Hunt For A Rare Red-Phased Gobbler
Hunter's Journal: GON readers share their favorite hunt stories.
By David Hornback
My heart pounded, and I was short of breath as I made my stalk on this once-in-a-lifetime turkey. Knowing the gravity of the situation, the knot in my stomach tightened as I clipped my release on the string of my Mathews Triax bow.
My hunt for this red phase turkey started during the 2017 hunting season. I am an avid bowhunter, who loves every part of wildlife management; from planting the food plots to making sanctuaries and improving the habitat for God’s creation.
I started turkey hunting three years ago with my friend, Ron, and my goal was to take a mature tom with my bow. Since the beginning, I always felt like this would be the ultimate accomplishment to call in or stalk a tom and be able to harvest him.
The 2017 season had just begun when I first saw this red phase turkey. At this juncture, I did not realize what a rare turkey I was hunting. I only knew that he was a beautiful tom, and he became my obsession. I hunted throughout the season, getting the turkey within 50 yards but still out of my effective bow range. I tried not to pressure the area too much, only hunting when I felt like the conditions were right. I would see this bird in the distance in other pastures but never could get a good solid chance at him. When the season came to an end, I was empty-handed for my second turkey season in a row.
With the end of deer season, my anticipation shifted to the upcoming 2018 turkey season. Prior to turkey seasons, I decided to gather an inventory of my turkeys. When I took a look at my game cameras, there was my red tom.
On March 24, 2018, I joked with Ron that since my birthday was March 25, this tom would be an awesome birthday present.
The next morning, we located a spot with a ground blind where we felt we could have the best advantage to harvest this special gobbler. We let out a couple owl hoots, and in the distance, we heard two gobbles. My hair stood up!
We started purring and clucking. The two toms were fired up gobbling at everything. We called, and they came down out of the roost and started working toward us. Gobbling every few minutes, it was an awesome sound. Then the dreaded sight every turkey hunter hates, hens flew down and beelined it to the gobblers. Silence took over the woods, and then we spotted our toms 150 yards out with their five hens.
I experienced several more hunts encountering the same situation. The tom simply refused to come into bow range. He would always get hung up at 50 yards, even with three hen decoys outside my blind. In fact one morning the toms were held up 50 yards out and gobbling their heads off. Next thing I knew, this hen ran past my blind and right to the very tom I was after, and they went happily to the pines up the hill. I looked at Ron and told him, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
So what do we do next? Rather than go after them, we took off down the ditch line and eased up to the pines.
I told Ron, “I’ll call, and you can shoot.”
Remember we are strictly bowhunting these birds. About an hour and half past the hen scenario, Ron was in front of me at about 20 yards and watching ahead in the pines. So I started calling, and in about 10 minutes, two toms (one is the red phase tom) were closing the gap coming in from our right, desperately looking for the hens making all that racket. As soon as I saw them, I begin a quiet whisper, “Ron, Ron, there they are.”
He finally looked to his right where the turkeys were about 30 yards from him. He drew his bow back and shot. He barely missed the regular tom. The red phase was just ahead of the regular tom and lived to gobble another day.
That was my last encounter up close with the red phase tom until my date with destiny on May 10.
The days leading up to our final hunt together, I hunted him here and there trying not to over pressure him. With my time running out, I started seeing him around our farm in different pastures from a distance.
Then GON ran an article about a rare red phase turkey someone had killed. I couldn’t help but think my turkey looked exactly like the one mentioned in the article. I researched what a red phase turkey was and was astounded to discover how rare they are. People told me how this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. When I sent some camera pictures that I had of my turkey to Brad at GON, he proved extremely helpful. He forwarded my pictures to the state turkey biologist to confirm that it was a red phase turkey. I waited with anticipation to see if my turkey was indeed this rare turkey.
Within a day, Brad wrote back with the confirmation that my turkey was a red phase and told me to go get him. That was all I needed to hear. I am a goal-oriented person, so when I set my mind on accomplishing something, I will do my very best and work hard to make it happen. That turkey just made it to the top of my list.
Monday May 7, 2018 came and my dad and my grandfather had both seen the red phase tom in our western pasture. He seemed to show a pattern of appearing every other evening and morning in that pasture. Perhaps his roost was close by.
With only a few days left in the season, the turkeys had become less responsive. I knew the odds were slim that I would be successful in my quest.
On Wednesday, May 9, I talked to my cousin, Caleb, about going hunting Thursday morning for what he called “the golden turkey.” I had a feeling with the gobbler’s pattern I might have a chance on Thursday.
Wednesday evening I got out my Mathews Triax and started shooting at 30 yards, settling the pin and pretending I was putting the pin on this rare tom. Shot after shot my groupings were tight. Even back to 80 yards, I was in a dessert plate grouping. At 40 yards and closer I could definitely get the job done.
Thursday May 10, 2018 had come. I woke up well before daylight and picked Caleb up. We headed to the blind. We sat for hours, lightly calling and waiting but no answer from the tom. We were disappointed, but I knew I had a few more chances. I almost felt like I was deer hunting. I just needed to get in this tom’s way. If I could just see him, maybe I could stalk him.
Low and behold at 10:30 a.m., I was doing some work on the farm, and I heard a gobble in the distance. That had to be him. I ran back to the house and got my bow, my calls and my range finder. I went back near where I had heard him. He gobbled as he headed down a ravine. I did some light purrs and clucks. He answered but never came in.
About an hour or so later, he showed up in my bottom pasture tending a hen. Wow! He was beautiful. Realizing this was my last opportunity at the red phase turkey for the season, I knew this was my moment, and I seized it. He was in full strut with the hen off to his right. I slipped up to about 47 yards from him with my heart racing. Finally my goal was within grasp.
I pulled up my rangefinder and took readings all around the turkey. I shook so much it took me two tries to get the yardage on him. It read 47 yards.
“Dang, I need to be in at least 40 yards for me to feel confident in the shot,” I told myself.
The tom started easing toward me and fanned out again showing off for the hen. I took a few more steps risking detection. I pulled my Leupold rangefinder back out took another reading on him. This time, 40.2 yards. I knew this was it! All the work and all the hours hunting him summed up to this moment. I clipped my release on the string and pulled back to full draw.
The turkey was in full strut quartering away. As I looked through my peep site, I settled my pin, took a deep breath, let some out and squeezed the trigger. I watched the lighted knock head straight for my turkey of a lifetime. It hit him! The gobbler spun around and took off flying with the Easton Axis arrow sticking out of him as I watched him carefully fly over the hill and out of sight. I gave a fist pump, knowing I had just harvested not only my first turkey but also my red phase turkey with a bow.
I gave the tom 15 minutes and went to the impact site and found one of his white- and rust-colored feathers. I started walking in the direction he went. I looked over the hill into the pines, but nothing. There was no trace of the tom, nothing at all! I started to feel nauseated.
I had lost a 140-class 10-point buck on this farm a few years ago and was starting to get those same feelings. I prayed, “Lord please help me find this bird. I don’t want him to go to waste, and I praise your name for him.”
My wife, Lauren, and my mom, Debbie, helped me search for two hours. We couldn’t find anything.
I went back to the impact site and started looking over the landscape again. I thought if that tom had the arrow sticking out of him and headed down into a valley to hardwoods, he would have followed the creek into a thick area. I started walking the creek down 80 yards, then 100 yards and still nothing. Finally at 150 yards, I saw this dark-colored object in the creek. Then I saw tail feathers, beautiful rust-colored tail feathers. There he was, my red phase tom.
“Praise Jesus. Thank you Lord for answering this prayer,” I said.
I walked up to the beautiful bird and felt overwhelming joy and relief. I picked him up, looked him over and evaluated the shot. With my arrow still in him, he had traveled roughly 175 yards. The tom weighed 25 pounds, had an 11 1/2-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs.
I am so thankful for the turkey and the opportunity to harvest him. My journey after this rare turkey was a huge challenge and a great accomplishment. I am so thankful for God’s creation and what He has entrusted us to manage.
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