Turkey hunts in Arizona are typically the last big game hunt (buffalo being the exception) of the spring, and every year I try to go on at least one hunt for these wily longbeards.
This year, I had the opportunity to go on the first season hunt on the San Carlos Indian Reservation. I have hunted this huge reservation, which totals over 1.8 million acres and covers three different counties, for a number of years. I started hunting on the reservation when turkey hunting on public lands in Arizona became so tough, even hearing one or two birds a years was an accomplishment.
When I first went on a hunt with my fellow turkey enthusiasts to San Carlos, we found that while getting a gobbler wasn’t a for sure thing; hearing and seeing birds were way better than I had ever experienced hunting on public lands.
Initially the tribe offered just two spring hunts, and my turkey hunting friends and I opted for the later hunts. You have to apply for San Carlos turkey tags a year in advance.
Last year, my friends and I decided to apply for 2018 early tags. Going on the hunt would be Nevada residents Kensen Lee, Maynard Ely, along with fellow Arizona residents Eric Hawkinberry and Donnie Tirpak.
The tribe had changed the hunt structure to include three hunts, and the total numbers of permits were increased.
With tags in hand, our group made plans to hunt together for at least four days; normally plenty of time to find and pursue gobblers.
This year was different. The weather was warm and it was dry. Stock tanks that usually had water in them were dry. Springs and seeps that we had found over the years were also dry.
We were still able to locate a few birds, but something was truly different. I’m not sure if it was due to dry spring, or the time of the year, but it quickly became apparent that this hunt was going to be very different from other hunts we had there.
Normally the gobblers will be with the hens at this time of year as they start into the annual breeding season. They are also usually very vocal, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. But this year it just didn’t happen.
The gobblers we found were still in bachelor groups. And they just didn’t seem interested in responding to any calls or joining up with the hens. There were groups of hens roaming around that had no gobblers with them. There were groups of jakes, or young gobblers together, and they too didn’t seem to be interested in joining the hens. There were a couple of times when a gobbler or two could be found with a couple of hens.
The gobblers would sound off on the roost before dawn, but once on the ground they became silent, refusing to answer any calls, except when we did coyote howls. I could get the hens to “talk” back to me, but the gobblers never made a sound.
All of this of course changed the way that we could pursue the gobblers, if we wanted to bring home a bird.
To me and to most of our group, the reason we hunt turkeys in the spring is the challenge of calling the birds into shotgun range, which usually means 40 yards or less. Most of the time the gobblers will win these battles, but every now and then a lovesick gobbler will come into our plaintive calls.
But not this year.
Hunters on the San Carlos are allowed to use centerfire rifles to take turkeys during the spring hunts. On Arizona public lands that is not allowed, ostensibly for safety reasons. This year, it was obvious that to be successful you would have to employ “Spot and Stalk” tactics, and use a rifle to take a bird.
While some in our group opted to do this, I was not one of them. Even though I could have used my AR-15 to take a long beard, I decided that it just wasn’t something I wanted to do.
So for four and a half days, I called, watched, glassed and moved around a lot in search of a gobbler that would actually come to my calls. None ever did and I brought my tag home unfilled. Only one in our group tagged a turkey this year, and it was a jake.
Sure, I would have liked to have filled my tag, but understand that the definition of a successful hunt is not just filling a tag.
I had a lot of fun with my fellow turkey hunting friends and we learned more and more about the challenges of hunting turkeys in the spring.