By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The fate of a turkey hunt’s outcome is indeed fickle. High-fives can be the celebratory conclusion just as easily as the dejected hunter’s incessant second-guessing of the tactics that caused the gobbler to walk away instead of strutting into range.
Chuck Sykes, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director, has been in both situations. Sometimes that fate varies daily. Sometimes it’s different segments of the season, and sometimes, it’s different years.
With a little less than a month left in the season for most parts of the state, Sykes said hunters have had mixed results.
“Some hunters are doing well; some are not,” Sykes said. “It depends on where you are in the state. Personally, I think the turkeys are a little behind for this time of the season as compared to previous seasons. Gobbling has been very poor for me. I’ve hunted quite a few days, and I’ve seen five turkeys die, so don’t be crying for me.
“It’s substandard for me compared to what it was last year, which gives me great hope that the end of the season is going to be really good. I just think that cold snap slowed things down a little bit. I know we had some cold weather last year, but there’s something just a little bit different this year.”
Sykes said last year’s opening few days started with lows in the 30s, but the turkeys were still “gobbling their brains out.”
“We even had a couple of mornings in the upper 20s, but we were killing turkeys,” he said. “They were working right. This year, turkeys are gobbling two or three times, hitting the ground, and it’s over with.”
Sykes said it appears the 2017 and 2018 seasons will be flipped in terms of turkey activity and hunting success.
“The first few weeks of the season last year couldn’t have been any better for me,” he said. “The last two or three weeks of the season couldn’t have been any worse.
“I’m anticipating, based on past experience, that during the last few weeks of the season, the gobbling should be better and turkeys should be working better. I think we’re going to have a good closing few weeks of the season.”
Although the overall season has been a disappointment for Sykes, one magical afternoon will be forever etched in his memory, and he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger.
That hunt occurred on one of the WFF’s Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) during an Adult Mentored Hunting Program outing.
Sykes recruited his old hunting buddy Al Mattox to help guide during the hunt on the new Pine Barren SOA area. Charles Barrow of Ozark and Adam Arnold of Pelham were the lucky hunters who were randomly drawn for the hunt.
“Charles actually participated in one of the mentored deer hunts,” Sykes said. “He was lucky enough to get selected for the turkey hunt.”
Arnold, on the other hand, has been an avid shooter for years, including long-distance shooting and sporting clays, but had really never hunted.
“Adam is one of those guys who has been participating in the Pittman-Robertson Act program by buying guns and ammunition, but he hasn’t been buying a hunting license for us to be able to capture that money and bring it back to Alabama,” Sykes said of the excise tax levied on firearms, ammunition and hunting equipment. “So, this was a unique experience.
“His family didn’t hunt. I think he may have been dove hunting once or twice throughout his life, and that was it. His family and group of friends weren’t exposed to hunting, but he was introduced to shooting later in life.”
Sykes said Arnold is a very accomplished shot who has his own shotgun and extensive knowledge of firearms overall.
“The gun part of it was easy,” Sykes said. “The hunting portion, we had to do a lot of teaching. The way we handled it, my best hunting buddy, Al Mattox, was with me. Al got back from Afghanistan three weeks before the hunt and wanted to help. He had been serving a tour in Afghanistan for about nine or 10 months. Al and I have hunted together a long time.”
Sykes and Mattox came up with a plan to hunt as a four-man team with a primary shooter and a backup shooter.
“That way, during the heat of the action, whoever was with the secondary shooter could give them a play-by-play of what was going on, taking the pressure off of them,” Sykes said. “They weren’t worried about shooting. They were worried about learning. I could walk them through everything. I could explain what Al was doing with the primary shooter. Al could explain what I was doing with the backup shooter.”