SOMETIMES, THE GREATEST LESSONS FOR HUNTERS COME THROUGH FAILURE RATHER THAN SUCCESS.
Hunters tend to equate success with harvesting an animal. It’s the reason that virtually every article written about hunting tactics includes a photo of a hunter with their kill.
The captions with those photos vary, but for all intents and
purposes, each could read the same way: Do what I’ve told you, because, as you can see, I’ve filled my tag and therefore possess great insight about the ways of wild game. In truth, we learn a lot more from our failures than we do from our successes.
I clearly remember several hunts during which I screwed up and failed to do my part. On one November afternoon, I let a massive whitetail buck slip past me because my nerves got the best of me. I missed a chance at a big coyote dressed in full-winter plume because he was practically under my feet and responded to the electric call before I was ready to shoot. I remember squandering an opportunity on a buck that came in to my grunt call because, simply put, I wasn’t sure that grunt-calling really worked.
No animal is more adept at making a fool of a hunter than a spring gobbler. Biologists tell us these birds have a brain roughly the size of a walnut—which makes it all the more humbling when a tom simply doesn’t commit to your carefully orchestrated call sequence!
I’ve had a pretty successful hunting career, but when it comes to killing big gobblers, I seemed cursed. Some of my worst experiences with these birds included a day-long, back-andforth calling session with what turned out to be a domestic yard bird, as well as a near-drowning in a roaring spring creek. I hold the dubious distinction of being the only hunter to ever completely fail to get a shot on a guided hunt at one of the finest turkey outfits in the country.
I don’t think I’m hopelessly lost, though. I’ve taken my lumps as a turkey hunter, but that’s made me better prepared to talk a big tom into range when the spring season rolls around. A lot of early mornings turned into unproductive days in the turkey woods, but over time, the sum of my failures helped me improve my game, and I’ve charmed a few gobblers into range, despite my shortcomings.
I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes. Here are the three most important lessons I’ve gleaned from those turkey-hunting disasters.
THE HANG-UP BIRD
There was a turkey to which I devoted an entire season in Ohio and never managed to kill; a bird that was easily identifiable: His tail fan was so mangled that it looked as if he’d been sucked into a jet turbine. I called him the “hang-up bird.” (Actually, I called him a lot of other things, none of which bear repeating in this magazine.)
His modus operandi was to come off the roost, rush to the call as if he were being led by a string and then halt—well out of gun range. He’d strut, he’d gobble, but he wouldn’t move. I tried switching my position. That didn’t help. I tried subtle calling. Nothing.
I tried everything I could think of, except the obvious; I never pushed the boundaries. Sometimes, when a bird is really skittish, you simply have to stand on the X.
I found out early in my career as a turkey hunter that not all gobblers are willing to run a 5K in the name of love. Sometimes, I’ve found, it’s important to get into a gobbler’s territory. If he’s a dominant male, that will prompt him to get off the roost and come courting. If he’s a subordinate gobbler, it might be the chance he’s been waiting for: an opportunity to rendezvous with a hen without facing the wrath of other toms (which, based on his disheveled appearance, might have happened to Hang-Up a time or two). Scout your birds, find where they’re roosting, and don’t force them to parade a half-mile to find their hen.
THE STRONG, SILENT TYPE
I’ll let you in on a secret that’s not really a secret at all among seasoned turkey hunters: Big, old gobblers keep their beaks shut. I’m not sure if it’s a trait that comes with old age or if all the vocal young jakes get shot early in their lives and that natural selection favors quiet birds. Doesn’t matter. Old birds are often quiet birds, and they’re the most likely to blow your cover.
That very thing happened to me. Early one morning, I clucked at a tom I knew was roosted a few hundred yards away, and he immediately gobbled back. But then, he shut up. I tried calling softly. Nothing. I tried being aggressive. Still nothing. I tried multiple calls. I tried a gobble. I think I would have tried a grunt call if I’d had one. There was a different tom about a mile away that would chirp back at me sometimes, but even the best turkey load won’t hold a pattern at that distance.
I was sitting back against an uncomfortable little tree, tapping my boot tips together and wishing I’d slept in an extra four hours. Then, suddenly, there he was—a big gobbler at my 3 o’clock. I’d been made. The jig was up, and soon, he was gone.
Turkey hunting is a mental game. You need to stay strong. Those old birds—the big gobblers with ground-dragging beards and spurs that look as if they belong to some beast from the Jurassic Period—often aren’t into long conversations.
Instead of serenading a bird in another zip code, pay close attention to those birds that are close by but aren’t saying a word. Staying focused is the only way you’ll kill them when they’re suddenly in your lap.
THE BIRD I SHOULD HAVE KILLED
You’re probably wondering why I kept turkey hunting after so many failures. I wonder that sometimes, too.
But the biggest blunder I’ve made came at the tail end of an otherwise glorious hunt that should have resulted in a dead bird early on the second morning of turkey season.
A gobbler was working his way toward me with unmistakable resolve. The bird couldn’t decide whether he wanted to strut or jog to my location, and he alternated between the two. It was just as it should be, just as it happens on television.
He was committed, and I was focused. Just a little closer, and he’d be mine.
I shot and waited for the flop, but there was none. When I came down from recoil, all I saw was a heartbroken gobbler running away from what should have been his Waterloo. I couldn’t believe it: I had missed! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s possible to miss a turkey. I’ve made long shots with a rifle, I’ve had great afternoons knocking passing doves from the sky ... and I managed to miss a gobbler standing stone-still at 40 yards. (Or was it 50?)
That was my first problem. Turkey hunters need a keen sense of when birds are in range. Get a little itchy with that trigger finger, and you’ll end up watching your bird run away when it should be on the ground.
I’d also never patterned my gun. I assumed that a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with high-end turkey loads would be a death ray at bowhunting ranges. Not so. When you’ve done everything right but failed to make the shot, there’s a special kind of agony only hunters who have been in that situation can appreciate.
Know your range, pattern your gun, and seal the deal. GW
I If you’re expecting an old gobbler to come to a call gobbling and strutting, you might get an unpleasant surprise. Many birds, such as this one, are wise enough to stay quiet during their approach.
Remember that you’re competing with real, live hens, so trying to pull a gobbler from a half-mile away probably won’t work. Sometimes, you need to invade his space.
I Big gobblers are very crafty and can easily give hunters the slip. Make one mistake, and he’ll be gone.
Turkey hunting can be frustrating, but there are few things as rewarding as taking a big, old tom. Hornady’s Emily Mierau is pictured here with her great Nebraska gobbler.
Different loads—even high-end turkey loads—pattern differently from various shotguns. Take the time to know your gun and load— and wait for the bird to get into range.