Uncle Ray's Way

When Missouri's gobbler guru speaks, it's wise to listen. Here's what Ray Eye has to say about our state's spring turkey hunting. (February 2010)

Ray Eye, Missouri's favorite turkey hunting son, has hunted turkeys in every state that has a turkey population. He's hunted turkeys on television, talked about turkey hunting on his radio show and given hundreds of seminars helping other hunters bag their birds.

"Uncle Ray" lives and breathes turkeys. In spite of all his fame and notoriety, Eye still calls Missouri home. And, because of its diversity, Missouri is his favorite state to hunt.

However, Missouri's vast diversity from the mountainous Ozarks to the rolling fields of northern Missouri is one more factor that can leave an unused tag in a Missouri turkey hunter's pocket. Is there an advantage to hunting one area over another? Are the birds up north dumber than our Ozark birds?

Eye doesn't think so. "The only real difference is population densities and the terrain you are hunting," he says.

WHAT IS GOING ON WITH OUR TURKEYS?

In Missouri, where turkey numbers are down from historical highs, many hunters complained about last season.

"Many hunters don't understand spring turkey season," Ray explains. "Many hunters believe the perfect season is a time when most of the hens are on the nest. The mornings are bluebird mornings, no wind or rain and the woods are alive with gobbling 2-year-old birds that run to anything that resembles a squeaky hen sound -- a wire squeaking when climbing a fence or the noise a lug nut makes while changing a flat tire. These all could contribute to shooting a gobbler in self-defense.

"Unfortunately, these 2-year-old birds are how spring hunting is judged by the hunting public. Anything other than non-stop gobbling and 2-year-old birds running to the gun, and the season is off. I love hunting old turkeys. Many days you never hear a gobbler. Old gobblers strutting with hens don't need to gobble."

Eye predicts this spring will be a repeat of last season, "Hunters will still be hunting older turkeys. As a turkey hunter you must adapt to the different moods and aspects of the birds."

Eye learned years ago that a hen (or a hunter) that sits 200 yards away and softly yelps won't get the gobbler because another hen will get in closer and get more aggressive, calling nonstop, and taking the old tom with her. Competition due to the dense turkey population is what makes Eye's aggressive calling so successful.

"It used to be there weren't as many birds, so when you started calling the toms would come in," he says. "Today the gobblers don't need to go looking for the hens; they are all over the place. If you don't get aggressive with your calling and get the old tom cranked up, you ain't goin' to the dance."

Eye doesn't change his calling whether he's hunting Easterns in the Ozarks or northern Missouri, Rios out West or Osceolas in Florida. Eye uses the same call. The difference is the method of calling. If a hunter won't adapt then he won't get a bird.

"The old school springtime 'yelp three times and get your gun up' times are over. You've got to get aggressive with your calling. You have to use fall hunting tactics on spring turkeys about 80 percent of the time."

So how does Uncle Ray hunt the different regions of Missouri? By not getting locked into one hunting method and by taking it to the birds.

THE OZARKS

The Ozarks region is Eye's stomping ground and it's where Eye learned his craft, chasing around the old cagey Ozark gobblers. It remains one of his favorite areas to hunt.

Eye offers this advice for elusive Ozark birds. "In the Ozarks, the old gobblers are going to have hens with them. You have to get tight on the gobbler before the hens get to him. Roosting a gobbler makes all the difference in the world to bag a turkey, no matter where you hunt. If you can roost a gobbler even if it is with hens, and you know where the gobbler flew up from the night before, and then get in there tight on that gobbler within 60 or 50 yards, you will be the first thing he hears next morning. You can get him down to you and bag him before the hens get to him.

"Many hunters think that a gobbler is running from their calling, when actually the gobbler is going with the hens. You can try calling the hens, and it does work depending on the cycle of the breeding season, but most times the gobbler will be with the hens. The hens don't like the competition when they are breeding, and they will take the gobbler with them," says Eye.

The rough terrain of the Ozarks makes getting tight on a turkey much easier than trying to get tight on a northern bird with its open fields and few avenues of approach.

"One of the biggest advantages in hunting the Ozarks is it is easier to set up on the turkeys," says Ray. "The dense, sometimes-overgrown, hardwoods make great concealment when executing a sneak attack, and it is much easier to maneuver on the birds."

There is a downside of hunting the Ozarks as Eye points out.

"A hunter has to cover a lot more territory to find birds in the Ozarks, but there are plenty of old logging roads a hunter can travel to cover a lot of ground."

Eye spends much of his time in the Ozarks hunting Mark Twain National Forest. Last season, Eye traveled the old logging roads that crisscross Mark Twain, but everywhere he stopped were hunters' vehicles.

"I got away from the other hunters and found turkeys in the same haunts I hunted 30 years ago. If you are planning on hunting the Ozarks, get away from the roads and the people. The only shot I heard that morning of hunting in the Ozarks was the one I took to bag my bird. The other hunters said they hadn't heard a gobble in two days due to the activity in the woods.

"Turkey hunting in the Ozarks is a lot like fishing. You have to find the places that hold turkeys just like in a lake you need to find the places that hold fish."

Eye claims that the turkey will continue to use the same areas for years as long as the habitat doesn't change.

Eye suggests the Walk-In areas for a hunter looking to harvest an Ozark bird. Find areas where hunters have to walk into and surrounded by private ground on three sides away from the roads. Many times the hunter will have those areas all to himself.

Eye also recommends the scenic riverways "It's a great way to

hunt. By floating the river. You can get to places that you can't reach by road. The downside of hunting the riverways is that if you hear a gobble, it's straight up to get to them. But it's still a great way to hunt Ozark birds."

Eye calls turkey hunting in the Ozarks "guerrilla warfare," When a hunter locates a turkey, he can use the terrain to his advantage and get close to a turkey.

Eye suggests hunters utilize common sense when turkey hunting. Adapt to your surroundings and methodology. One example is choke tubes.

"Hunters don't need the ultra-tight turkey tubes and super turkey loads to take down a bird in the Ozarks," he says. "I switch to a smaller shot size like 6s and a more open choke when hunting the Ozarks. No Aimpoints or a scope. It's hand-to-hand combat during spring turkey season in the Ozarks."

Many of Eye's Ozark birds succumb at ranges measured in feet rather than yards.

Another often-overlooked tactic Eye recommends is to go in after 10 a.m. and hunt until 1 p.m. covering as much ground as you can, calling and cutting on a box call.

"You will start an old turkey that the hens had left behind," states Eye. "We did this one year for our writer's camp. We let everyone sleep in, we went to breakfast, and then we went turkey hunting. You don't always have to be out there at daylight."

THE NORTHEAST REGION

Though the turkey densities are much higher in the northeast and northwest than in the Ozarks, it still pales in comparison to the growth spurts of the flock Missouri experienced in the 1980s and early '90s, and hunters need to adapt to remain successful. Eye says there is nothing wrong with the turkeys in northern Missouri.

"The toms don't have to gobble when the hens are with them. The population has moved into every grassy hillside and little wood lot. They don't have to go looking for hens, the hens are with them. When breeding season hits, the gobblers are displaying, not gobbling. These are usually the old birds because the 2-year-old birds are on the outside of the area, while the old man is in with the hens."

One of the advantages of hunting "golf courses," as Eye sometimes refers to the large rolling pastures in northeast Missouri, is a hunter can drive the roads scouting for birds from a distance.

"You can't spot a turkey in the Ozarks that way," says Eye. "If you can watch a bird fly up to the roost from a field, be there the next morning. Sometimes they will drop in the woods and then come out, but they will be back in that same field.

"If the hens are roosting on a timbered ridge and pitching down in a field, get between the hens and where the gobbler is roosting. Your success rate will soar when calling if you are set up in the gobbler's direction of travel.

"Find a patch of timber that has a creek and fields on four sides, watch the birds from a distance, and see what they are doing. If you hear them gobbling on the ridge along the creek, sneak in, set up close and become part of the turkeys.

"If you stay back sitting in a blind and expect the turkeys to come to you, you will be waiting awhile," he says. "The gobblers are going to get with the hens and go on. If there is no pressure, you might be able to wait at the edge of a field and take a turkey, but to slam a bird, you have to get in its face."

Eye recommends a hunter learn to sneak in on a turkey by utilizing the terrain features. If you have a creek bottom or a ditch, get in it and use it to hide your approach for as close as you can to the bird.

"It's fun to watch these guys who aren't used to hunting northern Missouri turkeys. The first thing they do is bump the turkeys by walking out on open hillsides, skylighting themselves," claims Eye.

Another mistake these hunters make is misjudging ranges. "They hear a turkey and because the terrain is open they think it is farther than it is. Hunters new to northern Missouri turkey hunting also shoot at the turkeys while they are too far away. You have a big 26-pound gobbler out there in an open field. They shoot while they are way out of range."

Eye believes that a good turkey hunter also must change equipment to match the terrain he is hunting. If a hunter is hunting open terrain with a sighting system, Eye recommends sighting in his shotgun to hit point of impact at 45 yards and switching to tighter chokes and larger sizes of shot like No. 4s or No. 5s.

Eye is a firm believer in the new high-density shot and ultra-tight chokes. "I used to teach never to shoot at a bird farther than 30 yards, but with the new high-energy shells and ultra-tight choke tubes, a hunter can air his shots out to 45 yards."

THE NORTHWEST REGION

Eye claims there isn't a lot of difference between northeast and northwest Missouri, but does believes the turkey population is denser and has less hunting pressure in the northwest section of the state. "I hear a lot more gobbling in the Northwest region and there is a lot of CRP land and open ground in the Northwest region of the state."

A hunter needs to learn how to hunt these open fields, but there are some wood lots and a great population of birds, even better than northeast Missouri. Eye points out the counties bordering Iowa in our northwest corner. "The birds rock those creek bottoms," he claims.

A hunter needs to learn how to move on these open country birds. "You can't just walk out the ridge to them," says Eye. "The best way is to get in the ditches and creeks and move to the birds. If you see a gobbler in northwest Missouri, he will be there day after day unless he's pressured off."

Why? "Because the next hill has a gobbler on it and so does the next one," he says. "Again, competition. Get in the ditches; get to the bird. If you stay back 200 yards and call to him, you will never smoke him. He doesn't have to come looking for a hen, he is used to the hens coming to him, but if you get in close and call to him hard, he will come to you.

"Get in, set up and don't move around," advises Eye. "These turkeys live here and they have to survive here. Open-area birds are on the constant lookout for coyotes, bobcats and other predators. If you are walking on top of a ridgeline, they will see you and will be gone long before you see them."

WHAT IS IN STORE THIS SEASON?

Eye reminds hunters that the turkey population has peaks and valleys. The past few springs were tough on the hatchlings if they survived. High water, unusually cool weather and predation all play a part in poult survival.

If you are looking to put a tag on a Missouri gobbler this spring, take Uncle Ray's advice: "Get out of your comfort zone and prepare for combat."

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