A veteran of the chase reflects on a lifetime of spring gobblers and fall flocks
My heart jump-starts a bit every time I see a wild turkey. Always has. Way back when I started, I just wanted to hear one.
Back in the day, a gobble within earshot was reason enough to call it a good hunt. My Pennsylvania ridge-running involved a boatload of anticipation and desire, occasional interactions with birds, all memorable, some shots and, yes, misses. Encounters mattered most. Put simply, there weren’t nearly as many turkeys.
Wayne Bailey’s classic book 50 Years Hunting Wild Turkeys (Penn’s Woods, 1983) set the tone for conservation of this amazing game bird, just as collective intentions began to see early results, along with some thoughtful stories, too. (Read it if you can find a copy.)
As some of you well know, into the late 1980s and early ’90s, the rising full-flood tide of the greatest wildlife restoration story in history came ashore. It was an amazing time to be hunting turkeys.
And it’s impossible to underestimate how many hunters my age saw flock numbers increase over those years. Credit science, trap-and-transfer efforts around the country led by state agencies and pro-hunting conservation groups, and the bird’s natural ability to disperse into new areas. But most of all, credit financial support from us, the hunters.
What I’ve learned after a half-century of hunting these birds is that we need to be careful not to nearly lose it again. Wild turkeys and our hunting tradition are too special to let that happen.
But lately there’s something we haven’t heard for much of that time: Turkey numbers are down.
Some of the same challenges are in place again. Poaching. Predation. Disease. Pollution. Land-use issues. Complacency. All are contributing factors. We need to help the wild turkey when and where we can. We learned that. Now. Then.
We communicate with gobblers and hens when hunting them, with ever-changing calling vocalizations. Amazing stuff if you really stop and think about it. Such interactions are truly unrivaled in the hunting world.
A gobbler will make you feel big and tall when it is hammering to your sweet yelps — and small as a field mouse when it struts your way, you with your gun up and ready and already with it riding in the back of your truck, and then somehow vanishes as you wait another silent 20 minutes. And then 10 more. And then, what? How did it get away?
That’s why we love it. And what I have learned is no matter how much you’ve figured out about this amazing bird, your insight can vanish in an instant like tap water trickling down a sink drain.
All it takes is one false move: standing when you should stay seated, calling when the bird is right there watching you, texting on your blasted phone as that black eye drills a hole in your soul and alarm putts out of your life.
It is excruciating at times. It will make you higher than any controlled substance, bottled or otherwise. You are a predator, but when that turkey gobbler is hunting down the location of your calls, you are the hunted. And THAT is one thrill of it, of many. Wild turkeys have taught me and showed me so much.
And so, over these many years, I have learned to enjoy it all: the kills, the misses, and simply hearing one gobble on a frosty morning or late in the spring season with bugs like radio static in my ears. I arrive at the same place I started, every new season. Full circle.
The game is to hunt them; the aim is to interact and even occasionally shoot a turkey. Anticipating the time with birds, that first cup of camp coffee, the drive to your spot, the fresh morning air as you step out of your truck, a black sky full of stars on a mountain ridge, the long silence before a distant promising gobble in spring, the rustle of fall leaves with an autumn flock waking up on a mountain roost — that is the deal.
You don’t have to kill a turkey every time for it to be a great hunt. Alone. With friends. Totally engaged in a way few other experiences can provide.
Yes, I love tagging a longbeard as much as you do, but … if I’ve hunted a particular gobbler long enough, and my experience is so heavy with bittersweet meaning — the joy and pain of it too — I almost don’t want to take that turkey. It’s too personal. I know the bird too well. I’ve crossed over to another place. I tend to want to find a fresh one and let that gobbler I have been hunting for days and weeks walk safely out of spring into summer.
Take some. Leave some. Work even harder to help wild turkeys flourish. I’ve learned I’m good with that. You too?
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Realtree turkey hunting editor Steve Hickoff has chased gobblers all over the United States and Mexico. He was born and raised in northcentral Pennsylvania, and now makes his home in Maine. Hickoff was named the NWTF Tom Kelly Communicator of the Year for 2019, a prestigious award reflecting his longtime work promoting hunting and conservation as a turkey hunting writer, editor and book author.