10 Turkey-Hunting Mistakes to Avoid
September 28, 2010
One season is all it takes to learn what not to do in the turkey woods. Our expert outlines the top 10 mistakes turkey hunters make and how you can avoid them. (May 2007)
Photo by D. Toby Thompson
If the following tale doesn't seem painfully familiar, you probably have not been turkey hunting very long.
One May morning I overslept and arrived at one of my favorite calling locations an hour past sunup. The big willow roosting tree that shades the corner of a hidden meadow was empty and the local flock was already on the ground. I decided to set out a hen decoy and do some aggressive calling in the hope that a footloose gobbler might decide to check out the new hen in the neighborhood.
Happily, my come-hither clucks and yelps drew a quick reply and in minutes, a huge tom was strutting across the pasture. When he gobbled, I yelped back, and he started coming my way at a brisk walk. The romantic conversation was getting hotter and hotter when the tom suddenly stepped into a little basin, stopped talking . . . and disappeared.
A LESSON LEARNED
At that time, I had tangled with very few hung-up gobblers and wasn't sure what to do, so I just kept calling every minute or two thinking that this shy fellow would finally find my hen persona irresistible and make a mad dash into shooting range.
The seconds ticked slowly by, and then the minutes piled up, until I'd gone nearly half an hour without hearing a gobble. Deciding the bird must have spooked, I slowly stood up to give the pasture one last look.
Staring back, from behind a hillock just 20 yards away, was Ol' Tom himself. At the sight of him, I raised my gun. At the sight of me, he dashed into a thicket of berry bushes -- and made it with seconds to spare.
My impatient sneak peek had cost me an easy shot, and the worst part of it was that I knew better. Several turkey-hunting mentors had coached me to sit absolutely still upon losing sight of an incoming tom. The rule of thumb for dealing with a gobbler that goes silent is simple but effective -- sit still for as long as you can after the bird vanishes, and then stay put for a few minutes after that. And, whatever you do, no peeking!
Stretching or standing up to verify the whereabouts of a bird that may be sneaking silently in your direction is just one of many mistakes we turkey hunters are bound to make if we spend enough time in the woods. Here are some more common errors, along with ways to correct or prevent them.
Having shot turkeys at all legal hours, I can't honestly say the crack of dawn is the only time to score on a big gobbler, but hunters who don't hit the woods until most sportsmen are on their coffee breaks miss out on some of the most exciting (and educational) shows in Mother Nature's repertoire.
During the last 45 minutes or so before dawn, birds on the roost are very likely to yelp, cluck and gobble with abandon. One tom after another will chime in, as if answering a roll call. The nimrod that sleeps through this ritual forfeits a perfect chance to become acquainted with the local turkey population. In addition, just before sunup, many if not most hens and toms will fly down and begin walking toward their favorite feeding grounds and strutting zones.
You may or may not have a shooting opportunity every time, but if you are in the woods at fly-down time, you can often hear where the birds alight and tell what direction they take from there. That knowledge will come in very handy on subsequent mornings.
How early is early enough? I like to be in position when I can barely make out the individual treetops. That's about an hour before sunrise.
Of course, after a long string of early wake-ups, I'm the first to admit that late-morning hunts have their pluses, too.
LEAVING TOO SOON
The pillow-punchers who reluctantly roll out of bed in the morning do have an advantage over hunters who call it quits after a 9 a.m. coffee break. Namely, they're wide-awake and on the job when so-called "henned-up" toms are apt to cut loose and fly solo.
Matt, a friend of mine, went by the book when he hunted a heavily wooded hillside one mid-May morning. He got into position well before sunrise, made a few soft tree yelps in the dim light and then kept quiet until the roosted longbeards that thundered back at him were on the ground. Unfortunately, those toms had shared the tree limbs with several winsome hens, and Matt could not pry them loose with his most artful calling. After the birds went off in the opposite direction, he spent several fruitless hours trying to ambush them along a power line corridor that he knew to be a favorite strutting ground. By 10 o'clock, he was so tired and discouraged that he slung his shotgun over his shoulder and began walking back to his car at a casual pace.
Not far from where he had begun calling at dawn, Matt rounded a curve in a snowmobile trail and almost walked smack into a big gobbler. By the time he unhinged the sling from his shoulder, the bird had sprinted well out of range.
Contrast that sad story with one of my own, which began with a disappointing dearth of treetop talk before sunup and ended with a fat tom on the ground at 11:55 a.m. It took more willpower than I can usually muster to stay in the woods for more than an hour on that hot, mosquito-infested late-May morning, but the extra effort paid off.
By 10 a.m., the gobblers that were in the company of unbred hens at first light had either made a conquest or been turned down flat. Either way, they were in a randy mood.
It pays to keep hunting late in the morning and, in those states where such is permitted, well into the afternoon.
BUSTING BIRDS ON THE ROOST
As a rule, the closer a turkey hunter can get to roosted birds without being detected the more likely it is that he'll have a good shot when those birds fly down. But there's such a thing as too close. Tiptoeing through the dim woods, a blur of dark shapes rocketing every which way says you're too close, and a sound like sheets flapping on a clothesline tells the tale: Busted again!
The hunter who inadvertently flushes a flock of birds from the roost may be in for a long day, as the commotion alerts other turkeys for hundreds of yards around. Luckily, there's preventive medicine for such a disaster. By pinpointing roosting areas in advance of the actual hunt, one can also select an unobtrusive calling location.
Whenever possible, try to roost a tom or two the even
ing before you plan to go afield. Look for likely roosting areas, such as a grove of evergreens amid a much larger stand of hardwoods, or a cluster of tall trees at the head of a steep gully. Sneak to within a couple hundred yards of such areas at twilight and offer two or three loud owl hoots or crow calls, pausing to listen for a gobble between riffs. When you get a response (and this may take two or three tries spaced out over several minutes), mark the spot and mentally prepare a route that will get you close -- but not too close -- to that spot in the dark of the next morning.
What if you fail to detect a gobble from the roost in the evening? The fallback strategy is to try again just before dawn, with an owl hoot or a coyote howl. Roosted toms are used to hearing such sounds in the wee hours and often respond to them with nervous shock gobbles.
CALLING TOO LONG
Some turkey hunters like the sound of their own calling so much that they are reluctant to stop the tom-talk until an approaching bird has stepped into the cross hairs.
A guide pal of mine, however, rarely makes a peep once he observes a gobbler approaching his setup.
"By the time you can see them, they know exactly where you are -- they just don't know what you are," the guide said. "So, they'll be looking hard and trying to spot you."
Every hunter knows that the slightest movement when a tom is looking right at him can bring the game to an abrupt end, but a turkey's hearing is arguably as remarkable as its eyesight. Think of how many times gobblers have heard your calling at a distance of several hundred yards, then walked on a more-or-less straight line to the spot where you were sitting. When a bird hears a loud yelp or purr at close range but can't see its source, that tom is inclined to vacate the premises, pronto.
For this reason, it's wise to stop calling when a gobbler (or jake, if that's what you're after) is coming into range. The more exposed you are, the sooner you should put down the call.
If my hunting buddy, Wayne, has said it once, he's said it a thousand times: "Setup is everything."
His idea of a good setup, or calling position, is one that gives the hunter a long view yet makes it difficult for the targeted turkey to see the hunter until it's too late.
As a part-time guide, Wayne has a better instinct for setups than most of us, but I remember one time when he and I were virtually handcuffed by a tom that stopped its approach through open hardwoods about 50 yards away.
The problem was that we had sat down against a tree that was on the same level as the incoming gobbler and there was no rolling terrain, toppled log, dense brush or any other obstacle to block the turkey's vision. He knew that, unless his ears were betraying him, a hen should be right there -- where we were -- but the object of his desire was not in sight. After half an hour of cautious gobbling, he finally tiptoed away and we never saw him again.
The ideal setup, Wayne said, has a "rim effect." That means there is either a ridgetop or similar topographic feature that the turkey must clamber over to see what's on the other side. Any little rise of turf that disguises the caller will suffice.
The rim effect means Wayne can count on having a close- or medium-range shooting opportunity at the incomer's head and neck area.
Why do so many sportsmen, turkey hunters especially, ignore mom's admonition to "dress in layers?" Depending on location, the spring turkey season might include temperatures ranging from torrid to frigid, with weather varying from bone dry to soaking wet. Heck, in some parts of the country you can get all that and more in a single morning! If you're not prepared for the elements, you won't be on your game when a big gobbler sounds off. To be honest, I have made a couple of early exits from the woods because I neglected to stow rain gear or an extra pair of socks in my car.
While you can't carry every conceivable clothing item into the field, you certainly can, and should, wear one shirt too many rather than one too few. That extra layer could be just enough to keep you comfortable -- and hunting -- on an unexpectedly brisk May morning.
Along the same lines, don't forget your mosquito and tick repellent. These days, with deer ticks spreading Lyme disease across the country, an effective spray or lotion is important to your health, as well as your comfort.
THE FIDGET FACTOR
Speaking of comfort, hunters who spend their workweek chained to desks or who are bothered by chronic back pain often fall victim to the wiggles. They simply can't sit still for long periods of time, and their habitual fidgeting is bound to cost them a bird before the season is over.
I've been there and done that myself, most recently last spring when a hamstring cramp forced me to noisily shift position just as a tom was coming into view.
The rule of thumb for dealing with a gobbler that goes silent is simple but effective -- sit still for as long as you can after the bird vanishes, and then stay put for a few minutes after that.
Although you may not be able to cure the wiggles for good, you can minimize the problem by launching a personal fitness program that involves plenty of walking and stretching and by treating yourself to a new folding stool or seat cushion.
I supplement the seat pad that came attached to my turkey vest with a two-piece cushion that fits in my game pocket. That extra support has kept me still through many marathon calling sessions.
What if you take all the precautions discussed above and then waste that effort by shooting high or low when the moment of truth is at hand?
Most blown shots in the spring woods are the result of one of three mistakes: misjudging the distance from muzzle to gobbler, failure to get your cheek down on the gunstock, or neglecting to pattern your shotgun with the loads you carry afield.
The way to become proficient at estimating shot distances is to practice constantly, picking out an object, guessing the range from you to it, and then either pacing it off or stretching a tape to test your accuracy. When hunting, you should pick out a couple of trees, shrubs or other objects that you guess to be at the limits of your effective range and vow not to take a shot beyond those markers.
Many modern hunters use a range finder to determine distances to various landmarks around the decoy.
Failing to tuck your cheek firmly against the stock is akin to not keeping your head down when you swing a golf club. It usually stems from over-eagerness. To cure this ill, silently remind yourself, whether you're shooting the real thing or a paper target, to get your head down and then put the bead or cross hairs on those red wattles.
There is simply no excuse for failing to know what kind of pattern your gun will throw with a particular shotshell. Don't go hunting until you've taken the time to take a few practice shots at the range. Failure to pattern your load could result in as many crippled birds as clean misses.
ONE BIRD TOO MANY
The mistake we dread most is the kind that puts us on the local game warden's "must-see" list. My aforementioned friend Wayne calls it "the silent partner" scenario, and it results in killing one turkey more than the law allows.
Here's how the silent partner mishap usually happens. A hunter calls in not just one, but several, toms, and the terrain or vegetation is such that each individual bird moves in and out of the picture. Finally, one gobbler steps into reasonable range. At the shot, the bird tumbles, and then vanishes briefly from view. The hunter sees it get up and fires again, this time anchoring it to the ground.
When he walks up to the bird, he is shocked to find another bird a few yards to the left or right, just as dead as the first. He has inadvertently killed two turkeys, one over his limit!
The best way to avoid the silent partner mistake is to pick out one bird among the several that are coming in, focus intently on it, and shoot only when you are absolutely confident of killing it.
Easier said than done? You're right, but that's true of turkey hunting in general, and just one more reason why we love it so much.