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10 Things I Learned In Texas

This past turkey season was a strange one. Reports came in from all over about turkeys throughout the season shutting up almost as soon as they hit the ground. Many refused to come to the call. It made the hunting in many places tough, and as a result many hunters had to get creative.

No place that I hunted this past spring did things get as strange as they were in Texas where I joined Remington’s Linda Powell, Leica’s Karen Lutto and a couple of other hunters for a long weekend of turkey hunting around El Dorado. We were hunting with Live Oak Hunting Lodge But like every good (or really even bad) hunt should do, I learned a few new things and was reminded of others I’d forgotten. Here’s what Texas taught me in 2007:

1. Take Your Time—Turkeys aren’t in a hurry to be anywhere so neither should you. Particularly when nothing is gobbling and you have no clue what the birds are doing. Move slow, keep your eyes open, stay quiet and make sure that you spot a loafing bird before he spots you. Then you can cook up a game plan. Oh, and if you’re with a hunting partner, don’t let him prattle on about the kids or his bills. Save that for the truck ride back to camp. Now it’s time to shut up and observe your surroundings.

2. Stay Together—Turkey’s don’t shoot back, so there’s no need to move in a scattered, flanking formation with a “5-meter spread” before you “dubbull bahck” as California’s Governator orders his platoon in the movie Predator. On my first afternoon in Texas, my guide, Mike Horst, ordered Powell and myself to stick tight to him and in single file. As his foot left a spot, mine literally stepped into it, we were that close. And, as in No. 1, we moved slowly. We were in the wide open with nowhere to hide. Our goal was to work slowly to an area adjacent to a large roost without spooking the bejesus out of any loafing birds already in the area. Later, once we could get settled in to a good hiding spot, we hoped to intercept a longbeard or two before fly-up. As we moved in, a pair of turkeys saw us and just eased off into the mesquite, probably thinking we were a cow.

3. Expect Anything—After a hen and a gobbler trotted off, we let them get out of sight and continued on, wishing there had been more cover, really any cover, to keep us concealed as we approached a grove of oaks. We rounded a bend in the path where a single bush stood and I spotted him—another strutter not 70 yards in front of us. The bird lifted its head, peered at us, then went right back into strut. As its fan blocked its view of us, we slowly lowered ourselves flat onto the ground. At that point, the bird must have seen the three of us pressing ourselves into the grass as perhaps three hens lying low. He took a long hard look at us and then began strutting right TOWARD US! I couldn’t believe it. We didn’t make a call, but the turkey would stop every five yards, look at us, and then go back in strut and begin walking toward us. Just over 40 yards out, the bird stopped and started to parallel our position at which point I fired. My shot strafed much of the grass in front of me, but knocked the bird down. As it scrambled to its feet, so did I. I then sent a final shot at the running bird and dropped it for good with the Remington Wingmaster HD loads. I hadn’t been out of the truck more than 10 or 15 minutes!

4. Never Pass Up a Gift—Still amazed that a nice three-year-old would have come right to us in strut without hearing a call, Mike and I looked the trophy over. He admitted that it wasn’t really how he liked to kill them. “Me either,” I agreed. Of course, I prefer to work a bird into the call in a classic manner. But the whole way from the airport and to where we were hunting, Mike had been warning us about how tough the hunting had been. Facing such odds, I wasn’t about to let this gift-horse walk away on a two-bird hunt. Besides, it was one of the weirdest things I had ever experienced while turkey hunting and it just completed the story properly if it ended with a successful hunt. It’s one of those deals that I would have found hard to believe had I not witnessed it myself.

Dsc_5778_25. Carry-On Camo—I had the worst luck with planes this year, with luggage lost going to or coming home from four of the five destinations I traveled to this spring. Between lost luggage, delayed or canceled flights, higher costs and reduced services, if Outdoor Life ran its business like the airlines, it would be called Outdoor Dead. Nobody would read the magazine. And one particular airline wasn’t the chief offender. Every one I flew on dropped the ball at some point—American, Delta, Continental and U.S. Airways. Three of the seven birds I shot this spring (and three of the first four) were all done with borrowed clothes, calls and even guns—the bird mentioned above included. Mike made a good suggestion: He said because lost luggage has become such a big problem for hunters coming in, he suggests at the very least, toting one set of camo clothes and a few of your favorite calls with you in your carry-on. Now that won’t allow for guns, knives or loads, they still have to be checked, but you can at least suit up and use your own calls to work a bird until your luggage arrives. It’s usually easier to borrow a shotgun from an outfitter or somebody else in camp than mouth calls or camo clothes that fit properly. And while it may be more of a hassle going through security, at the very least, wear a light pair of field boots that you can hunt in if you must. My boat shoes didn’t quite cut it.

6. Long Distance Loads—Playing backup to another hunter, I watched as the she took a poke at a longbeard standing out at 40 yards. The turkey hit the ground, then struggled to its feet and started running after clearly not being hit full on. Meanwhile, from where the hunter sat, she couldn’t get a second shot off. I scrambled to my feet and attempted to shoot through a small tree. No good. I dashed around the obstruction. The bird was now 80 yards out and running with a noticeable limp. “I’ve got to stop it,” I thought. So I quickly aimed and threw a second round at it, knocking the bird down behind a slight drop in the terrain. Eighty yards mind you! We ran over and with yet another shot, completed the job. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way advocating long distance shots at turkeys that hang up out of the normally accepted 40-yard limit; however, with the patterns and down-range energy some of these newer high-density loads are carrying with them, I do think it’s time for that topic to be seriously revisited. I’m convinced with certain guns, chokes and loads and in perfect situations, successful 50- and 55-yard shots have the potential of becoming more than “luck.” I’ve seen it now too many times. More on that on a future post!

7. Don’t Muss the Roost—When hunting a spot where several longbeards regularly roost (or in Texas where they traditionally roost year-after-year), don’t sit right on the roost trees in the late afternoon. Instead, try to determine from which way a turkey will approach and set up at least 100 yards off or even farther. That way if you do shoot, you don’t booger the birds to where they won’t return. Likewise, if several birds come in at once in the evening and you can’t get a good shot, instead of taking a haphazard poke at the closest one. Wait until the next morning and hunt them right. Odds are, you won’t mess the roost up in either situation and can return to that spot later in the season to hunt those birds again.

8. Be a Good Field Judge—Two longbeards hammered from a small stand of oaks where they were roosted in the early morning. Crawling slowly and quietly, Linda, Mike and I slipped in right under the trees. When the boss tom flew down, he hit the ground right in front of me. It was still half dark and to be honest, I thought he was about 55 plus yards away. Mike went freakin’ nuts, urging me to shoot. I could hear him behind me. “Shoot when you can Doug. SHoot When YOU Can. SHOOT WHEN YOU CAN!!!!!!” I never did. The dang bird strutted, twirled, thought about coming closer, but never closed the gap. The second tom pitched down, but held his ground—in range—but behind cover. When the hens finally dropped from the limb, they of course, headed the opposite direction and took the big boys with them. End of hunt. I checked the distance—AFTER—with my Leica rangefinder. 44 yards. Mike glared at me as if he wanted to say, “You dumba…” I told myself I did the right thing by not shooting when I wasn’t sure of the distance, which it was. But it did little to take the sting off missing such an opportunity. It had been one HUGE tom. Know your distances, before it’s time to shoot, by ranging trees, rocks and other surrounding landmarks a bird is likely to pass by.

Dsc_57919. Never, EVER Question Your Guide—Saturday evening, Live Oak owner Steve Elmore and I watched as a single longbeard with three hens strolled out of range through a dirt bare pecan orchard. Two other longbeards flew up in another part of the orchard and where the first birds flew up, we heard two more as we owl hooted at dark. “Five longbeards, not bad,” I thought. Steve was livid. “There were 40 turkeys in here this morning. Somebody’s come in here and messed with these birds (see Lesson 7),” he almost shouted as we drove back to the lodge. We returned the next morning anyway to see what would shake out. We had been wrong. As the sky began to brighten, gobbles rang out across the small orchard. There were more than a dozen longbeards sounding off. The sky was already brightening and I was beginning to wonder how we were going to get to the mesquite stand behind the orchard from where we were, when Steve said, “Come on.” He then set out right through the orchard, toward a low fence without any cover around it. With us was magazine editor Larry Teague. Our march was going to take the three of us not 35 yards from a tree where several birds were roosted. I cringed in an effort to make myself invisible. To say I was doubting my outfitter’s game plan would put it mildly. I just knew we were going to spook these birds. To add to my concern, we got to the fenceline at a spot where there was a single, thigh-round post and a patch of 8-inch high grass. The fence was the property line. It was as far as we could go. “OK, lets sit here and get close so we look like one lump,” Steve said. “No way this is going to work,” I thought. I was already wondering how we would get back on the birds after they all headed into the mesquite where I had thought we would start our hunt. Despite my disbelief, I laid down flat, my head lifted slightly against the post and Steve pressed tight to my left. Larry was just on the other side of him. It was still fairly dark when the first birds pitched down 100 yards away. Soon others followed. We began to call and soon had a pair of strutters strolling our way. Birds dropped from the trees in every direction. Steve’s concerns had been for naught and the sun had barely broke the horizon when I cracked a shot off on a whopper of a tom strutting 41 steps away. Steve was my hero.

10. Dead Turkeys Make Bad Alarm Clocks—For part of my hunt I had a great hunting partner join me as I attempted to fill my second tag. He was 10-year-old Hunter Lutto, Karen’s son. What a great kid. He fidgeted a little here and there, but when the hunting got tough, he kept right up with me and whomever our guide was, and when it came time to sit, he did so quietly. He was with me because he had filled both his tags on the first morning of the hunt!!!! Anyway, he missed the morning where Steve put me on my last longbeard. He was in camp sleeping. His mom wanted him up when I returned so I thought it might be funny to wake him up, or rather, let my turkey wake him up. He had attempted to scare me the morning before. So, I strolled into his room, dead turkey in hand, and held it over his bed making a gobbling sound. BAD IDEA! As poor Hunter woke, he looked up to see a turkey’s head hanging inches from his face. In retrospect, not a good way to make a kid wake up. To say he came unglued would be putting it mildly. I felt horrible. It took me a good 10 minutes of apologizing to get Hunter to forgive me. He wouldn’t even look at me. My “hero/buddy” status had just been flushed down the toilet. Thankfully he did forgive me. In fact, he went a step farther and got even. About an hour later, as I showered up for my return home, I was rinsing the soap off my face when I felt a cool breeze drift by me as if somebody had opened the bathroom door. I started to peak around the shower curtain when a blast of ice water rained down upon me. “HUNTER!!!!!!!” I screamed. It was the kid’s crowning moment. His mom and dad, Lex, were bringing him up exactly as a good American kid should be. I had to laugh. Texas is always such a great place.