Turkey hunting in rolling mountain forests a second favorite behind alpine elk adventures? Calling for a swaggering gobbler almost as intense as stalking a stud bull? So said my friend, Sheldon. Really? Never having experienced a turkey hunt I arranged with Sheldon to show me the ropes this Spring on what turned out to be a fantastic, and probably an addictive, new pursuit.
In the truck at 3:30am driving to our first spot. We looked to take two or three birds over as many days hunting public lands in Northern California, so being late into the season we wanted an early jump on the hike. On the trail an hour later we enjoyed getting the blood flowing along with the smells and silence of the pre-dawn forest. Along the way we tried coyote calls and owl hoots to rouse any birds in the distance. Nothing yet. Up we went until we came upon the descent to a strong-flowing creek we’d have to cross to reach our target clearing. So by headlamp with pack on, shotgun slung over one shoulder and decoy over the other, I shuffled along the slippery log serving as our bridge ten feet over the dark, cold, rushing water. If I lost it here we’d for sure have an early end to the day. Just keep going...don’t stop...piece of cake if this was just walking along a curb...and in a few more steps Sheldon was there to take my Benelli as I jumped off to the other side. Time to go into stealth mode and set up our watch.
As dawn approached we saw the clearing. Perfect for turkeys to come down off their roost, scratch, strut, and feed. We set up the decoys, nestled in against some trees on the edge of the forest, and began to use the box call in earnest. My SKRE layering system lived up to its claims. Wearing the Hardscrabble pants and jacket over an Alpine t-shirt and Kaibab merino wool top I was able to vent heat in on the hike in, but now sitting as still as a rock with the temperature dropping I eased the hood up and all zippers shut to retain warmth as we waited out our quarry.
Despite our best stalking and calling efforts we didn’t raise any birds. Could have been too cold, too early, or who knows what...so we made the decision to bail on this spot and go with plan B. We hiked the few miles out, with the creek crossing much easier in the daylight, and drove to a another slice of public land where Sheldon had seen birds earlier in the season. Less forest and more rolling, wooded hills...we could tell after only a mile or so that this place had to hold toms. In that instant we heard a distant gobble. Game on!
We froze, waiting for another gobble to help us locate direction. We heard it ten seconds later and figured we had multiple birds at the head of the meadow several hundred yards ahead of us. We hurried to the edge of the woods and set up the watch. Again...into stealth mode as these birds had probably been hunted and with excellent hearing and eyesight they could easily spook.
Sitting still is painful. Especially after several miles of hiking already, mosquitoes singing in your ears, rocky soil, and the occasional ant crawling up your pant leg to see what it can find. Sheldon alternated between working the box, rasping the mouth call, and whispering to me sit still. The birds came into view still far out of range but heading our way. In they worked, seemingly interested in the calls but possibly not seeing the decoys. At about 100 yards they didn’t spook, but wanded back up into the woods. As quietly as we could we gathered ourselves up and moved higher around a knoll to flank them and have another go.
This was it. We hid at the edge of another clearing that had a large clump of brush in the middle. We had two gobblers and a hen coming our way, but we couldn’t see them. We called, the toms shouted their gobbles in response...their answers rolling through the woods. I didn’t know which way the birds would come to us...left or right around the brush or up the middle through a narrow opening. I guessed left and readied the barrel of my gun in that direction. The hen approached into view, but not the toms. The SKRE MTN Stealth pattern hid us well, and that hen took several more steps to within fifteen yards before she saw us. That’s when things went crazy.
We sat with that hen yelping warnings on one side and with the brush and the hidden toms yelling their response gobbles on the other. The hen would yelp and Sheldon would immediately mimic her. Those toms grew frantic and gobbled at every sound. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one tom peek out not left or center, but right. I eased the barrel around but he caught the motion and dodged back behind the cover. Figuring he’d head back toward the hen I centered the barrel bead on that middle opening. Sure enough the bigger tom strode into view, paused, then BOOM! I was hoping for a single slamming shot to get my first turkey but it took another to finish the job. But what a bird! Approaching 20 lbs with a 9-10 inch beard...on public land...this spot and stalk over several miles yielded a great prize.
We took another bird the next day, higher up in the forest after tracking some jakes into a beautiful clearcut. They approached us without making a sound and I’m sure SKRE gear kept us hidden enough to divert their attention to a tom decoy and get the shot. If this is public land turkey hunting...count me in!