We carefully maneuvered our way through the dark to set up a makeshift blind on the edge of the long, sweeping field along the river. We had roosted a big gobbler the night before and he was all alone, making him the perfect target for morning.
As the sun started to brighten the eastern sky we scratched out a few yelps on our box call. The returning thunderous gobble was a loud message that the redhead in the tree knew where we were. We teased him a little more and with the rising sun we heard the unmistakable flapping of wings that let us know our quarry was on the ground. Once down, the old boy was silent and he snuck through the thick woods watching everything in front of him before taking the next step. I finally caught a glimpse of him coming through the trees and stretching out his neck to overlook the green grass in the field.
Our hen decoy immediately caught his eye and as he raced for the edge of the field he started gobbling again. As soon as he had room for his dominant display he went to work strutting. With each advancing step the gobbler got more worked up and reached the point where he didn’t know if he should just run over to the hen or keep strutting. I steadied my CVA Apex on the edge of my blind and waited for the gobbler to close the distance. Very little calling was required to keep his interest and the entire show to cover the ground from the edge of the trees to the hen decoy only took a couple minutes. I could hear his feathers flexing and popping at close range and at just 20 yards I tried to break him out of his trance with some loud clucks in order to get him to lift his head. My shotgun roared and sent the bird to the ground.
It was the perfect scenario for a turkey hunter wanting to score on a mature Eastern longbeard. I was hunting in Nebraska and the region we focused on had Eastern and Merriam’s. Having put a big old eastern bird on the ground I switched my focus to a Merriam’s to round out the hunt.
Over the next two days my hunting partner and I called in five more mature Eastern gobblers and I let all of them go. They were classic moments when we spotted birds, got in close, set up decoys and called them right into our lap. One of the big gobblers strutted just five feet from where we sat causing me to break out in goosebumps. Although the eastern boys were working well there was a monster-sized Merriam’s that continually teased us. As a matter of fact, we set up hoping to bring in Mr. White-edged Tail but only got the Easterns to respond. We’d get the Merriam’s to gobble back at us but he’d always round up his flock and head in the opposite direction.
I became obsessed with that bird and we hunted him full time, but it was all in vain. No matter what we did the old bird always outsmarted us or simply wouldn’t play. Running out of time we focused our attention on the bird’s main territory for the last afternoon. We found him in a cut cornfield and talked some of his hens in close, but he refused to get any closer than 100 yards. That is when we got our big break. The hens traveled right past us, crossed a road, and disappeared into heavy cover. Old boy Merriam’s watched his ladies walk away and he turned to make his way back across the cornfield. I knew he’d end up going back up the far treeline, just like we’d seen several other days.
I made the quick decision to sneak back to the truck, race around the field and sneak into the cover along the trees where the bird was headed. I had to run to cover enough ground and as I got close to the edge of the field I quickly sat down amongst a sea of purple flowers. As if on cue, the old boy showed up in less than a minute. I had cut my whole ambush strategy dangerously close.
When I cocked my shotgun I saw the red head pop up and stare directly at me. I knew he was onto me and before I could shoot he dropped his head and ran along the edge of the cover. My lucky break came when he stopped for one last peak and as soon as his eye came into view I pulled the trigger. The flapping wings let me know my pattern was centered on target and I’d finally killed the big Merriam’s I chased for four days.
I was thrilled with my turkey hunts and seriously couldn’t decide if it was better to call the Eastern off the roost and bring him right into the decoy where I shot him or to chase a wily old bird, most hunters would consider unkillable, and finish days of anguish with an ambush shot?
My exuberance and thrill of both hunts was squashed when I shared my experience with a few hardcore turkey hunters. They looked at me with disdain and let me know with conviction that if I didn’t call the bird in it really wasn’t a turkey hunt. They went so far as to tell me an ambushed turkey really didn’t count and that anyone could kill a bird in that manner.
At first I was taken aback by the comments, but after thinking about it I decided to ignore the turkey snobs and revel in my success knowing I’d hunted harder and smarter to get the adult Merriam’s than for any other bird I’ve shot. It was a major challenge and thrill and I’d do it all again if given the opportunity.
It isn’t illegal to ambush or even sneak up on an old gobbler on a hunt, but there are some within the fraternity who will frown on such activity. Each hunter should look for his or her own satisfaction from a hunt and be proud of taking a bird legally, responsibly and on your own terms.