10 Tips For Taking Trophy Longbeards
September 28, 2010
To a hunter, there is no greater challenge than taking a trophy tom on the ground at a short distance while testing your nerves, accuracy and patience. Here are some tips for making that happen.
It was 4 a.m. on a cold crisp morning as I began my hike up the ridge to a favorite canyon in anticipation for the opener of spring turkey season. As I walked through the woods to my hunting spot, I was confident that my pre-season scouting efforts were about to pay off. An hour later, I had reached my destination. I quietly set up my decoys and erected a blind at the edge of a small field where I had observed a number of large toms during the prior month.
At first light, I heard a few toms calling from their roosts in the trees, so I gave a couple of light clucks with my turkey call and immediately was met with multiple responses. Just as anticipated, a few minutes later, I heard birds fly down and land about 75 yards to the right of my blind. I gave a few more very soft clucks to gain their attention, then put down my call and grabbed my bow. I could hear the rustling of dry leaves as they approached my decoys from within the oak trees. The first to appear through the tree line were a few young jakes, but soon a very large boss tom stepped out from the shadows.
He was beautiful. His exceptionally long beard appeared to be about 11 inches in length. As he approached my decoys with that distinctive swagger of a self-confident gobbler, the jakes scurried out of his way to watch from a short but safe distance. With every step he took, the gobbler's large black chest swung his beard from side to side, and his red head and neck seemed to intensify as he came closer. I knew the game was on!
Fifteen yards from my blind, he began strutting beside my decoys, making that distinctive drumming sound as his feathers vibrated and his wings continuously clicked to attention. The adrenaline -- wow! -- raced through my body. I prepared myself for the opportunity to shoot. When he turned to face away from me, I drew my bow undetected while his huge fan blocked his view of my movement. As he turned to his right, giving a clear shot at his vitals, I released my arrow and watched my first trophy tom of the spring season hit the ground. He weighed 23 pounds, sported a 10 1/2-inch beard and had 1 1/2-inch spurs. He was a trophy any hunter would be proud to display.
Turkeys are considered one of the most difficult species to hunt due to their extremely keen eyesight, giving them the ability to detect the smallest of movements. And yet during the spring season, hunters have a slight advantage when it comes to pursuing trophy toms. during this time of the year, the toms' preoccupation with the opposite sex makes them vulnerable to being lured to within bow or shotgun range. Here are 10 ways to help you score this spring.
During the day, toms can usually be found feeding and chasing hens near field edges and open pockets within forested areas. Get in the field well before sunrise and listen for them to gobble in their roosts at first light. Move quietly to within 200 yards of where you heard them, give a few soft clucks and sit tight. When they fly down from their roosts, they'll be looking for hens, so the chance of having one come to your calls is very good.
Shock calls are effective tools used by many hunters during the early dawn hours to trick a tom into gobbling, thus betraying his position. Since crows and owls are a turkey's natural enemy in the woods, toms will instinctively respond to their calls.
Find a tom's strut zone and try to intercept him on one of his travel routes as he enters or exits from this area. A strut zone is an area in which he feels safe and comfortable, spending most of his time during the day strutting, gobbling and showing off to his hens. Look for any type of sign that shows a great deal of activity such as tracks, wing-tip drag marks from strutting birds and even droppings or feathers.
The tom's dropping will be J-shaped, like a fishhook, while a hen's will be more elongated. A track from a big tom is usually 4 1/2 inches from the base of the heel to the tip of the center toe. A hen's track is smaller, usually about 3 1/2 inches long.
FINDING ROOSTING AREAS
At night, turkeys roost high in trees, generally within thick wooded areas, to protect them from predators. The best way to find a turkey's roost is to position yourself on a ridge just before sunrise and listen for a tom's gobbling. Do the same thing in the late afternoon hours when toms are heading back to their roosting trees for the evening.
Once you pinpoint the location of their roosting tree, you'll have the advantage over them and can set up close by or along a travel route in a strategic ambush position.
GROUND BLIND SETUPS
Whether you use a natural ground blind or a pop-up blind, location is the most important factor. Try to establish your blind within a relatively short distance of a feeding area or a strut zone so that you can attempt to lure a tom in for a shot.
A natural ground blind can be anything from sitting at the base of a growth of trees, concealing yourself within fallen branches or tucking into a bush. This gives a hunter the mobility to set up blinds in a number of locations. When setting a blind, make sure to have an adequate backdrop for your camouflage to naturally blend in, so that you are not silhouetted and stand out like a sore thumb.
Pop-up blinds give the hunter the flexibility to establish a blind in an open area where there may not be enough natural cover for concealment. Other advantages are that they keep you dry and out of the elements and also conceal any small movements that a turkey would otherwise detect.
There are many good pop-up blinds on the market, but the one I've found to suit my needs is the Double Bull Matrix. Its exterior, consisting of an enlarged Predator camouflage pattern, is easily erected, giving me a 180-degree shooting lane from a wide, adjustable opening. Being an archer, I like its dark interior, which allows me to draw my bow undetected.
SUCCESSFUL DECOY SETUPS
Today's decoys are some of the most realistic and deceptive I've ever seen. The photo-realistic decoys being produced have revolutionized the turkey-hunting industry, with their life-like images and movements fooling even the wisest of toms.
Always make sure that your decoys are placed within accurate and deadly range of your blind, keeping in mind that shotgun ranges might extend a bit farther than archery ranges. Turkeys are extremely tough birds with very small vital areas. I usually place my decoys 13 to 20 yards from my blind.
I use a spread of three hens and a jake
, splitting them into pairs of two and spacing them about 10 yards apart from each other. I position the first pair of two hens 13 yards from my blind, one facing in my direction as if she were feeding toward me, and the other facing away from me at a 45-degree angle as if she were calling to, or looking for, the approaching tom. The other two, a hen and a jake, are placed at 18 to 20 yards from my blind and facing me. I position the jake two feet directly behind the hen, as if he were trying to mate her.
Separating decoys in this manner allows you opportunities to lure in two types of toms: ones interested only in finding lonely hens separated from their male companions; and those boss toms that not only want to mate with the hens but are intolerant of competition. They will show their dominance by attacking the jake.
The reason I face most of the decoys in the direction of my blind is because most toms will circle a decoy and eventually stop face-to-face with it, giving me the opportunity to draw my bow.
CALLING TIPS & TECHNIQUES
What I enjoy most about spring turkey season is being able to call a boss tom to within range. Whether you use a pushpin, slate, box or mouth call, here are some handy tips that will help you in the field.
Clucks are a single note call, spaced out and done softly when toms have left their roosts and are trying to locate hens. Make sure not to make sharp hard clucks, which sound like "puck!" Those are warning signals that mean something is wrong.
Yelps are two-tone calls done consecutively by a lonely hen looking for companionship, usually in odd-numbered groups of five to seven. Hens usually use the yelp to find other hens or alert a tom to their location.
Purrs are used by contented birds, usually when they are feeding or as a sign of comfort while with a companion. I like to follow a purr with a soft cluck behind it. If a gobbler is close, this one really gets them going.
Cutting is a series of very fast, hard clucks in a staccato rhythm. It is used to locate gobblers throughout the day and have them shock-gobble back.
Gobbler calls are excellent in getting a boss tom jealous and making him think another gobbler is trying to take his hens. This usually results in him running to the call to do battle. Be extremely careful when gobbling, as this usually attracts other hunters, creating a potentially unsafe situation.
BAGGING BIG TOMS
Aggressive tactics are what I call the run-and-gun. This doesn't mean run at the turkeys; it means to be aggressive in your tactics and be prepared to move and cover a lot of distance at a moment's notice. This works very well for shotgunners who are willing to be mobile and carry far less equipment. All you really need are your calls and two decoys.
When hearing a tom gobble from a far ridge or in an adjacent canyon, be prepared to move quietly and cautiously in his direction to close the distance. Become the predator. Stop every once in a while and do a couple of yelps with your call, listening for a response and making sure he's still in the area. When you pinpoint his location and are close enough, quickly set up two decoys, conceal yourself and try to call him in by doing some soft clucks followed by a yelp.
Non-aggressive tactics are for both shotgunners and bowhunters. Set up a stationary blind and try to lure a tom in by using calls and a spread of up to four decoys.
Bowhunting for turkeys is a different game altogether than shotgun hunting. The most difficult and crucial part is deciding when to draw your bow when a tom is at point-blank range. Turkeys are masters at picking out even the slightest movement, so you have to time it just right. I've found that the perfect opportunity to come to full draw is when a tom faces away from me and fans his tail feathers while circling the decoys in full strut.
Large toms have beards that grow to an average of 9 inches in length. A boss tom's beard can grow much longer than that. Sometimes they even grow multiple beards. Most hunters consider a jake to be a turkey with a 4-inch beard or shorter. While in the field, if a gobbler's beard comes close to dragging on the ground or if you see it swinging from side to side as he walks, you know you're looking at an exceptional bird. Those with beards over 6 inches and spurs measuring about one inch in length are considered to be trophy-class.
A gobbler's spurs are curved and pointed, with those of boss toms growing as long as two inches in length. When displays of territorial dominance occur, they use their spurs as lethal weapons as they leap into the air and lunge at one another.
A mature tom's fan is very large and well developed, making a perfect half circle when in full strut. A jake's tail feathers are usually much smaller and underdeveloped, showing voids in the outer circle of his fan as he struts.
BEST HUNTING TIMES
Mornings are usually the best time of the day to see turkeys in open areas, but during the spring season, toms will be active all day in search of female companionship, so don't leave the field early. I've taken some of my largest boss toms during the late morning and mid-afternoon hours.
SHOT PLACEMENT & ANATOMY
A turkey's vital area, made up of his heart and lungs, is not much larger than the size of half-dollar piece. With bodies naturally protected by shields of muscle, cartilage, bone, large strong wings and layers of over 4,000 to 5,000 feathers, these birds are very tough to put down.
Shot placement is absolutely essential when hunting turkeys. Shotgunners should aim at a turkey's head and neck for a clean kill, so pattern your shotgun appropriately.
A bowhunter's kill zone is much different, offering three deadly shots: a straight-on shot through the chest of a turkey a few inches below his gullet; a broadside shot aiming for the base of the turkey's wing joint; or a facing-away shot when a turkey is in full strut, through his backside (usually referred to as a Texas Heart Shot -- no offense intended to my fellow Texan bowhunters).
Wearing proper camouflage clothing and eliminating movement is crucial to your success. Choose the right pattern and color for the vegetation and terrain you are hunting, and make sure to camouflage your shotgun and wear camouflage gloves and a face net. Bowhunters should cover their arrow vanes if using a bow quiver.
Turkeys, being constantly on alert, are able to pick out the smallest of movements. Many times, while totally camouflaged and staying completely still, I've had toms look directly into my eyes and take off running.