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Turkey Down! Combodacious!

This may be my last report from the spring turkey “woods” for 2013.  It has been one of the best seasons ever for me; I have assisted/guided in the taking of several birds and then finally punched a tag for myself.  Once again this year, I traveled to the Ponderosa pine-covered canyons that break into the Niobrara River for my bird.  I have hunted turkeys this spring from the rolling farm land of southeast Nebraska to the rugged cedar tree-studded canyons of southwest Nebraska, and finally to the even more rugged pine tree canyons of north-central Nebraska.  My hunting partners and I have found lots of turkeys in all of those places and filed away a lot of memories this spring.  One thing I have loved about it has been being able to hunt those big, beautiful Toms in so many different habitats.  Once again I will say it–Nebraska is a land of great diversity, great variety, and I love being able to hunt turkeys in all of those different places.

The canyons and Ponderosa pines of north-central Nebraska were the setting for my beginnings as a spring turkey hunter and those places will always have a special meaning to me.  In my mind the sound of the wind sighing through those pines is meant to be the background music for a gobbling Tom.  That is quintessential spring turkey hunting for me.  I like being able to run out after work and hunt spring gobblers close to home, but I also love being able to take a long weekend and travel to some of the prettiest and in my opinion, best places of Nebraska to hunt.  In many ways I feel like I am “back home” when I nestle my butt back up against one of those pines and listen to a turkey gobble.  I will never forget the first morning I ever did that, and I will never forget that rush–I still get it.

Even though my son and I hunted land that I have hunted for a darned long time, much of it public land might I add, we were reminded that spring turkey hunting can be hard work.  Turkey numbers are excellent and we found several big Toms running around, but it took us some time to figure out exactly what they were doing and what would be our best hunting strategies.  In the process we had some close calls, and no spring turkey season would be complete without a bunch of those.  There were a couple of times I called in gobbling birds and it looked like “putting the cherry on top” of our hunt was imminent.  But, if you are a spring turkey hunter you know how fast a “slam dunk” can go south.  There was once when two big Toms literally went south when all I needed was for them to come another 20 yards or so north!  And what was frustrating about those particular big Toms was they roosted in the same spot every night, and in two mornings of hunting we still could not figure out exactly what we should have done to kill one of them.

On another occasion we spent an evening hunt sitting along the rim of a canyon, in the exact spot where we have killed Toms before, calling, watching, and waiting for some birds to show up.  The wind was blowing.  “No kidding, the wind blows in Nebraska?”  After we had sat in that spot for an hour, my cousin who hunted with us that evening, decided he would slip down the canyon behind us to see if he could see or hear something.  In about 10 minutes he came back and told my son and I that down there in the canyon, out of the wind, there were turkeys gobbling all over the place.  I picked up one of our decoys, threw it at him, and told him “Baloney”.

I should have known better.  He was right.

We dropped down off the rim maybe a hundred yards, maybe not even that much, got out of the wind, and sure enough–there was a turkey gobbling his head off just to the north of us.  We slipped down to where we thought we might call him in, found some pines to sit up against and I started calling.  That bird gobbled right back at me, right away.  “It’s on like Bing Bong” I thought to myself.  In less than 5 minutes I looked up the side of the canyon and here comes this big, beautiful Tom strutting around the corner.  Notice I said I looked up and watched that bird strolling and gobbling along.  I have called Toms downhill before, it can work, but any experienced turkey hunter will tell you that it is better to be on their level or a little above them.  Sure enough that big Tom stayed there above me and would gobble at every sound I made, but he was not coming down.  I shut up on the call for 20 minutes to see if I could get him to break for that “hen” and come on down.  He would not.

We waited until we were sure he was out of sight and then re-positioned on him.  We went right back up on the canyon rim, back up in the wind, but that put us close to that bird and on his level.  I could hear him gobble a couple more times as I set up, and I called as loud as I could, but then I could hear the gobbles fading away to the north.  We tried, but he went the other direction.  If only the wind had not been blowing so hard, but that is hunting in Nebraska–you have to learn to hunt in the wind.

While we were sitting there I looked across the prairie to the north of us and spotted something white out in the grass.  I could not imagine what that could be, and when I looked through my binoculars I still could not believe it.  Standing there in the grass was a hen turkey and from the chest on up she was white.  All I could see was the white chest, neck and a pink head.  She fed my way so I got a good look at her.  She was not an albino, was not completely white, but was a smoke-phase colored wild turkey.  I have seen a couple other turkeys in Nebraska that had the same coloration.  Her chest was completely white, but she had some barring on the wings and lower body.  Her tail was gray with darker bars on it.  Daniel, my son, and my cousin were sitting several yards behind me, but as “Pearl” went feeding by me they got a good look at her too.  Daniel tried snapping a picture.  I am going to post it here, but I am warning you the photo is not good at all.  Zoom in on it if you can and just on the right side of the tree in the middle of the frame, you can see that smoke-colored hen.

I have to tell you one other story about hunting with my cousin, Robin.  Twice that evening Robin walked a straight line 50-100 yards away, bent over and picked up shed deer antlers.  One time he picked up a matched pair and the other time he picked up two antlers that appeared to be the same antler from the same side from the same deer shed a year apart.  Each time I stood there and watched him with my jaw on the ground.  “How did he know those sheds were there?”  I was thinking my “mountain man” cousin had developed some sixth sense for finding shed deer antlers.

Then he laughed and told me while we were sitting, trying to call turkeys he had spotted those antlers through his binoculars.  Now I know why we could not find any turkeys–he was busy looking for deer antlers!  I also now know why he has a big pair of expensive binoculars!

The next morning, after being frustrated by the two Toms I described earlier, my son and I went on a hike to an area where we observed a bunch of turkeys the morning before.  At that time we were hearing no gobbling and had not spotted any birds, but we knew this area was a spot the turkeys were using.  On the way to where we wanted to set up, we spotted a big Tom laying down, on a sunny hill side, with his wings spread out.  Now I have seen turkeys nod off and take a nap (had a big Tom do that in front of us after ignoring our decoy one time), but this was the first time I have ever seen a turkey sunning itself.  If that ain’t what that turkey was doing, I have no idea what it was doing.

Anyway, we got to where we wanted to be, sat down, got comfortable, and eventually I stroked out a few yelps on my aluminum “slate” call.  We sat for 10 minutes and I spot a couple of turkeys coming from the south, from the direction of the sunning turkey.  I put the binocs on them and could see they were both big Toms.  Whether those birds heard my calling and started our way or whether we just happened to be where they wanted to go, I have no idea, and I do not care.  All I know is I watched them march several hundred yards, feeding along the way, never gobbled or strutted, but marched straight to us.  I softly purred on the aluminum one more time when they got within a hundred yards and then just let ’em come.

At 25 yards the closest one stuck his head in the air.

I shot him.

Got to share the hunt with my son. The first time he was ever with me when I killed a Tom was not far from this spot. He killed his first bird in the same canyon too!

One of the first things I examine after knocking over a Tom is its spurs.  After my bird quit flopping I grabbed the legs and the first one I looked at had only a little nub for a spur, just what a 1-year old jake would have.  “What?”  I could not believe it.  The other leg had a typical 2-year old spur, but that was it–I shot a Tom with only one spur.  I have killed big Toms before that had broken spurs, the Toms really mix it up in the spring, but this one just plain had no spur on one leg.

And then it weighed only 17.4 pounds.  Of course both of my kids are going to gloat about killing bigger birds this spring than the old man.

Whatever.  Mine had two beards!

That was the last unpunched turkey tag any of us had.  Yes, we could have purchased another permit or two, and I do hate to quit hunting turkeys in the spring, but then we were able to help cut and split some firewood for my cousin and his wife, spent some time celebrating birthdays with family, and then it was time to fish!

Daniel and I slipped out to Merritt to spend the next day fishing.  What a beautiful day!

Did I mention it was a beautiful day?

When anglers start talking about how nice the day was and everything else, that is code for “we could not catch any fish”.  We fished hard, enjoyed a great day, missed a couple of pike early in the day, but then could not buy a fish.  I do not know why.  The water we were fishing looked great, we knew fish had been caught there recently, we tried everything we could think of.  Nothing.

I did spot a half dozen small muskies finning in shallow water, in flooded vegetation.  If you look close you can see one in this photo.  (Hint, look for the barred pattern on the fish’s back.  The fish is sitting just under the surface.)

I suspect those were the 12-14-inch, year-old, fingerlings that had been stocked just a week or two before.  They should do very well; the habitat they were hiding in was perfect.

We ran back into Valentine for supper, but as we were leaving the reservoir both Daniel and I had the feeling that we needed to be back there that evening.  So, that is what we did, drove to Valentine, had supper with my cousin and his wife, and then turned right around and drove back to Merritt for the evening bite.  When we got back, there was a wind that had kicked up and conditions looked much better.  It took Daniel all of 10 casts to catch a pike.

I finally talked one into biting too.

Smile, show those teeth!

We had a couple of other follows that evening, but those were the only two fish we hooked up.  It was a good evening because we got to spend some time fishing with my cousin’s son, and after a long day of catching nothing our persistence paid off in catching a couple of fish.  I absolutely hate to catch nothing when I am fishing, so sometimes I fish really, really hard just to “kill the skunk”.

We had to head for home the next day, but before we left, on the way home, you know we could not resist making a few more casts into the waters of Merritt Reservoir.  It definitely was NOT a bluebird, nice day like the day previous as there was a small thunderstorm to the south of the reservoir and a “chop” on the water.  Daniel and I missed a couple more pike, and then just before we quit, I coaxed a small muskie into eating a swimbait.

Of course my son has me beat on the size of muskies caught so far this year too ( http://magazine.outdoornebraska.gov/2013/04/nebraskies/ ).  But, I will take it, and I ain’t done yet!

Weeks ago I warned anyone looking for me in the office that I would be “out” as much as possible.  It is spring and Nebraska offers a bunch of great opportunities to combo-up on a turkey hunting and fishing trip.  There simply are so many turkeys gobbling, so many fish to catch, and so little time.  I will transition from an outstanding spring turkey season and start spending more time on the water now, but there is one more thing that I have to do this spring. . . .

The mushrooms are gobbling, I hear one now, gotta go!

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About daryl bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager.
Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species.
He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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