By Jeff Johnston
There are things in this wild world that game animals are just supposed to do. Bucks rut and rub trees. Roosters run. Elk bugle. Gobblers gobble. Hunters use these established traits to great advantage when pursuing game, and most times they work to tip off hunters to the animal’s location and maybe even its mood.
But what happens when the quarry pulls a “Crazy Ivan”—if you recall U.S. Navy submarine parlance—and does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do? What are hunters supposed to do when gobblers don’t gobble at all?
I admit I pout sometimes. It’s easy to hold up my defeatist hands and declare to my buddies or to myself, “Henned up. Even Matt Morrett couldn’t call in a bird today.” Or: “Call shy. Someone’s obviously been overcalling in here.” Or: “Coyotes decimated ’em,” combined with a conceding shrug of the shoulders that’s designed to subconsciously protect the ego.
But Here’s a newsflash. Toms don’t give a hoot about your ego, when you have a day off to hunt, or what the turkey hunting textbooks say they’re supposed to do. Maybe their locked lips come courtesy of the moon’s rotation. Perhaps it’s due to the weather, a whim, or the current testosterone level coursing through his snood. For all I know, that no-gobblin’ bird is a Gemini and maybe Geminis don’t gobble on weekends in April. Perhaps every wretched turkey in the flock flew down on the wrong side of the limb that morning. Who the heck knows? Point is, sometimes gobblers don’t gobble, simple as that. So you can either mope around cussing them and spend most of your free minutes trying to figure out why, or you can get to hunting.
The good news is, they can still be taken, but as truly great turkey hunters know, no-gobbling toms are best bagged by employing underhanded tactics to match theirs. Often that means—and I can hear turkey hunting purists gasping now—ambush. Yes, ambush. But it’s easier said than done.
The Mute Mayan
I’ve been stymied by silent birds in the past, and it seems I’m perpetually stuck in elk country where the bulls won’t bugle and on lakes where the fish won’t bite. But if there is one place where hunters can truly say without a whiny tone that their gobblers don’t gobble, it’s on the Yucatan Peninsula in Campeche, Mexico. Indeed, the natives don’t even call their male turkeys “gobblers” at all, but instead “Ucutz il Chican” meaning, in Mayan, Big Turkey-like Bird with No Voicebox. I’m kidding about that, but it’s no joke that successful turkey hunters down there, such as Jorge Sansores, the second-generation owner/operator of Snook Inn Hunting outfitters, have by necessity adopted methods other than calling to consistently kill them. We can learn a lot from our neighbors to the south.
Indeed, I can’t think of a better case study. Because other than being one-third smaller, having ugly orange warts on their heads and green-iridium feathers with the eye-like markings of a peacock, ol’ Meleagris ocellata is really quite similar to our birds back home. They roost, eat grubs and grains, breed hens, run or fly like hell when bumped, have eyes sharper than broken Coca-Cola bottles, and generally are as spooky as New Orleans haints.
They just don’t gobble or readily come to calls. Hens don’t yelp as we know it, but rather make very soft purrs and clucks that are difficult to hear if you’re not right on them. While the males do make a grouse-like drumming sound, it’s not even in the same booming ballpark as a gobble. Given their silent, sneaky nature, ocellated turkeys are super-tough to hunt, especially given the hopelessly thick jungle where they thrive. This is exactly why your best bet is to hire a local outfitter who has the manpower to scout as if his livelihood depends on it. I believe Jorge’s tactics would work anywhere in the world where turkeys don’t always want to give up the gobble.
Tactics for Tight-Mouthed Toms
While gobblers can be killed occasionally by hunters sitting in a traditionally good spot and calling blind, the odds are long if you don’t actually know turkeys are in the vicinity. Another tactic is to hunt them like you hunt deer, which is to say hunt them without the expectation of hearing them. This mandates that you sneak through the woods at a sloth’s pace, better known as still-hunting: sitting some, calling occasionally, and using your binoculars to see birds before they see you. Once you see a turkey and slip in reasonably close, you can begin calling, knowing you aren’t calling blind. It’s a sound tactic, but unless you are an experienced, ninja-like still-hunter with time to kill, it’s challenging. Plan on spooking a few gobblers, which is fine if you have a few gobblers to spook.
By far the best tactic for turkeys when they aren’t gobbling is also the one that requires the most effort. It’s called “superb scouting,” or gaining vast knowledge of an individual tom’s habits and how it uses the terrain so you can ambush him as he goes about his normal daily activities regardless of any sounds he does or does not make. Thorough scouting requires time and dedication to get up early and stay till sundown to determine exactly where birds are roosting, feeding, and loafing. But for killing non-vocal gobblers, this scout-and-ambush tactic is deadly. And it’s why Jorge depends on it to make his living.
Going by the Jungle Book
First, Jorge sends a few small pickup trucks full of guides out before the season to sit on crop fields and monitor them, noting where any birds enter and exit and at what times. Second, he has his guides walk the fields and jungle trails looking for fresh tracks, feathers, scratchings, and droppings. (This is all pretty standard stuff, but I’m afraid some of us who’ve been spoiled by surpluses of gobbling birds may have forgotten some of the basics.) Once he finds a field corner or trail that holds concentrated turkey sign, he’ll have a man sit there to see what’s what. If a big male ocellated is spotted, Jorge will have the guys chop out a spot in the jungle for a ground blind. You can bet a client will be sitting there come season.
You’ve probably noticed that Jorge “has his men” do this and that. But if you don’t have any men at your service, don’t despair. There are some things average guys like me can do to ease the scouting burden.
Just as Jorge does, you can utilize any locals who are in the woods the most—farmers, neighbors, or, in my neck of the woods, oil men—by asking them what they’ve seen. Giving rewards for intel that bears out later is a tactic that’s accepted worldwide because it works. You can also employ trail cameras to do your watching for you, and these days you can have the images delivered to your cell phone. Now that’s cheap labor! Just know that even after you’ve scouted and think you have a bird’s pattern pegged, turkeys are still turkeys and sometimes pull Crazy Ivans. Nobody ever said it would be easy, not even Jorge. Indeed, sitting in a sweltering blind for six hours at a time with a guide who doesn’t speak your language isn’t as easy as it might sound.
Lost (and Found) in Translation
By day five of the Campeche hunt, we all were beginning to have doubts. Like anywhere else, if you’re not hearing birds gobble and hens yelping, it’s easy to believe they’re not around. I began to question my guide Orlando, albeit not very thoroughly, considering he only knew Spanish.
“Um…por favor, sir,” I said after our evening hunt as he knelt on the edge of a small field in the middle of the jungle, sharpening his machete. The moon glinted off its steel edge. “Are you sure there are turkeys in these parts?” Despite my miming, I wasn’t sure he understood me. But apparently he’d heard that question before, because he said, simply, “Si.”
To prove that he understood—and knew his business—he stood up, walked 10 yards to the edge of the field, and pointed the machete to fresh turkey droppings. Clearly turkeys were there, I just had to trust in my guide and wait. No problema. So I laid on my back, closed my eyes, and waited on the truck to pick us up and take us back to the lodge for dinner and margaritas.
The next afternoon I found myself baking in a different ground blind set on the edge of a seemingly random field surrounded by many more. There was nothing special about the place—no undulations in terrain, no varying cover, no water, no surplus of grasshoppers. Why in the world this spot was better than any others blew my mind, yet asking my Mayan amigo was out of the question. While the guides at Snook Inn now carry electronic calls that make drumming noises in an attempt to call in turkeys, the calls don’t work all that often from what I can tell. So the only thing I could do was trust my guide and sweat as I waited. The upshot to having another man in your blind at all times is that he serves as your eyes and ears, so you can snooze, read a book by Gene Hill, or write a letter home. The point is, you can relax.
I was just finishing a story on bass fishing and daydreaming about a cold Corona when “Señor!” roused me to attention. After a few seconds, I caught the movement of a small, grayish head bobbing through the sorghum. I wanted to shoot at the bird right then from 50-plus yards because I didn’t see any reason for it to come any closer. Fortunately, my guide talked me out of that idea with a stern sideways shaking of his head.
Thanks to his scouting, he knew something I didn’t. Five long minutes later, a stunningly beautiful ocellated turkey picked its way through the field, silent as a whisper, and reappeared within 35 yards directly in front of us. Orlando didn’t have to say a word; we were now tracking in the universal hunting language that says the hunter should kill his quarry as soon as he’s positive he can do so cleanly. I raised my Mossberg 935, poked it out of the blind’s port as if it were the hour-hand of a clock, and slid the tang safety forward.
Moments later, a big ocellated tom turkey, my first, hit the sandy tropical soil. I don’t believe I’ve ever been as happy about killing any turkey, mainly because by then I’d fully realized just how challenging ocellated turkeys are, and I didn’t know how many times, if any, I’d be able to come back to the Yucatan to try it again.
“Muy bonita!” said my guide, accompanied by a hefty backslap, the universal signal among hunting buddies for “Hot dang! We did it!”
Had it not been for Jorge and his guides’ masterful knowledge of the turkeys in the area and what fields and routes they frequent, my friends and I would’ve ventured back to the States birdless, no doubt about it. So if you ever find yourself giving up on locked-lip gobblers back home, take a lesson from the Mayan jungles, where hunters must have patience and knowledge of a non-gobbling gobbler’s habits—not necessarily his language—if they are to have any success at all.
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