Radical Tactics For Springtime Turkeys

When standard turkey-calling tactics aren't working, it's time to take a more radical approach. Our expert has some great ideas that should turn the tables on reluctant toms this season. (March 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The gobbler was hung up, plain and simple.

It had been about an hour since my buddy and I had set up at the base of a huge oak tree to call to a bird we'd heard gobbling across the high-mountain bench in front of us shortly after daylight. We never saw the gobbler, but we could tell by his yodeling that he'd approached to within about 50 yards of us and decided to strut right there. He would come no closer.

Sixty minutes later, my buddy and I knew we had to try something different because this gobbler would surely leave soon if his imagined "date" didn't saunter over to him. So, as quietly as he could, my buddy crawled on his hands and knees behind me, away from the gobbler.

I knew the drill. When my buddy got about 40 yards away, he started calling again. I stuffed my calls into my vest and propped my shotgun on my knee in the shooting position.

The gobbler answered every hen yelp and purr my buddy made. At first, the gobbler just strutted in place like he'd been doing. But obviously concerned about his would-be girlfriend's retreat, he apparently decided he'd better give chase. That brought him right in front of my gun barrel. At 20 yards, I closed the deal.

We'd all like nothing better than to walk into the spring turkey woods at sunrise, sit under a tree and have a big longbeard come running straight to our calls. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way. In fact, spend enough time chasing spring gobblers and you'll find that scenario is the exception rather than the rule.

What can a hunter do when the turkeys don't follow the script?

Maybe it's time to get radical.

So-called "textbook hunts," where the animal behaves exactly as advertised, are rare for any game animal, but especially when you're talking about spring gobblers. These birds have a sixth sense that's geared toward avoiding trouble.

The setting could be perfect. Your calling could be perfect. Your decoy could look perfect. But still, a gobbling bird will avoid your trap and stay out of gun range. It's an annoying habit for sure!

Some hunters believe gobblers act this way because they've been conditioned by hunters. If they survive one or two encounters with hunters, they become wise to the ways of the hunters.

I don't know about any of that. But I do know that thinking outside the box -- doing things that aren't considered the norm -- will often put a bird in the bag when traditional tactics don't seem to be working.

LET'S GIVE 'EM SOMETHING

TO THINK ABOUT

If I had a dollar for every time I encountered the following situation, I'd be a billionaire. I walk into the spring turkey woods before daylight and wait for the gobblers to begin sounding off from the roost. When I hear one close by, I'll maneuver as close as I think I can without the bird spotting me, plant a decoy between me and the gobbler and sit down under a big tree.

When it gets light enough to see, I'll let out a few hen calls that immediately elicit thunderous gobbles. We've all been in this situation. The textbook says the gobbler should fly off the roost and run right to me, right? What normally happens, however, is the bird gobbles its head off until it flies down and then I never hear another peep.

A few years ago, one of my turkey-hunting buddies told me how he makes this situation end with a turkey in his game bag. The night before he intends to hunt, he goes out to a likely roosting area. When he hears a gobbler sound off from the roost, he goes directly to the spot where he plans to hunt the next morning and lets out a few hen calls to let the gobbler know he's there.

The next morning, my buddy will go to that same spot before daylight, put out his decoy and sit down. When daylight arrives, he doesn't make a sound. More often than not, my buddy says, the gobbler he talked to the night before will fly off the roost and walk over to him to see if the "hen" he heard the night before is still there.

SAFETY IN NUMBERS

For decades, goose hunters have known that when the birds get wary, one of the best tactics waterfowlers can employ to draw birds into shotgun range is to put out more decoys.

Tom Neumann, co-owner of Penn's Woods Game Calls, sometimes applies that theory to spring gobbler hunting.

"I've been on turkey hunts where nothing that I tried seem to work," Neumann said. "After all, by the second week, they have heard all the calling they care to hear from obnoxious cackling to fighting purrs. By then they have also seen the typical hen and jake combination or even the old jake mounting the hen setup."

That's when Neumann believes there's safety in numbers. Frustrated one year by a series of difficult gobblers, Neumann decided to put out every turkey decoy he owned. The first gobbler that spotted the fake flock walked right in front of his gun barrel.

"Plain and simple, the sight of other turkeys -- or decoys when used by hunters -- reinforce what the turkeys expect to find when they approach your calling location," Neumann said. "When they don't see anything, they often hang up. How many times do they approach a hunter's calling location to find five or more turkey decoys? I know it sounds crazy, but it has worked for me on numerous occasions when done with good, effective calling."

THE BUDDY SYSTEM

The hunt I described at the beginning of this article is a demonstration of the Buddy System. Essentially, the buddy system is a two-man ambush tactic. When you locate a gobbler, post the shooter in a spot that's likely to yield a shot. That person does no calling.

The other hunter will act as the caller. He starts out calling 10 yards or so behind the shooter and then moves farther back if the gobbler doesn't move closer to the shooter.

The idea is that you want to fool the gobbler into thinking the hen he's calling to is moving away from him. This tactic is lethal when you encounter a gobbler that hangs up either out of sight or out of gun range.

Remember, the natural order of things in the turkey woods is that the gobbler calls and the hens come running to him. So, when a tom hangs up in the woods, it's probably

because he's waiting for the hen to come to him. If you just keep calling from the same location, the stalemate is likely to continue. But if you have a buddy along to move away from you while calling -- fooling the gobbler into believing his potential mate is leaving -- the bird just might follow and hopefully give you a shot at him.

START A CAT FIGHT

"I had him going pretty good, but I think he was henned up."

How many times have you heard a turkey hunter say those words? How many times have you said them yourself?

One of the toughest feats in spring gobbler hunting is to lure a tom away from his harem of hens. Quite simply, why would the gobbler leave hens he can see to chase after one he can't. It's just not likely to happen.

But gobblers aren't the only turkeys that will respond to calling. Hens will answer and approach as well -- especially when they're angry. If you can get an old boss hen fired up, she's likely to come looking for a fight. And she'll drag that lovesick gobbler right along with her.

If you encounter a gobbler that's with hens, try cutting loud and aggressively. "Cutting" basically is a series of fast clucks put together. Keep changing the cadence of your calls to accent different notes during a sequence. It's those heavy notes that are likely to pique an old hen's ire.

If one of the hens starts calling back with some cutting of her own, you're in business. Before she can finish calling, cut her off with your own calling. No female likes being interrupted -- especially a boss hen! Don't worry about which calls the gobbler seems to be responding to. Focus on the hen. Once the hen is good and mad, she's going to come looking for you.

The tricky part in this scenario is getting past the boss hen -- and all the other hens in the flock -- to get a shot at the tom. Typically, the gobbler will be the last bird in the flock, which means you have to avoid being detected by every other bird until the tom is within your shotgun range. Being still and quiet when the turkeys are in sight is critical.

SPEAK A NEW LANGUAGE

I spend many hours each year perfecting the sounds of my calls using slates, diaphragms and box calls. I buy new calls each year in the never-ending quest for the perfect turkey call. By the time the season rolls around, I'm convinced I sound like the real thing.

My brother-in-law's grandfather, Dale, on the other hand, has been using the same old cracked, squeaky box call since the 1970s. Judging by the tapes I listen to and the calling pros I try to imitate, that old guy sounds nothing like a turkey. Guess which one of us kills turkeys year in and year out?

Here's a hint -- it's not me.

I asked Dale one time how he manages to kill turkeys so regularly when he sounds nothing like a real turkey. He told me that some of the worst turkey calling he's ever heard came from real turkeys. His point was that, in hunting, there's no such thing as a perfect turkey call. Unlike turkey-calling contest pros, live birds crack notes and make all sorts of weird noises that would never pass muster in a calling competition.

Instead of looking for turkey calls that sound exactly what I think a turkey should sound like, I now look for calls that sound different from others -- calls that are unusually high-pitched or raspy or loud, etc. If birds in a pressured area hear the same mouth diaphragms and slate calls day after day during the season, a unique-sounding call is going to stand out in the woods.

When you hear guys talking about an area that's loaded with gobblers that just don't respond to calling, head out there with a wing bone call or a tube call -- something most turkey hunters wouldn't use. That new sound might be just the ticket.

ADD A LITTLE MOTION

The drawing power of a decoy when you're turkey hunting is no secret. But as increasing numbers of hunters use turkey decoys, guess what? Gobblers are becoming increasingly wary of statue-like "hens" standing alone in a field or on an open oak flat.

We'd all like nothing better than to walk into the spring turkey woods at sunrise, sit under a tree and have a big longbeard come running straight to our calls.

It used to be that you could bank on a gobbler running straight in if he heard your calls and then spotted your decoy. Nowadays, however, it's not uncommon for an old tom to spot your decoy and then begin to circle it -- usually out of shotgun range, of course. The gobbler will eye your deke the whole time, and, when he doesn't see any signs of life, he will retreat.

Ever-adapting turkey hunters have picked up on this growing trend and have created decoys capable of moving. Some are powered by wind, some require a hunter to tug on a line and others are electronic. Of course, hunters should check their state regulations to find out what's legal where they hunt before they try one of these motion decoys.

The bottom line is, a moving decoy is much more realistic than a static one. I saw a video of a hunt in which the hunter had a turkey fan mounted on a pole next to his jake turkey decoy. The pole was spring loaded so that the hunter could make the fan spin back and forth by tugging on a string.

In the video, you see a gobbler stick his head up over some brush at the far end of the field. He sees the hunter's decoy, but he doesn't budge. Then the hunter tugs on the string and the fan begins to spin. The gobbler jumped up over the brush and ran full speed to the decoys. He immediately puffed up and started strutting, and then the hunter squeezed the trigger.

AVOID THE PRE-DAWN RUSH

Every turkey hunter is acquainted with rising before daylight and heading out to the woods before dawn in hopes of ambushing a gobbler as soon as he flies off the roost. However, this can be one of the toughest times of day to bag a bird. This is typically when the most hunters are out. And it's when gobblers call their harems to them from the roost. They fly down to meet their hens and then shut up as the flock moves off away from your calling.

However, at midmorning, about three hours later, a funny thing happens. Hunters get hungry and tired of walking and head out to the nearest restaurant. The gobblers have bred the hens in their harems and those hens have gone off to lay their eggs, leaving the gobblers alone and still interested.

I prefer to sleep in, avoid the early-morning rush and wait for the mid- morning lull. There's less competition from other hunters and gobblers often are moving around without any hens. They're on the prowl searching for more.

By being well rested and well fed, I'm at the top of my game when the gobblers tend to be most responsive to calling. For my money, a midmorning turkey hunt is far more enjoyable and productive than heading out before dawn.

Every spring, thousands of turkey hunters are successful followin

g the tried-and-true tactics of turkey hunting. If you find those tricks just aren't working for you this spring, break the cycle and get radical. Eventually, you will find yourself staring down the barrel of your shotgun at a big, old longbeard.

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