The Key to More Gobblers
September 24, 2010
If you want to find big toms, stop thinking like a gobbler and start thinking like the hens the gobblers are looking for. Follow these experts' tips to bag more turkeys.
By Ken Duke
For those in the know, turkey hunting is an obsession. Many veteran deer hunters have entered the turkey woods only to come out as a clucking and cackling convert. They forget all about inside spreads and antler mass, preferring to talk about beard and spur length.
To the diehard turkey hunter, the uninitiated are simply those who haven't given the sport a fair chance. Maybe they hunted the wrong area, used the wrong call, or twitched when they needed to hold dead still.
Whether you're still a novice or can boast about taking several fine toms, it's likely that there's room for improvement in your hunting. Maybe your calling could stand some refinement. Maybe you need to brush up on your knowledge of the area you hunt. It's possible that your woodsmanship could use some work.
Maybe you need to get a new perspective on things. That's exactly what Mike Mayfield and Cameron Harrington decided a few years ago, just before their turkey hunting productivity took a quantum leap forward.
Mayfield and Harrington have been hunting gobblers for more than two decades with great success. So much success, in fact, that they are pro staff members of a major camouflage manufacturer and a major gun manufacturer. When they are not in the woods calling turkeys and deer, they can generally be found at regional, state or national calling competitions where they bring home more than their share of the trophies. Recently, they started their own line of game calls for turkey and deer.
A few years ago, Mayfield and Harrington realized that hunters were putting too much emphasis on thinking like the male turkey they were targeting rather than the female turkey they were imitating in the woods. It just didn't make sense.
"When you think about it, turkey hunters should put a lot more emphasis on the ability to think like a hen and anticipate a hen's movements rather than put themselves in the mind of the gobbler," Mayfield explains. "After all, it's the hen we're trying to imitate, and accuracy, both in calling and in location, can be critical to success. How many times have you heard a hunter say, 'Those hens stole my gobbler and led him right away from me.'"
Getting in touch with our hen side may seem more difficult than it really is. According to Mayfield, you can break a hen's life down into four activities in the spring: roosting, feeding, breeding and loafing (or dusting). Get a handle on these and you can preheat your oven, fire up the smoker or call the taxidermist. The bird is on the way!
ROOSTING Every turkey hunter whose worth his salt knows the area where the birds he's hunting are roosting before he goes into the woods. After all, if the birds aren't around, you're not going to be successful in hunting. Mayfield and Harrington break the spring hunting season into two parts: early and late season. Early in the season, when things are still cool, a hen will generally be caring for her poults from the previous year. Other hens and poults will be in the area and it's almost like a neighborhood of hens and poults. There may be a young but mature gobbler with the hens and poults, or even a gang of jakes. It's even more likely that the toms will be grouped together and the jakes will be ganged together. A mature tom will generally run any jake away. That's why you tend to see them together -- a bunch of bachelors out on the prowl. This time of year is prime for calling.
Late in the spring turkey season, the hens are generally sitting on their eggs. They are separate from the gobblers and like it that way. After all, by this time, the gobbler has done his job and the hens have no further use for him. You won't hear a hen much during this time because she has no desire to draw a tom to her. If a tom comes upon a hen at this time, he may destroy her nest so that she'll have the need to breed again.
The exception to this rule is when the hens have left the gobbler to begin laying the eggs. At this time, the mature tom has gone from a harem of eight to 15 hens to none at all. Then the gobbler panics and begins a gobbling frenzy of sorts and peak gobbling sets in. At this point, even the most mature of toms is as vulnerable as a buck during the rut!
Mayfield and Harrington also break down the roosting activities and habits, according to the weather. "During periods of good weather, hens will tend to roost high in the trees of a ravine or draw," Harrington says. "From this roost they'll make a short flight down to the ground, flying nearly perpendicular to the tree trunk and across to the nearest part of the hillside."
Another reason the hens will roost high during periods of good weather is that they can hear and be heard from far away at this time. During times of bad weather, on the other hand, hens will roost in lower trees where they are protected from winds, rain and other unfriendly elements.
Putting it together. Since the hens are quieter late in the season when they're sitting on their eggs, the hunter should be sparing with his call. Earlier in the season you can generally get away with more aggressive calling since the hens are actively seeking a tom. Also, use the weather to your advantage by understanding not only the general area being used by the hens for roosting purposes, but also the section of tree (middle or top) they are using. Put yourself in the spot where hens would naturally fly down and you're more likely to put yourself in the path of a good gobbler.
FEEDING Just as they break the season down when considering the hen's roosting options, Mayfield and Harrington consider several factors that will put them in the right spot to find feeding birds.
"Early in the season, most of the birds are still in the woods because that's where the bulk of their food is at this time," Mayfield says. "Acorns and nuts are on the forest floor and you'll find turkeys scratching the ground as they look for food. Because turkeys will scratch the ground in a 'V' pattern, with the point of the 'V' aimed in the direction the birds are moving, a hunter can read the scratching and determine where the birds are headed."
"Later in the season," Harrington observes, "as the weather heats up, you'll find most of the birds feeding in more open areas. They'll be looking for grasses, clovers and insects. If we get a little rain, there should be plenty of worms popping up out of the ground for them to feed on," he adds.
Paramount to finding feeding birds is knowledge of your hunting area and what's available to the turkeys. As Mike Mayfield puts it, "A hen knows which trees produced nuts or acorns during the season and that's where she's going to be. A serious hunter needs to know which trees produced just as surely as the birds know." You may want to keep this tip in mind when you're out deer hu
nting in the fall.
Along with a reliable food source, turkeys need sand and gravel or a source of grit to aid their digestive processes. Such an area will be nearby any ideal feeding ground as well as a reliable water supply.
Pattern your birds so that you will know when and where they feed. Generally, turkeys use fields late in the day. "In the early morning, fields tend to be wet with dew," Mayfield explains, "and turkeys don't like to get their feathers wet. At midday, things can get pretty hot in the spring and that's particularly true for these birds with lots of black feathers. That's why I like to hunt fields late in the day. It's cooler, the grass isn't wet and the grasses and clovers help the birds digest what they've eaten over the course of the day."
Putting it together. Use the time of the season and the available food sources to your advantage. Know what's available in the area you hunt and keep roosting areas in mind. "Feeding and roosting are closely tied together," Mayfield says. "Find the closest food source to the birds' roosting area."
BREEDING/STRUTTING AREAS As noted, turkeys normally have a routine or set route. A hen doesn't wake up and consider her innumerable options. She has her rounds that include being seen with her gobbler and propagating the species. During the breeding season, Harrington likes to hunt open areas and flats. These include old roadbeds, ridges, hardwood bottoms, power lines and fields. In these areas, a gobbler can be seen from great distances by a hen. He can be noticed without even gobbling. Hens travel the same areas and are likely to see the tom in full strut.
On several occasions, Mayfield and Harrington have been calling gobblers into their guns, only to have a hen run over and be bred. When that happens, the game is over and the hen has won. There's simply no way to compete with her.
Putting it together. Hunt the flats and areas where strutting gobblers can be seen from great distances, but don't be surprised when the real thing steps in to interrupt your hunt.
LOAFING/DUSTING Even turkeys need a break. All that strutting, gobbling, nesting and feeding must be exhausting! This is where the loafing and dusting periods come in. Turkeys seek out areas to take short breaks to dust and preen themselves as well as to recover from the steady scratching, feeding and other activities. Look for areas that meet the turkey's needs at these times. Early in the season, when the weather is cool, turkeys will seek areas to take advantage of the sun's warmth. Similarly, late in the season, when the weather has heated up the woods, the turkeys tend to seek out cool bottoms and shaded areas.
Putting it together. Your turkeys may be resting, but they're not resting just anywhere. Find areas that meet their needs and hunt them. Use prevailing temperatures to your advantage.
MAYFIELD AND HARRINGTON ON SCOUTING Mayfield and Harrington put a tremendous emphasis on scouting. They pattern their turkeys like many deer hunters pattern whitetails. They also know where the birds are likely to be at any given time of day and under any weather condition. Mayfield compares effective turkey scouting with the three rules he was given as a young boy when he wanted to cross the street: stop, look and listen.
(1) Stop. "You can't scout effectively from a four-wheeler," Mayfield says. "Most hunters are too busy trying to cover so much ground that they don't take the time to scout effectively. You absolutely have to get in the woods and take your time if you're going to do it right and that means getting off the four-wheeler or out of the truck and walking into the woods . . . over and over again."
(2) Look. Looking means more than just keeping your eyes open, according to Mayfield. While most hunters are staring vacantly into the forest bottoms or fields, Mayfield is looking for specific things that tell him he's on the trail of a gobbler.
"Look at the ground very carefully when you're in an area that might hold some good turkeys. Lots of times I'll find feathers in the woods. Gobbler feathers have a black tip whereas hen feathers don't. It seems like a simple thing, but a lot of hunters don't realize that and don't know what they have when they find a feather," Mayfield says.
Mayfield also looks for turkey droppings. "If the bird is a gobbler, the droppings will be curled and shaped like the letter 'J.' Hen droppings are left in a round pile." He also looks for strut marks, where the gobbler has dragged his wings while strutting.
Finally, Mayfield keeps an eye out for tracks, even on hardpan surfaces. "Lots of hunters look for turkey prints in soft ground and it's great if you can find them, but in drought years or on harder surfaces you may never see a complete track even though the area is crawling with good birds." In these situations, Mayfield will look for a mere fragment of a track that was left by a turkey.
"Unless you're talking about rock, turkeys will almost always leave some tracks. Even when the ground surface is too hard to make out the full outline of the foot, you can generally see the pinhole marking from the individual toenail at the end of each toe. These at least will tell you that there are turkeys in the area."
"Of course, if the ground's soft enough to leave a full footprint, that can tell you a lot, as well. If the footprint is broad and shows clear segmentation, you're looking at a gobbler who's got some weight and age on him. Those two factors tend to flatten out the foot." Mayfield particularly likes to put this information to use when hunting with a friend. "I'll make note of the prints and make sure I'm the one who goes off in search of the big gobbler. I'm always happy to send my partner after the other bird, even if it means he's following more than one, since they're probably jakes."
(3) Listen. The final element in Mayfield's scouting triumvirate is to listen carefully once you've located an area being used by turkeys. "The first part of listening means being quiet," Mayfield advises. "You can't be listening effectively if you're walking or moving. You've got to settle down and attune yourself to the woods or the fields. This is very important since it's going to tell you how to call once you're ready to hunt."
Quite naturally, Mayfield takes his calling cues from the hens in the woods he's hunting. "I let the hens and gobblers dictate everything about my calling, from the type of call to the cadence to the volume. If the hens are loud, I'm loud. If they're quiet, I'm quiet. Of course, if the gobbler is loud, well, he's basically telling everyone goodbye, because he only going to be there a little while longer."
Finally, Mayfield and Harrington offer what may be the best advice a turkey expert could possibly have for aspiring turkey hunters. "You'll need a good pair of shoes, a good job and a good spouse. It takes all three or you'll wind up going through all three."
You can contact Mi
ke Mayfield and Cameron Harrington via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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