Rifle Hunting for Turkeys in the Tall Peaks, from the Archives

This story originally ran in the May 1948 issue of Outdoor Life. Outdoor Life

THE INSTANT we reached the crest of the rocky, knife-sharp ridge, we saw the turkeys. But they’d spotted us first and were darting through the Arizona brush, heads low, necks outstretched, long legs flashing—pulling a fast get-away. 

“We won’t get a decent shot,” lamented Ralph. “Maybe we’d better shoot into ’em anyway. Make ’em scatter!” 

Just then a heavy gobbler made the mistake of trying to cross a small clearing. Ralph let out a low, pleased, “Ahha,” as he brought his sights on the bronze beauty. “Wham!” went the rifle, and a great shower of feathers erupted into the thin mountain air. 

“I got ’im! I got ’im!” whooped Ralph. At the shot, the flock took to the air in wild, frenzied flight, and I was about to comment on the fact that the birds were well scattered when Ralph suddenly jerked up his rifle and squalled, “Hey, my bird’s only wounded!” 

Before he could let drive with another shot, the gobbler dived into a near-by thicket and disappeared from sight. “I’ll get ‘im,” puffed Ralph as he sprinted after the great bird. 

Joe, our rancher host, and I went over to take a look at the pile of feathers. The rancher quickly opined, “Ralph ain’t going to get that turkey. He didn’t even hit ’im!” 

“Nuts!” I scoffed. “Didn’t I see him hit the bird? Didn’t the bullet knock this tubful of feathers from him?”

“Yeah, you’re right about the feathers,” admitted Joe, “but take a good look at ’em. They’ve been clipped off neatly at least an inch or two from the hide!” 

Joe was right. Every feather was clipped short; the bullet must have gone the length of the bird’s body cutting feathers and not once drawing blood! I hollered Ralph back, and my friend was scarcely in sight when he called, “You guys find ’im?” 

“No,” I returned, “but you’d better come and read a sad message.” 

After inspecting every feather he could find, Ralph looked closely for blood, found none—and finally admitted that he’d failed to hit the bullseye on the gobbler. 

“A lot of folks make the same mistake,” Joe pointed out. “They forget that lots of feathers surround all that delicious turkey meat!” 

“Oh, well,” said Ralph, taking out his yelper, “I did a good deed anyway; I scattered ’em all over the mountains. Now we can call ’em up—and remember. we can get two apiece this year.” 

Joe shook his head. “Sure, a caller will work—sometimes—but you’ve over looked the fact that there’s more than a gentle breeze blowing. The air currents that whip in and out about these high points will either carry the sound away or throw it right back in your face. Better forget your yelper, and we’ll go hunt up another flock.” 

Ralph sat down, back to a widetrunked pine. “You guys go ahead. Me, I’m sticking right here. Why, I’ve hunted for days just to get a flock split up so I could call ’em in!” 

Joe grinned good-naturedly, shouldered his rifle, and turned to me. “Come on,” he said, “it’s only 9 o’clock. There’s plenty of time to look around and surprise a few flocks.” 

Turkeys Were Mountain-wise 

So Joe and I left Ralph, to continue the hunt as we’d planned. There was an excellent acorn crop in the lower country and the turkeys were visiting the dense thickets each day, but it was virtually impossible to get a shot at the wary birds in the heavy brush. We suspected that each evening the mountainwise turkeys were traveling considerable distances uphill to roost, and we’d been on our way to the higher country when we surprised the flock that Ralph was now determined to call in. 

After a short, stiff climb, we came to а pine-dotted bench that followed around beneath a great granite rim. We located several spots where old droppings littered the ground, but not a fresh roosting place did we find. 

From left: When calling failed, Ralph figured out a simple way to get his two birds—and was justifiably proud of this specimen. Under Arizona law, toms are classified as big game and, as such, must be tagged by hunters who score. Outdoor Life

Finally Joe said, “Maybe we’d better drop over to the right and work some of those little coves. Turkeys like to hang out in such places on windy days.” 

Well, we headed for the coves, and I learned that “dropping over” meant easing around wall-like cliffs, with nothing but thin air between us and the ground, half a mile below. To say the miniature parks were secluded would be putting it mildly, and I remarked, “Boy, if there are any turkeys here, they sure won’t know what a man looks like. They ought to be easy picking.” 

“Mountain turkeys are no pushovers,” warned Joe, “whether they’ve ever seen a human or not. They’re born with plenty of brains in those purple-black heads!” 

And the rancher was right. We worked the first cove and saw fresh sign—but no turkeys. Something tells me those wary rascals spotted us and gave us the slip. We continued on to the next cove—and our luck suddenly changed. We were easing along like shadows, taking advantage of every stalwart pine, when suddenly Joe grabbed my arm, gave it a squeeze, and pointed toward a thin patch of oaks, 100 yards ahead. Instantly there came a sharp “Purrt! Purrt!” and the turkeys were gone, as only turkeys can evaporate when one of their number sounds the alarm. 

Joe and I rushed forward, rifles at ready, hoping to get a snapshot as the birds scurried up the slope. A deer can get around in the mountains with speed and ease, but it takes a turkey to scale the steepest walls of rock quickly, easily and without showing himself or making the slightest noise. Knowing this, I stopped as soon as I saw which way the birds were heading and picked out a small opening at the base of a mass of towering boulders 200 yards away. If luck was with me, a couple of birds would surely expose themselves when they topped out. It would be a long shot—and a fast shot, but it would be better than no shot at all.

A Lucky Shot

The instant I spotted the opening, three fine gobblers came from the oaks at a dead run and raced madly around the boulder. Those running rascals had made it to the crest quicker than I’d expected, and I barely managed to get in a shot at the last bird, a plump young gobbler. At the bark of my rifle, the turkey pitched on its head and drummed the ground with his powerful wings. 

“That’s good shooting,” beamed Joe. It was a lucky shot, I knew, but when we climbed up to get the bird, we found that the bullet had severed the turkey’s neck—a lucky shot, indeed! 

As the wind had settled a bit, I suggested that we stick around and try to call up the birds. 

“Don’t believe it will work,” Joe said. “The birds didn’t scatter much, so they’ll go a long way before they stop. And just because it’s calm here in this cove ain’t no sign the wind ain’t howling all around us.” 

Joe’s argument sounded quite sound but, since it was lunchtime, I talked him into stopping to eat our sandwiches.

Well, we ate and rested up a bit. Then, after we’d taken it easy for more than an hour, I began sending out seductive calls. I would call, pick up my rifle, and wait; call, pick up my rifle, and wait. Not one answer did I get. I was finally forced to admit that turkey calling, the deadliest trick known to turkey hunters, is by no means sure-fire in Arizona’s spirelike mountains. 

After I’d been stumped by the acoustics, Joe and I worked out two more coves, then dropped down and began hunting the brushlands. And it was in the thick brush that Joe spotted a flock and bagged a fat hen. How his bullet ever reached the bird without being deflected by twigs, I will never know. As with my shot, luck was an important factor, no doubt. 

It was not yet sundown when we reached camp with our turkeys. Ralph had beat us in, so we went over to do a little gloating. To our surprise, Ralph merely glanced at our birds and said, “Pretty good, but why didn’t you pick ’em bigger?” 

This was like a shot of cold water in the face, and Joe retorted sarcastically, “I guess you could do better!” 

Ralph lifted an eyebrow. “Yep. I could—and did. Take a look at that baby hanging in the tree.” 

Joe and I looked—and gulped, eyes bulging. A big gobbler hung there, his metallic-hued feathers glittering in the evening light. 

“Don’t tell me you called ’im in on that windy point?” gasped Joe. 

“No, I didn’t,” admitted Ralph. “When I couldn’t get an answer, I decided to scout around. And did I make a discovery!” 

“Don’t tell us you found a choice turkey roost and killed that gobbler right in the middle of the day!” 

“Nope, I didn’t find a roost. Don’t need to. I got a system that beats that.” That was too much for Joe. “Listen,” he pleaded, “we’re sorry we left you. We admit you’re the best turkey hunter in the crowd. Now tell us what it’s all about!” 

Ralph had us where he wanted us—and was determined to make the most of it. “You guys guarantee to do all the camp chores, and I might take you out tomorrow,” he parried. 

Joe turned to me. “That’s a fine howdy-do,” he said flatly. “Here I’ve lived in these hills all my life, and a dude comes in and shows me up—kills the biggest gobbler I ever saw.” 

“Dumb luck,” I said. 

“Keep your shirts on,” advised Ralph, “until you know what you’re talking about!” 

Well, Joe and I were up long before daylight and had breakfast ready before Ralph would come from the covers. Still, my friend was as good as his word and, when he spotted a strip of pink in the east, said, “Come on, you guys. Let’s go. It’s more than a mile to where we take up our stand.” 

Joe and I shouldered our rifles and silently followed at Ralph’s heels, determined to razz the socks off him if he didn’t deliver the goods. We plowed through the brushlands and came to a narrow, steep-walled canyon. We had scarcely entered the gorge when Ralph pointed to a clump of pines and said, “Well, here we are. We’ll take up our stand over there and keep a sharp watch on the opposite side. Some turkeys’ll be coming down pretty soon!” 

A scant seventy-five yards distant, a small ledge jutted out into the bed of the canyon, and Joe demanded, “Which way they coming; above the rocks or down the sandy stream bed?”

“Above the rocks, of course,’ Ralph answered. “That’s the reason I picked this spot to wait. We can pick ’em off when they show up there.” 

“Oh well,” Joe said resignedly, “I’ve been on snipe hunts before!” 

“Keep quiet,” Ralph whispered; “or the turkeys’ll hear you!” 

For the better part of an hour we sat, our backs against trees, rifles across our knees. Then it happened. A small black head popped above the rocks—followed by another, and still another. Turkey heads, they were—and the cagy birds had stopped to look things over before exposing themselves. I held my breath, instinctively trying to make myself smaller. 

We didn’t have long to wait. The foremost turkey stepped into the open, lifting each foot slowly and placing it on the ground gently, as if he figured every enemy was equipped with airplane-detector ears. The rest of the flock followed, like dark-coated ghosts. 

“Take ’em,” whispered Ralph. 

The third bird was an outstanding trophy. I brought my sights on him just where his neck joined his body. “Now,” I breathed, and two rifles exploded as one. 

I saw my bird sit on his tail feathers and spin around and around, drumming his wings like a chicken with its head off. Another fine gobbler hit the ground and lay still, dead before he knew what struck him. The rest of the flock darted up the slope, keeping to the oaks and not once exposing themselves. 

Not until the excitement was over did I realize that only two had fired. “Who got the other one?” I asked. 

Ralph replied quickly, “Joe did. I didn’t shoot.” 

“What’s the matter—weren’t those babies good enough for you?” 

“They were pretty good,” admitted Ralph, “but there’s no hurry. I might get a bigger one a little later. Anyway I wanted you fellows to be sure to fill your tags.” 

This talk didn’t set too well with Joe. I heard him mutter again that it’s a fine howdy-do when a dude gets so choosy. 

We collected our birds and I suggested that we try to call in a straggler, but Ralph said, “We only have one more to get—and there’s another place I want to try, just half a mile over the hill, at another canyon.” 

“Let’s go,” said Joe. “I don’t know how you do it, but lead on. I might learn something.” 

“You’ll learn something, all right,” Ralph promised, “if I guess right again.” 

The May 1948 cover set the scene for a completely different type of adventure; painting by H. Hoecker. Outdoor Life

Had Them Figured Right

We went to the canyon, but Ralph wasn’t in a hurry to take up his stand. We ate our sandwiches and loafed around until the sun was well on its westward swing. Finally Ralph said, “We’d better get out of sight. Some turkeys might be coming this way.” 

This time Joe and I kept our counsel, and Ralph selected a small oak patch near a rocky point. This time, however, he faced down the canyon. 

“I begin to smell a mouse,” Joe said, “but I can’t figure how you do it.” 

“Don’t overwork your brain,” advised Ralph. “If I guess right again, I’ll let you in on the secret.” 

Well, he certainly had those birds figured right. We had been hidden little more than an hour when a flock of turkeys streamed above the ledge and single-filed up the canyon. I counted fourteen fine birds. Ralph picked out a giant, long-bearded gobbler, a truly magnificent bird, and dropped him in his tracks. The remainder of the flock flew out up the canyon and were soon lost from sight. 

“Well,” beamed Ralph, “that’s what I call a real turkey hunt! I like my birds to have plenty of good, golden fat, and both my gobblers are as heavy as they come.” 

“Yeah,” said Joe, “but how’d you know the turkeys were coming?” 

“Oh, that,” grinned Ralph, as if the subject was something he’d forgotten about. “Well, when you guys left me yesterday, I got to figuring that if the turkeys were roosting uphill, they’d have to travel to and from their feeding grounds. I found that they did, too—and made neat little trails in the doing! Come over and I’ll show you!” 

We went over and sure enough, there was a small, narrow path leading above the ledge. “The turkeys travel single file most of the time,” explained Ralph, “and they keep to cover as much as possible. That’s the reason I selected the stands near ledges; the little paths are plainer where the birds go above the obstructions to keep from exposing themselves so much.” 

Joe turned to me. “It’s a fine howdy-do,” he said, “when two fellers are as thickheaded as you and me.” 

“You said it,” I agreed. 

This text has been minimally edited to meet contemporary standards. Read more OL+ stories.

The post Rifle Hunting for Turkeys in the Tall Peaks, from the Archives appeared first on Outdoor Life.

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