Hunt Spring Gobblers in the Afternoon

The day I quit thedawn patrol, my turkey hunting life changed forever. Worn out two years agofrom a string of futile early-morning hunts, I set my alarm for 7 A.M. andslept in. By the time I got into the woods, arriving at a willow-chokedcreekbottom along the edge of a field, it was 8:30. An hour later, a gobblerresponded to my calls and tiptoed quietly into gun range. I eased the muzzleonto the bird's neck and pulled the trigger, ending the hunt in an instant.It's an odd feeling slinging a turkey over your shoulder when you're wideawake, but you can learn to like it. My first thought? That I would never getup early to hunt turkeys again.

The more I thoughtabout it, the better the idea sounded. What was I giving up? The daybreak huntmay be the spring classic, but it's far from a done deal. Gobblers and hensroost near one another, and the tom knows exactly where he's going at fly-downtime. You have to either get between him and his girlfriends or set up alonghis customary route. Hens frequently lead toms away from other hens, so callingcan actually repel turkeys in the morning. Another problem is that the woodsmay be full of hunters in the early hours.

By 9 A.M., yourcompetition is gone. Hens leave gobblers in the midmorning to nest, and mosthunters have gone home. When you find a tom then, he'll usually be by himself,willing to come to a call.

One turkey shot at9:30 isn't proof that sleeping late is a viable hunting strategy, so lastspring I devised an experiment. The volunteer subject (me) would get up at 7A.M. every day of the season, drop the kids at school, hunt public land until2:30, then get home to meet the school bus.

The lab for thisexperiment was the land around a nearby reservoir that I've hunted since 1987.It's open, flat country, big farm fields interspersed with softwoods and a fewpatches of timber. I'd use two tactics: spotting and calling (walking ordriving and looking for birds, then setting up to call them) and blind calling(going to areas frequented by turkeys, and sitting and calling).

(1) Hunt One: TheSpot and Call

My strategy for theopener was to drive the gravel roads, hoping to spot a strutting bird. After anhour, though, the only turkey I'd seen was on the back of a hunter coming outof the woods. I lack the full-strut self-assurance that marks great turkeyhunters; the sight of one of "my" birds on its way to someone else'sfreezer shook my confidence. What was I thinking? Last year was a fluke.Everyone knows that the early riser gets the tom. Then I drove over a hill andthere, 10 feet off the road, was a turkey in full strut. He spotted my truck,folded up, and ran into some willows that led to a woodlot.

I kept going forhalf a mile before I pulled over and got out quietly. A long loop brought me tothe edge of the woods from the back side, where I sat down by a widecottonwood. In time, the gobbler would forget about the truck that hadfrightened him. Patience would help me kill this bird.

Once the woods hadsettled down, I scraped out soothing yelps on the slate every 10 minutes. Ittook the turkey an hour to get over his scare and gobble. I waited, thenclucked and scratched some leaves. He gobbled again. I resisted the urge toyelp. Less is more when you're calling to a gobbler that's looking for you.Suddenly, there he was, 20 yards off to my right. He'd already spotted me andwas lengthening his steps into that nervous Groucho Marx walk that precedesall-out running. The reticle of my scope enclosed his head at 40 yards, and hefell at the shot. It was 12:45 P.M. when I tagged him, a 23-pound 3-year-oldthat should have known better.

I babbled messageson the answering machines of all my turkey hunting friends and reached my wifeat work.

She was thrilled."Great, you're done! Can you stop at the store for milk and orange juice onthe way home?"

The next day I raninto a hunting acquaintance.

"They're allhenned up," Tony said. "I can't do a thing with them."

Like many people,Tony hunts for turkeys the way he goes after deer. He patterns birds on privateground, builds a blind, and hunts until the woods go quiet around 8:30 A.M.It's an effective way to hunt. Stick it out and you'll be rewarded. Thedownside is that some stretches of the season can seem interminable.

"Uh, I shot oneyesterday at quarter to one," I said. "Sometimes it's easier to find abird by himself at midday."

"I never stayout that long," he said.

"I didn't getto the woods until nine."

Having alreadyblown his mind, I didn't tell him it was public land.

[1] THE SPOT ANDCALL

Walk trails andcruise gravel roads looking for birds strutting in the open. These turkeys willlikely come in to a call. When you find one, stealth is the key. Continuedriving, stash the truck, and approach from a different direction.

[This articleconsists of a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy of magazine.]

Bird spotted Path of bird Bird taken Setup Woodlot Parked vehicle Road Turkey

(2) Hunt Two:Calling Blind

While trying tofill my second tag, I hunted four days. On the first three, I called up a henthat wanted to fight but also set up on two different gobblers that I spottedas I tiptoed around the area. One left me, gobbling, and I had to leave theother to meet the bus. I found some morel mushrooms and saw a pileatedwoodpecker. Heading to my fourth hunt, I stopped to chat with the only otherhunter I saw that week. He told me at great length that calling neither worksnor is it sporting when you can ambush birds instead. I edged away, realizing Iwas late.

I walked for awhile, and at 11:30 sat down to call at the edge of a plowed field. I hadhunted turkeys here in the past--in fact, one tree carries a golf ball-size holeas a reminder of the gobbler I missed at five steps.

Ten minutes aftermy first call, a tom stepped out from my side, 100 yards down to the left, andstruck out across the huge expanse of black clods. I watched him ignore mycalls as he picked his way through the field. In desperation, I cutt as hard asI could on the diaphragm and was delighted to see him stop and turn around, histail popping up like an umbrella. Angling toward me, he stepped into the canarygrass at the field's edge. He was going to circle behind me.

I caught glimpsesof the turkey moving through the long grass. At any moment he could decidethere was no hen and leave. When his head periscoped for a look, I decided notto gamble. With a rest on a log, a scope on my gun, and 300 tungsten-iron size6 pellets in the chamber, I could make this 40-yard shot. I pulled the triggerat 11:58 A.M.

The gobbler droppedwhere he stood. He was a beautiful bird, with needle-sharp spurs and a 9¾-inchbeard. I whooped and hollered, then thanked him for giving me such anopportunity. As I picked him up, the colors of his head were beginning to fade.My season was over. It couldn't have ended better.

[2] CALLINGBLIND

Set up where you'veseen turkeys before, or in a place where toms come to strut at midmorning.Field edges are great choices. Call frequently, and keep an eye out for birdsthat come in silently.

[This articleconsists of a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy of magazine.] Fence Turkey Path of bird Bird taken Plowed field Tall grasses Setup Trees

(3) Hunt Three: TheAmbush

My hunts all endedby 2:30, but you can kill a turkey right up until sunset where it is legal tohunt all day. In fact, 30 states allow all-day hunting. In the West, you canfire up a Rio or Merriam's in the late afternoon almost as if it weremidmorning. Evening hunts for Eastern turkeys, however, are more like deerhunts. If you know where birds travel between feed fields and the roost, and ifyou are patient, then this can be an excellent time.

A hunt I took a fewyears ago is a perfect example of how it can work--and how to blow it. My friendMD invited me up for an afternoon "sit" on a farm where he'd beenwatching birds. He knew their travel routes, and the plan was for me to watchone while he guarded the other.

The key tactic isto use decoys--as many as five hens with one jake. Build a blind and getcomfortable, as you will be there awhile. Call sparingly, making the occasionalcluck or purr to simulate a contented bird. You're hoping a gobbler sees yourlittle flock and swings by for a look, or even ambles by on his way to bed. Hemay not strut and gobble as he might in the morning, but if he passes withinrange, do you care?

I didn't and hadhigh hopes for the afternoon, but through a failure to communicate, I popped upmy blind at "A" when I was supposed to be at "B." I spent fourhours in that blind, reading a book, napping, and snacking, all the whilekeeping an eye on the decoys.

As it turns out,the gobbler showed up at "B" as he was supposed to, waited around, andleft. Ambushing turkeys is a game of pinpoint positioning, and I was way off.MD had a fine view of the gobbler standing where I was supposed to be, and hehas never let me forget it.

But I'll also neverforget last spring, when I hunted five days and killed two older turkeys onpublic land without waking before the sunrise. My experiment worked. I'llgladly trade the owl hoots, whip-poor-wills, and early-morning gobbles for agood night's sleep and the sight of a turkey with the noonday sun beating downon his black-and-copper feathers as he struts across the rich black earth.

[3] THE AMBUSH

In the lateafternoon the best place to find turkeys is between food sources and roostingareas. Set up in these travel corridors with a blind and several decoys. Havepatience and wait for the birds to come by.

[This articleconsists of a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy of magazine.]

Turkey Ridgeline Path of bird Roost trees Intended setup (B) Actual setup (A) Decoys Pasture