Hunting turkeys is anything but a slam dunk

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April 19, 2002

Hunting turkeys is anything but a slam dunk

By SHANNON TOMPKINS, Houston Chronicle

Prospects couldn't have looked better.

That worried me.

Cruel experience has taught that when turkey hunting looks almost too easy, bet on eating humble pie instead of mesquite-grilled gobbler breast.

And, on the brink of opening day of Texas' North Zone turkey season, we dozen hunters certainly seemed to be looking at a slam dunk.

Weinman Wildlife Ranch is an amazing 9,000-acre tract straddling the Edwards and Val Verde county lines just south of a wide spot in the road named Carta Valley.

Compared to the sheep- and goat-scorched property dominating that part of the state, the Weinman Ranch is a jungle. The place hasn't had a cow or sheep or goat on it in years, and despite being on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert it is actually lush with vegetation.

It also is flush with Rio Grande turkeys.

State wildlife biologists estimated the winter roost on the ranch holds 2,500 turkeys.

For the past month or more, after the birds scattered from their winter congregation, they've been staking out territories all over the ranch in preparation for their annual spring breeding season.

It was hard to go 100 yards without encountering turkey signs or seeing a squad of birds hot-foot it across an opening.

Turkeys were everywhere. John Smelser and Bill Hendricks, two hard-core turkey chasers, had been scouting the place since the Wednesday before the opener and were almost giddy about the number of birds they had spotted.

And yes, a lot of them were jakes. Groups of as many as 30 or so of the stub-bearded, year-old gobblers roamed the flats and draws, Smelser and Hendricks advised our opening-weekend crew.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologists weren't blowing smoke when they pronounced the 2001 turkey hatch an epic success.

But there were plenty of long-beards, too -- 2-year-old and older gobblers.

The birds were gobbling. Yes, most of the long-beards were with hens -- at least early in the day. But if a hunter stuck with it and played the game, odds of success looked pretty darned good.

Bill and Alice Weinman, who oversee the ranch and make certain visiting hunters don't lose any weight by providing outstanding home-cooked meals, echoed the sentiment.

"I don't see how all of you won't get a turkey -- they're everywhere!" Alice said as we sat in the lodge's great room on Opening Day Eve and watched video of huge, strutting gobblers filmed just days before by remote-triggered cameras on the ranch.

Alice admitted later she has never hunted spring gobblers.

I knew that the moment she predicted our inevitable success.

It took all of maybe 20 minutes for the first turkeys to show up along the edge of the oat field scratched from the rocky soil of the creek bottom.

A half-dozen hens came hunched over and pecking for bugs and fresh greenery, followed by a lumbering monster of a gobbler.

The gobbler strutted and danced and gobbled his guts out.

But he was on the opposite side of the field, maybe 300 yards away. And with the wind screaming, I could see him throw his head forward, but not hear the gobbles.

I tried to draw his attention with some loud yelps and cuts on a slate call, but the light mist of rain slicked the slate and made it worse than useless. (It never rains in this part of Texas! Why now?!)

I popped a diaphragm call in my mouth and gave it everything I had, hoping the sound would reach the gobbler.

But the wind, now blowing better than 20 knots and funneled down the draw in a low moan, shredded the yelps and pitched them downwind into nothingness.

I sat in a clump of juniper overlooking a spot crisscrossed with turkey tracks and the drag marks of strutting gobblers and watched the gobbler gather his hens and fade into the mist.

Convinced I was in a great spot, I settled in and called every few minutes, hoping to attract the attention of some wandering gobbler.

I called in a jake. Then another.

They came in without a sound -- at least nothing I could hear over the squalling wind.

The nub-spurred youngsters cautiously approached the hen decoy, eyeing it like it was bad weather, then faded into the cedar.

It just was not happening.

I stuck with it. Over the next four hours, I counted 21 species of avian life -- vermilion flycatchers, five species of sparrows including the gorgeous black-throated sparrow, a painted bunting, scrub jay, etc.

But not a single turkey.

Patience may be a turkey hunter's ultimate weapon, but after almost five hours of sitting and waiting, I wanted to make something happen.

The gobbler from earlier in the morning seemed to have slipped into a draw opposite the field. So I headed in that direction.

Down in the draw, three-toed turkey tracks covered a patch of loose sand about the size of a room. Lots of them had the longer middle toe of a gobbler.

I staked the decoy in the opening, secreted myself in a bunch of flood debris and offered a few clucks and yelps.

Within a minute, a jake was barely 10 yards away and straight in front of me. I couldn't see the bird behind a screen of brush, but I knew it was a jake from his voice. He tried to gobble, but it came out as a kind of strangled warble.

I messed with him, offering soft purrs just to hear him try his newfound, almost-adult voice.

From the left came that low, vibrating sound that puts a turkey hunter's heart in his throat.

"Fffhhhtt!!uuummmm!"

A drumming gobbler! He'd heard me and the jake and had come in to claim the hen!

Turning slightly in that direction, I eased the shotgun to "ready" position, snugged up to the stock and waited.

The gobbler marched into the open, tail fanned, head tucked against his back, wing tips dragging the ground, stopping only to emit that sound resembling a pickup truck racing across a cattleguard.

The sights were settling on his neck when he turned and I could see the middle feathers of his fan were longer than the ones on the edges. Then I saw the beard -- what there was of it.

Another jake!

Opening Day ended with our dozen hunters, almost every one of whom were experienced turkey chasers, going 1-for-12.

So much for slam dunks.

Conditions Sunday were worse. Much worse.

Wind can be a turkey hunter's nightmare, and it was screaming at what must have been 30 knots or more.

It was so windy that the string of gobblers my brother and turkey-hunting partner Les and I had located roosting in some huge oaks overlooking a long opening wouldn't hit the ground until two hours after daylight.

Well, one did.

Les set up near one end of the roost and just at dawn called a gobbler off his limb. I could hear the whole thing, as they were maybe 300 yards upwind of where I waited.

The tom hit the ground and did exactly what the book says -- he came gobbling hard every time Les offered a yelp or cluck, walked straight to the opening where Les had staked his decoy, and fell in a heap at 30 yards.

Les, I'm convinced, could hunt along Buffalo Bayou and come in with a gobbler. He's either the luckiest turkey hunter I know or one of the best.

I worked four different long-beards that morning, every one of them either hanging up on the wrong side of some obstacle or refusing to leave their harem of hens.

Of course, those pestering jakes were everywhere, nearly walking into my lap every place I stopped to call.

Weekend turkey hunts often are too short, particularly "semi-guided" hunts like this one where the participants are thrown into a place with which they aren't familiar. It takes a day or two to learn a place and pattern the birds.

When time ran out that opening weekend, I knew that if I'd had another day to hunt I could have taken a fine gobbler.

The other hunters probably thought the same. Our dozen hunters accounted for just three gobblers. This, despite the place crawling with turkeys.

The brutal truth is that spring turkey hunting has the lowest success rate of almost any hunting activity in Texas. In the real world, a Texas turkey hunter has less than a 50-50 chance of bringing home a bird.

Over the past 15 spring seasons, according to TPWD data, spring turkey hunters statewide have seen a success rate of 41 percent.

Over that same period, deer hunting success has ranged from 51 percent to 61 percent.

Eighty-one percent of rabbit hunters scored, as did 91 percent of dove hunters, 81 percent of quail hunters, 85 percent of squirrel hunters and 71 percent of snipe hunters. Snipe hunters!

Even the 530 people TPWD estimates actually hunted gallinules this past season had a success rate of 43 percent, a couple of notches higher than spring turkey hunters. Gallinules!

This is somewhat comforting to know when you're shaking your head and wondering how in the world you could strike out when there are so many gobblers out there.

Still, with all those jakes crawling over the Weinman Ranch like so many fleas on a javelina, I know where I plan to be come Opening Day next year.

Those hordes of year-olds will be adults, then. They'll be wearing thick beards and longer, sharper spurs. They'll be everywhere, and looking to come to anything that sounds like a willing hen.

It should be a slam-dunk hunt.

And that has me worried.

(For information on spring turkey hunting on the Weinman Wildlife Ranch or other ranches throughout Texas, contact Allen Felts, Texas Trails, 281-693-6541.)



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Shannon Tompkins covers the outdoors for the Chronicle. His column appears Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
 

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