Turkey Hunting's 7 Toughest Choices
September 24, 2010
A turkey hunter's success depends on making key decisions. Here are the most difficult choices a hunter typically faces in the field.
by Bruce Ingram
Here is a hard truth about spring gobbler hunting. We tom chasers probably have to make more decisions, often split second ones, than hunters who pursue any other big game animal. Here are seven of the most difficult decisions and some insight on how to make the correct resolution.
WHEN TO MOVE
Scenario: A gobbler has responded to your calls for at least half an hour to 45 minutes. The tom, apparently by himself, is still over a hundred yards away and has shown little movement and is only gobbling sporadically. What should you do?
Possible solution: An interesting gambit for this situation is to move about 50 yards further away from the turkey, cluck lightly, and then be quiet for about 10 minutes. If he gobbles once or twice at your clucks, but still doesn't come in, stop calling and remain motionless for 20 to 40 minutes. This will give him the chance to "come in silent."
Even if he does not respond at all to those soft clucks, it's still a good idea to remain motionless for 20 to 40 minutes giving him the opportunity to saunter in. But if nothing has happened by the end of that interval, return to your original position and cut loudly. Whether he gobbles or not, remain motionless for an hour this time. Chances are fairly good (that is, as good as they can be in this pastime) that he will show up, spitting and drumming but not calling. If, however, the tom does not make an appearance, ease out of the area and work him the next day. In other words, don't ruin your chances for the rest of the season with that gobbler by forcing matters during one outing.
HOW CLOSE TO GET TO A TURKEY YOU CAN HEAR
Scenario: The tom you are working is red hot, gobbling constantly, but he is not progressing toward you. Obviously alone, this tom is ready for action, yet he still won't budge. What should you do?
Possible solution: First, analyze the terrain between you and the bird. If you are on very rough ground, look for coves and hollows to slip through so you can set up really close to the bird, possibly no more than 50 yards. When you see him, chances are that he will almost be within range. If you are in gentle hill country, use the humps and creek bottoms that are typically present so you can get within no more than 75 yards of the monarch.
The author carries a gobbler he killed late in the morning. Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram
If you are in a swamp setting or the lowlands, repositioning yourself will be much more risky, but still can be accomplished. Move only immediately after he has gobbled (otherwise he may be on his way in). And when you do move, do so quickly and only about 10 to 15 yards at a time. Take advantage of any drops in the contour of the land or anything that could conceal your movements. These drops could include stream bottoms or small hummocks, and thickets or dense copses could also mask your approach. Whatever you do, don't try to move closer than 100 to 150 yards of this turkey. Moving closer is very risky and chances are quite good that he will spot you long before you spot him.
When you have moved as close as the terrain will allow, plan to stay put for at least an hour. You have now done the hard work, and this gobbler is very killable. Let him have your entire repertoire of calls, from soft to loud, from box call to wingbone.
WHEN TO CALL MORE
Scenario: Dawn arrives, and some half dozen toms light up the forest with a paroxysm of gobbling. Each tom seems to be competing with his nearest neighbor to see who can utter the most double and triple gobbles. Hens are around as well, and they are yelping, clucking, and purring enthusiastically. You are sitting in the midst of this hullabaloo. What should you do?
Possible solution: Join right in with the rest of the gang. Call loud, often, and just as enthusiastically. If a hen is near you, utter the same call that she is emitting only call louder and more often than she is. If you can lure her to your position, your chances for success will soar and you may kill a gobbler soon afterwards.
The bad news about this scenario is that the hubbub will soon subside, often after about 15 minutes. Some serious courting and mating will then be going on in this little postage stamp of forest. Assuming that you did not entice a hen and thus did not dispatch a tom early on, then your odds for success will have plummeted. The alpha gobbler, and you can be sure that one of those bad boys has earned that distinction, is in for one glorious morning. Hens will be constantly around him, and life will be good. The subordinate males, often called satellite gobblers, will follow discreetly behind the top tom and his harem, frustrated and not knowing what to do about it.
What should you do now? The answer is almost nothing. Sit at your original location until at least ten o'clock in the morning, calling no more than every 20 minutes or so and even then very lightly. Sooner or later, one of those satellite males will tire of being an "associate gobbler" and will stride off to meet his destiny -- you and your shotgun. Your chances of killing a midmorning gobbler are quite good, be patient. Remember that this turkey will almost always come in without gobbling, maybe without even strutting. He will have his radar out for the dominant male, likely having already been thrashed by him earlier in the year. Still, you shouldn't mind killing, say, a fine two-year-old tom with a nine- to ten-inch beard.
WHEN TO CALL LESS
Scenario: At dawn, the woods are eerily silent, and you only hear a few, very sporadic gobbles. This is strange because the day before the woods were alive with the sounds of toms and hens, and sign is everywhere and quite fresh. How do you deal with this situation?
Possible solution: First, the above is not an unusual scenario at all. Turkeys often do not call loudly two mornings in a row. If the first morning has seen an unusually raucous outpouring of turkey rock and roll, the next pre-dawn will likely see a more subdued symphony. You should change your calling approach as well.
If you are used to calling loudly "while on the roost" and making a lot of fly down cackles, don't simulate either situation. Make a few soft "roost" yelps and then a very discreet fly down cackle at the appropriate time. Then, every 20 minutes or so, emit a few soft clucks and purrs. Forget the loud yelping, and in fact, unless you hear some hens issuing soft yelps, don't utter this sound at all.
Another good tactic for this scenario is to scratch in the leaves. This is one of th
e most reassuring sounds to turkeys, and by itself will sometimes draw in birds. After all, most creatures want to feed early in the morning, and scratching certainly imitates birds feeding.
This is also another situation where patience is key. Don't expect a tom to come to your position shortly after flying down. Although that event could occur, the most likely scenario is that you will have to sit for an hour or two before anything happens. Sit still and be ready.
Now, if a tom does ring out several gobbles, then you have a very hot bird for the situation. This is true even though on most mornings a bird that gobbles a few times is definitely not extremely aroused. Take advantage of this relatively hot tom by calling slightly louder than you have been. The old boy could easily show up within shotgun range within 10 to 15 minutes of his gobbling.
WHEN TO CHANGE CALLS
Scenario: You have hunted a gobbler for two or three mornings over the course of a week. You are an expert with, let's say, a slate call -- at least your friends say you are and you have scratched out some of the finest, sweetest, most realistic yelps and clucks known to bird and man. Yet, nothing has happened, and the tom is not even close to being called in and dispatched. What on earth should you do now?
Possible solution: Studies conducted by animal behaviorists have shown that wild turkeys can recognize individual birds. They also can apparently recognize individual "voices" of other birds. These research findings help explain why gobblers can "turn off" to certain calls.
For example, in the scenario above, the first morning you called to that tom was the time that you had the best chance to kill him. When, for whatever reason, that gobbler failed to come in during that initial outing, then you should have not have continued to use that same slate caller with that particular bird.
The point is that you should constantly change calls when working a certain gobbler over a period of several days. For instance, if slates are your favorite calls, then use a traditional call the first morning, a glass the second morning, and an aluminum caller on the third outing. Better still, ply the tom with a box or mouth caller on one of the other mornings. Who knows what sound from which kind of call will set him in motion toward you.
In addition to deploying different calls, you should also change the times and locations that you work a reluctant bird. If you are experiencing difficulty calling him in at dawn, then don't show up in that area until around 9 a.m. Perhaps this particular gobbler has hens with him at daybreak and is not interested in unseen "hens" until later in the morning. Or perhaps this gobbler instinctively knows that the area's predators are more active at dawn and has learned to stay on the roost longer, which is another reason for you to show up later.
Switching calling locations is also a good gambit. Although there may not appear to be any obstructions between you and the bird, there may be some kind of obstacle (at least from the turkey's viewpoint) that keeps him from making a move toward you. Set up either closer or further from him than you have been and do so from a totally different direction.
WHEN TO GIVE UP ON A TOM
Scenario: You have worked a gobbler for five consecutive mornings. Before you did so, several buddies of yours had taken their turns with him and were also unsuccessful at luring him in. You have tried all the calls in your game bag, you have set up at different locations, and you have visited the old boy at different times of the day. This bird has achieved almost legendary status in your circle of hunting friends, and you would be the envy of all of them if you could affix a tag to this turkey. But should you just give up on this bird?
Possible solution: If the season is nearing an end the answer is yes -- you should stop pursuing this particular gobbler. A veteran turkey hunter once told me that if hunters begin to dream about a gobbler, become obsessed with an individual bird, or, heaven forbid, have named a certain tom, then these hunters are showing strong signs that they should stop going after that particular bird.
Now this advice definitely goes against the conventional wisdom that appears in many magazines. When outdoor scribes pen stories about how they killed the "Old Crooked Bearded Monarch of Forbidden Swamp," then you can probably be quite sure that there is more fiction than fact in such an article. Some gobblers, for whatever reason, are virtually unkillable. If you become obsessed with such a bird, he can ruin your entire season and you will have nothing to show for going after him day after day. Forget about that old gobbler and try to find another one to hunt.
If, however, it is still early in the season, leave this particular bird alone until later in the spring. Come back at that time and hunt him for no more than two mornings. If you kill him then, great; if you don't, once again, go looking for another gobbler.
WHEN TO PURSUE A TOM ONE MORE MORNING
Scenario: You have hunted a gobbler for three mornings over the course of a week. One morning, he had hens with him and the group just drifted away from your position over the course of the morning. Another day, the tom came into your calls, but he ambled in behind you and you could not contort your body enough to shoot him. And on the third morning, the bird hung up just outside of shotgun range. Should you give up on this gobbler?
Possible solution: Definitely do not stop pursuing this gobbler. He is very killable. The above scenario is a prime example of a gobbler that has been more lucky than crafty. Let this gobbler "rest" for three or four straight mornings. Then on the next morning, well over an hour before the birds begin to utter tree yelps, move in as close as the terrain allows to this gobbler's roosting grounds.
Using a caller that you have not previously employed for this gobbler, begin the morning by making a series of soft yelps and clucks. When he responds, and it is almost certain that he will, ratchet up your calling intensity several degrees and use several different callers. In effect, you will be creating the illusion that several different hens have entered the area. Enhance this illusion by imitating the sounds of wingbeats when hens fly down to the ground.
After you have emitted those loud calls and the wingbeat sounds, stop calling for at least an hour and periodically make no other sounds except those of birds scratching in the leaves and of birds purring as they forage. The chances are reasonably good that this tom will come in sometime over the course of the morning. He may come in gobbling, he may come in only strutting and drumming, or he may come in silently. But you can believe that he will eventually put in an appearance -- you just have to be patient.
Are these the only scenarios that a turkey hunter will face this spring? The answer is, of course, no. And are the possible solutions offered here guaranteed to make you successful this spring? Even a novice turkey hunter knows the answer to that qu
estion is obviously no.
But the scenarios listed here are quite probably the ones that most of us most often encounter. And the possible solutions offered are sound strategies to try when we are experiencing adversity. And goodness knows, most of us, most of the time, over the course of most seasons have all the adversity we can handle when it comes to chasing after a mature gobbler.
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