Marathon Turkeys

Hunt longbeards enough and you’ll eventually find yourself on a marathon hunt that may take you for miles.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | March 9, 2016

The author (kneeling) with a bird that he and Mark Payne shot that involved getting totally lost, climbing multiple ridges, winding through different hardwood bottoms, fighting briar thickets and bogging down in knee-deep mud.

I have been fussed at by more than one or two clients over the years because of my tendency to walk too fast or too far in the turkey woods. However, there are times when a quicker pace or a longer walk is needed to reach the goal of getting a turkey to ride home with me. I generally walk 100-plus miles each turkey season in my 50-plus days afield.

Sure, I love it when I can leave my truck well before daylight and be standing back by it dropping a turkey in it by 7:30, but that doesn’t happen all that often.

When I was younger, I welcomed the challenge of all-day hunts that tested my endurance and pushed me to the limits. When I got older, I found myself actually putting some of my favorite areas on the back burner simply because I knew it was likely an all-day commitment once I reached those long-distance locations.

The result of that attitude was longer days in between the hunts where I found myself putting a bird over my shoulder. That just wasn’t acceptable when I began to realize I was wasting opportunities.

It has been a while since I placed any turkey hunting stomping grounds on the back burner because of the time I’d have to spend there or the miles I’d have to travel to get there.

When the time comes to walk a while to get your bird, you might consider a few things along the way that will take a punch out of the journey, make it more enjoyable and increase your chances of killing a bird.

Full Circle Marathons: Longtime friend and hunting partner Bobby Knight and I stepped out of the truck one morning with a good setup in mind. We made a game plan the previous evening and had decided to hunt a group of birds that were roosted on a high ridge overlooking an open hardwood creek bottom. We reckoned it would be about a 15-minute walk to our setup, and since we had seen birds fly down routinely across the creek into an opening, we had plenty of reason to believe we would be at the Huddle House in less than a couple of hours. Here is where our game plan fizzled, and we were reminded that turkeys simply don’t follow scripts.

Fly down that morning consisted of some typical turkey racket that soon faded into the distance. We were a little aggravated that we had made a poor choice of where to set up on the birds but accepted it and decided to ease on in another direction toward some other birds we had heard at daylight. This turned out to be nothing more than a 6-mile journey that had us leaning against the truck, without a bird, starving to death and thoroughly worn out by 1 p.m.

We were thinking about letting bygones be bygones and heading toward a sandwich when we heard the unmistakable sound of a jake aggravating a gobbler. It is a unique sound, almost a guttural, fighting purr that drags on a bit. It’s hard to describe, but it was a sound Bobby and I immediately recognized and jumped on. Today, I still have never heard that sound without it being a jake testing the patience of an older bird.

The birds were up a hill from where we were parked, and we knew we couldn’t get up there to them without being spotted. We skirted around the hill and set up a little more than 100 yards below the birds in a spot that leveled off a little bit. The first call we gave caused the jake to turn up the annoyance, and the next call we made got the mature bird to fire off. Within a matter of minutes, the hilltop erupted in a melee. We soon saw several birds above us, including the big boy that was dropping down toward our setup. Bobby soon had a shot, and he made it count. With a single boom, the long, drawn-out journey had been worth it.

We were happy to get the bird but could only shake our heads when we thought of all the time and miles we had put in just to kill a bird 100 yards from the truck. Still, we had done what we had come to do; we just went around the world to do it.

The hunt with Bobby that morning just reiterated the fact that a turkey could be anywhere at any time. You simply have to hunt your way all the way in and out of the woods.

Sometimes turkey hunters will cover many miles through the turkey woods before finding a bird. After a 6-mile hunt, Bobby Knight located and killed this bird only 100 yards from his truck.

Whoops Marathons: All of us turkey hunters have gone on long, drawn-out hunts that we never intended to go on. There are times when a turkey will drag you all over the country. When you find yourself on one of these unexpected marches into parts unknown, you will be better off slowing down and trying to figure out where the turkey is going before allowing him to drag you along for several miles. It gets worse if you don’t know anything about the property you are on, in which case you’ll have no idea where he is going.

I once chased a bird for well over an hour on some private ground that I had never hunted before. He eventually wandered onto some other private property that I couldn’t hunt, so I had to dog it off. I figured I would just hunt my way back to the truck and see what I could learn about the property.

I learned that the property was a little on the narrow side. It turned out I had to basically hunt the exact same narrow strip of woods I had been in for the last hour. I zigged and zagged my way out, bouncing off property lines the entire way. The section of woods I was in was probably no more than 200 yards at its widest point. A little map study before jumping in there would have at least let me know what I was dealing with. These smaller parcels of land have yielded quite a few birds throughout my turkey hunting career, but most of the birds I have taken off them have come to a setup location I had in mind before I ever got there. I just generally don’t do too much moving around on smaller tracts.

Make it a point to learn as much as you can about a piece of property before hunting it. It will help you in terms of setup locations but will also alert you as to the possibilities of getting into an unplanned drawn-out stroll through the woods. That way, if it’s a marathon hunt, it will be one with a lot of time in a good turkey spot instead of one wandering aimlessly about.

Marathon Missions: Many times over the course of a season I will actually plan a long hunt that includes several miles through the turkey woods. These hunts are always enjoyable and have netted me a whole bunch of birds over the years. However, there are some details that go into making these long-distance hunts even more enjoyable.

I have always enjoyed long walks, but when I was younger, I probably walked a lot more than I had to. The only game plan I had was to find a turkey and kill him. That’s still part of the equation, but I put a lot more thought into it now than I used to.

I remember a hunt a few years back when I took a friend out one morning to a place I had never set foot on.

We parked my truck way upstream and drove 3 miles downstream and parked his truck. I figured it was going to be a great way to learn some new property and possibly get my friend a bird. I remember thinking that we could run and gun our way up the creek until we got to my truck. I reckoned the whole thing, bird or no bird, would probably be over by 9 o’clock.

We got out of his truck in the pitch dark and made our way upstream. We came to a place on a high bluff overlooking the creek bottom that looked like a good listening spot to start the day. Before we could even look around to see where to set up if one gobbled, two birds hammered in the bottom below. We scurried around until we found a suitable spot, and within five minutes, there were four more birds tearing it up, all within 125 yards of our setup.

By 7:15, I had a solid 3-year-old in front of my buddy who made good on the 30-yard shot. By 8:30, we were close to a mile up the creek hoping I could roll a longbeard, too.

We were doing alright until we got to a fork in the creek. There was a 50-50 chance I would pick the right one. There was also a 50-50 chance I would get it wrong. I got it wrong and didn’t decide to turn us around for 2 miles or so up the creek. Once we got back on the correct fork, we climbed ridges, dropped into the bottom, tore through thickets, wallowed in knee-deep mud, crossed the creek several times and finally came to rest on a big rock above the bottom. We were hot and tired. It was getting pretty close to lunch by now, and our snack and water supply had disappeared a ways back down the creek.

My friend asked me at one point if I knew how far we were from the truck. I leveled with him and told him that not only did I not know how far we were from the truck, I was totally clueless as to its whereabouts. I was embarrassed and agitated, especially when I heard a thud and looked back to see my buddy lying face first in the leaves. It was like a scene out of an old western movie. He even told me that he didn’t think he was going to make it. When I quit laughing and got him back on his feet, we continued onward.

We found the truck at 12:30. The hunt had been highly successful, but adding 20 pounds to our load became a chore a few hours in, and the thrill of a kill that morning disintegrated long before we reached the truck.

I returned to that exact creek and hunted it several times. Knowing where I was made the future hunts there much more enjoyable. I actually began to look forward to those long hunts and began to plan them more often. Parking a vehicle on both ends is a great way to take the edge off the long walks when you don’t want to turn around and hunt the same property on the way out. A good game plan is all it takes.


Marathon Tips

  • If you want to get full enjoyment on these marathon hunts, know the property. If you don’t know the property, try to get an aerial photo or a map of the place. Google makes map study easy.
  • If you are able to look at the property before getting on it to hunt, try to map out a route that will keep you in turkey territory for the duration. If I’m going to be eating up the clock and the miles, I want to be hunting while I do it. Don’t get intimidated when you are dropping into a spot you have never been in. If you do your homework, it can take some of the edge off and allow you to stay focused on turkey hunting instead of wandering aimlessly about, wondering if you are going to get lost or if you are even in the neighborhood of a turkey.
  • The aforementioned friend had decided to go on the hunt with me with a nice, brand-new pair of boots. Boots aren’t meant to be broken in all at once, and neither are your feet. He paid the price dearly with half-dollar-sized blisters on each heel to prove it.
  • Whether you are hunting familiar ground or you are jumping into a place for the first time, expect to hear a bird every time you call. Treat it like there is a bird over every rise and around every corner. There’s little more that is deflating than to walk miles into the woods or spend hours there only to blow it when your chance arrives.
  • Running out of water and high-energy snacks of some sort on a long trek through the woods can wear you out. Doing it on a hunt that covers several miles while the temperature rises can make you miserable. Energy is a key to endurance, and endurance is critical to the success of these type hunts.
  • Take a break here and there in a good, comfortable calling location. Don’t get too comfortable, though, or you might get caught napping or wishing you had your gun in your hand instead of a granola bar. Stay alert on your breaks, and pay attention. I’ve had many a turkey reveal himself when I was doing nothing but taking a break in the shade.
  • Be in shape. If you plan to go on a hunt that is challenging and demanding, make it easier on yourself. Hunting is more fun if you aren’t huffing and puffing every step of the way. You will also be able to meet the challenge if a turkey causes you to have to really get after it to get him.

Being in good physical condition, having the right supplies and gear and a possessing a good knowledge of the property you are hunting will keep your goals intact and help you cash in on the opportunity when it arises.

It’s hard to beat the feeling you get when you’re toting a big longbeard out after a marathon hunt.

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