I killed the Boss.
It took a week of stalking, waiting and near misses, but I finally bagged that rascal on April 30, 2014. He weighed somewhere north of 20 pounds and sported a 10-inch beard. It was the second mature gobbler I killed in Grant County in as many years. I’m as proud of those two birds as anything else I’ve done in hunting.
Killing a mature gobbler in Arkansas is a major accomplishment because it’s so hard to do. By design, our season is very short and very late in the spring. It’s structured to reduce the gobbler harvest, and to ensure that the maximum number of hens have already been bred when the season opens. The combined effect is intended to help rebuild our turkey populations after the long lean period that lasted roughly from 2003 to 2012.
Killing a mature gobbler in the piney woods of south Arkansas is even harder. The pine plantations of the Gulf Coastal Plain are tough to hunt. They are hard places to pattern and roost turkeys, and the acoustics of pine forests coupled with the flat terrain muffle and distort turkey vocalizations. If you hunt in the pines, you often can’t hear turkeys approach, and they can see you from a long distance.
Not only that, but piney woods birds are notoriously flighty. Turkeys usually run from trouble. Not these. They fly at the slightest provocation.
As one who loves the mountains, it’s been hard getting used to hunting there, but I’ve come to love it.
On opening day, April 19, I went to the spot where I killed my longbeard the previous year. I heard four different gobblers at dawn, and one bird flapped to the ground with a thud about 100 yards away. It had a deep, throaty gobble, and I suspected it was the same bird that I worked in 2012-2013. If so, it would come into this little hollow to gobble and strut. There it would find the decoys and, ultimately, a trip on my shoulder out of the woods.
Instead, all of the gobblers went the other direction.
Two days later I went to a different part of the property. A hot gobbler closed in fast from an unexpected direction. A gobbler knows where it expects to see hens, and you had better be within shooting range when it reaches that point. I only moved about 30 feet, but the bird was closer than I thought, and I bumped it. That began a dance that lasted almost to the end of the season.
I almost skipped work the morning I killed the Boss.
Usually I wake up 10 minutes before the alarm sounds, but not this time. My iPhone roused me from a deep, satisfying sleep. As I crept past my bed, I shook away the temptation to climb back in. It took a cup of strong convenience store coffee to steel my resolve.
I hadn’t used my trusty pop-up blind that season, but if the Boss was wise to me, I needed an edge to evade his wary eyes.
I used a game cart to haul my gear about a mile to my spot. My, how noisy that thing is in the quiet darkness before dawn! That wasn’t the worst of it. This blind folds up in a crazy fashion, and it’s hard to unfold. I crashed around in the Boss’s strutting parlor and made a terrible racket trying to untangle the spiny little hut.
I got inside and assessed the scene in the gathering light. I couldn’t have picked a worse place. Tall ferns surrounded me. I couldn’t see. It was well past fly-down time, but I had no choice but to move the hut about 70 yards to a logging trail.
Unlike previous days, however, the woods were dead quiet. I had a diaphragm call in my mouth, but I didn’t make a sound.
At 6:35 a.m., a hen ran past the blind and then launched airborne. I wondered if the blind spooked her. Then I looked through the open flap to the right and saw a gobbler running up the trail. He was closing fast, and I barely had time to raise my shotgun.
The bird slowed to a walk, and I saw his long, thick beard swinging back and forth like a gaudy war medal. It was the Boss.
The blind must have balked him, too, because he stopped uncertainly. He took a few more steps toward me, stopped and turned broadside.
I went through a mental checklist and noticed my head was canted to the left. I was looking past the left side of the green sight bead at the muzzle. I corrected my aim, squeezed the trigger and at 6:40 a.m., I sent 1 1/2 ounces of No. 5-6-7 Hevi-Shot downrange. At 25 paces, the Boss went down like a sack of rocks.
I literally fired the Boss.
In some ways, hunting in the Ouachita Mountains is even harder than hunting in the Gulf Coastal Plain, especially when you’re on public land. Turkey densities there are comparatively low, but hunting pressure is heavy, and the terrain is unforgiving.
In that environment Chris Racey of Perryville tagged two mature gobblers last year in the Winona WMA of the Ouachita National Forest, and his wife Jackelyn killed one.
Racey, a Pennsylvanian, is the assistant chief of fisheries for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He said he and Jackelyn heard a lot of gobbling in the mountains early in the season, but they were not near a roosting bird when Chris used his first tag last season.
“We went to a spot that we scouted earlier and did some blind calling for about an hour and a half,” Racey said. “I heard some gobbling in the distance, so I went for a walk, as I often do.”
Jackelyn remained to keep watch over the decoys.
Chris crossed a valley to the opposite ridge and got within 40 yards of a hot gobbler, but the bird walked away. However, a different bird sounded off on another ridge at about 10 a.m. While Chris contemplated the steep, arduous climb it would take to get level with that bird, a third gobbler sounded about 80 yards behind him. He had to reposition quickly.
“I was very much ‘skylined’ for this new bird,” Racey said. “I did a quick turnaround and gave a series of yelps. He hammered right back.”
Racey put away his call and scratched his hand in the leaves. The bird gobbled. By then the gobbler was about 45 yards away. Racey aimed his shotgun at the place where he expected to see the bird. He based his decision on the topography, but the gobbler did what turkeys always do. He didn’t follow the topography.
“He came in behind me, to my left, about 10 yards behind a brushpile,” Racey said. “He had no idea I was there.” Racey saw the bird through a small opening, and when the hunter lifted his shotgun, the bird saw him, too. The bird tucked its tail and went the other direction, but Racey rolled it.
While texting Jackelyn about his success, the bird on the ridge gobbled again. A gunshot followed, but Racey didn’t believe the bird got killed.
“A couple of days later, my wife and I were in that same area trying to get her on a bird,” Racey said. “I heard a bird at dawn on that same ridge. That guy either didn’t get the bird, or he shot another bird.”
Reaching that ridgetop required a long, very steep climb through dense brush and across loose rocks.
“When we got to the top, Jackelyn was looking at me like, ‘Why didn’t we go after an easier bird?’ She threw her pack on the ground and took a break.”
Chris walked 40 more yards up the hill, and when he got there, the bird gobbled 80 yards away.
“It was on the ground,” Racey said. “I got the gun on my knee and made one quick call.” The tom came to within 40 yards and gobbled.
Unfortunately, Racey couldn’t identify the bird as a legal gobbler. In Arkansas, a legal gobbler must have a beard of at least 6 inches or a fully-formed fan with no projecting mid feathers. Racey could see none of these distinguishing features.
“He only went into a three-quarter strut,” Racey said. “I couldn’t see his tail feathers, and I couldn’t see if his beard was an appropriate length.”
The morning was crystal clear, Racey said, and visibility was excellent. The bird’s gobbles reverberated like thunder through the woods. That’s its fatal error.
“He put his head down, and I could see that big old beard swinging out,” Racey said. “He stopped 35 yards out and gobbled once more, and I shot him.”
In his 15 years in Arkansas, that was the first time Racey shot two Arkansas gobblers in one season. “I wish my wife could have shot that bird, but that’s how it worked out,” Racey said.
Jackelyn finally scored on May 4, the last day of the season, in the same general area where Chris had success. Her gobbler responded to a few light calls, Chris said, but some extreme leaf raking brought it in close. Jackelyn killed it at 10 yards.
There are several keys to hunting in the mountains, whether it’s the Ozarks or the Ouachitas, Racey said. Pre-season scouting is paramount. He and Jackelyn start scouting on March 1.
“It inspires confidence when the season rolls around,” Racey said. “You know where birds are in places that are hunted hard.”
Familiarity with your preferred hunting area goes hand in hand with scouting. Racey hunts deer and small game in the same woods. Over the years he’s learned where old logging roads and fire trails are. They make it easier and quieter to move through the woods.
“Knowing why turkeys relate to certain areas, knowing where food sources are, where hens feed and where gobblers strut are all critical factors,” Racey said.
For safety’s sake, always pay attention to where other hunters are, and be in good physical shape, Racey advised. You will have to ascend and descend steep terrain to reach birds in the mountains. Even in the gentler rolling foothills, the combination of exertion and adrenaline can take your wind. If you’re out of shape, your chances of success go way down.
Take time to assess your situation and make a plan. For starters, be certain you know where a gobbler is. A bird can sound like it’s in your lap one minute, and sound a mile away the next minute. Wind can mask a gobble’s origin, as can the direction a turkey’s head points. Figure out where the bird is and then plot the easiest, quietest route to reach it.
Finally, be flexible with your time. Turkey hunting is generally a morning pursuit, but Racey said that afternoon hunts can be very productive.
Some of my most memorable hunts have been late, too. I killed a giant gobbler in 2014 at about 4:15 p.m. Sometimes it seems as if birds are more likely to come to blind calls than they are in the mornings, when their hen harems are more attentive to their charms.
Do it right, and you can fire your boss this year, too.