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Turkey hunting on Beaver Island

With eagle-like eyesight, a turkey tom is difficult to call in close enough for a shot, says Kate Gatacre, as she hunts her first gobbler in Michigan

Turkey hunting in Michigan

You need to aim for the turkey's head, as the feathers provide armour-like protection

With another quiet chirrup, Al drew the two large turkey toms ever closer. We’d got into position before dawn, in the dark and, having slouched against the tree for a few hours with the shotgun perched on my knee, I watched spellbound as these huge creatures strutted their way towards us. The larger of the two was in range, but slightly hidden by low shrub.

I started shaking as I tried to manoeuvre the shotgun into position, aware that the birds’ eyesight would pick up the slightest movement. I lined the shot up as the tom appeared, but by now I was a quaking mess and couldn’t keep the bead on the bird’s head.

“Well, we’ve missed our chance. I don’t know if we’ll get another,” Al whispered, as the two creatures headed back to the flock. I could only apologise, and regretted that, after all of Al’s efforts and having travelled some 4,000 miles for this chance, I’d come down with a serious bout of turkey fever.

Al Stewart, upland gamebird specialist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in the US, had organised, with the help of Pure Michigan, our hunting trip to Beaver Island. We’d been the only passengers in a twin-engine plane built on the Isle of Wight, covering the 27 or so miles from the charming town of Charlevoix in no time at all. We should have had a good aerial view of our hunting ground for the next few days, but Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan, wasn’t going to reveal itself to us, shrouded in May rain as it was.

While most hunting in the US is carried out on public land — of which there is a vast amount — hunting on private land is still possible, and we were lucky enough to have permission on a couple of farms. “It’s not unusual at all,” Al told me, as we headed to the first area, a lovely farmhouse with surrounding woodland, owned by Bill and Andy Kohls. “You can go and knock on a farmer’s door and ask them if you can hunt on their land — usually the hunter will offer to help out a little on the farm in return for the favour.”

Turkey hunting in Michigan

The males are distinguished by their ‘beards’ which hang down their chests

Strutting their stuff

Having dressed in camouflage boiler suits, we donned a “turkey vest”, a garment that has more pockets on it than I’ve had hot meals, as well as a padded, well, butt-pad. The pockets were loaded with cartridges, callers, camo net face veils and camo net gloves. While with deer you’re always aware of scent, turkeys have the most incredible eyesight. “It’s three times better than ours,” said Al, as he handed me his semi-auto. “So when we sit down, get yourself ready and don’t move. Wait until they aren’t displaying, and their heads are extended, as it will give you a clearer shot. Aim for the head, as not much will penetrate the feathers.”

Al showed me how to sit against a tree, as low as possible, with the shotgun’s foreend balanced on the left knee. We then set off into the woods, searching for areas that the turkeys may have been scrabbling about in.

“Look for spots that are clear of leaves, as that’s where the turkeys will have been scraping,” said Al. We found several such spots, as well as a good pool of water. “This is good — turkeys like to roost above water for security, so we could come out here tomorrow morning.”

Turkey hunting in Michigan

Al Stewart watched the flock from the sitting-up spot to see how many toms and jakes were present

A shining parade

I got my first glimpse of the birds as we headed to the other farm on which we’d been given permission to shoot. From the car, we spotted them — three jennys, as well as several toms and jakes. A jake is a one-year-old bird, so their “beards” are less developed, as are their spurs. The toms and jakes were parading around in a paddock, right beside an unoccupied house. Their wings brushed the ground, the feathers glistening in the spring sun like a suit of case-hardened armour, and their wattles (also known as snoods) red and extended. They managed to look extremely dignified and rather silly at the same time, with a slow, strutting movement, stopping every now and then to give a good old “gobble, gobble, gobble”.

“They like to flock up in open areas to display,” said Al, “and now that we know where these ones are, we can sit up into the woods back there and try to call them in.”

Turkey hunting in spring is all about the calling — and Al could certainly call. He had an array of different options with him — the box call, the turkey bone call and the one he likes to use most, as it keeps his hands free and requires less movement, the mouth call.

It’s the jenny that the caller impersonates and herein lies the diffculty — normally the males do their strutting and gobbling and the girls come running, so you’re trying to get the turkeys to behave entirely out of character. Not only that, but once a tom has been tempted to come and check your calling, they don’t have much patience: if they don’t see a jenny, they’ll simply return to the flock. Al had a lightweight jenny decoy — it wouldn’t fool a tom for long, but might just get him in a bit closer.

Turkey hunting in Michigan

A turkey decoy – which can help convince the toms that there is a female present – with the box call and 1 1/2oz No.5 cartridges that Kate used

A big, bad bull

At the second farm, we realised we’d have to cross a field with cows, calves and a very large Angus bull. He looked rather buffalo-like. However, Al was on a mission, so we climbed over the fence — and the bull just snorted and charged in the opposite direction. We scouted these woods, too, finding a few good areas and a well-scraped patch that we could sit in the next day. Apparently, there had been some goodsized flocks hanging around the fields so, with two known turkey hangouts, we were in with a chance.

First, we headed back to Bill and Andy’s to see if we couldn’t get one to come in to the call. A few hours later, close to dark, we’d seen nothing, though the occasional gobble in the distance told us they weren’t far off. We had an early night — the plan was to get into position by 5am so that the birds would drop in on us from their roost. However, after three hours of sitting absolutely still, nothing was happening, so we decided to head over to the other farm. As we left, we spotted the same birds we’d seen the day before, so we backtracked and took up position on the edge of a clearing some 300 yards from the flock.

Turkey hunting in Michigan

A dominant bird’s wing feathers are squared off

And that was when I messed up. The hours of sitting still, the will-they-won’t-they excitement and the adrenalin of seeing these birds close up got the better of me. Al, not to be deterred, started up his calling again — and lo and behold, we had another taker. Closer and closer he came, and I could feel the pressure building up. He was heading to exactly the same spot as the other two, and at around 35 yards away he stopped. He was directly ahead of me when his head shot up to give a gobble. I twisted myself round, lined up on his head and squeezed off a shot.

He went down immediately and I sat there, stunned. “What are you waiting for?” demanded Al. “Go get him!”

I trotted over and picked him up: a huge bird and, in his death throes, hard to hold on to. “You want to get to them as quickly as you can, so that they don’t damage their feathers when they’re kicking,” said Al, clapping me on the shoulder. The tail feathers are the trophy.

Turkey hunting in Michigan

Kate demonstrates the correct way to carry a turkey, so that the feathers remain pristine

We tagged the bird, marking the tag with the date of the hunt and, tying it round his leg, spent a while admiring him. It was a jake, but a big one, and his feathers shone with an oily metallic shimmer.

“The older toms tolerate the jakes, but this was a dominant bird. You can tell as his wing feathers are all squared off, which happens while they are drumming,” said Al, as he lifted the bird up, before handing me the legs to carry on my shoulder and we walked triumphantly back towards the farm house to show Bill and Andy.

It’s not a hunt I’d expected to get the jitters on, but the combination of fieldcraft, stalking, waiting and, perhaps most of all, the proximity and magnificence of a wild turkey displaying is a thrilling thing. The shot itself may not be the hardest you’ll ever make, but getting it… Well, that’s another matter.

Watch the video of Al’s turkey calling here.