Spring turkey hunting can be a hit-or-miss proposition.
The jubilant Merriam’s gobbler chortled in response each time the gentle purr in the distance carried on the faint mountain breeze.
The attentive bird was all ears as he strutted in a clearing near a stand of sinewy Ponderosa pines, carefully keeping a watchful eye on his harem of hens. The ladies’ man was well aware of the ambient sound that resonated near and far in the cool early morning, but he especially was focused on the light percussion that floated up and over the dusty New Mexico hill we were nestled behind.
From our vantage point behind a jagged row of weathered stones, my father and I could see the ostentatious bird locked in on our position, but he wasn’t all that interested in abandoning the hens he was with for different companionship. He would take short, ruffled steps in our general direction, but each time he stopped short of committing and floated back the way he came.
After a tantalizing half-hour that seemed like it was sure to produce at least one opportunity, the hens skittered off into the safety of overhead cover and crested another hill, and the amorous gobbler followed shortly behind.
I guess the old boy ultimately didn’t want to leave the girls he brought to the dance.
While the Merriam’s may be a different subspecies than the Eastern or Rio Grande turkey, the birds exhibit many of the same behaviors and quirks that leave most seasoned hunters scratching their heads when plans get thrown to the wind. This particular gobbler and a couple of others like him on the Jicarilla Apache reservation some years back acted much the way turkeys in Texas and other states do when they’re henned up and in bigger flocks earlier in the season.
The birds seem to have the will to check out what’s going on with the calls from your neck of the woods, they just lack the fortitude to carry out their actions.
I would be willing to bet that if we’d caught the birds later in the season and in smaller bunches we would have been able to cut out a willing tom and lure him in much easier than if he was only feeling lukewarm. When hens have bred and become less willing to do anything with gobblers, the males normally will seek out other females, making your mechanical stylings more appealing.
That being said, there’s no sure thing when it comes to turkey hunting.
Any turkey enthusiast with a few seasons under their belt knows exactly what I mean. Regardless of where you’re hunting and what subspecies you’re chasing after, the birds continue to defy logic at all turns and don’t stick to any particular pattern, regardless of whether it’s early or late in the season.
I’ve read and heard numerous accounts about how turkeys won’t travel through cover taller than they are or cross any type of man-made barriers, especially fences. I certainly would have taken those opinions as fact, but one eastern Panhandle hunt a few seasons ago shot down both ideas — at the same time.
A couple of hunting companions and I set up at the edge of an oak motte adjacent to a field of high winter wheat. A four-strand fence cut through the field about 100 yards from the motte, but we figured the birds would come out from the sides rather than directly in front and make their way toward us. Someone forgot to tell at least one gobbler that, and the talkative bird made a beeline from an adjacent motte to the fence when the striker hit the slate. We all figured that was it — he wouldn’t dare cross.
But the silly bird did.
He examined the situation and slipped right under the bottom wire with ease.
We then figured the myth buster had gotten himself into a pickle: He had cleared one obstruction but he certainly wasn’t going to skulk through the vegetation that hit him at neck level. For all he knew, there could be a hungry coyote or bobcat waiting to pounce on him and make him lunch.
Again, the tom did the unexpected.
The gobbler shimmied through the green and popped his head out about 50 paces away, at which point one of my quick-draw companions ventilated him, something that also isn’t supposed to happen at a distance like that with a scatter gun — even with a patterned turkey choke.
It’s usually better to be lucky than good, but with these birds, you never know.
The biggest thing to keep in mind with turkeys is to not get discouraged when your carefully molded plans get trumped by a quirky animal that doesn’t play by the book more often than not. I know for a fact there will be plenty of head-scratching across the state this year, no matter what corner you call home.
All you can do is chalk up the mistakes you make or the offbeat plays by the winged quarry on the big board, learn from them and hope they don’t happen again.
Measuring turkey success isn’t a numbers game. More than anything, it’s about spending time in cool places in a spectacular time of year with close companions and being free of everyday chores.
Anyway, if the birds did the same thing every time, what would be the fun in that?
That’s why we hunt.