It was the final day of Missouri’s spring turkey season and I had yet to take my second bird. I’d had a long streak of filling both my spring tags and I wasn’t about to let my batting average take a dip just because the gobblers weren’t cooperating.
I’d been hunting a farm in Jefferson County near my home and by the middle of the second week the toms had heard all the owl hoots, crow calls and hen yelps they could stand. By now, most of the 2-year-old gobblers had probably already been killed and all that were likely left were 3-year-old-plus longbeards. Those wizened old gobblers don’t come running to the call, and they don’t like to gobble a whole lot. It was time to try a new game plan.
TACTICS FOR TAKING PRESSURED TOMS
It doesn’t matter if you are hunting public or private property, once the gobblers get educated to the hunting season, it’s my opinion that they turn into a different animal, or bird, so to speak.
Tad Brown of Preston is in charge of new product development for M.A.D. Calls and Flambeau Decoys. He’s been a competition caller and has appeared in many hunting videos and on TV shows. I was fortunate to be on the same episode of the Outdoor Traditions (hosted by Brad Harris) television show with Tad several years ago. We were spring turkey hunting in Missouri and both of us got big adult toms on video. Most relevantly, Tad has killed a couple of hundred turkeys in his 35 years of pursuing them. Combined, Tad and I have 68 years of turkey-hunting experience. Here are 10 tried and true tactics from Tad and me for taking high-pressured Missouri gobblers.
As far as decoys go, Brown has a very interesting theory that makes perfect sense. He believes that by using feeding hen decoys he has better success than he does when using standing hen decoys.
"Just consider when you see several hens with a strutting tom, almost all of the hens have their heads down feeding," Brown said. "I like to use Flambeau’s feeding hen decoy with a King Strut strutting gobbler decoy. It’s a deadly combination."
Sometimes turkeys just can’t resist coming to investigate a real-looking decoy setup. They may not gobble at all but come strutting all the way in to your dekes. Be prepared and keep your eyes scanning in all directions.
Get in Tight
You can really up your odds of killing a high-pressured gobbler by knowing where he roosts in the morning and then by getting in as close as possible before daylight. Glass for birds going to roost, or get one to answer an owl hoot or peacock scream at dusk to reveal the roost site. Slip in well before first light and ease up on the bird as close as you dare. This tactic will often take a cagey old bird by surprise and he will respond to your calls much better. Heck, if you’re close enough he might just fly down into your lap!
Call Softly and Infrequently
Usually after a week or two of pressure from hunters hooting at dawn, crow cawing throughout the rest of the day, and yelping over and over, turkeys seem to wise up. In situations like those, I like to call very little and very softly. Soft yelps, purrs and clucks work for me.
At daylight, I prefer to wait for the tom to sound off without provocation instead of using locator calls when the pressure is on. Once you know where the bird is, get as close as possible and then call. Try to resist calling back to him when he answers or else he is likely to hang up out of range.
Take a Tom’s Temperature
Brown comes from the school of thought that there’s no such thing as a call-shy bird. According to him, if gobblers got call shy and didn’t come in to every hen call they heard because they thought it was a hunter trying to kill them, then we would never have any baby turkeys. It makes sense!
"A wild turkey’s God-given defense is being squirrelly, nervous and wary," Brown said. "Because of those senses, they just appear to be smart."
So how does Brown call to these wary old longbeards? Well, as a doctor of "tomology," he likes to gauge a tom’s gobbling fever.
"I like to take a gobbler’s temperature," Brown said. "What I mean is that I’ll pay close attention as to how the gobbler responds to my calling and then call back to him in the same manner."
If the toms aren’t talking much, like they don’t when they’ve been pressured for a while, Brown will call infrequently. However, if he gets a tom fired up, one that cuts him off before he finishes a series of calls, then he turns up the heat and calls aggressively.
Gobble At Them
Unless you are hunting private land and you know who is and who isn’t on your property, I don’t recommend this tactic. But if you can, try using a shaker gobbler call or gobble with a box call at a high pressured tom. Sometimes this is all it will take to drive a cagey old tom crazy. The last thing he wants is a strange gobbler coming into his territory and trying to breed his hens.
But remember, safety first!
Call To The Hens
"Remember, I personally don’t believe gobblers are smart enough to reason or get call shy," Brown said. "In most cases, if a tom gobbles once and then not again, it’s likely that he has a hen with him."
In situations like this, try calling to the hens the old tom has gathered up in his harem. Use long, extended series of yelps and try to get one of the hens fired up. She just might start heading your way and drag Mr. Longbeard with her — right into your lap.
Sometimes just the opposite of soft and subtle calling is needed to fire up those high-pressured gobblers. Try using a high frequency designed call and work it hard, loud and often. This can be a fantastic way of getting a shut-mouthed gobbler into working himself up into a frenzy.
Pay Attention To Your Setup
Don’t make it hard for a pressured gobbler to come to your calls. If he’s on the other side of a fence, creek or highway, you get over on that side he’s on, if possible, before calling to him. You want to make his trip home with you as easy as possible for him!
"If you know where the turkeys are hanging out, sitting in a ground blind and waiting for them to come through is a great tactic." Brown said. "Years ago you couldn’t pay me to sit in a blind, but since then I’ve killed a lot of turkeys this way."
According to Brown, if he hears a gobbler sounding off from the same location but he won’t come in, he likes to go back to that area in the evening, set up a ground blind and some decoys, and then come back before daylight to ambush the veteran gobbler.
Place Hunter I.Q. And Woodsmanship Over Calling
"I think calling ability is way over-rated. As long as you can sound half-way like a turkey, you can get them to come in," Brown added. "However, woodsmanship and knowledge of turkey behavior is paramount to a hunter’s success."
Going out before the season and practicing on real wild turkeys on places that you don’t hunt or the owner won’t allow hunting is a great way to gain experience.
PUBLIC LAND HOTSPOTS
Now that you have a good idea of what to do when the hunting gets tough, you need to have a place to try out those tactics. To accommodate that end, here are some of Missouri’s best bets for killing a spring gobbler.
Woodson K. Woods Memorial Conservation Area
This 5,658-acre public tract is located in Crawford and Phelps counties in the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Ozark Region. It features 4,670 acres of woods, 300 acres of crops, 325 acres of old fields, 150 acres of grasslands and 40 acres of savanna, with the balance in other habitat.
According to the MDC, the area has a good population of turkeys. Private campgrounds are located near the area, but no camping is allowed on the site. For more information, call the MDC at (573) 368-2225.
Reform Conservation Area
This 6,759-acre public hunting land is located in southeastern Callaway County in the MDC’s Central Region. It includes 1,900 acres of woods, 1,369 acres of crops, 2,700 acres of grassland, and 1,000 acres of old fields. It also features a 50-acre savannah.
The MDC rates the turkey population on the area as good. There is good access throughout the area and hunters can choose to park in one of 17 different parking lots there. For more info, call the MDC at (573) 254-3330.
LaBarque Creek CA
This 638-acre area is relatively small compared to the others featured in this article, but it has a lot going for it. First, it is a relatively new area and not many hunters have caught onto it yet. Second, access to the area is relatively poor with only one parking lot and a tremendously steep hill to conquer to access the tops of the ridges in this big timbered woodland. This is sure to keep out all but the most determined hunters.
Located in Jefferson County in the MDC’s St. Louis Region, the Department of Conservation rates the turkey population there good. The tract is mostly all woods with a 4-acre glade. For more info, contact the MDC at (636) 441-4554.
J.N. "Turkey" Kearn Memorial Wildlife Area
With a name like that, the area has to be good for spring turkey hunting! The MDC does indeed rate the turkey population there good.
This 1,674-acre area is located in Johnson and Pettis counties in the MDC’s Kansas City Region. It features 423 acres of woods, 828 acres of old fields, 60 acres of grassland, with the balance in other habitat. For more info call (660) 530-5500.
Back to the story I was telling you at the beginning of the article. Every morning I’d hear a tom sound off from the far northwest corner of the farm I was hunting, but he’d only gobble a few times on the roost and then he’d shut up once he flew down. I knew what I had to do to kill that old bird.
The next morning I sneaked into the gobbler’s lair at least a half-hour before sunrise and waited for dawn. I would have to trust my hunting experience and patience to lure the bird within gun range.
As the eastern horizon lightened, songbirds began singing. I wanted to owl call to provoke the tom into gobbling, but I resisted. I could barely see 10 feet in front of me when a turkey that sounded as if it were a mile away gobbled. You guessed it, the gobbler I was after boomed back with a thunderous gobble from his usual roosting place just 80 yards away.
My run-and-gun instinct was to immediately answer the tom with some tree yelps while he was on the roost, but I knew this situation was different. I remained silent and listened to the tom gobble four more times during a 15-minute period.
It was full daylight when I heard the gobbler flap his wings and hit the ground. He gobbled again once he was down. That’s when I finally called to him with the softest, short yelps I could scratch out on my M.A.D. Super Aluminator pot call.
The gobbler answered back immediately. I refrained from answering the tom and the waiting game began.
It was nearly five minutes before that turkey gobbled again but he was in the same spot. I remained quiet. Another few minutes expired and the tom sounded off again from his previous location where he’d hit the ground off the roost.
Again I stayed silent. After another 10 minutes I finally sent out a few soft clucks and quietly purred to the gobbler. He instantly answered. I put my pot-and-peg call down, propped my shotgun up on my knee, held it to my shoulder and waited.
A full 20 minutes went by, that cagey tom couldn’t stand the fact that I wouldn’t answer his gobbles, which were spaced about five minutes apart. Finally, on the last gobble I could tell that he was working his way down the fenceline toward me. Five minutes later I finally spotted his glowing white/blue head and red wattles about 45 yards away as he went in and out of strut all the way to within 25 yards of me before I smashed him with a load of No. 5s from my Winchester Model 1300.
That old gobbler had 1 1/4-inch spurs that were hooks, sported an 11-inch beard, but he only weighed 17 pounds. His tail fan was missing two feathers and he looked beat down and worn out.
That longbeard was like every tom I take that’s hard to kill — super special to me. It always gives me great satisfaction knowing that all my years of turkey hunting experience is paying off.
You too can enjoy good success once the going gets tough on high-pressured Missouri toms this spring. Just follow the advice in this article and get ready for action!