Michael Waddell shot his first turkey when he was just a tyke.
“I was sure it was the world-record jake, my dad was so proud,” said Waddell, best known for his “Bone Collector” and Road Trips” TV shows on the Outdoor Channel.
That jake and his dad’s reaction may account for Waddell’s profound drive and current-day obsession with innovative gear and tactics to hunt turkey.
I saw all of this in action when I hunted with him and a friend of mine recently in the hills of northern Alabama. We hunted hard for a mature gobbler without the glare of lights or TV cameras. Just three guys determined to get within 40 steps of a tom. But it was anything but everyday. I got schooled in aggressive tactics, the likes of which I’ve never seen in my years hunting Eastern gobblers.
Waddell showed up in turkey camp with some camo, a 12-gauge and the craziest-looking turkey decoy you’ve ever seen. It was just the front section of a mature gobbler in full strut. It had a natural fan that looked like it was glue-gunned to a light metal frame. A hole in the chest was the right size for a gun muzzle.
Some call theses style “reapers,” “scoot and shoots” or puppet shows. Basically, you carry it in front of you, and when a dominant toms sees it, he’ll either approach it or ignore it. Either way, you can cut the distance quickly.
Waddell carried the decoy on our hunt and put it to use when a tom answered his hen yelp from his Knight & Hale diaphragm call. We quickly set up on a logging road, and Waddell called to the hot tom as I watched the road through my scope. He drew the bird to within about 50 yards, but I could not get a look at it because of the bend. Waddell pulled out all stops to pull the bird away from his 10 hens and just another 10 or so yards. He belly-crawled out onto the gravel road with the decoy in front of him, at times violently calling while other times sounding as sweet and sexy as a hen seeking a suitor could be. Waddell was determined to get the turkey away from a flock of hens and around the bend so I could shoot it. It was hard to watch for the turkey while Waddell was flailing about. The hunter-turned-guide utilized the decoy all the while but strutting him between him and the gobbler. But he also scuffed the dirt and gravel with the decoy and his feet, swatted the decoy on his gun barrel, which lay next to him on the road.
The tom answered every yelp, cut, and purr and lit up when Waddell laid down a fighting purr, which is trill call hens and toms make when they are looking for trouble. Waddell tried it all.
At one point, the bird was likely in shooting distance, but I could not see it and I didn’t get the chance to pull the trigger. Eventually the hens won, and they pulled him away from us.
Although no bird fell, I could not blame the caller. In hindsight, if I had set up on the other side of the road, on the wide bend, I could have taken the bird. However, the bird would have had a better chance to have seen me, too, and he may never have come close at all.
With the gobbler pulled from the road by his harem, I figured he was history.
“Do you think Mr. Dixon would mind if we did something, non-traditional?” asked Waddell ironically, as we walked over to our hunting partner, Dixon Brooke who knew the land much better than Michael or I.
“Go for it,” said Dixon, when Michael proposed tracking off after the tom.
“Let’s go!” he said.
Michael charged up the hill, littered with crispy, loud leaves, with his decoy and me trying to keep up.
This was crazy hunting to me. I’ve always hunted more like Dixon, that is, call, locate, get close, set out a decoy or two, and call him in. This was more like, sneaking up behind him, pretty much impossible in my book.
“Very possible,” said Waddell. “Stay low.”
The tom had gone to the top of a ridge, and we figured he was heading down the other side with his girls. But a quick hen call showed that he was just over the ridge, perhaps we really could sneak up on him, despite the eight or 10 sets of eyes watching in all directions.
I three-point crawled 100 yards to the ridge edge and peaked over. No bird, just as I suspected. What right-minded tom would stick around with two grown men making all the noise on his tail?
‘There,” said Michael, as he pointed to our left. At the very top of the rocky crag, the tom strutted among boulders and hens. I dropped down, totally out of my element. This was more like mule deer hunting now than turkey hunting.
Hunkered down between rocks like two soldiers taking fire, we looked at each other.
“Now what?” I said.
“Heck, let’s get ‘em!”
I popped up to full height, with the scope to my eye, and I saw the tom’s fan. I stepped from boulder, with the gun in position, determined to upload the Winchester Longbeard shot onto this clueless mountain bird the first time I saw his head. Hens got in the way. A bush got in the way. He disappeared behind a boulder. I saw a touch of white and feathers, behind a tree, but not enough to be sure of the target.
Standing on a big rock at the top of the mountain, I thought, “This is too cool. I feel like Daniel Boone. I’m gonna get him!”
A hen putted. She took to the air, as did another hen and another, and there sailed my turkey, dodging trees like a Cooper’s hawk.
“Aw man, I thought you had him!” said Waddell as we walked back to Dixon to tell our tale.
He may have been disappointed we did not get that bird after all that effort. But I wasn’t. I was amazed, and glad to have been schooled in new ways and new attitudes of turkey hunting.
As I jawed with Dixon, Michael snapped, “Get off the road!”
We ducked into the woods as I dropped down and put my gun on my knee.
Neither Dixon nor I had heard or seen anything. We exchanged glances that said, “We’ll humor him.” I was doubting this hot-shot’s command as he shook his weird decoy and sent all kinds of yelps, cuts and purrs into the air. I was thinking about a nap when a deep gobble startled me. I still didn’t see it, but a minute later, I heard turkey footsteps on dry leaves. I then saw a fan, a head and a beard. I quietly thanked God and Michael Waddell as I pulled the trigger on this mature Alabama Eastern turkey.
I thought about how today, like no other day, I was schooled in aggressive tactics. All I had known about tom was set on its head. There are many more ways than one to get close to mature bird.