Jeff Davis headed across the pasture in the quiet, pitch-black darkness before dawn, already knowing where the birds roosted and wanting to be the battle-tested gobbler’s first suitor of the day.
His goal was to send out sweet love greetings before a sultry hen grabbed the tom’s attention.
Walking in the footsteps of a legend is something most of us never have the opportunity to do but Topton’s Davis does, having cut his turkey-hunting teeth under the tutelage of legendary hunter, call maker and author Gene Nunnery, who lived up to the title of his book, “Old Pro Turkey Hunter.”
In fact, the very ground we were walking was hallowed ground for Davis. Nunnery had spent a lifetime calling and killing turkeys there, and spent his final years hunting this farm and training a young Davis as a next-generation turkey hunter.
Suddenly the cows started bellowing, lowing, running and generally making so much noise that they could’ve woke the dead. If you have any knowledge about turkey hunting, then you know what happened next.
We were busted!
The birds were shut down by the commotion, and not a peep was heard from the old gobbler roosted up the hollow between fields. Davis did what any hunter trained by Gene Nunnery would have done and that was to sit and hunt, but the birds had been spooked and never gave us the time of day.
After 45 minutes without any action it was time to make a move.
“We’re going to ease up through the woods to a knoll and take a look,” said Davis. “We might be able to get to a good vantage point and see if we can locate a gobbler.”
Arriving at the top of a knoll, Davis glassed the area. I couldn’t see a thing with my naked eye and surmised that there was not a turkey within sight. Things didn’t look good for sure.
“There they are!” Davis said.
Sure enough, he’d spotted not one but three gobblers strutting side by side and gobbling to beat the band at a distance of about 500 yards, much too far to hear or call to. Without binoculars I couldn’t even see them.
But with the binoculars, we could see their flaming heads lit up like red Christmas tree lights as they weaved their way back and forth amongst the hens while pirouetting in figure 8s and strutting side by side.
Looking through the binoculars I could see them stretch their necks way out in unison each time they gobbled. In this case, seeing was hearing.
“We’re going to use the terrain to our advantage and circle back through the woods just below the knoll and get close enough for them to hear us,” Davis said. “If we can make it to a finger ridge that runs out into the pasture without them spotting us we’ll set up and see what happens.”
Arriving at our set up location 20 minutes later, Davis directed me to a tree and took a seat about 20 yards to my left further down the wood line. A narrow sliver of pasture ran from our right to left into the woods straight out in front of us with a slight knoll in the middle that sloped off on both sides.
Davis made three sweet yelp calls on his Black Magic call.
All three gobblers thundered in their response to Davis’ lusty calls.
These toms had hens with them but they surely meant business by the way they responded.
From our vantage point we could see through another strip of woods, and we spotted the gobblers and their harem high on a ridge top as they followed the contour of the rolling pasture over another knoll.
Davis sent out another series of sultry love yelps from his Primos True Double mouth call looking for the potion to entice the birds into range.
The toms thundered again, this time as they topped the peak of the hill following the hens back towards the north and the open pasture. Davis called sparingly, and the birds responded each time he called but they were seemingly unaffected by his sweet pleadings as they disappeared over the ridge top and gobbled once more.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do, or how you call, once the birds get to their midday strutting zones they’ll follow those hens around like they’re attached with a string, and even the most sultry seductive hen talk is not enough to get them to leave their harem.
After hearing that last gobble over the knoll I picked up my Adam Stewart black aluminum oxide pot call and sent out a series of yelps hoping to attract some extra attention from the harem.
A single old tom thundered in triplicate, and I had to wonder if it was a parting shot, or a get ready response?
Sitting so close to the Old Pro’s protege was a delight, and I eagerly awaited his next move in the chess game.
“Mr. Gene didn’t believe in calling a lot and he impressed that knowledge upon me, and I believe less is more,” Davis said.
Hard to imagine anybody thinking less is more these days if you watch the prime time television shows with amped up young turkey hunters constantly calling over the top. That’s what makes call-shy birds in heavy-pressured hunting areas in Mississippi.
Davis softly sent out a few yelps, purrs and clucks on old Black Magic and the gobblers belted out a thunderous gobble in unison.
We could hear the sounds of strutting toms rising over the ridge.
Davis scratched in the leaves with a stick simulating a turkey scratching and was met by another thunderous triple gobble.
Moment of truth
A flaming red head popped up over the knoll before recoiling back into a strut. It gave me just enough time to position my gun in the direction of the birds. Then another red head appeared, and another and another.
All three gobblers popped up over the knoll flanked by hens.
They obviously had heard Davis’s sweet come-hither calls and couldn’t resist the unseen hens. As they closed in on our position all I could do was keep my bead on the lead gobbler’s head. I couldn’t shoot him even though they were in range now for fear of killing all three birds in one shot.
At 25 yards it was getting serious and something had to give. They were getting too close for comfort.
Davis’ shotgun roared and a tom crumpled to the ground to my left.
My old Remington .870 roared a split second later as the second gobbler veered in my direction.
“When they finally cleared the trees and gave me a good shot I picked out the lead bird and shot him,” said Davis.
That’s when I got just enough separation needed to take my bird. It almost seemed like a dream, harvesting a double with Davis right on the same land that Nunnery had hunted with him some 25 years earlier.
I was privy to a first-hand lesson from the “Old Pro Next Generation” — Davis — and it was a treat to behold. Just to think that the Old Pro’s turkey tactics and techniques still work today is something unique indeed. But work they did and it’s a tribute to both Davis and the Old Pro.
Nunnery knew the importance of passing on knowledge, because he, too, had been tutored by seasoned hunters.
Gabe Meadow, Tony McCleb and Kyle Delk hunted turkeys back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and passed their knowledge to the then young man.
Though I’d met Nunnery and talked turkey with him a few times in his last years, I was never able to hunt with the legend, but because of his link to Davis I was able to experience some of his hunting prowess.
Old Pro’s tips and techniques
“There are three things Mr. Gene keyed in on,” Davis said. “But first and foremost Mr. Nunnery stressed the importance of safety and of handling a gun in a safe manner at all times.”
1. Stay put. Nunnery believed in being patient and staying in one place. Let them get in good range and make your shot count.
“On our hunt the birds went straight and then to the right over the hill and I thought they were gone for sure,” said Davis. “I wanted to move because I thought they’d never come back towards us, and because it was so open that I thought they might see us.”
As it turned out following the Old Pro’s advice paid off once again.
2. Use the terrain to move and get position and get them wondering where you are. They may be just around the corner, or over the rise and the birds might want to come around the corner, or over the hill looking for that hen.
3. Figure out their tendencies but don’t educate them.
“Mr. Gene said calling was overrated and that hunters needed to be where the birds wanted to be anyway,” Davis said. “That’s where woodsmanship and knowing the birds you hunt comes into play.
“When it came to killing turkeys Nunnery believed that less is more. Less calling meant a better chance to kill and he was a believer in giving the old gobblers just enough attention to trick them into coming in.”
Minimal calling and moving only when necessary were key components of Nunnery’s game plan that Davis practices as well.
“Mr. Nunnery believed in keeping a low profile to prevent the birds from seeing you when scouting,” said Davis. “He just wanted to see if they’re there and the direction they like to go from the roost. You’ve got to look at their tendencies and see where they tend to go. Then be there before they get there and it’s a lot easier to call them in.”
“Turkeys have all day,” Davis said, again quoting Nunnery.
“They aren’t bound by a clock and if they are interested they will eventually come in to check you out. If they aren’t interested you’ll educate them and they’re smart enough already. If they aren’t interested and you’re too aggressive you’ll educate them for sure and they may become call shy.”
“Mr. Gene used the Old Pro Diaphragm, which he made himself, to yelp and he was very conservative with his calling,” said Davis. “He also loved to cluck on an old wing bone he relied on and his favorite method of getting the gobblers going in the morning was owling with his natural voice.”
Remembering his first
Davis shared his memory of his first kill on a hunt with Nunnery 28 years ago, which in turn had led Nunnery sharing his first many years earlier.
Davis had joined Nunnery for a hunt on the backside of a farm owned by Davis’ great grandfather J.B. Gunn.
Nunnery sent out a few clucks and yelps and waited patiently with a young teenager, Davis, who had no idea at the time just what a legend the man was and how far reaching his turkey hunting and calling influence had on people.
“I told my Daddy that I wanted to take up turkey hunting after I’d heard them talk about it,” Davis said. “I thought it was really something big and wanted to be a part of it, too.”
Nunnery started hunting at a time when the birds were few and far between and he trained under some old pros like Meadow who hunted hard just to find a turkey to hunt. The birds were very wild and were hard to hunt and kill as well.
Wrote Nunnery: “Gabe Meadow was the only man I knew who could follow a drove of wild turkeys from their morning fly down to their afternoon fly up.”
“Mr. Gene kind of bridged the gap between Gabe Meadow and the hunters of the 1800s to my generation of hunters and that’s a pretty neat thing to have been a part of,” Davis said.
There were many similarities between Davis’ first kill with Nunnery and the Old Pro’s first kill a half a century before with Meadow. The 70-year-old Meadow called up a bird two or three times before Nunnery, 13, Nunnery pulled the trigger and killed his first gobbler not too far from these same woodlands.
“On my first kill with Mr. Gene he called up several birds and each time something different happened before I could shoot,” said Davis. “After one occasion when the bird approached to within 40 yards before walking away, Nunnery said, ‘I wanted him to come just one more step’. He wanted to be sure that I could make a clean kill and not miss.”
About 40 minutes later things heated up for the old master and his young prodigy.
“He said, ‘Jeff, he’s back again,’” Davis said. “The tom was at 50 yards and closing. It halted upon hearing the sharp cluck from Mr. Gene.”
The blast of the young hunter’s shotgun crumpled the gobbler to the ground. Over 60 years had passed since Nunnery had recorded his first kill with Meadow and now the Old Pro had lit a spark that turned into flame of desire for his young mentee, Davis, who just aspired to harvest his first gobbler. Eventually that spark became a flaming passion for turkey hunting for this next generation gobbler slayer.
I felt a strong sense of humility, yet camaraderie with Davis and Nunnery, and even with Meadow, now that I had also harvested a gobbler on the Old Pro’s hallowed hunting grounds.