“I think a junior turkey hunt would be a great idea”, said Mark. “We have had quite a few birds move into the property over the last few years. Why don’t you come up and do some scouting? You can see how the populations are and determine how feasible a hunt would be.”
Mark Grupe, of Mark Grupe Outdoors, is a Mariposa ranch owner and operator. Ranching is in his blood, and his family has owned the Mariposa ranch since he was young. His passion for hunting, wildlife and conservation is evident in everything he does: Mark actively maintains many food plots on the ranch, to the benefit of all types of wildlife. He’s also an avid bowhunter and travels across the country to hunt elk, antelope, deer and other species. He also frequently invites veterans for opportunities on his ranch. His generous offer to TJ Downes of the California state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation reflects this passion and his willingness to ensure continuance of our hunting heritage.
TJ joined Keith Swope of the High Sierra Yelpers chapter for a scout of the property. They quickly became friends. Keith, a CalFire captain and veteran turkey hunter of 25+ years, had agreed to be the hunt guide. TJ volunteered to be the hunt host and take care of the cooking and other details. A software programmer, TJ has only been hunting turkeys for 8 years, but is obsessed. He also volunteers as Secretary for the California state chapter of the NWTF.
During the scout, Keith and TJ located many birds. Jakes, hens, large toms and even a smoke-phase hen were located. One tom in particular hangs out near the ranch house, by the pond. The guys spent some time having fun with this bird and named him Lonely Boy. He seemed to not have any company, and was very eager to follow them around, in full strut, gobbling in the late afternoon spring weather.
Towards evening several roosting areas were located. TJ and Keith agreed that there were plenty of birds to hold a junior turkey hunt.
Our Youth Hunter
Our draw winner was Jake Owens of Concord, CA. Jake will be graduating from Berean Christian High School in Walnut Creek. He loves hunting, trap shooting on his high school team, computers and his 1968 VW bug. He’s going to go to college to be an engineer after high school.
Unfortunately, with two days to go until the hunt, Keith messaged TJ to let him know he was in the hospital with pneumonia. TJ would need to take over as hunt guide.
TJ, Jake and Monty (Jake’s dad) arrived the afternoon before the hunt. The plan was to get comfortable at the ranch house, roost some birds and enjoy a delicious meal before getting a good night’s sleep.
After a quick tour of the ranch house, they went off to find some birds. TJ’s primary goal was to get Jake excited about the turkey hunt as soon as possible. He drove his truck down to the pond by the ranch house. He guessed that Lonely Boy would be near somewhere. Lonely Boy did not disappoint. He was exactly where TJ expected, and began gobbling and strutting at the first call. But wait! Lonely Boy didn’t seem to be so lonely today! Following closely behind Lonely Boy was a hen. She was not impressed at all with their antics, and led Lonely Boy up the hill. Jake, TJ and Monty all agreed that love was in the air and moved on to find more eligible bachelors.
With a turkey hunt plan in mind, TJ headed to a secluded area he and Keith had scouted previously. Along the way, another gobbler was spotted. They spent a few minutes chatting with him, then let him wander off. TJ was sure that the destination spot would have greater numbers of birds, so the group continued to the destination.
Arriving at the secluded area by the creek, there was no sight or sound of birds. A half hour passed and TJ located some birds. It was a jake and a gobbler. They seemed pretty excited to have some company, and spent the next hour and a half gobbling and searching for the hen they had heard. While this was happening, Jake spotted a sow and her piglets, feeding in the spring grass by the creek. They seemed oblivious to the activity around them. Eventually one of the pigs spotted the group’s movement and they moved off to safer ground.
Knowing the birds would roost in this area, it was decided to plan the morning setup. TJ and Monty got out of the truck and began discussing where to place decoys and where to sit. Suddenly, a bird exploded from a tree about 80 yards away. They had roosted, and had busted Monty and TJ! Fortunately the bird only flew about 60 yards, into another tree close by.
Deciding it was best to get out of the area before further pushing the birds, the group got into the truck and headed out. A plan was in place; it was time for dinner!
Back at the ranch house TJ made a quick dinner of wild game sausage, donated by Kevin Vella. It was late already, and by 10pm the group hit the sack, excited for what the next day held.
Early Morning Pigs
TJ was up at 3:30am. It was time to make coffee and make sure everything was ready to go. It would take 20-30 minutes to get to the spot and another half hour to walk in and setup. 4:30am was the planned time of departure. Jake and Monty woke at 4:00am, and everyone was out the door by 4:30am.
The excitement was palpable. The group discussed how to setup. Based on the birds’ behaviors the day before and the terrain they were hunting, it was decided they would use 6 decoys, set up in pairs. This would allow the birds to see at least one set of decoys regardless of their direction of approach. Monty and Jake would sit under an oak on the side of a hill. This would give them a perfect vantage point for at least 3 directions the birds might come in from. TJ was to sit under another oak, with a vantage point over everything, and call the birds to preferred direction.
TJ parked the truck a few hundred yards from the spot. Everyone quietly closed the truck doors and slipped down the road as silently as possible. It was getting light already. Suddenly, a gobble. It was not far. And it was early, only 5am! It was time to put it into full gear, before it got light enough for the birds to see them setting up.
As they neared the spot, there was sudden movement from the left. A huge sow, and her piglets, dashed across the trail in front of them, at 50 yards! “Pigs!” TJ whispered loudly, realizing he’d just stated the obvious. A few more yards down the road and more movement. They stopped and counted as 9 more hogs crossed the trail, one of them a giant. Grunting and snorting all the way down the hill, it was now apparent why the turkeys were awake so early.
Arriving at their spot, TJ and Monty quickly set up the decoys. Everyone got into position. TJ instantly realized he’d made a poor decision in his sitting spot the night before; the tree trunk dipped too low to see anything. He made the split-second decision to instead sit behind the hill. This would also give him the ability to move around and cover a 100 yard area without any chance of being spotted by the birds before they were in range of Jake. Unfortunately he would have to rely entirely on sound, he would see none of the action.
It was 5:30am and the birds continued to gobble. TJ let out a few soft yelps; two turkeys replied in earnest. As the minutes went by the birds became more and more vocal. It was evident they would fly down early this morning.
Wing flaps announced the fly-down. It was 5:53am, shoot time. Perfect timing. Everyone sat with high anticipation, awaiting the gobblers to come running in. But suddenly, the gobbles sounded farther off. Monty and Jake began to worry. Would the gobblers move off and not show any interest?
TJ switched calls, from his slate pot to a copper pot. The higher pitch and louder sound might just get their attention, he figured. A few short yelps, followed by some clucks and purrs received immediate responses. The birds began moving closer almost immediately. Even though he couldn’t see, before long TJ knew the birds were on the other side of the hill, across the creek, moving their way toward the decoys.
Using the hill for cover, TJ changed position. He moved 50 yards to the right, trying to give the birds the impression that the hen was moving. In response he heard two gobbles, followed by a hen yelping! For about 20 minutes he coaxed the birds, using mostly soft clucks and purrs. With no eyes on the situation, TJ was only guessing at what was transpiring. He could see Jake and Monty under the tree, but the spot was so well covered and hidden by shade there was no way to see what was going on with them, either.
Jake and Monty sat beneath the old oak, both of them were shaking. Their heartbeats as loud as thunder in their chests as 4 hens, a jake and a tom came into view. The tom was strutting. The jake was gobbling. The hens were moving toward them, with the boys in tow.
The hens crossed the creek, and were heading toward two of the hen decoys; the boss tom was following behind them. The tom suddenly noticed the other pair of decoys: a laydown hen and a full strut jake with a real fan. He moved in their direction. One of then hens was obviously mad. She was puffed up and clucking and purring loudly. This girl was ready to fight. It was apparent she was the boss hen; she moved toward the lookout hen decoys with speed. The other hens followed. The boss tom noticed this and stopped. There was no way he was letting his harem get away. Besides, he might be adding two more to his group! He moved in the direction of the hens.
Monty could see the barrel on Jake’s shotgun wavering; He knew Jake’s adrenaline was full bore. “The bird is probably at 35 yards”, Monty though to himself. “Kill him, Jake!” he whispered loudly.
Suddenly TJ heard the roar of the shotgun. Had Jake killed the bird? Was it a jake or a tom? He looked at Monty and Jake and saw Monty’s arms go up in victory. SUCCESS!
Jake had killed the bird with a fatal blow to the head; the bird dropped and did not move. As they got up from their spots, 4 hens and the jake ran up the hill and out of view.
After the Hunt
The hard work was done; it was time to celebrate. Pictures were taken. Jake and Monty told TJ the story of what happened during the hunt, all of the details TJ couldn’t see and could only hear. Their story confirmed much of the picture that TJ had painted in his head during the hunt. The successful hunt felt good, everyone agreed it was a memory they’d never forget. This was Jake’s fourth bird and only second tom. It was a textbook turkey hunt, something neither Jake or Monty had experienced. Jake noted how he really enjoyed the full experienced, starting with scouting and roosting, all the way to setup and calling.
The mood was high, but everyone was hungry. After arriving at the ranch house, a breakfast of eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and toast was served. Afterward, everyone pitched in to clean the ranch house. With the ranch house cleaned and the trucks loaded up, everyone said their goodbyes and headed home; smiles on everyone’s faces and memories to last a lifetime.
Youth hunting is one piece of how we preserve hunting heritage at the NWTF and bringing new hunters into the fold is critical. To continue this work, we need volunteers to help with these hunts. We also need landowners to volunteer their property for these hunts. If you’re interested in helping out with any of these, please reach out to us! These events, and the properties they are held on, are covered by liability insurance policies through the NWTF. All participants sign release of liability forms. The guides are often hunter education instructors, or veteran hunters who are safety-minded.
Even if you are unable to help in these areas, your membership and attendance at banquets is also crucial to helping! Super fund money is often used to fund hunts, and the super fund money comes from your memberships and banquet proceeds.
We’re looking forward to setting up more spring youth hunts in 2019, opening more opportunities for the next generation of hunters. So stay tuned; follow us on Facebook, Instagram and here on our website.