Did you know that turkeys kill rattlesnakes? Excuse me for a little bit of a Ben Franklin moment, but I'm going to tell you about one of the most interesting wild animals that's native to North America and what it's like tracking them in the wild.
Turkey Fact #1: They are actually named after the country. Early explorers from Europe thought they resembled African Guinea Fowl, which had been imported to Europe via Turkey and were, at that time, colloquially known as "Turkey Birds" on the continent.
I forget how it happened, but somehow, a few months ago, Corey and I were looking at the hunting seasons here in California and realised one of the only animals we could go after in the near future were turkeys. So, we set out to learn all about them and find an area where they lived.
Turkey hunting is a fairly unique sport. It's sorta like big game hunting, in that it involves stalking and ambushing your prey, which is so wary that even the slightest movement will give you away. And you shoot a turkey on the ground, also like a mammal. But, like a bird, you use a shotgun firing pellets, just in this case big pellets at high velocity. You wear full camouflage — no blaze — and the basic idea is to find where they roost for the night, then return before first light to set up about 100m away, facing the sun. In the morning, the turkeys fly down with the sun at their backs, maximising their ability to find predators. A shotgun only has an effective range of about 45 yards, so once they're down, you have to call them in close using a hodgepodge of devices and mouth calls, all depending on what mood the turkey in question happens to be in. Once they're in close, you need to get them to stick that long neck, then shoot them in the head. Their feather are so dense that they will stop most bird shot if you hit their body and, if you are using something powerful enough to penetrate, you risk ruining the meat.
Turkey Fact #2: Turkeys have 10x the eyesight of a human and very good hearing, but not a powerful sense of smell. They talk to each other with over 200 types of clicks, clucks, gobbles, cuts and yelps, but learning three or four of those and learning them well is typically enough.
Turkey hunting takes a lot of equipment. Head-to-toe camo, including gloves, something to cover your face and even tape to cover up your gun. Even if you're just raining out from a base camp or your car, you'll also need a pack to haul all the calls and binoculars and clothing layers and food and water and whatnot. And, you've got to learn how to use all that new stuff. The calls, in particular, take a lot of practice.
So, we ordered some from Amazon, pulled up YouTube videos and started practicing. His wife and my girlfriend were fairly unimpressed as we descended to new levels of redneckdom, but Wiley thought the whole thing was great and is, I think, still convinced there's a turkey hiding somewhere in my living room.
Took a chance and ordered a cheap selection of calls from Amazon. Turned out, they worked really well. I got pretty good at this box call (pictured), while Corey pretty much perfected his slate. The first time I heard his call, I was a few hundred feet away and got really excited, thinking I was about to shoot a turkey.
We didn't take him along on the trip proper, in part because he would have scared off any birds he found, but also because his tiger stripe paint job really does conceal him in the woods. And turkey season is one of the most dangerous for hunters; stories abound of hunters talking to each other with their calls, unaware, and the powerful loads required by the biggest game birds on the continent are enough to seriously injure, if not kill, a mistaken human target. While hunting, you're told to sit with your back against a tree that's wider than your shoulders and to avoid moving your hands outside its width, so they aren't mistaken for turkey heads bobbing up and down.
Turkey Fact #3: The whole thing about Benjamin Franklin wanting to name them the national bird was either a myth or an exaggeration or a bit of sarcasm on his behalf (I'm a little confused by it all), but it would have been fitting given the heads of toms are red, white and blue. When hunting them, you're strongly warned against wearing even the smallest splash of any of those colours. Over-eager hunters tend to see what they hope to see.
The two most popular and successful areas for turkey hunting in California are down around Palomar Mountain, north of San Diego, and in the foothills around Lake Isabella in the southern Sierra. New to this particular bird, that's where we should have started, but both of us were fairly nervous about being shot by some drunk bubba armed with the latest, most powerful shotgun.
A friend had had success in this little sliver of public land along the Kaweah River, immediately bordering Sequoia National Park and reported that the terrain was so rugged there, no one else bothers hunting it. That sounded about right to us so we loaded our phones up with satellite imagery of the area, along with topo maps overplayed by the land's borders, hopped in my new Subaru and hit the road for spring turkey season's opening weekend.
The Outback is coming together nicely. That's a roof awning from ARB mounted to a Yakima MegaWarrior roof basket. Hoping to get wheels and tires on it next week, then skid plates, then a small lift. More on all that soon.
With the pressure from day jobs (you're reading mine now) and plenty of other hobbies and life commitments to pursue on weekends, we'd set our trip up with two major flaws — we didn't have time to spend a weekend scouting ahead of time and neither did we have time to pattern our guns. Even though you can own pretty much any gun you want here, you can't order ammo to any address within Los Angeles city limits. And turkey shells are a fairly specialised product that I couldn't find in local stores. So, I ordered them to Corey's house in Orange County; he brought them along on the trip. I threw a cardboard box, some tape and a few sheets of computer paper in the car and, arriving just at sunset, we were able to set up a little impromptu shooting range. The new FourSevens MMU-X3R puts out up to 2000 lumens and proved brighter than the Outback's headlights, so we took turn lighting the box with that and peppering it with shells. Surprisingly, both my 7cm #5 and Corey's 8cm #4 were able to accurately create a very tight pattern, with the vast majority of shells landing clustered in a 15cm circle at 20 and 30 yards. Phew. I was a bit worried that the fancy SKB side-by-side the girlfriend's dad just gave me might prove a little antiquated as a field gun, but with a full choke in the left barrel, modified in the right and a selectable trigger, it shoots as accurately and as far as I could ever want. It even looks good with its barrels taped in RealTree knockoff.
Turkey Fact #4: Turkeys run at up to 40km/h (as fast as a human) and fly at speeds up to 90km/h (as fast as highway traffic). They may look ungainly, but they're fast.
The next morning, we woke up at 5am, had a quick cup of coffee, then hiked downstream 800m to one of two fields that had seemed ideal, at least when viewed from a satellite. We creeped up to the edges and sat hidden in the bushes for a while, but didn't spot any movement, so tried calling. With no response, we set out to climb the adjacent hill and glass the area. From its top, we spotted four deer across the valley; an easy rifle shot away, but not in-season. There was also a surprising amount of bear sign for such a low elevation. But no turkeys, so we headed back to camp to strip off some layers, then plough upstream to the second field.
Rock climbing is a normal part of turkey hunting, right? Nice gear made all the hard work and hot temperatures bearable. The shirt and pants are LL Bean's No Fly Zone stuff, which is affordable, well ventilated and tough. I got no ticks, despite sitting in tall grass for two days and the stuff made it through all this abuse looking like new.
I was not kidding when I said this was tough terrain. Not 100 yards north of the campsite, the valley turned into a gorge and we had to scale a rock face, then traverse along it to continue. And the rest of the way was mostly picking our way through loose boulders or crossing slippery rocks and logs across the creek. Not easy at the best of time, but doubly nerve wracking while carrying a fancy gun that I'm hoping I'll be able to pass down to my hypothetical future children, not lose or break in a river bed.
After a false start up to the peak of another hill, then a tough climb back down, we eventually reached the fringes of the second likely field. There, we stopped under the low overhang of a vine-covered tree and I tried a little hen yelp on my box call. Corey was sitting slightly ahead — lead gun — looking for a shot, so he spotted the coyote first as it galloped across the field to us. He made it to within 3m of us before realising we were humans, not turkeys, and turning tail into the bushes. We took that as a good sign that both our call and concealment were working and began stalking around the perimeter of the field, just inside the tree line.
Corey wore Icebreaker's 200-weight merino Mossy Oak clothing. Warm enough for cool mornings and still comfortable at 30C. This Leupold RX-1200i laser range finder was awesome, we actually preferred it to binoculars for scouting distant terrain and its ability to instantly give us ranges to anything within 1000 yards made setting pattern distances easy.
100 yards further and there she was, our first turkey. I caught Corey's attention and pointed at it, and he tried to get a little closer. You can only hunt gobblers during spring season, but where there's a hen, there's likely a tom, so we set out to follow her around the area, hoping she would lead us to her husband. Shortly later, she gave us the slip and we spent most of the rest of the day, hiding a bush, occasionally calling, and not finding anything.
Turkey Fact #6: Rattlesnakes and turkeys appear to be natural enemies. The snake's teeth can't penetrate the sough scales on the bird's legs, or it's thick feathers so, to kill one, the turkey catches it in its talons, uses its beak to grab it by the neck, then smashes the snake on the ground until its wits are scattered. Then, the whole group gathers and rips the rattler to shreds.
We did, however, find her likely roost site, as denoted by a pile of feathers that had fallen free during overnight preening. So, as we negotiated the river back down to camp, we planned to set up there in time for day break the next morning.
We needed to carry water, food, layers, a good First Aid kit, shells, calls, binoculars and headlamps. The LL Bean Hunter's Lumbar Pack managed all that with easy organisation, distributed weight onto my hips for all-day comfort, left my back free to breath and didn't get in the way through dense underbrush or while scaling cliffs.
It certainly wasn't a fool proof plan, but we were still surprised the next morning when there was not just no turkey, but no wildlife at all in what had, the day before, been a very active field. Had we scared everything away with our escapades the previous day? We slowly surveyed the surrounding area and found ample signs of life — many deer tracks and the biggest black bear poops we'd ever seen — but no actual animals. Well, I heard a low growl emanate from a large, dense bush as I approached it, and gave it a wide birth with my gun shouldered until I was well away, but just figured it was that bear we'd been seeing signs of all day.
All of us use the new Peak Designs camera clips. Being able to securely stow, yet instantly access a big DSLR or mirrorless camera has proved crucial to capturing our adventures. They work with even our large, telephoto lenses.
Frustrated, we set up in the bushes at the edge of the field and settled in to relax and wait for something to hopefully appear. I was reading a book on my phone when Corey suddenly grabbed my arm and pointed. Just across from us, under a tree, a cougar's tail flashed and disappeared.
Turkey Fact #7: While the fossilised remains of an ancient turkey predecessor are some of the most common bones in the Brea Tar Pits, modern day turkeys aren't native to California. Various attempts were made to import them here as game birds over the last century, but captive-raised turkeys just didn't prove successful in the wild. It wasn't until they began capturing wild flocks back east and shipping them out that a viable population could be established. Now, its estimated that there's around 100,000 in the state, which still compares poorly to the rest of the country, which is home to 7 million. Turkey's are most common down south.
Is that what spooked our birds? There's no way to be sure. But, I figure if we managed to call in two of the smartest, shyest predators out there — a coyote and a mountain lion — and also managed to stay well concealed enough that they approached within spitting distance before they detected our presence, that we at least had those two elements of our hunt right. For next time, I think the biggest lesson is how important scouting is to hunting success. Trying to do that while also hunting just didn't allow us to cover enough ground in the one weekend we had available. If we want to be successful, we should also probably just suck it up and head to one of the popular hunting areas, rather than limit ourselves to somewhere with challenging terrain, at least until we're certain of a healthy turkey population in such an area.
Good camo really does get the job done. Here I am, just casually walking along, 60m from Corey's camera.
Am I bummed we didn't bag any birds? Of course, but it was still a fun weekend, stalking through the woods with a gun and a friend and hopefully learning a bit about turkeys and their environment in the process. Next time though, I'm bringing home dinner.
Pictures: Patrick Emerson, Corey Hass.