Thirty minutes after fly-down time, and we hadn’t heard a gobble.
This is crazy, I thought.
Thomas Holcombe, 14, of Royston and I were the very first public turkey hunters on the newly purchased River Creek WMA in Thomas County. I’d heard the place was filthy with turkeys, but at this point I wasn’t so sure.
Easing down a logging road along the Ochlockonee River bottom, I caught a glimpse of two turkeys walking the edge of a slough about 75 yards away. We crouched down and shuffled 50 yards back, eased into the woods and set up along the slough’s edge.
I couldn’t even get the first yelp out of my mouth without a gobbler cutting me off. It sounded like he was on our side of the slough, so I told Thomas to slide around the tree and face where the bird gobbled. We couldn’t move quickly enough. About 80 yards down the slough I heard turkey wings flapping. Like a rocket, here came a hen that sailed within eight yards of us and set down. I can’t remember ever seeing a hen that wanted company so badly. We both froze, me with a confused look on my face and Thomas in a funny position where he was trying to reposition himself toward the gobbling bird.
“Just don’t move,” I whispered.
Thomas was pretty new to turkey hunting. He’d only seen a gobbler strut once and had heard only a handful of gobbles. He’d never been eight yards from a hen and watched her purr, but he was watching it now.
Two minutes passed, and the hen was still calling for company. Then, I heard leaves crunching along the edge of the slough.
“Be still,” I told Thomas.
Thirty-five yards out a red-headed tom was stepping into shotgun range, however, Thomas’s gun was in his lap. Then, another longbeard, this one in full strut, followed the lead tom. Both of them stood there in range for a minute staring at the hen. Eventually she walked by us, into the slough and the two toms followed. Unless we wanted to spook the birds into the next county, there was nothing we could do.
What a great start to our three-day excursion chasing turkeys during the adult/child turkey hunt at River Creek WMA, officially known as River Creek, The Rolf and Alexandra Kauka WMA.
Thomas is one of my rabbit-hunting partners. His granddad, Aubrey Holcombe, widely known as “Daddy Rabbit,” rode along with us, but he stayed in Thomasville and messed around while we hunted.
I put Thomas in for this adult/child turkey quota hunt never thinking we’d actually get drawn. This is the first year this 2,437-acre WMA has been open for turkey hunting, and for the initial hunt, which ran from March 30-April 1, they only drew five adult/child pairs.
River Creek WMA is made up of longleaf pine stands on the hill and beautiful swamp and sloughs in the bottoms. Before it was sold to the state, the area was well-managed for hunting, and it has a good reputation for some stellar deer hunting.
However, it was the excellent turkey hunting we were after. Rumor was that the fellows who hunted it last year had only killed a few birds and hunting pressure was low.
After spending all morning looking at scratching, tracks, droppings, dusting areas and strut marks, I was quickly convinced there was a pile of turkeys on this place. By early afternoon we were trolling along the river bottom, stopping every couple hundred yards trying to get a bird to gobble by cutting on my Lightning box call. At 2 p.m. our loud cutts were answered with a gobble 100 yards down the river. We set up against a big oak, and I gave several yelps and hushed.
“I hear something walking,” said Thomas.
The first thing I saw was the white crown on top of a gobbler’s head 50 yards away.
“Let him get on in here,” I told Thomas.
The tom wasn’t alone. There was another longbeard behind him. Wow! It looked like they were going to walk right in our laps, however, the birds hung up 40 yards out and then disappeard. We both agreed the birds needed five more steps.
About an hour before dark we were both thinking about supper more than anything, but when a bird gobbled way off at my loud cutts, our focus shifted. Halfway to the bird, we hit the edge of the prettiest food plot you could imagine.
“Let’s sit here,” I said.
I yelped on my box, and the bird answered 150-yards out. Five minutes later the bird gobbled, and he had cut the distance in half. For the third time that day I told Thomas to get ready.
Forty minutes later we were still looking at an empty food plot.
“Did we scare him?” Thomas asked.
“No way,” I quickly answered.
We were about to leave when I saw a hen in the upper end of the field, only 70 yards away. I gave some purrs and clucks, and a hen fired up behind us. She saw the hen in the food plot and marched up to her, cutting all the way. Those two hens started fighting, running each other around in circles, jumping straight up in the air trying to pounce on the other’s back.
“That’s so cool,” said Thomas.
It was pretty cool, but what was way cooler was the longbeard standing in the upper corner of that food plot watching the fight and behind him the boss man, standing in full strut.
“Gobblers,” I whispered.
“Where? Where? Oh, I see them,” said Thomas.
For the remaining 15 minutes of shooting light we watched the gobblers at 60 and 70 yards. All I did was lightly cluck and purr, and they acknowledged us by looking in our direction, but they were in tow with the now-friendly pair of hens.
“What are we going to do?” Thomas asked.
“We’re going to let them go to roost,” I said. “This is where we’ll be in the morning.”
The two hens flew off the food plot and roosted in the same area. Then, the boss tom flew up, landing 50 yards out of the food plot. Several minutes later the last gobbler headed for a roost tree — right in the middle of the field. We belly-crawled our way away from the plot and felt confident we hadn’t spooked the birds.
The next morning, in the pitch-black dark, we slid a single hen decoy into the food plot about 60 yards from where the last gobbler flew up. We tip-toed into the woods and set up 20 yards from the decoy.
A half hour later the boss gobbler began to let it rip off our left shoulder 30 yards away. He had tree-hopped during the night, but he was within sight of our decoy and had no clue we were there. Hens began to yelp and cackle from the trees, but our food-plot gobbler had yet to make a sound. Two more gobblers in the distance were waking up, and we began to wonder if our other bird flew the roost in the night.
After a half-dozen gobbles from the boss, the sound of wing beats filled the air.
Please fly over us and into this food plot at our decoy, I hoped.
The big tom landed probably 40 yards behind us — I could hear him drumming right away.
“You hear him drumming?” I whispered.
“No,” he said.
“He’s close — trust me,” I said.
One of our hotel discussions from the night before included a description about what drumming sounded like. He’d never heard it before.
With Thomas’s gun still pointed at the decoy, the food-plot bird pitched out, never saying a word. He landed 50 yards from the decoy and was headed right for her.
“Get ready, he’s going to come right to her,” I whispered.
Nothing ever happens the way you want it to when you’re turkey hunting. The longbeard stopped out of range, turned and walked into the woods toward the strutting boss. We couldn’t move — I was still listening to the boss drum behind us. For several minutes we listened to birds walking behind us in the dry leaves while we watched a hen move into the food plot and feed around the decoy.
I purred a few times on a mouth call and the two toms were quickly headed to the food plot. However, they first had to pass very close on Thomas’s right side.
“You can’t move a muscle,” I said.
I’ve never had it happen, but for about half a minute we had two gobblers five yards away from us, one of them in full strut.
Then, the subordinate gobbler hit the food plot and headed for the decoy. He had about 10 steps to take before he cleared a small area of brush and would give Thomas an open shot.
However, the big strutter, which was still only five yards to our right, turned around and headed back behind us. When he did, the bird that was headed for the decoy stopped, turned around and followed suit. Once they exited the field, they were gone.
“I heard him drum that time,” said Thomas.
An hour later we had moved a half mile down the river in search of a fresh birds. Standing in an area of burnt pines, I got a bird to gobble in the river bottom. We set up where we could see into the green bottom. The bird gobbled on his own, and I courteously answered him back.
Twenty minutes later here came another pair of longbeards. The birds were headed toward the pine hill, and they were going to walk by us at 35 yards. Finally! We were going to get a shot at a turkey. The lead gobbler walked into an opening, and I yelped — he stopped.
The bird Thomas shot at gobbled and ran down the hill. The other tom didn’t seem as spooked but had turned around and was heading back toward the bottom. I yelped, and he stopped.
That bird flew off and left no sign of a hit. For quite some time we looked for those birds, but it was obviously a pair of clean misses.
“Are you alright?” I asked him.
“I’m mad at myself,” he said.
I told him I’ve missed gobblers, too. Deep inside, I was heartbroken for this kid. At this point we’d walked miles for a turkey, and when it all finally came together, he missed — twice.
By 11:30 we had moved over to the Barnett’s Creek side of the WMA. We got out of the truck, and I immediately heard a bird gobble in a slough bottom.
“Thomas, there’s one gobblin’ on his own, we can kill this bird,” I said.
We walked down a firebreak, set up and called one time. Silence.
Two minutes later the bird gobbled 50 yards away, and here he came in full strut. The tom used a thicket to slip within 20 yards of us, but Thomas was set and ready for when he poked his head out. Ten minutes passed, and we had to listen to that bird drum and gobble several times before he finally got curious enough to stick that red, white and blue head into an opening.
“Are you on him?” I whispered.
“Do it (that means make a turkey sound and stop him so I can shoot.)”
I yelped, and the bird stuck his neck straight into the air.
What I’m about to tell you hurts to write: Thomas missed that bird. Again we looked hard for the turkey. It was tough to watch Thomas go up and down those woods looking for any sign that would tell him the bird was hit. Once again, a bird escaped us without losing a feather.
That night at the hotel I noticed he had one of those super-extra full turkey chokes on his 12 gauge. He told me that when he was practicing he’d have a really good pattern at 30 yards on one shot, but the very next shot would be different.
“And I was shaking bad trying to shoot those turkeys,” he said.
Hmmm… choke problems with a shaky youngster trying to hold a shotgun bead on a turkey’s neck. I told Thomas I had my old Remington 1100 with a full-choke barrel. He agreed to tote it on his last morning of his River Creek hunt.
The next morning we were back in the river bottom where we had started the very first morning. Our hunt started with a gobble three-tenths of a mile away. A minute later a bird gobbled the same distance away in the opposite direction. Our first bird grew more vocal as the crows came alive and the sky lightened.
“Let’s go,” I told Thomas.
The bird gobbled six or eight times as we tipped down an open slough. We set up 150 yards from the roosted bird.
Five minutes later the bird was on the ground, gobbling every couple of minutes. I yelped just loud enough for him to hear, and he responded right back with a thundering gobble. A minute later he gobbled again but hadn’t moved. Two more minutes passed, and he had gobbled one time.
Gobble right there just one more time, I wished.
Gobbbleeeee. He hadn’t moved.
“Come on we’re going to him,” I told Thomas.
We scooted down the slough 75 yards and stopped on the edge of a rise that led up to a logging road before falling back into a different slough. With our backs against a tree, I yelped.
The bird was 70 yards away and just over the rise. Two minutes later the bird hammered just out of sight.
“Come on — get in here,” I said.
On cue, here came the prettiest south Georgia gobbler I’d ever seen. He was 25 yards away in some high grass but headed right for the logging road in front of us.
“There he is, you see him?” I whispered.
“No,” he said.
“Look, he’s fixing to walk in front of your barrel,” I said.
Thomas was lower on the tree than I was and couldn’t see, but after the bird took three more steps, his finger was searching for the trigger.
“Yeah, yeah, got him,” he said.
When the bird took another step he was 22 steps from that barrel of that 1100.
“You on ’im?” I asked
Hallelujah! After three missed gobblers, Thomas had just put the smack-down on his first-ever gobbler. If there was another adult/child pair hunting within a mile of us around 7 a.m. that morning, I’m deeply sorry, but hollering all the way to that flopping bird just felt right.
Thomas and I sat there talking about what a blessing this bird was, how lucky we were to have finally killed a turkey. This bird had a broken spur on one side, but his other was long and sharp and would later measure 1 1/4-inches long. The tom’s beard would measure 11 3/4 inches. This bird was not only a young man’s first, but it was a trophy-class gobbler.
That longbeard was heavy, too.
“You know how to carry him?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ve seen it on TV.”
We started the mile trek back to my Toyota, both of us grinning ear to ear, talking about how awesome the morning had been.
“I better be in church tomorrow,” Thomas said.
“Yeah, both of us better be.”
Five minutes later Thomas needed a break from toting the heavy tom.
“I got to hit this call,” I told him.
Using my box, I hit some loud cutts, and a bird gobbled back 80 yards away across a pretty wide slough.
“We’ve got to try him,” I said.
We set up at the edge of the slough in hopes he would come to the water’s edge and give us about a 30-yard shot.
Two minutes went by in silence, and I would have bet my wallet we spooked that bird. For grins, I hit another loud cut on the box — nothing.
“I bet we spooked him,” I said.
I barely got the words out of my mouth. About 100-yards away at the top of the slough I saw three birds with red heads rounding the bend. After some quick repositioning, Thomas and his new favorite shotgun were pointed toward the incoming turkeys. This flock of gobblers was in a steady walk, wasting no time getting to the aggressive-sounding hen. The second gobbler in line strutted for just a second when he got into range.
“That’s the one I want,” Thomas said. “Do it.”
BOOM. The bird folded.
After missing three birds, Thomas Holcombe was headed back to Franklin County with a pair of dead gobblers. I heard through the rumor mill that Thomas was still telling tall tales around the Royston area about his hunt in Thomas County. Heck, I’ve been sharing a few myself.
River Creek WMA is the very best piece of turkey-hunting property that I’ve ever hunted. Only three of the five adult/child pairs hunted, and three birds were checked out. Cody Weaver, 11, of Pavo killed his first turkey, too.
In two days and one morning of hunting, I called in 13 longbeards inside 40 yards, heard 22 gobblers and saw 19 longbeards. I’ve never been around so many turkeys in all my life.
Publishing turkey-hunting stats like those above probably means I won’t get to see this place again for a long time. However, we printed it because we love for kids to go hunting. I’d like every kid to have the same chance to experience what we did at River Creek WMA.
The reality is that not every kid will get to go to River Creek WMA, at least not on a regular basis. For our hunt 25 pairs applied, and only five pairs were drawn. Rejection notices, with priority, were not mailed out for the hunt, so everyone has an equal chance at getting drawn next year.
River Creek also had a general turkey hunt after the adult/child hunt. With a quota of five, two guys showed up, and two dead birds were the result.
When I spoke with a WRD biologist about my hunt, he was pleased with our results and asked, “Should we up the quota?”
I’m all for hunter access, but it would be neat to have one place like this where a turkey hunter could go and experience what I classify as a once-in-a-lifetime turkey hunt — even if it’s only once every five, 10 or 20 years. It’s worth the wait!
And as far as a place to take kids, good gracious. From what I’ve witnessed in my 18 years of WMA turkey hunting, there is no better public place in this state to take a kid and expose them to turkey hunting than River Creek WMA.
Next February start putting in for this adult/child hunt. They’ll only draw five, so have yourself a back-up kid plan. Clybel, Rum Creek and B.F. Grant have adult/child turkey hunts, too.