On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

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Digital Turkey Huntin' ----One shot!

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You only get one shot at tom turkey—maybe two. From chicks to jakes to 
old toms, they are cagier than an early Native American; and more sly and cunning
 than a bobcat, more aware and alert than a coyote... that's how they stay alive.
 So, for a birder to see a wild turkey in the wilds, up close and personal, it
 doesn't happen without careful planning.

 

I grew up in a family of hunters and trappers and fishermen. To me, the
 most interesting hunting stories were always about turkeys. Hunting big game,
 including bow-hunting desert Javelina were certainly interesting tales, but the
 experience of hunting wild turkeys was always of special interest to me because 
of their natural wildness and innate smarts. That's what makes each experience
 so memorable. It pits the wits of the hunter against a bird brain,
 and a hunter often loses, no matter how good he/she is. So clearly there is a
 difference between IQ and turkey smarts. I've known men/women with high IQ's
 that were not very smart. As in other endeavors in life, all it takes is one 
tom turkey to prove the point— even an immature bird brain (a jake) can prove the point.

Over the years I have evolved into a serious birder (birdwatcher), from
 killing to saving, from "hunt to kill" to "hunt to save;" from "trophy fishing"
 to "catch and release," from trapping just because... to trapping a photographic 
trophy. Call me a "tree hugger" and a "whale saver" now, but I am not one who
 believes in the pretext of global warming, or its green politics, or the concept
 of "carbon neutral," which is a virtual impossibility in the natural world.

Anyway, I decide to go spring turkey huntin' with my digital camera—a
 pure form of hunting—for the pure pleasure of hunting and shooting a wild
 turkey. The preparation leading up to a shot or two cannot be overemphasized.
 It starts with the expectation of the unexpected, the anticipation of the
 unanticipated. The hunt for a wild turkey is all about the joy of preparing the
 mind to think like a wily tom turkey. For camera-hunters who want the 
ultimate challenge, turkey hunting can test your skill, patience and accuracy.
 Getting the right shot at a turkey with a camera is a whole lot different than
 shooting one with a shotgun.

It began with scouting the woods in the Santa Rita Mountains of
 southeastern Arizona for a good set up location. Having some knowledge of
 turkey behavior is helpful. Such things as learning where they roost can be 
invaluable. Water sources, foraging and strutting areas, if they can be 
determined, may give an idea of their habits. Openings and small meadows in the
 woods, ridgelines and canyons that serve as travel and escape routes all help
 the hunter to determine a good location for his set up.

Also, the direction of the sun and areas of shadow are vitally 
important to a proper set up. Keeping the sun's glare in a turkey's eyes and
 making him look into the shadows means keeping the sun and a tree trunk at your 
back, and preferably the shadows in front of you. Mind you, a wise old tom will 
be using the very same scheme of light and shadows to try to get your picture! So carefully setting up in the right location before calling 
in a tom turkey is one key to success. Having a second and third set up option 
improves the possibility of success. What if he responds with a loud gobble to
 your first call from your backside? You have to be prepared for a, quiet, quick move to
 the other side of the tree!

Because wild turkeys are extremely alert to changes in their 
environment, they are quick to notice any sort of movement or reflections. They
 have peerless eyesight and hearing and instant escape reflexes. Hunting with a
 shiny camera lens is a liability in this regard, because the lens can
 easily cause unwanted reflections to be noticed by the tom turkey.

Taking special care to remain undetected in their habitat leads to the 
issue of camouflage. Many hunters use full camouflage regalia, from face paint
 and gloves to boots and caps...even camouflaging their guns. No shiny spots or 
cowboy buckles or gold teeth showing—not even the white of the eyeballs or Crest-white teeth! some sort of face
 netting is absolutely essential because to a turkey a persons face glows in the
 daylight and the dark. So, most of the time, remaining motionless is
 probably the best camouflage.

Even after such careful
 preparation, how do I get this wary bird to come up close enough to get a
 decent digital shot? That's where the turkey call comes in. There are different
 kinds of turkey calls made for that purpose. Other than the mimicry of the
 human voice, maybe the most primitive of man-made turkey calls is the simple
box call. It is a small hand-held, coffin-shaped box, about 7'' L x 2" W x 1 ½"
H. The box has an arced paddle attached to the top, that when dragged or rubbed
 across the arced top edges, of the sides of the box, it creates a chafing squawk-screech
or yelp sound, that can carefully manipulated to mimic a clucking hen.

I have had a very old call box 
setting on a shelf in my den for years. It was hand made by an Arkansas turkey
 hunter, probably back in the forties and given to me as a souvenir. Its age
 means that the wood is well seasoned, so it should give off a realistic 
guttural tone that no amorous tom turkey can resist. Yes, I know one can use 
the digital recordings but, then, I wouldn't get to test my skill with the old
turkey call.

Up to 
this day, many turkey hunters still use the "squawk box" for its ease of use,
 versatility and sound quality. Experienced hunters also use them for the high
 volume they easily produce. Box calls are made from various woods and are not
 hard to assemble. There is a great satisfaction in practicing with one of your 
own making. It adds a lot of joy and feeling of accomplishment on the day you
 call in your first wild turkey. Chalking the paddle and top edges of the box
 adds to the effectiveness of producing the sounds of turkey talk. For a nice
diagram see: ttp://www.customcalls.com/makeaturkeyboxcall.htm

As
 mentioned, a stroking or scraping from either side produces a chafing-squawk or 
yelp sound. By using different hardwoods on each of the box sides, the tones
 can vary from lower to higher, and thus mimic the various hen sounds of wild
 turkeys. Different woods create different pitches. In some ways it's like
 choosing the right wood for making a violin. Cedar and cherry, the most
 commonly used woods give a higher pitch and sweeter tone like a young hen.
 Walnut yields a deeper, courser tone like a gobbler or an older hen, and the
 wood of a poplar tree delivers a characteristic low nasal yawlp or yelp.

So, in 
your head, here is what happens. every time you practice a turkey call triggers the mind to
 be in the middle of the woods. Each time you make some trial sounds with your
 box-call, you can hear that gobbler in the distance. While you are shaping the
 wood, in your imagination you hear and see the tom turkey coming in closer.
 Thus, you will call in a lot of turkeys in your head when you are making a box
 call. Clucks and hen yawlps on a squawk box are some of the most genuine, 
rivaling the cluck of any hen. Sometimes, just one or two a good yelping-clucks 
is all it takes to make a tom turkey stretch his neck gobble loudly!

Big tom
 gobblers are most often heard an hour before sun up to an hour after. However, 
I get a late start, but it may not make much difference. After all, turkeys
 don't disappear at sunrise they just scatter out in the woods. So about 8:30 or
 9:00 AM, I take up my position and plant myself in front of a big oak tree,
 hoping my location will give me a good shot. My camouflage is just one large piece
 of woodland-camo netting draped over my extra-wide brim straw hat that I have
 sprayed with stove black. Draping it over my wide brim gives me camera room.
 The rest of the netting covers my entire dark clothing. I have a hole cut in
 the see-thru netting to stick my camera lens through. It too is flat black.
 Getting comfortable, I'm basically facing west-southwest, with the sun at my
 back. I have made sure that not too many obstructions are between me and the
 target area that I hope to shoot into. That is always pure guess work, because turkeys stay behind every bit of cover possible.

About twenty yards directly in front of me is a brushy clearing, a 
small meadow with short grasses. It is my opinion that open clearings always 
attract birds. The woodland border that surrounds the small clearing is a 
forest of mixed oak, juniper and pines. To my left about ten o'clock is a rocky
 hillock. The knoll extends toward the canyon ridge that runs east and west
 about twenty yards directly off to my left. I'm thinking I might be able to
 call out a tom, either from the woods in front of me or from over the canyon
 edge to my left.

The reason for the twenty-yard perimeter view is because I am
 using a 300mm lens. That's about the effective range of a 12 gauge shot gun. So
 the shot is sorta comparable. In fact I'll need to coax a turkey up a little closer 
to get a descent size photo image.

So, now it comes down to turkey smarts— IQ versus bird brain. I 
decide to sit quietly for at least thirty minutes or longer. This is to allow 
time for the ripples of my presence in the woods to dissipate; to cause a
 natural sense that I am no longer in the area. So I sit still and observe the small
 birds with my binoculars and read their behavior. Titmice and chickadees are 
the sentinels of the woods and so when they are calm and actively feeding 
around me, I know that I am no longer affecting their natural behavior. A gray 
squirrel shows up overhead and gently leaps from limb to limb, out to the tip
 of an oak twig and deftly works his way on to a limber pine twig and up the
 limb. A white-breasted nuthatch comes head first, down a tree trunk, right next
 to me. So, I feel comfortable that the time is right for my first call on the 
old "squawk box."

Making a yelp-cluck sound that could attract a tom turkey is a
 matter of touch and stroke with the paddle across the edges of the call box. It 
is also subjective; a matter of how one perceives the clucking yelp and yawlp
 sound of a hen turkey. I am not an experienced pro, but I'll give it my best
 shot. First, a a light touch creating a soft yelp-yelp, and then a painfully pregnant pause—at least 10
 minutes. Then I give him a louder, more urgent, yelp-yawlp. Instantly! Off to
 my right in the woods, about two o'clock, comes' an intense gobble-gobble, 
maybe a hundred yards away. Stirred with excitement, my heart quickens. Now I 
test myself by waiting a full five minutes before testing him with my squawk
box again (some hunters would say to wait at least 20 minutes). I figure he 
will be heading toward her (me). So, with a lighter touch, I do a softer yelp 
or two, softer because I am guessing he is in a little closer. It's a guessing
 game. Bingo! Gobble-gobble-gobble! But this time he sounds like, not one but
 possibly two gobblers. Maybe jakes (young males) since they tend run together.

And, this time the tom's answer comes from center-left about
 eleven o'clock. Surprisingly he is much closer, maybe at the edge of the woods 
near the opening. A tom turkey can accurately pinpoint the sound of a hen from
 a long distance. Given this second opportunity to hear her, his response tells 
me that he has triangulated between my first and second series of clucks, and
 now he positively knows within inches just where her sound is coming from.
 However, if he doesn't see her, he will move cautiously in her direction, and
 may detour around the spot seeking to catch a glimpse of her. Anticipating his
 movement, I slowly and carefully scootch my butt and body around slightly to
 the left to be in a better position...no quick movements. The anxious minutes
 pass, for nearly a half an hour I practically quit breathing...and no appearance
 of a tom turkey in any of the openings I had in view. But, it is time for 
patience; no more calls on my old box call. This is the critical
 moment—bird brain versus IQ—the first one to move, flinch or blink loses!

And then ever so slowly, just off to my left, stretching his neck
 and cocking his head this sly tom comes sneaking out from behind the mound
 along the ridge of the canyon, he peers between the trees. Sporting a long
beard, he is well inside my predetermined twenty-yard marker! But he stays 
mostly in the shadows and keeps a low profile with his head down. Then he
 pauses and raises his head for about four seconds and looks directly at my
 position with a cock-eyed curious look. A-sly-entryIt was just long enough to get off a
 couple of shots before he quickly left the scene toward the canyon. He
 obviously heard the click of the camera. What a really great feeling I had for
 being able to call in this tom turkey, even though I couldn't get a clean
 digital shot. Had it been a shotgun, there is no question...it would have been a
 clean shot!

Since I'm not shooting a noisy firearm, I decide to stay put for a
 few minutes to see if any other birds follow. And, just as I am savoring the
 moment and thinking,... "wow! that's it," suddenly, there appears another
 handsome turkey...a jake! He poses in partial sunlight well inside the ridge
 overlooking the canyon. A-surprise-jakeThis gobbler raised his baldhead, and showed me his 
red, white and blue crown and red wattles, and then curiously stared toward my
 position in the shade. Click!! I got off a clean shot before he disappeared 
over the ridge! He must have been the one that chimed in with a double gobble
 that I heard on the second call. I thought it was unusual to find this jake
 following so close to the tom, since the dominant tom generally runs off the
 young jakes. The whitish-tip of the tail feathers, identify these turkeys as
 the southwestern species. Eastern birds have reddish-brown tail tips.Lookin-back-to-see

The feeling of satisfaction was overwhelming! The few pictures 
that I shot tell the whole exhilarating story of my old call box and the 
results of human IQ versus turkey smarts! The huntin' / birding experience is
 deserving of uncorking that rare single malt libation and a little 
embellishment around the fire. What an awesome feeling of, not just getting to 
see these beautiful gobblers, but getting a shot at them! You only get one 
shot—well sorta— my Nikon digital shot gun gets off 6 frames per second.

© Ed Keenan

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