by Terry Madewell
Wild turkey gobblers may be basically created equal at birth, give or take a few genetic characteristics, but the “equal” part of that statement changes dramatically as they get older. The older and more dominant the gobbler, the harder it is to end the day with him slung over your shoulder.
In fact, many of the basic turkey hunting rules that beginning hunters learn from magazines, books, from folks who actually hunt turkeys or from their own hunting experiences provide insightful and factual information on hunting “average” gobblers – birds that are 2 years old. Learning these tactics is a process that all gobbler chasers must work through.
But the truth is there’s often more to the sport than simple recipes or formulas for success. Each and every gobbler is different and may require adjustments to the basic ground rules. However, whether by choice or circumstance you take on the older, dominant gobblers in the area, you’ve entered another zone of competition where the rules that you’ve learned suddenly may not apply.
I sometimes hate that I love to hunt dominant gobblers. Through the years 2-year-old birds have on occasion whipped me soundly, but it is the 3-year-old and older birds that define the mystic that is associated with longbeards. I have reached the conclusion that these older gobblers may really have the ability to vanish from the face of the earth and move about as ghosts. These old birds are the ones that have necks mounted on swivels so they can see 360 degrees. Sometimes I think they can even see through trees and over ridge tops.
These old gobblers are the most cautious animals in the woods. While they may strut majestically in the middle of an open field and honor your calling with frequent gobbles and even double gobbles, they have learned the ways of their would-be assassins. Letting you know they’re there and letting you kill them are two different things. Taking advantage of that difference is how these birds got to be old.
These gobblers have developed a different way of doing business during the days of spring courtship. To take on a limb-hanging, long-spurred gobbler that has made a few laps through the spring woods, you need to either adjust your style of hunting from that of hunting or hope for some exceptional luck.
Changing your hunting plan to put yourself into a position of taking a dominant gobbler is work, but if you pursue turkeys for the enjoyment of the hunt itself, you need to take on a dominant bird at least once this spring.
The first rule is to have no rules when hunting these birds. To consistently get in the move and countermove game with these turkeys, you’ve got to react to situations with your gut instinct and work with a “seat of your pants” philosophy. I have found my best and most memorable hunts are those where the old gobbler got to me in a personal way. When it gets personal, I’ll assign the rascal a name and commit to the maximum level of effort necessary to put a tag on that gobbler.
The strength of a dominant gobbler lays in its role as king in the area it rules. If you only hear one or two birds gobbling in woods that you know are full of turkeys, it’s quite possible that you’re in the home range of a dominant gobbler. The 2-year-old birds are quiet because if they gobble or even look twice at a hen, the dominant gobbler will find and thrash them. Take out the dominant bird and the same woods may produce a half-dozen or dozen different birds sounding off within a short period of time. Because the young toms fear the older bird, the dominant gobbler seldom gets in a hurry or throws caution to the wind, even during the breeding season. Obviously, this makes him more difficult to kill.
He also knows every tree, bush, limb and stump in his territory. It will notice anything out of place. This tom most likely has had unpleasant experiences with fake hen calling. He has learned that hens come to him when it’s breeding time and thus, has unbelievable patience.
However, these dominant birds also have a few weaknesses that we can exploit. First, they do not particularly enjoy a situation in which a hen sounds ready to breed but shows no interest in coming to them.
A team of two hunters, or one very good woodsman with a four-leaf clover in his pocket, can sometimes exploit this weakness. If you get the old bird interested in your calls, but he refuses to approach, one hunter, staying out of sight, can slip away and call as he vacates the area. Do not call aggressively. The calls should be subtle feeding and “contented hen” calls. Calling with an “I’ll see you later – maybe” attitude sums it up best.
The other hunter – the shooter – stays in the last permanent calling position and is stone still, using only his eyes to search for the gobbler. If the gobbler sounds off a couple of times and hushes or if he just gets quiet, odds are good that the shooter will see the gobbler in short order. Typically, the bird approaches the last place the “hen” called, which should put him in shooting range.
This brings me to my personal golden rule for hunting a dominant gobbler: Do unto him before he can do unto you. I know that he will vacate the area in a heartbeat if anything seems out of place. Therefore, the closer this bird gets to my position, the less likely I am to take him. Closer is not better. Long before he slips into view, have your kill zone defined and then take the first good shot you have. Not recommending a marginal shot, but at the yardage where you are assured of a clean kill with the particular gun used. If you don’t know that range, then you should not be in the turkey woods anyway.
The first step this gobbler takes that puts him within your “clean shot” zone should be the turkey’s last step. Every second you wait after that dramatically decreases the chances of taking that bird. Because the cover and terrain of each setup varies, the first clean shot chance may be as close as 15 yards. But be prepared to finish the job at 35 yards, if you can.
Using the retreating hen tactic is more difficult if you are alone, because you must fill the roles of the retreating hen and the stationary shooter. With an old gobbler, you can’t really expect him to follow you through the woods. For a 2-year-old bird, you may be able to get away with going 50 to 75 yards, setting up and possibly have him approach close enough for a shot. But in the case of an old bird, you need to try and return to the original calling position as close and as quickly as p
ossible, while remaining unseen and unheard. It’s paramount that the boss believes the hen has vacated the area and that he doesn’t realize that you are in the woods between him and that “hen.”
Another weakness of boss gobblers is that often they do not tolerate a subordinate gobbler that attempts to breed a hen. In public-land hunting, I never use gobbler calls. It just isn’t worth the risk of being targeted by another hunter. I have done so on private lands, however, with excellent results. Often the boss gobbler literally breaks into run like a rooster to flog the upstart younger tom, if he thinks his dominance has been challenged.
I learned this on a hunt years ago. I had pursued the king of that patch of woods all afternoon and after being thoroughly whipped, the best I could do was roost him. The next morning I was set up, but he flew down, henned up quickly and hovered about 100 to 200 yards from me for three hours. He would gobble to my calls but would not come. While pondering where to move to try to flank him, I saw another gobbler sneaking in from the opposite direction. Really wanting the boss, I let the young bird get to within 15 yards. He looked all around for the hen he had heard and finally clucked twice, using the “Where are you?” clucks gobblers give. I thought the clucks were fairly subtle, but they were answered immediately by a booming gobble that seem to strike fear into the young tom. This gobbler had about 3/4-inch spurs, a 9- to 10-inch beard and weighed in the 18-pound class – not bad for a 2-year-old for the region I was hunting. But this tom literally froze in place at the sound of the dominant bird’s gobble. Within moments the boss bird crested a rise from the hardwood bottom and upon seeing the king approach, the second bird turned and ran at full speed.
At this point, the boss gobbler went into full strut. Fortunately for me, he was also within range. I clucked softly and he upped periscope, presenting the shot I wanted.
Admittedly, that was the four-leaf clover lucky stuff I referred to earlier. I did, however, learn from the experience, and when appropriate, I’ll use this tactic against an old gobbler.
Now let’s explore some of the habits that a hunter needs to practice when taking on the boss gobbler in your woods.
First, every aspect of what a hunter does – maintaining silence, holding still, calling well and setting up in the right place – is far more important than it would be during a hunt for a young bird. Dominant birds need to be approached with the overriding philosophy that they are actively looking for a reason to break off the game. If the calling is too aggressive or maybe too subtle; if the woods are too quiet or perhaps too noisy; if the setup position is too concealing or perhaps too open – anything can be reason enough for an individual gobbler to break off his approach before coming into shotgun range. Almost paranoid attention to detail is in order.
Most turkey hunting experts agree that subtle calling is overwhelmingly the best tactic to use on these birds. Each one is the boss in his area and thus is difficult to boss around, even by a lovelorn hen. If the gobbler is hammering out gobbles on the roost, then getting aggressive sometimes works really well and really fast. But almost every time I kill a bird quickly just off the roost, there are several gobblers sounding all around the woods, and the bird that comes in to be killed is almost always a 2-year-old bird.
When I hear a single bird or only very few gobbles in the morning, I cut back my calling a bit, making it more subdued from the beginning. If the gobbler gets really hot, the calling can always heat up then.
As noted earlier, other gobblers sometimes sneak in while you’re working a boss gobbler. Occasionally the boss comes in for a look as well, but he is prone to do so silently. For that reason, if he has been occasionally gobbling at my calls but not approaching, then suddenly quits responding, odds are good he’s coming in for a look. Unlike younger birds, however, this old guy may only come in close enough to peek around a bush or tree. He expects to see a hen standing where you are sitting. If instead he spots you sitting there scratching your head, he disappears, and you will likely never know the bird was there.
This situation is one where a decoy can work for you. A standard jake-on-the-hen setup sometimes causes an old gobbler to zoom in on a dead run, intent on whipping the tar out of the fake jake. Other times, just seeing a realistic looking hen decoy is enough to tempt him to continue in for a closer inspection.
Be careful about how you set up your decoy or decoys. Try to put the decoy in a position such that an approaching gobbler will be within range of you when he first sees the decoy. I’ve had a gobbler see the decoy, be completely fooled, but his dominant nature caused him to go into full strut and walk back and forth just out of range for an hour before turning and leaving, never offering a shot.
When considering your setup, select one that offers a wide field of vision. An old gobbler may circle you as he comes in, so prepare for that possibility when you make your original setup.
I love calling to turkeys, but sometimes the most deadly lure is being silent. At times it appears that a tom’s curiosity gets the best of him. For example, if you get an active and repeated response from a gobbler and then you shut up, the gobbler occasionally just has to come see if the hen really had the audacity to leave while in the midst of conversation. It has worked often enough that I am forced to use this tactic occasionally. Although I prefer to be talking to the turkey, silence can also be woodsman skill.
One other tactic has worked well on occasion for these dominant birds, if you know the woods well and can anticipate where the gobbler is headed. I began to use this tactic because so many dominant gobblers sounded in reply to calls, but then they just walked away. If you have an idea of where he is headed, it is possible to set up close to his route.
It is essential to not overcall in this situation. Instead, call like you’re a hen that doesn’t know or care that the boss gobbler is around. One of the most memorable hunts of my entire life ended successfully when I employed this tactic after 11 hours of frustration.
I have purposely waited until last to discuss patience. Almost every successful hunt for a dominant gobbler begins and ends with patience. This is where the personal touch comes in handy. When the hunt evolves into a game of move and counter-move, it can be necessary to commit to an entire day in woods with the gobbler.
Don’t let the patience of an old gobbler force you into errors. That is one of his strengths that you must turn to your advantage to be consistently successful. If you want to hunt a boss tom, accept that your hunt may not even begin and end on the same day. You could get hung up all season on a single such gobbler.
The key to success is to have a game plan and work that plan with patience and persistence. Those are two of the best allies you can employ. If you get frustrated and have that hard-to-resist urge to mak
e a “do-or-die” move, it usually is not the boss gobbler that does the dying.
Remember, in reality these dominant gobblers can’t vanish, can’t see through trees or over the top of ridges. During the spring mating season, they want a good love life, they just want it on their own terms. Like the hen you’re trying to mimic, they may not be easy, but they can be had.
After all, they’re just turkeys.
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