When most turkey hunters think about a typical setup, they think about sneaking in as close as possible to a gobbling tom during the morning. That’s because many spring turkey hunters only hunt the first couple of hours of the day and then leave the woods altogether. That’s unfortunate, because during the past few years I’ve come to find that the last hour or two of the day is often more productive than those early morning hunts, and I now make it a point to hunt turkeys until dark whenever possible. Here are a few pointers for productive hunting in the last hours light.
You have three advantages as a hunter in the final hours of light:
1) Gobblers are fairly patternable at this time of day.
2) They often become vocal and receptive to calling before they go to roost.
3) Even if you don’t harvest a bird late in the day, you can gain valuable information by observing turkeys as they head for their roost trees.
CREATURES OF HABIT
While turkeys don’t necessarily roost in the same tree night after night, many have a favored roost tree that they’ll use regularly. If you hunt a tom at first light but don’t tag him, going back to that same general area late in the day can be a great strategy.
Last year in Kansas, I hunted with good friend and Under Armour pro staffer Chris Parrish. He’s won numerous national and world calling hampionships, and to me, sounds more like a turkey than a real turkey does. But Chris isn’t just a stage caller, he’s one of the most experienced and successful turkey hunters in the country, and every time we hunt together I learn something. Last spring was certainly no different.
Parrish and hunting partner Rod Pettit had seen a big gobbler crossing a gravel road and heading into a large pasture during the late afternoon on multiple occasions. They hadn’t hunted the bird, but they knew at least part of his routine. There was a row of trees bordering a creek at one edge of the field, and they believed he was roosting in a stand of large cottonwoods near the middle of the tree row.
The first afternoon, we slipped in to set up on the tom, but he was already there and we bumped him. The next evening after dinner, we made a cautious approach and set up undetected. Parrish and I called off and on while Rod took a well deserved and much needed nap about 30 yards away. I’d placed my Hazel Creek stuffer decoy about 25 yards in front of us, and before long, a group of three hens approached. We got the hens talking, and eventually three more hens trickled in and joined the others.
Less than an hour before dark a coyote howled, and a gobble rang out from just over a small rise in the field. Parrish laid out the prettiest yelps I’ve ever heard, but the tom didn’t answer. Within a couple of minutes, his fan appeared as he slowly strutted toward my decoy.
Chris called softly to keep the hens close and relaxed, and after about 10 minutes of putting on a beautiful show that was backlit by the soft evening sun, the Kansas longbeard stepped within range of my Thompson Center Encore shotgun.
The big Eastern never even flopped, but Rod nearly jumped out of his skin after the blast from my shotgun abruptly woke him. As we walked over to the bird, Parrish told me that he has lots of success hunting turkeys during the late afternoon, and he always tries to hunt at that time of day if possible.
“I think even when turkeys aren’t as vocal after flydown in the morning, they sort of get back in that early morning mode for an hour or two before going back to roost,” he said. “Many times, gobblers will fire back up late in the day and they’ll actively seek out hens. I think they want to try to breed just before they fly up, and at a minimum, they want to get into a position where they can roost near the hens so they can make their play the next morning.”
COOLER AIR TEMPS MEAN HOT ACTION
Cooler air temperatures can also influence wild turkey activity as the sun slips in the West, Pettit says. “During the last hour or so of the day, temperatures usually cool down, and if birds have been inactive because of midday heat, they’re often ready to cut loose later on in the day,” he said. “I personally like to hunt the birds until late morning, then take a break and head back out during the late afternoon. You can get some work done, or rest up during the midday hours when turkeys are usually loafing and inactive, and concentrate your hunting during the times when they’re most receptive to calling.”
I used the same strategy with similar results in Oklahoma and Oregon last year when birds were silent virtually all day, but as they grouped back up before going to roost, they became vocal and callable.
If you get close to a tom late in the day, but don’t kill him, you can gain very valuable information from the experience that can be put to good use later. The more you learn about a gobbler, the better chance you will have to harvest him, so even if you don’t get a shot, being in the field until sundown can pay off in spades.
Watching a gobbler during the late afternoon can give you an idea of how he enters an area near his roost, and that will often be the same way he leaves the area after flydown in the morning. I always look at it as good reconnaissance for two more hunts. First, if I saw the tom’s approach and then watched him fly up to roost, I’ll try to get back in the morning and set up accordingly.
If I can’t hunt him the next morning, or if I hunt him unsuccessfully then, I’ll try to make a late afternoon setup along the route I saw him take the evening before. Another benefit to actually witnessing a gobbler fly up to roost is you’ll know exactly where he is the next morning.
Jeff Noel lives in northern Kentucky and is one of the best turkey hunters I’ve ever met. I’ve hunted with him for years in Kentucky and Florida, but we’ve always been jinxed whenever we hunted together near our homes in Kentucky. Last spring, Jeff called one night just as I was going to bed and told me he’d hunted until dark that afternoon and watched a big tom fly up in some cedars just off a ridgetop pasture.
He thought he knew exactly where the bird would go the next morning, and said I should be at his house an hour and a half before dawn. I left my house in the middle of the night, made the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive and met Jeff at his house super early.
There was rain in the forecast, but it hadn’t hit yet. Noel led me to two big cedar trees about 50 yards from the edge of the woods that provided the only cover in the field. I placed my decoy, and we settled in, with more than an hour until daylight.
We sat for 30 minutes through a pouring rain, and as the sky lightened slightly, thunder rolled in the distance. Two or three toms sounded off every time the storm rumbled, but the bird that we’d come to hunt never made a peep. After 20 minutes of hard gobbling from the distant toms, Jeff simulated a flydown by flapping a turkey wing and making a flydown cackle. After a couple of minutes, Noel leaned over and whispered, “I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I promise you there’s a big gobbler really close to us.”
And I believed him, because I could see the bird about 60 yards out and heading straight for the decoy! The big, wet tom never said a thing, but he marched right up to the decoy and promptly took a load of Nitros in the waddles. Noel had the gobbler pegged because he’d watched him the evening before, and because of his recon work, I harvested my biggest turkey ever. That Kentucky gobbler weighed 28 pounds and 5 ounces on two different scales. He was an absolute monster.
SETUPS AND CALLING
When hunting turkeys during the late afternoon, I like to get into a location where I expect a gobbler to be well before I expect him to be there. Because I often stay in one place for 2-3 hours, I like to make sure I’m comfortable and well hidden.
Depending on the situation, I’ll sometimes use a Double Bull portable ground blind, or at minimum try to build a crude hideout from natural vegetation. If you have to make a long sit, you won’t be able to sit still if you’re not comfortable.
And if you can’t sit still, odds are high you’ll get busted by a sharp-eyed tom.
If I have a general idea about where a tom’s roosting and how he’s approaching the area, I’ll try to set up close to his route, but not too close to where I think he’ll roost because if I don’t get a shot at him that evening, I want to be able to leave the area without bumping him off the roost. Doing so could change his travel pattern completely, making it tough to pinpoint him the next morning.
After getting set up, I usually make a calling sequence every 10 minutes. Once you get a response or have visual contact with a gobbler, you can then read his body language and decide how to proceed. Sometimes you just have to call softly to get him coming toward you or keep hens around you close enough to lure him in-like on my Kansas hunt. Other times, a tom might crank up and gobble for all he’s worth to aggressive calling.
LEARN BY CALLING AT NIGHT
I once hunted a bird in western Kentucky that came into a huge field every evening, strutted for 2 hours and flew up to roost at one end of the field or the other. Each time I chose an end of the field to set up on, the tom would go to the opposite end to roost while gobbling at my every call. So, I decided to station myself in the wood line near the center of the field, and I told myself I’d simply let the decoys do the work and not call.
The tom came out of the woods on cue and strutted behind two hens 150 yards away from me for 20 minutes while displaying for my decoys.
After 20 minutes, he finally turned to follow the hens, and I couldn’t take it any more. I called aggressively on my Knight & Hale Silver Queen aluminum call, and he double-gobbled and turned toward me.
Every time I called to him, he sounded off and came a couple of steps closer. When I went silent, he just stood and strutted. So as all aggressive turkey hunters love to do, I poured it on with my friction call and a diaphragm call.
In response to my calling, he gobbled like a bird just off the roost and steadily marched toward my gun barrel.
When he got approximately 70 yards out, he couldn’t take it any more and sprinted into my decoys where my Encore 12 gauge ended the party. That evening hunt was as exciting as any morning hunt I’ve ever had and proves that hunting turkeys during last light can be very productive.
This spring make an effort to hunt turkeys at the end of the day. I used to go out right at dark and try to roost birds with a locator call, but now I make sure I’m in the field with my gun, calls and decoys. Last light is a great time to harvest a longbeard, and if everything doesn’t work to perfection, you’ll at least have valuable information to use on a future hunt.