I have a love/hate relationship with April. I love to see it coming and I hate to see it go.
Of all the critters that have their own hunting season, there’s nothing that I’d rather chase than a cantankerous gobbler. And, wouldn’t you know it? Turkey season is the shortest of all.
Sure, I’m crazy about deer hunting and just about anything else that gives me the opportunity to get in the woods with a gun or bow. But there’s nothing like sitting out in the early morning and holding a conversation with that Tom as you talk to him on a diaphragm, slate or box call.
The problem is, it doesn’t take much to educate these incredibly smart birds. And many hunters give up after the first week due to the hunting becoming so tough.
Are turkeys tougher to hunt after they’ve felt the pressure of hunters coming and calling from all angles? Absolutely. That doesn’t mean it makes sense to give up.
“Late season is when you’re gonna get those big birds – the true trophies,” said Alex Rutledge. “The younger and dumber turkeys are kamikazes. They’ve already taken a ride home with somebody.”
If anybody would know, it would be Alex.
Hailing from Birch Tree, Mo., Rutledge is about as accomplished as one can get when it comes to chasing longbeards. You can catch him as host of “Bloodline” on the Pursuit Channel, but he also has a storied past, taking the National Amateur Turkey Calling Championship in 1987, and grabbing the Grand National Gobbling Championship the next year.
He’s also held the Missouri state title, twice won the South Central Missouri Ozark Calling Championship, took the Southeast Missouri Gobbling title and the Southwest Open Turkey Calling Championship.
“The key to these late season turkeys is understanding that there are three types that you’ll encounter and you need to know how to go about hunting each one,” he said.
And, thus, the lesson began.
“The first of these are the ones that just won’t gobble. To get him you’ve got to know that bird, know his regimen, his strut zones and anywhere else he’s gonna be,” Alex said. “The big key here is scouting and that’s the only way you’ve got a chance with him.”
“What next?” I asked.
“You also have those that WILL gobble,” he explained. “Late in the season those gobblers will start to group back up and one of the best ways to go about it is by using a gobble call like Down-N-Dirty’s “Haint” call. Have you seen it yet?”
“I’ve seen it,” I replied. “But, I haven’t heard one yet.”
“Oh, you’ve got to hear this!” he said.
Alex then pulled one out and played a tune that sounded so much like a real gobbler that my hair stood up like the shingled feathers of a bird in full strut. Needless to say, I’ll be tossing a “Haint” in my vest real soon.
“The last type you’ll see out there are the ones that really gobble. They’ll scream their heads off but just won’t come in,” he said. “This is what I call a ‘push situation’ because your best bet is to get after him and force him to move.
“I like to push him onto a ridge or into an area where I know he’s somewhat trapped and his back is against the wall,” he said. “Then what you want to do is to flank him and get ahead of him. A few soft clucks and purrs or even soft yelps and the deal is over.”
Alex’s running mate J.R. Lanham, affectionately known as “Hillbilly,” chimed in.
“I strongly agree with Alex,” he said. “You’ve got to put in the time and scout ‘em then get ahead and I’m a big fan of ‘the push.’ ”
J.R. is no slouch in the woods. He has won or placed in more than 60 different calling contests. He’s finished in the Top 10 at the Nationals six times and placed third this year.
“I also think soft calling is important,” he added. “If you’re hunting a turkey that everybody has hunted and you know it, make your approach from a different way in then let him hear something different, too.
“Try something everybody else hasn’t used like a tube call and I like to do a little scratchin’ around and use a turkey wing or just my hat to sound like a turkey’s wings flapping. Sometimes that’s all it takes.”
Before our conversation ended, Alex threw out one more good point.
“You always have to remember that, to a degree, you’re only as good as the area you hunt, but there’s always a way to go about it even when you’re dealing with well educated, tough to hunt, call-shy birds. It’s a bit more difficult but can result in a real trophy,” he said.
Although I don’t pretend to be anywhere near the caliber of turkey hunter of these boys, I can impart this wisdom to those who have either given up or are still hoping to bag a longbeard in the remaining days.
Don’t quit! The game isn’t over and any mature gobbler, no matter the size, beard or spur length, taken in the final days is far more worthy of praise that one taken on opening day.
Brad Harvey is a freelance writer in Clover. Visit his website at www.bradharveyoutdoors.com or follow on Twitter @BHarveyOutdoors