Lessons for Missouri Turkey Hunts

Lessons for Missouri Turkey Hunts

When you're trying to fill your turkey tags, there's no substitute for simply being there.

By Bryan Hendricks

Sometime before dawn on May 3, 2003, I dreamed that I killed a gobbler. I killed it at the same place in Osage County where I missed a gobbler in the spring of 2001. I didn't miss it, really - because I didn't shoot at it. The bird came in behind me and left before I had time to react.

I thought often about that hunt in the interim. My obsession with it rooted firmly in my subconscious, where it blossomed into that dream - in which, as opposed to reality, I killed the bird. Otherwise, everything was the same - except that the bird gobbled once and came in from the front, changing the outcome. But otherwise, as I said, just like the real thing.

The dream was still fresh in my mind when I awoke, and it had a magical effect on my attitude. Somehow I just knew that this was the day on which I'd fill my second spring turkey tag.

I arrived at the farm before dawn. As I sipped one last cup of black coffee from my rust-mottled thermos, I debated whether to hunt down in the creek bottom or on the edge of the ridgetop pasture where I'd blown the 2001 hunt. But the dream had taken place at the edge of the pasture, so I had no choice but to hunt there.

As I walked through the wet grass on the north side of the pasture, an ambulance passed on the highway nearby. The wail of its siren provoked a turkey to gobble from its roost in the woods on the north slope directly to my right. Wow! This was going to be easy! All I had to do was enter the woods, find a good tree to sit against, wait for the bird to fly down and make an early-morning of it.

Maybe the bird was facing away, or maybe I just don't hear very well, but the bird sounded farther away than he really was. I walked eight steps into the woods, but the turkey thundered off the roost almost directly overhead and sailed through the woods into the creek bottom.

Photo by Mark & Sue Werner

Disgusted, I returned to the dew-soaked pasture and resumed my journey to the wooded edge of the ridgetop. Once there, I walked about 10 feet into the woods and rested against a wide oak tree with a split trunk. It was molded perfectly to the shape of my back, making it a comfortable place to sit. Between me and the pasture lay some small scrub cedar trees. They would break my outline and obscure me from the eyes of a turkey approaching from that direction.

As the sun rose, the sound of birdsong filled the air. Bees buzzed, and the sweet smell of spring filled my sinuses. I heard a faint gobble to the south. I responded with a few yelps from my diaphragm call, but that bird was far away and apparently had no inclination to come closer. I drifted into my usual morning reverie, thinking about all the things one thinks about when alone in the woods.

After a while, a lone gobble sounded from the treeline on the north side of the pasture. It was coming from almost the exact spot at which I'd spooked the bird at dawn. Surely it had to be the same bird!

With my diaphragm, I yelped softly five times, and then willed myself to silence. If a tom pinpoints the location of a call, he'll often hang up and demand that the hen come to him. If the yelps are soft and noncommittal, he'll come looking. I was banking on his coming to me.

Raising my gun to my knee, I swished the call around in my mouth and waited. Within two minutes, the bird appeared, approaching fairly quickly with a turkey's characteristic zigzagging gait. He took three or four steps and stopped to pluck off a seed head from a grass stalk. He took three or four more steps and then stopped to look around. After three or four more steps, he stopped to peck at something on the ground, all the while coming ever closer.

Finally he passed in front of a small cedar, which allowed me to shoulder my gun. He kept coming, looking hard for a hen. As the tension mounted, my pulse quickened, and I started getting jittery; then I began hyperventilating. I took a deep breath and gave myself a good mental cussing to calm down. Meanwhile, my arms burned under the weight of my shotgun, the muzzle bobbing and weaving as I followed the turkey with my fiber-optic sights.

At that point, the bird was well within range, but I was taking no chances. I wanted him as close as he was willing to come. As the turkey passed directly in front of me, an owl flew overhead, and his shadow crossed the turkey. He got nervous and picked up his pace as he changed course toward the treeline away from me. I jammed my diaphragm against the roof of my mouth with my tongue and blew out a sharp, shrill pip! The turkey stopped and stuck his head straight up. I centered my sight at the base of his neck, squeezed the trigger and flattened him with 1 5/8 ounces of No. 5 shot.

He was a 2-year-old bird with a 4-inch beard. He only weighed about 15 pounds, but for me, he was a dream come true.

Dreams came true last year for a lot of other Missouri turkey hunters, too. One of those hunters was Libbie Harmon of Kansas City, who bagged a trophy tom before the coffee got hot.

Libbie and her husband, Derrick, were hunting on leased land in Lafayette County. They'd roosted the bird the night before, so they knew exactly where to set up at the edge of a tree line bordering a large beanfield.

"It was getting light," Libbie said. "Derrick went out to set the decoys in the field, and I set up our blinds. We heard a couple of owl calls, and the next thing you know, four toms and a couple of jakes sounded off in the trees behind us. When Derrick made his first turkey call, they just lit up."

Derrick continued calling until the birds left the roost. They sailed down into the field and walked away - except for one. "He flew from the roost right into the decoys," Libbie said. "I had the first shot, so I let him land. And then I shot him."

Libbie's gobbler weighed 22 pounds. His beard measured 10 1/2 inches and his spurs 1 1/8 inches.

"It was a perfect hunt, and I was very fortunate," she said. "The main lesson was learning to scout before you hunt. If we hadn't scouted the night before, we wouldn't have known where to sit. We would have walked farther down the treeline and kicked those birds right out of the roost."

Before they got their lease, the Harmons used to enjoy hunting on public land. Two of their favorites were the Settles Ford and Blackwater con

servation areas.

Hunting at Blackwater CA was a unique experience because the birds always seemed to concentrate in the swampy river bottoms. "That's just a marshy area along the Blackwater River where you wouldn't think birds would hang out," Derrick said. "I had gone in there with a friend and done some scouting, and found some birds on a hay field that was freshly cut and green. My buddy had stuck one jake decoy in the field and called a little bit, and this big bruiser tom came up. He weighed over 20 pounds.

"But back in the swamp, it was just loaded with toms. You'd find tracks, and when you got in there, they'd be gobbling like crazy. It threw me, because at that time I didn't know much about turkey hunting, but I didn't think you'd find them in a place like that. It was all flooded, so I just found a high spot and sat on a log. The birds were walking through the water and gobbling."

Last spring, on April 23, Derrick and I hunted together on a public area west of Jefferson City. We found a gobbler roosted over a steep hill overlooking a cut cornfield next to a river. He gobbled at us long and loud, but at dawn, he flew down and vanished.

About 30 minutes later, a hen traipsed across the field and entered the woods to the left of our decoys. I clucked at her with my diaphragm. She responded, and we had quite a nice conversation as she came to within 3 feet. She was behind me, looking over my shoulder. I could hear throaty purrs much like those of a pigeon vibrating in her throat. She became alarmed and began putting as she quickly walked away, but I called her right back. Eventually she got tired of looking and left for good.

Afterward, Derrick and I got up and gazed down into the cornfield far below; it was full of turkeys. Unexpectedly, one of the birds ran to the edge of the field. As far away as we were from them, and obscured as we were by the woods, I couldn't believe that the bird had seen us. But then we saw why the bird had run: The big gobbler that had come off the roost at dawn was standing at the edge of the field, all puffed out and standing as still as wrought iron. The hens ran to him one by one to be serviced. I'd never seen anything like it.

Derrick and I spent the rest of the day walking all over that area. Other than one hen (which I spooked when I woke from a nap), we saw no other birds except a pair in the middle of a field a long distance away. We moved to cut them off but never saw them again.

Returning to the truck, we were casing our shotguns when, at 1:30 p.m., a pair of mature toms strolled across a field about 70 yards away on the other side of the road across from the parking lot. Even though we didn't kill a bird that day, it was still one of my most memorable hunts.

Meanwhile, down in the Ozarks, Jeff Harper of Springfield had a superb season of his own - even though it lasted only one day.

A graphic artist for the Springfield News-Leader, Harper was trying to help his brother bag his first turkey. They hunted for nearly four hours, and although they heard some birds gobble early, the rest of the morning was quiet and uneventful.

After taking his brother back to town, Harper went back to the same place and heard a bird gobble. "I had to cross a big hollow to get to him," he recalled. "I made a set and made a series of three soft calls, and he came right in."

That hunt occurred in the Mark Twain National Forest near Big Piney River. That particular tract contains a number of hollows forested with oak, pine and hickory. It was logged several years ago, and though it was full of turkeys, the jumble of downed tops made it virtually impossible to hunt for several seasons. Instead of going into that mess, Harper just worked the fringes, and while it was hard work to get birds to come out, he managed to log some good hunts there.

"I'd say the key to hunting national forest land is knowing where you are, knowing the lay of the land, and being patient," he observed. "If you've never been back in there, you could easily get lost. I'd recommend studying some topo maps before going to those areas."

Harper's definition of patience is being willing to work a bird over a period of several days. "If you don't have any luck the first day, work the same area and home in on that bird's territory a little bit. I went back to one area three mornings in a row and spooked the same bird off the same roost tree all three mornings. It never dawned on me that he would stay right in that same area."

Eventually, such patience brings in the flock.

"The most daunting bird I ever had in the last five or six years was one that would gobble in this brushy field," Harper recalled. "I could never lure him out. Finally, one day I set out a decoy, which I don't often use, in a corner where there were good sight lines along the edges. I got him to gobble, but I knew he had to be a quarter-mile away when I first heard him. After about 20 minutes, I saw him walk from the fenceline across the hollow to the fenceline across the field. He saw that decoy and came my way.

"It was close to an hour before he got within range. I couldn't see him and I didn't want to call too much. I saw his head pop up over the grass, and that was the end of the day for him. That was the most rewarding hunt I've had in a good while."

While turkey hunting is arduous anywhere, it's especially tough in the Ozarks. The elevation ranges between 350 to 400 feet, with deep hollows separating the ridges. To get to a bird, you might have to cross a couple of those hollows, and that requires a hunter to be in excellent physical condition.

"If you try to go ridge-hopping after some of those birds, you're going to get some good exercise," Harper said. "It's worth it, though. It's an aesthetically pleasing place to hunt in that rugged Ozarks setting. It's almost wilderness."

Even though the Missouri Ozarks are world-famous for turkey hunting, most people don't know just how many turkeys live in the area. A lot, evidently.

"Let me tell you a story about turkeys on the Piney River," offered Harper. "There's a place down there where I go. It's actually an eagle roost, and you can see eagles roosting along this bluff. A lot of times, turkeys will fly off the bluff and roost along that ridge. There have been three or four occasions in the winter where I saw what I'd estimate to be 500 turkeys there. Usually I see 70, 80 - on up to 150; I've busted big flocks like that up in the woods. And it's like the woods turn black with turkeys. Some of the most awesome spectacles I've seen in nature have been those giant flocks of turkeys. When you see that many turkeys, you're going to have some success."

With sights like that, it's easy to see why Harper is so enamored of Mark Twain NF. "That's what got me started hunting there," he noted. "I asked my wife to marry me there, and I saw 80 bir

ds there that day. It's really something special."

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