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Photo submitted by Jim Darnell

Hunting gobblers near Panna Maria during a challenging season

Saturday, May 1, 2021

It has been a different kind of spring gobbler season for me. One ranch that I hunt near the Blanco River, which usually is crawling with turkeys, produced zero. I never saw a bird crossing the dirt ranch roads. I never heard a gobbler. Maybe the big freeze killed them. Or, the ranch hands have cleared much brush on the ranch. But there is still plenty of hiding cover.

On opening day, March 20, I hunted my lease near Panna Maria on Cibolo Creek. As I parked my truck in the dark I could hear two gobblers sounding off very near on the creek. I thought “This will be a slam dunk.” But it was not to be. They never answered my call and flew off to roost in the opposite direction.

Two days later I made a late afternoon hunt. I sat down by my corn feeder and began to call. In less than an hour, five young jakes (first-year gobblers) came out of the brush. I don’t know if they were coming to the call or the corn — probably the corn. I was not well hidden. They saw me pull my camo face mask down. I knew I had to shoot quickly. I picked out the biggest jake and pulled the trigger on the Browning A-5. He collapsed.

About two weeks later I was driving into the lease when a jake ran across the county road. I watched him travel across a field and into some heavy brush. I drove down the ranch road, thinking I might spot him. I did. His red and white head stood out like a stop sign.

Then, to my surprise, he began to move toward my truck. I jumped out, loaded the 12 gauge and slipped behind a tree. That jake wasn’t very smart. He traveled at a 45-degree angle toward the dirt road. He passed my tree at about 35 yards. Another turkey in the freezer.

But the real fun of spring turkey season is in calling a gobbler to you, within shotgun range. Actually, calling gobblers is opposite to nature. He gobbles to bring hens to him. We call, sounding like a hen, to bring him to us. I had two turkeys in the freezer, but I wanted to call one to me. 

With only five days left in the season, I went back to Panna Maria. I couldn’t get Mike Mosel or any of my other hunting buddies to go with me. By yourself, it’s a long, dark, lonely drive to Panna Maria. So I decided to take my duck-retrieving yellow labrador, Annie, with me. She’s good company. But on a turkey hunt? Probably not a good idea.

Years before, on the same Cibolo Creek Ranch, I was hunting doves. My yellow lab, Lady, was retrieving for me. Suddenly, I saw a flock of about 30 turkeys coming down the creek bottom toward me. The fall turkey season was open so I tried to hold Lady still. No luck. She broke free and scattered those turkeys to the four winds. But it turned out OK. One big bird flew right toward me. I only had my little 20 gauge shotgun loaded with a No. 8 dove shot. But the turkey flew straight over me at only about 20 yards high. I counted about 40 little holes in him after he hit the ground.

Maybe Annie would behave better than Lady. I built a little blind with some camo netting. Annie and I climbed in for possibly a long wait. I clipped her leash on a stake and she laid down like a good girl. I heard a gobbler far down the creek, probably a half mile away. Then just little birds chirping were all that broke the silence.

I got real sleepy so I laid down on the ground next to Annie. But her big tongue kept licking my face. I did manage to get a 30-minute nap.

Things were not looking very promising. I decided to stay until 10 a.m. At about 9:15, Mike Mosel texted me to see if I had seen any turkeys.

“None,” I replied.

Then I heard a cackle but in the woods far down the creek. I called with my loudest yelp. He answered. I waited a while before calling again. He answered again and was closer. I knew I had him on a string now.

I pulled my face mask down and petted Annie. The gobbler sounded off again. I waited about two minutes and made a very soft yelp. To hear that soft call he would be very near. He was. Soon I saw his red and white head go under the fence. He came right into my open field in full strut. Those beautiful tail feathers looked like a huge fan. He was a very large bird.

The big tom headed right toward me. I knew I didn’t need to call again. Normally, I would not shoot a gobbler in a full strut because they pull their neck and head in close to the body. But he had his neck stretched high looking for the “hen.”

At 34 steps, I pulled the trigger. He never even flopped. I released Annie. She thought she would retrieve the “duck.” What a surprise. She attacked the dead gobbler and began tearing feathers off the breast.

It had been a classic call and shot. Sometimes, late in the season, when most of the hens are already nesting, a gobbler will be eager to find one hot hen that hasn’t been bred. Too bad for him. He should have been content with his past success with the hens.

San Marcos Record

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