Earn your spurs by targeting old gobblers this spring

When a hunter says he has harvested a wild turkey gobbler, the first question he gets is almost always, “How long was his beard?”

Occasionally someone will ask, “How much did it weigh?” 

But hard-core hunters know the true measure of a trophy tom is in the length of his spurs. 

Steve “Doc” Dezern is a serious turkey hunter from Dobson, N.C., who loves chasing gobblers more than anything. He has been hunting them for 33 years, in multiple states from Florida to North Carolina, and he has taken 118 toms along the way. But that total isn’t what he’s most proud of; it’s the old gobblers he’s taken that other hunters couldn’t kill and had given up on — gobblers that had built a reputation of being unkillable. 

Dezern’s doctorate isn’t in medicine, but in turkey hunting, and he specializes in taking these long-spurred, smart, old toms. He once failed to punch a North Carolina turkey tag for a couple of seasons because he devoted almost the entire time to pursuing a single, old gobbler he had a history with, and it became a personal obsession to kill that bird. 

Dezern has taken 13 gobblers with spurs of at least 1½ inches, with the longest being almost 17/8 inches. Old, warrior birds that survive many hunting seasons and multiple close calls with hunters have heard every call out there, getting smarter and harder to kill every year. Barring some catastrophe, he hunts the mountainous northwestern corner of North Carolina and South Carolina’s Lowcountry every season, so his tactics work in any terrain.

(Photo by Marty Shaffner)

What sets Dezern apart from most other turkey hunters?

“Patience,” he said. 

Most hunters push the hunt and end up spooking the bird they are hunting, he said, and once you spook an old, cagey bird, your chances of killing him that season are pretty much finished. Rather than spook the gobbler and further educate it, he’ll back out and try him on another day.

Dezern said he tries to learn something about the turkey he’s pursuing on every hunt, always scouting and building knowledge about the bird to devise a plan to take him. 

“The other key to taking these smart, old gobblers is to get within 75 yards of them, whether on the roost or where they strut during the day,” he said. “Their whole attitude changes when you call within 75 yards of him, like the tom believes only a real hen could be that close to him.” 

After figuring out — either by preseason scouting or on early season hunting trips — where the gobbler roosts or struts consistently, Dezern devises a plan to set up within 75 yards or so of the bird long before daylight, in total darkness, waiting silently and as motionless as possible. 

“Most gobblers, even the old, smart ones, will gobble at least once from the roost and once from his strut zone a little later in the morning on a good, warm, sunny morning,” he said.

Scout before and while you’re hunting a big, old tom turkey. Knowing every bit of his territory can be a big key to tagging him.

After a few mornings, Dezern can usually figure out a plan of attack for the bird, based on where he roosts and his daily movement patterns. If his setup is near the roost, Dezern never calls to the bird while it’s in the tree. Old, mature gobblers know hens are supposed to come to them and will wait on her to show. If you call, and a hen doesn’t show up within sight of the gobbler, he will almost always fly down away from you. Instead, he waits for the gobbler to make the first move. 

Dezern said there is a chance the bird will pitch down within shotgun range. If not — and the bird is out of sight — he makes a couple of light clucks or yelps, and hopefully, the bird will ease back to look for the hen that has showed up at his roost. If it doesn’t work out, he takes note of what happened and why he didn’t get a shot. He waits until the tom moves off and then backs out, always making sure not to let them see him. He can then add what he learned to plan for his next hunt.

‘Doc’ Dezern said that old turkeys with long, curved spurs are special adversaries for even the best hunter.

Setups in areas gobblers like to strut are similar, except Dezern doesn’t expect the gobbler to show up until a little later in the morning. And first and foremost in his setup is not spooking the tom. He only calls lightly — and sometimes not at all — depending on the circumstances. 

How well does that strategy work? Of the 13 gobblers he’s taken that carried the longest spurs, he killed only two or three of them right after they flew down from the roost. The rest were taken between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Compare that with the average 2- or 3-year-old gobbler that makes up the majority of the annual harvest. Most of these birds meet their waterloo early in the morning, within a few minutes of fly-down.

“Sometimes when chasing these old, cagey gobbler, you just have to get lucky,” he said.

Of course, preparing properly, scouting and spending plenty of time in the woods accumulating knowledge, with a big serving of patience and persistence, puts hunters like Dezern in places where they can get lucky.


How old is that big limb-hanger?

Chris Kreh, a biologist who runs the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s wild-turkey program, said that although not foolproof, spur-length is the best indicator for the average hunter to judge the age of a wild turkey gobbler.

“A spur a half-inch or less is a jake (a bird born the previous spring), over a half-inch to 1 inch would be a 2-year-old bird, and a bird with  spurs over an inch is 3 years or older,” he said.

Veteran hunter Steve “Doc” Dezern has killed plenty of old turkeys that belong in the category of “limb hangers” for their long spurs. (Photo by Marty Shaffner)

Beyond that, Kreh said it’s more difficult to tell a gobbler’s true age. Spur length varies from gobbler to gobbler after they reach 3 years old. He said a turkey with spurs 11/2 inches long would be at least 4 years old, but could be five or six years old — or possibly even older.

Because the mortality rate for poults is extremely high, the average lifespan of a wild turkey is less than a year. Kreh also said that a natural wild turkey population has a roughly 50% annual mortality rate for adult birds. So, if you have a piece of property that holds 20 jakes one spring, on the average, there will only be 10 2-year-old gobblers the next spring. 

By the time you get to 4 years of age only two or three will remain, with maybe only one making it to the 5-year mark — if any survive that long. 

So harvesting a tom with long, curved spurs is difficult not only because they’re well-educated, having survived several hunting seasons, but because there are very few of them out there.

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