One of the two gobblers that had been responding to Karl Helmkamp’s calls since daylight had gone silent for a while, presumably paired up with a hen, but the other kept gobbling even when he switched tactics and only answered its calls.
The old boy sounded lonely and looking, but he was hung up and wouldn’t come any closer, moving a little side to side but no closer.
“I don’t know why this bird is being so stubborn, but we’re going to move and see if making him think his lady friend is leaving may get him going,” Helmkamp told his hunter, David Arris.
Helmkamp, a four-time state-champion duck caller who runs Albemarle Outfitters (252-395-1907) out of Kill Devil Hills but hunts all over northeast North Carolina, also has a seductive way of calling turkeys with diaphragm calls. When May and the final week of North Carolina’s spring turkey season arrives, he takes outwitting stubborn gobblers as a personal challenge, and this bird’s refusal to move threw down a gauntlet.
Arris and Helmkamp moved a hundred yards to the edge of a thicket, where Arris wound up between two large bushes. Helmkamp let the tom gobble a couple of times without answering, but he answered the next gobble, and the tom quickly bellowed back in an excited tone, making it obvious the move had gotten his attention — but it still wouldn’t move.
After waiting 20 minutes, Helmkamp said, “Let’s go ahead and force this. We’ll make it happen or move to another bird. I don’t know what has this guy so hung up, but we’re going to find out.”
Helmkamp and Arris crept to the edge of the thicket and scanned the adjoining fields. The turkey wasn’t in sight, but within minutes, it gobbled close by, across an almost-dry canal and behind a small dike. Some turkeys are reluctant to cross water, and this one didn’t event want to cross a dry ditch.
Helmkamp hatched a plan: Arris crossed the dry canal to a corner of the dike, and he set up 50 yards or so behind Arris before answering the gobbler which called a couple of times before Arris was in position and acted excited again.
When Helmkamp finally answered, the turkey puffed out in a full strut and ran to the corner of the dike where Arris was waiting. One shot and a load of No. 5s sent him to permanent slumber, dreaming of what he hoped would be happening with this sweet hen. He was 3 or 4 years old, with an 11 1/2-inch beard and 1 1/2-inch spurs.
“Sometimes these late-season toms can be a real challenge,” Helmkamp said. “It’s always better if you can do something to get them to come to you — like when we relocated — but if they stay hung up, sometimes a short stalk seals the deal, and sometimes you have to admit defeat and go look for another bird.
“They’re the most-unpredictable early in the morning and easier to fool when you find them out during the middle of the day, especially when two old gobblers are together.”
Helmkamp had the opportunity to prove that the next day after a hunter missed shortly after daylight. The mid-day hunt proved to be memorable; Helmkamp and the turkeys must have read the same script.
When a morning hunt goes south, Helmkamp doesn’t panic, he changes tactics. He stops short of saying it’s easier to fool mid-day toms late in the season, but they sometimes act predictably foolish. It’s part of the mating game.
“As it gets later into the season, more hens have mated, so they are setting nests and are no longer receptive to gobblers,” Helmkamp said. “Just a couple of weeks ago, a boisterous gobble might be answered by several hens, but now that gobble might go unanswered. Well, those gobblers are still looking for hens like frat boys at spring break, and if it isn’t happening where they are used to, they move to the edge of their stomping grounds and keep trying. They are often out looking during the middle of the day.
“When you find one old gobbler still out looking for a hen at mid-day, the odds are slightly in your favor. That guy is looking, and if you don’t sound too bad and don’t get spotted moving, he’ll usually let you talk him within shotgun range.
“If you find two or more gobblers out searching for a hen at mid-day, the odds swing wildly in your favor. This is as close as it gets to having a license to kill. Not only are these birds horny and still looking for a hen, but they have become competitive with each other and will do really out-of-character things to be the first gobbler to the hen. Be ready when you call or let them see your decoy.”
Helmkamp often uses the competition between tom and jake turkeys to his advantage when hunting late-season gobblers. Instead of a hen decoy, he switches to a strutting jake decoy. The reactions must be seen to be appreciated.
After an unsuccessful morning hunt, Helmkamp was riding through some of his farms, stopping to glass an area or call a few times. He has turkey leases throughout the Albemarle Sound area and had started that morning near Colerain, where he has a lodge, and was methodically checking farms working towards Creswell, where he has another lodge.
Sometime around noon, Helmkamp spotted two mature gobblers along a woods line at the back of a field. He was concerned that slowing to get a better look might spook them, so he pointed them out and drove another half-mile before pulling over.
“Did you see those two gobblers back in that field?” Helmkamp asked. “We’re going to work our way through this cut down and go back to get in position for you to kill one. If they’re still there when we get back, you’ll get a shot. Biggie (the strutting jake decoy) and I will make sure of that, so be ready.”
The cut down had several years’ growth, and it took a while to cross it to a small field hidden from the road and the gobblers. He crept a little closer and spied around the corner of a tree line to be sure the birds were still there.
“OK, there are two big gobblers in the back of this field to the left,” Helmkamp said. “I want you to slowly ease up to that tree that sticks out and set up there to shoot to the corner where I just was. There’s enough growth in the field, they’ll come down the path there.
“Once you’re in position, I’m going to crawl over to the path down a ways and show them Biggie,” Helmkamp said. “I might not even have to call. Once they see him, things are going to happen fast, so be ready. They’ll probably come running to beat up on him, but for sure, they’ll be moving faster than a walk.”
Everything went down just as Helmkamp had predicted. He crawled to where the two toms could see the decoy when he raised it above the wheat in the field and didn’t even have to call. Once they saw the strutting jake, the gobblers charged in at a dead run.
When they began moving, Helmkamp gave a quick thumbs-up signal, and in less than a minute, a shotgun barked, and the larger turkey was flopping in the ditch. It was a big tom, 23.6 pounds, with a 10 3/4-inch beard and 1 9/16-inch spurs sharpened to a fine point from fighting.
Helmkamp’s late-season tactics work well. In three hunts, he had encountered five longbeards. Four shots were taken, and three birds went home with hunters. Late-season tactics got three of the birds excited, charging in, even though they knew better. Helmkamp said changing the tactics during the late season works more often than not.