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This is the last week of Maine's 2006 spring turkey season, and the first-ever season in 25 years when hunters could simply buy a license and head for the distant gobbling of a love-sick tom. We have definitely come a long way since those early days of turkey management in Maine. A tremendous amount of work went into that first long-ago season, and the comparatively meager harvest of nine bearded turkeys was just the beginning.
These days, turkey hunting is an industry of its own, spawning special clothing, guns, calls, equipment and techniques that still hasn't peaked. Turkey-calling competitions keep households awake half the night as a prospective champion works on his clucks, yelps and purrs (all sounds made by hen turkeys in an effort to seduce hot-headed gobblers). I have hunters from all over the U. S. call me for a critique on their calling abilities - some of them are surprisingly good, while others . . . need more practice! That is, if they want to win calling championships judged by other hunters. I'm afraid all that practice and purchasing of hand-made calls is not necessary from a turkey's point of view - but they aren't the ones handing out the trophies, I'm afraid!
I think this season has been the one to prove once and for all that perfect calling techniques is not required to kill a longbeard. For example, on one hunt I was in on earlier this season, a friend and I entered the woods well before dawn to set up on a roosted tom we'd put to bed the night before. We didn't bother him with hen calls or efforts to keep him gobbling with shock calls - it was dark and we knew he'd be there next morning.
So, we were at the edge of the woods near a wide, bowl-shaped pasture that we knew attracted strutting turkeys during the day, and we were all but certain that this tom would fly down, head for the field and begin his mating ritual in an effort to attract some receptive hens. We put our decoys out, built some impromptu blinds to hide behind and got ready to go to work as soon as it became light enough to shoot.
Just about T minus one our gobbler began to announce his position, and my friend got ready to put on a show with his best, award-winning yelps and kee-kee runs. I was to be the shooter, so I just made sure my shotgun was loaded, got comfortable and sat back to enjoy the show. Well, as my partner pulled his prized box call (a $250 hand-made unit of untold beauty, the only one of its kind made by a well-known Southern call-maker) he lost his grip and the call went sailing through the air, bouncing off a tree and a stump before clattering to the ground amidst branches, limbs and vines! The call made a number of sounds not unlike a turkey falling down the stairs in great indignation, and we looked at each other as if to say, “Well, that's the end of this hunt!”
But, to our surprise, the gobbler not only answered, he immediately flew down and ran across the field to our decoy! I barely had time to get the gun up and into position before he arrived and began to strut and drum in earnest! I stopped laughing long enough to aim and shoot, ending our hunt just minutes after sunrise. The turkey had 1-inch spurs and a 10-inch beard - a good, mature tom and a great trophy.
My partner was all apologies for losing his grip on his call, but he was nearly despondent over the fact that he'd spent the last six months practicing every call in the book till he had them down pat, but when his great moment came all he had to do was throw his call into the bushes to bring the great turkey into range!
A rude awakening for an “expert” caller, but it's good to know that it's not the call or the caller; it's the turkey that ultimately decides what's considered good calling.
Oddly enough, that wasn't the only turkey I bagged this season under unusually circumstances. On a recent trip to upstate New York, three of us got set up on a bird when one of the party discovered he didn't have his face mask with him - he'd left it in the truck! It was nearly light and birds were already gobbling, but he decided it was worth running back to the vehicle for it. He piled all his gear back into his pockets and hurried off, not realizing that he'd forgotten to mute his box call. It squawked and chirped loudly with every step, and the farther he went the more realistic the sounds became. So realistic, in fact, that a nearby gobbler decided his “hen” was getting away, so down he flew and, with wings outstretched on he came right toward us! I don't know how “mad” turkeys get, but this tom was quite perturbed at the running “hen.” He came to our decoy in full strut, double gobbling at every step, and it was almost too easy to make the shot as he tried to figure out the connection between the faux hen in front of him and the disappearing clucks fading in the distance!
All this is to show that you don't need to own a one-of-a-kind call to bring turkeys in, and you don't even need to be an award-winning caller to get their interest. What you do need to do is be out there when the time is right and do your best to bring them in.
Things may get tougher at the end of the season as the remaining birds show some reluctance to reply to every call they hear, but if you get out there early and hunt hard, you'll have some action. Even if you don't hear much gobbling, presume that there are turkeys in the area (if you've seen them before they are still there) and just sit tight, calling lightly every 20 minutes or so. Don't cluck and yelp repeatedly - it's not necessary. Turkeys are smart and have good memories. They'll come right to you even when you haven't made a sound in half an hour. Just be patient, stay alert and be ready. Last week I hunted with a friend who decided, after sitting there for two hours, that there were no birds around. I whispered, “Are you sure?”
As my buddy stood up to leave, the gobbler standing next to him took off in a wild flapping of wings. I saw the bird come in silently but decided to watch and wait to see what would happen next. It was a good education for us both, and now I'll be able to rag on him about it for the next year!
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