Unfortunately for Kansans, gentle breezes wafting across the prairie aren't the winds that ruin turkey hunts. But the author has learned how to cope with a gusty day and bring home a gobbler too.
One thing you can do to escape a spring gale is to hunt in creek bottoms, where the banks and trees help block the breeze. That's how the author bagged this beauty.
Photo by Marc Murrell
If you go after turkeys in Kansas during the spring season, you're likely going to encounter inclement weather that takes many forms. Gentle rains are OK, and a little breeze never bothered anyone. But many a spring turkey hunt sees winds blow in with what seems the intensity of a typhoon, making it miserable for both hunters and hunted. Perspicacious gobbler chasers -- the smart ones, to use a blunter term -- generally stay home, figuring that there's always another day.
However, common sense doesn't always prevail, and turkey hunters intentionally venturing out into or inadvertently caught in these conditions have a tough road to travel if they plan to bag a tricky tom.
Sound emitted by and responded to by both birds and hunters often figures into the success or failure of spring turkey hunts. "So when the wind kicks up, it's time to change tactics a bit," said Eric Johnson, a diehard turkey hunter who has experienced more than his share of foul-weather hunts. "Soft-sounding mouth calls and slate calls are traded for the loud, resonating tone of a good box call that cuts the wind and carries a considerable distance."
And, Johnson has learned, when the winds get to the point that you and the turkey can't hear one another, it's time to use another sense. "If it's really howling, then I'll resort to getting a visual," he observed. "You can drive around, or take off on foot, and scan likely-looking fields and try to figure out how to get close enough to call them or get ahead of them or in close proximity so they can hear you."
Decoys are usually the ticket for Kansas' turkey hunters, but strong winds have carried many a decoy into the next ZIP code. On those days, Johnson switches to a heavier decoy made from harder, thicker plastic to combat the wind.
"Another trick I've learned is to face the decoy into the wind," he said, "and then I'll take a couple of small sticks and stake them on either side of the tail so that it can only move and pivot 3 to 4 inches either way. That way, it keeps it from spinning or falling off the stake. But if it's real windy, I'll just leave the decoys in the truck."
Much of the eastern half of Kansas lends itself well to hunting turkeys in the wind. A bit of relief in the form of hills and meandering creek bottoms allow both turkeys and turkey hunters to get out of the wind. And when Mother Nature throws all her spring weapons at you, it's time to do whatever it takes. Such was the case a few seasons ago, when Johnson and I teamed up for a spring opener.
"Where are you at?" came the familiar voice of my good friend at 4:15 a.m. on my cell phone.
"I'm just leaving," I assured him.
"I was just checking to make sure you were going," he said. "Did you see the radar and wind forecast?"
"If it wasn't opening morning, I would have crawled back in bed," I replied after seeing the huge lines of thunderstorms that, it was predicted, would pack gale-force winds.
I headed east toward Greenwood County and watched as the highway signs shimmied like a college dance team. The wind ferociously pounded the right side of my truck, and my hands found the familiar 10-and-2 position from driver's ed, despite my not having used it much in the two intervening decades. Lightning from several locations reminded me how little I like walking around fields carrying a 12-gauge lightning rod.
But this was opening day, and I didn't want to miss it. Besides, the forecast folks had been wrong before, and I was hoping that this would be another example. Unfortunately, they'd hit it right on the money -- and then some.
When I met up with Johnson, talk turned anxiously to things to come, and we debated how bad the storms and wind might be and whether to stay in the friendly confines of my vehicle or head down to the timber. Opening-morning anticipation overruling common sense, we exited the truck with gear and guns at 6 a.m.
Just as we got to the timber it started to rain, mostly horizontally. I donned my rain gear; Johnson wished that he'd brought some. Worried about him getting soaked, I suggested that we head back to the vehicle to ride out the squall.
The downpour lasted about 30 minutes. Again, we exited the truck and walked back to the place where Johnson knew turkeys roosted. He was right; one bailed from the tree as it spotted us. It was beginning to get light. We eased on down to the river, and Johnson caught a glimpse of a turkey on the other side.
We crossed the river and immediately plopped down and began calling. Johnson could see the birds gobble through his binoculars, but the sound never reached our ears in the 40-mph-plus wind. They were less than 100 yards away, but fortunately downwind.
Twice, four mature toms left the confines of the 12-plus bird flock to investigate our loud, raucous calls. The second time they cut the distance to 35 yards, but several small bushes and saplings prevented a good shot opportunity for either one of us. Our hopes were dashed when a couple of notes from a nearby emphatic hen called the boys out of harm's way.
We dropped into the creekbed with plans to sneak closer and call again. The second time we eased our eyeballs over the bank for a look, the whole flock was on the edge of shotgun range; a couple of soft yelps, and a few birds moved toward us.
"I'll shoot the one in the back," Johnson whispered.
I said OK, and informed him that I'd wait for him to shoot first and then try to kill one. We knew that the remaining three or four would be mature toms.
Johnson's gun boomed, and the bird I was watching shot up in the air high enough to dunk a basketball. The moment he touched down, he was again in whistle gear and leaving the country. I swung as fast as I have had to on teal and yanked the trigger. The bird dropped in his tracks.
Another shot, followed by a fair amount of swearing from my left, brought me back to reality.
"I can't believe I missed!" Johnson said (expletives deleted for publication).
I was disappointed for him, too, but couldn't help giving out some good-natured ribbing. "You're bad luck for me," he said as he shook his head.
We walked over to my bird. His beard about 9 inches long and his spurs just a hair under an inch in length, he was hefty, we noticed, and would later tip the scales at 19 1/2 pounds.
We'd no sooner got done with slapping high-fives when another ominous storm barreled down on us. We hot-footed it to a nearby silo and took shelter from toad-strangling rain and gusty winds. I hung my turkey on the silo, hoping that the rain would end and give Johnson a chance.
The rain subsided, and we were soon greeted with mostly sunny skies, but the wind was gaining in strength. It didn't deter us: We set out to get another visual, since hearing a turkey was out of the question.
After several more close calls as a result of visual observations, we decided to call it a day, as neither of us could get over how hard the wind was blowing. Radio reports spoke of gusts near 60 mph!
The wind was nearly unbearable. Actually, it was unbearable in the open. Even in the protection of the river bottom it made strutting toms look like drunken sailors. The hens had the worst "hair day" imaginable, and normally pristine Flint Hills ponds were darker than too-strong chocolate milk.
I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles on the trip home. I thought about how fortunate we'd been despite the weather. Although we might have been smarter just to punt, the trip had been memorable, as we'd been able to adapt to the windy conditions and find success. We even made plans to return to the same spot another day -- preferably one without a hurricane attached!