Kill Tough Gobblers
Joe Drake, Sam Stowe and Herb Brown share the stories of their toughest birds and the hard lessons that came with them.
Turkeys are unpredictable, unreliable and undependable. Rarely can you count on what a gobbler will do, when he’ll do it or how he’ll do it. As a turkey hunter, you are allowed multiple chances and dozens of screw-ups before you actually get to take your safety off.
However, as a turkey hunter you’ll learn to take these agonizing times before the shotgun blast, and learn from them. I talked with three expert Georgia turkey hunters who agreed to share the stories of their toughest battle with a gobbler. Even good turkey hunters have those hard-luck stories.
Sam Stowe from Covington has probably heard more Georgia turkey-hunting stories than just about anybody. Sam used to be the president of the Georgia Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Sam wanted to share the story of a Washington County gobbler that he hunted and killed in 1993 on a 2,500-acre club that ran through portions of the Buffalo Creek swamp. It was the second weekend of the season when Sam met this turkey.
“I roosted the bird on Friday, so I knew exactly where he was at,” said Sam. “I went in on Saturday morning and set up 75 yards away. He gobbled 20 times on the roost before daylight, and I made one tree call. At daybreak, I did a flydown cackle and he double gobbled.”
Sam just knew he was fixing to kill a longbeard, but the 15 hens that flew down with the gobbler changed those plans real quick. For 45 minutes, the bird strutted out of gun range before the flock of turkeys left.
The next morning the bird was roosted only 50 yards from where he was the previous morning. Hoping the gobbler would repeat his Saturday-morning performance, Sam set up near where the bird had flown down the day before. The noisy bird gobbled 30 times as Sam did a tree call and a fly-down cackle. Some hens began to wake up near the gobbler, so Sam made a few wing beats and added some yelps before the birds ever left the tree. The tom stayed fired up, double and triple gobbling back at Sam.
“The hens pitched down right under the gobbler’s tree,” said Sam. “Instead of the bird pitching off as he did the previous morning, he pitched right under his roost tree to the hens. The hens took him away from me again. I was sunk again.”
Sam stayed sunk the following Thursday morning and into Friday. The gobbler would gobble, fly-down with hens and leave in a different direction each time.
Sam went back the following Wednesday and roosted the bird about 300 yards from his previous hunt. He got back into the swamp real early the next morning, and he went in a different way that allowed him to get behind the gobbler.
“I didn’t do anything until he gobbled that morning,” said Sam. “When he gobbled 20 minutes before light, I tree called and he hammered back at me. I didn’t do a thing until the bird flew out, and when he did, he was just 60 yards from me. The only thing I did was cluck and purr to that bird. I never even made a yelp or anything. Each time he would strut he would move a little closer. I let that bird strut within 20 yards of me until I hit an alarm putt. He broke out of strut, threw his head up, and I killed him.”
Sam’s hardest-to-kill gobbler weighed 22 1/2 pounds, wore an 11-inch beard and had 1 1/8-inch spurs.
“Patience and persistence was the biggest lesson with that bird,” said Sam. “Sometimes aggressive calling works, sometimes it doesn’t. In any given situation, you’ve got to feel your own way, you have to do what your heart tells you is right. I’ve killed birds where I’ve just hammered down on them, and I’ve killed some birds where I’ve made just a few light calls and that is it. Patience and learning a bird is where it’s all at.
“These birds are just like an old friend when you get to know them. I know what I can say to someone that won’t make them mad, I know what I can say to them that might hurt their feelings. It’s the same way with a bird, you have to learn the bird you’re hunting.”
Sam went on to say that patterning a bird is a common way to kill a bird, but after watching the bird leave in sporadic directions, it proves that patterning isn’t always dependable.
“Probably some of your older birds are hard to pattern,” said Sam. “Hunters tell me that you go to a strut zone, and you’re going to kill that turkey. You might, but that bird didn’t get that long beard by being stupid. Some of the older turkeys that I’ve seen may even vary the times they go to strut zones.”
As to the question of hens on the morning of the kill. “I have no idea where the hens were, maybe I got to the bird before the hens, maybe I was just set up in the right place. I’m sure there were some hens in the area. He had a pile of them the morning before. He also flew off a little earlier that morning. That was to my advantage also, there’s always luck involved in turkey hunting.”
Joe Drake: This story is about a Marion County gobbler taken in 1998 on a tract of land where Joe Drake of Fortson and several other folks had access. The bird quickly got accustomed to daily visits from hunters, and his stubbornness branded him with the name Hard Head.
Joe, a competition turkey caller, said the funny thing about Hard Head was that he didn’t have sharp hooks. He was one of those “dumb” 2-year-old birds.
“There was an old boy with him, but he got killed after the first four or five days of the season,” said Joe. “It left his protege with 15 to 17 hens.”
Joe went to battle with this bird several mornings throughout the season with the same results.
“Hard Head would gobble his brains out, but he wasn’t going anywhere,” said Joe. “I guess he’d gotten whipped, and he had this harem of hens. He had all he wanted. As the season went on he’d breed and gobble every morning. If I was in the area, I’d have to at least check him. I’d get him fired up, and he just wouldn’t work. Still I had to check him.
“Several people knew him, so he got hammered and educated. This guy had a scholarship in being called to. He’d heard every box call, slate call and mouth call. He knew all of us.”
On the last day of the 1998 season, Joe went hunting with his wife Patty and his son Tom, another competition turkey caller. They hunted a new spot in the morning with no luck. The trio of late-season die-hards wanted to check Hard Head one last time. Joe got out of the truck at 11 a.m. He yelped and cutt, and Hard Head gobbled.
“We got our stuff and walked down there,” said Joe. “While we were setting up, he started gobbling on his own, something he’d never done before. We got the camera set up, and Patty sat down and got the gun up on her knee.”
With the camera ready to go, and Patty ready to blast away, the hunters sat quietly after some initial calling to let the bird know there was an interested hen nearby.
“After about 30 minutes or so he got to gobbling on his own, and he was closer,” said Joe. “We let him come on, and I didn’t call to him anymore until he got almost within sight. Then I hushed up and didn’t call anymore.”
Joe said Hard Head was nervous. He’d take a few steps, go into a half strut, stick his head up and just look. He’d put his head back down and come a little closer.
“I said, ‘Patty, don’t hardly breathe, anything goes wrong and he’s gone; I knew he had to be a giant turkey, I still didn’t know he was just a 2-year-old. He was going so slow. But everything worked out and Patty took the bird. I went over there looking for long hooks, and he didn’t have them.”
A dead bird at 12:30 was a sigh of relief for the Drake family, and it was a lesson learned for all of them.
“Don’t give up on a gobbler if you know where he’s at,” said Joe. “We messed with this turkey all season long, and finally he worked for us. If you can find him without hens, or if his mindset is right, you can call that turkey. Also, I don’t think anyone had messed with him in a few days. He may also have had hens at daylight, and when we got to him by late morning the hens may have gone to nest.”
Joe said later on in the season hunting just gets better because of a lack of available hens. Persistence with hunting any gobbler is key, however, too much persistence may do more harm than good. According to Joe, if that gobbler has a bunch of hens, it may be time to go find another bird if you have that kind of land access.
“There’s nothing worse than educating a turkey,” said Joe. “He’ll gobble a couple of hours at you, and then he’s going to hush. If you’re still calling to him, he’ll know something isn’t right.”
Leave and come back for several mornings in a row, and try an afternoon hunt if you can. If there’s still not a dead bird on the ground, Joe said leaving the bird alone for three or four days can help. It’s the same scenario with Hard Head. It was late in the season, he didn’t have hens, and nobody had messed with him in several days.
However, if you can’t hunt but maybe once a week, there are options. Joe said if you’re calling to a bird and he’s working a little bit and several hens start walking by you, it’s time to take an offensive position.
“You’ve got to do something, because they’re going to him,” said Joe. “One thing you can do is bump the hens, but that’s iffy. It depends on how close they are to the gobbler. If he hears them cackle or putt, he’s not going to shut up.
“Don’t give up. If you’re there at the right time and place, you can kill him. I don’t care if he’s the baddest boy in town.”
Joe is a professional turkey caller, and he emphasizes that you don’t have to sound even close to professional to kill a turkey.
“I guarantee you I probably use just three calls,” said Joe. “I cutt to get them cranked up, I do some soft yelping to them, and when they get hung up I’ll cluck and purr and soft hen yelp. I just don’t use all that stuff (competition calls). If you can cluck and yelp a little bit, you can kill the biggest one out there. You do need to be a good woodsman though.”
Herb Brown: Herb Brown is from Reidsville. Besides being a turkey-hunting nut, he’s the local chapter president for the Tattnall Limbhangers, a chapter of the NWTF. He wanted to share a story from 1985 from deep in the Altamaha River swamps of Tattnall County.
“I found this bird on a Thursday morning, he was the only bird that gobbled that morning,” said Herb. “It was about the third week of the season. I got 75 yards away from him. He flew down with five hens, stayed with them and left.”
Herb went back the next morning, and the gobbler was roosted in the same place. He was gobbling pretty hard. Two hens flew down, and he hit the dirt right behind them. They came within 40 yards, but the hens stayed right behind him. Herb never could get a safe shot. Another bird started gobbling on down the river, and they left.
Herb fooled with that bird for the next several weeks with the same results. It wasn’t until about three weeks later that Herb began educating himself about how he was going to kill that bird. However, Herb was still due a few more battles before the war would end.
“I eased in there on a Thursday morning,” said Herb. “He never gobbled, so I got up, took about 10 steps, and he flew out of the same tree. He went across the river.
“The next morning, I wasn’t going to that bird, because I’d run him off. I knew he’d be on the other side of the river. I owl hooted, and he was the first bird I heard. He was in the same place. I couldn’t believe it. I had to get in my truck and go to him.”
By the time Herb arrived, the birds were already on the dirt. He knew the birds were almost religious about going down the river, so Herb started out to get in front of the flock.
“After I got in front, I called two or three times,” said Herb. “He’d gobble at anything I did. I could see turkeys 70 or 80 yards down the slough bottom. I got to looking, and I could see hens. They were going to bring him to me.
“I never called, and the hens fed on by me, but I never saw the gobbler. I waited an hour and stood up, and I saw him standing in the edge of some rivercane. He putted and ran back up the river. That was twice I’d ruined my chance at him. He was in a little patch of rivercane, and I couldn’t see him when he came by.
“I went back that afternoon, something I didn’t do very much, and a thunderstorm was way off in the west,” said Herb. “Everytime it’d thunder, he’d gobble. I had a Ben Lee Super Hen slate call. I purred to him one time, and he double gobbled. Thunder came closer, and he’d gobble. I called one more time, and he hammered back. I laid it down, eased my gun up and he ran up within 15 yards and stopped. That’s the hardest bird I’ve ever killed in my life.”
Herb said he always wondered what he did wrong with that bird. A few years back at the Rattlesnake Roundup in Claxton he asked turkey-hunting legend Roscoe Reams about the Tattnall County bird that took so long to kill
Roscoe told Herb, “I don’t see where you’ve done anything wrong, you finally did everything right. You got in there and stayed with him. That’s the only way you’re going to kill those old birds. Sooner or later, those hens are going to leave him, and he’ll get lonesome.”
There are some things Herb learned from his bird. One was that the Ben Lee slate call that he used to purr with was a call that he had never tried on the bird. Changing calls could have made the difference.
“Another thing I learned, said Herb, “is if the bird stays in the same tree morning after morning, I’ll change my direction of entries into him every single time. That bird had been going down the river the whole time. When I went down the river after him, he was there. I just didn’t give him long enough.”
Also, during an afternoon with thunderstorms in the forecast, Herb will probably be in the swamp.
“Before a thunderstorm, these son of a guns will gobble down here on the river,” said Herb. “If it hadn’t started thundering that afternoon, I wouldn’t have killed him. His gobbling let me get a good bearing on him. I changed my direction and got ahead of him.”
These three guys know how to get on turkeys and kill them. But they all agree that turkeys will be turkeys. Use the knowledge from their mistakes as your tactic this spring. Maybe you won’t have a hard-luck story to tell.
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