North Carolina hunters need patience for Caswell Game Lands turkeys

A wise turkey hunter often will set up an ambush near a friend who is an expert caller. The trick is to know where the gobbler is likely to walk.

Pressured wild turkeys often are difficult to call within gun range. But remedies exist to get to the meat of the matter.

Hunkered down near of a Caswell County ridge one April morning last year and hidden by a pine lap that had fallen during an ice storm, the hunter’s senses were at high alert.It was dawn of opening day of 2005 turkey season in North Carolina, and a local ensemble of bronze-feathered, former friends had struck up a leaf-rattling chorus.

Not one, not two, but three Eastern wild turkeys gobbled at one another, the closest about 100 yards up a well-worn trail the hunter had slipped down with a friend a few minutes before spring’s thunder began rolling across the hills.

The situation seemed perfect — three wild toms, hot to trot and/or take on rival suitors — blasting verbal challenges from their tree perches. The hunter had, if not a front-row seat, a spot a few rows back at the 50-yard line.

But this section of private land, squeezed between two chunks of Caswell Game Land, had seen plenty of such displays in the past that attracted eager, call-happy hunters.

And trouble was brewing.


Perhaps nothing is more frustrating for a turkey hunter than to hear a big tom gobbling his head off and not be able to lure that bird within shotgun range. This problem probably happens more to hunters than anything else, especially at North Carolina game lands.

The state’s No. 1 public area for wild turkeys is inside Caswell County and its huge game lands, comprising 11 sections and 16,704 acres scattered around the centrally-located county seat of Yanceyville. Except for 2004 and 2005, Caswell has led N.C.’s annual spring turkey harvest since the N.C. Wildife Resources Commission started (1977) keeping turkey-kill records. However, last spring Wilkes County hunters tagged 334 birds to 320 for Caswell, surprisingly the second-straight year Caswell trailed Wilkes in overall kills.

Wild turkey numbers were slightly lower at Caswell during 2004 (hunters bagged 312 turkeys). However, four years ago, the north-central Piedmont county gave up 437 birds, part of a string of years in which hunters killed almost 450 turkeys each spring as Caswell extended its string as the No. 1 Tar Heel spot to bag a wild bird.

What’s been behind the slow decline in turkey kills at Caswell? Several answers are possible.

The spread of turkeys across the state because of restocking work by the WRC and help from the National Wild Turkey Federation are two likely factors. Hunters no longer have to drive to Caswell to find birds because wild turkeys live today in every N.C. county.

Another reason, unfortunately, may be the decline of Tar Heel hunter numbers, some say as much as one-third, during the last 13 years.

But Caswell still gets its share of gobbler chasers, particularly crossovers from Virginia.

Although the county never has ranked lower than No. 2 statewide, most of the turkeys killed each spring at Caswell aren’t taken at game lands but at private land. During 2005, for example, of the 320 turkeys tagged, only 36 fell to hunters at game lands, about 11 percent of the total.

And it’s been that way for years.

At the club where I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to hunt the past few years, the members have labeled the cause of this phenomena the “Caswell Lap Dance” — lots of movement and excitement but rarely a payoff at the end.

“(Gobblers) will circle you over there (inside game lands),” said Efland’s Rick Poole, a charter member of the club. “I think they’re pretty wary of (hunters’) calls because they hear so many (callers).”

The land the club members lease is ideal, esconced between two sections of turkey habitat the Wildlife Commission controls. In fact, one section of the game land has in the past served as a live-trapping site for WRC technicians. Several dozen birds have been netted and relocated to other areas of the state. But so many turkeys remained, hunters never noticed the difference.

“I’ve tried a lot of calls on those gobblers, even during the early part of the season when they shouldn’t have been so leery from having heard so many,” Poole said. “But they’ll still circle you, especially the older gobblers. Then they’ll shut up.

“They’ll get out there about 100 to 150 yards. Oh, they’ll gobble back at you for a while, but they won’t come in (to shotgun range).”

Some of that response to calls is the natural mating ritual of wild turkeys. In the wild, it’s the hens that normally seek out the toms, not vice versa. And there are so many hens at this section of Caswell, a tom turkey only has to voice his location and the hens come running most mornings.

And once a tom and hen get together, hunters usually can forget about hearing him for several hours. Davy Crockett probably couldn’t pull a gobbler away from an amourous hen.

The major mistake turkey hunters make is when a gobbler shuts up, they wait a few minutes, then figure the tom has moved off a good distance — when in fact he’s probably wandered to a nearby “strutting zone,” a place that’s fairly open where he can drum and strut, hoping a hen will see his fanned tail feathers and come to join the party.

Impatient hunters, not knowing this, will say, “Well, he’s probably headed to this or that field a quarter-mile away” and they’ll start walking in a wide loop to reach the spot they’ve divined is the turkey’s destination. The result of that, 99 percent of the time, will be a spooked bird or stumbling into another hunter’s set-up area.

Either way, they’ve not only ruined the hunt for that day but the next day too. It’s a good idea to back away or try a tactic that doesn’t intrude on the gobbler’s territory if he doesn’t come to an initial series of yelps, clucks, cuts or purrs. If hunters continually call to a hung-up tom or try to intercept him, they’re also educating him to sounds he should avoid.

But by backing off, a hunter most likely won’t spook the gobbler out of his home territory, which means he’ll roost nearby that evening, and the hunter can get a fresh start the next morning.

Before a hunter gives up on a gobbler and retreats, however, there are a few tricks he can try.

A double-team tactic that works fairly often allows one hunter to set up an ambush, then the other guy, the caller, walks in the opposite direction of the gobbler, calling every 100 yards or so.

Sometimes a gobbler will figure, “Hey, that potential girlfriend’s leaving; I’ve got to catch her,” and he’ll come walking — sometimes even running — toward the retreating “hen.” He’ll usually stop every few yards to listen and perhaps gobble at the retreating-but-soft-yelping hunter. And that often affords the hunter-in-ambush a chance to pull his trigger.

Another double-team trick hunters can use includes moving toward a gobbler but being careful to not get too close.

The gun hunter quietly should walk in the direction of the gobbler but get no closer than 100 yards — to make sure the bird doesn’t see or hear him — then set up an ambush spot. The caller waits for several minutes for the shooter to get settled before beginning a yelping/clucking/purring sequence about 70 yards or so behind the shooter and further away from the turkey.

A gobbler with a tendency to “hang up” about 100 yards from a faux hen often will walk a certain distance, concentrating his vision toward the direction of the calls. looking for the hen in the distance — and not a nearby hunter. So a well-hidden shooter has a good chance to put a load of No. 4s in his neck.

Poole and his hunting club have a different problem than hangups — it’s circling or “lap dancin’” gobblers.

Now, when they locate a gobbling tom, they try to figure out which path he likely will take to circle a caller. Poole then places the non-caller somewhere on the projected gobbler’s circular route around the caller where the shooter may see the cautious bird.

All this would seem to indicate turkey hunters at heavily pressured sections of a game land should hunt in pairs — one guy to call and the other to set up and watch for the gobbler. However, Poole admitted he’s had limited success using this technique — not because it’s a faulty idea but because his partners (often novice hunters) get too excited, move, are spotted by the gobbler, or do something inept, such as miss the shot.

Mike Seamster, the WRC’s turkey project leader for many years, lives at Caswell and has tricks up his sleeve to entice wary toms.

“One time I had a gobbler respond to my calls several ridges away,” he said. “I scratched in the leaves and yelped just a few times.”

The gobbler came from perhaps a quarter-mile away to investigate the leaf-scratching and hen noises (the leaf scratching indicated turkeys looking for food).

“He even flew across a small creek and came up the hill to me,” Seamster said.

There’s another trick that works if a hunter is alone and hunting public land with heavily-pressured turkeys. It worked for me last spring during opening day as I sat with my back to a pine tree near a trail that cut across a Caswell ridge top.

The closest gobbler that morning sounded like the “boss” gobbler of the local flock; his voice was deep, raspy and loud as he boomed back at two other gobblers who seemed to be at the game lands. He also responded to a few soft hen yelps that came from my Cane Creek Game Calls slate call.

But within minutes, several hens passed my hiding place, clucking softly and headed directly for the old boss tom perched in one of several pine trees my hunting partner and I had passed that morning while headed deeper into the woods.

Sure enough, once they reached the old tom, his gobbling ceased. I actually heard him fly down from his overnight perch, hit the ground and wander away with his girlfriends. I yelped once with the slate call and he responded — but he was just saying “C’mon, join the party; we’re leaving.”

Discouraged, I sat for several minutes, then yelped again. By then the old gobbler was long gone with his harem.

But to my surprise, a second gobbler had come from the game lands to investigate, probably hoping to intercept a hen moving toward the boss man. He gobbled right back at my yelp — then he hung up and started to circle my position.

Dang. I had become a victim of the “Caswell lap dance.” My nerves were as tense as a bow string. But this bird only was going to circle about 100 yards out and gobble at my purrs, yelps and clucks, hoping — if I were truly a hen — I’d come to him, which I couldn’t do without revealing my position (nobody sneaks up on a wild turkey).

Gobbler No. 2 walked out of hearing after lap dancing me for 10 minutes. If you’ve ever had a lottery ticket and hit on 6 of 7 numbers, you know how I felt.

Unbelievably, a third gobbler, also coming from the game lands, suddenly boomed out about 200 yards from me to the east. He’d followed the second gobbler toward the hens.

“What am I going to do now? I can’t mess this up, too,” I said to myself as I slapped the side of my pants.

The answer came to me after that slap because my hand hit something boxy and hard in the oversized pocket on the side of my camou pants. It was my old push-pin call, my first turkey call, the one that had lured my first Chatham County gobbler out of a cow pasture, across a small creek and up the side of a hill 20 years ago.

“That’s it,” I thought, “I’ll change calls.”

Although the push-pin box call isn’t specially made to mimic fighting gobblers, I thought a change might be just the ticket. These spooky game-land gobblers probably had heard every hen yelp, feeding purr, cut and cluck that hunters could make. And I’d just had two gobblers within yards of me, so obviously it’d make sense they could be fighting, and this third interloper might think he could sneak off with a hen while the first two toms were duking it out.

I hit the push-pin in rapid succession, trying my best to imitate fighting turkeys. And the third gobbler boomed at the sound; he was perhaps 150 yards from me.

I tried to duplicate the fighting purrs sound once more a minute later, and he responded again, perhaps 100 yards away. I put the call in my pocket and rested the barrrel of my old Remington 870, loaded with Winchester No. 4s, on my right knee and pointed the muzzle toward the bird’s last sound.

Within about 2 minutes, I saw his red head moving through the jack pines. When he stepped into the open path, he twisted his head to look directly at me. That’s when I pulled the trigger at 22 steps, and he fell in a flopping heap.

Club member Dan “Moose” McLaughlin also tagged a gobbler several hundred yards from my spot by following Billy Mosley, a good caller, and setting up an ambush. A gobbler, coming to Mosley’s call, wandered by the Mooster, and he downed it with one shot.

Our birds weighed exactly 23 1/2 pounds and had 10 1/2- and 11-inch beards.

About Craig Holt 1382 Articles
Craig Holt of Snow Camp has been an outdoor writer for almost 40 years, working for several newspapers, then serving as managing editor for North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman before becoming a full-time free-lancer in 2009.

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