Those who aspire to take a big tom with bow and arrow can learn much from Wayne Stewart.
The Swamp Monster was the name Wayne Stewart had given a certain wild turkey gobbler that lived in the Noxubee River bottom near Stewart’s home and had eluded the bowhunter for the better part of the spring turkey season.This bird was proving the widely held theory that swamp gobblers are the toughest of all to kill.
“He would gobble only three or four times and then shut up,” said Stewart. “I called him in once, and he came up behind me, and I missed.”
Stewart hunted the elusive bird every day that he could get into the woods, which was nearly every day of the week.
Finally, as the season was drawing to a close, Stewart set up a blind where the gobbler hung out. Some mature, but younger, gobblers came in to his decoys and stayed around gobbling now and then. These were birds that were in the early stages of taking over dominance of the area from the old bird, probably by ganging up on him.
By now Stewart knew the old bird’s gobble, and knew he was not looking at the old monarch. He waited.
Finally the interlopers left, taking their stolen hens with them. Stewart took an old homemade scratch box caller that had belonged to his grandfather, and he would just cluck once every 30 minutes. He figured the deposed tom was nearby, hidden from his new adversaries, but hoping to rendezvous with one of his old sweethearts.
After two hours or more, he saw just the head of Swamp Monster. Thirty minutes later, he saw the head again. The old bird never gobbled or made a single sound, apparently wanting to avoid another fight with the younger gang.
At last he came wading through the slough water up to his drumsticks, dodging cypress knees as he came. He approached the hen, portrayed by Stewart’s decoy, and the archer took him at 15 yards. His beard was 11 inches, and his spurs 1 1/8 inches.
In the blood
Stewart was born 40 years ago in rural Noxubee County, and raised on land owned by his family for many years. The families hunted the land for generations before him. Hunting was an unquestioned activity that helped define his ancestors.
Stewart still lives on that family land.
From as far back as he can remember, he has traipsed the woods around his home in search of game, early on with guns and by his high school years with bow and arrow. As his fascination with bowhunting grew, it was not long until archery equipment became his exclusive choice.
To say turkey hunting is in his blood is to understate this man’s passion for it. He was five or so when he made his first turkey hunts and bagged his first gobbler with a 20-gauge, firing a paper shotshell loaded with No. 7 shot. He got the shell from his great grandfather’s old house where cases of them were kept, primarily for the family’s quail hunts. That day, he was hunting with his grandfather, Ancil Lindley, an important hunting mentor along with his father.
Stewart’s first gobbler to fall to his bow came when he was a senior in high school. He had been bowhunting deer and other game for years, but could not get into bow range of a gobbler until he began using a decoy.
Since that first bird, Stewart often has used decoys and sometimes a blind. His archery skills have skyrocketed to the point that he has bow killed his limit of three Mississippi gobblers each spring for the last several years, all in Noxubee County.
His strategy begins with scouting. Few hunters scout as often and with the intensity that matches Stewart.
“To locate turkeys, I listen a lot just prior to the season,” he said. “Like scouting for deer, I look for tracks and I note where they are headed. And I search out droppings and roosting areas.
“You know, turkeys feed on different things at different times. Like they don’t feed in fields until the insects come out.”
This is an obvious observation that not all hunters pay attention to.
Another factor that contributes to Stewart’s success with the challenging eastern wild turkey is that he uses the same bow, arrows and even broadheads that he shoots at other game. Other game includes most of the big-game animals in this country and Canada and most of the plains game in Africa, and two of the Big Five dangerous species there, leopard and Cape buffalo. He has taken two of each of those man killers, and turned down shots at many others.
If consistency is a key to successful bowhunting, then Stewart has opened the lock. Regardless of the game being hunted, you will find him in the woods with the same bowhunting equipment every time.
One man’s gear
His bow is a Mathews MQ32 70-pound compound with a 65-percent let-off. His arrows are Easton Axis 400 27-inch shafts with 100-grain Rocket Ultimate Steel broadheads.
“These broadheads are not for everyone,” he cautions. “Many people prefer wider cutting broadheads or expandables for turkeys. I have used the same broadheads for everything, and have been successful.”
Stewart has let only a couple of birds that were hit get away, and both left only clipped feathers from their backs and no flesh was contacted. Count these among his misses.
With this matched equipment, Stewart practices almost every day with his target set up 80 yards away.
“I figure that if I can hit well at that distance, I should do O.K. at shorter distances,” he said.
In the turkey woods, Stewart takes most of his shots at gobblers inside 40 yards, but has made more distant kills.
Most bowhunters aim for the point on a gobbler where the large wing bone meets the body. Stewart shoots for the junction of the leg bone with the body in an effort to disable both legs. He explains that this shot also hits vitals, but in addition helps anchor the turkey.
“They have to take a few steps to fly,” he asserts. “Such a shot can prevent flying.”
He takes shots from the rear aiming to enter the vent area. The area between the wattles and beard is his target on incoming birds.
His other gobbler hunting gear includes a Double Bull blind that he uses in spots that lend themselves to a prefabricated blind. However, he often uses only natural cover.
“Hurricane Katrina put so much tree debris on the ground that there are plenty of places to hide when you are calling,” he said.
Stewart’s turkey calling is a reflection of the methods of his mentors, primarily his father and grandfather.
“I am of the old school when it comes to calling,” he said.
He uses an old, hand-crafted scratch box and a couple of Lynch boxes from back in the middle of last century.
Soft yelps, purrs and clucks make up the bulk of his calling, and he uses all of these sparingly, rarely making loud or demanding turkey sounds.
“I let the gobbler dictate my calls,” he said. “I try to read what he likes to hear and give him that.”
Stewart hunts wild turkeys much like he does deer. He views the hunt as a year-round activity that includes far more scouting and observing than the days spent working birds in March and April. His broad approach includes learning every inch of the turkey woods as he searches for roost sites, droppings, tracks, scratch lines, strutting spots, travel routes and dusting areas. He identifies food sources that will be available during the spring season. When the season opens, there is precious little he doesn’t know about the habits of the birds in the hunt area.
Staying with it
Few hunters work as hard at hunting as Stewart. Once you look closely inside this man’s hunting mind, you find that the elements of preparation are just as important to him as making the shot that bags the game animal. The planning and scouting and preparing equipment rate as high as drawing his bow and taking aim.
We all say this and follow up with widely varying degrees of adherence to it. But Stewart not only advocates the all-encompassing approach to hunting, but one gets the feeling his hunts would fall short of satisfaction were it not for all his offseason gearing up.
Charles Perkins, former offensive lineman for the Ole Miss Rebels and a bowhunter since his teen years, knows Stewart well.
“He is no doubt the most skilled and prepared bowhunter I know of,” he said. “I became a better bowhunter since I started hunting with Wayne.”
Perkins credits Stewart for his recent successes bagging six species of game animals with his bow. There is a lesson in preparation here for those of us who hunt — especially for those who would stretch themselves beyond the norm and seek to become skilled at taking the most wary game bird of them all with a stick and string.
Perkins has not taken a wild turkey yet with his bow, but he is quick to tell the story of a memorable hunt with Stewart when he missed getting a big tom by mere fractions of an inch.
Perkins had hunted the gobbler for two previous years. Three of his bow shots from a portable blind clipped so many back feathers from the lucky bird that Stewart has named him Bareback. Perkins has a collection of Bareback’s back feathers in his trophy room.
He warns that high shots can happen if the bird is strutting and back feathers are extended. They will try for Bareback again during the 2007 spring season.
Lann Wilf, an official with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, commented on bowhunting spring gobblers.
“I don’t know many who are successful taking turkeys with a bow,” he said.
Wils is concerned that hunters with limited skills could wound turkeys that get away and escape. It goes without saying that archers should hunt wild turkeys only after becoming highly skilled with their bows.
Chris Wells, a bowhunting friend of Stewart’s who has known him only four years, has taken five gobblers with archery gear. Three of his birds were bagged from a portable blind. He has not yet wounded one that got away, although two of his birds flew when shot and one had to be tracked 200 yards.
Wells uses a three-blade broadhead at Stewart’s suggestion, and he affixes a grabber behind the broadhead.
Wells has gun hunted spring gobblers all his life, and he took up bowhunting them because he was looking for a bigger challenge.
Both long-time bowhunters, it was easy for Stewart to talk Wells into making an African hunt with him shortly after they met.
“I took seven animals on that hunt,” said Wells.
He has hunted with Stewart enough to have insight into his hunting addiction.
“I feel like I have known him all my life,” said Wells. “Wayne lives for that hunting.”
Wells’ advice to bowhunters aspiring to seek turkey gobblers is to begin with a pop-up blind.
“It’s a lot easier,” he said.
He may place several of the commercial blinds in strutting areas on the private land he hunts. Then his strategy is to call and wait, call and wait. He prefers a slate caller over the other types.
Evidence of success
Stewart’s trophy room is filled with many of the important game trophies of the world, truly an impressive display that evidences his skill and drive as a bowhunter. Considering his almost unparalleled success, it is quite surprising to learn that he is completely deaf in one ear. He lost the hearing to a non-malignant tumor, called an acoustic fibroma, as he recalls.
“I can’t course a gobbler when I hear him,” he said.
That’s one reason Stewart doesnt move often on birds. He has found himself moving away from a gobbler instead of toward him.
If he gets a tom to gobble by using an owl hoot, Stewart usually stays put to do his calling. Neither can he pinpoint a bird that gobbles while coming in. So until he actually sees the tom, he cannot reliably ready himself for a bow shot. The handicap makes his game collection all the more impressive.
Like Wells, Stewart’s advice to bowhunters who want to take up the challenge is to begin by using a blind. Of course, the blind covers the movement of drawing. Blinds with mesh-covered openings that one can shoot the arrow through are excellent. However, only fixed broadheads work well with these mesh screens.
Begin with a Whisker Biscuit type arrow rest, Stewart suggests, to make sure the arrow stays in place.
“Call softly and wait a lot,” he advises.
The waiting part, diligence if you will, is the on-site tactic that has made him a significant hazard to gobblers in his neck of the woods.
Stewart is one of those guys who in his youth was bitten by the hunting bug and has never gotten over it. There are worse afflictions.
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