How to beat those difficult turkeys at their own game
A grudge bird is a wild turkey gobbler that over time has managed to really piss you off. Typically, that’s a 3- to 4-year-old mature gobbler. They have successfully avoided predators, harsh winters, shotguns and bows. They are huge, and they are few and far between. Every gobbler looks big when puffed up in display, but an older tom looks like a strutting Volkswagen bug. They drag thick 11-inch beards and have pointed 1-1/2-inch spurs. The most distinctive feature is the head. It’s nearly the size of a softball. You know it when you see it. These old warriors are generally 18 to 24 pounds depending on where they have been living and what they are eating.
Occasionally, 2-year-olds can avoid being killed long enough to become a grudge bird. Turkey hunters can’t resist 2-year-old gobblers; they are simply more cooperative. They have full fans, 6- to 8-inch beards and 3/4-inch stubby spurs. A farm bird or backyard-fed 2-year-old can tip the scales upwards of 20 pounds. Big woods turkey, like I typically hunt, run from 16 to 18 pounds. Not limb hangers, but mature toms nonetheless. But it’s the older toms that create the biggest challenge.
Finding your grudge bird
Until recently, New England turkey hunters have had conservative seasons and meager bag limits. We were allowed one bearded turkey in the spring, and at the onset could only hunt until noon. Once that bird was bagged, we were done. Now with a two-bird limit and all-day hunting in many states we can shoot number one and then concentrate on our grudge bird, even if it takes the rest of the season.
Typically, I’ve shot my first gobbler early and helped others do the same. If I had encountered a particularly uncooperative bird, I’d keep him to myself and go looking for him again later. When I find him, he is usually solitary, and roosts and stays in the same general area. When he has outwitted me at least three times I know I have found my grudge bird.
Hunting a grudge bird
One particular grudge bird that stands out in my mind was a big tom that hung out around a small, secluded field surrounded by tall pines and bordering a blueberry barren. I only caught a couple glimpses of him and he was impressive. I knew I had a grudge bird when I spent half a day working him. He would gobble when he wanted, but would never commit and rarely let me see him. On subsequent hunts I tried everything in my turkey call arsenal of tricks and tactics: raspy mouth diaphragm calls, aggressive box call cutting and subtle slate call yelping. It also became readily apparent that he knew a plastic turkey decoy from the real thing.
I roosted him more than once. I would sneak in to different listening spots an hour before light and let him gobble on the roost before setting up and doing soft, quiet purrs. Predictably, he would either shut up, or fly down and gobble once then walk away. Eventually, he just ignored all my efforts. He had gotten to know me as well as I had gotten to know him.
Killing that grudge bird
After he had made me look like a complete fool one too many times, I was suitably pissed off. I began to hold a grudge. So, I snuck up on him, plain and simple. The true purists won’t like that. But stalking a grudge gobbler takes finesse, and patience, and planning. I knew his habits by now. I knew he would gobble just a few times on the roost. And I knew generally where he would fly down, gobble once more, and then go silent. I gave him time to cool off, and at the very end of the May season, I headed in after him.
I waited in the dark a good 300 yards from where he was roosting, and waited. He gobbled on cue on the roost, and he gobbled once more when on the ground. I recognized his distinctive gobble by now. He was in that small, secluded field. I dropped my vest with its comfy padded seat, all my calls, and my binoculars, and snuck and crawled to that field edge, slowly and carefully, like I was avoiding land mines. I kept my shotgun in front of me as I took a deep breath and eased my head over a berm. There he was, all alone, standing tall and black and beautiful in the thigh-high grass. His head was huge and red and white and blue. He was within range and all mine. He tipped the scales at 22 pounds, displaying an 11-inch brushy beard and wearing 1-inch-plus sharp-as-a-needle spurs. A legit limb hanger.
It’s hard to waste a lot of time on a particularly tough bird when conventional wisdom is to go find a turkey that can be killed on any given day. But when it all comes together and you manage to hang one of these tough old bastards on a limb, it makes all that effort and time worthwhile.
Brad Eden began hunting and guiding for Maine wild turkeys soon after the spring hunt was started by lottery in 1986. He created and runs Upland Journal, a popular discussion forum launched in 2002. He is a Registered Master Maine Guide, an outdoor writer and artist.