January 25, 2018
Being prepared for spring turkey season takes some time and effort.
We'd built the simple blind weeks before at the intersection of two narrow pasture ridges surrounded by big timber. It had enough room for three.
We were three that opening morning. My wife, Julie, with two single-season Grand Slams under her belt and more than two dozen follow-up longbeards, sat to my left, her Go-To Beretta 390 on her lap. She was the lead-off shooter. To my right, Dave Fountain, a retired sheriff's deputy, who also had a long list of gobblers behind him. His Benelli Super Black Eagle, unloaded, leaned against the pile of oaks and maples. I'd drawn the middle seat; last on the gun. I would be an observer and caller.
The first bird gobbled where we expected him to, off the farm to the northeast, and down on a small timbered bench above the river. Two more behind us were next; we'd walked by those on our way in.
"That bird's on Bill's place," Fountain whispered, pointing to the fourth series of gobbles to greet the coming day. All around us, birds started, stopped and grew quiet. In silence we sat until I could stand it no longer.
My initial series of yelps were jumped on like a spider waylays a fly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my wife slip the Beretta to her shoulder, the barrel aimed where the road in front of us disappeared into the timber to the north. More yelps; another ground-shaking gobble, closer this time. "I see him," she hissed. I purred; he roared. Again. And again, without provocation. The safety seemed frighteningly loud in the quiet, the hollow boom as the high velocity lead No. 5s crashed even more so. Twenty-eight steps away, the gobbler rolled, thrashed, and lay still.
It was 7:30. Fountain was next, flooring a big two-year-old at a paced 53 steps. Reluctant to leave his entourage of jakes and hens, the longbeard stood his ground, gobbling repeatedly, for more than 15 minutes. Finally, Fountain had had enough. "Ready?" I heard him say, his voice a whisper. At the shot, the wily old gobbler fell on his toes. I looked at my watch. The time was 8:20.
Congratulations, coffee, and rolls ensued, albeit all done quietly. Packing up, we relocated to The Cow Rubbing Tree, an oddly named yet highly productive corner of the 420-acre farm. It'd grown quiet, with only Canada geese, blue jays and the occasional red-headed woodpecker breaking the calm.
Truth be told, the bird startled the three of us when he gobbled not 75 yards to the north. "Don't move," Fountain whispered. "There's two coming out at the end." I froze, gun already on my knee. At 22 yards, the first longbeard walked into the decoys, dropped out of strut, and stretched, eyes searching, and in doing so nicely centering the Red Dot atop my pump-gun on his wattles. Done. Back at The Cow Rubbing Tree with my long-spurred prize.
Three for three gobblers before noon on opening day. A tremendous population of turkeys in 2015 certainly helped; however, such a hat trick couldn't have been done without a lot of pre-season planning and preparation.
Spring gobblers don't just happen. Certainly, there's always luck. Still, a good plan can make for a great opening day. All it takes is some step-by-step attention to details.
PLAN A PATTERNING DAY
This is probably the simplest variable in the whole of the turkey hunting equation: Knowing exactly what your shotgun is going to do each and every time you pull the trigger.
How is it going to pattern with this shot charge and this shot size with this choke tube and at this distance? And how do you determine the answers to these questions? Only by spending time at the range in front of the pattern board.
The end result of these patterning sessions is not only knowledge as it pertains to the performance of your chosen turkey gun, but confidence, both in the ability of that tool to perform as needed, as well as your level of proficiency with the particular tool in question.
But patterning done right takes time, which is the biggest factor in why it's often overlooked by hunters coast to coast. I pattern my turkey guns annually. Each spring, prior to the opener, I set aside a minimum of half a day at the range. There, the shotguns are inspected, and sights checked and double-checked via the expenditure of ammunition.
Testing the latest-greatest turkey shotshell to hit the streets in 2018? If so, a variety of choke tubes, ranging from modified to Extra Full, are tried at distances ranging from 20 to 40 yards.
Consistency is what I'm looking for; the same pattern over and over and over again. I want to know without doubt what's going to happen every time I pull the trigger.
Let's face it, turkey hunting is chock-a-block full of unknowns. If I can eliminate any variable having to do with shotgun performance, leaving me to focus entirely on the many other things that can go wrong during a turkey hunt, so much the better.
REORGANIZE YOUR TURKEY VEST
Large or small. Three pounds, or 30. Kitchen sink, or no. What your turkey vest looks like, what it weighs, and what it contains is immaterial. What does matter is that you can find each and every item you need, when you need it, and solely by feel.
That is, without ever taking your eyes of that on-coming longbeard, you can reach down â€“ slowly, and carefully, of course â€“ and exchange one call for another. Or unholster a different striker.
Or, should it prove necessary, locate a single shotshell, slip it into the chamber, and ready that firearm; all, certainly, without giving a heads-up to that fast-approaching gobbler.
My pre-opener routine in regards to turkey vests hasn't changed much, if at all, in the past 20 years. Each year, I get a new vest; the aforementioned latest-greatest gobbler-getting garment to ever hit the shelves.
Each year, I take all of my gear out of my usual vest â€“ a bare-bones Cabela's Deluxe Turkey Vest in Mossy Oak Obsession â€“ and put it into the new vest. And each year, without fail, I wear the new vest exactly one time before, you guessed it, taking everything out of it and putting it all back into the Deluxe. It's tradition, I reckon.
Before, however, I begin my annual turkey vest back-and-forth, I take every item out of the vest, lay it all out in the middle of the living room floor, and look it over.
Do I need three sets of gloves? Twenty-seven different calls? Fourteen decoy stakes, two flashlights, a satellite phone, and a bottle of Perrier sparkling water? I do not. If you're like me, you'll pack your vest for opening day, and then over time, whittle the contents down until you have three shotshells, head net, gloves, two diaphragm calls, a pot call, two strikers, and a bottle of water. Period.
Regardless of your personal vest-related routine, the bottom line is to check your gear, making sure you have what you're going to need for opening morning. Draft a checklist, and remember, it is far better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
CLIMATE AND CLOTHING
Two final housekeeping items I tend to prior to the opener are the local weather forecast, and subsequently, what I'm going to wear come the pre-dawn opener.
Understandably, the weather not only will dictate what I'm going to wear, but where and, more importantly, how I'm going to hunt on opening day. Throughout much of the country, turkey season comes with cool, if not downright cold mornings, followed by warm afternoons. As such, I'll typically overdress on the warm side, knowing I can peel out of the outer layers mid-mornings, and either cache them for a return pickup or pack them in the game bag of my vest.
Hooded sweatshirts, for those of you new to turkey hunting, make excellent pillows for those afternoon napping/scouting sessions. For me, then, it's a combination of the local weather and The Weather Channel, along with a weather app of some nature set on my iPhone; something I can use while afield to stay abreast of any changing conditions.
As those of you who have gotten caught know, rain is one thing. Wind is one thing. Lightning, however, can be a frightening and truly dangerous situation. Best to know in advance what's coming.
The weather will also translate into how I hunt those first few hours after sunrise. Clear, calm, and cool? I'll work my roosted bird; no success, and I'm off on a run-and-gun mission, taking my time and moving slowly. Wind? I'm sitting over a couple hen decoys, using a call-and-wait tactic. Rain? Like with wind, I'm biding my time; soft-calling in locations scouting has revealed to be high traffic areas, and waiting to hit those small hidden fields at the first sign of a sunbreak.
Why? Because that's where the hens will be headed to dry off and pick a choice insect or two. In the spring, where the girls go, boys follow.
SCOUTING, SCOUTING, SCOUTING
How do you fill the days just before the season starts, once you've patterned your shotguns, checked your gear, packed your vest, watched The Weather Channel, and laid out your ensemble for that first morning?
You scout. And you scout. And you scout some more.
Generally speaking, scouting is the accumulation of knowledge and information vital to developing an effective hunt strategy. This information can be broken down into three basic components â€“ Where are the birds? Where do they go? And what do I do based on those two factors?
I like to take this scouting concept further depending on whether I'm hunting public land or private.
In the case of public ground, I'm scouting not only the birds I hope to hunt, but the people who will most likely target them as well. As I scout, I'm making note of the popularity, or lack thereof, of parking areas and access points into the parcel. Using technology like Google Earth, I search for hard-to-get-to parts of the property. A 30-minute walk leaves 50 percent of my competition behind; 90 minutes, and I'm often alone. Better yet, is there water access to a far-flung section of the management area? If so, that might be an excellent opportunity to use my Aquapod or kayak. Or how about a mountain bike?
With public ground gobblers, the more challenging the hunt, the fewer people you'll likely encounter. And fewer people leave you more time to concentrate on what matters â€“ the birds themselves.
It's easy to grow complacent when hunting private ground. For years, my wife and I started our season on the same farm seated next to the same tree — the Cow Rubbing Tree.
Each year, almost without fail, the birds would be roosted in the same general area, and either come or leave via the same general route. Still, I did my pre-season scouting each spring.
Why? One, after several months of silence, I wanted to hear the birds. And two, we'd been surprised in the past walking in on opening day, only to find the landowner had over the summer selectively harvested a roost, bulldozed a favorite log blind, or otherwise changed the topography sufficiently to alter the birds' patterns. Oh, we improvised; however, improvisation doesn't justify a lack of preparation on my part.
Successful turkey hunting is comprised of several different variables, each one working in conjunction with the next and the next and so on to, hopefully, create the ultimate outcome of that old longbeard standing in the decoys at 25 yards.
However, calling a gobbler to the gun is but a single element of the whole. One act of the entire performance.
It's everything that takes place before legal shooting time on opening day â€“ patterning, gear readiness, equipment selection, and scouting â€“ that often makes or breaks an outing.