Gearing Up For A Great Turkey Season

Great turkey hunts don't just happen. They require some planning and preparation.

His gobble about scared me to death! I sure wasn't expecting to hear a turkey already very close to the spot I intended to set up — especially after spooking three deer on the way in that headed precisely in his direction just a few minutes earlier.

But he was there.

After relocating, I let things settle down for about 30 minutes before offering some plaintive yelps that immediately elicited a gobble. For another 40-or-so minutes, I'd yelp and he'd gobble — but neither one of us appeared to be moving. Rather than being patient, I tried to move again — to see if I could get a look at him — and he shut up. Frustrated at my own lack of patience, I slipped quietly out of the woods and headed home.

Listening to a calling tape on the way home, the host mentioned that he found turkeys to be creatures of habit. "If you see them at a given spot one morning, they'll be somewhere close by the next morning about the same time." That sentence hatched my plan for the next day. Instead of getting up a 3 a.m. to make an hour-long drive and be in the woods before sunrise, I decided to be in that same spot at the same time — about 8:30 a.m.

I slept in, arrived in plenty of time.

The previous morning, he'd answered my call around 9 a.m. It was 8:30 as I walked up to the tree I intended to sit against and heard him gobble before I'd even made a sound.

He was on the ground at 8:45.

Luck undoubtedly played a role, but so did preparation. That's what this story is all about. You can have the best spring turkey season ever by preparing to have the best spring turkey season ever.

From here, three elements are more important than any others in preparing to have a great gobbler season — scouting, shooting and sitting. That might sound strange, but what follows will help you understand the importance of each.

SCOUTING
No hunter can downplay the importance of scouting. Many hunters consider it a rite of spring to "put gobblers to bed" by spending time in the woods near sunset, looking and listening for turkeys to learn where they're going to spend the night. Carry a pair of compact binoculars, and try to find some spots that will enable you to glass fairly large chunks of land in search of turkeys.

You don't need to — and shouldn't — get close to turkeys when you're scouting. Good binoculars will help you to locate birds and pattern their movements from a distance. You won't be disturbing them or the habitat they're using.

Another form of scouting involves predawn trips to the edges of the turkey woods with locator calls. Crow calls and owl hooters often will elicit shock gobbles from toms that are still on the roost. Once again, the concept with this kind of scouting is not to get on top of the birds, but rather to gain a general idea of the areas they're using before the season opens.

Advances in decoys allow for real fan inserts in tom decoys, like these Carry Lite Pretty Boy toms.
Photo by John Geiger.

If you can do this kind of scouting no more than a week before the opener, you'll help yourself get a good idea of where you should be on opening morning. When you're out — be it early with locator calls or in the early evening with binoculars — carry a GPS unit. If you don't have a handheld GPS but have one in your vehicle, note the latitude and longitude of your parking spot.

Use those coordinates with an online service like Google Earth to get a feel for the lay of the land. This is especially important if you're hunting unfamiliar acreage. However, even if you know the land like the back of your hand, using Google Earth to get a good look at the topography may help you identify some great spots to set up for a hunt.

Spring mornings unfold consistently for turkeys. When they fly down, gobblers aim to get with nearby hens quickly and see to their annual rite of spring. As the sun climbs higher, gobblers then will be "on the prowl" for hens they've missed. This is where scouting can really pay dividends for you. If you know where turkeys are roosting and relate that to Google Earth's aerial photos, you may get a sense of movement patterns on the land you're hunting.

The hunt I described at the start of this story occurred more than a decade before Google Earth. Now, however — and based on my experience with that hunt — I will also look at the program's aerial photos with an eye toward places turkeys can move to get out of the wind. Identifying potential setup spots with that in mind also will give you a chance to react if you arrive at your hunting area in high winds.

SHOOTING
From here, hunting ballistics is one of the most overlooked elements of preparation. None of us have any reason to set foot in the turkey woods wondering whether our turkey gun will get the job done. We can know that well in advance.

When I first started chasing gobblers in the spring, turkey-specific shotgun models were few and far between. That's sure not the case today. Big strides in range and design have been made in turkey guns in the last few years.

Just don't make the mistake of thinking you're at an insurmountable disadvantage if you don't own one. I've been hunting for years with the same over-and-under 12 gauge I use for waterfowl and upland birds. It may not be the best choice for spring gobblers, but it has performed well for me.

I mention that only to suggest that any hunter should take the time and make the effort to learn what is necessary to get the most out of whatever shotgun he or she will carry into the turkey woods. You'll have to spend some money to do that, but you can minimize your cost as much as possible by splitting it with other hunters. The cost I'm referring to is for a variety of loads.

Turkey loads are not inexpensive. However, just like big-game rifles, your turkey shotgun is going to "like" a certain load or loads better than others. It's imperative that you know what those loads are, and use them.

Aftermarket chokes are available today that provide tighter patterns than many hunters could have imagined even 15

-20 years ago. What you need to do is to pattern a variety of loads to see what gives you consistent uniform patterns out of the gun and choke you're using.

There likely are as many good ways to go about patterning a shotgun for turkey hunting as there are turkey hunters to ask. What follows is an approach that should help you click off the safety confidently — knowing that your shot is going to go where you want it and be as effective as possible.

Using either a regular target or a target with a turkey on it, set up at 20 yards and — using a good, solid rest — squeeze off a round while aiming at the center of the target. You're doing this to see whether the gun will hit where you point it. Some shotguns will be off. If you don't have the luxury of adjustable sights (some turkey-specific shotguns come from the factory with them these days), you'll have to adjust your point of aim.

When you're confident you know where the gun will shoot, move your target out to 40 yards. That distance is considered by many to be the maximum distance for turkey hunting.

I carry my bowhunting rangefinder on turkey hunts and identify landmarks (trees, stumps, etc.) that are no more than 40 yards from me. Mr. Gobbler is going to have to be between me and those landmarks before I'll click off the safety.

With your target at 40 yards, take another dead-center shot to confirm your aiming point, then begin using different rounds and/or chokes to confirm which combination of choke and load will give you the most effective pattern at 40 yards. When you've done that, try a pattern shot at 20 yards. Most hunters don't do that, but patterns can be different at varying ranges.

The bottom line on the shooting element of turkey-season preparation is that shotguns are no different from any other hunting firearm you own. They will like some loads better than others, and you should take the time to determine which load/choke combination is the best for your particular gun.

SITTING
So . . . you find yourself in a standoff of sorts with a gobbler. Maybe you've seen him, and know he's a big mature bird — but he's just staying out of range. You have to wait him out.

Just about that time, you start feeling the tingle in one leg or the other, or the spasm of a muscle that you just can't move because he'll bust you. Loss of comfort at critical moments can cause you to move, and movement in a turkey hunt can ruin your chance to score on a big tom.

That's precisely why "Sitting" is included here as one of the three most important elements to success with spring gobblers. My experience suggests that not nearly enough hunters think about this in advance. If they had, they'd be more prepared to sit comfortably and motionless for longer periods while turkey hunting.

One of the really nice accessories that have come along for turkey hunters is the vest that we can use to carry all of our gear into the woods. Today, many of those vests come equipped with a padded seat. If you don't have a vest and are thinking about getting one, invest in one with a seat. If you already have a vest but no seat, think about picking up a seat for use this season.

It's impossible to over-emphasize how keen a turkey's vision is. And when combined with a turkey's incredibly sharp hearing, having a big gobbler respond to your call means more than many hunters realize. It means that turkey has pinpointed your location and will be coming to it — precisely. More about that in a minute.

The focus now is on the concept that you must set up for a hunt with the notion that you could end up sitting in that one spot for a long time. You have to take whatever steps you can to be able to sit there virtually motionless for as long as possible.

Padded seats will help in that regard. Camo clothing that is loose enough to not bunch up and start irritating you — anywhere — also will help. And it might not hurt to carry some camo cloth to fashion a quick blind that will help conceal from incoming gobblers any movements you make.

A related consideration involves learning to use a diaphragm mouth call if you have never done so. I enjoy using friction calls, and have a couple of different glass calls that I like very much. But when a turkey is coming in — and especially when I can see him — I'll use a mouth call, if necessary, for a little sweet-talking. A subtle cluck, purr or putt can make that gobbler move to present a wide-open shot for you, but he's going to be so close that you can't afford to try using a call that involves moving your hands.

OTHER GEAR
Decoys are mandatory these days because they will distract a gobbler's attention from the pinpoint location of your calling. That can make all the difference in the world.

Different calls aren't bad ideas, either, as mentioned above. For now, just know that you have an incredible number of options. If you're like me, calling gobblers is the spring hunt. I enjoy that as much as anything I do in the outdoors.

If you have a handheld GPS, carry it with you. Mark (as a waypoint) the location where you park your vehicle. No matter how well you know a given area, things can happen to confuse you and leave you wondering where you are. A handheld GPS is great insurance to help you get back to the vehicle as quickly and easily as possible.

If you know you can get cell phone coverage from your hunting area, carry your phone along. Set it to silent before you leave home! Try to learn about cell coverage during your scouting trips. If you don't have coverage where you'll be hunting, let friends and/or family know where you plan to park your vehicle and hunt, and give them an idea of when to expect you.

As mentioned earlier, a rangefinder will help you eliminate any guesswork when it comes to shooting distances. If you have one, carry it with you and use it as soon as you set up to know where a gobbler needs to be to truly be in shooting range.

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