Update on Alabama Gobblers

The Yellowhammer State continues to have one of the strongest populations of wild turkeys in the nation. That should translate into a good spring hunting season.

By Zack Glover

A sticky layer of dust covered the glass globe. Keith Guyse whipped out his bottle of Windex, sprayed the precious object, and gently, lovingly wiped it. Afterward, eyes closed, he began massaging the crystal ball that he'd reluctantly pulled from under his desk at my urging.

When Guyse opened his eyes and peered into the large smoke-filled orb, he gasped. Then he grinned and offered a thumbs-up. I sighed with relief, suddenly aware that I'd been holding my breath.

"Looks like the spring of 2003 will be a good 'un," he cracked, wide blue eyes only an inch away from the now-flashing ball. "There ought to be plenty of turkeys!"

Predicting what kind of turkey season awaits Alabama's hunters is akin to peering into a crystal ball, which - I assure you - Keith Guyse doesn't really have tucked under his desk in Montgomery. So many different factors can influence turkey populations from county to county that the best anyone can do is guess.

In Guyse's case, the guess is an educated one. The assistant chief of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries' Wildlife Section knows what conditions are necessary for optimum turkey production. From where he sits, it does indeed appear that much of Alabama could see a large number of gobbling birds this spring. I wasn't making up that part of the story!

Personally, I've never seen as many hens with poults as I did last summer during my long daily commutes from Valley to Montgomery. Of course, that doesn't mean a thing when it comes to hearing and fooling longbeards in March and April, Keith reminded me. I knew that, of course, but I wanted him to say it.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

"This year's reproduction is not important, at least not to this year's hunters," he said. "You have to look back at the two or three previous years to determine whether there will be a lot of gobblers."

Guyse noted that the summers of 2000 and 2001 weren't perfect for poult survival, but 2001 was much better. That means there should be more gobbling 2-year-olds this season than there were last spring.

"The outlook has to be good," he added. "The population is dependent upon the weather. Whenever you get hot, dry weather in the summer, it'll hit turkey populations really hard. Drought conditions lead to a decline in bugs, which the young poults need to eat in order to survive. A drought also leads to poor seed production, which is another food source, and less or stunted cover."

The latter is important because every little fuzzy poult is a walking bull's-eye for a host of predators. The newly hatched turkeys are particularly vulnerable until they are 2 weeks old and able to fly.

Guyse said that while the Heart of Dixie has fared much better than neighboring Georgia and South Carolina, the state has had five years of summertime conditions ranging from bad to mediocre. The summer of 2000 was particularly bad, according to weather watchers. The southern half of Alabama endured a severe drought that decimated corn, cotton and peanut crops, while cattlemen even faced a shortage of hay. Compared to that, 2001 was almost perfect. All these jakes from that season will now be sporting long beards and talking it up this spring.

Still, while half of you will look back on these words in total agreement, the rest likely will never read another turkey hunting forecast. That's because things can drastically change from one mile to the next. You can blame the land. You can blame the birds. Or you can direct your wrath toward the weather.

Almost anything can happen in the turkey woods, not counting the power to become invisible, which is seemingly possessed by some hunter-savvy birds.

I hunted in five counties last season: public lands in Jefferson, Tuscaloosa and Walker, where I saw zero jakes and rarely heard a bird, plus private tracts in Russell and Macon. Halfway into the season, I'd bagged only one gobbler. Even with the March 15 opening adding 10 additional days, the season was not going well until I turned my attention to Tuskegee and Hurtsboro. For every day I didn't hear a bird in west and central Alabama, I heard two while prowling the woods of east Alabama.

"You know what's going to happen," I pronounced, perhaps a little too matter-of-factly, while sliding out of my turkey vest.

"What do you mean?" replied Robert Seidler.

"Murphy's Law being what it is . . ."

"Don't say it," he muttered, waving his hand to stop the foolish flow of words that might plant the notion in the mischievous minds of the turkey gods.

Robert Seidler and I had known each other for less than 48 hours, yet in that short day and a half, we'd become close. Whenever two men pool their resources to outwit a bird with a brain the size of a walnut, they had better think alike. Robert knew exactly what I was thinking.

We'd been given the run of a tiny corner of Macon County during opening weekend of Alabama's 2002 season. The ruler of that roost was "Carl," a cunning gobbler that had survived four or five springs by just saying no to some of the best callers and hunters on the planet.

Even after nearly a year to forget what hunters had taught him the previous spring, Carl was still in top form. We could make him gobble. We could call his girlfriends away from him. But we couldn't bring him to the gun, regardless of how liberal or conservative our calling.

It was the last day of the hunt. After a close encounter with one of Carl's sons that morning, Robert and I were headed for the truck. As we neared Carl's territory about 11 a.m., I pulled out my box call and cackled. An all-too-familiar throaty gobble rang out of the hardwood draw to our right, no more than 150 yards from the dirt road we were traveling.

Seconds later, Robert and I were nestled against an oak and I was purring and clucking. When my sweet serenade elicited the desired response, I laid the slate on the ground beside my knee and waited hopefully. Twenty minutes later, I was still watching the grass grow, and we hadn't heard a peep from Carl.

The next soft note that I struck drew a gobble on the other side of the road. In true Carl fashion, he'd gone well out of his way to skirt us, cross the road, and head to the

same strut zone where we'd lost him the previous morning.

"It's Carl, all right," Robert groaned, disgust showing in his eyes.

That led to my plan.

"Robert, I'm going to leave all my calls here in the road," I announced, shedding the vest. "Give me at least 10 minutes, and then you go in and call like a crazy man."

Acting on the theory that Carl would walk away from the call, I was going to the little green field behind him - the same field where he'd gone the first time we'd worked him in that patch of woods. When Robert started calling aggressively, the wary bird would surely walk straight into my lap.

Robert, who wasn't carrying a gun, thought it was a wonderful idea.

"But you know," I foolishly stated before taking off, "this will be the one time that he comes straight to you."

"I told you not to say it," he protested. "Take off. I'll give you 10 minutes."

By the time I reached the field's edge, Carl was gobbling like a stuck record. In fact, another gobbler joined Carl in responding to my hunting buddy's calls. Robert had followed a secondary woods road into the bottom, sat with his back against a tree, and emptied his pockets and pouches of every caller he owned. He spread them out before him and took turns, offering up a cornucopia of yelps, clucks, purrs, cackles and even squeaks.

"I must have done at least 140 fly-down cackles," he told me later.

The gobblers loved it, and so did I. Since they were so busy answering Robert's calls, I was able to sneak within 50 or 60 yards of them. Just when I thought I would finally get a glimpse of the birds, however, everything got eerily quiet. Thirty minutes later, I rose and began walking back to Robert.

The look on his face told me everything, but I had to hear it.

"When I figured that I'd done everything I could do, I gathered up my calls and stood," he said. "When I took two steps, I looked straight into the eyes of both gobblers. They couldn't have been any farther than 20 yards!"

Fortunately, a week later Dodd Clifton called to invite me back to hunt the same area, and I jumped at the chance to get another whack at busting Carl.

The first afternoon back in the woods allowed me that second crack at Carl. I got to see his enormous, fat-footed track, but he never showed. I went to a different tract the following morning and found myself surrounded by gobbling turkeys. The closest one, of course, wasn't cooperative, and the rest had ceased gobbling by the time I was ready to switch off.

I was paired with Joe Smith that evening. We drove to a remote piece of property where Joe had spotted a gobbler strutting in a tiny green field the previous afternoon. The food plot was at the edge of a clearcut, tucked in a corner where planted pines met a more mature stand.

Joe believed that he'd worked that particular bird, which he nicknamed the "High-Lift Gobbler," at least twice that week. The name came from the turkey's preference for roosting in the tallest tree on the property's highest ridge.

After building the Taj Mahal of blinds, we settled in for a long afternoon. After allowing an appropriate amount of quiet time, I whispered to Joe, "I want to yelp, just to let them know we're here."

"You can do whatever you think's right," he answered. "But do you want to shoot a turkey or call a turkey?"

"Well," I replied, "it's one of those situations where if I do call and nothing shows, I'll wonder if I spooked him. But then again, if I don't and nothing shows, I'll wonder if I should've."

"You're right," he agreed.

"I've got to at least announce our arrival," I said, picking up my glass call and striker.

At 2:15, I yelped maybe five times, clucked a couple more, and then set the caller aside. Forty-five minutes later, a handsome longbeard stepped into the corner of the field - only 45 yards from us. When he stepped clear of a root ball at 25 paces, I walloped him.

The 3-year-old cannot compare to some of the toms I've taken since my first spring in the turkey woods, but the bird is one of my most cherished trophies. He wore a 10 1/4-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs.

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