turkey reaper

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From a side angle, the scene looks preposterous: There’s 6-foot-4, 235-pound Jeremy McCarty, kneeling in a wide-open bean-stubble field and whispering instructions to a 10-year-old girl, who is pointing a 20-gauge 870 and is dressed in all black except for pink-accented sneakers. Thirty yards to the left, also in the wide-open field, is a strutting tom turkey, sidling toward the pair. The only thing between the gobbler and the hunters is a turkey decoy, which is really nothing more than a tail fan with a molded-plastic turkey head epoxied to it.

There might as well be a chorus line dancing behind the decoy, too, for as much as the fake seems to be hiding the hunters. But the gobbler is completely taken in. Mesmerized. Then something fires in the bird’s walnut brain. He breaks strut and launches into a waddling sprint, bum-rushing the deke. He’s only a few yards away from the hunters when the gun roars. In the next frame, the little girl and McCarty are hugging each other.

McCarty stops the video there and looks at me for a reaction. I’m as mesmerized as the turkey was before he got his head shot. “I’ll take one of those tomorrow, please,” I say.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” McCarty says. “That was just last week during the youth season.” He scrolls back to the frame where the gobbler starts sprinting, and again we watch the tom make his final attack.

“That’s a hard-charger,” McCarty says. “That, right there, is why I reap turkeys.”

It was also why I’d come to southern Iowa, on the night before the first regular shotgun opener, to reap turkeys with McCarty. I’ve called in plenty of birds, and I’ve watched a few fall in front of a tail fan. But reaping is different. While you can coax a bird close by calling, you’ll never have to shoot him out of self-defense. And although a gobbler may act aggressively to a fan, you probably wouldn’t have the option to kill him with your bare hands (which is illegal; don’t kill gobblers with your bare hands).

Reaping is different because when you do it, there is the real chance that a tom will run headlong into your gun barrel—or maybe into your lap—before you can shoot him.

“Reaping finishes birds like nothing else,” McCarty says, “way better than fanning.” Which is kind of a head-scratcher when you consider that, on a basic level, reaping is fanning, except that you use a strutter decoy instead of a handful of tail feathers. In both cases, the idea is to spot a gobbler in an open field and then hide behind the fan or deke as you crawl close to challenge the tom. Whereas McCarty’s early reaping decoys where full-blown or even oversized strutters, his latest are often just fans with heads; so in that regard, the differences between the two tactics is even subtler. Yet the gobbler’s reaction is like the difference between a mere nod of recognition and a smack in the head.

“Once you’ve had a pissed-off gobbler try to run you over, you don’t want to hunt them any other way,” McCarty says. And he doesn’t. He only reaps turkeys, and only with a bow. He doesn’t pass up 20-yard shots, but he lives for the 5-yards-and-in hard-chargers—and the few tags he’s allowed each season don’t come close to satisfying his obsession. During the week before my visit, he hosted 14 youth hunters, who bagged a total of 14 birds. After my visit, he’ll reap turkeys on his own and for others in multiple states for about six weeks straight. On his best days, he and his hunters will tag as many as eight toms, and when the season is over, he’ll have reaped (or have helped reap) more than 60 birds total.

Long-Range Reap

My alarm sounded at a quarter to seven on opening morning, which is another great thing about reaping: While the area toms were gobbling at the sunrise, and then flying down and slowly working their way to the open fields where we’d try to spot them, we were sleeping in, and then drinking coffee and eating bacon. Eventually, four of us climbed into McCarty’s truck—him, me, cameraman Kerry Wix, and McCarty’s buddy John Roraff, who could only hunt until 11. I asked Roraff why he had to leave so early, pointing out that three hours wasn’t much time to kill a gobbler.

“You’ll both be tagged out by 10,” McCarty said.

After trying to reap two separate lone toms, both of which got goosey and walked off, we spotted four strutters circling a handful of hens. But they were on the neighbor’s side of the road, in the far corner of a long wheat field. McCarty slowed, but didn’t stop until we’d rolled out of sight. Then he yanked the truck over, and we all jumped out on the side of the road where he had permission and followed McCarty on a wide loop around to the backside of a hill, directly across—but a long way off—from the toms.

McCarty grabbed a full-strut decoy and eased over the crest of the hill, while Roraff affixed a smaller fake to his gun barrel and followed. I held a single tail fan meant to hide me, Wix, and his video camera. Then we all inched forward on our knees—four guys waddling in a line on an open hillside toward toms that were at least 800 yards away and were on the wrong side of the road, with a wire fence between us. And they had hens. I remember thinking, This will never work.

“They’re coming,” hissed McCarty, who was out front and could see best. As he backed off, Roraff moved up with the gun to take the point. And sure enough, all four of those gobblers came the length of the neighbor’s field, across the road, through a ditch, under the fence, and into our field—until eventually their red heads popped up over a knoll tufted with high grass right in front of Roraff, who picked out the biggest gobbler and leveled him. “Boom!” McCarty belted to the camera. He’s been filming hunting webisodes and DVDs so long now that the catch phrases seem to spill out unconsciously.

“That’s what I’m talking about. We just put the smackdown on a big stroker. Turkey Reaper-style, 2016!”

Then, to the side, he told me: “Buddy, that’s a long-range reap right there. I’m telling you, this sh*t works.”

Going Viral

Before I’d ever seen it done in person, I knew that reaping worked. Like a million or so people, I’d watched McCarty’s viral YouTube video “Man Vs. Turkey,” which shows him in action, back in 2007. The clip was actually filmed in 2004, the year he decided to take his turkey hunting to a new level. “I’d been sneaking over hills and showing a fan for years, and I could get birds into 20 yards and kill them all day long like that,” he recalls. Eventually, McCarty and friend Chancy Walters wanted to try something more aggressive. “We wanted to see how close we could get.” So they flocked out a strutter decoy with real feathers, and took it to the field. “The very first gobbler came storming in to 3 feet,” he says. The footage of that hunt became a YouTube sensation, and ultimately launched McCarty’s Turkey Reaper brand, which includes a website, Facebook page, DVDs, and decoys.

Why the name Turkey Reapers? “It was better than Beak Busters, or any of the others we came up with,” McCarty says, laughing. Now everyone who is aware of the tactic calls it reaping.

“I knew the basic approach would work,” McCarty says, “but I didn’t know it’d be so deadly.” His main concern at first was that the decoy would not fully hide the hunter. What he learned is that an aggressive tom gets locked into the decoy and ignores almost everything else. “They get tunnel vision,” he says. “If it’s the right timing and situation, you could have a three-quarter-ton truck behind that decoy, and he’ll still come barreling in.”

Prediction Time

The ideal situation is a lone strutter with hens. A puffed-up bird tells you he’s feeling big and bad, McCarty explains, and the hens mean he has something worth fighting for. The next best scenario is multiple stutters with hens, and after we finished taking pictures of Roraff’s bird, that’s what we spotted from the truck while descending a muddy ribbon of gravel bisecting huge cut cornfields.

Just like the first time, McCarty eased past until we were out of sight. Then we got out, grabbed gear, circled to the backside of a hill overlooking the birds, and crept toward the crest. If possible, McCarty likes to be 100 to 200 yards away when he first tops a hill to show the decoy. Any less, and the fake can come as an unwelcome surprise to real toms; any more, and you may have a long crawl before a bird decides to break in your direction. You can’t control the lay of the land, though, so you take what you get.

When we peeked over the hill, we got three toms dancing for a half dozen hens, probably 600 yards off in the distant stubble. Between us and them was a deep, grassy dike, carving the field in two. Although the birds were again farther than what McCarty likes, we didn’t have to crawl far—because the instant he and I topped the hill with the gun-mounted decoy, one of the toms split off and started walking toward us. McCarty stayed back with Roraff and the cameraman while I knee-walked toward the dike.

Years of calling birds told me there was no way the tom would cross that barrier, so I planned on crossing or least getting to it myself. But then I thought of Roraff’s hunt, and I noticed that as the tom approached the steeply banked ditch, he wasn’t slowing in the least. I sat down where I was and got the gun ready. In less than a minute, the tom popped up on my side.

When you’re calling birds, the slightest obstacle will make a tom hang up. When you’re reaping, there doesn’t seem to be any obstacle. The gobbler strutted to 15 yards, but then got a little jumpy. I suppose I did too, because my first shot only knocked a few feathers off his neck. Honestly, I hadn’t been that amped up on a turkey hunt in years. But I pulled it together and dropped him with a follow-up shot.

By the time I finished filling out my tag it was 8:00 a.m. McCarty made his prediction with two hours to spare. Boom!

Turkeys on the Dance Floor

The “stabilizer” on McCarty’s bow is a taxidermied turkey head attached to the end of a steel rod, from which dangles the part of a gobbler cape. Behind that, a metal port accepts a gobbler fan that has a narrow slot trimmed out of the middle for aiming and for shooting an arrow through. At only 24 inches axle-to-axle, the bow itself, made by Gearhead Archery, is tiny, with a shoot-through riser. All in all, it was the coolest piece of hunting equipment I’d ever seen. It rode in the back pocket of the truck’s passenger seat as we drove the back roads looking for a strutter for McCarty to bow-reap.

It took a little longer than usual to find one. In the truck, where we spent most of our time, when McCarty is not on the phone securing or verifying permission on the thousands of private acres he has access to, he is usually singing. Yup, singing—especially when birds are hard to find.

Turkey, turkey, don’t be blue.

Come on out so we can smoke you.

Most of the lyrics didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and—it must be said—were sung a little out of tune.

Turkey, turkey where are you?

C’mon big stroker, we want to shoo(t).

But what can I tell you? It seemed to work. After a few verses, we spotted a strutter with a couple hens gathered at the low end of a rolling cornfield.

Turkey on the dance floor!

Turkey on the dance floor!

We grabbed gear and headed for the backside of a hill, but when McCarty topped the knoll with his bow decoy, three deer that we hadn’t seen bolted from the field and crashed into a flowering plum thicket. At least one turkey, maybe two, flapped into a wooded ditch. Naturally, I figured the hunt was over.

And this is one of the strange yet most appealing aspects of reaping: Most of the time you’re thinking, Nope. Not going to happen. But, you’re usually wrong.

Of course it wasn’t over. The gobbler we originally spotted was now locked onto the deke and coming while two others we hadn’t seen started bearing in from the right. For a minute it looked like a race to beat up the “intruder”—and it looked like we’d finally see the hard-charger scenario that McCarty lives for. But when the toms converged at around 15 yards, all three got cold feet. As they started moving off together, McCarty put an arrow through the closest bird’s thighs.

After running off to recover the tom, McCarty walked back toward the camera out of breath, pumping a fist, and reeling off catchphrases. Another big stroker! We’ve been rammin’ and jammin’—Turkey-Reaper-style! But away from the lens, he admitted to a tinge of disappointment. “I thought one of those toms would charge for sure. They’re just not quite finishing like they’re supposed to.”

I pointed out that he had a dead gobbler in his right hand, and that we’d tagged four toms in a day and a half of hunting.

One More Reap

That evening we drove north to McCarty’s home in Des Moines. The plan was to go out for a good meal and catch an early flight in the morning. But McCarty had another bow tag and couldn’t stand the idea of my leaving without at least seeing the hard-charger that he wants everyone to witness first hand. So the ride to dinner included a long detour through the surrounding farmland to see which fields had strutters, and the conversation after dinner mainly involved McCarty hatching a plan to get in one more quick reap in the morning before driving to the airport. But it never panned out, and I settled for a promise that if I tried reaping at home, a bird would eventually try to run me over. McCarty wouldn’t have to wait, though. The next day, back at home, there was a message on my phone. It was McCarty: “Hard-charger. Six yards. Turkey Reaper-style! Buddy, you have to come back out.”

Reaping to the Rescue

Odds are you can’t make reaping your go-to turkey tactic like McCarty does. That’s because you likely don’t have thousands of acres to hunt like he does. For the rest of us, reaping is a tactic of opportunity—and the perfect solution to a common problem on any hunting property. When you see a strutter with hens out in the middle of a field, you probably figure that there’s no way you’ll call that bird in, and you’re probably right. That’s when you bust out the reaping decoy, and lure that tom into your lap.

Tips: Reap Safely

The first question that anyone unfamiliar with reaping asks is, Is this safe? It’s the right first question. Trying to look like a strutting gobbler coming up over a hill has inherent risks, just like trying to sound like one in the woods does.

Having just been reaping, I can tell you that I never once felt unsafe—certainly no more than when calling in the timber. But, ultimately, it’s your call. If you don’t want to try it, that’s fine. If you do, minimize the risks with these with these two simple rules of thumb.

[1] Keep it in the open. Reaping is a field tactic. You should be able to clearly see the bird you’re after, and everything around him, for at least 75 yards. Don’t allow yourself to get within shotgun range of any cover where a hunter could be hidden. McCarty occasionally reaps in very small woodlots where he has strict control over the hunting. But as a general rule, keep reaping out of the woods.

[2] Check the regs. Never reap where stalking turkeys is illegal (Pennsylvania) or where there is a rifle season for turkeys (South Dakota).

Tips: Rules of the Reap

Follow these five rules from McCarty to reap turkeys where you hunt.

1. Find a strutter. “If you spot a tom but he is not strutting—especially if he doesn’t have hens or is on the move—keep looking.”

2. Show the deke from a distance. Ideally, you want to be at least 100 yards away when you first show the fake to a strutting tom. “But If the terrain forces you to be closer, show the deke gradually—just the top of the fan at first—so you don’t surprise him.”

3. Get in the zone. “Most stutters have an area around them that they’ll protect. It might be a 50-yard radius, or 300 yards. As long as the tom is not spooked, keep moving toward him until he moves toward you.”

4. Watch his head. “If you’re getting close and you see a tom’s head turn from red to bright white. Get ready. He’s coming.”

5. Try again. “If a tom moves away but doesn’t seem spooked, back off, give it a little while, and then try him from a different direction. I’ve seen initially reluctant toms come running on a second reap.”

Tips: The Perfect Reaping Decoy

According to McCarty, a good reaping decoy must have a realistic head and the option to add real feathers. “The more real feathers, the better,” he says. “You definitely want a real tail fan, but I also like to skin out and dry a piece from the back of a tom’s cape and use a zip-tie to hang it off the chest of my decoy.” McCarty killed scores of birds with his original reaping decoy, but he ultimately found it too bulky. So he created his latest mobile deke, the Tominator, which is smaller and lighter, and attaches to a gun or bow for hands-free use. The video below shows a prototype, on his bow and all decked out with real feathers. It will be available this spring for $87 at facebook.com/turkeyreapers, where you can also purchase McCarty’s DVDs.