“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
I’m sure when poet Robert Burns inked those words in his seminal “To A Mouse”, wild turkeys were the furthest thing from his mind.
But oh how this poetic truism has rang true in all things turkey for me lately.
Last year I founded Turkey Revolution, a project to raise awareness of wild turkey conservation.
It began with a quest to photograph the Grand Slam of wild turkeys (Rio Grande, Eastern, Osceola, Merriam’s)-all within 2019. That concluded at 9,000 in elevation in Colorado last June by photographing a gorgeous and ultra-rare bearded cinnamon phase Merriam’s hen with poults.
This year’s goal was to photograph the elusive Gould’s turkey that inhabits the “Sky Island” areas of Arizona and New Mexico.
I had the location.
I had the contacts.
I had a time picked out to travel during the peak breeding season.
Not only was air travel not an option but the federal lands the limited Gould’s population dwells in were off-limits as well, so I decided in March to switch 2020 and 2021’s objectives. The Gould’s search would begin next year and the search eastern turkeys in the Pineywoods of East Texas where I live would begin.
A tract of private land 75 minutes from my home that had turkes on it opened up and it happens to be in Newton County, one of 12 counties open to hunting eastern turkeys in the Pineywoods region.
Once a mecca for these birds, poaching and habitat degradation took the numbers down to nothing.
Gradually intensive stocking and habitat work from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) brought the region’s numbers up to around 10,000.
Me and my friend Josh Slone scouted his friend’s property heavily the day before the season opener and figured we knew where the birds were roosting.
It was in a big creek bottom on the edge of a clear cut.
Our plan was to set up on the outside of the roosting locations and get the birds as they came into the field to feed. Tracks, scat, and scratching showed they were using the exact spot where we set up the day before.
So, now we go back to that whole best-laid plans of mice and men thing.
We got to the location well before daylight, set up the decoys, and after things settled a few minutes let out a call.
A gobbler called back immediately.
It sounded like he was on top of us.
He gobbled again and I was thinking the bird might already be on the ground right out in the weeds just past our decoys.
“Holy smokes! He’s right there in that big pine tree!,” Josh said.
On the outer edge of the creek bottom was a small clump of trees and sitting on a limb about 60 feet up was a gobbler.
He was way too close for comfort!
The big gobbler let out a flurry of gobbles that was unlike anything I’ve heard and was running up and down the big limb strutting.
I don’t like to get this close to roosting birds, especially in an extremely open clear cut like we were in.
I thought there was no way this bird was going to come to us. The sky was so clear we didn’t even need a light to walk in so I knew he saw us setting up.
Josh kept toying with him and he seemed interested until a hen busted out into the field and started calling. He fixed his attention on her and as she made her way down the field away from us, he flew down, walked far out of range along the woodline, and followed the girl.
Who could blame him, right?
Just as I was about to get discouraged, I saw a beard hanging off a big pine tree about 60 feet up and 30 feet away from where the other gobbler flew down from.
A few minutes later I saw tail feathers as the bird moved.
It was a huge gobbler!
And it never made a sound.
Not at daylight. Not for the next hour.
Not for the next two hours. It just sat in that tree and barely moved.
I have seen turkeys in roosts a little after daylight but nothing like this.
At around 8:30 it walked from the backside of the tree to a limb on the front side in perfect sunlight.
I grabbed my camera with the 400 mm lens knowing the Lord had granted me an opportunity and snapped away.
As the massive gobbler stood there with beard dangling, I was in awe.
This was the county I have hunted in my whole life.
It was the county my father first let me accompany him to a deer blind in the late 70s when there were few deer and no turkeys.
And here I was with my true hunting partner Josh sharing the moment.
When my father died of natural causes on a deer hunting trip with me in 2014, I was broken. I didn’t know if I would hunt again, especially hunt deer.
Dad was my hunting partner and whitetail were his thing.
But I couldn’t help talk hunting being around Josh. He practically forced me to get on his deer lease and here we were together seeing a turkey that never made a peep for 2.5 hours after daylight in a county that means something to both of us.
It was a powerful moment.
When I got home, I reached out to TPWD Wild Turkey Program Leader Jason Hardin about the birds in Newton County.
The bird I photographed did not have a leg band so it was at least a second-generation wild bird so I thought.
“You will not likely see any banded wild turkeys in Newton County. The area has not received a stocking in 20 years. My records show four release sites scattered north to south across Newton County,” Hardin said.
“Restocking efforts began slowly in the late 1970s and concluded in 2000. There may have been some earlier restocking efforts, but those would have consisted of Rio Grande wild turkeys and pen-reared turkeys (illegal to release today in Texas for the purpose of establishing a wild turkey population).”
Historical Newton County Release Sites
- Donahue Creek in central Newton County near Louisiana border: 1977 (2 males), 1978 (4 hens), 2000 (15 hens and 4 males)
- Sheppard Road in southern Newton County near Louisiana border: 2000 (5 males and 15 hens)
- Scrappin Valley in northern Newton County: 1981 (8 females, 2 males), 1982 (4 males), 1996 (5 males)
- Slaydons Creek in southern Newton County near Louisiana border: No data in my records other than the location suggesting a restocking effort in the late 70s or early 80s.
I was blown away to see Sheppard Road on the list because my Aunt Ann lived at the end of it and I took my first animal-ever there-a swamp rabbit. I used to hunt squirrels on the very public hunting unit that used to exist where the birds had been released in 2000.
Listen to The Higher Calling podcast as Chester Moore interviews TPWD’s Jason Hardin on a can’t miss episode.
“Newton County birds are part of a larger population that expands west out of Louisiana. Once you get to Sabine County, Toledo Bend reservoir serves as a fragmenting feature on the landscape,” Hardin said.
“Turkey numbers begin to decline rapidly as you move north to Shelby County due to the connectivity with the larger metapopulation in Louisiana.”
Hardin said Louisiana wild turkey genetics flow into Newton County.
“They make their way here naturally through regular population expansion. The lake reduces that potential for ingress to those areas north of the Toledo Bend lake dam,” he said.
This Turkey Revolution journey has been full of surprises.
Whether it was the super rare color phase Colorado bird hen noted above, learning that York’s turkey population has declined 40 percent in the last decade after hunting there in 2019 or that reservoirs can serve as a barrier for natural turkey expansion, surprises are the norm.
Josh and I are returning to the property in hopes of bagging a gobbler this time. We have a new game plan and are hoping for better turkey cooperation.
I’ll never forget watching that big Newton County gobbler walk out on that limb and pose for us.
And I’ll never forget watching a TPWD and NWTF eastern turkey release in Titus County in the Pineywoods just a month before COVID-19 became an issue.
This year has been special in the quest to learn about the region’s eastern turkeys and share it with hunters and other wildlife lovers.
I’ll always remember the disruption caused by the pandemic as giving me a greater chance to learn about the turkeys in my back yard.
Sometimes plans do go awry, but that doesn’t mean something just as good can’t come along.