The author explores how adrenaline can lead to turkey fever and an empty tag.
Turkey hunting is a series of small decisions made within a larger strategy, with a few twists and turns of fate along the way. The ability to adjust and adapt can make the difference between a successful day and a long walk in the woods. Sometimes the pieces all fall into place. Sometimes we make a poor decision but recover from the mistake. Sometimes the wheels totally come off.
My name is Jennifer and I completely lost my mind on my first turkey encounter.
I was consumed with excitement for my first turkey hunt. After learning how to hunt upland birds and waterfowl, I was really looking forward to this next challenge. Staying carefully concealed while calling in birds was a significant technical step beyond roaming the prairie with our bird dog. My mind flitted over scenes of strutting toms from the videos I’d been watching. It was all so simple: set the decoy, make some calls, and wait for that magnificent bird to wander into view. By the time we arrived at our campsite, I was already daydreaming about a 20-pound tom and wondering if I should preemptively get a second tag while in town.
We split up for the afternoon, scouting to get our bearings and learn the birds’ patterns. Having seen a nearby flock earlier in the day, I picked a clearing where I suspected the flock might pass through as they made their way back towards their roost. Even though I was primarily focused on scouting, I didn’t want to miss out if a good opportunity presented itself. I carefully deployed Betty the decoy hen and selected a suitable hiding spot before settling in to wait.
Thirty minutes into the stakeout, some chatter came from directly behind me. The yelping hens were in the lead with gobbles following closely behind. It sounded like an enormous group of birds, but it became hard to distinguish the actual turkeys over the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. I immediately regretted my choice in position and made a snap decision to relocate for a better chance at intercepting the birds. I grabbed Betty and tiptoed to a new clearing where I quickly thrust her into the ground. Remembering that I also needed my gun, I tap-danced back to the original spot and collected my things. Time was getting short. Carefully balancing between speed and stealth, I returned to the new spot and scanned for a good hiding place.
Without warning, the brush suddenly erupted with a chorus of alarm calls,“Pvvvt! Pvvvt! Pvvvt!” I instinctively threw up my hands and froze in place. It felt like I’d tripped a laser beam in the vault during a botched bank heist. Game over. Wah wahhh.
The humiliating part was that the hens just wouldn’t stop. They continued sounding the alarm and carrying on about the dumb turkey hunter who thought she could run around the woods undetected. My ego crumbled as I picked up Betty and trudged away from the scene, leaving the relentless alarm calls to echo in the distance.
I spent the next hour sulking and playing word puzzles on my phone as I ignored the silence of the forest. I felt bad about disturbing the flock and being so impulsive. I worried that I’d messed up our hunting prospects on this small public property for the next several days. I was absentmindedly unscrambling letters when I heard a single, soft yelp from the direction of my initial stakeout. I jumped up and, in my haste, left all my gear as I strode in that direction to see if there was a lost hen that somehow hadn’t heard about my presence in the woods. Upon cresting the ridge, my mouth fell open as I saw a flock of no less than 25 birds marching across the meadow. Impulse took over as I sprinted back to my gear, shoved the decoy under my arm like a football, and quickstepped over pinecones like I was returning for a game-winning touchdown. I don’t learn very quickly.
At this point I was soaked in sweat and heaving to catch my breath. Once again I shoved Betty into the ground and took up my post where I’d started this whole ordeal. Scanning the field and my surroundings, my gaze settled on the tree directly above me. It had big, strong branches stretching horizontally. It had no immediate neighbors. It was perched above a lovely meadow. It had to be a roost. A sharp breath caught in my throat; I knew I didn’t want to disturb the roost and continue this disastrous path of tormenting all the local turkeys. At last, I made a smart choice in favor of cutting my losses. I put Betty away in her bag and gathered up my things for the last time that day.
My husband met me back at the truck as the afternoon settled into evening. “Didja see any birds?” he asked. I groaned.
So in conclusion . . .
Keep your wits about you. Don’t let your bird-lust override all rational thought and planning. Be flexible, but don’t be too quick to change your strategy in the heat of the moment. In other words, don’t be careless.
Thankfully, I got control of myself on the following days and was able to practice proper turkey hunting strategies. I did not shoot a bird, but I called in a gorgeous tom and watched him spit, drum, and strut behind me for a full hour; unfortunately, he was unreachable due to my position and the thick cover between us. It was truly breathtaking – an experience I will never forget.
There’s no shame in an epic breakdown as long as you can laugh about it later and learn something from the experience; I’ve certainly done my fair share of both. The turkeys will be there next year and I’ll be armed with a plan.
Jennifer Wapenski is the managing editor of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine and co-host of the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast. She has a lifelong passion for the outdoors, dogs, and wildlife; as an adult, she discovered that upland bird and waterfowl hunting were natural extensions of these pursuits. Jennifer lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two Deutsch Langhaars.