It was so dark that I couldn’t see the other side of the meadow where we’d roosted a mature gobbler the night before. My hunting partner was Alex Rutledge from Hunter’s Specialties and I was privileged to be accompanied by a professional turkey hunter willing to share his expertise.
Alex patted the pockets of his hunting vest and found the owl call that had been tucked away in a specific pocket. He used the device to hoot into the still morning air. The resounding gobble of a mature bird blasted back in our direction. Even in the absence of light I could see a smile break across Alex’s face. We followed the ridge to the far end of the meadow and set up under a big oak tree. A single hen decoy was placed at the edge of the meadow.
We sat patiently in the dark until the faint light from the morning sun created a slight glow on the eastern horizon. Alex put one of the H.S. Infinity Latex calls in his mouth and gently yelped like a lonesome hen. The gobbler thundered back at us and the sound of wings finding their way through oak limbs was followed by a dark object gliding across our meadow before finding ground on the edge of the trees. The old bird barely took the time to look back at our decoy before running up the hill away from us. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
We were hunting the end of the Missouri spring turkey season and I was hopeful that I’d complete my turkey slam with a big eastern bird. We were hunting with IMB Outfitters and my first experience with an eastern gobbler was every bit as tough as I had imagined. Alex and I hunted hard that morning and talked with four different gobblers that all exhibited signs of late-season birds. The interesting fact was that Alex got all the birds to respond and create opportunity by using different calls or challenges. Turkey hunting is only permitted until noon in Missouri, so we headed back for camp better prepared for a rematch.
The other hunters sharing camp had some big birds that graced the deck of our hunting lodge. I listened carefully to each successful hunter share their story in true turkey hunting tradition. The ritual of storytelling is what gives turkey hunters such a strong bond. It’s contagious and keeps everyone keen to get back in the field to roost birds at night and get up early in the morning.
We worked hard again the next morning but couldn’t seem to coax a bird into shooting range. Tony May, our turkey-crazy guide, suggested we try a new field that stretched over two miles along a winding creek. Tony knew turkeys and hadn’t steered us wrong on anything we’d experienced so far. There were several mature gobblers using the open landscape and we felt the creek and levy system would give us an advantage.
We trekked in through the mud and used a locator call to ensure we were set up in front of our gobbler before first light. We were tucked into a corner of the field where the levy made a sharp bend. The big gobbler we were after had been spotted pitching down into the field on a regular basis.
When the long beard left his roost he flew right over our heads and landed about 80 yards in front of us. He immediately locked onto the decoy and cautiously paced back and forth just out of shotgun range. I had my Browning Gold 12 gauge loaded with three-inch Winchester turkey loads and was confident I could roll the bird if he strutted into range.
We played games with that old bird until my legs started to fall asleep and it wasn’t until a group of hens fed into view that I knew our performance wasn’t going to work. The girls fed past us with a steady gait and the gobbler simply followed them spitting, strutting and showing off as they made their way down the field. We could hear several other gobblers sounding off around the field and could make out birds along the distant tree line. We sat patiently trying to determine which birds would be the best to pursue. Our methodical approach paid off when a huge gobbler showed up in the corner of the field with three hens. We had heard the bird’s distant gobbles behind us in the dark but didn’t expect him to show up in our field.
Alex dropped in behind the levy and told me to follow close. We crouched and snuck as quickly as we could to the far end of the field, often walking through water that threatened to flow over the top of our LaCrosse boots. Occasionally we’d get down and crawl through the grass but eventually closed the distance to where we could see every detail of the bird. Tony looked at the old gobbler through his binoculars and marveled at the length of its beard. Alex was all smiles and pulled out his favorite old call for this special occasion. Alex had said that when the birds are tough you have to get in their kitchen before calling. We had done exactly that and watched as the birds fed just out of range.
I slithered in behind two big trees with a stump extending up between them. I rested my shotgun on the sturdy surface and waited for Alex to talk turkey. The gentle calls of a hen coming up the levy snapped the old bird to attention. I could hear his feathers flex as they extended into strut position. Getting in close had made the difference and even though the hens continued to feed away from us the gobbler ran in our direction. The approach was fast with the gobbler running at us, followed by a full display as he strutted even closer. I followed the bird as he made his way within range and continued to close the distance between us.
Alex told me to get ready to shoot. Alex produced an exited cluck on his call and got the bird to raise his head. At that instance I squeezed the trigger and pounded the bird with a load of number six shot. The impact of the shot flipped the bird backwards and the three of us roared with excitement.
I learned an awful lot about turkey hunting during my few days in Missouri. We used every call imaginable and I was surprised to witness that every bird responds differently to the huge variety of calls available. If one call doesn’t work don’t be afraid to try something different. If a turkey calls doesn’t work try a crow, owl or woodpecker challenge.
My eastern turkey had a 12-inch beard, weighed close to 24 pounds and was 1 5/8-inches on its longest spur and estimated at six years of age. It is undoubtedly a trophy bird by anyone’s standards but is even more special for me considering who I hunted with and the fact that it completed my slam.
Later that morning Tony and I watched from a distance as Alex closed the deal on another monster gobbler to fill his tag. It was just as exciting as doing it myself. Finally, it would be our turn to tell stories back at camp.