"There's a big, old bird somewhere up on that mountain wrapping its toes around the roost limb for the last time,” Ray Eye sighed somberly, as if delivering the premature eulogy of a favorite uncle. I laughed and smacked him on the shoulder. “And I’m gonna throttle him tomorrow morning as soon as he hits the ground!” Ray feigned a shocked expression and then shot me a sly smile. “Not if I get to him first.”
Ray and I, along with the rest of our motley crew of turkey takers, were en route from Chihuahua City to the rural outback of Old Mexico. This was my first attempt at tagging a Gould’s subspecies of wild turkey, found only in appreciable numbers south of the border.
It was the tail end of May, which might seem late for hunting spring turkeys that reside south of the Rio Grande, but the Gould’s delay their breeding drive to coincide with the rainy season—a bonus for hunters who want to hunt multiple locations. The Gould’s season is still in full swing when turkey hunts stateside are winding down.
Manuel Enriquez, our host and outfitter, eased the truck to a crawl and turned onto the long gravel driveway leading to Rancho La Estancia, a hunting lodge cozied up to the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. There we were greeting by staff members, who helped us settle in.
Completing the Royal Slam—the taking of each of the five North American subspecies of the wild turkey—can be a royal pain in the butt, requiring a trip to Old Mexico. While there are recovering pockets of Gould’s stateside—in Arizona and New Mexico—hunting opportunities are confined to Arizona, where drawing one of the limited tags is an exercise in extreme patience as you build preference points.
Manuel says he sees considerable interest from U.S. hunters who come to Mexico to complete their Royal Slam, but, to his surprise, one trip does not appear to satisfy a Gould’s craving. “I thought it was going to be a one-time trip for the hunter to complete his or her Royal Slam,” he said, “but it turns out that a lot of the hunters really enjoyed the experience, and now we have clients who come out every year or so.”
After a nickel tour of the lodge, Manuel recapped its history over a glass of wine. “It started as a waterfowl lodge,” he explained, his accent scarcely betraying that English is his second language, “because it’s set between two large lakes and sits in a valley that’s surrounded by corn, oats and barely fields. In 1994 I started the turkey hunts and have used the lodge to accommodate these hunters as well.”
Manuel also said we’d be getting up at 3 a.m., because the rugged ride up the mountain to where the turkeys roost eats up a lot of time. “We’ll be hunting at elevations up to 9,000 feet above sea level, and the roads up there are very rough,” he told us. Which, of course, begged the question: Why aren’t we hunting the lowland agricultural areas we drove through on the way to camp? Perfect turkey habitat. “Poaching is a big problem down here,” Emanuel nodded when I asked him. “The locals hunt turkeys year-round—to eat them, not for a trophy. Pressure is there at all times, so the turkeys go where they feel they are best protected.” Which, of course, meant that’s where we’d be before first light.
My optimism was sky high when I was roused out of bed in the morning (if you can call 3 a.m. morning), even though I had just come off two of the most oppressive turkey hunts I can recall. In Iowa, vocal strutting toms had tormented me for days as they paraded for their hens and ignored my decoys and best calls. In Minnesota, a devastating flood the previous fall had displaced the birds on the property I’ve hunted the past 10 seasons, and I didn’t hear a single gobble during the 3 days I hunted there. I was due for some good fortune.
It was still full dark when Manuel Jr., our host’s son and my guide, pulled the truck onto the edge of a grassy mesa. “They roost there and over there, too— down in the canyons,” he pointed in opposing directions as we quietly slipped out of the truck and eased the doors shut. “After it gets light, they come up here on top.”
I took a deep breath and collected about a half a lung of air. I could make out the jagged outline of altitude-stunted evergreens that dropped off the edge of the mesa and heard the morning’s first gobble. Manual waved me forward and we sneaked along the edge of a deserted pasture until we heard another weak gobble to the east, followed by a much closer response to the west. We were smack dab in the middle of a turkey sandwich!
I plopped down on my chair, leaned back against a small pine and listened to the sweet serenade. Knowing it would be at least a half-hour before the birds dropped to the ground, I settled in and enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells of the dawning day.
The closer tom hit the ground in a foul mood, spewing insults at his rival— shaming him into silence. Manuel did his best to coax the bird closer, but it quickly became apparent that a hen at hand is worth more than one, well, one that isn’t. We switched back to standby as the gobbles faded deeper down the canyon.
I looked over at Manuel and he signaled that we’d stay put and wait it out. My run-and-gun bent had me antsy— anxious to jump up and run the obnoxious bird down. In the end, my guide’s call was the right one, of course. Less than an hour later I perked up, as the vocal gobbler appeared to be getting closer.
I eased my shotgun onto my knee as I caught a glimpse of the tom’s huge white-tipped fan at the far end of the pasture. In predicable fashion, the hens came first and I tried not to blink as they passed by only a few feet from my tree. I kept track of the gobbler out of the corner of my eye as he drifted to my left in full strut. It was now or never—I swung hard and made an iffy 40-yard shot through the lower limbs of a cluster of scrub pines. I was somewhat relieved when the tom hit the ground and stayed put. The hens scattered as Manuel jumped up and rushed to the flopping bird.
I stood and took in the grand vista before joining Manuel at my Gould’s gobbler. The gratification of having completed the Royal Slam paled to the exhilarating experience of hunting these mountain birds in the breathtakingly beautiful Sierra Madre backdrop—even though my hunt lasted only a few hours. And Manuel’s right: Once is definitely not enough.