Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Turkey hunting: 'Like shooting pet dogs'

Hunt? How hard is that? Wild turkeys are an introduced pest species. You can see them crossing the Pole Line Road by the cemetery in Davis, and a friend of mine in the foothills has a whole flock that infest his wooded yard. What kind of sport is that? It's like shooting pet dogs.

I knew I'd get a comment like that when I wrote that article about spring turkey hunting for the Sacramento Bee last month. When non-hunters can see wild turkeys pretty much every time they drive within a mile of any lake, river or creek, it's easy to understand how they'd get the impression that turkey hunting is easy. I mean, the birds are just sitting right there!

And even I have to admit my first turkey kill was pretty easy: I parked my butt up against an oak tree in a little woodland area next to a Napa vineyard, and when a turkey just happened to stroll by at at sunrise about 20 yards from me - no calling needed! - I popped him. Done.

I know, though, that I was just lucky.

Read more...When I did the reporting for that Bee story, I saw the stats: Hunters in California bag just one turkey for every five hunt days in the spring season. And I'd come home empty-handed from my other three turkey hunts, so I was doing only slightly better than the average.

Nevertheless, it was with great hope that I returned to that Napa vineyard this week with my friend Sarah. Spring turkey season started Saturday, and considering this was private property with no other hunting pressure, I thought this would be a good chance to help Sarah bag her first turkey, which would of course make me look like a brilliant and great friend.

We pulled in around lunchtime yesterday, ablaze with optimism after a glorious drive through America's best-known wine country. It was a warm and breezy spring day, and the vineyards were just beginning to leaf out, lighting up miles and miles of twisted brown vines with sparkles of bright green.

Our dream? Hunt the afternoon, kill one turkey apiece, have a nice dinner in downtown Napa, then get up and do it again in the morning. We unloaded our gear in the guest room, wolfed down a quick snack, suited up and headed out, stopping by the owner's office to say hi.

When he looked up from his desk, he guffawed.

Sarah and I were dressed for turkey hunting, which is to say, we looked like leafy green commandos. He didn't have to say a word - I could see it in his eyes: Overkill! Like the end of the Blues Brothers movie, where legions of SWAT teams swarm on the building where Jake and Elwood have gone to pay the church's property tax bill. Hut! Hut! Hut! Hut! Hut!

I laughed back. I know it looks goofy. But if you want to get a turkey within 20 yards of where you sit, you've pretty much got to be invisible.

He wished us luck, and up the hill we went.

And of course, as soon as we turned up the dirt road that separates the hillside vineyard from the adjacent oak woodland, we saw turkeys. Three of them, about 80 yards away at the edge of the woods.

Sarah and I fell back. The turkeys weren't spooked, so we figured we'd try to lure them back. We quickly set up some decoys. Sarah sat with her back to a rock, knees up, gun ready. I hit the box call.

The turkeys ignored us and continued meandering through the woods until finally we couldn't see them anymore.

Hmmm. Not what I wanted, but at least they weren't running away. I'd played that game with turkeys before, and I'd always lost.

"Let's move up near the water tanks," I whispered to Sarah, pointing up the hill. That's where I'd bagged my bird last spring.

We decided to ditch the decoys because they hadn't done us much good, then hiked up the hill, sweating profusely in our hooded jackets. We stepped into the woods where we spotted a depression that would hold us nicely, sat and waited to see if the turkeys would wander our way.

We could hear them scratching through the leaves just over a small rise in front of us, but they weren't coming closer. Plagued by doubt, I decided I should get the decoys and see if calling might help, so I hiked down the hill and back up.

Wow, am I am pudgy and out of shape!

I tore off my jacket so I could cool off and took a couple decoys 20 yards in front of us. As I was stabbing a stake into the ground, I saw the turkeys another 30 yards away.

My hand flew to my mouth. On my left I could see Sarah, a sinister green assassin, stiffen as she realized what I was seeing. On my right, I saw the turkeys stiffen as well, looking my way to assess whether I was a threat.

Considering I did not have my gun, and I could not see whether any of them had beards, I was not. But we all stood stock still, the turkeys and I, staring at each other for a good five minutes until they moved on, leaving me to sink to the earth and slink back to my spot.

We could still hear the turkeys scratching just over that rise. And at one point we could hear a small scuffle. But after about a while, we saw them about 80 yards down the hill. Back where we'd set up against that rock.

It was now 30 minutes until shoot time ended. We decided to call it quits.

Until we saw them on the dirt road at the bottom of the vineyard down the hill.

Ah ha! This was our new plan: Sarah would go back into the woods and set up, and I would loop around the other side of the vineyard and try to push them back up into the woods.

It didn't work. Apparently, I just pushed them further down the hill.

OK, fine. We went back to our guest room and spent the next few hours on the cool patio, noshing on crackers, cheese, salami and pinot noir while redwing blackbirds swirled around us and lizards did pushups on the top of the patio wall.

As the sun was starting to set, we noticed a good dozen vultures circling over a nearby hill.

"Sometimes vultures circle over turkeys," I told Sarah.

"Wanna go for a walk?" she asked

Back up the hill we went. It was cooler this time, but we were weighed down by the bottle of wine that had pretty much poured itself down our throats.

When we turned up the road next to the woods, we saw the turkeys again, in the exact same place where we'd first spotted them. I watched them through binoculars, hoping to spot a beard. Was that a nub? Maybe just one?

Then one by one, they lifted up and flew to one of the tallest oaks in the woods.

I beamed at Sarah. "Good! We know where they're roosting!" I said. And we began to craft our plans for the morning.


At 6 a.m., we set up in separate spots - me in the woods, uphill from the roost tree, Sarah at the bottom edge of the vineyard, which was sporting a dense cover of wheat, peas, vetch, mustard and fiddleneck between rows of vines. Both spots were within shooting distance of places where we'd seen the birds.

We heard gobbling in the trees immediately. Thirty minutes later, we heard birds start to fly down, one by one. And then we heard the gobbling growing ever fainter as the turkeys moved down the hill, away from both of us, and off the property where we had the right to hunt.

We hoped they might come back, and we were willing to stick it out for a while. But at 9:38 a.m., Sarah sent me a text message: "Someone is weed whacking just in front of me."

Crap. The wildlife had left, and the daytime denizens of the vineyard were back. It was over.

We packed up and said good-bye to the owner as we walked out the door.

"You know what I think your problem is?" he asked. "Too much camo. I walk around like this," he said, tugging at his floral Hawaiian-style shirt, "and they don't pay any attention - they're in the driveway, on the deck."

We sighed. If only it were that easy.

Is it any wonder I love duck hunting?

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Albert A Rasch said...


Let em get this straight the proper camo for turkey in Napa is Hawaiian floral prints?

The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
The Range Reviews: Tactical
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit

NorCal Cazadora said...

Well, it sure works well for the owner! Of course, it helps that there is no malice in his heart.

native said...

Chase em' down with a 22 long rifle I say!

Dang sight easier than to try calling in those wiley boogers.

Oh, and don't forget the Hawaiian shirt, gets em every time.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

You really do have the best life, sigh.

Blessed said...

that sounds like the kind of luck I have every time I go turkey hunting! Oh well, better luck next time!

Barbara Baird said...


Would that be Realtree or M.O. Breakup Hi-Why-In? Does he cut out a coconut shell for his mask, or what?

I had to go hunting 19 times in the #1 turkey state in the Union in order to bag my first bird.


Josh said...

Great story! You should've asked the fellow for permission to hunt his deck, and see what he says.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Native: You can use a .22 air rifle, but 1) we don't have one and 2) I'm not sure what their range is (though I'm guessing it's better than the effective range of my shotgun). But then you've got that less-instant heart/lung shot, instead of the highly effective head/neck shot.

Suburban: Yes, I do, and I'm grateful for it every day.

Blessed: This is why ducks rock!

Babbs: I'm not sure, but it's got to be tasteful. This was a shirt suitable for Napa, not the gaudy, truly Hawaiin variety that one sees in great profusion in airports in Minnesota during the winter.

Josh: Believe me, I've thought about that. But I don't want to impose, and more importantly, I don't think the birds will ever let me get close willingly when I have a gun in my hand. I truly believe they sense malice. How else do you explain how ducks can be so wary when you're hidden and watching their every move, yet they'll bomb in if you or your friends stand up for a snack or a smoke?

gary said...

At least you where out there enjoying life and not stuffed behind a desk pushing a pencil or shoveling turkey dodo off your deck.

NorCal Cazadora said...


The spot where I spent my last hour in the woods there was just the most perfect little place - fresh grass shooting up through the oak leaves, sunlight filtering down through the canopy, the sounds of all the creatures around me. It was really heaven!

SimplyOutdoors said...

I can so relate to this story.

I deer hunt one particular property all the time, and the owners always point out to me how they see the deer here, and they see the deer there; and why am I having such a hard time killing one?

I guess they don't realize that animals know when they are, and when they aren't being hunted.

Oh well. I just might have to buy the hawaiian camo.