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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.


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.


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.


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.

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