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David Rainer: Field turkeys require special tactics, patience

One of the most frustrating aspects of pursuing the Eastern wild turkey in Alabama is hunting the wily birds in wide open territory, open agricultural fields or clearcuts for example.

With virtually no cover to hide, hunters may have to resort to somewhat extreme measures to bag a bird in the open. I remember trying to outwit what I call field turkeys with Preston Pittman, who has won so many turkey calling contests that I can’t list them all. Pittman finally said, “If I have to dig a hole in the middle of the field and get there at midnight, I’m going to figure out a way to kill this turkey.”

Sunlight gives the feathers of an Eastern wild turkey an iredescent quality. (David Rainer Photo)

Late last season, I headed to Choctaw County to hunt a field turkey with Larry Norton, a two-time World Champion caller. The bird he had located was using a clearcut that had been cleared in recent years, which meant no real cover existed. Still, it was the only gobbling bird we found.

“I used to hate hunting field turkeys until I figured out how to do it,” said Norton, a longtime turkey guide at Bent Creek Lodge near Jachin. “When I first started hunting turkeys in a field, like most young hunters, I would be too impatient. Turkeys come to a field to feed. They might be strutting, but the main reason they come to a field is to feed.”

Norton said after calling to the gobblers for about 30 minutes, he would get frustrated and move to the other corner of the field, which could take another 30 minutes to keep from spooking the turkeys.

“I’d finally get to the other end of the field and look up, and the turkeys would be 20 yards from where I’d been sitting,” he said. “It happened several times until it finally dawned on me one day that I needed to start paying attention to what they’re doing in the field.

“What he’s doing is trying to fill his craw (crop) up, especially in the afternoon when he’s getting ready to fly up. He might be pecking around eating grass and seeds when a grasshopper takes off to the side. He goes to grab the grasshopper, and now he’s headed in the opposite direction. He’ll start pecking again and pick his head up to listen for the hen. Then he’ll turn back and start feeding in your direction. If he’s out there and fills his craw up, he’ll pick his head up and listen. Then he’ll head straight to you. Just about every turkey I’ve killed like that, his craw was filled slam full of stuff.”

If he gets on a gobbler later in the afternoon and doesn’t have time to get properly set up to hunt the turkey, Norton uses a different tactic.

Two-time World Champion turkey caller Larry Norton of Myrtlewood removes the breast and thighs from the turkey.

“I try to remember where a turkey was gobbling around that field that morning,” he said. “Then I’ll back off 100 yards from the field. He’ll want to come to a hen that’s calling because his other hens are not being receptive. I remember hunting a turkey with Tom Fegely (the late outdoor writer) on a power line that had 15 hens with him. I was afraid if we got too close, it might intimidate the hens and they would leave, taking him with them. We backed off 100 yards from the power line, and I told Tom that he might come in quiet, or he might be drumming. Twenty minutes before fly-up time, I heard him drumming. He was easing our way pretty swiftly. Tom shot him at 20 yards.”

Norton also said field turkeys require specific calling techniques as well.

“If he’s got hens with him, do feeding calls, shy hen yelps, clucking and purring and scratching in the leaves,” he said. “You don’t want to intimidate the hens.”

Norton remembered a hunt where a gobbler was all ‘henned up’ with about 25 hens around him when the shy calling helped his hunter bag what became known as the “white lizard” turkey, one of Norton’s favorite hunts while he was guiding. Norton was standing beside a pine tree looking at turkeys in a 2 ½-acre field that had a significant slope with windrows.

“I was clucking and purring, and the hens started coming toward us,” he said. “The hens got close, and I knew the gobbler had to be right there somewhere, but I couldn’t see him. There was a log laying in the edge of the field, and I saw what looked like a white lizard coming down that log. I thought to myself that I’d never seen a white lizard, and then the gobbler walked out from behind the log. It was the top of his head I was seeing coming down that log.

“Sam (the hunter) was on his knees, and he got his gun up. After a few minutes, I could see the barrel start dipping down. I eased my right hand out and caught the barrel and held it up until the hens cleared away from the gobbler. I told him that when I turn the barrel loose you shoot. He came to Bent Creek 10 years later, and all he talked about was that white lizard.”

Another memorable field gobbler that Norton hunted numerous times was nicknamed the “glitter turkey” for a specific reason.

“That turkey was like a bird dog trained on a collar,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I called him up in this little hollow. He was shot but got away. I thought he would probably die, but he didn’t. I heard him gobbling after that and went to him. I yelped and he shut up. I went back to the truck and crowed a couple of times, and he gobbled. I went back down and yelped. Nothing.”

Later in the season, Norton and a buddy happened to ease up to a field, and the gobbler was out there by himself.

“My buddy said, ‘Let’s see you put some of the World Champion calling on this turkey and get this over with quick,’” Norton said. “I yelped one time, and that turkey came out of a strut and ran the other way.

“The next time I see him again in that field, I yelped real softly, and he took off running again.”

During the last week of the season, Norton recruited another buddy to try to figure out how to bag this bird, but he told his hunting partner to leave his yelpers at home. Another complication was the gobbler had roosted in a tree about 200 yards into an 8-year-old clearcut that was basically impenetrable.

“The turkey gobbled and gobbled and gobbled,” Norton said. “At 9 o’clock, my buddy said if I didn’t yelp at that turkey he was going to leave. So, I tried to yelp so low that he couldn’t hear me just to satisfy my buddy. Well, that turkey heard me and flew out of that tree to some big woods on the other side of the clearcut. My buddy looked at me and said, ‘What in the world have you done to that turkey?’”

Not far away was a field with strips of chufa planted. The hunters moved to the edge of the field and spotted hens and jakes feeding. About 30 minutes after getting set up, Norton spotted the infamous gobbler coming into the field.

“One of the hens saw him and clucked and yelped,” Norton said. “He turned around and ran away from his own hen. My buddy said there’s something bad wrong with that turkey. I told him to sit still, he’d be back.”

Sure enough, the gobbler came back 30 minutes later. One of his hens yelped, and he turned tail and ran toward a road on the end of the field. Norton backed away from the field and high-tailed it toward that road to try to cut him off.

“I eased up to the road and didn’t see anything,” he said. “Then I saw some bushes between me and the end of field wiggling a little bit. He stepped out in the road and looked into the field at his hens. I put the red dot on him. When he looked around, I shot him.”

What Norton found when he started field dressing the turkey explained all the gobbler’s unusual behavior and his “glitter turkey” nickname.

“He basically didn’t have a breast on his left side,” he said. “He had nine No. 4s in his back. His right leg had been broken, and his feet glittered with copper-plated No. 6s. He about ran me crazy.”

Our first encounter with the gobbler we hunted in late April ended when he followed one of his hens across the clearcut in the only spot where I couldn’t get a shot out of the blind.

We tried again the following week with only three days left in the season, and this time, his hen had abandoned him to tend to her nest.

“When he first started gobbling, he was at least a half-mile away,” Norton said. “He took his time. He probably had a hen or two to deal with. Once they left him, he headed our way.”

Within a few minutes, the gobbler circled around to the left of the blind, but this time, he chose the wrong side. I was able to slip the gun through the side window. I put the bead on his neck at 30 yards and pulled the trigger. He went down in a heap.

“Once his hens leave him, he’s like a buck in rut,” Norton said. “They only have a certain time to do their thing, and sometimes you can catch them where if you yelp one time, they’ll come running.”

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