The National Wild Turkey Federation recognizes 3 subspecies of wild turkeys living in Nebraska; the Eastern, the Merriam's, and a hybrid of the two. To me it's debatable whether or not Nebraska has the Rio Grande turkey living in the southwest or south central part of the state because various maps show their distribution range stops at the Nebraska/Kansas border. Although I don't personally think turkeys know how to read a map or have the ability to decide whether or not to cross that border I'll accept we don't have them to hunt. My idea may not be original but I decided my mission for 2016 was to bowhunt all 3 species of birds recognized in this state. In this update I want to rewind to this past spring to share with you the highs, lows, and lessons learned from the 2016 turkey season and my quest for what I call The Nebraska Slam.
The spring turkey season started on a chilly Friday morning in late March. I made a quick trip with my coworker Elijah Aden of Lincoln to hunt some local public land. A late invite to hunt with my cousin in Butler County changed our decision. We abandoned previous scouting trips and went in blind to a spot that I knew had potential. My cousin AJ has access to a large farm where he historically saw lots of turkeys during deer season. So we were off, well before dark, setting up in spots that looked like turkeys might want to be. As the morning darkness slowly started to give way to light I had a bad feeling we should've scouted this ground as it was dead calm and quiet. Usually the morning woods light up with the sounds of gobbling toms roosted nearby this time of year, but there was nothing, complete silence. I did a quick recon mission to the top of the highest hill to listen and eventually found the gobblers. They were about a half mile away on the neighbor's farm. Great. One bird would sound off saving this trip though. There was a lone tom, gobbling nearby so we hustled into position and set up way late as it was already closing in on legal shooting light. I figured the bird would be down soon so we snuck as close as we could and set up in a grassy bottom that looked like an ideal strutting zone. I set up a Primo's B-Moblie decoy that I wanted to experiment with. This model allows you to add a fan from real turkey feathers tom make it more lifelike and has a drawstring that allows you to "pop" the tom decoy up or down to imitate a bird going in and out of full strut. I made a few hen calls to let him know we were around then went silent waiting for him to make a move. The bird flew down on the high side of the creek bank directly behind me in the picture shown above. From there he couldn't see my decoy set and quickly worked in from 100 yards to just 30. I couldn't see him from my vantage point but AJ could and was eager for me to shoot. Finally the bird made the last descent into the opening and was a mere 20 yards away but he circled behind a dead tree. When he hit the opening I popped up the fan on the B-Mobile and I think it startled him. This looked like a 2 year old bird, that was of average size and he didn't appear to want to fight my decoy. I got nervous that he might be walking away so I decided to shoot him right there at 20 yards. I saw the green lighted nock-turnal blow right through the middle of the bird and watched him do a backflip. It seems to me that if a bird does that dreaded backflip you're in trouble. You either want that bird to pile up right in view or flop his wings in a useless effort to fly away to signify a lethally hit bird. This tom quickly ran off then stopped. He was out of range and in thick cover so a follow up shot wasn't possible. After he went out of sight we decided to go after him to try to catch him in the open or at least spot where he was going to lie down. But we never saw him. We searched various fingers and brush piles but never found the bird after a few hours and 4 guys looking. Losing a wounded animal is the worst feeling a bowhunter can have.
As a side not this farm eventually filled up with birds from various other farms as the season went on. As is often the case birds move frequently throughout the season and this is farm that I'm excited to get back on next year.
With one opportunity in the tank I relayed my story to fellow bowhunter and local legend Tyler "The Golden Boy" Fountain of Lincoln. I've written about Tyler and his hunting prowess before. He's known as the Golden Boy because everything he touches turns to gold. He once caught a master angler walleye in 2 foot of water. He has a 200" whitetail, a 340" Nebraska bull elk (and countless other mounts to prove his meddle) and his first bird of 2016 had a triple beard. Tyler graciously invited me to sit with him on the afternoon of the opener and I gladly accepted. In return I graciously let Tyler carry the blind, chairs, and decoy set up as he insisted. I've been told never to argue with your guide so I let him do all the work. You're welcome. So we set up with Tyler's favorite spread, an Avian X jake and multiple hens. Like clockwork about 30 minutes into our sit here came the birds. Tyler likes to call his early season birds "The Mega Flock" as 80 ish birds live close to his home. They didn't disappoint. A mob of hens and toms worked past us feeding through a pasture. Like clockwork a very, very big tom broke away from the flock to check out our set. The bird was working from left to right at an angle and was going to be in our laps so I drew and waited as he closed the distance. I had a small view through the corner of the blind and almost as soon as the tom came into view I touched off the trigger. I really need to work on my patience. I shot way too quickly. I needed to let that bird keep working. My mistake and quick shooting resulted in my second missed opportunity of opening day. I had actually hit the blind and the bird walked away with a couple of tail feathers missing. The rest of the birds refused to cooperate and just hung out 50 yards away. The mega flock eventually worked out of range and the day was done. Tyler invited me and my kids out a couple more times and we even had a couple of close calls. I passed on a bearded hen and time just ran out to keep going. Tyler assured me the big tom with missing tail feathers survived the season and hopefully we meet again. 0-2 was not a good start.
At this point I had been trying to capitalize on hybrid birds that are the bulk of the population in my area. My first trip of the year was to try some public land in Pawnee county again with coworker Elijah Aden. Elijah and his brother Brodie were new to bowhunting and had spent the off season learning the ropes and soaking up any information they could. Elijah knew I liked to bowhunt and began asking me for advice and because of that mistake I quickly dubbed him my "intern". The plan for this trip was to camp out over the weekend and hit up a handful of public land spots littered about the area. Elijah drove down Friday night to set up camp and I was driving up early Saturday with my kids trying to get them their first birds. Elijah had found a few birds that evening and went to one spot while I blindly went to another. Of course we were running late and again had to set up as daylight was creeping up. The wind was howling much stronger than forecasted but we did hear a couple birds off the roost. However I made the mistake of trying to set up too close and no sooner did I pop up the blind but we found the bird just above us and he blew out before the hunt even began. My kids and I would spend several hours setting up and relocating, trying to get out of the bone chilling wind and find birds. After a few hours my daughter finally told me the cheap boots I had bought for season were bothering her feet. I had her take the boots off and discovered she had blisters EVERYWHERE. Good job dad. There wasn't much of a chance of being able to keep hunting like that, so we packed up and headed home and as stated above eventually sweet talked Tyler into taking us out close to home. Meanwhile Elijah had hunkered down in a small field and sat all day. The long sit, practice, and patience all paid off. That afternoon a small group of birds came out of the thick timber to feed in the field and Elijah made a perfect 15 yard shot. His first archery kill and first turkey was a bearded hen piled up nearby. The intern had scored!
The highlight of each spring season is my annual trip to Bassett. I am very lucky to have made friends with a family with a huge ranch a stone's throw away from the Niobrara River. They have a primitive cabin with a wood burning stove for guests that has mountain man written all over it. While the ranch doesn't boast a huge turkey population the scenery and adventure itself make this annual trip a must. I went with long time friend CJ Novak of Brainard and my son Ethan. Having some prior knowledge of the farm I suggested CJ try an area close to the cabin and Ethan and I would make a mile long trek to another part of the farm. I made mistakes 5 and 6 of the season on this trip. Mistake 5 was not realizing how cold 30 degrees and 25 mph winds were in early April. Ethan and I were freezing cold before we even set up. To make it worse the spot I thought we should try forced us to set our blind up facing the wind. We tried it for a good 30 minutes, which flew by as we watched countless deer work by, including a small buck still sporting antlers. I had remembered a small clearing along the creek down in an oak covered bottom that would keep us out of the wind, and potentially serve as a nice pinch point for traveling birds, along with having acorns for them to feed on. We dropped down to this location and repeated my opening morning set up. Ethan was to be the trigger man, and I had decided to let him try using a mechanical broadhead. I'm a long time fan of muzzy's and love their new Trocar head, but was disappointed in losing my opening morning bird. So I was open to the idea of trying a bigger cut on contact mechanical head. Mistake 6 happened when I wasn't smart enough to pull down the mesh on my ground blind. I had never had a flight issue shooting through the mesh with my fixed blade heads, so it never dawned on me that this might not be a good idea for a mechanical. About 11 am after 5 long and cold hours of sitting, Ethan and I had long since given up on whispering and were having a general conversation when suddenly he went into freak out mode. He had spotted 2 jakes coming off the hillside right for our set up. Ethan has bowhunted off and on since he was about 13. He has missed 2 deer and was a shaky shooter at best until this year when I upgraded his equipment. He had been shooting lights out all summer, his form was flawless, and I had great confidence that this would be his year. If only I could just get out of the way. The jakes quickly worked in behind my B mobile tom and stood perfectly still allowing Ethan to draw, take aim, and calmly pick out his target. At the shot I thought he smoked the bird as feathers flew everywhere. Ethan said he didn't hear me when I told him to aim just above the top of the leg for the body. He had shot for the head on this bird. Had I removed the screen, he would've absolutely hammered that bird. But upon inspection you could clearly see a jagged, ugly tear in the mesh. No doubt the head opened before it had a chance to take off. The jakes hung up in some timber and offered no follow up shot. I had blown it for Ethan. 0-3.
We met CJ back at camp for lunch and he relayed a story of success from his morning. His set up was nearly identical to Tyler's He uses the same Avian X jake decoy but also adds an Avian X feeding hen, and a breeding hen. CJ said shortly after daybreak he dropped to a bottom to get out of the wind as well. A couple of jakes came in with some hens. Not far behind the jakes was a tom. The 9" bird had come in silent but couldn't stand the jakes hanging out with his hen decoys. The bird gave CJ a 10 yard shot and he hammered it with a big mechanical head. The bird ran a short distance and out of sight. CJ gave a short tracking job but the bird popped up and ran a little further. So he let it go for a bit. After lunch we went to find the bird. Ethan stumbled upon it not 50 yards from where CJ had left it, but the bird got up and ran again. We all decided to let it go and try to find it in the morning. Ethan and I set up that evening but had no action. We again met CJ after dark for supper and he had been tagged out since 6 pm. He was in the exact same set when a lone tom came in to 8 yards. CJ made good on a head shot and the bird dropped in it's tracks. We had a long discussion about the color of this bird's fan. It was a very white colored fan and I told him we're counting this bird as the Merriam portion of the slam. I'm not sure CJ entirely agrees but in my mind he had his Merriam. The next morning Ethan and I sat in CJ's blind close to camp. Ethan slept most of the time and we hung it up pretty early as we wanted to find CJ's bird and had a 4 hour drive ahead. We met CJ and went to look for his first bird from the day before and we found it very quickly not 50 more yards from where it had been spooked the day before. This bird's fan was much darker than the first and we agreed he was a hybrid. CJ had completed the first two legs of the Nebraska Slam in one trip!
Another side note this trip always produces a lot of deer sightings and is where I missed my 170" mule deer I spoke of in my "Deer Camp 2015" update. We were able to find a matching set of whitetail antlers, a mule deer shed, and a small whitetail skull in just two days. What a bonus.
My last planned trip of the year was to some ground in Eastern Nebraska near the Missouri River with CJ again, and buddy Jay Canada. We had permission to four different farms in the area and this trip was going to double as scouting some new deer farms along with shed hunting and tidying up some existing deer sets. We arrived on Friday night and scouted birds on all four farms. We were set up for an exciting weekend. At 430 a.m. I got a phone call about a family emergency and made the tough decision to leave camp. I never got to hunt. CJ and Jay were understanding and made the best of it. They hunted together on opposite sides of an abandoned farm yard where they roosted a couple of nice toms the night before. Shortly into the hunt the two nice toms came to CJ's sweet calling sequence and convincing decoy set and he head shot another bird inside of 10 yards. The not so dynamic duo would spend the better part of the day working on getting Jay a bird but it just wasn't in the cards despite multiple bird sightings. Don't feel too sorry for Jay, the guy spent half the spring catching big Northern Pike in Canada so he's not deprived. The real shocker came when CJ sent me pictures of his bird. The dark coloring clearly indicated he had shot an Eastern bird! I couldn't believe it, I had hunted this area for years and the birds I had all shot were hybrids. I had never seen an Eastern. CJ had completed a well deserved Nebraska Slam!
Whether or not there is such a thing as the Nebraska Slam, or if the bird I'm calling a Merriam is a true Merriam is subject for a long debate. In the end that's besides the point and I'm not going to DNA test the birds to win that debate. This season was about learning lessons and of course having a good time with friends and family. I'm 100% convinced that shooting a turkey in the head is the way to go. If you miss the bird, he's no worse for wear. If you hit it, he's down. Even well placed big mechanical heads can struggle to find the small vital zone of a turkey at times. I'm convinced the Avian X jake decoy is among the best on the market. I was happy with the B Moblie and will keep using it considering the value of the price tag. I'm convinced patience and composure are two essential skills a bowhunter must master. I'm proud of the strides I saw Ethan and Emmalee made in their shooting skills and the effort each of my kids gave. It was cool to see my intern Elijah score on his first archery animal and prove the effort was worth it. It was another season in which I got to take some cool trips and hunt with good friends like Elijah, Tyler, CJ and Jay. Most importantly I got to have some more adventures in the woods with my kids. It's been a long off season listening to CJ retell his stories of turkey slaying greatness and I need a trip to get redemption. Luckily the November rut is right around the corner and I'll be updating another trip to Deer Camp!
The Budget Bowhunter