“The only absolute in turkey hunting is that there are no absolutes.” This rule rings all-too-true, as veteran turkey hunters know. So we’ve compiled a Top Ten list of off-beat approaches for taking toms.
Turkeys might not be as predictable or easy to pattern as whitetails, but they do have distinct preferences when it comes to things such as travel corridors, dusting and roosting sites and feeding spots. The hunter whose woodsman-ship skills include awareness of these preferences can sometimes intercept turkeys when they follow predictable paths along streams, through gaps in ridgelines or from late afternoon grazing spots to roosting locations.
Often, this is best accomplished through setting up, remaining totally silent and waiting. This can be especially effective if you observe turkeys following a consistent pattern over a period of several days, even as they studiously ignore your calling.
Standard wisdom dictates that when you get a turkey to shock gobble you course the response and close ground a bit. Sometimes that’s fine, but if you’re hunting in territory overrun with hens, rest assured futility is going to become your closest friend.
In Missouri I once had hens “take” 10 toms from me consecutively. The next time one gobbled, I scrambled like crazy to get as close as I dared, and he arrived literally seconds after I backed up against a tree. Even as I squeezed the trigger, the yelps of an approaching hen told me what would have happened had I not made such an aggressive move. You’re sure to occasionally bump some turkeys this way, but closing ground can be an effective hen antidote.
Veteran turkey hunter Mark Drury, when asked how to deal with a gobbler strutting in a field, laughingly answered: “Get a rifle.” Obviously that’s out of the question, but his response reflects the level of frustration such birds can present.
Yet there is one possible answer: If that love-crazed bundle of puffed-up ego won’t come to the mountain, so-to-speak, you’ve got to go the mountain. That might involve digging a pit, much like those sometimes used by goose hunters, and hiding in it.
Alternatively, dress in a ghillie suit (or carry a piece of camo cloth with you as covering) and lie down in the field. It’s awkward, requires incredible patience, and can present difficulties when it comes to getting yourself and your gun in position to shoot, but it’s a desperate measure worth considering.
Watching a lordly tom strut his stuff while surrounded by hens, all the while answering your every call but otherwise studiously ignoring you, can be extremely frustrating. Of course his gobbles in response to your calls say nothing more than, “The party’s over here and you’re welcome to join us.”
One way to resolve this is to crash the party and break it up. Just as the fall hunter attempts to scatter a flock and call the turkeys back in, rest assured that a gobbler suddenly separated from his harem will eventually let loneliness trump alertness. Scatter the birds, making sure you do secondary scatters if the gobbler doesn’t fly off alone, wait a while, and call just as you would under normal circumstances. Sometimes a bird that previously seemed impossible to work becomes responsive once separated from the ladies.
Sometimes, for whatever passes for reason in the pea-sized brain of a turkey, a tom won’t come to a particular setup no matter what you try. It might have nothing to do with intervening obstacles such as fences, downed trees, little creeks or other “hang up” hazards. Maybe he’s in a comfort zone; maybe he’s in a strut zone; or maybe he’s just being a turkey (which is to say, he’s being ornery and unpredictable).
On such occasions, providing the lay of the land permits it, leave your spot and try to move in an arc of at least 90 degrees before setting up and calling again. It’s surprising how often it will work. It’s not the better known approach of walking away, but it does suggest a hen on the move.
Hunters often give thanks for testosterone-charged 2-year-old gobblers, which come to the call like bees are drawn to sugar water. They call them kamikaze turkeys. Once in a great while, and it needs to be only in times of ultimate desperation, you can reverse the kamikaze equation.
If a turkey is visible and you’ve exhausted every possible way to get him to come within range, maybe it’s time for a mad charge. Jump to your feet and race pell-mell toward the tom, making sure you don’t slow down until you’re within shooting range. Once in a while—maybe one time out of five—the gobbler will squat in place rather than suddenly remembering he has urgent business somewhere in the next county. When that happy set of circumstances does transpire, you better be ready to shoot once you stop, because as soon as he realizes the jig’s up, the squatting game is over.
When dealing with a henned-up tom, you probably have a much better chance of killing him by calling in his female company than by getting him to abandon those ladies. One of the best ways to accomplish that is to get the dominant hen of the group—and there is invariably one which is more vocal or “bossy” than the others—irritated.
Try mimicking her every sound. If she yelps three times, do your level best to imitate her. Each time she makes a sound, whether it’s a cluck, a series of yelps, cutting or what have you, give it back to her as precisely as you can. If she starts getting more vocal or shows vexation, put additional emotion into your calling.
Sometimes she will reach the point where, with fire in her eyes and mayhem in whatever it is that passes for a turkey’s mind, she will head your way with a solid dose of butt-kicking in mind. When that happens, you can pretty well count on the rest of the hens coming along at her heels, and ol’ longbeard will bring up the rear, anxious to keep in close proximity to his harem and also possibly under the illusion that he’s so attractive hens will fight for his favors.
Anyone personally familiar with my girth will attest that, physically speaking, I’m not ideally equipped to slither like a snake (well, maybe an anaconda after a really big meal). Still, there comes a time in every turkey hunter’s life when he needs to consider stooping to conquer.
You can get into heated arguments on the ethics of such approaches, and if it troubles you, the answer is simple—don’t take to your belly. For my part, though to creep within range of a wary tom beats the stuffing out of sitting at the edge of a chufa patch in a blind.
Obviously such undertakings should be done with considerable caution and never on public ground. If you do decide to elbow and knee your way toward a tom, make every possible use of anything that might mask your approach. It might be nothing more than a slight rise in a field or some calf-high grass, and try not to take a peek until you think you’re within shooting range. If everything falls apart in such scenarios, you still might be able to fall back on suggestion No. 4 (Fall Tactics: Scatter the flock and call them back in).
All veteran turkey hunters have had experience with a gobbler that simply refused to close ground. The old sinner might have had a bad experience, he might have hens, or maybe he was just born with an extra wariness gene or two. It takes nerves of steel, but maybe you should just get up and leave him, yelping or clucking in ever softer tones as you walk away.
Walk 100-150 yards doing that, then sit down and shut up. Maybe he’ll come and maybe he won’t, but since you hadn’t been able to move him before, calling his bluff is worth a try.
If you’re close enough to hear a gobbler spitting and drumming, and you’ve waited a long time without him closing the gap to within shooting distance, try giving him a dose of his own medicine. Drag a turkey wing across dry leaves in an effort to make it sound just like another bird wearing his feathers out while strutting. Rest assured that if you can hear drumming, he’ll hear the soft rustle of feathers against forest floor.
Alternatively, try a different sound effect: your best imitation of a flock of hens interacting. That can involve running a box and a mouth call simultaneously (although if you can figure out how to run two calls at once in a different cadence you’re a wizard), switch calls every few seconds for a series of yelps spread over a minute or so, or if hunting with a buddy, try one of the above as a sort of sidelight while he’s doing some fighting purrs.
SOME COMBINATION THEREOF
As one of the grand ol’ sporting scribes of yesteryear, Horace Kephart, once suggested, “In the school of the outdoors, there is no graduation day.” That certainly applies to turkey hunting, because you never know when an unorthodox tactic might be just the trick to fill your tag. By all means give tried-and-true techniques their due, because there’s a reason they became accepted wisdom.
At the same time, though, as Kephart was suggesting, keep an open mind and be an old dog willing to try and learn new tricks. There are occasions when offbeat approaches provide precisely the turkey-taking answer you’ve been seeking, and one of the 10 suggestions above just might be the trick that works.