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Tagging Ol' Red: A Unique Wisconsin Gobbler

If you've seen one Eastern turkey, you've seen them all — or have you?

Tagging Ol' Red: A Unique Wisconsin Gobbler

Ol’ Red was absolutely stunning with his red-tipped wing feathers.

I was bewildered as I nocked an arrow and dawn spilled daylight onto the gorgeous Wisconsin landscape. Why? Well, I hadn’t heard a single gobble. For the previous two mornings, just after sunup, a gobbler had strutted right here, and I fully expected that he’d be roosted within 200 yards of my setup. He wasn’t.

My 2022 turkey season began out west. Birds that would answer the calls but go the opposite direction gave me a touch-go. With time running out, I anchored one with the shotgun on a spot-and-stalk mission.

After that hunt, I returned to Wisconsin and got things situated for the state’s youth hunt. I annually mentor young kids — usually nieces or nephews — with turkey hunting, to plant seeds in the next generation. My nephew and my friend’s son both nailed big, paintbrush-bearded gobblers before noon on opening morning of the youth hunt.

With all of that behind me, it was time to focus on what I love most about spring: Bowhunting big Eastern gobblers in my home state.

My Approach

After the drawing, Wisconsin allows turkey hunters to purchase one leftover tag per day beginning in late March. Each tag is for a specific zone and time period. The state has been allocating tags this way for many seasons, and it’s been proven to maximize opportunity without overharvesting. However, it’s important on an individual level not to harvest too many birds from one area or property. I’ve found that “conservative harvest” means I can return to properties every spring and have birds to hunt.

Since I can’t get enough of spring turkey hunting, I buy multiple tags. My strategy is bouncing around and getting permission on several different parcels that are far apart. I also hunt on public land. All told, I hunt in two to three different counties every spring. Again, the idea is to spread my harvest across a greater area, so that I have little to no impact on any one area.

My strategy with gaining access to private ground has allowed me to meet a handful of salt-of-the-earth folks whom I otherwise wouldn’t have — folks like Farmer Kevin. I hunted Kevin’s property for the first time in 2021, and I bowkilled a bird there on my first attempt during Time Period F, which is the last week of the season.

In spring 2022, I planned to reach out to Kevin to see if I could hunt on his farm again, but my Time Period F leftover tag for the zone Kevin’s property is in didn’t validate until May 25, so I became distracted by my earlier tags and sort of forgot about Kevin’s place for the time being.

A Strong Start To The Spring

My first archery hunt was a quick one on my neighbor’s property. After having a bird skirt me on the first morning, I noticed a flock on the other side of the road. A look through my binos confirmed that the flock was guarded by two toms. With no approach, I headed for home to get some writing done.

I hunted that spot the following morning. Immediately after flydown, two mouthy gobblers hammered away as they marched right to my DSD Decoys. Two came in. One left.

Three weeks later and more than 20 miles away on another property, I had another hot-off-the-roost hunt when two roaring gobblers dropped down into the field and beelined right to my decoys. I picked out the strutter and thumped him with my Mathews V3X. I was now two for two with the bow.

After two successful shotgun hunts on different properties far away from the other properties I’d already hunted, it was time to see what was shaking at Kevin’s place.

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When I drove past Kevin’s property early the morning before my F tag started, I didn’t see any turkeys in the field where I’d scored in 2021. However, way back behind his barn on the other side of the road was a dark dot where a freshly worked dirt field adjoined a lush alfalfa field. I pulled off along the shoulder of the road and scanned with my binoculars. It was a lone tom in full strut. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about him seemed different. I chose a landmark, so that I’d know where to set my blind and decoys the following morning — if Kevin was cool with me hunting again.

I called Kevin to make sure that I could hunt on his farm. He told me to go ahead, but he said that he’d given some other hunters permission to hunt, too. He also mentioned that they’d asked a few weeks earlier but hadn’t showed up yet. In other words, he didn’t know which Time Period tags they had. I assured him that I’d back off if I saw the other hunters.

Showing Up At Kevin’s

As my headlights flooded the road that cuts between the barn and other buildings and enters the field where the gobbler was strutting, they illuminated the taillights of someone else’s vehicle. I looked through my binoculars and distinguished that a pickup truck was parked just off the field road in the grass. Naturally, I assumed that another hunter had beaten me there. Slightly bummed out, I backed off and went with Plan B, which was to hunt on the other side of the road where I’d killed my 2021 gobbler.

McDougal-Red-Setup-1200x800.jpg
This is the setup that yielded me an eight-yard shot at the gobbler discussed in the article.

Things were quiet over there as I hiked across the dirt field. I walked and called and walked and called. No gobbling. I decided to set up anyway and call periodically for a little bit, but to no avail. I retreated and drove by the field I’d originally planned to hunt, fully expecting to see a happy hunter marching off the field with a gobbler slung over his/her shoulder.

Instead, the bird was strutting right where he’d been the previous morning, and I noticed that the truck was still parked there. Confused, I pulled in to get a closer look at the truck, and that’s when I planted my forehead in my palm. The truck was dented and battered. It was unmistakably a farm truck that Kevin had parked and left there, not a truck belonging to another hunter. “I could’ve killed that bird this morning,” I muttered, as I headed for home. All I could do was laugh at my simple oversight.

A Showdown With Ol’ Red

The following morning, I arrived at Kevin’s nice and early. I unloaded my QuietKat e-bike, slung my blind, decoys, and bow onto my back, and then rode the farm road into the field until I was 100 yards from where I wanted to set my blind and decoys. I tiptoed the rest of the way, plugging the decoys into the dirt and erecting my blind just eight yards from the plastic birds. That brings us to where we left off in my introduction.

Even though there was no gobbling, I knew I needed to stay put. The bird had strutted right here for the previous two mornings. Would he do it again?

A gobble interrupted my thoughts 30 minutes later, and it came from just below a hill in the alfalfa field. How things can instantly change! I made a few yelps with my mouth call to let him know that I was out in the dirt, and he gobbled back. I didn’t make another peep.

McDougal-Red-Ebike-1200x800.jpg
A QuietKat e-bike made for a quick, silent entry, and buzzing back and forth with the bird, blind, decoys, and bow was far easier than on foot. Work smarter, not harder, they say.

He appeared less than 100 yards away from my blind, and the moment he spotted my DSD Jake and Feeding Hen decoys, he dropped his breasts down and swaggered toward me with his beard swinging back and forth as only fully committed gobblers do. I downplayed the encounter by whispering, “It’s just a bird,” trying to get some ice in my veins. Even after killing dozens of gobblers with my bow, I still get wound tight whenever a gobbler is coming in hot.

In less than one minute, I was watching him at 20 yards and closing through my peep sight. When he reached the plastic jake and began circling it, my pin settled perfectly on his right wingbutt as he quartered toward me. Normally, I let toms beat up the decoy and then calm down before shooting, but everything was lined up so perfectly, and I didn’t want to mess it up. Slowly, I squeezed my Spot-Hogg Wiseguy’s trigger until the bow fired.

My arrow blasted almost through the bird. He ruffled up but didn’t know that he’d been harpooned as he walked on wobbly legs for five steps before slumping to the ground. Again, I’ve killed a lot of toms, but I never tire of watching the show unfold at less than 10 yards!

The Unicorn Turkey

While taking a few moments to soak in the late-May sights and sounds, including another gobbler sounding off in the nearby timber, I noticed that my bird exhibited unusual plumage. So, I unzipped the blind and walked out to collect my prize.

Sure enough, the bird’s wings were extremely brownish/red rather than the typical sandy/gray on all the other gobblers I’ve taken in Wisconsin. Even the wing quills exhibited red pigmentation. I’ve taken the wild turkey Grand Slam with my bow, and I certainly found it fascinating to take the Osceola, Merriam’s, and Rio Grande and see their differences in coloration. Suffice it to say that I found it even more fascinating to take this unicorn Eastern.

McDougal-Red-Hero-1200x800.jpg
I’ve killed dozens of turkeys with my bow over the years, but this one was the most unique of them all.

I shot lots of photos before taking the bird back home to show my wife, Becca. She sees me bring home a pile of turkeys every spring, but even she couldn’t believe the unusual coloration. I’m not into naming animals I hunt, but I think I’ll call him Ol’ Red.

The author, a full-time freelance outdoor writer, published his very first article ever in the May/June 2009 issue of Bowhunter Magazine. He and his wife, Becca, live in central Wisconsin.

Author’s Notes

I bow-killed my first two toms of spring 2022 with my Mathews V3X 29. The day before I went in after Ol’ Red, though, I was shooting some practice arrows and noticed some inconsistencies. I believe the bowstring crept, as my tune was off. So, I grabbed my Mathews V3 27 and took a few shots with it. It was dead on. I guess it pays to have a back-up bow.

I took out Ol’ Red with an Easton 6.5 340 Acu-Carbon arrow tipped with a Trophy Taker broadhead. I used a Spot-Hogg Fast Eddie XL sight, Stokerized stabilizer, and a Mathews UltraRest Integrate MX. I hunted from a Realtree EDGE blind by Tidewe, and Dave Smith Decoys helped me get a slam-dunk shot at eight yards.




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