Everyday Hunter: The Learning Curve of a Turkey Hunter

About 10 years separated my first and second gobblers. If my turkey hunting didn’t improve, at least my photo skills did.
About 10 years separated my first and second gobblers. If my turkey hunting didn’t improve, at least my photo skills did.

Compared to deer hunting, turkey hunting has a short legacy. Although turkeys were important to Native Americans, market hunting through the 1700s and 1800s brought a serious decline in population and we find few accounts of turkey hunting prior to the twentieth century.

Adventures of famous nineteenth century hunters are brimming with tales of deer, bears, mountain lions and other animals, but they leave turkeys out. Old Dan Boone may or may not have “kilt a bar on this tree,” but was he a turkey hunter?

One of the first modern turkey hunters to grab our attention was Archibald Rutledge, who advanced to his eternal reward from his beloved South Carolina turkey woods in 1973, the year the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded. Turkey hunting is a relatively new game, thanks mostly to heroic conservationist-hunters and the efforts of the NWTF and state game agencies to repopulate most available habitat with wild turkeys.

My first turkey hunt was a fall hunt in the early1960s. Dad was trying to call in a lost hen. I had a better view of it than he had, but I was too young to be a licensed hunter so Lady Luck was on the hen’s side. A year or two later my dad and I were hauling a load of firewood down Hatch Run Road just north of Warren, PA, and we had to stop for a strutter with two hens. It was unforgettable. The turkey hunting bug bit me that day.

In the late 1960s we decided to hunt spring gobblers. Dad bought a Lynch “World Champion” box call and we spent weeks failing to produce a proper turkey yelp. I finally suggested we send it back to Birmingham 9, Alabama and ask Mr. Lynch to check it over. He returned it promptly in perfect working order. It must have somehow escaped Lynch’s shop the first time without being properly tuned, because now we couldn’t make a bad sound with it. Dad used it to take at least one spring gobbler before I left for college. I still have that call.

My first gobbler came a few years later on a long weekend in May when I fled the ivy-covered buildings of a Boston campus and drove 500 miles home for a weekend hunt. I convinced a 20+ pound bird that I was a hen willing to carry on his genes. For at least two reasons that old Tom was a gift. The Penns Woods diaphragm call I used was several years old with a nearly rotten single latex reed that shouldn’t have worked. And I doubt more than a single BB from Dad’s old double-barreled Ithaca hit his head at 40 yards.

Through the years that followed I lived in Kansas City, North Carolina, and Washington D.C. before returning to Pennsylvania. One evening my brother Andy heard a gobbler on the hill behind the house where I now live. The next morning we climbed in the dark and called to that talkative bird for more than an hour until the old boy walked away, still gobbling. That’s when I heard a single “cluck” from a young gobbler sneaking in to steal the girl. I learned a lot on that hunt, but my self-taught learning curve would still rise very slowly.

Along the way I attempted to make my own call. I tried a few pieces of roofing slate rescued from the old Warren State Hospital Farm Colony building before its demolition, and bought a jig for making mouth calls. My efforts were mostly futile until a turning point came in 2009. On a family trip to South Carolina I discovered something called a scratchbox call. I fiddled with several designs of my own and came up with one I liked. It has brought many gobblers to my gun. I’ve sold more than a thousand, and many hunters have sent me success photos.

If you’re a turkey hunter you’ve learned that hunting turkeys is a challenge, sometimes easy but mostly hard. And right there is a straight forward lesson about life.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.