Ambushing Texas Toms

Ambushing Texas Toms

Many a Central Texas turkey gets potted when it walks past a hunter waiting for a buck to show up. Is there a better approach? This veteran of many seasons thinks so. (Nov 2006)

According to my hunting diary, we killed several deer on our first morning hunt last year. The notes I made about them indicate that they were just mediocre animals; an early hunt and itchy trigger fingers lay behind most of their deaths.

The real headliner on that first morning was the tom turkey that was brought in. We all gathered around the bird and its lucky assassin, watching carefully as the gobbler was dressed out. A nice, fat, long-bearded fellow, the turkey turned out to have breakfasted mostly on very common Hill Country stuff: acorns, corn, some milo, a few blades of grass or weeds, and something disgusting that might have been a lizard. But, we also learned, its stomach contents gave evidence of an early-morning visit to at least one deer feeder -- the only place from which it could have eaten milo and corn.

"Big deal!" you might say. "All toms eat milo and corn when they can get it."

"Well €¦ yeah," I'd reply. But since the bird had been on the move for only about 30 minutes when it bought its ticket to that great turkey roost in the sky -- the hunter shot it at 7 a.m. -- we figured that its route took it pretty much in a turkey's version of a straight line from roost to feeder. Which meant that it and its buddies knew where the deer feeders were. Gillespie County had been pretty dry in August, September and October of last year, and it looked as if the birds' normal diet of seeds, small bugs and acorns had already begun to fail.

In a way, this was good news. On our lease, we shoot deer, but we hunt turkeys. It's pretty much a given that if you sit still in the woods in the Hill Country, you'll see deer wandering around -- but if you have bad intentions toward Tom Turkey, you need to know where to sit. We like to call it "ambushing."

Once you're in a deer blind, it doesn't matter much what you wear or how much you wiggle around -- you're in a big box, and the deer can't see you! But to situate yourself where the turkeys will give you a shot calls for different measures indeed. That's why it's more fun to hunt the big bird: You get to (heck -- you have to) wear camouflage, and you have to put your best Rambo don't-move-or-you-die mentality in gear.

All our lease hunters believe four basic Tom Turkey "facts" -- and all would-be turkey ambushers need to fix them firmly in their minds.

Fact No. 1: The gobbler is the classic overachiever. A bird with a body the size of a large beach ball and a brain roughly the size of a lima bean: How smart can it be? Not very. Nevertheless, in the battle of wits between turkey and hunter, the feathered contestant comes out ahead of the big-brained human in most encounters. How does it manage that, given its brain power, or lack thereof?

Well, as my wife says frequently, "All the dumb ain't on his side." And she may have a point. It can't take too much smarts to outmaneuver a man who'll spend $75 a pound for red meat when he can buy it at the local HEB store for $2.98.

In any case, the tom's being totally outclassed in brain is more than made up for by laser-sharp eyes and ears hardwired straight to its legs. It'll hear you honk your nose a quarter-mile away, and watch you put up your camo hanky, too, and when spurred by danger, it can run faster than a rabbit at a greyhound convention. If you try to walk-hunt Mr. Tom, the odds are against you. But not invariably.

Some time ago, I'd driven halfway from blind to cabin before it came to me that I'd forgotten something. Turning around, I drove straight back and, once there, got out to retrieve the abandoned item. Only when I was climbing back into the pickup did I look out the passenger-side window and see about 30 turkeys standing under the corn spreader, waiting for me to leave. They may be wary, but they do get used to things like ranchers in pickups.

Fact No. 2: They're walkers, not flyers. The tom turkey is a big bird, and although it'll fly if forced, it'd much rather save its energy and walk, and preferably on level ground, if that's handy. It dislikes steep slopes, won't fly up the sides of cliffs (or down them, either) and doesn't much care for wading creeks or (if it can avoid it) even lifting over fences. It's totally opposed to any unnecessary exertion.

Fact No. 3: They're opportunistic feeders. Turkeys will eat nearly anything that they can fit in their beaks, but prefer seeds, grains and nuts, and aren't averse to gulping down some fruit from time to time; acorns and even small pecans are definitely in their diet. And in dry years particularly, they'll make it a point to stop by any corn/milo feeder that's handily near their path and seemingly safe.

Fact No. 4: They're noisy early in the morning. They're actually pretty quiet birds once they're up and moving around, but when they wake up, they want their neighbors to know about it -- especially if set off by a sudden noise nearby, like the hooting of an owl or the slamming of a pickup's door, that they're either not expecting or don't want to hear. They don't really need an excuse to squawk in the early morning however; they just naturally gobble when they wake up and start down off the roost.

And speaking of roosts: It's worth remembering that turkeys usually prefer to roost relatively high off the ground. They don't usually choose to roost on ridges or high elevations; most of the time they'll choose a motte of trees, or just a big tree on the side or bottom of a deep draw, where things are a bit out of the wind and they're off the skyline.

Getting back to actually shooting the big boys: I used to be a blue-jeans-and-T-shirt hunter. After all, I hunt in the Hill Country, and most of the time I can do that in skivvies, thanks to the warm days we usually get. But when I took up ambushing turkeys by design on my lease and elsewhere on the Edwards Plateau, I figured out very quickly indeed that camouflage is critical to success. Turkeys see you in at least two ways: if you offer a marked contrast to your surroundings, and if you move.

An article I read last year told of a hunter who watched the birds feed nearly up into range only to have them shy away. He finally realized that the aluminum-colored flash from the duct tape holding the sole and upper of his boot together was causing the birds to shy away. Pretty sharp-eyed! (Highly efficient sensory processing for a bird that's using a very low-end brain model, I might add. Would you have the alertness to vacate an area just because you glimpsed something silvery in the brush? Probably not. I know I wouldn't: I'd probably amble over and take a look at the unusual thing -- and just as probably get shot for my curiosity.)

On the other hand, turkeys are not super at ad-lib thinking, and something totally unexpected can just plain overwhelm them. A few years back, I was sitting in my blind with my feet propped up when I spied a fair-sized Gillespie County tom waddling along with its head down, picking up seeds. It'd move and stop, look up, move and stop -- a nice, regular motion, and one that I felt I could time in order to take a shot.

Down went its head to take a peck, and I squeezed off my shot. I saw gravel fly, and knew I'd missed that bird badly. But then, to my utter amazement, it ran straight into a bush and fell over dead as a rock. Dean Atchison and I plucked that bird clean looking for a wound and never found one. We reckoned that I'd scared it to death.

Go figure!

Here's a strange thing that I've observed in the wild with my own eyes -- I've heard other folks talk about it, too -- and taken advantage of. Toms that play second fiddle in a group generally dislike the dominant male, and on a number of occasions, having taken out the boss bird, I got a second shot when one of the other toms circled back with intent to put a spur into its downed rival. So when your bird hits the deck, sit still and wait -- you just might get a double.

Those of us whose spectacles tend to fog up in early-morning cold regard using a shotgun to shoot turkeys as a really good idea. When you can't see for beans, you just need to gamble on the spread.

But the real reason that turkey hunters, particularly in the Hill Country, prefer shotguns is that these weapons usually make for easy shooting, as the birds will be within relatively close range most of the time. Besides, shotguns cause less wear and tear on the bird. Want to eat your bird for Thanksgiving lunch on your deer lease? Then don't put it down with a body shot from your .30/06 -- at least, not unless you plan on sharing two drumsticks and maybe a gizzard among all the hunters at the table.

Past say, 30 yards or so, a mature tom's feathers will mostly deflect shotgun pellets, and only the unfeathered parts of his body will be much damaged -- like his head. A bunch of pellets emerge when you touch off a 12-gauge Magnum No. 6 shotgun shell, and it only takes one to do fatal damage to that lima-bean-sized brain -- which is what I mean by "gambling on the spread."

Obviously, carrying two weapons with you to the blind is a major inconvenience; the weight, the clutter, the hassle involved in dealing with two guns is a pain. My answer: Life's a series of choices -- so choose. Planning to shoot a turkey on the morning hunt? Don't take a rifle! I mean, it's the Hill Country, for goodness' sake -- deer are everywhere, all the time. Shoot that hamburger-and-chili-meat buck in the afternoon and take some time off to do something a little more fun.

I saw in a recent issue of this magazine a photo of a lady who used a .410 shotgun to kill her turkey. A lightweight, tight-shooting little .410 with a magnum load of No. 6 or No. 4 shot will do the job up to about 30 yards. Hey -- take a chance! In the Hill Country, 30 yards isn't asking for too much. Most of the steep-sided little gullies on our lease are so tight that sometimes even I can throw a rock across them. And even in my hands, a .410 is much more accurate than a rock.

It really helps to pattern your scattergun before looking for that Hill Country bird. Most shotguns' patterns are relatively predictable. Put a piece of kraft paper with an "X" drawn on it in the middle on your lease fence and fire at the mark; a clear concentration of pellet holes will almost always reveal itself. Once you understand the relationship of the concentration of pellets to the "X," move your point of aim so that the concentration covers the target's head. My philosophy: Get close, and let the law of averages do the rest. It just takes one pellet, remember.

I'm relatively sure that turkeys will roam our Gillespie County lease this year; it's been a pretty good year moisture-wise, and our rancher tends to expend his own corn in the effort to keep his deer and turkeys eating at home. And Gillespie County ought to have birds all over, as should Llano and Mason. Go south and west a bit and try Kerr, Bandera, and Sutton counties as well. This isn't rocket science; those counties all got fairly decent spring rainfall, and they usually have lots of birds. You won't go wrong in San Saba County, either.

One of the glories of Hill Country hunting is the morning light just before the sun rises. I guess it's a combination of the crisp yellow and brown foliage and the clarity of the air. For a brief spell, just a few minutes, everything's washed with a gleaming bronze tint that I've never seen anywhere else. It's why I love to be up and sitting in the woods before sunup. And the air isn't just beautifully colored -- it's vibrant; sound carries more cleanly and purely than you'll ever hear it in UT's Bass Concert Hall.

That's the time to find turkeys, my friend. If it's a clear, crisp morning, that bird will be easily audible to you from a quarter-mile away. First, there will be that sleepy, cranky gobble, gobble! And then you may actually hear wings flapping as the bird comes down off the roost. There's no sound like it -- and I guarantee you won't mistake it when you hear it.

Most Hill Country hunting leases aren't all that big; three sections or less will be the average, and many are much smaller than that. If, say, five or six hunters are on a three-section lease, and they're all in the field on a crisp sunrise hunt, and turkeys are in the area, somebody will hear the birds waking up. Once they give themselves away, a good topographic map will help pinpoint them.

But don't shoot them near the roost, please: It's rude. You may get one or two, but the rest will leave the country, and you won't see them again this season -- nor will anybody else.

The sporting way to hunt Tom Turkey is to intercept its travel path. More simply put: Ambush that Texas tom! The basic challenge of turkey hunting lies in predicting the path along which your quarry will travel and then contriving to set up somewhere along that route: the classic ambush.

The simplest means of establishing the basic turkey path is to know the birds' destination, which will always be their watering place. Once off the roost, they'll always graze their way to water, so find the waterhole nearest where they gobble off the roost and look for tracks. You can't mistake turkey tracks in the mud -- they're nearly as big as man's handprint -- and if you find a lot of them, your plan basically makes itself: Get between the roost and the water and wait.

Here's my last tip: Don't use deer blinds for killing turkeys. Put on your camo and sit in a brushpile somewhere along their predicted path. I mean, after a while, even a turkey with a pea-sized brain is apt to figure out that a bad vibe's coming from that wooden box by the deer feeder!

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