There is no other turkey hunt like it anywhere in the world; hunting Ocellated turkeys deep in the jungles of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula! This was my 3rd trip to hunt the jungle and both of my previous trips had been amazing, so I was looking forward to this new adventure. No other hunting experience in the world is like hunting in the jungle. Visibility is extremely limited, so sound is just as important as sight as you seek the various game birds of the Jungle. Each day you head out with the target of a turkey, but you truly have no idea what you may see. This just adds to the intrigue and mystique of this hunt.
The Ocellated turkey lives in an area that is roughly 50,000 square miles, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, in the states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, Yucatan, Tabasco, and Chiapas. There are also a population in Belize and northern Guatemala. The Ocellated has brilliant copper and electric blue colors throughout their feathers. Ocellated turkeys don’t gobble, but rather they sing. They are also the only subspecies of turkey where the toms do not have a beard. However, the adult birds are known to have extremely long spurs, with some over 2 ½ inches and even some that push 3 inches. Their bodies are also smaller and weigh less than the other turkey subspecies. These differences from the other subspecies, is part of what makes this hunt so unique and special.
My trip into the jungle started with a flight into Campeche City, where we overnighted. From my previous trips to Campeche City, I have learned it is an amazing place for seafood and I look forward to my time in the city, both on the way in and way out of the jungle. Leaving Campeche City the next morning, we started our drive into the jungle with 3-4 hours on paved roads as we drove along the coast before turning into the central part of Campeche. Then, depending on which camp you hunt out of, the drive is an additional 3-4 hours on two track roads that start nice and then eventually turn into tight, highly vegetated jungle roads. The drive into the jungle is always interesting as less than 30 vehicles use these roads during a monthly period, and even less when it’s not hunting season. Each year the outfitter goes in before season and opens the roads back up from the over grown vegetation growth and makes them “usable” for the season. On most drives in, you will see numerous game birds that call the jungle home, as well as monkeys, Toucans, and various jungle floor animals.
Upon arriving into camp, we put our gear in open mesh tents. The mesh allows the breeze in as it is extremely hot and humid, but it helps to keep the bugs out as the jungle has plenty of insects. When setting up camp locations, the outfitter tries, whenever possible, to locate them next to a river. This is done because it is cooler next to the water but also you can also use the rivers to sit in during midday. Sitting in the water with 90-degree heat and high humidity makes for a very comfortable midday break. At dinner, your first night, you will meet your local guide for your hunt. These guides may not speak a lot of English, but they know the area and can spot animals that, to non-natives, are almost impossible to see. I’ve had a different local guide on each of my trips and they have all been phenomenal. There may be some communication issues, but this is just part of the experience.
When Jungle hunting Ocellated turkeys, you don’t call or set up for them. The goal is to catch them on the roost before they disappear to the jungle floor, not to be seen or heard of again until that night. This hunting method took some getting used to on my first trip, but then you understand that this is truly the only way to successful jungle hunt Ocellated turkeys. This method has been used by the locals for hundreds of years and it’s all part of this amazing experience. The goal when hunting Ocellated in the jungle is to try to locate the turkeys as they go to roost at night and start singing. Just like the other subspecies of turkeys who gobble going to and from roost, the Ocellated sing going to and from their roost. Once you have located them in the evening, you know where to go the next morning. For hunters who haven’t hunted the jungle, this may sound easy, but it is anything but easy. The turkeys are often roosted off of the two tracks at a distance of ½ mile or more. There are no trails to get to the birds, so you need to work your way through the jungle, literally “the jungle”, before the Ocellated flies off of the roost. If you make too much noise or take too long after it starts to lighten up, your turkey is gone.
The outfitter also has 2 or 3 scouts in each camp, covering upwards of 20 miles a day, scouting for turkeys. The scouts had located a turkey the night we arrived into camp, so we had a plan for our first morning. Over the past 6 months the jungle had been extremely dry, causing a lot of the water holes to dry up. This has changed animal behavior as those water holes are such a key part of survival. The guides told us that the turkeys hadn’t been singing as regular as normal. So, a turkey may sing going to roost but not again in the morning. That is exactly what we experienced our first morning. We went about 35 minutes from camp and set up on an old foot trail near to where the scout had heard the turkey singing the night before. But, as the sun started to rise, we didn’t hear a single peep. As it got lighter, we realized the turkey was not going to be singing that morning, so we walked in a half mile circle around where the turkey was thought to be. While doing this we heard, by chance, another turkey singing on a roost a long distance away from where we were. Knowing that we didn’t have much time, we hurried as fast as we could towards the singing. After about 15 minutes of hard walking, we had closed the distance to less than 100 yards and caught our first glimpse of the turkey. As we attempted to move in closer, he flew off the roost and was gone.
So, the turkey hunt may have been over for the morning, but this is where the unknown happens. Once the turkey hunt is over, it’s time to hunt for other game birds and animals of the jungle. There are many, such as Grey and Red Brocket Deer, Peccary, Crested Guan, Coati, Curasaw, Chucker, Quail, Chacaloca, Paca and others. Having been twice previously in the Campeche jungle, I am still amazed that you never know what you are going to see while walking the jungle. On this morning, we saw male and female Curasaw, Crested Guan, and Coati. Near the time we were getting ready to head back to camp for the afternoon break, my guide spotted a Tinamou. These are very tough to spot in the jungle, and it took a while for my guide to assist me in seeing it through the thick jungle vegetation. I was able to make a good shot and had my first jungle bird of the trip.
When hunting in the jungle, the best time is in the morning, followed by the last two hours of daylight. The afternoon is spent resting from very short nights, as you wake up extremely early to head out turkey hunting. So, you rest and try to stay cool.
Our main goal of our first evening hunt was to head out and try to locate a turkey going to roost. We heard not one, but three different turkeys in three different locations. We had options. We made a plan to hunt the area we thought was best because the underbrush wouldn’t be as thick as the other two areas. But remember, less thick in the jungle is still darn thick. That night in camp it started to rain, which was great for the dry jungle. However, this rain turned into a major thunderstorm and when we woke for the morning hunt, it was still coming down hard. The new plan was to stay in camp until it stopped and then head out. The rain cut down to a light drizzle about 30 minutes before light and we decided to go and make a play on the turkey we had roosted the night before. Time would be tight as we had waited longer in camp because of the rain.
As we got to the spot from the night before, our turkey was singing but the light was already starting to come up. Knowing we only had a short time until he would fly from his roost, we worked our way in as quickly as possible. The rain from the night had all of the leaves wet and quiet and this allowed us to go in fast with very little noise. As we moved closer the signing got louder, until we worked our way within 50 yards. We saw him in the tree and with a well-placed shot, I had my Ocellated turkey. The Ocellated is one of the most breathtaking birds and their colors are just amazing when you see them in person.
As we had another day to hunt before going back to Campeche, we hunted that evening and saw a lot of other game birds. We went out the next morning as well and started by scouting for Brocket Deer. There were hunters coming in, later in the season, and the guides wanted to make sure they had lots of options to hunt. I was happy to tag along and pick up knowledge on what to look for in setting up a Brocket Deer hunt. I had learned a long time ago, always carry your gun when doing things like this as you never know what may happen. After finding an absolutely amazing Brockett Deer area, my guide stopped dead in his tracks and quickly started pointing into the thick jungle and said “Peccary”. It took me a while to see it’s outline. I was lucky as I had buckshot in my shotgun, just in case I saw a Brocket Deer while scouting. I quickly raised and squeezed and had my first jungle Peccary! Again, you never know what you’ll see in the jungle.
Like so many animals in the world, the Ocellated turkey faces many threats, mainly from human expansion. The jungles of the Yucatan peninsula are known for their large numbers of Mahogany trees. Mahogany, being one of the most sought-after woods in the world, brings a high price. The jungle is supposed to be protected, but unfortunately, there is lot of illegal harvesting that takes place. When people go in to cut these trees down, there is no fancy equipment used. People use old saws and even older flatbed trucks in search of these highly sought-after trees.
When people head in and locate a Mahogany tree to cut, they have to first cut a path through the jungle to be able to get a flatbed truck to the site. Once there, they will cut the tree down and use a series of hand pulleys to load the tree on the flatbed and so they can move it out of the jungle. Because this process is all manual, it can take up to two weeks to get a single tree out. During this time, the illegal harvesters are living in that area of the jungle, illegally harvesting any and all game species to eat. In the jungle, they live off of the land. They leave garbage and burning fires around the campsites. As usually there will be a group of mahogany trees together in a spot, once they are done illegally cutting the trees, the surrounding area looks as though a tornado has gone through.
After the trees are cut, the jungle is more open than normal. At this point, local farmers go in and burn the areas where the tress have been harvested. Once burned, the areas are then used for livestock. Once this happens, that portion of the jungle is gone for-ever and the jungle is shrinking in size every day. What have we found, time and time again, is that to protect areas like this, hunting can be the key to the conservation of these resources. When Balam Outfitters set up legal hunting in the jungle, they gave the animals that live in the jungle a value. As a result, the locals protect them and also the jungle that they live in. Africa gets the most amount of attention with hunting as conservation, but it true that hunting as conservation has success stories all over the world. No matter what is said in the news, we as hunters know that this model works and protects wildlife. It is the only reason that in a lot of areas, animal numbers have held steady or increased. Hunting Ocellated turkeys and the other jungle animals give them a value for the locals and will ensure sustainable populations and wise land management. Remember, Hunting is Conservation!!!
Next up for me, is hunting Rios in Texas.