Athol Daily News – The Sportsman’s Corner: Catch-and-release turkey hunting

Published: 4/22/2021 2:37:12 PM

Modified: 4/22/2021 2:37:10 PM

While flying back from “visiting my sister” in Kansas Tuesday there was ample time for reflection. The six-day trip that, surprisingly, coincided with the opening of the Kansas turkey hunting season, was a much-needed respite and a chance to spend time away and “charge my battery.”

Last year, the annual pilgrimage was canceled, like so many of the things in our lives we enjoy, due to the pandemic. A chance to visit with my sister Pat (aka Tish) is always fun and we indeed had a few laughs. Although our socialization was still limited, and masks and social distancing were the rule, we did indeed get to enjoy some excellent dining including a trip to Missouri to eat at Joe’s in Kansas City and trips to both Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops. A little more laid back than most years but that was fine.

As for the turkey hunting … after flying in Thursday it was up at 4:30 a.m. and off (in the Toyota Tacoma my brother-in-law Jim Wolf generously provides me for my hunting use) to a large property that is part of the land where Pat and her fellow equestrians “hunt”. That is what they call riding thoroughbred horses in complete English riding regalia following hounds chasing coyotes. It was at one time foxes, but they are scarce, and coyotes are plentiful.

The riders dislike turkeys as they fly up ahead of horses and startle them so, with written permission, the large tract is available to me. There is one spot where the hunting has been historically very good for me so, in the pre-dawn darkness my Muck boots carried me to as section of crop fields carved out below the cottonwood ridges. A thunderous gobble broke the silence less than a hundred yards from me, and it was a good thing it was still dark. Quickly and quietly sneaking along the edge, I quickly set up my seat and hunkered down.

That first gobble set off a chorus and about a half dozen toms began gobbling at everything that made noise. Hooting barred owls, coyotes, crows, passing Canada geese, and of course the other gobblers resulted in 30 minutes of echoing gobbles. After waiting about 15 minutes, some soft yelps, then clucks and purrs, from a slate call made for me by my good friend and legendary outdoor writer Stu Bristol, elicited immediate responses and the birds knew where that sexy hen was waiting.

Right on cue, as legal shooting time one half-hour before sunrise, the wing flaps from the ridge were followed by a tom gliding down to land 40 yards in front of me. It was made to order and my hunt, and my season (this year Kansas reduced the bag limit in eastern Kansas to a single tom) would be over. With that in mind, and knowing that a hunt with my good friend Kin Hickman was on the schedule, the safety went back on and the gun was lowered.

What followed was a treat. A second, identical long beard pitched in and the two strutted and gobbled for an hour in the field. A hen behind me uttered the worst-sounding yelps ever and then came down the field, softly calling. She went to the toms but then left and fed on the far side of the field while they performed. Eventually the two moved off and others in the distance sporadically gobbled and the entire morning was a great time to be in the turkey woods.

The next day, a friend of Pat and Jim who had never hunted turkeys joined me at the same spot. The gobbling was on cue, but the extra wing flap indicated that a hen had been with the gobbler and they moved off away from us. Over the morning other toms gobbled but must have been “henned up” and never came our way. The best response we got was just when the hunt had to end in time for me to participate via Zoom in the New England Outdoor Writers Association Annual Meeting. Damn!

Sunday morning found me above the field listening to hundreds of gobbles by a fired-up tom. It turns out he also had a hen who lured him away after fly-down but a distant gobble came closer and suddenly was just below me. Sure enough, here came two mature toms, probably the same two from day one and they walked past about 25 yards away. Once again, catch and release was practiced as they were allowed to walk away unscathed.

The last day of hunting was with good friend Kin Hickman. He is a first-class turkey hunter in addition to having taken a bunch of big-racked bucks. He is a also top-notch coon hunter who runs his hounds almost every night and traps beavers to help with problems created by the pesky engineers. But most of all, he is a quality outdoorsman who has become a good friend.

The one thing that drives us both crazy is the fact that we have not killed a turkey on our hunts. When a gobbler opened right in front us, it was looking good. After 30 minutes, however, he followed a hen off to the east. Kin pointed to the ridge, a half mile distant, and said we were going to try to get him to rendezvous with us there. It was quite a hike, but we were finally in position. Kin is a masterful caller and a most patient turkey hunter, and he called softly using both friction and mouth calls while Stu’s slate played a tune or too as well.

Thirty minutes later, a distant gobble indicated someone heard the calls. A few minutes later, this hunter was totally unprepared when a mature tom appeared after walking up the steep ridge and was suddenly 25 yards in front of me. Kin never saw the bird and it gobbled to his yelp from the box call, but the movement may have caught his attention. He retreated and moved away, making the “putt” sound that usually is an alarm call.

Kin then led us back to where the bird was roosted at dawn and eventually called not one but two separate toms to him but neither presented me a shot. By my standards, it was an almost perfect day. After all, we had all the fun of calling in gobblers and did not have to clean either a bird or my shotgun!

What turned out be an unexpected highlight of my trip was a drive to Missouri to tour the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge. It is comprised of 7,500 acres of prime waterfowl habitat created by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers as a flood control project. It is a very popular spot to view waterfowl as 1.4 million snow geese and over 200,000 ducks pass through each spring and fall. It brought me back to my days as a Ducks Unlimited regional director and a bonus was seeing the large number of bald eagles that nest on the refuge.

Mike Roche is a retired teacher who has been involved in conservation and wildlife issues his entire life. He has written the Sportsman’s Corner since 1984 and has served as advisor to the Mahar Fish’N Game Club, counselor and director of the Massachusetts Conservation Camp, has been a Massachusetts Hunter Education Instructor for over 40 years, is a licensed New York hunting guide and is a passionate hunter and fisherman. He can be reached at

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