Prairie Springs

Prairie Springs

By Steve Griffith

When you and your sons are surrounded by spring gobblers, life is sweet.

As usual, early opening morning of turkey season in South Dakota was cold. But that didn't deter my two sons, Stuart and Philip, and me from heading afield with our bows. We don't miss these special prairie springs.

And we had barely started up a ridge when we heard gobblers, close, almost too close! We quickly moved down the ridge to where the terrain flattened into a bench. My plan was to place the boys in separate blinds and then, while calling, to move away from them to pull the gobblers after me - and right to my waiting sons.

Both boys had two tags. In previous years my older son, Stu, had taken an eastern jake as well as several mature Merriams, which are more common in our area, so this year he vowed, "A mature eastern, or I eat the tag." Phil also has taken mature Merriams, but he was not about to be so picky!

With both boys blinded in, I gave a quiet series of yelps, and the roosted gobblers went nuts. When a couple started double gobbling, I gave a much more excited yelp and, with the aid of a Primos Real Wing, imitated a fly down and followed with another hot yelp. With that, real birds started flying down, and I moved farther behind the boys, clucking and occasionally yelping, doing my best to imitate the very vocal hen I could hear off in the woods.

Knowing my sons' adrenalin had to be flowing heavily now, I couldn't help recall an incident from Stu's first year of turkey hunting. Several mature gobblers had surrounded our blind, and Stu was trying to remain so still, to the point of holding his breath, that he suddenly blacked out and crumpled over in the blind. After I got over my initial fear and shock, and he came to, we had a good laugh. That's what this turkey hunting can do to a person!

As I set up 30 yards behind the boys, a half-dozen jakes, looking forlorn and anxious, surrounded Stu's blind - the wrong shooter in the right place! - while several mature gobblers hung back a short distance. Finally the jakes headed right toward Phil, and I had high hopes that this morning would provide the right mix for his shot. But over the next 20 minutes, he did not shoot, and finally the birds moved off and things quieted down, as if there were no turkeys in the woods. Often that happens after the initial flurry of activity as the gobblers become "henned up." Often you can get them going again, but the rest of this day proved uneventful.

Still, it had been a great opening morning, and I was proud of the boys. Stu had kept his resolve to shoot only a mature bird, and Phil, although he gladly would have shot a jake, had passed because he was unable to get the close shot needed to ensure a clean kill. Both boys had elected to hunt with recurve bows, and Phil had followed his older brother's lead and bought himself a KOTA recurve, made by Tim Finley of Oberon, North Dakota. Wisely, they were waiting for just the right shots. And, with persistence, they would get them.

THE NEXT WEEKEND we tried a different area that held mostly Merriams with a few Easterns mixed in. First thing in the morning we had gobblers answering our calls, but they would not leave their hens, a common scenario early in the season.

After a late-morning snack of jerky, we were walking a ridge when we got a rise from a bird and set up, making a quick blind by spreading camouflage netting around the base of a large cedar tree and placing a couple of decoys out front. Evidently my hen yelps sounded pretty realistic, as the first bird to arrive was a mature hen, followed by young hens, one of which squatted right next to one of our decoys. A live decoy. Perfect!

At the same time, the distinctive drumming of a nearby gobbler had my heart racing and surely my sons' too. The most aggressive gobbler continued spitting and drumming very close by, but he was not on the right side of our blind for a shot, and he showed no interest in our decoys - not even the live one.

Suddenly another pair of gobblers arrived, silent and bold, coming directly toward the decoys. As they cleared the nearest cover, Phil drew and drove home an arrow. One down! And a mature eastern gobbler at that. There's nothing like a good plan coming together. No doubt Stu cast a covetous eye at this bird, since this was exactly the object of his self-imposed restrictions!

THE MORNING AFTER, we returned to our opening day spot and set up early on the turkeys' normal travel route from their roost. With the gobblers henned up, I consider position everything. Setting up where the gobblers naturally want to go can make even the weakest caller look good.

Unfortunately, we weren't the only predator thinking along those lines. As all the turkeys were moving our way, one gobbler broke off and closed quickly toward our decoy. Then we hear a putt! Something had spooked one of the hens. We remained still, wondering what had gone wrong, when we saw a gray blur, and at unbelievable speed a coyote knocked over our decoy and grabbed it by the neck! We were so dumbfounded, we didn't even have time to draw our bows before the yote realized his mistake and streaked out of sight.

With that disruption, we decided to go back to where Phil had taken his bird the week before. Before we set out, the boys did some stump shooting with Judo points to warm up and hone their skills. As they were shooting, the prairie sun became pleasantly warm, and we shed our heavy morning jackets. How wonderful is the prairie spring.

"Did you hear that?" the boys chimed. "A gobbler." Actually, I did not hear it. Too many hours on a D-9, I guess. We waited quietly to get a fix on his position, and even I heard the second gobble. He was a long way off, so we split up, Stu going one way, Phil and I the other, thinking we would have our best chance of finding him that way.

But an hour later, when we met up, none of us had heard him again. How frustrating! We figured he was still right there. So we sat quietly, listening, and a half hour later he sounded off, deep in the largest draw, maybe 400 yards away. With the wind blowing, we might not have been hearing him - or he us.

We climbed a ridge above him, and I yelped on a glass friction call to let him know a lonesome hen was nearby. He cut a double gobble, loud and heavy, right on top of my yelp. He still sounded over 100 yards away, so we figured we had time to set up and hurriedly took out the jake decoy and the blind material. I was just staking out the decoy when Stu dropped the blind and grab his bow. Too late! The gobbler had just overrun our position and was coming back to check us out.

"Do you believe that?" Stu said with a look of disdain.

I just nodded my head and picked up the decoy and wrapped up the blind. Stu had to be back to work in the afternoon. We were done for the day.

"Well, boys, tomorrow is another day," I said as we headed toward the truck.

AND WHAT A DAY it was. The morning broke cool but calm. Well before daylight we hooted like an owl and awakened a gobbler on the roost. That gave us plenty of time to set up our blinds and decoys. As the sky turned pink, the woods came alive with seductive yelps and gobbles, and I started working the gobbler with soft yelps and clucks, hoping to keep his interest high. But he was not moving our way.

To force the action, Stu opened up with his mouth yelper, and I answered with the glass friction call. That seemed to do the trick. The tom cut loose with some resounding gobbles, and I started quivering - and I wasn't even the shooter! In fact, my resolve is not to take a shot unless both boys have filled their tags. That's tough, folks!

The turkey cautiously moved our way, and as he approached within 15 yards of the blind, even I could hear him spitting and drumming. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed the limbs of Stu's recurve bending gracefully back. The gobbler turned slightly, and the arrow hit with a thump! Stu's quest for the elusive eastern gobbler was finally over.

What a morning to be alive! A couple of years ago, while duck hunting, I took a shotgun blast in the head, face, and shoulder, and I still have pellets in my brain and shoulder. Since that time, life for me has been doubly sweet. And it has never been sweeter than during those prairie springs.

TRICKS FOR TURKEYS

The real secret for taking turkeys is location, because certain places in the woods simply lend themselves to success. With scouting and patience, you will recognize where and when gobblers hang out. Travel routes from roosts to feeding areas are always good. And gobblers tend to gravitate toward favored strut zones, which are always good places for the action to heat up. Look for the hook or J-shaped droppings of gobblers and drag marks on bare ground where strutting gobblers drag their wing tips through the dirt. These are quite evident in heavily used strutting grounds.

Commonly I set up permanent blinds in those locations, blending them into the surroundings with freshly cut foliage. It is important to have a dark interior and background inside the blind. If you allow too much light into the blind, turkeys will spot you immediately, especially as you draw to shoot. Using a good portable blind like the Double Bull is far easier than building a complete blind from on-site materials.

I also have a mobile system. When I feel the need to pressure or get in front of moving turkeys, I carry blind material I can quickly stretch out in front of a brush pile or between cedar limbs to form a quick blind. Avery's die-cut cerex material in a pattern that matches the surroundings is excellent for this purpose. If you wear camouflage clothing, including head net, behind this blind, you are well concealed and can generally get close shots. Normally I string the blind material just high enough to shoot over. I also have at least one shooting hole cut out, so if conditions permit I can shoot through the blind.

Sometimes my boys and I blind-in together, but frequently I set the boys up out front, and then I call from a position behind them. If they are positioned several yards apart, we have maximum shot opportunities. We each carry blind material in our packs so we can set up quickly in separate locations. If we are together in the blind, one person gets first shot. If we separate, the person with the first good shot gets the honors.

If you're hunting during a gun season, be very cautious about where you set up a blind, especially if you're using decoys. If you're well hidden behind realistic decoys, you could get shot. You're wise not to use this technique on public lands with lots of gun hunters.

I use a variety of calls, and some work better at certain times than others. For years I relied solely on the double reed (white) Perfection mouth diaphragm, but now I add variety. I have several different glass and slate calls, but I my favorite is the Cane Creek glass with a Sliver striker of walnut. MidWest turkey catalog carries this call, as well as virtually any product you possibly could need for turkey hunting.

I often switch to the Primos Truth True Double, which just seems to hit the right cord at times. My son Stu taught me this lesson another year, when late in the day I could not elicit a response with a various mouth and friction calls. When Stu popped in the True Double Two, the air lit up with a resounding gobbler from afar, and we barely had time to set up as the gobbler came on a suicidal run.

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