison County," he said. "So, I have the farms in the Paint Rock Valley to hunt the first two weeks."

He likes hunting close to home because his business is getting geared up for the spring and summer busy season in April, and he can get in some hunts and then work. Mixing in a few out-of-state hunts for different subspecies adds spice for him.

The tactic has worked well enough that Goldsby's career total stands at 112 birds in 32 seasons, an average of better than three gobblers per season.

"I've hunted in the southern part of the state five or six times over the years and enjoyed it," he said. "But I like hunting North Alabama. We've got a lot of turkeys now and a lot more places to hunt than we had when I was first starting out."

One challenge of hunting turkeys in North Alabama, as compared with the plains and river swamps of the south, is that the terrain is a lot steeper and more rugged. But that terrain generally is a friend to the turkey hunter, allowing him to move in closer than he might get in flat land.

The bigger challenge is finding a good place to hunt. North Alabama is a little more crowded than South Alabama. Hunting pressure is more intense; acreages tend to be smaller, concentrating more hunters trying for the same turkeys.

"I don't tarry when I go to my spot nowadays," Goldsby said. "I get there quick because I'm afraid someone else might beat me to it."

Public Opportunities

There are several WMAs in North Alabama that offer good public turkey hunting, including some of those we've already mentioned.

Lauderdale WMA, Terry Goldsby's old stomping ground, now has a 30-day season running from April 1 to April 30. Hunters spent 500 man-days hunting the area last year and killed 20 turkeys for an average of 25 man-days of effort per kill, which is a little on the high side.

The WMA covers 18,299 acres near Waterloo in the extreme northwestern corner of the state.

The Freedom Hills and Riverton WMAs are also in that vicinity of the state. They're both open April 1-30 and together encompass some 38,000 acres, with the bulk of that territory being in the Freedom Hills tract.

Freedom Hills turkey hunters expended 1,119 man-days of effort last year and brought 32 turkeys to the scales for an average of 35 man-days per turkey, again on the high side.

Traveling east, the James D. Martin-Skyline WMA in Jackson County offers turkey hunting on 46,854 acres, ranging from mountain coves to working farms to steep mountainsides and uplands plateaus. Hunters put in 720 man-days of effort there last year and took 36 turkeys for an average of 20 days per bird.

The turkeys of North Alabama sure seem like they're here to stay. A little work and thoughtful hunting tactics just might put you in range of one of these toms this spring.

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