In North Carolina, the Uwharrie River flows through an ancient mountain range that offers a modern challenge for turkey hunters. Between the urban sprawl of Charlotte and the Piedmont Triad, hunters escape to rolling woodlands of the 51,551-acre Uwharrie National Forest and the surrounding farm lands and forest. Once here, they can test their skills against a worthy game bird.
Some hunters start younger than others do. Chase Kinley found turkey calls in his Easter basket last spring when he was 7. On April 6, 2014, the first of six youth-only turkey hunting days, Chase and his dad, Steve, headed from their Thomasville home to Montgomery County.
That Saturday morning, a rowdy gobbler offered the Kinleys a chance to use their new calls. They were hunting over a food plot with two hen decoys and a fake gobbler placed about 20 yards away. A ruckus began just after 7 o’clock, Steve Kinley said, when a real gobbler invaded their food plot to beat up on the decoy.
A few, soft yelps triggered a hard response from the gobbler, which marched in and began to beat the gobbler decoy with its wings until Chase Kinley ended the battle with a blast from his 20-gauge shotgun, perhaps the first of 173 bearded birds reported killed in Montgomery County last spring. The tom weighed 21 pounds and sported a 10-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs, measurements that made Steve Kinley, 39, more than a little bit proud and just a little bit jealous.
“I started hunting for turkeys 13 years ago, and I never killed a gobbler that big,” said Steve Kinley, who started taking his son hunting when he was four. “He used to crash around in the woods and make all kinds of noise. Now he will not let me go hunting without him.”
“I like to hunt because I get to be with my dad a lot,” Chase Kinley said.
Sportsmen of all ages have the opportunity to hunt gobblers thanks to the work of the National Wild Turkey Federation and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Wild turkeys were about gone in North Carolina by the 1970s, but thanks to restocking programs, hunters across the state all have a chance to hunt these elusive birds.
The Kinleys belong to the Davidson County Longbeards, a local chapter of the NWTF. Among other projects, the local chapters host youth days to expose young people to hunting, fishing and conservation, plus the joy of sharing outdoor sports with family and friends.
Steve Kinley wasn’t the only father who played second fiddle to his son last season in the Uwharries. On opening day of the regular season, last turkey season. On the opening day of the adult season, Tim Coble bagged a nice bird on private land in Davidson County not far from Denton.
“(But) my son, Tyler, killed a bigger bird than mine (during youth season),” Coble said.
Second place in the Coble family is still decent. Coble’s gobbler came up just shy of 20 pounds but sported a 10-inch beard with inch-long spurs.
That morning, he set out two hen decoys near the edge of a hay field that bordered the woods. Coble heard turkeys all morning, so he listened and waited. His patience paid off as he watched the gobbler strut for about an hour before a hen came to the decoys with the gobbler in tow and a 20-yard shot put him on the ground.
That same day, another Davidson County gobbler fell to Robert Thornburg, 66, who started turkey hunting shortly after turning 50. It requires patience, he said, but on opening day, things happened fast — too fast for this 18-pound gobbler with a beard that topped 10 inches.
“It all happened in about 10 minutes,” he said. “I didn’t have time to get my decoys out or anything.”
While riding in on his ATV, Thornburg spotted a gobbler about 150 yards away in a cut cornfield. He quickly dismounted, walked to the edge of the field and called softly with a mouth call. Sure enough, the gobbler ran into range of his 12-gauge, and one blast from the shotgun earned the turkey a ride out of the woods.
“It takes a lot of patience,” he said. “I have set out for four or five hours and never saw a turkey. That’s alright with me, because I like to sit in the woods and watch the wildlife.”
Turkey hunters know there is a lot of wildlife to watch around the Uwharries. Predators find plenty of food in the area. Wild turkeys make a favorite meal, especially the young ones.
“Sometimes a bobcat or coyote will come to a turkey call,” he said.
Jimmy Nelson hunts in southern Randolph County on private land beside the Uwharrie River, just across the river from national forest tracts. He has taken eight gobblers from the Randolph County land since he started hunting there in 2004.
Nelson is an active member of the NWTF’s Randolph County Longbeards. Over the years, the chapter worked with biologists from the Commission to restore a viable population of turkeys to the area.
Whether on national forest lands or private lands, hunters should begin their quests along riverbottoms or creekbottoms, Nelson said. Keep an eye out for tracks and the J-shaped scat that gobblers leave behind, and don’t forget to check out their dining areas.
“Turkeys scratch around the river looking for bugs and grub worms,” he said. “I like to work the creekbottoms, then follow the birds to the ridges. Around here, turkeys move around a lot during the spring.”
A few years ago, Nelson said he followed a 27-pound gobbler with a 12-inch beard up a ridge about 400 yards from the river.
“His head was bigger than my fist,” he said.
Now in his second decade of turkey hunting, Nelson said gobblers and hens are not the only things moving around these hills in the spring. Nelson said he does not see the large numbers of young birds as in years past, and has a theory why.
“The Uwharries are full of raccoons, coyotes and foxes, “he said. “ Raccoons are bad about taking turkey eggs.”
Nelson said that an active predator-control effort could improve turkey hunting in this, or any other area.
Asheboro’s Rick Powell, 53, has hunted turkeys across North Carolina for about 35 years, and he makes his own slate calls. Uwharrie turkeys are harder to locate because of the terrain, he said.
“There are so many hollows and hills where turkeys can hide,” he said. “Locating a gobbler is a real challenge.”
To meet that challenge, Powell will often use an owl hoot. Imitating an owl will often provoke a shock gobble.
“Owls and turkeys are natural enemies,” he said. “A gobbler will respond to an owl hoot, but do not get too close and spook it.”
Powell makes his own slate calls and practices all the time. Big one big mistake he said — besides getting to close — is calling too much.
“Once I locate a gobbler, I like to get about 120 yards away,” he said. “I find the widest tree in the area and sit with my back against it to break up my silhouette. Then I pin my head against the tree trunk and hold it still.”
Any slight movement will spook a sharp-eyed gobbler. By holding his head firmly against the tree, Powell said it reminds him not to turn it while looking for the bird.
“Move your eyes, not your head, “he said.
Once set up, Powell gives one or two soft yelps and then stops.
“Most people call too much,” he said. “Stay quiet after the gobbler answers the call. In nature, the hen goes to the gobbler.”
Powell took his most memorable Uwharrie gobbler several years ago. This one had 1 5/8-inch spurs that curved almost like fish hooks.
“I could hang it from a tree limb by the spurs,” he said.
HOW TO GET THERE — The Uwharrie National Forest covers 51,551 acres in scattered tracts in Montgomery, Randolph and Davidson Counties in North Carolina’s Piedmont. The largest concentration of public lands are to the east of the Yadkin River, south and southeast of Badin Lake and northeast of Lake Tillery. NC 109 and NC 24/27 provide the best vehicular access to the national forest. Headquarters for the national forest are in Troy, at the junction of NC 109 and NC 24/27.
WHEN TO GO — Spring gobbler season in North Carolina runs from April 11 to May 9, with Youth Only season running April 4-10. The bag limit is one turkey per day, two per season, bearded birds only.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Camping is available on seven campgrounds in Uwharrie National Forest, http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3814678.pdf; Executive Inn, Troy, 910-572-3701; Days Inn, Biscoe, 910-428-2525.
MAPS/INFO — Uwharrie National Forest, http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/null/recarea/?recid=48934&actid=30; N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, http://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Hunting/GameLand_Maps/National_Forest/Uwharrie.pdf.