By Ryan Graden
As has been my normal routine these last 10 years of turkey hunting, I drive my car out to the edge of the timber that has become my home away from home. It’s about forty-five minutes before sunup and I have my travel cup of coffee in hand. My shotgun is loaded and rests against my car as I sip and listen to the timber come alive with the sounds of the waking songbirds. But there is one bird in particular that I am waiting to hear over all the rest.
I take a few more sips of my coffee and listen carefully while scanning the timber that surrounds me on all sides. I strain my ears to hear even the faintest call come from one of those high limbs of a hardwood tree. A call that will break all the other sounds going on around me, and finally, there it is! Faint at first as if he is just testing out his groggy voice. Then again I hear it. A bit louder this time but from the same direction. Once more! The sly old tom is finally awake!
I put my coffee cup back in my car, throw my arms through my vest, place my call in my mouth, grab my gun and I’m off in the direction of the call. At this point I know that there is very little time to get in place. Once this gobbler hears the calls of another hen, he’s going to make up his mind pretty quickly. In order to get there first, I have to be on the move. I’m careful not to move in too close. However I want to be close enough that he is going to choose the gentle coaxing that I lay out over anything else that calls to him. As I move in, stealthfully, I am still listening for his thunderous calls. I want to know if he is still on the roost, moving on the roost, or has flown down. I want to know if he’s an old tom, or just a young Jake that is fooling me. I want to know if he’s still listening to my calls or has chosen the calls of another. It’s a perfect situation that can too easily be devastated by my excitement and haste.
Finally, I’m here. It’s the perfect spot. Ten minutes have passed since I left my car. I am just up the ravine from where this thundering tom is calling. I can tell he is still on the roost, but getting anxious to leave. I notice a large white oak to my right with a very large base that will make a perfect spot to reel this Eastern in for a shot. I’m careful not to take too much time in setting up. Right now, to him, I need to be that hen that is approaching and calling. As I’m sitting down I begin to gently call to him. First, just a few gentle clucks, he answers! Then a few more, he answers again! I wait a bit to break up the calling sequence because I want him to begin to call to me. After a minute or so he calls. Now, I call back to him. The game is on!
We continue this banter until I hear the sound I’ve been waiting for, the crashing of his giant wings parting the still air and hitting every branch on his way down. The old tom is now on the ground and calling every few steps as he strides up the ravine to me. This is the moment I prepare myself. I know that the climax of this whole challenge is coming very soon. I have to see him, before he sees me. My gun is up, my ears are alert, and I continue to answer him with quiet, seductive calls.
I can now hear him strutting. The deep sounds of his drumming and spitting as he drags his wings through the forest floor are reaching my patient ears. I’m sure he’s putting on a magnificent display but little does he know, there is nobody here to impress accept for me. My heart begins to pound with excitement. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. The battle has not been long, but the moment of truth is about to come. I keep my eyes fixed on the direction of the sounds that I’m hearing. Quietly I begin to hear his final few steps in the leaves as I see the top of his bright white head crest the ridgeline. He pauses and looks. Confused I’m sure. The hen he’s been calling must be hiding. He takes a few more steps as his head and neck clears the ridge. His whole body shakes as he calls once more to this lady who is playing hard to get. He spits again as he doubles his body size in full strut.
As I look down the barrel of my Remington I quickly prepare myself for the final moment in this game. I calm my breathing, set my sites on his neck, and slowly squeeze the trigger. My gun roars through the still spring air as I am successful once again! The wild flapping of his wings and the moving forest debris tells me that the old tom is down and I have one more tally mark on my gun.
Now, to be honest, this isn’t how I was taught to turkey hunt growing up. My granddad was the turkey hunter in our family. You see, grandpa believed in going into the deep timber very early in the morning. He wanted to get into the woods before the turkeys could get out. He would then begin calling in the morning hoping that there would be one close by that he could convince to come into his calls. But more often than not, the woods would be silent and granddad would spend a lot of time on the ground without seeing much action. I always enjoyed sitting with him and never regretted the time in the woods. However, my perspective of turkey hunting was just that, a lot of effort and very little production.
It wasn’t until I was in college that my perspective was changed. I had met a guy from Ohio, Jarrod, who chased these birds in a very different way. Even though neither of us had much time during those years, we would both make it a point to be in the timber during the spring turkey season. The best season, for us, was the second season. It allowed us a weekend to hunt that didn’t conflict with our classes. It also meant that we only had a few days to chase the giant Easterns of Iowa.
The first morning that Jarrod and I ventured out to the timber I was confused. I knew Jarrod was a very successful turkey hunter in Ohio. He had told me stories of his hunts with friends and family and I soon learned this guy knew what he was doing. It also caused me to realize that my way of hunting turkeys was not as successful as his. In fact, by that time, I had yet to harvest my first turkey after living in Iowa all my life. I knew that this was an opportunity for me to learn from an experienced and successful turkey hunter so I gave the reigns to Jarrod. Our first morning out, it was 20 minutes to sun up and we hadn’t got into position yet. I thought to myself what are we doing? I asked Jarod if we should proceed to get set up somewhere. He replied, “Not yet, I want to know if there is something here to hunt first.” Literally a few minutes later a gobble erupted from the timber a few hundred yards in front of us. Jarrod looked at me with a sheepish smirk and said, “Lets go”.
Up until that point he wasn’t in a rush at all, he simply wanted to know if the area had a gobbler on it before he made any decisions on where to take a stand that morning. That is where my confusion set in, I was always taught to get into place as early as possible. Not Jarod though, he wanted to make sure there was a bird in the area before we proceeded. A bold move, but one that I am happy he made.
Knowing time was of the essence we quietly hustled into a good spot without the bird detecting us. Jarrod set up 10 yards behind me an let out a few quiet calls to check and see if the bird was still there, even more importantly if he was interested in our offering. Sure enough as soon as Jarrod gave a few soft yelps the gobbler sounded off before Jarrod could even complete his calling.
It didn’t take long for the big gobbler to make his way from his bed to our location. I will never forget sitting still as could be in a mess of briars and seeing this massive black ball of feathers glide down the trail toward me. When I saw the white head of my target, with a pull of the trigger, I harvested my first tom. I was so excited I rushed to the fallen bird only to see another tom following 10 feet behind the tom I had just leveled! In an explosion of feathers, wind, and fallen leaves he flew up and over the Oaks that stood all around us. This bird was completely quiet coming in and I didn’t even see him in all my excitement.
I looked at Jarrod as he approached my first bird and me. He congratulated me and we admired my trophy. In the kindest voice he leaned over to me and said, “Next time, stay put!” I knew what he was talking about and I didn’t ask any more questions. I called my wife, dad, granddad, and few others that morning in the woods while hovering over my first Eastern. I told them quickly of the hunt that had just taken place. Then I shouldered the bird and we took off to fill Jarrod’s tag. To my surprise, it was filled within the next hour.
That morning changed my turkey hunting knowledge forever! It also added much more excitement to my time spent chasing them. Now, have I been successful every time? No. Have I proved this method over and over again? Yes. And now, after 10 years of hunting with this knowledge, I have had the privilege of not only filling many of my own tags in Iowa and Nebraska, but also assisting others in filling theirs. I don’t necessarily hunt with this approach all the time. If I have roosted birds the night before and I know where the toms are at for the next morning then I will most definitely be in position well ahead of time. However if I have no idea where a roosted tom is sleeping the morning of my hunt I will apply this style of hunting every time. To me it just makes all the sense in the world. If I have no clue where the birds are at there is no reason for me to rush in.
I have now been seriously turkey hunting for over 10 years. My wife and my two oldest daughters have all accompanied me in the woods every spring to try their luck at tagging a big tom. They’ve all seen the excitement and the product of hunting this way and seem to be hooked. When Spring rolls around we always look forward to our time together in the woods chasing these giant birds and hoping for the chance to harvest yet another one. Who knows, maybe you’ll have a similar story this spring. Good luck!