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Spring in the Sierra Madres

Spring in the Sierra Madres

By Tim Herald

Taking the four subspecies of wild turkey that commonly live in the US, (Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Eastern) is considered a grand slam. If you add on the Gould’s subspecies that is primarily found in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, that is considered a royal slam. I have been a turkey hunting fanatic since my first turkey hunt in Florida over 30 years ago, and although I am not a box checker, my obsession with hunting turkeys has led me to hunt in about 30 states and Mexico more than once.

Since my hunting focus has shifted to big game, and most often international big game, my turkey hunting travels have definitely been cut back, but I still hunt almost every day of the spring season in my home state of Kentucky, and I usually take one turkey trip out of state each year. When in my 30’s, I often hunted 7 to 10 states each spring.

Last spring, I went with a couple of friends to South Dakota to hunt Merriam’s. We had a fantastic trip and all took our limit within three days. What was different about that hunt was the outfitter we hunted with ran his hunts solely by utilizing homemade “reaping” decoys. Reaping is using a turkey fan or decoy with a fan to approach gobblers and confront them, often times inciting them to charge in to fight, and the hunter takes his shot at very close range. It is a blast as something different, and although I would not want to hunt like that all the time and would miss the art of calling and maneuvering on birds, it is an exciting change of pace.

On that trip, we didn’t even go out at daylight to make setups on roosted birds for early morning scenarios, rather we waited until good daylight, drove around and glassed the open country for turkeys, and once we found them, we made moves to get the reaper decoys in play at 100-200 yards out. Likewise, we quit hunting at 4:00 each afternoon to give the birds a chance to go to roost without being disturbed, etc. I shot my two birds at four and six yards, it was literally a blast.

While on this trip, one of my friends told us she had never hunted Gould’s turkeys, and since I hadn’t hunted them in about 20 years, we decided to plan a Worldwide Trophy Adventures group trip for Gould’s in 2021. There ended up being 9 of us that went to Chihuahua in late April to hunt with my long-time friend and outfitter Manuel Enriquez at his El Halcon lodge.

Manuel was one of the first outfitters to offer Gould’s hunts decades ago, and he is very established and has well respected operation. The lodge and food are top notch, his guides are excellent, and he has plenty of white-tipped gobblers to hunt on hundreds of thousands of acres he has tied up.

Our first hunting day was pretty rough, with windy conditions at daybreak that cranked up to 60mph winds by mid-morning. We heard a few birds on the roost, but the wind shut them down as soon as they hit the ground.

The second morning dawned cold, clear and calm, and good friend Keith Winstead and I, along with guide Carlos Enriquez found ourselves near the top of a ponderosa pine covered mountain listening for birds on a rough gravel road.

We had a bird sound off just up the hill from us that sounded very close, but when we stepped off the road into the trees, the crunchy leaves gave us away.

Not much else was gobbling, so we setup below the road and called for a while. Eventually a couple birds came in silent, and Carlos spotted them on the road above us. We could see two red heads, but never could see their beards, and they did not strut. We could have shot them, but we didn’t want to take a chance on shooting a jake.

A while later we heard some birds up in a canyon, so we moved a bit closer and setup about 400 yards below them. Gould’s are known for coming long distances to the call, and they don’t mind coming downhill. This is in contrast to eastern birds. I generally try to get 200 yards or better yet 100 yards from an eastern to call him up, and they are notorious for not wanting to come down a hill.

There ended up being numerous birds in the canyon, and as they responded, it sounded like one bird met the others, and shut them down. We figured he was the dominant gobbler, and he continued to gobble and move toward us.

Keith had never killed a Gould’s, so I wanted him to shoot, and when I thought the bird was around a bend from us and maybe 150 yards, I told him to shift around the tree beside me so he would be facing the right direction. My mistake as the bird had to be closer than I thought, and our noise obviously spooked him because we never heard him again. Things were pretty rough as we spooked two vocal birds within the first hour and a half and had two more in range that we didn’t shoot. 

Carlos said he knew of a flat shelf above some cliffs where birds like to hang out and strut mid-morning, so we made a move there and setup. Eventually a bird cranked up below us and to the left, and another below us and to the right. Carlos and I called off and on, and eventually the bird to the left began cutting the distance. Keith was on that side of the tree, so it was a perfect situation.

I spotted the bird strutting behind a small rise on the shelf and told Keith to get ready. The gobbler was totally committed and when he stepped up on the high spot at 50 yards, Keith said, “man look how beautiful that bird is with all the white on him.” I had forgotten how handsome Gould’s turkeys are, but with the morning sun shining down on him in full strut, I remembered why I have always told people that I think Gould’s are the prettiest of all the subspecies.

The big tom gobbled five times in a row, and then broke and walked right to us. Keith squeezed the trigger when he was at 20 yards, and we heard a vert loud CLICK! He quickly shucked the shell out, and the bird didn’t move until Keith pulled the trigger the second time and everything went just right. He had a magnificent Gould’s gobbler with a 10.5” beard and gorgeous colors.

We sat and continued to call to the other bird, and eventually he strutted up from the right, but he saw something he didn’t like and passed us by at about 70 yards, so we took photos of Keith’s bird and went in for lunch.

That afternoon the wind blew up again and hunting was fruitless. The next morning was crazy weather and we experienced 24-degree temperatures with snow, hail, and eventually rain and wind. That day was a wash as well. So in three days, we had basically had one good morning to hunt.

The last day of our hunt again was in the high 20’s but was fairly calm. Carlos took us to a big flat mesa that he said he knew held a lot of birds. As the sun broke the horizon, we heard 5-6 different gobblers off the side of the mesa in different places, but none were close at all. We did hear a jake and some hens below us, so we sat down under some trees about 30 yards from where the mesa dropped off and began to call. 

After 15-20 minutes we could tell the birds were on the ground, and some of the gobblers sounded like they were moving down the mountain while one or two were up on the mesa but  500+ yards away and definitely not answering our calls. We did have a hen pop out of the brush and walk straight in to our decoy. She got fired up and mouthy, and Carlos and I kept her calling as much as possible for ten minutes.

Every time she would start to feed away, we would call aggressively to her, she would fire back up, and come back to us. This went on for over half an hour, and then Keith whispered, “there is a gobbler straight out to your right at 120 yards strutting.” My problem was Carlos was straight to my right, and he was directly between me and the bird.

Eventually we saw that the gobbler was trailing four hens, and they were making a bee line for us. We had crossed a barbed wire fence that was only about 20 yards from Carlos, and when they got to that, they turned further to our right which was basically behind us. Being a right-handed shooter, this was all going very badly for me as by the time the gobbler passed Carlos and got into a safe shooting position, I was going to have to get my gun turned about 145 degrees to my right and behind.

The big gobbler kept coming in half strut, passed Carlos, got to a safe shooting location, and walked behind some sparse brush, I made my move, swinging my gun as far as I physically could to the right. An eastern wild turkey would have flown to the next mountain, but the lightly hunted Gould’s gobbler stepped out into the clear and hadn’t even noticed me. I took quick aim and rolled him backwards. I think Carlos and I both felt great relief.

I am convinced us calling back and forth with that aggressive hen is what called the big Tom’s group of hens in our direction and sealed the deal. It was a fun hunt, and one I won’t soon forget.

That afternoon we had a bit of a fiesta with margaritas, a tasting of some fine tequilas, and a dinner of ribeye’s, portabella mushrooms and some authentic Mexican dishes that were to die for. It was a great way to celebrate a wonderful trip and honor all the beautiful Gould’s gobblers that our group was able to take on the trip.

It had been about twenty years since I lasted hunted Gould’s, but I can guarantee it won’t be another twenty before I do it again. I love hunting those white-tipped mountain birds of the Sierra Madre.


Turkey Gear:

In difficult situations to get a shot on a turkey, using a Trijicon RMR Type 2 reflex (red dot) type sight has made a world of difference to me. As in having to swing on this Gould’s gobbler, when that little red dot is on his head or neck, I know my shot will be true. The target acquisition is incredibly fast and aiming point is precise. It doesn’t matter what position you are in or even if your cheek is on the stock, wherever you see the dot is where your shot will hit.  Likewise with today’s super tight turkey chokes and loads, a bird at 15 yards basically has to be shot like you are using a slug, so again, a precise aiming point becomes very comfortable. Over the last two springs, I have no doubt that without the Trijicon RMR 2, there are at least a half a dozen gobblers that my two sons and I would not have taken. I cannot imagine going back to turkey hunting without my Trijicon.

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