Spring Tactics For Oklahoma Turkeys
August 31, 2011
Spring some of these tactics on those Rio Grande gobblers you've been after. Maybe you both will be surprised at your success!
I didn't find any magic trees in Roger Mills County last April, but I did find a magic 55-gallon barrel.
A magic tree doesn't look any different than an ordinary tree, but when I see one, I know instantly that I will sit against that tree and call up a wild gobbler. I can't explain it. It's just a feeling I get, and it has never failed me.
I have magic trees in Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi, but I have never found one in Oklahoma. However, I knew that blue barrel was magic the moment I saw it. I found it about lunchtime on April 27, 2010, while hunting with my friend Glenn Clark near the Oklahoma-Texas line in Roger Mills County, northwest of Elk City.
Clark represents a number of hunting equipment manufacturers, including Mossberg, Leupold, Redfield and Barrett, and we ventured into the red hills to put some equipment through its paces. Primarily, we wanted to field test the Mossberg 930 semiautomatic shotgun and the Leupold Delta Point Reflex sight.
We arrived Monday night and met our host, Willard Gilley, the affable general proprietor of Sweetwater Creek Outfitters (580-729-0996). After stashing our gear in his cabin, Gilley gave us a quick tour of the properties he'd lined up for us to hunt. Our first stop foreshadowed what was to come.
About half a mile away, a cloud of turkeys filled a small field next to Sweetwater Creek. I counted seven strutting gobblers, an equal number of jakes, and a harem of hens. There was no cover around that field, however, which would make those birds very hard to hunt.
Our next visit was to an area that Gilley recommended for mid-day hunting. We couldn't see it in the dark, but Gilley said it contained several acres of scrub oak bottom that would probably be a good loafing area in the heat of the day. Gilley showed us two other areas he said would be good in late afternoon and early evening. It was in a dense oak flat near a cow pasture.
"You don't see many mature gobblers in there, but the jakes and hens will cover you up," Gilley said. "If you can wait them out, a big one might sneak in there."
Across from the cabin was another big field with a long, wooded draw that snaked down a gently sloping hill, crossed the road under a bridge and continued toward the field where we saw the group of big gobblers when we arrived.
Gilley said a big gobbler roosted alone at the top of that hill. That was a hard bird to pattern, he said, and it had foiled all of his hunters for at least two seasons. If we wanted to try that bird first thing in the morning, we might come out with the boss of the region.
At the end of the tour, we sat atop a windy hill, gazing at the twinkling lights atop the generators at the Red Hills Wind Farm, and considered our options. Clark and I agreed that the Sweetwater Creek gobblers offered the best chance for a longbeard double.
Next morning, Clark and I heard the gobblers on their roost on a wooded hill overlooking the field. We stalked the banks of Sweetwater Creek hoping to spy the gobblers. Calling them to us was probably out of the question, but if we could determine which direction they were traveling, we could make an end run and cut them off. It was a moot point because the turkeys didn't show. After breakfast, we drove around and discussed Option 2.
"It's always exciting to call one in from the roost, but I've never had much success doing that," I lamented. "My best hunts have always been from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. That's when turkeys go into the shady bottoms, and they'll definitely do that today to get out of this awful wind."
At about 9:30 a.m., we saw seven turkeys dawdling in a field along a creek edge. Two gobblers were in full strut in the open about 40 yards from the creek. With their fans and feathers puffed out in that wind, they looked like Spanish galleons on the ocean. I estimated the bigger gobbler's distance at 200 yards. Clark, who often hunts deer in that country, said it was closer to 800 yards. I'll split the difference and say it was most likely around 400. There was no cover, so the only way to get close to him was to stalk him from the creek.
The water was only shin-deep when I entered, but the pools in the creek bends were knee-deep to thigh-deep. I was so excited that I didn't notice the cold, but I resented the fact that I would spend the rest of the day with wet feet.
I stooped low to keep my profile below the bank line and sloshed upstream. At times, when I encountered holes that were too deep, I crawled around them on the low bank. Of course, that meant filling my gloves, cuffs and elbows with sand burrs.
Several times I peeked over the bank and saw that I was closing on the gobbler. He was still strutting, facing away from me, unaware I was shadowing him. Finally, I peeked and saw that I only needed to go about 50 more yards to get in front of him. That was about the distance of a thin spit of land sloping gently into the creek. A couple of large trees and high grass were at the top. If I got there in time, I could crawl up the slope and pop the gobbler at a range of about 20 yards. He'd never know what hit him.
Finally, with my back and shoulders burning, I reached the spit. I was halfway up when a hen appeared in front of me, about 12 feet away. She was very puzzled. She looked at me a long time. Then she looked to the left, and then the right. Then she looked at me again.
The hen had spoken, and she disapproved. My mind swirled with many unspoken epithets and dark thoughts. She greeted those thoughts with a staccato burst of putts, and then she dashed back into the field. I scrambled to the top, only to see my gobbler running wildly to the top of the hill before ducking under a fence and into another field of tall grass.
I sighed loudly as my shoulders sagged. I was soaked, and in that wind, I was suddenly cold as well. Clark was right. It was at least 800 yards back to the truck.
About 30 minutes later, we arrived at the oak bottom we visited the night before. We descended into a thicket in the bottom between two fields. I placed a plastic decoy in a clearing, and then I saw the 55-gallon drum. It was in the perfect spot, offering a full view of the entire ravine. I set up a decoy about 20 yards away in a sunlit opening, with its flanks facing both hillsides.
"We're going to get us a bird right here. I guarantee it," I said.
To prevent a bird from sneaking in behind us, Clark sat against a tree about 40 yards away facing the other direction. Five minutes after I started calling with my Woodhaven Copperhead diaphragm call, a gobbler appeared on the hillside. It started toward me and then ran away. Then a second bird appeared, but it fled as well.
I have a chronic inferiority complex about my turkey hunting prowess, and these two birds made me very anxious. Was I exposed? Was there something shiny on my ghilly suit I overlooked? Did I move?
As those possibilities churned in my mind, I saw the real reason for the birds' terror. Two monster gobblers came in behind them. They saw the decoy, and I yelped softly. The first bird came in on a string, and I crumpled him at 20 yards with 2 ounces of No. 6 Hevi-Shot. He was gorgeous, too. He weighed 22 pounds and sported a 10-inch beard and 1-inch spurs.
Instead of fleeing, the second gobbler glared at the gobbler flailing in the dirt. I have seen turkeys attack other turkeys that have been shot, and I thought I was going to get a double.
After a long stare, the second bird came down the hill, but swung wide around the dying turkey and crossed in front of me just out of range. I didn't see him again.
Unlike eastern wild turkeys, which have brown-tipped feathers, the Rio Grande turkey has buff-tipped feathers. However, this bird had tips that were almost white, like a Merriam's turkey.
"They've got Merriam's up north of here, and a lot of people believe they've moved into this country," Gilley said. "A lot of the turkeys we have around here look just like that."
A Rio also will glow various shades of bronze, gold, green and purple. To see one in Oklahoma's soft spring sunlight will take your breath away.
We ended the day in the jake hotspot, a place known as "Grampa's." Gilley likes to bring kids and novice hunters there because of all the jakes. You get to see a lot of birds there, and it's easy to kill one. For that reason, he erected a popup blind and anchored it with four fence posts.
The afternoon was hot when we arrived, and it was about 15 degrees hotter inside that blind. Clark and I were chatting when he interrupted me and said, "Here comes a shooter!"
It was a big bird with an 8-inch beard, but an identical bird was walking behind it. Clark had dibs, so I asked, "Can I have that one?" He gave me a puzzled look and raised his cheek from his gunstock. I counted to three, believing we were going to take them both, but Clark was unaware of the second bird. Disoriented, he tried to recover as the first bird fled, but he was too late.
That bird didn't go far, and I thought we would call it back. It came to the edge of the thicket several times, but it finally departed. An hour or so later, a nice 2-year old gobbler wandered in, and Clark bagged it.
More than 50 birds came into that area during the day, including an abnormally large number of bearded hens, which are legal game in Oklahoma. The last group didn't leave until about 8:15 p.m., which meant we had to stay until dark.
On Wednesday, we revisited the Sweetwater field, and again, it looked like the turkeys had abandoned it. We walked to the edge of a hill, and there they were, an even bigger flock that stretched for at least 200 yards. I counted no less than 20 strutting gobblers, including five with beards that nearly touched the ground. There were also about 12 jakes in a separate group and a swarm of hens. Unfortunately, they were going away from us.
We climbed to a hillside saddle that concealed us and then ran to the far end of the field to a thin woodline where some downed timber offered cover. I called long and loud with my Woodhaven Red Wasp diaphragm and hickory/maple box call, and I finally peeled a big gobbler away from the main flock. Clark sat about 15 yards in front of me, facing the field, watching this big tom twist and turn, bob and weave his way toward us. By then, the wind was already fierce, and several times it almost toppled that big gobbler.
I guessed he would take about 15 to 20 minutes to come in range, but five smaller birds came in from the right and pulled him back to the main flock. We got him to strut a few more times, but he never took another step toward us.
After breakfast, the wind howled, with gusts up to 40 mph. We returned to Grampa's, where I snoozed in the truck while Clark hunted. An hour later, I woke to the sound of Clark pounding on the hood while hoisting his second bird.
In two days we saw more than 200 turkeys, of which at least half were gobblers. They were silent after they left the roost, so we had to hunt entirely by sight. Adjusting tactics during the day will help you bag a Rio Grande gobbler anywhere in Oklahoma. You can hunt assembly areas in the morning, secluded loafing areas at midday, and feeding areas in the late afternoon and early evening.
If you can find a magic tree, you've got it made, but a magic barrel will do in a pinch.