Turkey hunting Old Mexico on your own? Are you nuts??
When I started bowhunting turkeys 20-some years ago – and after scads of abject failure –a seasoned gobbler getter gave me some sage advice. “Bob,” he said, “gobblers were put on this earth to be shot in the head with two ounces of No. 6’s.” Many times, after not being able to get a shot with my bow that would have been a shotgun slam-dunk, I was convinced he was right.
That was back before two items revolutionized turkey bowhunting – high-quality decoys and pop-up ground blinds. When it all comes together, a gobbler will make his way to a decoy to either try and mate with it (hen), or beat it up (Jake or full-grown gobbler). When he does, and you’re comfortably hidden in a blind 20 steps away that allows you to draw and aim the bow without being seen, the odds are very good you’ll get the job done.
For more than a decade now, I have been bowhunting turkeys with the help of decoys and blinds. Sometimes I use pop-up blinds, sometimes I erect a brush blind. There are times when I simply sit on the ground in some brush, having learned how to draw and shoot my bow from the seat of my pants. By having all these options available, I can travel to new places confident I can get a shot if I can get on the birds.
So in early April, 2017, when my buddy Patrick Holehan asked me if I wanted to do a DIY hunt for Gould’s turkeys in Sonora, Mexico, I was all in. I love hunting Old Mexico, and have been doing so since the 1970’s. Things have changed greatly south of the border since then when it was much more loosey-goosey. You need access to private property, all sorts of permits for both Mexican and U.S. officials -- both of whom can be a royal pain in the you-know-what -- and a way to communicate, especially if your Spanish is as rudimentary as mine.
Fortunately, Holehan, a superb Tucson, AZ-based custom rifle builder, has also been outfitting hunters in Sonora, Mexico, for some 20 years now. He speaks fluent Spanish, has great connections with Mexican outfitters who, in turn, have the keys to the gates to some excellent hunting for both Coues whitetails and Gould’s turkeys, and knows the ins and outs of crossing the border with firearms and hunting gear, then returning with the same plus wildlife. So we loaded the truck to the gills and made the seven-hour drive to a ranch that long-time Mexican outfitter Jorge Camou has hunting rights to. The deal was simple. We’d be on our own for the hunting, and pay the landowners for any birds we shot. Patrick hired the same cook he uses for his deer hunts – worth every peso! – and we budgeted four days to hunt.
Why Gould’s Turkeys?
The Gould’s turkey is a unique subspecies found in the southern portions of Arizona and New Mexico as well as northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua. It was first described by J. Gould in 1856 during his travels in Mexico. Like the Merriam’s, the Gould’s is a bird of the mountains. In the United States, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Forest Service, the Centro Ecologico de Sonora, the National Wild Turkey Federation and other agencies, are working cooperatively to reintroduce a strong Gould’s population first into Arizona and then into other states where suitable range exists.
Gould’s turkeys are the largest of the five subspecies and somewhat resembles the Merriam’s turkey with lots of white plumage, though they have longer legs, larger feet and larger center tail feathers than any of the other North American wild turkey subspecies. Gould’s differ by having distinctive white tips on the tail feathers and tail rump coverts, and their lower back and rump feathers have copper and greenish-golden reflections. They’re drop dead gorgeous.
Once found throughout southern Arizona, Gould’s turkeys found themselves an easy food source for those who settled and worked in these rugged lands. Between the Civil War and World War I, miners working in southern Arizona harvested Gould's for many of their meals. By the time Arizona had legal hunting seasons in 1929, Gould's turkeys had already disappeared from the scene. Currently, the Arizona population is growing and there is good hunting in several of the mountain ranges in the southern portion of the state. All tags are issued through the draw, and competition for them is fierce. Gould’s populations are very strong south of the border, however, and there are several excellent outfitters such as Camou offering fully-guided hunts for them for prices ranging somewhere between $2,000 to $3,000, all inclusive.
Let’s Go Hunting!
The trip south was uneventful, save for some time at the border where I needed a Mexican tourist visa and we had to check our shotguns in with the Mexican military. (Yes, we took shotguns as well as bows as insurance against totally uncooperative birds.) We stopped at the last gas station before entering the ranch and filled both the truck and a half-dozen five-gallon gas cans so we’d have fuel for both the vehicle and the generator. Jorge met us at the ranch house, we unloaded our stuff, then went out that evening to see if we could roost some birds.
When we planned the trip, we knew we were coming a bit early in the season with the risk being that the birds would not yet be gobbling much. We found that to be correct. What we also found in our 3 1/2 days of hunting was that, while there were gobblers roosting along a mostly-dry creek bed, there were no hens yet in the valley. They would arrive a week or so later when the breeding season heated up.
We had brought four pop-up blinds and some decoys with us. The initial plan being to get into spots where we heard birds roosting, set up the blinds and decoys and then when the world began waking up, give a very few soft tree yelps to the gobblers to let them know we were in the area then wait and see what happened. If that failed us we’d go the run & gun route, but that’s much more difficult when bowhunting than when using a shotgun.
My First Morning
The very first morning I was in a spot within a few hundred yards of where we’d heard a gobbler roost the evening before. The dirt ranch road also had fresh gobbler tracks and wing marks from where a big bird had been strutting. As dawn broke, I was greeted by not one, but four, different gobblers sounding off. It was awesome. They pitched down and two definitely walked the other direction. But two birds gobbled close by off-and-on for the next hour, so I yelped encouragement back at them from time to time. Then, silence for 30 minutes.
Just as I was wondering if I’d done something wrong, a bird gobbled right behind my blind. I about jumped out of my chair! Then I saw him, strutting off to my right, in the middle of the road. If he kept coming, he’d soon see my decoys.
I had put out three Avian-X dekes painted in Merriam’s turkey colors – a standing hen, a lay-down hen and a Jake – hoping the white made them look enough like a Gould’s bird to work. That gobbler saw those decoys, walked right over and got nose-to-nose with the Jake, then puffed his body feathers up like a balloon! He postured like that long enough for me to take a series of photographs, then draw my bow. The broadhead blew through his chest, and just like that, 90 minutes into my hunt, I had my first-ever bow-killed Gould’s gobbler. It was awesome.
Patrick was also in the thick of things. We’d set his blind and decoys a mile down the road, near a spot where the creek actually held significant water and there were a lot of tracks and strut marks in the road.
That morning he had three different gobblers come by, but none offered a quality shot opportunity. That evening he tried the same blind, but no action. When he went back there the next morning, there were questions. Would the birds come back? Did he do something to compromise his spot? Should we have moved to another location?
No worries. That morning there was a pair of gobblers roosted close by. They gobbled their heads off in the tree, flew down, and then went to a strut zone maybe a half-mile away where they continued to gobble for the next hour. Then, silence.
We had thought that perhaps it might go exactly like this, and then once they’d done their morning strutting, the birds would come to the water hole. When they did they’d see the decoys and mosey on over.
And that’s what happened. Two hours after fly-down here came a big gobbler down the road. He saw the decoys and, when he turned to walk in among them, Patrick hammered him. And just like that, he had his first-ever archery Gould’s gobbler.
We hunted another day, trying to see if we could make something happen, but could not. We had one big bird come close, but he was a cagey fellow and didn’t offer a high-percentage bow shot, so we loaded up and headed back home a day early.
Bowhunting Gould’s turkey in Mexico is a very fun and exciting business. I’d done it three other times with a shotgun on outfitted hunts, both in Sonora and Chihuahua, and been successful each time. They are beautiful birds, and the country they live in is some of my favorite in all North America.
Now, if I could just draw that Arizona tag …--Bob Robb