Those toms that I never tagged
By Dennis Jensen
STAFF WRITER | May 05,2013
Photo by Dennis Jensen
The long spurs and beard on this late-winter gobbler make him a prime Vermont wild turkey. Make only one mistake on a tom like this and you’ll remember it for life.
I was talking with an old turkey hunter — I guess I should say a fellow turkey hunter — and, in the course of our conversation, it occurred to me that both of us appeared to remember those savvy gobblers that managed to out-smart us even more than the birds we had successfully taken, over the years.
That is somewhat remarkable, in my humble view. One would think that the shoebox I possess, with an impressive collection of long beards, would spark some great memories. Well, in fact, they do.
But there is no denying that those tom turkeys that managed to avoid the business end of my 12-gauge shotgun have left an indelible mark on my turkey-hunting memories.
Of course, in the early years of turkey hunting, I made more than my share of mistakes. Looking back, most of those unforced errors could be attributed to setting up in a way that made killing any tom extremely difficult.
By setting up, I am referring to making the most of where you settle in to call in a tom turkey. Turkeys, like people, tend to move in a direction where the going is easiest. Obstructions can often make a gobbler suddenly come to halt, even after he has traveled a good distance, coming in to your calls.
A barbed wire fence, a stone wall, even a small stream can sometimes stop a hot bird from coming in any closer. It makes sense, then, to get out and scout the country you plan to hunt in order to get the lay of the land. That way, if there is some kind of an obstruction, you can set up on a bird by avoiding those breaks in the landscape.
Any sudden movement on the hunter’s part on a bird coming in is a sure-fire way to come up empty on a gobbler. I have seen those videos where a seated turkey hunter has the shotgun up, on his knee, and is moving the shotgun freely on a bird 30 or 40 yards out, waiting for the right shot. That footage often has me perplexed because, in my simple experience, that kind of movement on my part meant a bird giving off that dreaded “putt” and immediately fleeing the area.
As a result, I always try to set up on a bird where there are a good number of big trees or boulders or any kind of “thing” that gives me an opportunity to make a move. When that tom’s head goes behind that big old pine tree, I bring the shotgun up and, the moment he steps from behind it, I touch off a shot.
Of course, some of the “mistakes” I have made on toms really weren’t mistakes at all. It was just a case of either bad luck or a matter of a really smart gobbler. Over the years, I have managed to work a “hot” tom, only to have him come in behind from where I sat.
Talk about frustrating. There’s a bird, directly behind the tree you are sitting against, and he’s so close you can hear him drumming. After what seems like 15 or 20 minutes, you’d be inclined to make a move, swing around and bring that shotgun up.
Wrong. The first sudden movement will send that gobbler on his way.
I killed a really nice bird in Pawlet maybe five or six years ago that came in behind me. What I did was, ever so slowly — even slower than that — brought my head around, waited until his fan was up and blocking his view, then made my move. Even this tactic is risky.
One might think that, after more than 25 years of spring turkey hunting, I would be immune to making the kind of mistakes that can cost you a good tom. But as recently as a year ago, I managed to mess up, big time.
On the second day of a hunt in upper New York, I was set up in a small island of trees, on the upper slope of a broad field. Perhaps 15 minutes into daylight, I had a tom in full strut. The problem? That bird was about 400 yards across the field.
Through my binoculars, I could see that he was a heavy bird with a nice, long beard. I was isolated and would be exposed if I tried to move around him, so I gave him the works. I cutt, purred, yelped and clucked and, through all of that, he would strut his stuff and gobble back with pure lust.
This went on for more than two hours — him gobbling and strutting, me calling, then going silent for long periods, hoping to convince him that the hen I pretended to be lost interest and just walked away.
Nothing worked and he eventually wandered off.
But, oh, the next day, I thought, I would outfox that reluctant tom. So, the next morning, before daylight, I made it to where he had strutted the day before, set out a decoy, tucked myself back into the woods a few yards and settled in.
Sure enough, that bird was out strutting and gobbling, early on, just as I expected he would. The only problem was ... he was doing his tom-turkey thing right in front of the place I was set up the day before.
Instead of going with what would be logical, I tried to out-think that bird when, in truth, I should have realized that Mr. Tom would show up in the place where all of the action occurred one day earlier. Lesson learned.
So get out there, enjoy the morning, hunt hard and, more than anything else, have some fun.
And those gobblers that manage to outsmart you? Cherish those memories and learn from them.