Grand Pavo!

The author never dreamed he’d have the opportunity to pursue Ocellated turkeys, but connections he made at the NWTF Convention put him in the Mexican jungle

As dawn loomed on the jungle fringe, faint scratches emanated in the distance. “Koati?” I quizzed my guide, Mito. “Pavo,” he replied. I know little Spanish, but I understand enough to know “pavo” means turkey.

The crunchy leaves blanketing the forest floor made the rustling sounds seem close. No matter how hard I strained, I failed to see any birds.  As time passed, the noises grew louder.

Peeking through a side flap on the ground blind, Mito pointed, nodding his head. After reaching for the shotgun and gripping it firmly so it wouldn’t slip through my sweaty palms, I finally laid eyes on my first Ocellated turkey.

More than a dozen hens were in the flock. As they fed by, the scratching faded into the jungle behind us. Setting the gun down, I jumped when Mito grabbed my knee, pointed to our left and quietly exclaimed, “Grande pavo!”

The lone male was 30 yards out and quickly catching up with the hens.  His green, blue, copper and white colors were more brilliant than I had imagined. The golden caruncles set atop a lofty crown on his powder blue head were unlike anything I’d seen. I was so intently watching the bird, admiring its beauty, that when Mito whispered, “shoot,” it surprised me.

Soon I was caressing a bird I never dreamed of having the honor to hunt. Staring at its indescribable plumage, I felt blessed.

Convention connections

Six weeks prior, I’d wrapped up delivering seminars at the annual NWTF Convention and Sport Show in Nashville. There, a fellow NWTF member asked if I was interested in an Ocellated turkey hunt in Mexico’s Yucatan.

The gentleman had a change of plans and couldn’t go. The hunt was with Jorge Sansores of Snook Inn Hunting, and I jumped at the chance.

Longtime NWTF advocate and avid hunter, Bob Linder was the party’s point man. Soon Bob had all the details handled, and our group of seven hunters was landing in Campeche, Mexico.

Upon arrival in camp, I met Jon McRoberts, a Ph.D. candidate working with the NWTF and conducting dissertation research on Ocellated turkeys. Given my former teaching background and formal education in the sciences, I spent a lot of time with Jon, eager to hear what he’d learned.

From January to June, 2010 through 2013, McRoberts spent four years in Mexico studying the breeding behavior of Ocellated turkeys. During that time, more than 70 birds were captured and fitted with transmitters.

“We uncovered many interesting details in our studies,” said McRoberts. “For instance, cats — especially ocelots and jaguarundis — have developed a style of hunting adult birds at night, on their roost, and are major predators of Ocellated turkeys. On the local level, subsistence hunters are pressuring these birds, limiting where populations can expand.”

McRoberts’ findings about the birds’ movements also intrigued me.

“I thought we had mass radio failure one spring when all the birds quickly dispersed,” McRoberts said. “We got in a small plane and flew the roadless jungles, discovering turkeys had walked nearly 30 kilometers in 48 hours to begin nesting. Six weeks later, the birds returned to the agricultural grounds where they were tagged.”

The following year, McRoberts switched to GPS transmitters to track birds in remote areas.

“Ocellated numbers have expanded in the agricultural areas,” said McRoberts. “Food habit studies prove milo is the dominant food source of turkeys in this region.”

It was the croplands where I chose to hunt to fill my second Ocellated tag. “Get ready to see a lot of birds in the area,” McRoberts said.

Another chance

My first tag was filled in the first hour of the hunt. Wanting to see more of these gorgeous birds and spend more time afield, we decided a move to open farmland would be wise.

In the first two hours of the first morning I laid eyes on more than 150 turkeys. That evening, Mito and I watched nearly 100 more birds, including a big male. For the next few days we targeted that bird.

Finally, on day three, the big male emerged from dense brush to feed in the milo. He was 200 yards away, on the opposite side of the field where we set up.

For two hours we watched the bird intently feed, paying no attention to hens passing by. Then another big male stepped from the brush, 30 yards from our blind. The instant our target bird saw the challenger, he puffed up and started coming in our direction. It didn’t take long for the big male to close the 200-yard gap, and when he strode to within 25 yards, the shot was simple.

Admiring the bird’s beautiful feathers, golden nodules and nearly 2-inch spurs, Mito and I couldn’t have been happier. Were it not for being involved with the NWTF, I likely would never have hunted Ocellated turkeys. Little did I know going into the hunt that I’d come away with lifelong friends, a high level of respect for devoted men like Jon McRoberts, and a yearning to one day have my family experience how special turkey hunting is in this part of the world.

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