Mentored turkey hunt yields unforgettable results
The fate of a turkey hunt’s outcome is indeed fickle. High-fives can be the celebratory conclusion just as easily as the dejected hunter’s incessant second-guessing of the tactics that caused the gobbler to walk away instead of strutting into range.
Chuck Sykes, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director, has been in both situations. Sometimes that fate varies daily. Sometimes it’s different segments of the season, and sometimes, it’s different years.
With a little less than a month left in the season for most parts of the state, Sykes said hunters have had mixed results.
“Some hunters are doing well; some are not,” Sykes said. “It depends on where you are in the state. Personally, I think the turkeys are a little behind for this time of the season as compared to previous seasons. Gobbling has been very poor for me. I’ve hunted quite a few days, and I’ve seen five turkeys die, so don’t be crying for me.
“It’s substandard for me compared to what it was last year, which gives me great hope that the end of the season is going to be really good. I just think that cold snap slowed things down a little bit. I know we had some cold weather last year, but there’s something just a little bit different this year.”
Sykes said last year’s opening few days started with lows in the 30s, but the turkeys were still “gobbling their brains out.”
“We even had a couple of mornings in the upper 20s, but we were killing turkeys,” he said. “They were working right. This year, turkeys are gobbling two or three times, hitting the ground, and it’s over with.”
Sykes said it appears the 2017 and 2018 seasons will be flipped in terms of turkey activity and hunting success.
“The first few weeks of the season last year couldn’t have been any better for me,” he said. “The last two or three weeks of the season couldn’t have been any worse.
“I’m anticipating, based on past experience, that during the last few weeks of the season, the gobbling should be better and turkeys should be working better. I think we’re going to have a good closing few weeks of the season.”
Although the overall season has been a disappointment for Sykes, one magical afternoon will be forever etched in his memory, and he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger.
That hunt occurred on one of the WFF’s Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) during an Adult Mentored Hunting Program outing.
Sykes recruited his old hunting buddy Al Mattox to help guide during the hunt on the new Pine Barren SOA area. Charles Barrow of Ozark and Adam Arnold of Pelham were the lucky hunters who were randomly drawn for the hunt.
“Charles actually participated in one of the mentored deer hunts,” Sykes said. “He was lucky enough to get selected for the turkey hunt.”
Arnold, on the other hand, has been an avid shooter for years, including long-distance shooting and sporting clays, but had really never hunted.
“Adam is one of those guys who has been participating in the Pittman-Robertson Act program by buying guns and ammunition, but he hasn’t been buying a hunting license for us to be able to capture that money and bring it back to Alabama,” Sykes said of the excise tax levied on firearms, ammunition and hunting equipment. “So, this was a unique experience.
“His family didn’t hunt. I think he may have been dove hunting once or twice throughout his life, and that was it. His family and group of friends weren’t exposed to hunting, but he was introduced to shooting later in life.”
Sykes said Arnold is a very accomplished shot who has his own shotgun and extensive knowledge of firearms overall.
“The gun part of it was easy,” Sykes said. “The hunting portion, we had to do a lot of teaching. The way we handled it, my best hunting buddy, Al Mattox, was with me. Al got back from Afghanistan three weeks before the hunt and wanted to help. He had been serving a tour in Afghanistan for about nine or 10 months. Al and I have hunted together a long time.”
Sykes and Mattox came up with a plan to hunt as a four-man team with a primary shooter and a backup shooter.
“That way, during the heat of the action, whoever was with the secondary shooter could give them a play-by-play of what was going on, taking the pressure off of them,” Sykes said. “They weren’t worried about shooting. They were worried about learning. I could walk them through everything. I could explain what Al was doing with the primary shooter. Al could explain what I was doing with the backup shooter.”
What Sykes and Mattox didn’t anticipate was that by the end of the hunt there was a spent shell lying on the ground next to each hunter.
“It worked out really well,” Sykes said. “It just so happened, when everything came together, there were two mature birds and both were able to harvest their first birds.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience for those guys as well and Al and I as the mentors. It was a very emotional afternoon.”
Sykes said the unsuccessful morning hunt got the hunters prepared for the eventful afternoon session.
“It all worked out for the best,” he said. “During the morning hunt there was no gobbling, nothing. So, we got to teach them how to be still. We got to teach them how to pick a location when turkeys aren’t gobbling; how to look for tracks; how to look for sign. We taught them a bunch of the basics that morning.
“Right after lunch we went out, and on our first setup, I called in an extremely vocal hen. They were introduced to a live turkey at close range. They could use what we taught them that morning on camouflage and how to be still, when to move and when not to move.”
Mattox had done some scouting a few days before the hunt and found some gobblers in one area. Still, the hunters were on unfamiliar ground because WFF had just recently closed the purchase on the Pine Barren tract. Sykes and Mattox used aerial maps on their smartphones to survey for likely turkey hangouts.
“We actually found a hidden food plot and set up off the edge of it,” Sykes said. “Adam was the primary shooter. I was with Charles off to the side. We placed two hen decoys out in the field. I yelped on a box, and a turkey gobbled about 400 yards from us, kind of behind us. About 15 second later, I looked and saw two other gobblers in the hardwoods coming to us.
“Adam did really well. Al was talking him through everything. Charles and I were sitting back as spectators at that point. Adam and Al let the turkeys strut all the way by them, about 75 yards across the field at a distance of about 15 yards from the hunter.”
Al waited to give Adam the sign to shoot so that the turkeys would be in position for Charles to get a shot if the second turkey happened to hang around for a few seconds.
“When the turkeys got into a position where I knew Adam was ready, I called to them,” Sykes said. “The dominant bird gobbled. I was letting Adam and Al know it was time.”
Arnold fired and dropped his bird. Sykes then coached Barrow through the backup-shooter process.
“When turkeys are at 15 yards and there is a big boom, they don’t know where it came from,” Sykes said. “The turkey was walking in circles. I was cutting to him. The turkey didn’t know what to do. By the time the gobbler got his bearings, Charles was ready and made a good shot.
“It was an incredible hunt.”
Sykes fully expects similar scenarios to unfold on the Pine Barren SOA in Dallas County.
“It’s the most exciting piece of property I’ve been on that is public hunting,” Sykes said. “It’s part of the old Hit and Miss Lodge where Mossy Oak did a lot of their filming. The amount of game there is incredible.”
For those who haven’t had much luck this turkey season, Sykes said it’s time to regroup but never surrender.
“You’ve just got to keep going,” he said. “As my grandmother always told me, a bad beginning means it’s going to be a good ending, and I’m counting on it.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.