gobblers

A masked hunter uses a friction call to lure turkey.

I READ RECENTLY that 90 percent of the turkeys that are killed each year during spring gobbler season are taken by just 10% of the total turkey hunters. I similarly recall former Department of Game and Inland Fisheries turkey biologist Gary Norman telling me that the number of hunters who killed three gobblers each spring – the number allowed on the current Virginia big game license – was miniscule, only about 3%.

Many of my friends on social media are turkey hunters. It is fun watching their exploits as the seasons progress around the country. Some are in that elite group of highly proficient gobbler getters. They’re either superb hunters or people who have the key to the gates of lands where turkey populations are flourishing. In many cases, they are both.

Then there are the middle-of-the-roaders. We (I lump myself into this group) are avid hunters, try to spend as much time as work and other life requirements allow in the pursuit of our favorite big game bird, and have many exhilarating close-but-no-cigar moments with wily, frustrating gobblers. We’re the “two tags filled and we’re happy” team. On rare years, we too limit out, especially those years when there are strong populations of two-year-old gobblers who readily race to the sound of your call and enable us to snap smiling, tail-fanned “hero” photos.

Next are the occasional hunters, enthusiastic, inexperienced and often lacking places to hunt that have good populations of birds. They may tag a tom or they may leave each season empty handed while enjoying the sights and sounds of a few days in the spring turkey woods.

For me, this is one of those years that’s been more difficult than others when it comes to closing the deal. I took a nice mature gobbler on opening day—thanks to a couple hens he was following that decided to come closer to visit with my decoy spread. I was hunting from a blind.

Since then, I could have tagged out by shooting one-year-old juvenile “jake” birds. I typically let those guys go since they’re next year’s gobblers.

Where I increasingly struggle is “running and gunning on foot,” trying to “work” birds in the woods. I used to have modest success with it, occasionally pinpointing a gobbler sounding off on the roost, then slipping in quietly, setting up and starting a dialogue to coax the turkey into gun range. I can’t use a mouth diaphragm call. This is a big handicap when a bird is hung up just outside of acceptable range. I envy hunters who can make those final soft clucks and purrs that pull a wary gobbler closer.

Stealth is essential once that bird is in sight. If you can see him, he can see you. Turkeys have such remarkable eyesight that the slightest movement or anything seeming amiss immediately ends the game. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to scratch out some soft notes on a glass friction call in my lap. More often, though, I lightly depress the push-button on an old Quaker Boy Easy Yelper. Sometimes, the best I can manage is using a stick at my side to furtively scratch a few leaves -anything to fix the gobbler’s interest and motivate him to pirouette and prance closer.

I’ve tried to set up on several birds gobbling on the roost these last two seasons. Some shut up quickly as I start moving in. Some quiet when another bird starts gobbling. Others fly down and act like they want to cooperate, seemingly coming to my calling as I sit against a tree. Leaving empty-handed has become my new normal.

In some cases, hens likely intervened. That old tom will follow that pretty bird walking in front of him over an unseen call almost any time. But over multiple experiences, I’ve come to realize most of the failures are totally on me. They’re due to one issue: my hearing.

Where’s that Bird?

My hearing has been deteriorating for at least the last quarter century, with my left ear much worse than the right. I also have loud tinnitus—every day, all day. Pinpointing a gobbling turkey’s precise location and distance, whether in predawn darkness on its roost or strutting on the ground is an increasingly difficult proposition.

To compensate, I move – too much. I misjudge the distance to the roost and push too tight or I set up after daybreak, trying to induce an unseen but gobbling bird, and then realize I can’t tell where he is. I swivel my head to try to gain a visual, or shift my body position to adjust for a potential shot opportunity based on estimated direction of approach.

I hunted last week with a friend – we practiced the requisite physical distancing – and it was remarkable to see how a bird I thought was gobbling over my right shoulder was really almost in front of me. That kind of realization reinforced my doubt about hunting forest birds.

Cinco de Mayo has been a lucky day for me in the past when it came to turkeys. This past Tuesday I had three gobblers sounding off just after legal shooting. It looked promising. I played cat and mouse with two of them almost all morning, but luck eluded me. I think these birds are seeing me before I see them.

Get Protection—Now

For the last couple of decades, I’ve used hearing protection when hunting and shooting, everything from amplified muffs to in-ear hearing aids. Unless I get the devices perfectly tuned and balanced, pinpointing a turkey’s vocalizations and movement remains a challenge. The salvation, at least, is knowing if I do manage to get a shot, I’ll be protected against the blast noise.

The lesson, especially for younger readers, is protect your hearing. Always! Fighting tinnitus and hearing loss isn’t something you want. It is easy to take hearing for granted, but noise is a physical entity the effects of traumatic noise are cumulative. Each slight trauma inside your head builds on the other. Hearing loss can be slow and almost imperceptible or it can be quick and catastrophic. When it’s gone, it is usually forever gone.

There are many products on the market designed to protect your hearing without sacrificing your ability to pinpoint sound and direction. The key is to start using these before you get any natural hearing loss. Listen to a friend who learned the hard way, as I often do with many life lessons. Play the long game. Your hearing is too valuable and tinnitus is aggravating for your entire life. Take care of your hearing as much as you take care of your eyesight. I wish I had.

For more outdoors adventures, wild game recipes, videos and more, see Ken Perrotte’s weblog at outdoorsrambler.com.

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