Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

The game that never grows old

Photo by Maslowski/National Wild Turkey Federation

This week’s column celebrates the many challenges of spring gobbler hunting:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Well, it’s time once again to play “advanced cowboys and Indians.”
One of my favorite hunting partners, Jeff D’Agostino, used that phrase to describe spring gobbler hunting. I can’t imagine a better way to put it.
Turkey hunting is, more than anything, a battle of wits. To be successful, hunters must persuade tom turkeys to do something that goes completely against their nature: Go looking for a hen with which to mate.
Like high-profile movie stars and professional athletes, turkey gobblers are accustomed to having females at their beck and call. Toms in the mood for feminine companionship advertise their availability by gobbling. Hens that haven’t yet mated hear the gobble and come a-running.
Hunters face the daunting task of turning that paradigm on its head. They sit in the woods, yelping, clucking and purring like hens, and hope they sound sexy enough to pique all the nearby gobblers’ curiosity.
Obviously, it helps to be a good turkey caller. Hunters who best imitate all those hen sounds enjoy the greatest chance at success.
But just as there’s more to making music than just knowing which notes to play, there’s more to turkey-calling success than knowing how to reproduce the sounds.
Experienced turkey hunters take several factors into account before they make the first sound. They gauge the distance to the gobbler, which tells them how loud or soft they should call. By paying close attention to how frequently the gobbler gobbles, hunters can divine how desperate for companionship the gobbler might be.
Smart hunters assess the surrounding terrain to determine where best to set up ambushes. They look for places that afford commanding views of the surrounding woods but provide enough concealment to avoid gobblers’ sharp-eyed scrutiny.
Once the calling starts, the real game of wits begins.
Hunters fortunate enough to hook up with 2-year-old toms have it relatively easy. Birds that age are only just beginning to understand the mating process, and they haven’t yet gathered enough experience to be fully aware of hunters’ tricks.
Three- and 4-year-old gobblers are a different story. Gobblers old enough to be considered “boss birds” or “longbeards” have almost certainly heard hunters’ calls before, and have almost certainly been spooked by inappropriate calling, excessive movement, poor decoy deployment, bonehead blunders and worse. To say they become cautious would be a gross understatement. “Freakishly paranoid” would describe it much better.
Well, maybe not. Paranoia is a human attribute, the product of a large and highly developed brain. Turkeys’ brains are about the size of a walnut, so to call a turkey highly intelligent would be gilding the lily more than a little.
It’s more accurate to say that turkeys have exceptionally strong survival instincts aided by an almost supernatural ability to see and hear what’s going on around them.
Their eyes are located on opposite sides of their heads, so they have almost a 270-degree field of view. Like most birds, they have exceptionally keen vision and seem to notice even the slightest of movements.
Their ears can detect and pinpoint sounds from up to a mile away. Hunters who walk loudly through the woods, rattle the contents of their turkey vests or chat on their cellphones most likely will go home empty-handed.
If all this sounds discouraging, it truly isn’t meant to be. Keep in mind that thousands of hunters each year manage to play the game well enough to bring home a bird or two.
There’s no way to know for sure, but I’d bet that as kids, most of those hunters played cowboys and Indians. I’d bet they were good at it, too.