Windy Weather Gobblers
September 24, 2010
Don't get discouraged by the strong winds of May. Use these tips to tag a late-season tom when the winds are whipping.
Last spring, Cheryl Howard and I traveled to northeastern Wyoming to hunt Merriam's turkeys with my good friend Ralph Dampman of Trophy Ridge Outfitters (307-756-9776; www.trophyridgeoutfitters.com). There we ran into typical unpredictable spring weather for the region. One day it snowed, and then two days later it was warm and nice. The one weather constant was the wind. That never stopped.
The author took this dandy Arizona Merriam's bird last spring on a very windy day by creeping along a sheltered area, locating birds, setting up in front of them, and then sweetly calling them into range.
Photo courtesy of Bob Robb.
If there's one thing that can make western turkey hunting tougher than too much hunting pressure, it's a strong wind. Fortunately, Ralph has been dealing with this nightmare for decades. That experience and the fact that his area is literally crawling with turkeys helped keep our confidence levels high.
Because Ralph has lived and hunted this area for more than 20 years, he knows the usual haunts of the local turkey population. Thus, on our first hunting morning he took Cheryl and I into a tight little canyon that was both protected from the north wind and that was a favorite roosting location. We set up about a half hour before first light, and as dawn began to break the gobbling from who knows how many roosted birds was almost overwhelming!
By and by they began to fly down, and soon we could see dozens of birds feeding along. Ralph had set us up right in their travel path, and so when they got within 100 yards he seductively began working his box call. On occasion I would add a little to the party with my diaphragm and a little push-pull call that purrs like a kitten. It wasn't long before three big toms headed our direction. 30 minutes into her hunt, Cheryl had her first Merriam's gobbler, taken at about 15 steps.
"You have to remember that in the wind it's hard for you to hear, but it's also hard for the gobbler to hear," said Dampman. "That being the case, you have to ask yourself, 'Where can I hear best?' In the rolling hills, you can hear best down low, in the hollows and along the creek bottoms, because the wind is blowing hardest over the top of you. Also, the turkeys are probably in these sheltered locations or on lee hillsides getting out of the wind. So that's where you want to concentrate your efforts."
Instead of walking along the ridge tops, on windy days you want to spend a lot of time slipping along the bottoms, both in and out of woods, Dampman said. "When you're hiking along and out of the tree cover, be sure to stay along the edge of the trees or brush, where you have some concealment, to avoid being seen by turkeys that may be moving along the hillsides," he counseled. "Also, you want to try and anticipate where the turkeys might be, so that when you call you can have the wind carry your calling to the bird. That means calling with the wind at your back. The downside of this is when the bird responds, you may not hear him right away. For that reason, I plan on staying in each calling location at least five minutes to give a bird I may not have heard a chance to get to me."
Dampman also said you have to be more patient about soliciting a response with your calling on windy days. "On a calm day, you can hear a bird respond to you maybe 300-400 yards off, but on windy days when you finally hear the bird respond he might be right on top of you," he said.
SET UP BEFORE CALLING
Because you will have trouble hearing a gobbler's response to your calling when the wind's blowing hard, the bird will often be on top of you before you do hear him. That makes it seem like the turkey is coming to your calling far quicker than on a calmer day. "Also, the old tom is afraid the hen -- you -- will get out of hearing distance in a hurry, and he doesn't want to miss out on the action," said turkey hunting legend David Hale, half the legendary Knight & Hale game calling team. "That means he'll often come at a trot instead of stalking the call like they so often do. The smart hunter will set up and be ready before he starts calling on days like this, to keep from being run over unprepared."
Hale recommends setting up exactly the same way you would when it's calm, and not to overly worry about making adjustments. "Most shots on windy days will probably be as close as those you'll get on calm days," Hale said. "If you stick to working the sheltered hollows and creek bottoms, you'll be able to see the bird further out than if you're hunting rolling hills and thick brush. When the turkey is coming and into your vision, there's no need to rush the shot. He'll come to you. But always remember that a 20 lb. turkey is 19 1/2 lbs. of eyeballs, and always on the alert. You might think he's spotted you when actually he's just stopped to look to try and pick up either the hen or some unnatural movement, so don't rush it and take a marginal shot."
MOVEMENT MUST BE MINIMAL
"Under windy conditions, turkeys will look for company more readily than on calm days," said Harold Knight, the other half of the Knight & Hale game calling team. "That's because the wind spooks them like it does deer and other prey species, and there's always safety in numbers for them. So don't be surprised if the gobblers are bunched up, or you run into a gaggle of jakes, or there are more hens together than you'd normally expect when it's a calm day. That just gives them more eyes to see you carelessly tromping around the woods, so be sure to keep your eyes open and move slowly."
It is possible to get away with a bit more movement when the wind's blowing and the leaves and brush are moving and you're trying to get the shot, Hale said, but don't get so cocky that you think you can carelessly move around without being picked off.
"You can get away with a lot more movement yourself on windy days because everything is already moving, so don't be afraid to quick-shoot a turkey if you have that opportunity," Knight noted. "In the wind the bird will more than likely throw his head up and look around to see what that extra bit of motion was and not spook wildly like he would probably do on a calm day, giving you a chance to make the shot."
In all calling situations, it is important to first try and place yourself in the mind of the turkey, asking yourself, "What do I expect when I come to that call under those conditions,?" Hale said.
"The reason I say that is that if it's a calm day, the turkeys are looking at any possible movement that's out there as a sure-fire danger sign," he said. "But on a windy day, that can be a plus for you because the woods are already moving. That allows you to subtly shift your weight, etc., and get away with it where
you probably would not on a calm day. Also, the gobbler can't pinpoint the sound of your calling or your movement as well as he can on calm days, making it harder for him to zero right in on you."
The right type of camouflage clothing is important on windy days. "Most people don't think about this, but you should never wear loose-fitting camo clothing, like a large, floppy face mask or overly-baggy shirts, that might flap in the wind and draw extra attention to a turkey's eyes," Hale said. "If you wear a face mask, tie it down good to keep it from flapping. And I certainly would not use a blind that had any sort of flopping to it. The thing you have to remember is, yes, gobblers are looking for that hen they've heard, but they are always more cautious about movement and danger, especially in a wind that makes them nervous to begin with."
DECOYS IN THE WIND
On windy days, decoys can be a tremendous asset when used properly. That's because while it's harder for a gobbler to hear your calling, the wind doesn't affect his eyesight. As I found out on a hunt in northeastern Arizona, even when you can barely hear the old gobbler talking to you, he can easily see the decoys and come to them without your making much in the way of calling sounds.
On that day, Remington's Linda Powell and I were hunting in high winds on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. We had located an active roost area, and on a cloudy, windy afternoon set a life-sized gobbler decoy with a real Merriam's fan attached in an area protected from the wind. We then built little blinds in some nearby cedars and got ready.
An hour before dark a gobbler blasted us with two raucous gobbles that made it sound like he was right in our lap -- then nothing. But before you knew it, here he came, slowly slinking silently toward our decoy. I greeted him with 2 oz. of No. 6's.
"You do need a decoy that's stiff enough to offer some resistance to the wind," Hale told me prior to this hunt. "You can't have the decoy spinning around on the stake. Also, too much movement in a decoy can spook turkeys, especially if the movement is not true to a normal turkey body posture. That's why a full-bodied decoy usually works best in a stiff breeze. Or, I like to take the lightweight, fold-up type decoys and use them without a stake, weighing them down with rocks placed inside the body cavity. By placing them up on a dirt mound or clump of brush they're still visible to the turkeys, but without the stake they won't spin around unnaturally. And the rocks will keep it from blowing off down the field like a runaway tumbleweed."
When hunting agricultural areas, field edges are another super place to be on windy days. That's because the increased visibility turkeys get helps make up for their lack of hearing. Also, both Harold Knight and David Hale believe gobblers will come to the strutting zones in the fields sometime during the day.
"When you're working the countryside and can get to the edge of a field, try to stay back in the woods and get maybe 10 to 15 feet higher than field level," Hale said. "That way you can see birds a long ways off. Once I spot them -- and I always have a binocular for this purpose -- I then try and slip down around and get closer to the birds, slink down to the edge of the field, and set up before calling. Normally on calmer days I wouldn't do that because it's too risky, but on calmer days I can hear well and don't have to try this trick. But on windy, noisy days sometimes I have to hear with my eyes instead of my ears, and seeing the birds first is a big advantage."
You have to time your movements along the field edges when a gobbler is out in the open field, Knight said. "When you spot a turkey in the field, you'd be surprised how much of the time the gobbler will keep his back -- and his tail feathers -- pointed into the wind," he said. "That makes it easier for him to display that big fan. It also makes it easier for you to move in on him without fear of him dropping those feathers and seeing you."
TOO WINDY? HARDLY!
"There are few sure things in hunting, but one of them is that conditions are rarely perfect to go out and chase turkeys around," Dampman said. "Most of the time there's something going against us. You have to be able to overcome those obstacles to be successful. When the wind's blowing, instead of staying home I say, 'Come on!', because I know we can sneak along a field edge or find us a nice, tucked-away little creek bottom where they'll be doing their thing. And with everyone else watching TV and drinking coffee, that's just less competition for me to deal with."
CALLING AND DECOYING TIPS
It just makes sense that on days when the turkeys are going to have trouble hearing you, using a loud call that projects sound well is the way to go. "Something loud and high-pitched is what I prefer, remembering all the while that all the bird will hear is parts of the sounds you're making anyway on a windy day," said Harold Knight. "You don't have to be as talented with your calls on these days as you do on those graveyard-quiet mornings, so I generally start out using a call with volume, such as a friction call, specifically a box or, my favorite, an aluminum slate-type friction call." Mouth diaphragms also work well, Knight said, "If you can get the necessary volume from them without destroying the tone."
There are also several full-bodied decoys on the market that work well on windy days. Those that allow the use of a real turkey fan are awesome. However, on windy days you have to take care to set them up in protected areas or risk having the winds destroy your fan. Collapsible foam decoys work well if you don't use the stakes, and instead set the decoy on the ground and fill the body cavity with rocks to keep them from blowing away.
One trick I like to use -- especially when hunting with a buddy -- regardless of the conditions is to use a real turkey fan sans decoy. When we spot a gobbler doing his thing one of us will stay out of sight and sneak to a spot where we can remain hidden, yet slowly raise the turkey fan up so the gobbler will spot it. Many times just the sight of that slowly turning fan will send the bird over the edge. When he charges in he will be completely focused on the feathers -- and never see the shooter, who is set up off to one side with a safe shooting lane to the gobbler.