Never Lose Another Fish Fight Again

Never Lose Another Fish Fight Again

Knots fail. Leaders snap. Lures pop free. Whatever the reason, if you spend enough time on the water, you’re going to lose fish—probably some big ones to boot. Even the pros suffer break-offs.

But not too often, because they learn from their mistakes. Here, six of the best share some of those painful lessons so you’re never deprived of another grip-and-grin shot again.

Largemouth Bass

A trophy largemouth takes flight.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Bernie Schultz

Home Waters: North-Central Florida

Credentials: Pro for more than 35 years

Tough Break: On the final day of a big BASS tournament on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, Schultz was in position to take first place and walk away with the prize money. “I had a strong bite going,” he says, “working a Rapala minnow far ahead of the boat, in a boat trail that cut through a massive field of mixed ­vegetation—pads, grass, and reeds. Then I hooked a huge female largemouth that headed straight for cover to bury herself deep in dollar pads.”

Instead of going toward the fish, Schultz tried to yank the lunker free—and his 14-pound mono snapped. “It was a rookie mistake,” he says. “That fish would have won me the event.”

Lesson Learned: “Often, bass anglers after big fish are flipping in heavy cover,” Schultz says. “That frequently leads to fish that become caught in matted milfoil, lily pads, reeds, or flotsam. That’s when many anglers tend to do the wrong thing—trying to muscle a trophy bass out of the cover. Rarely does anything good happen from that.”

In fact, Schultz goes on to explain, when a largemouth bass is pinned in the weeds, that can work to your advantage. “For some reason,” he says, “when they’re stuck, big fish often stop thrashing and just sort of sit there.”

Seeing the fish and its situation can allow a fisherman or his partner to reach down and get a good hold on the largemouth. Of course, bass are often hooked in relatively open water. That’s when Schultz’s other go-to tip for fighting trophy fish comes into play. “Anytime during the fight you feel that fish rising to the surface like it’s going to jump,” he says, “get your rod tip in the water.” Doing this rolls the fish downward and keeps it from breaking the surface—and possibly spitting the lure. But Schultz adds that you shouldn’t “bow to the king,” as anglers do for leaping tarpon. Instead, keep the line tight as you dip the rod.

Steelhead

Steelhead put up tremendous flights.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Frank Campbell

Home Waters: Niagara Region of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and the Niagara River

Credentials: Guide for 30 years

Tough Break: Frank Campbell recalls a day on the Niagara River nearly 20 years ago. He and a friend were catching steelhead on light lines, 6- and 8-pound-test, and with very small Rapala Origi­nal Floating Minnows. Late in the day, Campbell’s buddy hooked a solid fish. “But by that time, we were drifting toward a really turbulent stretch,” Campbell says, “and we saw that it was a big fish, probably 23 pounds.” With the boat spinning in the rushing current, the angler tried to put some heat on the monster. When one of the lure’s hook points snagged in the net’s mesh, the big fish—not yet tired out—thrashed enough to tear loose and was gone.

Lesson Learned: Looking back on that memorable failure, Campbell says the current really forced their hand. Normally, when fishing calmer water, he reminds his anglers to slow things down and finesse the fight whenever they hook big fish. “I’ve landed brown trout more than 30 pounds on little lines like that by taking my time,” he says. If they’d been able to take their time in this case, Campbell is nearly certain they would’ve landed the tired fish. Campbell notes that most anglers have a natural inclination to try a bit too hard, particularly when they know a steelhead or any trout could be a trophy and much is at stake. “Don’t rush it, and you’ll land that fish,” Campbell says. “More big fish are lost when an angler tries to rush them to the net than for any other reason.” He also believes the loss of that fish might have been avoided if they had upsized the hooks on the small lures that were proving successful. Larger hooks would’ve ensured more purchase in the big fish’s mouth, which might have kept that trophy buttoned on when it thrashed at the net.

Walleyes

To land big walleyes, it helps to have a net with a long handle.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Ross Robertson

Home Waters: Lake Erie, Ohio

Credentials: Guide for more than 20 years

Tough Break: Robertson and a friend had lucked into a school of giant walleyes. They’d already caught 23 fish over 10 pounds when both anglers hooked up again. As Robertson netted his, a 14-pounder, he saw his partner’s walleye near the boat—and it was much bigger. “The biggest walleye I’ve ever seen,” he says. Robertson called out, “Stand by! I’m trying to get this fish free of the net!” Just about then, he heard his buddy’s lure whack the outboard cowling after it flew out of the immense fish’s mouth.

Lesson Learned: Looking back, Robertson wishes he’d reminded his partner to go slower in getting the fish to the net. “As anglers, we tend to push fish too much to get them to the boat,” he says, “especially when we see a big one.” Given how hard the lure struck the motor when it popped out, he’s positive that his buddy put too much pressure on the fish.

“Giant walleyes often fight very little, so a fresh trophy can catch us off guard when it suddenly comes alive at the boat,” he says. Robertson adds that although braided line was key to getting deep for the bite, its lack of stretch also requires more vigilance on the part of an angler when fighting a fish. Since that loss of a possible record walleye, Robertson now keeps two nets on board. He makes sure those nets are big, with wide mesh, which creates less drag in the water. And they should have long handles. A 9-foot handle, for example, allows you to reach out and net the fish sooner than you could with a 3-footer. Reaching a fish that much sooner could make the difference between a fish in the net and a potentially perilous boatside lunge.

Channel Catfish

A fat cat gets released.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Brad Durick

Home Waters: Red River in North Dakota

Credentials: Guide for 12 years

Tough Break: Before he set out lines on the Red River, Durick reminded the lone fisherman on his boat not to try to set the hook, since the baits were all rigged on circle hooks. Unfortunately, that message didn’t get through. A rod next to Durick’s client started to bend suddenly under what the guide says was an enormous strike. Before Durick could react, the fisherman reached out and in one motion jerked back with everything he had. But missing the huge catfish wasn’t the end of it. In his rush, the client failed to get a good grip on Durick’s brand-new rod and reel, which launched out of the angler’s hands and fell into the river.

Lesson Learned: Durick rigs his baits only with circle hooks—quite successfully for channel cats—so he emphasizes the importance of waiting for the fishing rod to load up, then keeping it tight and just cranking. Most of the time, you’ll hook the fish. He also recommends using hooks with a gap wide enough to clear the bottom jaw. He explains that catfish tend to pick up a bait and squeeze it in a way that hinders the corner-of-the-jaw set. If the circle hook is large enough, it’ll pierce the bottom of the fish’s mouth for a more secure hookset.

“I’ve had lots of people complain to me of missing hookups,” Durick says. “It turns out this is because their hooks were too small.” And once someone’s got a giant catfish on the line, Durick says he is “constantly preaching the need to keep the fish turned away from the boat when they get the fish close. Don’t let a big catfish get under the boat. It might tangle in an outboard’s lower unit, plus once it’s under the boat, a big cat is harder to net.”

Muskies

Muskie strikes are so rare that you'd better fight the fish just right to bring it to the boat.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Steve Scepaniak

Home Waters: Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota

Credentials: Guide for 28 years

Tough Break: Scepaniak was taking two anglers, Brad and Tom, to a spot on Mille Lacs Lake where he’d seen a huge muskie just a few days earlier. Sure enough, as Brad made a figure eight with a big spinnerbait near the boat, a giant muskie inhaled his lure. The fish cleared the water four times as Brad kept steady pressure and lowered the rod each time—until the fish’s fifth leap, when the rod stayed horizontal. The muskie shook its head one way, and the lure flew the other.

But the heartbreak didn’t end with that first lost muskie. Later on that day, Tom failed to set the hook on a fish when he thought his lure had just snagged some weeds. That mistake cost the anglers their second ­giant of the day.

Lesson Learned: Scepaniak says the loss of those two monster muskies illustrates his two fundamental rules when it comes to hooking and holding onto big muskies. “First, set the hook on everything and anything,” he says. While we’d love every strike to be a rod-thumping whack, ­Scepaniak says that most muskie strikes will be more tap than wallop, and if a lure doesn’t feel right, “they can spit it out in a fraction of a second.” So, the instant the angler feels resistance, he or she has to react with a strong hookset to penetrate the bone-hard mouth of a muskellunge.

Second, when a fish is coming out of the water during a jump—­Scepaniak says that 80 percent of muskies will jump during a fight—­anglers should keep that rod down and not stop cranking. Conversely, he advises anglers to remember to get the rod up when that big fish goes back down.

Had Brad and Tom remembered those two rules, ­Scepaniak says, and had the fish stayed hooked, he would have advised them of his third rule: Back off the drag, particularly if you’re fishing with braided line.

Tarpon

Tarpon will often just and shake their head to shake off a lure or fly.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Mark Bennett

Home Waters: Southwest Florida

Credentials: Guide for 48 years

Tough Break: At the end of a long and so-far-fishless day, outside of famed Boca Grande Pass, one of Bennett’s anglers finally brought a good tarpon, in the 100- to 150-pound range, boatside. “As soon as I grabbed the leader, out of nowhere, a 15-foot hammerhead raised its front half out of the water, like in the movie Jaws, and grabbed that tarpon,” Bennett says. “His hammer actually whacked my hand. It was that close.” The huge shark began shaking the tarpon back and forth into the side of the boat, using the boat for leverage as it shredded the fish, until both shark and tarpon were gone.

Lesson Learned: Big sharks, primarily hammerheads and bulls, are a fact of life for tarpon enthusiasts who fish in Southwest Florida. When encounters with sharks do happen, the concern is less about landing a tarpon to score a release than it is about saving the fish, and Bennett has become an expert at that. Hammerheads—with a dorsal fin sometimes taller than the bow of his skiff—often show themselves before launching a tarpon attack. Big bull sharks, however, are notorious for staying down and suddenly grabbing a fish near the boat. Bennett relies on side-imaging sonar to scan the area while an angler fights a tarpon. “If I spot a big shark moving in,” he says, “I’ll break the line to let the tarpon go while it still might have a chance.” Or, if a tarpon is already at the boat and Bennett sees a shark, he’ll keep the tarpon close to the boat while he motors to shallower water, where he’ll revive and release the fish.

Written by Doug Olander for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Join the Pursuit Club today! https://stayinpursuit.myshopify.com/products/pursuit-club

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

The Conservation Fight for Florida Water is Finally Seeing Progress

The Conservation Fight for Florida Water is Finally Seeing Progress

The school is strung out for 300 yards, the dark mangroves of Cape Sable in the background, the water barely ruffled, broken by silver tails, heads, bellies, and entire bodies. There are dozens of fish, 100 or better, the closest within an easy cast of my Tarpon Toad. On the poling platform, my guide, Chris Wittman, shakes his head slowly, afraid to break the spell. “I hope you know how special this is,” he says softly. “You could fish a very long time and not see tarpon like this.”

The pain of missing four tarpon eats in a row, thanks to lifting the rod on the set, still stings. Now I lay out another cast to the silver kings, and let the line and fly sink. I focus on my hands and the fly reel because I don’t want to see the strike—I want to feel it. There is total silence on the boat. I tell myself I will not lift the rod tip. I will not set the hook until I feel the fish eat, turn, and run. I retrieve to the beat of a mantra in my head: strip-strike, strip-strike, strip-strike. Strike!

The tarpon leaps clear of the water the instant I feel its weight, and this time I don’t lift the rod. “Stick him!” Witt­man yells. “Stick him!” I give a hard yank. The fly feels as if it’s buried in a fence, and then the tarpon skies again, shaking so violently, it flips 180 degrees. “Stick him again! Keep sticking him, Eddie!”

I stick him until he’s stuck for good, and then the leaping and the surging, the head shaking and hard charging back under the boat begins. The tarpon shows one more time—a sea-shattering 15-foot vault I meet with a deep bow to lend slack to the fly line—and the rest of the fight is a tug-of-war. It’s not a huge tarpon. It’s not even an overly large tarpon. But it is a tarpon, and when a beast like this comes to the boat with a fly in its jaw, its measure is in the angler’s heartbeat and breath rate, not inches or pounds.

Once I have broken my small-water habits, I jump three more tarpon in the next hour and fight another to the boat. The commotion finally puts the tarpon down for good, and I wipe sweat from my brow with a sleeve. My arms are quaking.

“Epic,” Wittman says. “That’s the only word that works.”

But he’s not talking to me. I catch him glancing at his pal and fellow guide, Daniel Andrews, standing at the console of the flats boat. They’re stoked for the fishing, and equally pumped that I finally figured out the tarpon strike. But what each has experienced is a bit of karmic payback. The last hour has been proof not only of what the beleaguered fisheries of South Florida still have to offer, but also that the last three years of their own personal sacrifice, fear, family upheaval, and hard work are paying off.

The water woes here have grown to be as much a part of the state’s lore and legend as swamp tours and spring-break shenanigans. Year after year, a horror show of environmental ills seems to plague what is arguably the most important fishing destination in the Lower 48. Toxic algal blooms blanket mile after mile of beach, shuttering tourism economies built largely on world-class fishing for tarpon, snook, redfish, bonefish, and snapper. News outlets around the world publish photographs of beaches mounded over with dead fish and marinas awash in a green, guacamole-like goop. Farther south, in Florida Bay and the famed Keys, saltwater flats, nearshore reefs, and mangrove shorelines are being starved of the fresh water they require. Hot, hyper­saline water kills off the vast sea-grass beds that are the foundation of the food chain. Bonefish flee the flats. Tarpon vanish. Oyster beds rot.

The last three years have been particularly traumatic. Wave after wave of red tides, blue-green algae, and brown algae have suffocated the state’s famed Indian River estuary and Mosquito Lagoon on the Atlantic coast, the west-coast waters where the Caloosahatchee River spills into the Gulf of Mexico, and the massive Lake Okeechobee, whose waters used to feed the Everglades and Florida Bay. In 2017, a red-tide bloom that cropped up off the Gulf coast in October lasted until the early months of 2019. Then-governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for seven west-coast counties. A 26-foot-long whale shark floated belly up off the Sanibel beaches, its muscles, liver, intestines, and stomach contents tainted with the red-tide brevetoxin. More than 100 sea turtles and millions of fish washed ashore. For two weeks, the city of Sanibel spent $75,000 a day cleaning dead grouper, tarpon, and baitfish off the beach and out of canals.

Just three years ago, in 2016, Wittman and Andrews were guides working the waters of Fort Myers, Charlotte Harbor, and the Sanibel Island coast. When the red tides of 2016 hit, Andrews says, anglers for tarpon, redfish, and permit disappeared. Wittman figures they lost 80 percent of their bookings. Furious and more than a little desperate, the two captains started a Facebook page called Captains for Clean Water (CFCW) to organize charter captains. “To organize for what,” Wittman says, “we had no idea.” They held a kickoff event at the Fort Myers Bass Pro Shops, hoping that a few more guides might come to talk about what they might do. Three hundred people showed up.

CFCW’s growth and impact has been incredible. In its first year, CFCW raised $60,000. The next year, $600,000. Membership and supporters have grown to more than 30,000, and CFCW members didn’t stop at just writing checks. They showed up in legislators’ offices and packed public meetings. The group revived a long-dormant culture of people largely disconnected from the political process—but no more. “People see that we come from this grassroots, sunburned, hardcore, hard-boiled, hard-fighting group of fishing captains and people who love the water,” Wittman says, “and they think: Finally. Maybe this will work. Maybe this will help tip the balance.

That’s the thread of the story I’ve picked up during more than 18 months of reporting on the state of Florida’s salt­water affairs. There’s a new governor with a decided sense of urgency about the region’s ecological calamities. There is new state and federal funding for massive projects to help alleviate South Florida’s water problems. There is still a pang of loss for parts of Florida that will never be regained, and an urgency that can border on panic over just how monstrous the water issues remain. But over the past few months, I’ve picked up a feeling that was entirely new.

Maybe things are changing.

Maybe.

39RxqflOTdXoETAXmhLDFS
. Field & Stream

How Did This Mess Happen?

For millennia, fresh water flowed into the Kissimmee River from as far north as Orlando, and then drained slowly south into the massive, shallow Lake Okeechobee. Clean water spilled over Okeechobee’s southern rim into large sloughs, such as Taylor Slough and Shark River, and innumerable small tidal creeks that trickled into Florida Bay. This is the famed “River of Grass” that delivered to Florida Bay a life-giving pulse of clean, fresh water each year. But this multifaceted ecosystem—fresh marsh and salt, brackish estuary, mangroves, saw grass, beds of sea grass, ribbons of reef—no longer functions naturally. The entire state has been replumbed with canals, reservoirs, channelized rivers, ditches, levees, dams, and pumps. Nowhere has this engineering had such a landscape-scale impact than in South Florida.

Hold one hand out with the palm up and the fingers together, and you have a rough scale model of some of the most iconic fishing grounds in the world and how they’ve come to be in such dire straits. In the shallow bowl of your palm lies Lake Okeechobee. The deep channels between each finger follow the rough course of Taylor Slough, Shark River, and all those myriad mangrove-lined waterways that dribbled critical water to the Everglades and the Florida Keys. But in 1915, an extension of U.S. Highway 94, dubbed the Tamiami Trail, was built straight across the state through pristine wilderness, gashing through what would become the Big Cypress National Preserve and Ever­glades National Park. The road follows the line across the base of each of your four fingers, and 2.5 million sticks of dynamite were used to blow open a canal beside the road, which is now a de facto dam on the River of Grass, choking off the fresh water that once flowed through the Everglades.

Lifelines—the wrinkles that spill off each side of your palm—tell more of the story: They trace a pair of man-made canals that opened up navigation all the way across Florida, connecting Lake Okeechobee with the Atlantic on the eastern coast and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. As Orlando and Miami grew, massive sugar farms, cattle farms, and housing developments covered thousands of acres of the drained and strangled Everglades. Much of the runoff from those altered acres finds its way to Lake Okeechobee, which is often choked with an inland algae bloom of putrid-green cyanobacteria that feeds off an overload of nutrients. The lake’s waters no longer flow down your fingers, cleaned by millions of acres of intact wetlands. Instead, during high-water periods, billions of gallons of toxic goo spew out of the lake through those two man-made canals in the folds of your palm—St. Lucie Canal and west through the Caloosahatchee River.

There are other issues South Florida suffers from, including a rising sea level and an insidious cycle of drought and storm. And that’s long been part of the problem: There are so many factors at play that it’s easier to place blame than to work toward solutions. But the bottom line is that, historically, even after Highway 94 was built, enough clean water flowed through South Florida to cover 2 million acres to a depth of 12 inches. Today, less than half of that water makes the trip, and what does is degraded.

Without its periodic pulse of fresh water, Florida Bay goes hypersaline. Sea grass dies in massive patches. Blue-green ­algae blooms, turning clear ­water into pea soup. That overwhelms the vast sponge beds that would otherwise filter the water and provide habitat for fish. The devastation flows south, toward the Florida Keys. Everywhere, the food chain collapses. It’s a lot for a bunch of pissed-off anglers to deal with. But they, and other activists, seem finally to be gaining traction.

Is This the Dawn of a New Era?

At a boat dock in Islamorada, Capt. Eddie Yarbrough sidles up to Dr. Steven E. Davis III, a wetlands ecologist for the Everglades Foundation. “Are we supposed to be happy with all the news from Tallahassee?” Yarbrough asks Davis. “Sure seems like a lot of folks are.”

Davis brightens. “I really think so,” he says. “We’re hoping this is a new era.”

For years, conservation groups like the Everglades Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association, National Audubon Society, and others have worked to turn the tide on Florida’s water crisis, and in the last year, significant steps have been made. Much of the hope is pinned on the state’s new governor, Ron DeSantis. In January 2019, during his first weeks in office, DeSantis announced $625 million in funding for Everglades restoration and signed an executive order to secure $2.5 billion over the next four years for water resources and Everglades work. Not long after, he asked for the resignations of the entire South Florida Water Management District Board, the supremely powerful commission that oversees water issues across most of South Florida and had been stacked with many supporters of the powerful sugar industry. He also named a chief science officer and created the Office of Coastal Protection and Resilience, and joined forces with two U.S. senators to ask the Trump administration to increase federal funding for South Florida water projects. In Washington, D.C., the President signed a bill sending $200 million to the Everglades. The money will accelerate progress on nearly 70 projects outlined in the state’s Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, including ongoing work to raise 6.5 miles of the Tamiami Trail to help reconnect the historic flow of water south.

“Our jaws dropped,” Davis says. “It was like an environmentalist’s dream list.”

And then there is the S.B. 10 reservoir. In 2018, after fighting over it for years, Florida legislators approved the construction of a 10,100-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee—built in the heart of the sugar industry’s lands—that will capture and hold excess water, clean it via constructed wetlands, and send it south to the Everglades and Florida Bay. Last-minute negotiations cut the size of the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project, along with its potential positive impacts, and completion is nearly a decade into the future—but even at a smaller size, the reservoir should reduce the cyanobacteria-laden discharges from Big O to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by an estimated 55 percent.

In a morning loop around Florida Bay, Davis points out acres of dead turtle grass, clouded waters, and vast clear flats where new sea-grass beds are taking hold. These are the fragile, tenuous signs that Florida Bay has pulled itself off the floor one more time, after a massive die-off in 2014 and 2015 wiped out an estimated 62 square miles of sea grass. No one knows how many more body blows the bay can absorb. I mention to Davis that the entire ecosystem seems to exist on a knife edge—ecologically, politically, and temporally.

“You’re right,” Davis replies. “Because as exciting as all this is, it’s not what happens down here that is the most critical.” He jacks a thumb over his left shoulder, pointing toward the shore of mangroves and the mainland of Florida, toward Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. “What happens up there is what matters most.”

3zTecvcH8OerOH6Wn2vznJ
. Field & Stream

How Have the Gamefish Fared?

Thirty-five miles south of my tarpon glory at Cape Sable, I’m being fed a steady diet of humility, thanks to picky bonefish ghosting the edges of a broad flat west of Islamorada. I’ve been told that more record bonefish have come off this one flat than any other in the Florida Keys. I’ve also been told that these are probably the hardest to catch of any bonefish in the Sunshine State.

It’s small consolation that I’m being handicapped by our real purpose here: To catch and tag bonefish with acoustic tags that will allow scientists to track their movements. Time and again, I suck bonefish to within inches of my fly, pleading for an eat, while Dr. Ross Boucek, a fisheries biologist and Florida Keys Initiative manager for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and Matt Pourbaix, the trust’s development coordinator, work spinning reels. It takes at least a 20-inch bonefish to handle the acoustic tag, and when Pourbaix hooks a good fish, all other lines come out of the water. He fights the bone to the boat, then Boucek slips overboard into waist-deep water to spread out a floating surgical harness made of netting and pool-noodle sections. But as he lifts the fish onto the makeshift operating table, it spits the hook and slides out of the contraption. Gone. Boucek’s shoulders drop. When I lose a fish, all I’m out is a good memory and bragging rights. Boucek watches as a trove of scientific data slips away.

Despite the millions of dollars bonefish bring to Florida, these fish are better known to anglers than to scientists. Because there is no commercial fishery for the species, there’s less impetus to study their population. Fishing is almost always catch-and-release, so there are few regulatory constraints. The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust was formed in 1977 to help fill in these gaps of scientific knowledge, but Florida’s water woes have underscored the need for answers just as they are confounding the search for understanding.

“It’s one step forward and five steps back,” Boucek says, explaining that the water-quality issues have put a stop to an enormous amount of habitat and fisheries restoration work.

And the consequences hammer the fish in different ways. For bonefish, the troubles come when there’s too much water arriving at the wrong time. With South Florida’s altered hydrology, hot, hypersaline water pours down from Florida Bay toward the mangroves and flats of the Keys, displacing fish that typically stay within a very small home range unless they are spawning. “When you displace a fish,” Boucek says, “you reduce growth and you increase predation risk.” It’s a one-two punch that leads to lower reproduction.

For tarpon, it’s the massive pulses of fresh water—and the toxic loads they’ve carried in the last decades—that kill off the sea grass, which jump-starts the downward spiral in the health of the ecosystem. Scientists have tagged more than 100 Atlantic tarpon since May 2016, and those fished have registered more than 65,000 detections. Tarpon have shown massive latitude in their movements: One 55-pound male detected in the lower Keys in May 2018 wound up near Ocean City, Maryland, the next month. But these fish can also gather en masse—which puts them in peril. Boca Grande Pass is one such gathering place, and it is the epicenter, Boucek says, of the toxic freshwater releases that jet out of the Caloosahatchee during the Lake Okeechobee drawdowns.

For the moment, scientists are mostly trying to keep these fish from bottoming out while they deal with the water-quality issues.

“It can get depressing to think about these problems at such a huge scale,” Boucek says. “But that’s part of the bene­fit of such a wave of advocacy and support on behalf of water quality across Florida. It elevates the discussion at all levels, and it seems like these issues are on everyone’s mind now.”

He tells me about recent efforts to educate anglers about prop scars in the delicate sea-grass beds of the Keys flats, and studies on handling practices of saltwater fish and mortality. When word spread about a recent study of snook mortality tied to anglers holding the fish up by the lower jaw for photos, he began to see pushback on social media. “People are now firing off when they see pictures of these kinds of actions,” he says. “If we could replicate the social media movement with snook on tarpon and bonefish, it would be huge. When you begin to understand that there are things you can do in your own political sphere that really matter, and even things you can do in your own boat, that has to help.”

What Lies Ahead?

It seems more so now than in recent memory that there is hope for the future of Florida’s fisheries. Awareness has moved beyond Florida Bay and the Ever­glades, to a global community. Whether they live in Florida or play in Florida, anglers are beginning to understand that they have a role to play in solving the South Florida water crisis. And for the people who make their living with a boat and a rod, there’s much more at stake than a good day on the tarpon flats. There’s a national park, a World Heritage site, and an international biosphere reserve in their backyard. There are boat loans to pay and families to feed.

After our 90 minutes of tarpon bliss, after the school has vanished, Wittman, Andrews, and I don’t say much. We drift in the dead center of one of the most critical flows of water in all of South Florida, where the outfall from the Shark River slough wraps around the state’s peninsular tip, funneling fresh water into the vast estuary of Florida Bay. With all the tripletail and tarpon around the boat, I hadn’t given my surroundings much thought. But then it occurs to me that this could be the wildest, most remote, and longest stretch of saltwater shore I’ve ever seen in the Lower 48. I ask Wittman about that.

“So, from the boat ramp at Flamingo,” I say, “where we put in, and around Cape Sable, and all the way up the Gulf coast to Everglades City—that’s got to be, what, 50 or 60 miles? And in all of that, there’s…nothing?”

Wittman is uncharacteristically quiet, and whether he is staring at the water, the mangroves, or the sky, I can’t tell.

“No,” he says. “There’s everything.”

Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

Customize Your Shotgun’s Fit for Mere Pennies

Customize Your Shotgun’s Fit for Mere Pennies

How plastic shims can fine-tune your gun—and make you a better shot

The 98 cents’ worth of plastic shims that came with your new $1,800 semiauto might be the most important part of the whole shotgun. Stock shims let you fine-tune cast and drop to get a perfect fit—and make your new gun almost a part of you. This is a big deal. Before shims, altering a wood stock involved a gunsmith and real money, and changing the dimensions on synthetic stocks was pretty much impossible.

Now, many shotguns come with shims, including such affordable standards as the SuperNova pump and the Mossberg 930. No longer is the off-the-rack shotgun a one-size-fits-all proposition. That little bag of plastic shims can make you a much better shot, if you know how to use what’s inside.

Mount Up

The first thing to do with your shim kit is…nothing. Put it someplace where you will not lose it, and start with an honest appraisal of your gun mount. If you practice it on a regular basis and are already dialed in, you can skip this step. Otherwise—and here I am talking to the vast majority of you—listen up.

Your head is the rear sight of the shotgun, but think of it as a scope for a moment: There’s no point in sighting in a gun if the mounts and rings are loose and the scope wiggles. Likewise, if your head doesn’t meet the stock consistently, your point of impact will wander and gun fit becomes a moving target. You need to crank down the screws. With a real scope, you use a Torx wrench. With a shotgun, you practice your gun mount until the “sight” (your head) comes to the same place on the stock every time.

I’ve written ad nauseam about how to mount a shotgun correctly, but it really matters, so let’s review: Practice at home by first checking and then double-checking that your gun is unloaded. Pick a spot on an opposite wall, fix your eyes on it, and bring the gun up so that the muzzle points to the spot without your looking at the bead. Do this by pushing the muzzle toward the target while raising the stock smoothly to your face first, not your shoulder. Don’t crush your head into the stock, because you won’t do that in the field. If you practice this drill with a Mini Maglite AA in the muzzle, the beam will tell you if the gun is pointing where it’s supposed to. You can also check your work in a mirror. When you mount the gun on your reflection, you should see your eye centered over the rib. Do that for 10 to 15 minutes a night for a couple of weeks.

7iBilWItaTqvKQucnfDsV9
Drop shim shotgun illustration Robert L. Prince
7M34u212H9nSzG7u5UbWeB
Cast shim shotgun illustration Robert L. Prince

Dial In

Once you are mounting your gun consistently, take it to the range and shoot “groups” with a tight choke while standing 16 yards from the target. Use paper, a steel pattern plate (no steel ammo with steel plates, though) if you have access to one, or a hanging bedsheet with a mark painted on it. Mount the gun, neither rushing nor aiming, and shoot at the mark. Don’t correct if you’re off target. You’re trying to shoot a good group, not hit the bull’s-eye.

If you hit the same place every time, you’re ready to consider shims. (If you don’t, keep on practicing your gun mount.) Look at the center of your group. If it’s on or less than 2 inches off the mark, you’re probably good (depending on where you want your point of aim to be; see below). Otherwise, for every 2 inches off, you need a 1⁄8-inch adjustment to the stock in the appropriate direction.

The shims go where the buttstock meets the receiver, so you’ll need a Phillips screwdriver to remove the pad, and a long flat-head screwdriver or extended socket wrench to take off the stock. (Some kits also include a plate that goes over the stock bolt after you put the stock back on.)

If you want the gun to shoot higher, use a shim that gives you less drop; in the case of Italian shims, it’s a lower number of millimeters. With U.S. shims, it’s usually something like +1/8. (Check the manual.) To lower your point of impact, which is the most common adjustment, use one with a greater number of millimeters or –1/8. Move the pattern right with cast off, left with cast on. Italian shims are marked D for destra (“right” for cast off) and S for sinistra (“left” for cast on, or “evil,” which is completely unfair to us left-handers). Repeat the pattern process and change out shims as necessary until you’re satisfied. When that’s done, I like to go to station 7 on the skeet field and shoot low-house outgoers with a low-gun start to be sure the gun hits where I’m looking.

Where you set your point of impact is up to you. Most hunters and many sporting-clays shooters prefer a gun that centers the pattern on the point of aim, giving a 50/50 pattern that prints half above and half below the aiming mark, and a sight picture that’s flat along the rib. Some upland hunters and target shooters prefer to “float” the bird over the barrel, and therefore like a gun that shoots a little high—about 55/45—and lets them see a little bit of rib. Trapshooters like guns that shoot 60/40 or even higher. However you prefer to shim your stock, you’ll have made it a perfect fit for you, and that’s time and 98 cents very well spent.

GEAR TIP: Beware the Floating Gun Case

Floating gun cases have become standard equipment among waterfowlers and many other hunters. They’re convenient and offer peace of mind should the boat swamp. But they have one huge drawback: They don’t breathe. If you put a damp waterfowl gun in a floating case after your hunt, it might be orange with rust by the time you get home a couple of hours later. It has happened to me. Take the time to wipe your gun down with an oiled cloth before you put it back in the case. By the way, the best method for drying the inside of a floating case is to stick it on a boot dryer.

Written by Phil Bourjaily for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

Blades of Glory: The Best Bladed Lures for Spring Fishing

Blades of Glory: The Best Bladed Lures for Spring Fishing

How to catch more walleyes, bass, pike, and muskies on spinner rigs and bucktails

Why do blades adorn so many different lures designed to catch so many different types of fish? Three reasons: flash, vibration, and sound. It doesn’t matter if it’s the tiny teardrop of a walleye spinner or the massive bangle on a muskie bucktail, blades of all shapes and sizes send thumping underwater signals that make big fish hit. All kinds of big fish. Spinnerbaits win bucketmouth tournaments and pull monster pike from northern bays. Bucktails catch more muskies than every other lure combined. Spinner rigs are the classic choice for trophy walleyes, and blade baits dupe the biggest smallies.

While blades work year-round, their ability to draw reaction strikes in the spring is unmatched. With northern lakes just past ice-out and southern ones yet to warm, lethargic fish can be incredibly difficult to catch. They need something to wake them up, get their attention—even piss them off a little. And nothing agitates big spring fish more than a vibrating, flashing, annoying piece of spinning metal. With so many ways to run so many different bladed lures, we asked four of the country’s top trophy-fish hunters to reveal their No. 1 spring blade tactic. Here are their secrets.

Northern Pike: Roll the Cabbage

6KZziFdCh82gppWiZwmb6i
Steve Scepaniak pike fishing guide Steve Scepaniak

The Expert: Steve Scepaniak, pike and muskie guide Home Base: Lake Mille Lacs, Wahkon, Minn. Contact: Predator Guide Service

Go-To Lure: Ruff Tackle Rad Dog Spinnerbait

Lake Mille Lacs is renowned for its toothy predators, and while longtime area guide Steve Scepaniak focuses mainly on the lake’s muskies in summer and fall, he turns his full attention to huge pike early in the season. “There’s no better time to score a giant than in the spring,” he says.

And there’s no better lure to catch them with than a big spinnerbait. “Of the 700 or 800 pike over 40 inches I’ve had in my boat, I’d say three-quarters of them have come on spinnerbaits.” For every one of those spring spinnerbait fish, the lure was allowed to sink in the water column for a few seconds before the retrieve. “This is the most important detail for catching pike now,” Scepaniak says. Other times of year, a fish may come up to grab a lure, but not in the spring. “Getting it down to them is the key.”

By now, pike are done spawning, but they haven’t left the shallows. “In April and May, large post-spawn females will hang in back bays before moving out as the water warms,” says Scepaniak, who starts targeting these fish when water temps are in the low 60s. “The first thing you have to do is find the cabbage,” he stresses. Keep your boat around 12 feet deep, and look for the vegetation in 4 to 6 feet of water. Almost any cabbage bed will hold at least some pike in the spring, for a couple of reasons. “First, the structure of cabbage provides optimal ambush sites for pike,” he explains. “Second, the broad leaves of cabbage produce lots of oxygen, which attracts zooplankton and phytoplankton, which attract baitfish, which then attract northerns.” Scepaniak works large spinnerbaits low and slow in the water column to ply the deeper cabbage leaves. “Run it just fast enough so that the blades are barely spinning—no faster,” he says. The lure only needs to give off a little vibration. “The pike will home in on that, and eat.”

67lu0GNaf7YYyKMLjJYb7d
Rough Tackle rad dog lure Ralph Smith

Pro Tip: Switch Blades

Scepaniak uses a number of commercially made spinnerbaits at this time of year, but every one of them, including his favorite Rad Dog, gets one mandatory alteration. “I switch out every blade on every spinnerbait to a No. 8 Colorado,” he says. “The immense vibration of that big round blade is essential to catching big pike.” Most pike and muskie spinnerbaits have a small split ring where the blade is attached, making it easy to change them out. “All it takes is some spare No. 8 Colorados and some split-ring ­pliers to get more vibration—and catch more fish.”

Muskies: Burn a Buck

4tj1yZGqw50I7VHlPBUTdH
Mike Hubert muskie fishing guide Mike Hubert

The Expert: Mike Hulbert, muskie guide Home Base: Lake St. Clair, Roseville, Mich. Contact: Mike Hulbert

Go-To Lure: Joe Bucher 700 Series Bucktail

Running bucktails for muskies often involves huge, double No. 10 ­Colorado blades. But not at this time of year, says Mike “MJ” Hulbert, who’s known for boating trophy muskies. “In spring, I throw small, weighted bucktails at stupid warp speed to get reaction strikes from fish that aren’t yet fired up,” he says.

Regardless of where you are, muskies will spawn in the weeks after ice-out in back bays and shallow flats—and that’s where they’ll stay for a while, recuperating in a lethargic post-spawn phase. “I try to pick them off before they head back out to open water,” Hulbert says. “I focus on rocks, riprap, and newly emergent green weeds in 3 to 6 feet of water.” Weather can be a huge factor too. “I’ll start targeting these fish when the water creeps into the 60s, but I also pay particular attention to warming trends, when the water may spike a few degrees,” he says. Southwest winds and rising humidity usually mean better action too.

No matter what the conditions, the real key lies in getting these torpid, zoned-out, post-spawn giants to wake up and react. That’s where burning small bucktails comes in—but there’s a trick. In order to achieve warp speeds while still keeping these relatively light baits under the surface, Hulbert puts some weight on. “No factory bucktail is heavy enough for this application,” he says. “If you’re a tinkerer, you can cut the shaft of the bucktail, slip on a 3⁄4-ounce egg sinker, and retwist.” If not, just attach a 3⁄4-ounce bell-shaped bass-casting sinker with a small split ring, placing it near the skirt where it won’t impede the blade action or hookup ratio.

3KBVXrG4MKG4cD2vpNcDdj
Butchertail bladed lure Ralph Smith

As a side benefit, that extra weight greatly improves casting distance. Covering a ton of water is key to this tactic, so making bomb casts is a must. Or as Hulbert puts it: “The one who casts the farthest is the one who gets bit.”

4ngx4KQZePusW2Ji2MuF98
Walleye fishing spinner bait with crawler Bill Lindner

Walleyes: Spin the Spawn

6OYZLQcc1HjXHUYYkxLXQP
Ross Robertson walleye guide Ross Robertson

The Expert: Ross Robertson, walleye guide Home Base: Lake Erie, Toledo, Ohio Contact: Big Water Fishing

Go-To Lure: Silver Streak Crawler Harness

Lake Erie is synonymous with donkey walleyes, and no one is better at catching them than guide Ross Robertson. “In April and May, I’m buying nightcrawlers and fishing spinner rigs,” he says. “Crankbaits can smoke fish under certain conditions, but trolling a spinner rig gives me the versatility to catch fish all day during various stages of the spawn.” The spinner’s blades get a walleye’s attention, but even if that fish is finicky, the scent of live bait combined with a slow presentation often seals the deal. “The crawler is the closer,” says Robertson.

On big lakes, he targets walleyes that spawn near the main reefs. On smaller lakes and rivers, he keys on tributaries and smaller reef structures. In both areas, fish will trade to and from the spawning ground, and Robertson nabs them on the move. “I focus on the first transition to deeper water,” he says. “In this zone, fish can be anywhere from 12 to 40 feet deep, so it’s important to use your electronics to pinpoint fish.”

Walleyes are slow-moving now and often glued to the mud. “Spinner rigs can be trolled on or just off the bottom to reach them,” Robertson says. “The key is to make very subtle changes in boat speed to vary the depth and get your rig where the fish are.” Speeding up or slowing down even 0.1 mph can have a huge impact. “As a rule, 1 mph is a good place to hover,” he says. Then just add or subtract. But not too much: “At any speed lower than 0.7 mph, the blades stop spinning; faster than 1.4 mph, and the rig lifts too high off the bottom.” The trick is to find the sweet spot. You’ll know when you get it right, Robertson says, because you’ll start slamming walleyes.

Pro Tip: D.I.Y. Spinner Rig

For over-the-counter spinner rigs, Robertson likes the Silver Streak Crawler Harness, but for optimum success, he suggests that you take the time to make your own. “I start out with 20-pound Sunline fluorocarbon because it’s durable and stiff, which means fewer tangles, and because it runs better at slower speeds.” The most important element of the rig is a super-sharp hook, he says. “I go with a No. 2 Gamakatsu octopus for the front hook and a No. 8 round-bend Gamakatsu treble hook as the trailer.” For the hardware components, Robertson prefers Dutch Fork quick-change clevises and No. 5 Spro power swivels. “Finally, I get plenty of No. 5 and No. 6 Colorado blades and No. 8 Indiana blades in a large variety of colors and finishes so I’ve got plenty of options with my finished rigs.”

5Wmp8YxpnaZ43vzqL75quz
Bass fishing blade baits Lance Krueger

Bass: Be a Blade Runner

6fbEwEcOmnU2LSBrCxUtmz
Dave Lefebre bass elite pro Russ Scalf

The Expert: Dave Lefebre, BASS Elite pro Home Base: Lake Erie, Erie, Pa. Contact: Dave Lefebre

Go-To Lure: Steel Shad Blade Bait

It’s not every day a BASS Elite angler shares his secrets, but longtime pro and Pennsylvania native Dave Lefebre told us that he’s been using blade baits in the early season on the sly for years—and that he’s zeroed in on a spring pattern that slams trophy bass during their spawning transition. Throughout most of the country, both largemouth and smallmouth bass are in some phase of the spawn in April and May, but their exact location and activity level varies. “You can’t pick a more complicated two months to fish,” says Lefebre. You need a versatile lure to score. “My go-to now is a Steel Shad blade bait in any natural baitfish color.”

When targeting smallmouths, he looks for steep breaks adjacent to spawning flats. “Any irregular features such as small points or humps will sweeten the spot.” Early in the spring, he pinpoints fish on these deeper structures with his graph, and then vertically jigs the bait right under the boat. As the spawn progresses, he moves up onto the spawning flats and makes long casts with the same bait to cover lots of water quickly. “I use a fast, straight-line retrieve to pull reaction strikes.”

1pJeB5HphX9MiUZChbcwnt
Steel shad fishing lure Ralph Smith

For largemouths, Lefebre focuses on structure in 2 to 5 feet of water. “Old dead grass from the year before or new emergent grass will attract spawning fish,” he says. He starts with the deepest grass first, focusing on any irregularities. As the water warms, he again moves up and dissects the flats, looking for holes, sand, and grassbeds. His approach here is similar to that of working a bass jig. “I pitch the blade out to the target, let it fall to the bottom, snap it up a few times, and repeat,” he says. If the bait catches grass, give it a sharp pop to clear the hooks and continue your retrieve.

Bass are not actively feeding at this time of year, so the key is to goad them into striking. “Blades are the best reaction baits on the planet,” Lefebre says. Their ability to sink fast, produce high flash and vibration, and closely imitate a minnow are a proven combination for inactive fish. “You can fish a blade anytime of year, but it’s my deadliest bait in the spring.”

Pro Tip: Add and Subtract

Lefebre makes his blade baits even more effective on spring bass by making a pair of tweaks. First, he likes to introduce a little extra flash. “Models like the Steel Shad are available in a ton of different colors, but adding a bit of reflective tape is quick and easy—and it can make a huge difference,” he says. His second tweak is to remove the front hook. “This is the one that snags most frequently. For covering a lot of water around docks, logs, and vegetation, having only a back hook makes life easier, and it doesn’t seem to affect my hookup ratio.”

Written by Mark Modoski for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Download our app to store your hunting and fishing licenses: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/pursuit-hunt-fish/id1108803754

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

Tip of the Spur: New Cutting-Edge Turkey Tactics

Tip of the Spur: New Cutting-Edge Turkey Tactics

The tips, gear, and hunting strategies you need to have your most successful and wildest turkey season ever

On the cutting edge of turkey hunting, the most obsessed gobbler fanatics are pushing the boundaries to be more successful and have more fun. Today’s trendsetters are toting crossbows and .410s, pressing their own mouth calls, tackling tough public birds by choice, busting birds on purpose, and generally doing whatever they can to make the madness of spring last a little longer. If you want in, these are the hot tactics, tricks, and gear you need to try.

Game Changer: Carry a .410

Yes, carrying a .410 to the turkey woods is now a thing. Guys do it to prove they’re good, and the successful ones can teach you a thing or two about getting super-close to gobblers.

Even with quality loads, a .410 shotgun forces you to get pretty tight to a tom. But a couple of springs ago, Realtree’s Phillip Culpepper took the small-bore trend to the extreme and set the online turkey crowd abuzz when he killed an Osceola longbeard on camera with a Taurus Judge .410 revolver. “Shooting at a pie plate, the pattern started getting sketchy at seven steps,” he says. “So I knew I’d have to get close.” For that, he used a specialized reaping tactic. All the usual open-field safety rules apply.

Beat It

Culpepper uses a Flextone Thunder Chicken, which is a compact reaper-style decoy. In addition to a real fan, he zip-ties dried turkey wings to the fake. They provide extra concealment—but they also allow Culpepper to employ another trick.

“Michael Waddell showed me this,” he says. “If you’re crawling in close but the gobbler’s not breaking, you can pop the decoy stake hard against the ground. It makes those wings beat against the decoy, and it sounds just like turkeys flogging in a fight. Do that while making a fighting purr, and it’ll drive him nuts.”

3kXVdriEqmHoZQk9pMabax
OnX Hunting App OnX Hunt

Get Ready

When the bird does break, Culpepper stakes the deke in front of him, sits back, and pokes the barrel through the tail fan or eases it over the top of a wing. “When a tom is locked in, he won’t notice that movement.”

Culpepper killed his Osceola at two steps. “I love to see how close I can get to them,” he says. That’s the whole appeal of the small-bore trend. “Still, I think I’ll leave the Judge home and go with a shotgun from now on.”

Trending: Breeder Hens

Decoy companies have been making “breeding pairs” for some 20 years. After all, if a jake decoy just standing there upsets old gob, then the sight of one on top of his girlfriend should really create issues. Problem is, those decoys have historically looked so fake that I doubt some manufacturers have ever witnessed a real round of turkey coitus.

Today’s top makers must be more voyeuristic because they are now making highly realistic breeder-hen decoys that can be used with or without a jake. Late in the season, I leave the jake home and add a breeder to several feeding and alert hen dekes. I position the breeder for my best shot. The other decoys help draw gobblers in from a distance, and when they finally spot that hen on her belly, they’ll strut right in to do God knows what. Be ready to shoot—or cover your eyes.

Game Changer: Go Public (On Purpose)

Believe it or not, some top gobbler killers hunt public land because it’s harder. On some pressured Tennessee public land that I hunt, the seasoned locals swear that all the gobblers wired to go to hen calls have been culled out of the flock. I’m not sure I believe that, but I know these toms are tough. Here’s how I’ve managed to bag a few.

63iNZmOvsSLRtgiBrR0VsT
Brian Grossenbacher

Fools Rush In

Most public-land hunters hear a gobbler and rush to sit down, eager to make the first yelps and “claim” the bird for themselves. But pressured birds learn that a hen calling from one spot means trouble. Instead, I call occasionally while sneaking ever closer. You’ll bump some turkeys, but you’ll kill some too, if you still-hunt along at the speed of fungus. Use your binoculars to glass constantly for a fan. Don’t be afraid to make him gobble with aggressive yelps and cutts, but keep them infrequent. Be safe, of course. And never utter so much as a cluck without a setup tree and shooting lane in mind. know when to Shut Up

Once the turkey gobbles at you inside 50 or 60 yards, sit down and be quiet. Don’t bother with a decoy, and put your call in your pocket. The bird assumes that he’s about to see a hen walking to him, and when he doesn’t, he’ll get anxious. Don’t scratch in the leaves. Don’t cluck. Make him think his hen is gone. Keep watch with your gun on your shoulder, and if he quits gobbling, don’t move for a full 30 minutes. Odds are, he’ll sneak in silently before then.

Trending: D.I.Y. Mouth Calls

3CMpk2h6k2iP1H0HUqoo0t
Kerry B. Wix

“A serious flyfisherman doesn’t want to buy flies at Walmart. He wants to fool a trout with a fly he tied himself,” says Tennessee turkey nut Kerry B. Wix, who’s been pressing his own diaphragm calls for the past five seasons. Wix says the first yelper he ever made sounded awful. But the learning process has paid off.

7t4SRO6vU49hWdoZRumjty
Robert Harding / Alamy

Virtually all mouth calls consist of just an aluminum frame, latex reeds, and tape. “The big differences in sound come from the call’s side and back tension, layering, and reed cuts,” Wix says. “Increasing side tension by a ten-­thousandth of an inch can completely change the sound. Everyone blows a call a little differently, so finding your perfect combination of reed cut and stretch off the shelf is random. But when you’re making your own, you can tweak the numbers to get them just right, and then build your perfect call over and over again.”

Wix says that his calling improved dramatically once he learned to build his own calls. “I enjoy making them for myself and my hunting buddies,” he says. “When they choose my call to kill a gobbler—well, there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

Game Changer: Carry a Cross

If you’re one of the many hunters who’s jumped on the crossbow train recently, take it turkey hunting. A crossbow provides the point-blank thrill of bowhunting with the run-and-gun capability of shotgun hunting. And in some states with archery-only seasons, like Nebraska and Kansas, it’ll get you extra time in the woods too. I’ve killed a slew of gobblers with a crossbow. Here’s what I’ve learned.

2fMYFA04VMae74O8gHCSAt
Kerry B. Wix

Set a Ruse

To kill a turkey with an arrow, you want the bird standing still inside 25 yards. Good decoys are the name of the game. I place a DSD 3/4 Strut Jake or Avian-X 1/2 Strut Jake 15 yards out and quartering to me. Then I stake a hen deke at 18 yards. Aggressive gobblers will walk past the hen and square off with the jake head-on, giving you a 12-yard shot. Passive birds that strut just beyond the hen are still easy pickings for a crossbow.

Rest Easy

When you fidget, the wide limbs of a crossbow will move enough to spook any turkey. A rest, like the Primos Trigger Stick ­Monopod, is essential for keeping comfortable and still while working a bird, and for 10-ringing a turkey’s small vital area.

Cut Big

I’ve killed a bunch of birds with fixed-blade broadheads, but I’ve come to prefer hybrid heads with a fixed bleeder blade and two big mechanical blades, like the Bloodsport Gravedigger or Muzzy Trocar HB. Even the slowest crossbows have the oomph to push those heads through a gobbler, and they open devastating holes.

Wild Tactic: Bust a Move

5DBaKUczRNuDqrc1MeWfjF
pack of pesky jakes Donald M. Jones

There are days, often late in the season, when we promise to spend the rest of the year becoming a better person if only we can get a shot at a turkey. A jake with a beard just long enough for the game warden to see would work fine. Problem is, jakes and even 2-year-old gobblers tend to bunch up late and can be surprisingly difficult to kill. Unless you bust them up first.

The key is to actually scatter them, not just spook them. You need individuals to fly away in multiple directions. I’ve had my best luck by getting within 100 yards of a flock and then running at them head-on. Yelling and cussing, a lot, seems to help.

Next, sit as close to the break site as you can and stake out a single jake decoy. Give the woods 10 minutes to settle down, and then make long, loud strings of jake yelps, kee-kee runs, and gobbles. And when that turkey is finally flopping at your feet, remember your promise about the rest of the year.

Written by Will Brantley for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.