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Good Old Days with Time-Worn Shotguns

A soul-searching turkey hunter resurrects three older shotguns and spends a season chasing toms with them.

Good Old Days with Time-Worn Shotguns

(Author photos)

Opening the heavy door on my gun vault, I saw my three specialized turkey shotguns were front and center, right where I’d put them at the end of last season. Each gun had a short barrel, sported an extra-full choke and wore a red-dot reflex sight.

I stared at the guns, crunching numbers, and felt almost ashamed. Do I really need these to kill a turkey? I asked myself. Is it necessary for my turkey guns to shoot with rifle-like accuracy at distances that weren’t even deemed possible when I started hunting these birds 48 years ago?

In my hand was a box of five turkey shells. They were specialized, too, made of Tungsten Super Shot at a cost of nearly $10 a shell. I was going to pattern the load in one of my fancy guns. That’s when the feeling in my heart turned from bad to worse.

I put down the box of TSS, moved the first three guns aside and looked in the back of the vault. That’s when I saw it, my very first 20-gauge shotgun. Bringing the Savage pump into better light, I was pleased with how good it looked. I remembered when and where it got every scar. It had been locked away for nearly 15 years. The last time it had been used was when I taught my sons how to shoot a shotgun.

The buttstock had been shortened to fit me when I was 10 years old back in 1974. Two years later I shot my first ducks, geese, grouse, quail and band-tailed pigeons with that shotgun, but I had never hunted turkeys with it.

Putting the fancy turkey guns back in their place, I locked the safe and didn’t look at them again all season. It was time to get reacquainted with an old friend, albeit during a new pursuit with the gun.

THE FIRST

My little 20-gauge had always shot well, and I had taken good care of it. I found some old Federal 2 3/4-inch upland loads that I’d had since the time I got the gun. The $2.77 price tag was still on the box that contained 25 rounds of No. 8 shot.

I couldn’t bring myself to break into the old, unopened box of shells, which was in mint condition. Instead, I found some 2 3/4-inch light field loads that had been made more recently and patterned the 20-gauge with them. It shot perfectly, so I switched to a Federal 3-inch payload of lead No. 6 shot. The Savage performed great at 20 and 30 yards with the heavier load.

Scott Haugen, Savage 20-Gauge hero
The author owned his Savage 20-gauge for almost 50 years before he took a turkey with the old but capable shotgun.

I found it sad that of the scores of turkeys I’d shot over nearly 50 years of chasing them, I’d never taken one with my first shotgun. Three days later, I set off to correct that flaw. My feeling of remorse was about to change.




With a homemade decoy made from a hen I had shot one fall, I headed into the turkey woods well before daylight. It was a short hike, no more than a quarter mile, and I chose to hunt from a pop-up blind. My spot was atop a wooded ridge where five game trails intersected, all coming from different directions. The ground blind offered 360 degrees of concealment.

I put the stuffer decoy 15 yards from the blind, knowing I could shoot my old 20-gauge out to 25 yards if needed. For nearly 30 minutes I sat silently in the blind. Crows and songbirds broke the morning silence, as did turkeys. It was the spring season opener, and both hens and toms called from their roosts.

When I let out a series of tree yelps, toms gobbled back from multiple directions. For the next several minutes I sat quietly. The toms knew where I was.

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In the low light of the timber I could hear distant fly-down cackles and beating wings. Five minutes later I offered some soft yelps. Time passed slowly, and when the thundering gobbles of two toms erupted 50 yards behind me, I about lost it. I was glad I had the pop-up blind.

Before the two toms made it to me, however, three jakes sprinted in from another trail. Moments after that, four more jakes blasted in, followed by three more. The jakes gobbled, fought, locked necks and ran circles around the decoy.

Then their demeanor instantly changed. They stood tall, their slender heads quickly turning pale. I knew exactly what was happening, and when they turned and ran the other way, the two big toms from behind strutted by my blind. Less than 5 feet away, I could feel the toms spitting and drumming. Then they gobbled, sending shockwaves through my body.

One tom stepped in front of the blind’s open window, moving toward the decoy. The other followed but was cautious. The lead tom didn’t waste time mounting the stuffer hen, and my reliable 20-gauge didn’t let me down. Soon I was admiring a dandy tom, elated to have finally taken a turkey with my very first shotgun.

That night my in-laws came over for dinner, and I shared the story of the hunt. The next morning my father-in-law returned. He loved the story so much that he gave me his first shotgun. I knew right away what gun I’d be using on my next turkey hunt.

THE $29 TURKEY GUN

My father-in-law saved his money to buy the shotgun when he was a kid. He needed a gopher gun for the ranch and had gotten this one on sale at a local five-and-dime, paying $29 for the S.S. Kresge Model 151. The stock was in good shape, as was the hammer, trigger and action. The single-shot barrel was pitted and rusty, but close inspection and some cleaning left no doubt it was safe to shoot.

The old 12-gauge Kresge hadn’t been fired for more than 50 years, so I started with a light trap load. The gun fired and functioned just fine, so I moved on to patterning a 2 3/4-inch Browning upland load with No. 6 shot. It patterned good but not great—the fault of the gun, not the load. To shoot a tom with this old scattergun I wanted it to be inside 20 yards.

Scott Haugen, S.S. Kresge Model 151 kill shot
The author cleanly took a big bird with the S.S. Kresge Model 151 given to him by his father-in-law, who owned the shotgun as a boy.

I chose to hunt another timbered ridge, one where I’d been picking up two toms on a trail camera. There was one main trail atop the ridge, and the toms had been using it with regularity, always at mid-day. Again, I sat in a ground blind because the trail was long and visibility was extended under the thinned stand of Douglas firs. By 1 o’clock I was in the blind, calling. Only a jake came in. Then the wind picked up. Gusts soon exceeded 30 miles per hour, so I took down the blind and got out of there. Too many limbs were falling, and no turkeys would be moving in those conditions.

Three hours later I returned. Things had calmed, and soon I started calling. Twenty minutes had passed when a lone hen came in. Feathers flared, chest puffed and tail fanned, she strutted right up to the hen stuffer decoy. If you’ve ever enjoyed the beauty of a mature, strutting hen, you know how special this moment was.

Seconds later a tom materialized. From where it came, I had no idea. I was so transfixed on the strutting hen that I wasn’t thinking about a tom. The live hen and the fake one did all the work, and soon the tom strutted between them and the blind. At 17 yards the shot was straightforward. The hammer dropped, the Kresge roared, and a 21-pound Rio was on the ground.

I drove to my father-in-law’s place to share the story and show him the bird. He loved it. In fact, he loved it so much that he had me follow him into his shop. He took a key from a safe, opened his gun cabinet and pulled out a little .410 that looked old, beaten and not likely to be in working order.

When his dad passed away a few years prior at 103, my father-in-law had inherited this gun. It had been in his family as long as he could remember. He recalled shooting gophers with it and his mom shooting starlings out of her cherry tree. His dad broke up a bad dog fight with it one time, resulting in the broken stock.

THE FRAGILE .410

At first glance I had some doubts whether the Winchester Model 37 would be safe to shoot. But even though the upper end of the stock was broken, everything else was tight and appeared to be in good working order. I loaded it with a 2 1/2-inch Federal Top Gun trap load, and the gun fired fine. I had another decision to make.

I’d recently picked up some .410 TSS turkey loads to shoot in my new Browning BPS, but something just didn’t feel right about using cutting-edge shells in an old gun. Going back to my shell stash, I found some old .410 boxes. I pulled out a box of Winchester Super-X 3-inch shells that still had a price tag of $3.27 on it. I’d stowed a few boxes of the No. 4 loads during my youth. That was the load I’d test for the hunt.

Scott Haugen, Winchester Model 37 kill shot
A 3-inch load of lead shot—not tungsten—from a .410-bore Winchester Model 37 dropped this longbeard at about 11 yards.

I grabbed three turkey targets and three shells. At 10 yards the gun patterned great. At 20 yards the pattern fell apart. I shot the gun at 15 yards, and the pattern wasn’t as tight as I’d hoped it would be given how compact it was at 10 yards. When I set another target at 12 yards and fired one more shell, the pattern was solid. The process showed how little details can make a big difference. With a .410 that had been in my wife’s family since at least the 1930s (no one knew for sure when it was purchased) and some shells I had tucked away for almost half a century, I was ready to go turkey hunting.

It was late in the season, and the hens had gone to nest. I had a few choices of where I could hunt but quickly ruled out the river bottom and low-lying farmlands. Both of these habitats held birds, but getting one to come in to 12 yards at this stage in the season would be tough. Those places were my backup spots. Besides, I love hunting toms in the timber, and the situation was the perfect excuse to do just that.

Because hens were scattered, so were toms. When hens go to nest in the timber, they’ll often travel more than 10 miles from where they spent the winter. Toms follow them, hoping for a chance to breed. Sometimes a tom will hang out with a hen for several days. Sometimes their time together is short, especially once the hen starts sitting. For these reasons, covering ground and calling was going to be my approach.

Since I was going to be hiking, I didn’t want to haul a blind and chair. Instead, I carried a little cushion to sit on. I went light and simple.

I took only two calls, both diaphragms. Because I was going to be sitting against a tree, I didn’t want to risk spooking a tom when moving my hands to make sounds with a slate or box call. I chose Slayer Calls diaphragms because I like the latex in them, which allows me to apply a lot of pressure and get loud, crisp sounds that penetrate the forest. If it’s windy or the cover is especially dense, I want the calls to reach out. The more ground I can cover with calls, versus walking, the more efficiently I can hunt.

I would have to choose my setups wisely. Birds needed to come from in front of me, not from behind, because I was going to be close to the decoy with no blind for concealment. I wanted to be able to see an approaching tom as soon as possible. This would be instrumental in keeping track of where the bird was, but just as importantly, it would allow me to read its body language so I’d know what calls to make, when.

Though there were only a fraction of turkeys in the woods compared to what I’d been seeing on the valley floor, I figured my chances of killing one would be better there. Timber toms can be leery but curious. They can move slowly but will cover a lot of ground. If they hear a hen but can’t locate it, they’ll usually keep searching. Each of these traits factored into my decision to hunt the timber.

I didn’t enter the woods until shortly after 9 a.m. I waited because I wanted to give the hens time to feed and then return to sitting on the nest. Toms can stick tight to nesting hens as they feed, hoping for a chance to breed. But once the hen returns to the nest, the toms become more susceptible to calls.

It was almost noon by the time I heard the first gobble. I’d slowly covered 3 miles, calling lightly as I went so I wouldn’t spook a tom should it be near. Sometimes subtle calls and moving slowly are a deadly combination in the turkey woods.

The distant gobble came from a little draw. A tiny creek flowed through the bottom of it, and it held water year-round. I knew the exact game trail I had to get on to reach where I’d heard the tom. However, I was concerned that since it was late in the spring, the trail would be too overgrown with briars for the tom to walk it. About 100 yards down the trail, though, my concern was put at ease. Roosevelt elk had been using it heavily, keeping it open. There were also turkey tracks in the muddy trail, big-knuckled tom tracks to be exact, and they were fresh.

Once I made it across the creek, I set my stuffer hen decoy in the trail and got on the uphill side of it. I sat against the base of a giant Douglas fir tree that had to be several hundred years old and prepared to call. But before I made a sound, I checked my shooting lanes.

I didn’t like where the decoy was at the end of a long, straight stretch of trail. If an approaching tom saw it too soon, the bird might freeze and not come within range of the old .410. I decided to move the decoy slightly up the trail so a responding tom would have to walk past me before it could see the stuffer. I couldn’t set it too far, for if I had to keep calling, the tom might get off the trail and move toward me. It was too brushy, and I had too few shooting windows should that happen. I needed the tom on the trail or close to it.

With the decoy set, I paced off the distance from the trail to my tree. Eleven yards. If a tom came down the trail, I was good.

My first few series of hen yelps produced nothing. My next series was louder, as was the next. Bingo. The gobble sounded faint, but it’s never easy to tell how far a tom really is when it’s gobbling in thick, rugged timber. A bird can sound a quarter mile distant but only be 50 yards off if it’s in thick cover and facing away, gobbling over broken terrain.

Again, I called loud and quick, and again, the tom gobbled back. This time the bird was facing me, and it was closer than I had thought.

I sat silently, watching the trail for any movement. More than five minutes passed then I yelped again, this time softer. The tom thundered back. It was closer.

Less than a minute later I caught a glimpse of the tom on the elk trail. The bird wasn’t strutting, and it was in no rush. Quiet and motionless, I sat with the little .410 comfortably resting on my knee and my back firmly against the massive tree. I had all the time in the world.

I lost sight of the tom for about 30 yards, but then I could see its red and blue head bobbing through little openings in the tall, green ferns. With the gun barrel on my knee, the little brass bead was pointed at the trail. All I needed was the turkey to show up.

When the tom popped into view, I started to put pressure on the trigger. The bird stopped, stood tall and stared at the decoy in the trail. The perfect angle made for an easy shot, even with the crippled .410.

This hunt reconfirmed that I didn’t need the fanciest gun, optic, choke, load and decoy to have a great season. I knew my gear, understood the birds and hunted smart to call a tom in close and make a clean, ethical kill. For me, that’s where the joys and challenges of turkey hunting lie.

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