Hunting Old Tom, A Distinct Challenge

Posted on April 28, 2020



“In the soft pink blush of sudden dawn, when the earth awakens around you, when you have carelessly forgotten yesterday’s transgressions and you seek to ruthlessly rule your world for another day, the undisputed king of all you know, it might be me you hear whispering the promises that sound so sweet. They may be promises that will be broken.” – Walt Hampton



There are few species of wildlife that can reveal their mood through coloration change. But when it comes to the tom turkey, his head tells the story in either red, white or blue. Although it seems patriotic, as these are the very colors of Old Glory – our beautiful American flag, but I doubt that Tommy is displaying said vestige for anything other than self-interest. My late friend, Walt goes on with vivid, unvarnished descriptors of this alluring game bird in his book, Broken Promises,
“Before we get too romantic let me inject a little reality into this tome: although the adult tom turkey is indeed a beautiful creation, showy, with gorgeous plumage and a regal bearing, the truth is that biologically he is simply a sperm dispenser. He is a coward, a bully and a misogynistic bastard; he will try to forcibly breed every hen he can find and will destroy active nests to get the hen to recycle so she can be re-bred. He will displace other turkeys from feeding or breeding areas and when confronted with perceived danger he will tuck tail and run. He assumes no responsibility for the rearing of the young and will actually kill and eat small poults if he can catch them. As soon as the breeding season is over, he abandons social interaction with others of his species and retires to the solitary, reclusive life of leisure. A grand trophy and fine eating, the old tom is a distinct challenge to hunt in a fair-chase, ethical manner because of his cryptic camouflage, camouflage, his unbelievable hearing, his 270-degree, color-vision eyesight and his intimate knowledge of his home range. Calling an adult tom in to close range and killing him before he even knows that he has been fooled is the pinnacle of achievement in hunting success.”


Yet, just recently I heard from some their reason for some not choosing to hunt for this grand bird is, “It would be too easy.” Too easy? I smiled, inwardly thinking that if that were only the case! Too easy… how many times has this bird with a brain the size of a walnut made me look like my intelligence was a day old and full of holes. How many times has he escaped unscathed from the clutches of my cleverly plotted ambushes? Please don’t make me count as the embarrassment would be enough to turn my own head a different color.
Self-deprecation aside, perhaps I’m not as good a turkey hunter as others, or a bit slow in the art of talking turkey, not seductive enough with my calling, a repellent rather than attractant, who knows, but I can assure you this: there is nothing easy about bringing a tom to within shooting range and making him think it is his idea. Allow me to share some of my better faux pas in the Spring wood.


Boom went the 12-gauge. Why is it when you are shooting at game, the shoulder bruising thumping a shotgun loaded with 3” magnum turkey shells delivers is not felt until long after the shots? I don’t know, but what I was expecting after this shot was a flopping bird. Instead, I watched him rise straight up like a helicopter taking off and fly out of my life forever.

It was a hard lesson to learn, and a whole bucket of cold water poured over my pride. How in the world did I miss a bird that was that close? All I can say is, it’s a good thing the turkey population was large when I began hunting them.

Another instance had me set up in a hedge row separating two fields. I’d meticulously placed my dummies (decoys for those unfamiliar) and began yelping with a box call. An hour after first light a long beard was coming, or so I thought. When he got about 75-yards from me he took a hard left in his course of travel. Regardless of the pleading tune I was scratching, he was definitely not the least bit interested. Talk about deflating one’s turkey hunting self-esteem!


A couple of hours later, I got a response from the opposite field to my right. I could not see the bird gobbling, but he was definitely coming. Wow, I thought, redemption drew nigh. Balancing my gun while holding the box call, I thought I’d give him one more subtle, cute, inviting coo. And as I was orchestrating this, not one, but two bearded birds appeared less than 25-yards out. Making every attempt to slowly and gently place the call on my lap turned into a noisy catastrophe of epic proportions.

The call actually dropped, bouncing off me and then hitting the ground grazing a couple of branches in route. Now I don’t know about you, but if I’m a turkey that is certainly not a call that fits my language. As they turned to leave, I raised my gun and now, instead of a clear path to one of these fine specimen’s heads, I had to shoot through the brush at fleeing birds. The sound of my shotgun only hastened the pair’s disappearance.

I’m not sure mad can adequately describe how I felt at that moment. It’s easy right? So easy who would want to bother, right? I gathered up my brood of dummies, and marched off to another distant field, only this time things were about to change dramatically for me on several levels.
I need my hands free to shoot so it was time, now or never, to use a mouth call. I placed a single hen dummy to my right, with me sitting squarely against a blow down facing the field. Inserting the latex diaphragm call into my mouth, I began to try and mimic the sound of a hen looking for love. I’m sure that if this was not one of the worst renditions of a hen’s vocalizations, it had to be close. But guess what? Here comes a hen straight at me!


Wow, okay now I’m feeling pretty good with high hopes the best was yet to come. Following the hen from a distance of about 50-yards was a fully fanned long beard. Now I’ve reached a conundrum, do I keep calling or let the tom follow the hen? After contemplating for about ten seconds, I just shut up and prepared for what I hoped would be a happy ending, at least for me.


Come on, come on. I was wishfully encouraging the incandescent bearded man; he was still too far out for a shot. And then he stalled for what seemed like an eternity before finally dancing his way to within shooting distance. I had the bead on the base of his fire engine red neck when he began to gobble. The next time he stuck his neck out to sound off, so did my gun and with that shot, my whole world of turkey hunting changed forever. Confidence is a big factor in going forward to future successes. Never was I more excited to sling this three-year-old over my shoulder and walk out…The words of my late friend Walt resonate as I write this when he stated, “Calling an adult tom in to close range and killing him before he even knows that he has been fooled is the pinnacle of achievement in hunting success.”



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Posted in: Turkey