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Feast and Famine


Well-known member
Jun 25, 2018
North Carolina
Though my season has been chronicled in other threads, I felt it worthy enough to write at some length. Thanks for indulging me.

In the realm of experienced turkey hunters, I'm still admittedly on the fringe. I've killed a handful of birds and logged plenty of miles but there are significant gaps in my turkey knowledge that no amount of Tom Kelly books or Dave Owens videos could fill. Only one thing can fill those gaps -- time. Time in the woods, time making mistakes, time calling and listening, time watching and waiting. If the Lord wills, I intend to have a whole lot more time in the turkey woods to learn those lessons, and I'm sure there will be numerous highs and lows along the way. I highly doubt though that in all that time there will ever be two seasons that contrast so greatly as 2022 and 2023 did for me.

2022 was a season of adjustment. It was the first season since my son was born and the first season in several years that I would not have a private land backup if no public land turkeys proved willing to gobble. Without belaboring the point, that year ended with no tags being punched and one of the only opportunities squandered as I bumped a silent bird out of a creek bottom by moving for no reason. There was, however, one very small glimmer of hope found in the struggle of that year. Towards the end of the season I encountered a group of jakes. That group of jakes stuck in my mind until 2023 rolled around.

Adjustment is one of the constants in hunting and 2023 saw a few. The main adjustment was that I was now working a lot of Saturdays and would have to really move things around to be able to hunt the mornings very much. On a rainy Saturday I wondered about that group of jakes as I spent the day at work. I would have to wait a few days to start my season and half of me felt like the best chance at a bird was being washed away while the other half of me knew that all I could do was play the hand I was dealt.

I spent one afternoon on a nearby parcel of public land with little success. Though I was technically turkey hunting, the few hours I spent that day were more or less just a final tune up of my calling before my real season started. That would happen a couple days later. I got up early and drove over an hour to the spot where I had spotted the jakes last year. I knew there had to at least be one who had survived the winter and I hoped that he had enough sense to shut up for the other hunters but show off for me. It was a classic turkey morning. The blanket of whipporwills resounded in the air as I slipped down a logging road and sat on a field edge overlooking the creek bottom. Any doubt in my mind that one of those jakes had survived was quickly put to rest.

That first gobble cut through the morning air as crisply as a siren. It was barely bright enough to see the trees 100 yards away but I had a perfect bead on where this gobbler was. Over the next 45 minutes I would calmly yelp a few times but he would not respond. I was waiting for flydown to make my move and then it all came crashing down. He gobbled again and I could instantly tell that he was not where I thought. He was hundreds of yards away and I was not even on his radar. I quickly readjusted and slowly started in his direction when another bird pulled me away because he was much closer. I never heard the first bird again that morning and never could close the gap on the second bird.

That evening, as I reflected on what had transpired and made my plan for the next morning I was transported back to one of the first hard turkey lessons I had to learn. Back when I really only knew one spot that held turkeys I had "done battle" with a bird for over a week until I discovered that I wasn't remotely on the battlefield. The bird I had been hearing was high on a hill and calling out over an open creek bottom and deceiving my ears. He was really several hundred yards away and the season ended before I could use this realization to my advantage.

This year, however, I would not waste a week so far from the bird I was after. I determined the next morning to close the distance until I was sure that I was within 150 yards of the gobbler, even if it meant blowing him off the roost. He cooperated fully with my plan and gobbled brilliantly on the roost long enough for me to close the almost half of a mile from where I had originally heard him. I found a decent position and called to let him know someone was present and interested. I watched him fly down into a ravine about 200 yards away and he started circling back to me slowly. He covered ground, continuing to gobble and finally he had just one more hill to cross. I was ready with my gun up when out of nowhere several hens covered the hillside with yelps and clucks. I tried to vie for his attention but I was no match. They walked out of my life and he went quiet.

It was several days until I had another chance to chase this bird. He had started to get under my skin and I worried that his propensity for gobbling so clearly on the roost for such a long time had rendered him prey to some other hunter. Right on schedule though, as the sun barely illuminated the woods, his gobble cut through the air and I moved around the hillside to close in on him. He had moved from the roost area I encountered him to begin with and was now on a steep hillside with little cover. I got as close as I could and called to him quietly. The morning progressed and no other hens called so I felt like I was in business. He flew down in my direction and began walking toward me. Everything was perfect until he stopped descending and side-hilled around me at 60 yards. He didn't strut, he didn't gobble, he didn't drum. I yelped as he got up the hill moving away from me and he didn't even turn his head. I took solace in the fact that he didn't act spooked but I couldn't imagine that I would ever kill this gobbler that had showed himself twice to me and yet still eluded me.
You can quote the worn-out definition of insanity all you want to, but the very next day that I had free I was back doing the same thing. I walked the same logging road to the same listening tree and had a seat. This time, morning broke with a gobble in the first roost area this bird had used. I had enough cover to close to within 100 yards. I set up slightly uphill from the gobbler with 180 degrees of little shooting lanes but enough fresh growth to obscure my location. I threw a call over my shoulder, trying to mask just how close I was. Once he had acknowledged my presence, I stopped calling. It was time to wait for flydown. I anticipated 100 different scenarios. Looked at what egress routes I had, what cover I could use to move if necessary, and then I heard a noise that aggravated me to know end.

Turkeys really are the worst turkey callers in the world. This hen seemed completely oblivious to the fact that she was overcalling. She needed to read some more blog posts but regardless she had his attention. Thankfully he was still in a tree and I decided that the only move I had was to match and then challenge the hen. I started by yelping in response to her, but when she cut me off I quickly purred and cut back at her. The more that we yelled at each other, the louder he gobbled. In hindsight I can accurately state that all of this happened in about 5 minutes but in the moment in felt like a half hour. I wasn't running the hen off and then time stopped with the first beat of his wings. At 60 yards there lay an overturned white oak and he landed just behind the root ball. He had chosen me. I yelped and he gobbled. He cleared the root ball in full strut and my chest reverberated with the sound of his drumming. He broke strut and quickly started walking my direction. He was out of range and obstructed by brush, his gobble resounding in my ears. I guessed where he would clear the brush and adjusted my gun. His tail fan relaxed once more and he stood, his head as blue as the summer sky, at 30 yards away. In a blink I processed the recoil of my shotgun, lept to my feet, and cleared the short distance to ensure the hunt was over. As I collected the turkey and returned to my tree I finally was able to begin processing what an incredible season I had enjoyed to this point. I admired the bird that had caused me such frustration and given me such enjoyment. All because I saw some jakes in a creek bottom the year before.

As if the week long pursuit of a single bird weren't enough, I soon returned to the turkey woods. I wanted to revisit the tract of land that I had killed my first bird on a few years before, and pay homage to the gobbler I never killed that had helped me kill the one this year. I was late that morning and by the time I got to my first listening spot I should have been hearing birds if there were any. I called and continued moving but heard nothing. I decided to follow the logging road as far back as I could, knowing the creek crossing would be easiest at that point. As I came to the next cutover I loudly yelped, almost without stopping, but I abruptly stopped when I heard a gobble in response. I called again to make sure I heard correctly and he responded immediately. He was close but there was a mountain of brush between us. I pushed through the briar patch, jumping every deer in the county, and found the pines. I called, and he cut me off. I cut back and he gobbled and then gobbled at the sound of his echo in the creek bottom. I called once more and then cut our distance in half. I had no doubt that this bird would fly toward me (though a reasonable and more experienced turkey hunter would probably anticipate any number of problems that could have presented themselves). My confidence was rewarded. He hit the ground at 75 yards and was almost running in my direction. The only problem was that he was on my weak side and I could not readjust. The brush was thick and almost waist high where he arose out of the final draw, 30 yards to my right. He gobbled and strutted, moving up the hill towards where I had called from. I had to stop him so I risked a yelp. It worked. He circled around, drumming and gobbling and strutting. I still had no clear line of sight or way to get my gun up, when I spotted a huge pine tree just 10 yards in front of me. I crawled to the tree as he gobbled in front of me. I stood up behind the tree and readied my gun. I carefully peaked out around the tree and his head was perfectly open at 40 yards. I pulled the trigger and had a second tag to punch.

Now as I reflect on the incredible season I've had, I can't help but remember how different the close of last year felt. I don't know what next season has in store, but whether it's feast, famine, or in-between I hope that I can remember the lessons of the last two years and appreciate every moment along the way.
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