Windfall turkeys – smoke ’em if you got ’em

On a turkey hunt, you take what you can get.

I heard a good turkey-hunting story today. Actually, I’ve never heard a bad turkey-hunting story, but some are better than others. One that turns out good for the hunter and bad for the turkey is usually worth hearing.

Gary Zimmer is a senior regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society. He’s also an avid turkey hunter. I called him late this morning to ask him a few questions for a story I am writing for Wisconsin Sportsman Magazine about Wisconsin’s fall grouse-hunting outlook. (Yes, due to production schedules, the deadline for a September story is actually early April – I am late with this one, and it’s not the first time. I like to have a little idea of what the birds are doing in spring before trying to forecast the fall hunt!) Anyway, biologists usually humor us when we ask them about fall hunting prospects for birds that will come from eggs that haven’t even been laid yet!

Gary was in fine spirits this morning. After we talked about grouse, and how much the fall population level will depend on spring weather and brood success, I asked him if he was turkey hunting.

“Not any more,” he replied.

“Did you get one this morning?” I asked.

“Yup,” he said. Then he told me about his hunt.

His truck broke down on the way to his planned hunting destination. Not a happy situation anytime, but especially unpleasant at 5:00 a.m. when you have a date with a gobbler. Gary was more than a little upset when he got out of the truck, so he slammed the door. If you’re a turkey hunter, you already know what happened next.

“You heard a gobble?” I asked.

“Yup. And it was on public land, so I hurried into the woods and sat down.”

Not long afterward, along came three toms. Gary shot the lead bird. One of the survivors flew off, but the other began attacking the flopping tom, jumping on him and pecking him. Long after he was dead, the assailant pecked at his fallen comrade’s head, appearing to try to pick it up. Gary told me he walked within 15 yards of the bird before it realized he was there and took off.

“Now I have to go get my truck towed,” Gary said. “But I have my bird, so it’s not such a bad deal.”

He was in a much better mood than he could have been, had no bird responded when he slammed the truck door. This anecdote illustrates two fascinating aspects of turkey behavior, both of which have got a lot of birds killed.

First, in spring, a gobbler will sound off at almost any loud noise. Hunters intentionally use crow calls, owl hoots, air horns – almost anything that will make a loud noise but not imitate a hen. You don’t want a gobbler to come in before you are set up and ready for him. Most hunters have killed at least one bird they never would have had a crack at had the bird not gobbled at some noise, often an accidental or inadvertent one. The tom that talks is a huntable bird.

Second, in spring, toms are always fighting with each other, much the way buck deer do in fall. You can sometimes call in a tom by imitating a fight. (Knight and Hale made a bundle selling hunters two push-button calls as a “fighting purr” system. I have never had a bird come to this trick, although I have their calls and have given it a shot when all else fails.) And a tom will sometimes attack an injured or dying fellow tom. If you hunt long enough, you will witness this behavior at least once in your career. A second hunter or a hunter with a second permit can easily bag the surviving tom, as he is often quite preoccupied with his sudden advantage over a rival that might have given him a hard time in the recent past.

More than most types of hunting, a spring turkey hunt often serves up great story material. Sometimes, all you come home with is the story. It’s especially nice when you come home with a bird, too.

I’m off to New York State next weekend to hunt with my brother Mike and son Jon. If we bag any birds or even just a good story, you’ll be among the first to know.

BTW, if you have been following the Lake Delton restoration story, you’ll want to check out this week’s radio show for conversations about the April 20th forage fish stocking with Ben Hobbins, of Lake Resources Group and Iron/Clads Soft Baits, and John Leinenkugel. Ben and I co-founded the Lake Delton Fisheries Restoration Project. John brought a check from the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company to help pay for the fish and other restoration work. You can listen online anytime at Click on Show 417. You can subscribe to our weekly e-newsletter there, too. And the next issue of Wisconsin Outdoor News will feature a story I did on the April 20th event.


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