6 Late-Season Turkey Tips
September 24, 2010
Don't give up! Now's the time to get aggressive if you plan on taking a tom.
It was the final day of Oregon's spring turkey season. I had one of three tags left to fill, and given how addictive these birds are to hunt, not to mention how much the family loves eating them, there was little question I'd be heading into the field.
Set up your decoys so an approaching tom will see the back of a strutting tom decoy with the hen in front. He'll circle around the front to attract the hen's attention, and that's when you shoot. Photo by Scott Haugen.
Wanting my then 4-year-old son, Braxton, to live the thrill of spring turkey hunting, we both headed into the field. By the time we reached the timber where the birds had been nesting, daylight was upon us. We listened for turkeys talking in the still morning air, but heard nothing.
Letting out some soft tree yelps, I thought for sure our sounds would draw a response. Nothing. Aggressive fly-down cackles also proved fruitless. Braxton and I walked the timbered edge, working some meadows in the valley. After three hours, we failed to see or even hear a bird.
Working our way back to the truck, I let Braxton practice on his box call. He enjoyed our time, but I wanted more. Late in the season, the field grass grew high in the fields where we hunted, and, as is so often the case this time of year, turkeys thrive in these tall grass habitats. With that in mind, we took a detour.
No sooner had we made our way to the edge of the next field when a red head caught our eye. Soon, another head popped up, then another. Nearly a dozen birds gathered in the field, feeding on grass and insects. They'd not seen us, and using the high grass and broken terrain, I felt confident we could stalk within shooting range.
Covering nearly 100 yards, we still had another 60 to the birds, too far for a shot. Then the flock turned and slowly started feeding our way. Braxton and I hunkered down and waited. When the lead tom got to 40 yards, I rose up and fired.
Just before noon, my final turkey tag of the season was filled, and the best part, Braxton got to see it all unfold.
When it comes to turkey hunting, the late season is a time many hunters write off as being just too tough to hunt. After all, birds have been pressured for well over a month, hens are nesting, and toms are back to their bachelor flocks and are not responding as well to calls as they did earlier in the season.
While it's true that there's no arguing the fact that hunting does indeed grow tougher as the season passes, that's no reason for hunters to give up. With some wise planning and aggressive strategies by the hunter, that late-season tom can be bagged. Here are six approaches I've found that have worked well for me over the years.
1. Spot & Stalk
The first time I suggested to an Eastern turkey fanatic who was hunting out West with me that we try stalking a group of toms, he looked at me like I was nuts. But once we pulled it off, and he nailed a nice tom, he said it was one of the most exciting turkey hunts of his life.
Land here in the West is so vast that encountering fellow hunters is rare. That makes stalking turkeys safe. It also builds hunting skills, and can be very humbling.
Turkeys have some of the best eyesight in the woods, and many Western hunters pride themselves on the fact they can consistently walk-up a tom. In fact, I know of many hunters who won't go after turkeys any other way. Their goal is to better develop spot-and-stalk skills for deer and elk hunting, and to live the thrill this style of hunting lends itself to.
Jeremy Toman (right) took this monster bird on an exciting spot-and-stalk hunt with guide Jody Smith.
Photo by Scott Haugen.
The key to successful spot-and-stalk hunting is not being seen, and it's no different with turkeys. Use the shadows of trees, the broken terrain and any cover in the land you hunt to help stalk within range. Once you spot a bird, carefully plan an approach route, and then stay out of sight until the last moment.
Too often, hunters make the mistake of wanting to see their quarry throughout the duration of a stalk. If you can see the animal, they can see you. Stay out of sight for as long as possible. You don't have to worry about the wind; turkeys have poor sniffers. Go quietly, work wisely and have confidence in your approach. If the bird moves by the time you reach him, find the tom again and develop a new game plan. Patience and persistence will pay off and help make you a better hunter.
2. Ground Blinds
The biggest tom of my life came on the last day of the season, from a ground blind. Actually, all I did was pull the trigger; good friend and noted turkey guide Jody Smith did the work.
The toms were hanging in bachelor flocks and the hens nesting at this time, and Smith was having a heckuva time calling in any birds. He'd been watching about a half-dozen different groups of toms, and one had a giant longbeard in it.
On the morning of the hunt, we popped up a ground blind 30 minutes before first light. Smith put the blind about 400 yards from where the birds were last seen roosting, at a point where the toms had been traveling one of two trails.
The birds gobbled in the tree, then shut down the minute they hit the ground. Still, both of us called, but never drew an answer. Twenty minutes later, two toms came into sight, one of which was our target bird. He followed the exact trail Smith had watched him on the morning prior. At 32 yards, the shot was a slam-dunk.
The bird sported an 11 3/4-inch beard and 1 7/8-inch spurs, a monster for a western Oregon Rio.
When it comes to hunting turkeys from blinds, there's no need to erect the blind days in advance. I've taken dozens of toms from ground blinds in recent years, and I never recall having one spook from it. In fact, we'll often set up decoys within 10 yards of the blind, and have filled many tags this way.
Blinds allow you to hunt open land you'd otherwise not be able to. Get set up in the dark or out of sight from the birds and keep movement to a minimum. You'll be amazed at how effective this tool can be.
3. Pattern Movements
Observing turkey movements can teach you a lot this time of year. Start early and stay late, and you'll become a better turkey hunter from what you learn.
Birds may stay in tall, grassy fields all day. Such habitats provide food in the form of seeds and insects, and water from early-morning dew. During the heat of the day, they'll often lie low in the shade and coolness of the grass, then move to roost in the closing moments of light.
In timber and amid short vegetation, birds will cover more ground, but this late in the season their movements become predictable. Once you find a flock of birds, stick with them. Try calling first, and if they don't react, be patient. If there's no way of stalking to within range, be even more patient. Watch where the birds are moving to and try to get in front of them.
If you can't cut off the flock, watch their path of travel and return the next day. Chances are they'll follow the same path at the same time of day. When studying birds on the move, make it a point to learn why they are moving where they are. This time of year, toms are driven by the need for food, water and shade. Their rut is all but over, so their sex drive has diminished and they are back to focusing on one thing -- survival.
Once you do take a late-season bird, break open the crop to see what they've been feeding on. This is one of the most valuable pieces of information a late-season turkey hunter can acquire. Whatever has attracted that bird will attract more, even in subsequent years. Be where the birds are going and you'll often fill that tag.
4. Aggressive Calling
I'm not a passive hunter. Sometimes this hurts me, but usually my aggressive approach helps close the deal. Turkeys are funny birds. What works on them one season, even from one day to another, may not work at all the next time around. That's why I'm always willing to try and make something happen.
Turkeys have small brains, and though they can be very clever, they don't appear to have a very good memory. By that, I mean they can be called to one morning and not show a bit of interest. The same birds can be called to later in the day or the next morning, in the same spot, and come running to the sounds.
If I can see and hear birds, I'll often hit them with very aggressive sounds. If they don't run at the first sounds, I'll get louder and more aggressive. My turkey vest will have various calls specifically for this reason, to generate loud sounds. Box, slate and diaphragm calls that didn't work yesterday can all of a sudden turn on the birds. Don't be shy when it comes to calling, there's often nothing to lose.
5. Decoy Change-up
Last spring while hunting with a friend, we experimented with several decoy setups.
On this morning, we were a bit too aggressive. Wanting to see how toms reacted to a flock of decoys, we put out five fake decoys consisting of two adult toms in full-strut, two hens and a jake. We also added two mounted birds, a tom and a hen. The spread looked impressive, and we both thought it might work.
Our early-morning calls had toms answering from the roost, and once they hit the ground, you could hear them quickly closing the distance with each approaching gobble. As the first two toms rounded the corner, they pulled their feathers in tight to their bodies, quit gobbling and skirted around our spread. Both were mature birds, and though they hung around the setup for over a half-hour, they never came to within shooting range. The same happened with a pair of other birds. Our setup was a flop.
Going back to the mounted tom and hen at our next setup, a flock of jakes approached, and hammered the tom decoy to pieces. In fact, they ripped its head off before we could run them off. Later, my friend used his new BowTech and made a perfect shot on a lone longbeard that came right in.
On my bird, a trio of mature toms came in gobbling, strutting, spitting and drumming all the way up to the Pretty Boy and Pretty Girl decoy system. We had them five yards from the blind, and the toms could have cared less. Slipping a Gold Tip arrow through the biggest bird, the tom went 10 yards and fell over. Before we could get out of the blind, four more toms came in to the decoy, and the two birds that were with the one I'd just arrowed, also came back.
In experimenting with decoy sets, keep an open mind. What works one time may not work the next. Over the past two seasons, I've had my best success with the Pretty Boy and Pretty Girl system, as I've never had a mature tom see them and not come in. This may not be the case for everyone, but it's what I've observed and explains why I invested in three sets of these decoys.
If you can, situate the decoys so approaching toms first see the backside of a strutting tom. This sends the message that he's courting a hen. When the approaching birds get closer, they'll see the submissive or feeding hen facing away from the tom, and often circle around in front to get her attention. They will also approach the tom, and once they start strutting and pirouetting, they'll usually provide the perfect shot opportunity, especially for archers.
6. Use Optics
The first time I hosted a hunting buddy on a turkey hunt from the flatlands back East, he was blown away by the size of the country we were going to hunt. He had trouble reasoning that Rios actually lived in these rugged mountains. When I pointed out that these were gentle hills, not mountains, and that the habitat contained everything the birds needed to survive, he knew I was serious about the hunt.
When I broke out the spotting scope, you should have seen the priceless look he shot my way.
"What the heck is that for?" he said.
Once I centered a pair of toms on high power, I let him slip into the scope. He looked up at me like I'd lost my mind.
"Do you see them?" I smiled.
"Uh, yeah," he said.
"What do you think we should do?" I asked.
"We're not going after them, are we?" he said.
"Nope," I grinned.
"Good, they're way too far," he sighed.
"Oh, that's not the reason we're letting them go," I said. "Look closer. They're both young toms."
He must have known it was going to be a long day.
Truth is, if we had looked at those birds through just binoculars, we couldn't have seen how big they were. If we had have taken the time to walk the mile of hilly ground to see what they were, we'd have wasted valuable hunting time.
As in big-game hunting, spotting scopes have saved me countless hours of false stalks over the years in the turkey hills. When you know you're going to be hunting open, rolling hill
s, take along a spotting scope, especially if you're after a mature tom. When boss toms aren't talking this time of year, you'll likely see more birds than you actually hear. For this reason, packing a spotting scope can save time and help to accurately judge the size of distant toms.
Late-season toms can be tough to outwit, but once you figure out how to get on them, hunting success rates will rise. Study the birds you hunt. Learn the terrain and why mature toms behave the way they do this time of year in that setting. Once you start outthinking these big hammerheads, your addiction to late-season turkey hunting will skyrocket.