November 04, 2010
ORANGE AND RED CLIFFS surround tall cottonwood trees along the banks of a quiet, gurgling river on the canyon floor. After a good rain, colorful wild flowers explode from prickly cactus pads. It is pure, untamed western landscape, and from the edge of the canyon I feel like a spectator sitting on the top row of a huge stadium watching the main event. It's a beautiful place to hunt spring longbeards.
And a tough one. Turkey numbers are modest. While scouting and glassing before the season last spring, I estimated that 30 birds lived in the 1 1/2-mile stretch of river I had permission to hunt. Also, washed-out roads mean foot access only. That's good because it limits hunting pressure. But it also makes for some pretty physical hunting -- especially for turkeys.
As is the case in most western states, the prairie surrounding this canyon is open and flat. Thus, the narrow riparian zone along the flowing river channel provides a prime habitat strip, a virtual turkey highway. The strip has lush spring growth, tender grass, and lots of bugs. Hungry turkeys, especially newborn poults, thrive on bugs, and bugs flourish in wet areas. Find the water, find the bugs, find the turkeys.
Turkey populations can be healthy in such remote western river bottoms, but concentrations of birds might be miles apart. Nomadic turkeys are sometimes here today and gone tomorrow. Meandering turkeys can cover lots of ground up and down a river in one day.
I used to hunt this place the way I would hunt turkeys in normal areas: Up at 4:30 a.m., find a talkative tom coming off the roost at first light, set up blind and decoys, try to call him close. If nothing happened early, I'd wander up and down the river all day, calling and listening for gobblers.
It was exhaustive work. In northern Texas, the wind blows -- always -- so locating gobblers by sound is tough. And in the thick vegetation along the river, I often failed to see birds at eye level. Several times, while rounding a river bend, I bumped birds, creating panic and making the already wary birds even more wary. And because the small flocks are scattered along miles of river bottom, I wasted lots of time prowling pockets holding no birds.
Thus, over time, I have developed a better plan for hunting gobblers in these semi-open areas with moderate numbers of turkeys. It's like mule deer hunting, but with a twist, and it definitely works for turkeys. I call it spot, stalk, and call.
In lush western river bottoms like this, you first must find a vantage point and glass with high-powered optics from long range. Strutting gobblers are easy to spot against the brilliant green vegetation. With turkeys in view, you can execute a stalk and call your quarry within bow range. (Photo by Brandon Ray)
It all starts with a good vantage point. In my canyon honey hole, that's a ledge high above the river from which I have an unobstructed view of a mile-plus stretch of canyon bottom, just like the hawks and buzzards that share the sky above me. In flatter terrain, a windmill tower, a haystack, or a slight rise in the prairie -- any point above the river channel and its thick vegetation -- might serve well as a vantage point for spotting.
Here's one beauty of this approach -- it works all day. In fact, I often sleep late, because getting out in the dark before sunrise offers no advantage. Early to midmorning and late afternoons seem most productive when turkeys are feeding and moving, but I've spotted turkeys at every hour of the day.
For spotting I consider good 8X or 10X binoculars and a tripod-mounted spotting scope to be the minimum. I use the binoculars to sweep the area first, and then I methodically dissect every bush and crevice with the scope.
A feeding, moving flock of turkeys creates lots of movement, and the bronze and copper-colored birds contrast sharply with green spring vegetation. Also, strutting gobblers inflate themselves to the size of beach balls, and black beach balls with cherry-red heads are pretty easy to identify. Spotting at distances up to a mile from my familiar perch, I find turkeys surprisingly easy to see.
Here's one last note on spotting: When you have located birds, mentally note landmarks near the turkeys such as boulders, dead trees, or specific unique bends in the river. You'll need these landmarks later.
With a target gobbler located, I watch long enough to determine which direction and how fast he is moving. Then I estimate how long it will take me to close the gap and where the bird will be once I get in front of him. That meeting place is where I will set up to call. When spotting, I also watch to see if a gobbler is alone or with hens, because that could influence my approach to calling.
Because of the distance and rough terrain that separate my glassing location from longbeards in the canyon bottom, I often begin my stalk at a trot to close the gap quickly before the gobbler can move too far. Using any available gullies, ravines, or clumps of brush to hide my approach, I hustle toward the location where I last saw the bird. This is where those landmarks come in. Without them as reference points, you easily can go astray and end up in totally the wrong place. Remember those landmarks.
Throughout the stalk I stop and glass often to relocate the bird if possible. Knowing exactly where he is can be a huge advantage. Then, approaching within 200 yards of his location, I slow way down and listen. A hot gobbler might make so much noise gobbling that he is easy to locate, or his hens might chatter enough to give them all away. If I know exactly where the gobbler is and still have plenty of cover to conceal me, I try to stalk within 100 yards or closer. Experience tells me the odds for calling-in a gobbler are by far the best if you begin calling from short range. That's especially true on a windy day when you have to get close just for him to hear you.
At the same time, if a gobbler sees you, the gig is up. You're done. So you have to weigh the risks as you close the gap. In a nutshell, get as close as you can -- while remaining unseen.
Once within range, preferably 100 yards or less, look for a good hiding place. Always stay hidden in the shadows with a dark background to break up your outline. And wear camouflage head to toe to complete your concealment.
always try to set up on the birds' natural line of travel. This is where scouting before the season really pays off. Knowing where the birds travel daily will help you quickly pick the most effective ambush point. Try never to leave any obstacles -- fences, ravines, creeks -- between you and a gobbler. He naturally will take the path of least resistance and may not cross an obstacle to get to you.
One of my friends hunts open river bottoms but with less natural cover for hiding than where I hunt. To assure himself of good hiding spots in the paths of moving turkeys, he scouts before the season and strategically places several ground blinds across a half-mile stretch of river bottom. Then, after spotting and stalking a bird, he decides which blind is closest to a good ambush spot and hustles into that blind to call. I've used a similar strategy with good results.
Once you are hidden near a gobbler, it's time to let him know where you are. Personally, I start soft with a few seductive yelps on a box call, calling sparingly every few minutes to gauge his response. If he gobbles at every call, I shut up and let him come find me. If he never makes a sound, I continue to call every five to ten minutes for up to an hour, changing from yelps and purrs to cutting and clucks. Anything to pique his curiosity. On many occasions I've had gobblers sneak in without gobbling even once. I usually put a single hen decoy about 10 yards from my hiding place to hold his attention.
A solitary gobbler or several gobblers together with no hens present the best potential targets for spot, stalk, and call, because such birds generally will come aggressively to calling. A gobbler with a flock of hens will be much tougher, so on these I always try to set up in their direct line of travel, and I call to coax the flock within range. If the hens start to chatter, I try to mimic their exact sounds. If you can call the lead hen within range, the boss tom most likely will follow.
It was midafternoon and the April sun was hot when I arrived at my favorite perch to begin looking for "rutting" turkeys below. Next to me lay a daypack full of calls, decoys, water, and snacks, and resting against the bulging pack was a short-axle-to-axle BowTech bow set at a comfortable 54 pounds. A high-quality binocular hung around my neck, and my spotting scope stood on a tripod in front of me.
In less than five minutes of looking through the binocular, I had a strutting gobbler, all puffed up and as black as coal, in my view. Switching to the scope, I could make out the striking colors of his feathers and head, and I could see that he had four hens with him. The flock milled around a small opening between cedars at the edge of the creek for a few minutes and began slowly moving south. After noting some solid landmarks, I gathered my gear and set out.
For the first half of the stalk I ran down steep canyon trails with my backpack flopping against my sweaty back. Once at the canyon floor I scoured the distant ravine through my binoculars to try to relocate the birds. Nothing. Then, I got lucky and heard a gobble. It was him, still in the same depression but hidden by thick cedars. I trotted on.
Seeing birds near this location before the season, I had set up a ground blind there. Heading straight to that blind, I staked out a hen decoy and a Jakester tail fan and then slipped into the dark blind and nocked an arrow.
The first rub on my box call produced a loud, aggressive gobble, gobble! The bird was close. But I could not see him, and for the next 20 minutes, the river bottom was silent.
Then two hens appeared in the shadows of a cedar tree, pecking at bugs, and I could hear a hollow drumming and the sounds of wing tips dragging across rocky ground. Finally the strutting gobbler walked out from behind a screen of cedars, and other turkeys continued to appear until I could see five hens, three jakes, and the boss tom.
I took this nine-inch longbeard with an 18-yard shot in April 2004 after first spotting the bird from a bluff and then quickly stalking to a blind I had placed earlier in the canyon. (Photo by Brandon Ray)
I made no sounds. Clearly they had seen my decoys and were headed my way.
At 40 yards two of the jakes went into half strut and advanced toward a hen. The gobbler made a mad dash at them, neck outstretched, angry, chasing the two punks three laps around a cedar tree!
In the fracas they got closer, and at 18 yards the boss stopped to watch over his contented hens. Slinking back into the shadows of the blind I eased the bowstring to my cheek. The tom was broadside, directly in front of my primary shooting window, thick beard swinging from his bronze-colored chest.
The arrow blasted through the boss tom in a blink, and he wobbled scarcely 30 yards and fell over, flapping on his side. The other birds paid little attention until I exploded from the blind to pounce on my prize.
The tom sported a nine-inch beard and spurs exactly one-inch long. The 20-plus-pound Rio added some pleasant heft to my already full backpack as I carried him to an old wooden corral that seemed like a suitable place for some photos. I had thumped a nearly identical nine-inch gobbler the previous spring, almost to the day. It seemed that history had repeated itself. But that's not unusual when you have a solid plan for river-bottom turkeys.
Author's Notes: On the hunt described here, I shot a 54-pound BowTech Liberty VFT bow, Easton Axis shafts, and Rocky Mountain Xtreme 100-grain mechanical broadheads. For concealment I used a Double Bull T5 ground blind and Mossy Oak Obsession camo and Cabela's Camo Tex Leafy 3-D in Mossy Oak Break-Up clothing. For peace of mind in this rattlesnake country, I also wore Cabela's Microtex Snake Guardz.
For spotting I used a Leupold Wind River RB800 8x32 binocular/rangefinder and a 15-30 x 50mm spotting scope. For calling I relied on Lynch and Primos box calls, and enhanced my setup with Delta and Flambeau decoys. All of this gear I carried in a Master Guide Backpack by Crooked Horn Outfitters.
Brandon Ray, 33, lives and stalks turkeys in Texas. For more details on and photos of Brandon's turkey hunting successes, visit www.brandonrayoutdoors.com.