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Spring Turkey 2018, Snakes and Turkey Talismans

I promised last week that there would be more spring turkey hunting stories coming.  Here ya go. . . .

My son and I did some hunting in southeast Nebraska and then a little over a week later slipped out west.  We had a family celebration to attend to, my daughter graduated from NCTA (Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture) in Curtis so naturally we were out for that.  Emily got a diploma and a nifty-looking belt buckle; I got a new camouflage cap.  Not a bad deal!

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Naturally, we spent some extra time “out west” so we could enjoy the spring and chase some gobblers up and down the canyons of southwest Nebraska.

I mentioned in my previous blog post that the older I get the more casual I am about my spring turkey hunting.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I am going to do what I gotta do to punch a tag, but the season is long and we like to take it at an enjoyable pace.  One can literally be in the field hunting spring toms from before daylight to after sunset and that does not leave a lot of time in between for sleep!  A few days of that can wear a person out.  Sure, I will always tell you that sunrise is the best time of day to hear toms gobbling and locate them, but I have killed a darned lot more turkeys from mid-morning on than I have right as the sun peaked above the horizon.

First, my son and I slipped out for an evening hunt which proved uneventful because for the first time in four evenings the birds went to roost in a different spot!  That’s turkey hunting!

And then we slept in, and by “slept in” I mean we leisurely rolled outta bed around 8:00 and sauntered up the first ridge just after 9:00.

And we were on turkeys right away!

We often hunt canyon country by finding a high spot to sit, listen and look; then go from there depending on what we see and hear.  I learned that strategy from my Uncle Ivan a long, long time ago.  However, we were careful getting to our spots because you never know where you may find those birds feeding by mid-morning.  We encountered a flock right away, and were within easy shotgun range, but I hesitated to take the shot because I wanted a better look at the Tom to make sure I wanted to clobber him and I thought he was going to walk right to me.  The hens ended up heading the other way and after they fed outta sight we started the ole “swing-out-and-try-to-get-in-front-of-them” strategy.  That strategy is often the only one to try when toms are following hens, and it can work as long as you guess the right spot where the birds will show up.  Unfortunately, there is always some uncertainty, half the time I am not sure the turkeys really know where they are going, and there is always a risk of spooking birds while you are making a move.

So, we were sneaking along the side of a canyon, well down off the ridge in cover when my son walks between two cedar trees and stops.

“I see a snake,” he says.

“What kind?” I say.  “Rattlesnake?”

“I think so.” he replies.

I creep forward and look down a few feet in front of him.  The first thing I saw was a snake tail and rattles.

Yep.  That would be a rattlesnake, a fine specimen of a prairie rattler.

This blog post right now would be a lot better with a picture of that snake.  The camera was right inside my turkey vest, but for some reason I did not take it out and snap a couple of photos.  I don’t know, I guess the last thing I was expecting was a rattlesnake, and I was so focused on getting in front of those turkeys.  The snake was not coiled, it was relaxed and never moved, never made a sound.  It was just laying between a couple of cedar trees soaking up the morning sun.

Since I stupidly declined to take a picture, let me substitute the obligatory rattlesnake picture from a previous encounter not far from where we were.  This was NOT the snake we saw, it was NOT laying in a road, but you get the idea:

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I do not know if the snake even knew we were there.  It never acknowledged us.  It did not return our wave when we waved and wished it well.  Snakes do not have arms or hands.

I can tell you this, anytime I encounter a rattlesnake somewhere in the “wilds” of Nebraska, it is a really good day!

We left the snake alone, Daniel turned and whispered, “Look, there’s a shed!”

A shed deer antler was laying not five yards away.

I should have known then that I was going to kill a turkey!

To make a short story longer.  We got to where we wanted to go, but had no confidence that there were turkeys working our way; we had not seen them again, and were not sure where they were.  The whole time there had been another turkey gobbling, at first somewhere way off to the north, but then it was closer, much closer.

My son and I were thinking the same thing, but Daniel was the first to verbalize it:  “Let’s go get that bird that is gobbling”!  We had been sneaking along trying to get in front of birds that may or may not show up where we thought they were going, while there was a bird gobbling, likely alone, that might be a lot easier to kill.

We bailed off that ridge and headed into the canyon bottom where the gobbles were ringing every five minutes or so.

Found a place to setup, pitched a couple of decoys out and then sat down and called for a few minutes.  The bird was around a corner, a corner we did not want to stumble around and end up spooking him.  The bird still gobbled on occasion, but he never did respond to my yelping.  We just were not comfortable with our position.

So, we picked up the decoys, slipped back through some trees where we would not be seen and then crept up to take a better look.

Where was he?

Finally, Daniel spotted him strutting right up against the west edge of the canyon bottom a couple hundred yards away.  We watched him strut back and forth over the same ten yards of ground and gobble once in awhile.  It appeared that he was alone.

A mature Tom, all alone, gobbling and strutting at midday!  A turkey hunter’s dream, that turkey wanted to die!

So what was our play?  Should I sneak forward and try to get closer?  Should we crawl out and pop up a decoy or two on the open canyon bottom between us?  I decided to try calling, soft yelps while watching the gobbler through my binoculars.

He answered immediately.  Now we had his attention!

Some more soft-yelping and he answered again.  As we wondered what to do next, he slowly started our way!

I sat down next to the nearest cedar tree while Daniel crawled back and hid a few yards behind me.

That bird would walk five steps, stop, strut, gobble, peck at some grass, repeat.  We watched him do that all of those 200 yards between us.

Tom glowed in the noon sun, he absolutely shined in that canyon bottom.  He lit it up.  It was beautiful!

I never called again; I did not want him to hang up in the open and strut for that “hen” he had heard.  The way the turkey rut really works in the spring is the toms strut and the hens go to them.  I wanted him to think “she” was back in the timber and likely walking away from him.  As long as he kept working our way, we just let him come!  Sometimes what you do not do is as important as what you do do.

Gotta tell you that I took the shot at a distance a little farther than I usually would.  No, the bird was not getting spooky, he never knew what hit him, but the whole time I knew I was sitting alongside a cedar tree with a patch of sunlight behind me.  I knew I was back-lit and was afraid at some point that Tom would see something he did not like as he was looking hard for the “hen” he had heard.  When I was able to poke my gun barrel between cedar branches, aim and watch him stretch his neck up in the air looking for that “hen”. . . .

Boom!

It might have been 40 yards, but he went right over on his back.

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For you turkey addicts:  2-year old bird, a little over 18 pounds, a thick beard just short of 9 inches.  Not the biggest I have killed, but a classic, memorable hunt with my son!

I am not superstitious, not at all.  The only thing I know for sure is you cannot catch fish or kill turkeys sitting at home on the couch.  But, over the years, it never fails that when we find shed antlers, mostly deer antlers, but wapiti on one occasion, a gobbler is about to die.  Last week I rambled on about the Tom my son killed this spring; when he set up in the creek bottom where he took his bird, he found a skull and antlers laying right there.  The skull and antlers from some kind of devil deer!

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. . . . Then the snake and deer antler as seen above with my bird.

I am beginning to wonder if we should spend less time hunting turkeys and more time looking for deer sheds?

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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