Stickers and Spurs

You'd better have thick skin to pursue wild turkeys under a hot, west Texas sun.

The broken cactus spine sticking into my left knee was sending pain to my brain with each step. My God it hurt! But a West Texas turkey was gobbling his fool head off only a couple hundred yards ahead, so spine removal would have to wait for later.

As my hunting partner/guide, Dustin Whitacre, and I slowly approached the gobbles, it became clear the tom was hidden—strutting probably—beyond a dense screening of 12-foot-tall cedars. Sitting down quickly under a mesquite tree, I raised my knees and then rested my shotgun directly on the cactus spine—Ouch! I didn’t yell it out loud, but for a millisecond I wanted to cry like a baby getting his first shot.

Dustin’s slate call sent a few pure yelps and clucks into the afternoon air, and although the tom went silent, I knew the chances were fair that he’d sneak around the cedars to investigate.

One minute. Nothing. Two. Then three. Finally, the tom’s red head appeared to the right of the cedars, but he was closer to 50 yards away than 40. He walked into the clear for only 15-20 seconds before quickly turning on a dime and heading back behind the cedars.

It was the first afternoon, and I’d been hunting exactly 1 hour. Should I have shot? Was the tom within range? I was still trying to reconcile my real-life “You Call the Shots” scenario when Dustin quietly stood and motioned for me to join him on a sneak around the cedars and closer to the tom’s probable position. And within a minute or two we discovered the reason for the tom’s reluctance to “play ball.” He had two hens with him and had no desire to find companionship elsewhere. The hens and the lone tom fed calmly at 70 yards, and he occasionally went into half-strut when his ladies would glance his direction. Because stalking these birds was impossible due to the lay of the land, we simply sat down and waited for them to drift away across the cactus-dotted flat.

Playing The Waiting Game

Any blue-collar hunter who spends time on public land will tell you the type of turkey hunts you see on TV, where thundering gobblers strut into decoys at close range, are rare. And even on private land such as this 100,000-acre sheep/cattle ranch near El Dorado, Texas, turkeys are often wary and uninterested in tracking down every hen call, especially when that call is made by a human.

I’ve spent many years pursuing uncooperative gobblers across North America, and I’ve learned that when birds won’t come to the call, you’re best off shutting up and letting the birds drift by you on their schedule—not yours. Thankfully, Dustin and I were on the same page when it came to dealing with wary birds, so after spending a couple hours chasing distant gobbles in the 80-degree heat, it felt great to take a seat under the shade of a mesquite tree, wipe the sweat from my brow and do what I do best—wait in ambush.

We sat facing each other, and every 15-20 minutes Dustin would make a few yelps with his slate call—more I suspect to make sure I was awake in the late-afternoon heat than any serious attempt to lure in a cruising tom. As I looked to the south and west, Dustin looked north and east.

At one point, three toms and two hens approached our position from the west, but they veered out of shotgun range at the last moment. Our plan was working.

“Pssst. Dave. There’s a tom to the north. Forty yards, but he’s looking this way— don’t move.” Dustin’s eyes were glued to the longbeard, and because the bird was on my off-hand side, I encouraged Dustin to pick up his shotgun and fill his open tag.

Pretending not to hear my offer, he whispered, “I’ll tell you when you can move to get onto your knees. Do it slow and keep your eyes on the bird.”

“Now!” he whispered, and as quietly as I could I was off my butt and onto my knees with my finger working the safety of my 12 gauge pump. The tom’s head was still down as he fed broadside to us at only 25 yards, but he quickly spotted my silhouette between two thick patches of thorn-studded bushes. Raising his head in an attempt to get a better look at me, the tom made a fatal mistake and took one more step—directly into my shooting lane. Mr. Turkey, meet Mr. Crock Pot.

Been There, Done That

I believe baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” And although I’m sure he wasn’t talking about turkeys, he might as well have been, because conditions on the final morning and afternoon of my 2- day, two-bird hunt were identical to day No. 1, right down to the uncooperative turkeys, blue skies, puffy white clouds and sharp cactus spines. And like Yogi, I decided to keep things simple and stick with a proven plan: I found an ambush spot only 30 yards from where my first turkey bit the dust. In fact, I could see a few body feathers from that tom still blowing back and forth in the sheep-grazed green grass.

I was hunting alone for this sit-and-wait session, so I sat where I could survey the turkeys’ prime feeding clearing. Interestingly, several hens arrived during the next couple hours, but each one spooked when they neared the body feathers of my first tom. Although I couldn’t imagine how a few blowing feathers could bother a critter with a brain the size of a peanut, I know what I saw and decided to relocate a short distance away.

Soon after my move, and after a few soft yelps on my mouth call, five hens fed past me at 100 yards on their way to feed in the same short-grass clearing where I killed the tom the day before, and I was kicking myself for changing ambush spots. But only 5 minutes later I heard turkey feet pounding dead leaves behind me as they sprinted from the clearing and past me at 45 yards.

“They spooked from the blowing feathers,” I said to myself in disbelief, and as I was counting the train of birds as they streaked by, my eyes did a double- take when a sixth bird looked like a red-topped caboose. I quickly spun into shooting position and the tom spotted my movement and stopped—at times it’s far better to be lucky rather than good. At 48 yards my first shot broke his wing, and a quick follow-up shot put him down for good.

A glance at my watch showed 6:10 p.m., only 2 minutes later than when I scored the day before, and on this 100,000-acre ranch, I’d killed two birds within 50 yards of each other. Yogi would’ve been proud.

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