Ten Tips for Hunting Stubborn Spring Turkeys
LET’S FACE IT. Any dimwit can kill a turkey when the birds make it easy. (You probably know a numskull...
LET’S FACE IT. Any dimwit can kill a turkey when the birds make it easy. (You probably know a numskull or two who’s proved this.) But if your turkey vest has any fade on it, you know that most gobblers have a way of making things difficult. So what then? What if the gobblers don’t gobble? What if they want nothing to do with your best calls? Well, you can bumble around the woods, yelping in vain and bumping birds. You can head straight to the nearest diner for some early grub. (Either sound familiar?) Or you can learn the 10 tactics here–and fill your tag anyway.
1: Dig a Hole
Pit blinds aren’t just for waterfowlers anymore, according to (aptly named) champion turkey caller Preston Pittman. “Morning after morning, I watched this mature tom fly off the roost and land in a big field,” he recalls. “That bird would be out there all morning strutting and gobbling, but he wouldn’t budge.” So Pittman did what any savvy goose hunter might do: He dug a shallow pit and lay down in it. When the tom pitched into the field the next morning, Pittman was waiting–this time within gun range. But keep in mind, you don’t always need a shovel. Last spring I watched a Wyoming Merriam’s turkey strut on a bald mountain knob three evenings in a row. On the fourth afternoon, I crawled to the knob, lay on my belly in the grass, and after a long wait shot a surprised gobbler at 30 steps.
2: Hit the Dirt
Lots of hunters act as though their backs are glued to the tree they’re sitting against. Just because a bird won’t come to you doesn’t mean you can’t kill it. If you can see a tom and have tried everything else, don’t discount the possibility of a successful stalk. Be safe: Don’t even think about doing it on public land, or even private land where there may be other hunters around. And never stalk sounds–only birds you have positively identified as living, breathing, legal gobblers. Then unstick yourself from that tree and get moving. Use terrain and cover–including hedgerows, humps, ditches, and creek beds–to get closer. When this stuff can no longer hide you, get down and dirty, right on your belly to crawl within gun range. Wait for the bird to turn away, then shoulder your shotgun and have at it.
3: Wing It
Turkeys talk with their feathers, too. Flapping a wing against a pant leg is a well-known accompaniment to a fly-down cackle, but not many hunters realize a wing can serve as a call by itself. After dueling with a wary public-land tom for three days, my buddy and hardcore turkey hunter Bob Burnett stowed his yelpers the fourth morning. Setting up close to the bird’s roost, he scraped the tips of a wing against the bark of a tree. The tom instantly gobbled back. Bob repeated the drill twice more as the sky lightened, then flapped the wing to sound like a bird flying down. The turkey pitched from the tree, hit the ground strutting, then hit the dirt flapping. “I’d yelped at that gobbler for three days straight and never got within 100 yards,” Bob told me. “But that wing was too much for him.”
Wings aren’t just a fly-down option, either. Bob has also flapped them while mimicking fighting purrs and is convinced the noise adds realism to his staged brawl.
4: Break ‘Em Up
It’s bad enough when hens show up in the vicinity of a tom you’re trying to tag. But when they shack up overnight with him, it’s just about game over. Typically, that gobbler won’t sound off from the morning roost, and you probably couldn’t call him in if he did. So even your odds with a carefully planned but rude awakening. That is, when you see toms and hens flying up to roost together in the evening, wait until pitch-dark or return well before first light and rush under the roost, yelling your head off. If you do a good job of scattering the birds, there’s an excellent chance the tom will be gobbling and looking for his harem as the sky lightens. As soon as he sounds off, quickly close the distance to make sure you’re the first hen he finds.
5: Say Good Night
Turkey hunting and mornings go together like George Hamilton and fake tans. But evenings can be just as satisfying in states that allow dawn-to-dusk hunting. Some years ago, I worked a Texas longbeard that disappeared into the mesquite moments after sunup each morning. After two long days, all I knew about this bird was that he liked to sleep in a certain sprawling live oak. On the afternoon of the last hunt, I looked for and found a somewhat open area just uphill from the tom’s roost. This is where most birds prefer to position themselves before launching into their bedrooms. I set up nearby and put my calls away. The tom slipped in–and I dropped him–just as the sun slid under the treetops.
6: Move It
COMMERCIAL MOTION DECOYS ARE VERY EFFECTIVE. BUT THEY’RE ALSO QUITE SPENDY. So take a tip from champion caller Ricky Joe Bishop, who puts life in his fakes for just pennies with 20 yards of fishing line and a cheap hardware-store eye screw. “Attach the line to the decoy’s chest, then run it through the eye screw,” Bishop explains. “Set the screw in the ground below. When a gobbler shows, gently tug on the line to make the bird’s head bob up and down.”
To give you an idea of how much a little motion can help: Last spring I worked a gobbler for my dad that had its feet absolutely planted in the ground. Knowing we were the only ones hunting the area, I pulled a pair of dekes from my vest, slid the hen into a patch of sunlight at arm’s length, and placed the jake on top of her. I then rubbed the jake back and forth on the hen’s back. When the gobbler spotted this apparent coupling, he broke strut and charged in, offering Pops a gimme shot.
7: Fake a Party
SOMETIMES MORE IS MORE. WHEN A MATURE GOBBLER WON’T COME IN TO ONE OR TWO DECOYS, SHOW HIM A WHOLE FLOCK. Specifically, show him a jake decoy throwing a party attended by three or four hens. In many cases, even the most cautious gobbler won’t stand for this. Set up along a field edge, placing the dekes in the open, well within gun range, and preferably on a knoll where they’ll be highly visible. Put out two or three feeding hens and one with an upright head. Then place the jake closest to you and looking to your left or right. When jealousy gets the better of your tom and he comes in to break up the soiree, he’ll want to have a face-off with the fake jake. This will put him in perfect position for you to take him out, before he realizes that he’s picking a fight with a hollow piece of brown plastic.
8: Go High-Tech
Hearing a tom gobble from his roost at dusk is great, but it’s no guarantee he’ll wake up singing. Bad weather, nearby hens, and any number of far more mysterious factors can mute a bird. One radical solution: Plan to set up so close in the morning that it won’t matter whether he gobbles. While roosting a bird in the evening, run locator calls to keep him talking as you use terrain, cover, and fading light to move secretively toward his bedroom. Keep going till you get scary-close–say within 60 yards. Then choose a good setup area, enter it as a waypoint on a GPS, and wait for full dark to leave. Well before dawn, use the GPS to walk straight to your spot. Now, whether your bird wakes in a chatty mood or not, you’ll know you’re in a good position to call him in. Also, by being near enough to see or at least hear the tom, you’ll know to move if he flies down and wanders off in the wrong direction.
9: Hunt Them Like Deer
There are some gobblers you just aren’t going to be able to call in. The only way to wrap a tag around their legs is to learn their habits and ambush them, just as you do with whitetail deer. That means some serious scouting. Before and during the season, listen to vocal birds closely and keep careful notes to pin down strutting zones, roost sites, and travel routes. Glass fields regularly to discover exactly when and where birds show up in the open. And take that trail camera that’s so handy before deer season, and use it now for turkeys. Last spring my cousin put his on the edge of a field to do some early whitetail scouting–and wound up patterning a big tom.
When you put all your hard-earned info together, you should have a solid grasp of where a given gobbler will show up at a given time. Then all you have to do is set up and wait.
10: Stand and Deliver
Do you believe the only way to shoot a turkey is with your butt touching the turf? This can cost you a safe, lethal shot. Last spring, I yelped up a Wisconsin tom that strode along one side of a ridgetop as I called from the other. At 20 steps the gobbler peeked over the knob, spotted me, and putted an alarm. Years ago, I’d have cursed and left. Instead, I shouldered my gun, stood up, marched toward the bird, and folded him at 35 steps. I’ve used this same method to kill gobblers that have hung up behind brushpiles or other obstructions, or refused to crest a hill. Sure, some turkeys flush as soon as you stand up, but my experience suggests that most hesitate just long enough to give you a clean shot.