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Turkeys Down! Turkey Camp

Let me tell you about something very rewarding I got to help with a couple weeks ago.  I was asked to assist with a turkey hunting camp at Maranatha Bible Camp, http://www.maranathacamp.org/ .  This was a men’s ministry camp organized by the Fellowship of Christian Sportsmen, Plus, http://fcsplus.org/ (I believe future camps will be organized by SkyQuest Outdoors, http://www.skyquestoutdoors.com/index.htm ).  There were eleven hunters and seven assistants/guides who attended the camp.  Except for a couple of us “locals”, the guys and one young gal who accompanied her father, were from Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa and South Dakota.  Nebraska’s turkey population, permit structure and permit prices are very attractive to folks looking to travel away from home to do some turkey hunting.  There are several other things Nebraska has to offer our guests, many of which I will mention in the coming paragraphs.

I hesitate to use the word “guide” to describe what I did at the camp.  Those of us who assisted were free to hunt alongside our guests, and we were there more to share our knowledge and faith with them rather than to just “guide” them in filling their tags.  I was paired with a couple of guys from southwest Minnesota, Steve and Mike.  I am betting that both of them are better deer hunters than me, and I know Mike is an avid waterfowl hunter, but Steve had only killed a handful of spring gobblers before our hunt and Mike had never killed a turkey.  It is too late for Mike now, he is hooked, addicted.  If you have never hunted turkeys in the spring, do not start unless you are prepared to do it for the rest of your life!

Before we were paired with our hunters I requested that I wanted someone who thought that all of Nebraska was flat.  Ha!  I knew I would be hunting canyon country southwest of the camp and I needed some guys who could cover some ground, and not flat ground but canyons, hiking up and down.  I know that terrain and country made a great impression on my Minnesota guests as they were taking pictures of it all the time.  They commented several times how beautiful it was.  I knew that, but it really makes a person stop and appreciate it all over again when you introduce someone new to it.

I know we all think that spring is never coming to Nebraska this year.  If you remember a couple of weeks ago, we were talking winter storm warnings, blizzard conditions over parts of our state as well as our neighboring states to the north and east.  Many of our guests literally drove through a blinding snowstorm to make it to turkey camp.  We started our first morning hunt in the snow!

Spring turkey season??????

The weather conditions made it hard to get around let alone scout to get an idea of where to start hunting.  As a consequence, on our first morning, I had no plan other than to get to a ridge top at first light and listen for some birds to gobble.  We would go from there.

We hustled to a familiar ridge first thing.  I guess I was a little wound up to start with as the guys and my nephew who hunted with us that morning said I had them puffing, trying to catch their breath by the time we got to that first ridge top.  By the way, I told them they made my day by telling me that.  When I hunt with my “mountain man” cousin who continually runs the canyons near Valentine, I am 100 yards behind him by the time I get out of the vehicle and I get more out of breath and “behinder” as the day goes on.

Anyway, back to the story. . . . We got to that first ridge line, to a place where we often listen for Toms to gobble, and I heard nothing!  I was thinking to myself that the snow and weather had everything messed up and I was going to spend two days telling my guys how many turkeys were USUALLY running around in those canyons.  We listened for a few minutes, heard nothing, but the wind was still blowing relatively hard, so we slipped down the ridge south a ways to listen again.  Still nothing.

It was time to pull a little trick out of my sleeve.  I pulled my coyote howler out of my turkey vest, told the guys to stand still and listen hard as I was going to walk a few yards from them and “light ’em up”.  I howled once and nothing.  Oh no, my spirits were sinking like the temperature.  Waited a couple of minutes and then let loose with another howl.  Off in the distance I finally, barely, heard a gobble.  I turned to the guys and said “Let’s go, I heard a turkey gobble!”  I do not know if any of them heard that first gobble; maybe they thought I was crazy.  However, Mike told me later that he could see it in my eyes, that they lit up.  (That was the second thing they told me that made my day!)

The hunt was on!

We started towards the sound of gobbling, I had an idea where I wanted to go, dropped down into the bottom of the canyon and found this. . . .

Notice the drag marks in the snow where the Toms had been strutting and dragging their wing-tips.  I turned to the guys and said, “I think we will set up here”.

I have told you before that the in my opinion the KEY to hunting spring Toms is scouting, scouting and more scouting.  On this hunt the weather did not allow me to put in the time scouting that I normally would have, but from hunting those canyons over the years I knew the area we were in was a good one.  It was a spot where three canyon bottoms come together.  In fact, that spot has been so good that there is a big ole cedar tree in the middle of the junction where we have sat and called to turkeys before.  My nephews, son and I had even nicknamed it “The Mother of All Blinds” or “MOAB”  for short.  That is where we headed.  I figured with all the tracks, the birds had rode out the cold and snow in that canyon bottom and they surely would be back.

Between the four of us we had 7 turkey decoys.  We put them all out that first morning.  With the cold and snow, the birds were bunched and I expected a big spread of decoys would help us draw in the entire flock, including a big Tom or two.  More about the decoys later. . . .

When turkeys are flocked-up you can bet the Toms are going to follow the hens.  If you get close enough, you can coax a Tom or two to drift just far enough away from the flock so that you can get a shot, but often you simply are NOT going to call a Tom away from the real live, flesh and feather hens.  However, if you can call the hens in, the Toms will follow.  We sat down and started to call and eventually we got some hens to answer.  Once in awhile a Tom would gobble too.  I told the guys I was thrilled to hear the gobbling, but the hens talking back to me was what I really wanted.  Eventually, I hoped we could pull those hens in along with a big Tom.

After a bit, the hens sounded closer and I could see a Tom walking down the bottom from the south headed right for us.  “OK, here we go!”  He got to within about 60 yards, stopped, strutted a bit and then walked off around a corner where we could not see him.  I figured there were some hens there with him, just out of our sight.  Sure enough, after he disappeared for a bit and we all thought we had lost him, I look down the bottom and here comes a whole flock of turkeys!  There were about 7 or 8 hens and they were marching right to us, big Tom in tow.

Here is where I have to tell the first story about our decoys.  The ground was frozen hard that morning and we did not get the decoy stakes sunk in very good.  With some wind blowing, by the time those hens showed up, we had one decoy tipped down on its nose and another tipped up on its tail.  Those hens got to within about 30 yards of us, the Tom strutting behind them just a little out of range, and they just did not like the look of something.  I am guessing one decoy on its head and another on its tail will do that.  So, they milled around for a minute and then they turned and walked right up the side of the canyon onto a ridge just above us.  You know that big ole Tom followed them.

Mike and Steve could not believe those turkeys walked straight up and down those canyons like mountain goats!

That let the wind out of our sails for a second, but we were all excited with the birds we had right there and my Minnesota friends could not get over the beauty of that Tom, full strut, in the snow, white tips on its tail feathers.

I am betting they can still close their eyes and see that bird.

I can.

As I recall, after those birds walked up the canyon away from us, I slipped out and propped a couple decoys back up.  Then another bird started gobbling south of us.  I hurried back into our cedar tree blind, the mother-of-all-blinds, and started calling again.  Sure enough the gobbling got closer, and again I looked down the canyon bottom to the south and here came another Tom; following the exact same path of the first one!

This one walked in a little closer, and this time we had no hens to compete with.  He got within about 35 yards, did a little strutting and was looking over the decoys.  I asked Steve if he was on him, of course he was, so I “putted” on the call, got the Tom to stick his head in the air, and whispered “kill ’em”.

Steve did!

And then he roared out of the “MOAB”, whooping and hollering!

I knew there might be more turkeys we could have a chance at, but that was OK!  Steve was excited and he should have been!  We all were!  We sat in the cold, on the snow, for 2 hours working those birds, had one close call, and then scored!

I told you that the first Tom, the one we did not get, had beautiful white tips on its tail feathers.  It had the classic coloration of a Merriam’s wild turkey.  This bird came walking down the same path several minutes later and you can see he had a completely different coloration–buff-colored tips.  I told our turkey hunting guests that most of our turkeys in Nebraska are hybrids.  At one time or another Rio Grande, Eastern, and Merriam’s wild turkey “subspecies” as well as some escapee domesticated birds have been released in Nebraska.  The hybrid between those subspecies is the bird that has thrived in much of the state.  Many of our birds are hybrids and you can see a lot of variation in the color of the tail and “rump” feathers on turkeys even in the same flock.  I have even joked that a person can kill 3/4ths of their turkey “grand slam” in Nebraska (one each of all of the country’s subspecies).  Over the weekend I heard many of our guests marvel at the diversity in the coloration of our birds.  I know this, I love the variety and they are all beautiful to me.

OK, less writing and more pictures.

We walked some more, checked a couple of spots for more birds.

We went up and down the sides of those canyons just like the turkeys!

We ended the first morning with that one bird.

After lunch we took a little nap and headed out for the afternoon/evening hunt.  We started down a ridge and soon heard a turkey gobbling his head off.  I told the guys that bird had a death-wish–a turkey gobbling like that in the afternoon is often alone, looking for hens, and vulnerable to calling.

Once again I said “Let’s Go!” as I had an idea of where we needed to be.  We were off again.

We got there, found a place around the corner from where I figured the Tom was, hurriedly pitched out a couple of decoys and hid where we could.  Initially, there was no more gobbling and nothing answered my calls.  I figured that Tom had found some hens, but just as I was getting ready to go looking for him, we heard another gobble!  I started calling again and got some hens to answer me as well as the Tom.  This was a classic hunt, I would call, the Tom would gobble, and you could tell he was getting closer.  Eventually, two hens came around the corner and fed out in front of us.  Then Tom came strutting and gobbling around right behind him.  We had to wait for him to get out from behind the branches of a cedar tree and then it was Mike’s turn.  Get on him.  “Putt” to get his head in the air.  “Kill ’em”.

Mike’s first turkey!

OK, I gotta say something about the calf feeder in the photo.  I know what you are thinking–of course you could kill a turkey there, they were eating the cattle feed.  No, not at all.  That feeder has sat in the bottom of that canyon for years.  I have never seen it used.  From where that Tom was gobbling that was as close as we could get around the corner from him, and at the time I figured, “Hey, we will just sit by the old feeder”.  Mike sat right beside it where the picture was taken, I climbed in behind it to hide and call.

I slipped in for a photo of both guys and their first day birds. Had to get some cedar trees and Nebraska yucca plants in the shot!

My Minnesota friends discovered that their cell phones would not work very well at the bottom of the canyon, “no service”.  But, if we hiked to a ridge top they would be back in range of a tower.  After Mike killed his first bird, he started texting, campaigning his wife for a full body mount of the bird as soon as we hiked to the top of the first ridge.  I think he had her talked into it by the time they left for home!  It was a beautiful bird with big hooks for spurs, a very respectable 9 1/2-inch beard and weighed a little over 19 pounds–a trophy in anyone’s book, especially for a first turkey.

The second morning we followed the same game plan as the first.  When Toms started gobbling I looked at the guys and asked them what they felt about setting up in the exact same spot as the first morning?  We were off again, and once we got to the mother-of-all-blinds, again, there were Toms gobbling on two sides of us.  I figured we were in really good position.

The second morning we put out no decoys.  I did not want to take a chance of the decoys spooking off any hens, again, and I knew there was enough cover where we were sitting that we could get a Tom to keep coming, looking for that “hen” he had heard.  With no decoys out we could play a little hide-and-go-seeky with him.

I thought we would get birds to come from the west that morning and had positioned Mike facing that way.  Wouldn’t you know, the first bird that showed up came waltzing right up the bottom from the south, the exact same path as the two Toms the morning before.  Steve killed him, his second bird, about 5 yards from the exact same spot he killed his bird the first morning.  It gobbled one last time just before Steve knocked him over.

This time with the sun shining and no snow!
Look close, "bonus beards" on Steve's second bird! That added up to about 17 inches of beard, another trophy!

The second morning I had briefed the guys that if we got a bird to just stay put, let it lay, stay quiet, and we might be able to get another one.  We did that after killing Steve’s second bird, continued calling, but nothing showed up.  Eventually, it was time to stretch our legs, so we slipped out and got Steve’s bird, took some pictures, and were standing around whispering, telling stories, when a turkey starts yelping just to the south of us.  Steve and Mike switch places and we bailed back into the cedar tree.  I got a conversation going with that hen and called her right to us.  She milled around us, yelping and clucking for some time and I whispered to the guys “This is good, now we have a live decoy!”.  After quite awhile she drifted back the way she came and then I saw her go feeding by on the east side of us.

And then another turkey gobbled!  Here this one came, right up the same path from the south.  It looked like that big, beautiful bird with the white feather tips we almost got the morning before.  This time with the hen already past us and no decoys out, I am thinking, “this is it, we’re going to get him this morning”.  That bird strutted right up to the spot he was the morning before, strutted back and forth a time or two just out of range, and then turned and went right up the side of the canyon again!  Once he got onto the ridge above us, he gobbled down on our head 3 times just to let us know where he was.

Foiled again.

That basically ended our morning hunt on the second day.  We tried maneuvering on that big Tom, but he went the other direction and we did not want to push it until we spooked him.

Mike had one more tag to fill so we slipped out for one more evening hunt.  Unlike the first evening, we did not find a bird gobbling his head off, so we covered some ground, did some “cutting and running” trying to get a Tom to answer us.  Eventually, we got about as far south as we could hunt, and saw a turkey go around a corner into a side draw.  She was “putting” like she might have been spooked, but I dug the call out, “putted” back to her, and she seemed to calm down.

I wanted to take a peak around that corner but we got pinned down by a couple of mule deer.  Now the Minnesota guys were fascinated with the mule deer we saw, and I did not want to spook those deer and end up scaring any turkeys that might have been in the area.  So, the deer stared at us and we stared at the deer for probably 20 or 30 minutes before they walked past us and then angled up the side of the canyon.  The whole time we were watching those mulies they kept looking up that side draw to the east.  I was betting there were turkeys up there.  When the deer were finally by us, we sneaked up to the corner and I peaked around to see a hen feeding just yards in front of us.  I ducked  back down and told Mike to stay down; that hen was going to feed right out in front of us and who knew?  There could be a Tom behind her.

After hiding for a few minutes and not seeing her, I wondered where she had gone?  I slipped forward to take another look and she was still there, just a little farther out into the middle of the draw.

And then there was a big red head right behind her!

I quickly motion Mike up beside me, whispered to him that the hen was in the middle of the draw right in front of us and that there was a Tom right behind her.  “Stand up and shoot him”.

He did.

My Minnesota friends showed up with two turkey permits each.  I always brag about the hunting and fishing opportunities we have in Nebraska, that is one big reason I blog, but even I was thinking it might be a little ambitious to punch 4 tags in a weekend of hunting.  But we did it!  And all four of those birds were mature, 2-years or older Toms.  Mike’s two birds were both 3 years or older and had nice sharp hooks for spurs!

When we got done I told the guys that I knew at that point they were convinced that Nebraska had the greatest turkey hunting on earth.  It is very good, we are very blessed.  But I told them I did not necessarily expect to do as well as we had done.  That was about as good turkey hunting as I had ever had in a couple of days.  The best part was we called three of the four birds to us, just like we were pulling them in on a string!

We left a few, did not come close to getting them all.  Here was a roost area Mike and drove by after killing that last bird.

My Minnesota friends decided to head for home that night.  So, I slipped out the next morning for a short hunt by myself.  There were some birds gobbling again, but this time they stayed south of where I could hunt.  That’s OK, eventually I will punch my own tag.  This way I get to spend more time watching those big beautiful birds and listening to them gobble.  Oh, the sunrises ain’t bad either.

Let me finish my long-winded story by saying this:  You all know I am a Nebraska “homer”.  I love my home state and I love the hunting and fishing opportunities it provides.  Yes, it is my job to promote those outdoor opportunities, but I take it personally and passionately.  This is MY home and “There is No Place Like Nebraska”.  I am even more convinced of that after sharing my home state and some of its spring turkey hunting with a couple of gentlemen from Minnesota.  To hear their comments, to answer questions and share stories with them, to watch them taking pictures of everything, and of course to share in the excitement of their successful hunts, convinced me again that we really have something special here.  The people are special, the habitats and geography are special, and the fishing and hunting opportunities are special.  Sure, we have our challenges, and believe me, there is plenty of good hunting and fishing in other places too.  I know that.  But, I am darned proud of Nebraska and what we have to offer, and after spending a weekend with a bunch of out-of-state turkey hunters, I am prouder than ever.  Being around those guys stoked my passion even more.

Steve and Mike, I am glad I got to share some of my spring turkey hunting passion with you.  I hope you learned something more than just enjoying Nebraska, our hybrid turkeys and having successful hunts.  It was my pleasure to share it all with you and I enjoyed every minute of it!  Thank you for letting me share the pictures to go along with my stories.

I can still see that beautiful Tom with white feather tips, in full strut, in the snow.   I think I just heard him gobble again, I gotta go!

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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