Huntinbuddy wrote to me last week inviting me to his farm in southwestern Illinois to, as he said, “kill a wild turkey”. While a yearly trip to his many nearby waterfowl haunts in autumn were always among the high points of my outdoor year he often spoke of bagging wild turkey in the springtime. Before last Tuesday it’s something I never tried. To me, spring always meant fishing for a boatload of delicious early crappie or perch out on the water, not hunting in the woods.
He owns a over a thousand or so acres of extremely fertile farmland on four different parcels southwest of Springfield that he leases as production land to local farmers. Each features rolling prairie bordered by meandering streams, creeks, tree-lined rich farmland loam, wooded windbreaks and dense hardwoods where the re-introduced eastern strain of wild turkey now thrive in the wild. His success at dancing with turkeys is locally famous and his harvest success ratio is legendary judging by the photo album he keeps.
Last weekend he emailed live mobile phone snapshots to me from his blind sitting along a tree line displaying large gobblers that were jousting in the background with young jakes. All were vying for the attention of fertile hens amongst his decoys. He sent text messages Sunday telling me to drop what I was doing and get down here now because they’re “really hot!”
After a phone call to confirm I packed up the camo along with extra underwear, a toothbrush, my Browning 12 ga. and left Monday afternoon for the springtime woods in the Land Of Lincoln.
Huntinbuddy lives in an updated old farmhouse with barns, sheds, outbuildings, some horses and a respectable pond. His homestead is on the far outskirts of a medium size Illinois farming community. It’s a hidden little piece of paradise I love to visit. It’s invisible from any road and accessible only by a one-lane quarter mile long uneven gravel easement path.
Upon arrival late in the evening he acquainted me with the quick basics of hunting wild turkey after a few get-together cocktails and snacks. First he told me to forget every outdoor cable show wild turkey video I ever watched, they make it look too complicated he claimed. His simple advice was to visually become part of a tree trunk on the tree line, keep a low profile and minimize my movement and noise. Position yourself for the most comfortable concealed shot and just wait he said. The rest was up to me.
We would be hunting his private and most productive combination agricultural and wild game property. We examined this property on google earth satellite images. He showed me where we would enter, where the larger flocks roosted and the location of our ground blind positions. Meet NASA, you turkeys.
At this point in the season he observed that due to the unseasonable early warmth hens were already mated and sitting on their nests, eliminating the need for mate calling, although he would use his box call sparingly just to get some attention.
We would depend on luring in a one-year old jake or better yet, a two to three year old tom turkey (hens are never in season) with decoys alone. He did not want to alarm any birds by over calling. Since I was only staying for three morning hunts he told me to take the first bird that closely approached my decoys and bag it even if it was the smaller jake. Another shot may not happen during my short time there and he wanted me to go home with some tasty turkey meat, a first for me. I agreed. Seeing them would be a thrill but getting them into the kill zone may not be easy.
Finally he told me that after a bird was hit and flopped around to stand up immediately, slowly approach the bird and then pump another round into the chamber. If the bird appeared to be recovering and about to flee another shot may be in order. Made sense. These are big, thick-skinned birds and the only way to put them down was a shot aimed just below the head. I don’t know about you but I like my breasts lead-free.
At 4 am on day one we enjoyed fresh ham, cheddar and chive biscuits and Cuban espresso.
He told me to leave my Browning behind and handed me one of his Benelli long barrel pump guns with a very handsome camouflage finish. It could handle 3 ½” turkey loads. Into turkeyland we went.
After traveling about twenty miles to where the four-lane turned into a two-lane that turned into a twisting maze of hilly one-lane roads we arrived before daybreak. Once on the property we rode the edges of freshly planted cornfields as they met the wooded tree line riding in his slick new Ford F-150 that was loaded with cool options.
Climbing out of the truck and into the inky darkness wearing my camo coverall I grabbed my strategically prepared fanny pack, shotgun and folding camo ground chair. His special turkey vest contained the foam decoys as we trekked down a hill, across a planted cornfield to the location I would sit. He placed long plastic stakes in the ground at twenty paces into the field from the tree I would call home for the next four hours. The decoys were placed on top of the stakes. He left for his spot at a place I could see where his shots would be at a ninety-degree angle from mine for visual coverage and safety. I nestled into the base of the tree after I gathered a few branches and tallgrass to act as a blind.
Gobbles came from the high roosts on a wooded hill behind us. As the daylight emerged so did many other sounds, some familiar and some not. The woods were slowly waking up and gave me chills. Owls hooting, quails chirping the classic “Bob White” quail calls, woodpeckers pecking and songbirds singing. There were no other sounds. No cars, semis, tractors or train whistles in the distance, none. All I heard was nature in all it's purity. In the creek behind me came a quick bloopbloop. I guess it was a frog on the surface, a sound that reminded me of artificial popping lures being tugged by my fishing rod. The noise was startling and curious as it continued intermittently. Mice scurried about under the thick emerging tallgrass around me. Snakes as well, I would be told later.
Once in position my left knee was bent upward acting as a rest for the Benelli with my right leg curled beside parallel to the ground in a low reclining position. My attempt was to be totally prepared for when a male turkey became interested enough in the two cheesey-looking foam decoys in front of me to get off a close shot. Quiet and concealment are a must. This was truly relaxing with anticipation acting as my caffeine.
Thus began a completely new spiritual outdoor experience for me. Instead of turning brown with dying leaves the trees were springing to life around me in a fresh hue of bright green. The gurgles, squaks, hoots, honks, gobbles, chirps and clucks continued to surround and rapture me as the sun peeked over the horizon to my rear. Groups of honkers flew by in pairs well within range and out of season as well. The earth itself was awakening with a vibrant new life, not the slow, slumbering death that is autumn. This was a true celebration of new life, not an autumn retirement party.
The next few hours provided me with a pleasurable and different outdoor experience if not for one small detail. Not one turkey would appear. At 9 am I watched as huntinbuddy left his blind to pull up his decoys, I did the same. The rest of the day I helped him with farm chores. I learned a great deal about the modern day agri-biz.
We retired to the farm house for some luscious biscuits and decadent gravy.
The following morning had no promise of bird activity since the weather was a carbon copy of the previous day. But turkeys do not behave as ducks, geese an deer and are as unpredictable in their own way. After a fine breakfast of coffee and biscuits we jumped in the pickup truck and ventured out into the dark fresh early morning air.
Settling into my spot on this morning I noticed the gobbles now came from all directions, not just one location as the day before. Each and every sound seemed louder on this day and the air was no longer as crisp, lacking even a breeze.
It was early and things can change. They did.
In early dim light I noticed a doe entering my field of view to the right. Using my eyes instead of turning my head I watched as the cautious doe approached. This would be a good test for my concealment effort. She sensed me, looking right at me about fifty yards away. Nervously nosing the ground for seed she was being followed by two smaller does. After coming as close as thirty yards she sensed the path we made walking across the field and quickly reversed course, the others followed. We were not concerned about scent since turkeys do not have a good nose. Then they stopped. At that moment two bucks (judging by their size, they had no racks) entered the scene. Oddly they were not as skittish as the does. They took the same path and had the same reaction. Only this time the bucks hit our trail scent and high-tailed away with does in pursuit. What a show but it was far from over. Not a minute or two later a jake turkey came into view on my left.
He was walking and pecking at about fifty yards making his way to the decoys. I slowly fine tuned my position to point directly between the two dekes. He was being sucked in and I was ready. If I passed on the shot huntinbuddy would later ask why I didn’t take the shot. If I shot and missed I would be open to days of ridicule. As these thoughts oscillated in my brain I beaded the jake and gently pulled the trigger. Bird down!
As instructed I stood, immediately left the blind, entered the field and reloaded approaching the flapping downed bird noticing two other jakes I had not seen taking flight. A mercy shot wasn’t necessary. The late, great jake flopped in the dirt with pellet holes perforating the neck and skull.
The loud and powerful 3 ½” magnum turkey load suddenly silenced nature’s chorus so I let out my own “first turkey” primal scream through a sh!t eating grin. Huntinbuddy was on his way. My watch said 6:55 am. His position did not allow him to witness the action but heard the shot.
After some chest bumping and high fives I looked at him and said, “now what do we do?”. He said, “get the hell out of my field and go home now, these bids are hot. "Go back to the house and wait for my call about 10 am, I will stay and try for a big tom” It was only 7 am and I would not wipe that grin off my face for hours.
He watched two toms in the field after my departure but failed at getting them within range. After years of turkey hunting he now passes on jakes and has the luxury of waiting out the big toms. In his words, “I believe they should all get laid at least once.” We left for the farmhouse to breast out my jake. He weighed thirteen pounds while the bigger toms can go up to thirty. I cut out the breasts, chopped off the tail and saved a wing which I will send to Johnny J for his fly tying jones.
Compared to all my woodland hunting trips this one was the most spiritual, the most enlightening and the most satisfyingly successful because it was my first time hunting wild turkey. What a unique and memorable experience it was.
Illinois has some beautiful country south of Springfield if one knows where to look. I will be back next April to wait out my first big tom. It will definitely be well worth the wait.