Waiting for Tom
When you think you’ve outwitted — or outwaited — a turkey, think again.
The story goes that Benjamin Franklin would have preferred the selection of the wild turkey as our national symbol rather than the bald eagle. Franklin called the turkey “a much more respectable bird,” saying it was a “bird of courage” and “a true original native of America.”
After hunting them, I certainly understand why.
After all, the wild turkey is clever.
He, or she, is mighty tough.
Their feathers shine with incredible iridescence.
They talk. With nearly 30 different sounds, each yelp or purr communicates something different.
Turkeys sense when a situation doesn’t feel quite right — maybe a predator is right around the next bend.
These birds run, strut and fly, but they have one downfall. Like many of us, they can’t pass up a chance to find their mate.
After learning essentials like behavior, habitats, types of calls and shot placement during a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Turkey Hunting 101, I felt ready to hit the field. TPWD Hunter Education Coordinator Steve Hall offered to take me and my partner Immanuel on our first turkey hunt in Three Rivers, south of San Antonio, on property owned by his longtime friend and a hunter education instructor.
Turkey hunting can’t be compared to any other time you spend in the field. You may have hunted birds before, but Rio Grande turkeys are very different from fast-flying mourning doves.
Turkeys have the impressive ability to detect even the smallest movement from hundreds of yards away, so if one is nearby, you must freeze, just as you’d behave within ear- and eyeshot of a white-tailed deer.
Some calls and a few good-looking decoys come in handy when hunting turkeys. Owl and crow calls help you locate turkeys by startling a jake or tom into letting out a “shock gobble.” As for decoys, remember how turkeys can’t pass on an opportunity to impress a lady? It doesn’t matter if that lady is real or fake.
Wait and Bake
My hunt fell in late March, already very hot in South Texas that afternoon. Immanuel harvested a large tom that morning while hunting with Steve and Jake Hindman, National Student Air Rifle program director with a prowess for turkey-calling at a national level.
Steve, Immanuel and I unload our packs, a small chair and some decoys at the site, then drive the trucks around the corner, out of a gobbler’s view. I tuck my chair back into an agarita plant and sandwich myself nicely between it and a mesquite tree. Steve perches behind me to call; Immanuel rests in the tall grass to Steve’s right to spot any birds in that direction. Three decoys are posted up in the clearing ahead of us. Steve employs several calls while we bake in the heat.
The day drifts into the late afternoon. We’ve been waiting for two hours when Immanuel whispers urgently, “Turkeys to the right!”
My adrenaline surges as I lift my shotgun and get ready.
Then I realize that the giant tom some 200 yards away won’t be stepping out in front of me anytime soon. I slowly lower my shotgun and catch my breath.
“That’s good news — we know they’re here; they hear us calling, they see the decoys,” Steve says, giving me hope that the day is far from over. He points to the spot in the brush where he anticipates they might show up if we just wait patiently.
Turkeys were almost extirpated from Texas by the late 19th century, and in a move to protect them, efforts outlawing trapping for five months of the year were initiated. In 1903, a bag limit of 25 turkeys per day throughout a five-month season was established, but these regulations did not help the turkey on most of its range.
In 1919, the Legislature created a bag limit of three bearded gobblers per season. Increased protection by conservation-minded landowners and additional game wardens in the 1920s helped turkey populations recover throughout much of the state.
Today, thanks to those landowners, hunters, conservation groups and agencies like TPWD and the National Wild Turkey Federation, turkey populations occupy most suitable habitat in Texas. Limited supplemental “super stocking” of turkeys continues to help saturate specific landscapes.
Chase Fountain | TPWD
Ready to give up
Another hour goes by, but no turkeys. Steve thinks that one of the birds Immanuel spotted was most certainly a grizzled old tom who likely knew better and was wary of our tricks. He suggests we move before losing the last shooting light to a place where he thinks another group may be coming into roost. He tells me to stay put, just in case, while he and Immanuel get the trucks.
“If he comes out, make a loud noise right before you shoot so he sticks his neck out,” Steve offers as a last bit of advice. “Just be sure you see a big ol’ beard before you do, though.”
Only bearded birds are legal to take. (This feature typically indicates a male turkey, though hens can also have beards.)
As they walk away, Steve gives a couple of additional calls in case our toms are still nearby.
The second Steve and Immanuel are out of view, my eyes catch a movement in a green patch of grass 50 yards ahead.
There he is.
The old tom wanders back and forth, just out of shotgun range. I need him to move about 20 yards closer. The sun hits him just right, and his bright red head seems to glow in the distance.
I freeze, my heart pounding. I need to figure out how to signal to Immanuel and Steve that the gobbler’s here, to stay put with the trucks. If they come back over to me, the turkey will book it out of view.
I wait for my opportunity. When the tom turns his back to me, I reach down into my pack and grab my phone. My eyes glued on the bird, I try to unlock my phone and send a text to Immanuel with minimal movement.
“TURKEY!!!” I type in a silent scream.
I look back in the direction of the tom — he’s gone. He’d been ambling to the right and behind thicker brush when I looked away. I don’t think he saw me, but I can’t be sure. Either way, I sit at the ready.
Two white trucks head in my direction. They stop at the top of the hill to scout for turkeys, but there’s no way for them to see what I know is just beyond the trees. They roll slowly toward me, and I have no choice but to move and try to stop them. I point at my eyes and back to the spot where I saw the turkey.
Steve gets out of the truck, sinks low to the ground and creeps back in my direction as I hurry back toward my chair. Immanuel sits still by the trucks. Steve and I whisper about what happened and he calls and calls for the tom. Neither of us are able to believe that we’ve just been outsmarted.
We give it another hour, then decide to call it a day. I feel completely satisfied even though I won’t be leaving with a turkey. The excitement of those few minutes — and the story I’m going to be able to tell for years — is all I need. The three of us gather up, I unload my shotgun, and we go back to speaking at a normal volume, no longer in a whisper, about the tom’s brief appearance.
Chase Fountain | TPWD
A few seconds into the tale, Immanuel looks straight ahead and whispers: “Gobblers!”
We all hit the ground, realizing our two toms are now only about 40 yards from us. I catch a glimpse of at least one red head just about to step out onto the dirt road and amble toward our decoys.
I ball myself up over my shotgun in the tall grass and try my best to silently reload two shells, although my efforts to minimize the noise are fruitless.
Honestly, at this point I’m also trying as hard as humanly possible not to laugh. How had this happened twice? The second we let our guards down, the toms showed up! These birds really are as sneaky as their reputation had led me to believe.
Now that we’re ready for them, the turkeys are also ready for us — we hear the sound of wings flapping as they head up into a tree for their nightly roost. Game over.
The sun starts to set, the sky awash with pink and orange, as the three of us recap the day. Steve expresses some frustration: Had we stayed put a little while longer, the outcome of the day would have been entirely different.
As for me, I wasn’t even remotely disappointed. The thrill of having a gobbler in sight was enough to make me start counting the days until my next turkey hunt, even if it doesn’t come until next season. After all, if I’ve learned anything on this hunt, it’s that those old adages are true.
When it comes to turkey hunting, patience is a virtue and good things come to those who wait.
And then wait longer.
Gear up for gobblers
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