Hunting Hill Country Houdinis
May 04, 2010
In the turkey-hunting hotspot that is Central Texas, the gobblers are plenty savvy. Here's what the author has learned about taking on the longbeards that may be the Lone Star State's wiliest. (April 2008)
Lee Leschper, the author's father, with a Central Texas spring gobbler that didn't make good on its vanishing act. When it comes to turkey hunting, a tough win is sweeter than an easy one.
Photo by Will Leschper.
It's amazing how much you can learn about Texas turkey hunting when things don't go as planned. Take, for example, what happened to my father and me recently.
The late-spring morning was awash with cacophony, a slew of bullfrogs plopping into the babbling stream, a pair of coyotes moaning in the distance. The slight squish of wet vegetation beneath our feet added to the ambience as we sought out the ancient cottonwood that had long since ceased drawing in nutrients from the water source.
In the dim light, the thick tree was visible on the horizon as it loomed over some smaller oaks. Also visible were its snaking members, atop which black blobs appeared to perch.
"You set up right here," my father whispered, pointing to a small oak. "I'm going to go down a little farther and stick out a decoy. They should fly down pretty quick."
As I hunkered down and got comfortable, the horizon grew brighter and brighter. After we'd sat for only about 10 minutes, the blobs that had seemed to be extensions of the tree suddenly sprang to life, and an echoing flutter of yelps and purrs filled the air. It was obvious that the Rio Grande turkeys had woken on their roost and were ready to get their day started.
The birds flopped out of the tree one by one, hitting the ground like so many sacks of marbles. They continued cutting up as they milled around in an adjacent clearing, and as the sun finally peeked above the horizon, they began to fan out.
My father and I each gave slight yelps from a slate call. From my vantage point less than a football field away from the cottonwood, I could see at least two toms puffed up in full strut. The one that seemed to be a dominant male repeatedly drummed in an attempt to keep the subordinate tom from infringing on his harem of hens.
Despite our emitting some discreet bursts of imitation yelps and cackles, the toms and hens seemed to stay just past the edge of effective shotgun range, almost as if they were toying with us. After a half-hour of tantalizing feathered movements that no doubt made my father and me anxious at the thought of finally getting a shot, the birds slowly worked their way past an oak motte in the opposite direction and into another field.
If only we had set up in that motte, I thought to myself as I got up to approach my father.
"We should have been over there," he said, pointing to the same cluster of oaks. "They went that way instead of this way."
I could only smile in response, knowing that another flock of the wily game birds had proved why they are so tough, but so much fun, to chase after.
At its core, spring turkey hunting is easy in our state. Hunters need only locate roosting birds and then set up in the most logical place that the birds will fly down and head toward. Using calls and decoys, they then bring the bird within shotgun range and snap off a well-placed shot. The concept seems easy enough -- but the best-laid plans often get kicked to the curb by our winged quarry.
In my years of chasing after turkeys, I've seen them do just about everything under the sun. There have been times when bagging a bird seemed almost too easy, and many more times when nothing was going to get a turkey to come into the vicinity. There have been times when obstacles such as fences or heavy brush have kept a bird from coming to a call and some hunts when birds seemed to slip right through obstructions on their way toward the racket. On some hunts, I've seen birds that saw a decoy and hightailed it in the opposite direction, while on others I've seen gobblers run in and give the fake turkey a real thrashing.
The point is that not all turkeys will react the same way to different scenarios, and anyone who claims to be an expert at turkey hunting usually is just flapping his gums. Turkeys will continue to do some strange things, but that's what makes the gobblers such a fun quarry to chase after. What would be the point in getting up early or staying out late if the birds did the same thing every time?
Of all the turkey hunting hotspots in the nation, few can compare to the Texas Hill Country when it comes to numbers and quality of birds. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department data indicate that about half of both the roughly 60,000 turkey hunters who go afield in the Lone Star State each spring and the 25,000 birds (on average) that the former harvest come from the Hill Country -- so the proof is in the pudding as regards the region boasting the best turkey hunting in Texas.
Turkey hunters, especially those in Texas, should learn from the birds they pursue, and there's no place anyone can learn more than in the field. There's no doubt that hunters can read up on all the stories ever written about hunting longbeards, watch as many hunting videos on the subject as they possibly can, or shoot the bull with hunters who have had their successes as well as misses. But the best teacher is the wise gobbler himself.
An old male turkey has fine-tuned his survival skills to a point where they almost seem to be not of this world. However, there remain some things hunters can do to try and even things up in many hunting situations.
Here are what some lifelong turkey hunters have to say about chasing after the sneaky birds this time of year and what they have learned from personal experience.
Wildlife biologist Greg Simons formed Wildlife Systems, Inc. in 1987 and since then has hosted thousands of hunters. He offered the following take on turkey hunting.
"Your setup is more important than your vocabulary with your calls," he asserted. You don't have to sound exactly like a turkey, and a lot of people think that's the most important thing. If you're not set up in a convenient location where those birds will be coming in to, you're not going to get them to come as readily to your calls. Finding food, water, and roost locations is probably the most important thing you can do. Just being able to see birds is also important. Some people will set up where it's too thick or they can't see as well as if they had thought about it a little before selecting a spot. Setting up in a fashion where bir
ds will come in (to you) in front instead of behind is important.
"One real common mistake hunters make is not evaluating a setup as strategically as they should. A lot of guys will have birds come in behind them and get hamstrung. If that gobbler is henned up, he's going to follow those hens and if you don't account for them when you think about your setup, you're not going to be as successful as I think you'd like to be.
"Some folks get a little overzealous with their decoys, too. They think if they have it they need to use it. A guy might be walking along and hear a bird gobble and then run out and try to find a good place for the decoy and then come back and find a place to set up. Then he looks out there and sees a red head at 100 yards and it's too late because he's already busted because the bird saw him sticking the decoy out or rustling around."
Dave Fulson of Total Outdoors Adventures has had his fair share of successful turkey excursions. Here are some of his pearls of wisdom.
"I always catch myself telling clients an eagle may have better distance vision, but no creature on the planet has as much vision for his immediate surroundings as a turkey. They can basically scan 360 degrees around their position, so that's one of their biggest advantages.
"I've seen it happen a hundred times where someone has moved something around like a popup blind or a hay bale or anything else, and if they see anything at all changed they respond to it. A turkey's memory is incredible. They'll remember areas where they were ambushed by a predator like a bobcat, or where they were shot at by somebody. If the turkey was spooked, we will never set up in that same spot to try and kill that same bird.
"Turkey hunting was an eastern sport for years and years, and it was done mostly on public land, where you might have seven guys trying to kill one bird, so they wised up. I guided the first Mossy Oak guy to come to Texas (Ronnie Strickland) and he thought the hunting was too easy. Now it's a different story.
"I compare turkey hunting to elk hunting. That old 4-year-old bird doesn't gobble as much as he used to, but the 2-year-old bird will. The birds are much more wary than they were even 15 years ago. People from all over the country are coming to hunt them and they're not as vocal as they used to. I probably use a lot more subtle calling, and I'm starting to kill a lot more midday birds. You used to be able to go out early and cut loose and bring birds right to you. That's not the case anymore in many areas, especially the Hill Country.
"Most people give up too early and lose their interest. Over the years I've killed an enormous amount of turkeys between noon and 1 p.m. Basic breeding is over by 10 o'clock in the morning so you can convince a tom that there's a receptive hen in the field where you are and pull him off a lot easier than early in the morning."
Roy Wilson of Krooked River Ranch Outfitters has seen plenty of birds in his more than two decades of working with hunters. Here's what he had to say.
"The biggest problem I see with a lot of turkey hunters is just calling too much," he confided. "They get around feeders or places where the birds are and they just talk too much, and the birds will come in around behind them or just kind of spook off and then that's it. It used to be that turkeys were just kind of an add-on when somebody was out deer hunting (in the fall), but now we're getting hunters from all over the country who are die-hards and all they want is to chase after turkeys.
"You don't have to be a great caller, but the main thing is just to not do it as much as you think you need to. These birds have gotten smarter because of hunting pressure, there's no doubt. But with today's camouflage and having a good setup, you can overcome some of the variables. The one thing that does keep some hunters from being successful is trying to talk too much to a call-shy tom. And they'll let you know when they've had enough!"
Quincy Weatherly of Salt Fork Outfitters also has years of hunting experience when it comes to turkeys. Here are some of his observations.
"Knowing how to call really well or having the best hiding spot can both be great assets. But I've found that altering your decoy tactics can add to your success of seeing more birds and bringing them into range.
"Especially if you hunt a relatively small area hard at all, the turkeys are going to figure out what you're up to. If you hunt the same turkeys over and over and stick out the same one or two decoys, they're going to get the idea to stay away from those 'other' birds because bad things are going to happen if they get close.
"If you're, say, trying to bring in a tom during the middle of the day when he's gotten away from his hens, sticking out two or three hen decoys will obviously add to your chances that he'll see one or all of them and come running to your calling.
"If you know that a dominant tom frequents an area and can't find any other way to bring him in, you might stick out a couple of jake decoys. I've seen a number of big birds run in and blow up on the decoy, knocking it over because they thought some youngster was trying to get a leg up in their territory.
"The biggest thing I would tell people is turkey hunting isn't easy. Even when things seem to come together on a quick hunt and you bag a bird, there's still work that went into it. When the birds shut off calling sometimes, turkeys are as tough an animal to hunt as you can find. But that's what makes it so fun to chase after them!"
While so-called turkey hunting experts are many, the truth is that the real experts are the longbeards themselves.
Hunters should take the approach that every hunt is a learning experience providing lessons that will be invaluable on later excursions. Bagging a big gobbler is the reason to spend time in the field this time of year, but without soaking up all the knowledge you can from your misses or mistakes, you're not taking in all that turkey hunting has to offer. Taking your lumps, filing the results away and using that knowledge on your next hunt is the only true way to learn about turkey hunting when it comes right down to it.
About half of both the roughly 60,000 turkey hunters who go afield in the Lone Star State each spring and the 25,000 birds (on average) that theformer harvest come fromthe Hill Country.
As Fulson said, "The birds are still walking around for a reason. And the old ones don't get to be as smart as they are by making it easy on us!"
Those ideas are what make turkey hunting such a grand sport -- one that pits man against one of the best opponents nature has to offer.
The South Zone spring Rio Grande turkey season begins March 15 and runs through April 27; the North Zone season start
s March 29 and runs through May 11. The bag limit for Rio Grande turkeys is four per year, but hunters should check county listings to make sure of specific rules.
For information on turkey hunting, contact these outfitters: Wildlife Systems, Inc. (325) 655-0877; Total Outdoors Adventures (817) 461-6129; Krooked River Ranch Outfitters (325) 773-2457; Salt Fork Outfitters (806) 447-2322.