I’ve chased turkeys since I was old enough to shoot a shotgun growing up around the swamps of Central Florida.
Cutting my teeth on those tough Osceola’s has served me well as my turkey hunting has expanded into other states and subspecies.
I’ve chased and killed Texas Rios for the past eight or nine seasons, and two years ago connected on a pair of Merriam’s gobblers high in the mountains around Raton, New Mexico.
It seemed strange that the one subspecies that had eluded me was the most common — a big Eastern tom.
I was hoping that would change when I boarded a plane last Friday morning at DFW and headed for North Carolina for my annual turkey hunt with my dad and our good friend, Braxton Gillam. They have made the trek to Texas each spring for the past seven years, but this year we were heading to Braxton’s dad’s homestead in Harrellsville, North Carolina.
Located in the far northeastern portion of the state, Harrellsville is perfect turkey habitat — hardwood swamps bordered by pineywoods and open fields.
Braxton arrived several hours before my dad and I, and when we arrived around dinnertime he excitedly reported that he had five or six groups of toms put to bed. The Saturday morning opener couldn’t get here fast enough.
First light Saturday morning found my dad and I on the edge of a field with our backs against a pair of big pine trees. The pines continued behind us for about 100 yards before hitting a swamp, where the turkeys traditionally roost. We knew a big longbeard was somewhere in the vicinity, but weren’t exactly sure where.
We waited for more than an hour as the sun began to peek over the swamp … not a peep was heard. No gobbles, no yelps, no clucks. Nothing except swarms of mosquitoes.
About 8 a.m., I received a text from Braxton that he had connected on a nice bird and asked how we were faring. I gave him the report and he told us to grab the decoys and drive the five minutes back to the house, as he had seen several fields with gobblers working in them.
Sounded like a plan.
The field we were hunting had a rise in front of us that prevented my dad and I from seeing to the other side. As I stood up to go and retrieve the jake and hen decoys 20 yards in front of us, my dad hissed that he had seen a big tom in full strut 300 yards away along the opposite edge of the field.
We thought the tom might have seen us, but we quickly got back in position and let out a few lonely hen yelps. My dad, who had stood up behind the pine tree to gain a better view, said the tom had come out of strut and was headed our way — running toward us in that half-strut that all turkey hunters love to see.
I hit the call again, this time letting out a few excited cuts. The bird, still out of my view, gobbled for the first time all morning — and he was close.
Very quickly, the tom’s head appeared above the rise heading straight for the decoys. But then he made a hard left turn and walked back out of view.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought. “What in the world did he see that could have spooked him?”
I shouldn’t have worried. Less than 30 seconds later he reappeared in full strut 30 yards to my right, coming straight to the jake decoy, drumming and spitting the whole way.
He walked right past the hen and proceeded to beat the hell out of our poor jake, obviously letting him know who was boss of this field.
With my shotgun at the ready, I let him pound the decoy for more than a minute, all the while wishing I had a video camera.
When he finally jumped on top of the decoy and stood there like the boss he was, I decided we’d had enough of a show and it was time to drop the hammer.
One solid shot later and my quest for the grand slam was complete. To do it with my dad made it extra special. He taught me how to hunt these birds, so it was only appropriate that he could experience this morning with me.
We chased birds the rest of the weekend — three times having toms within 20 yards of us, but we couldn’t close the deal again. I even clipped a few wing feathers off of a full-strut tom at 20 yards with my bow before he flew off deep into the swamp. That one hurt, but it gives me a reason to come back and try these big Tar Heel toms again in the future.