Tactics For Successful Turkey Hunting
April 13, 2011
Here are some game plans for increasing your odds of killing a gobbler in some classic turkey-hunting situations.
One common thread that I've noted among all the excellent turkey hunters I have had the opportunity to hunt with is that they always had a plan. When hunting longbearded gobblers, the plan does not always work. But sometimes the plan did work exactly as intended. But even more often the 'plan' put the hunters in the game and they were able to make quick modifications and adjust to the whims of a specific gobbler.
John A. Pennoyer
Often it's these small things that give you the edge you need to be successful.
We're going to look at some generic situations and some reasonable approaches to coping with specific turkey hunting situations. Remember, you may have to modify these tactics to meet the specific habitat in your specific location. But having a plan at the outset ensures you engage the gobbler quickly, which is the first key to success. If you have to think too long and hard about what to do, often the game is over before it begins.
So let's get started.
WOOD LOT BIRDS
Wood lots can be challenging places to hunt gobblers. The type of terrain I'm discussing is found everywhere. Simply put, there are generally areas of wooded turkey habitat interspersed with open terrain.
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A typical scenario is that hunters will call and hear a gobbler respond in a different set of woods, with open ground separating the hunter and the bird. Thus, the approach across open country can be difficult. Equally difficult is sometimes getting a gobbling bird to cross a field or sparsely wooded area to your location.
Here's a good plan of attack: The first option is to attempt to get the bird to come to you. This way you avoid the obvious exposure risk of crossing open territory. This is especially difficult to accomplish after a gobbler has responded to your call, thus acknowledging that he believes a hen is in those woods. The probability of him watching the area has increased and your odds of a successful direct approach vastly diminish.
One excellent tactic is to approach the edge of the woodlot you are in that is nearest to the bird that gobbled. Set up just inside the wood line without pushing the limits too far. But you do need to be within range of the edge of the woods and, ideally, where you could shoot a gobbler that is several yards into the open area, just in case the bird approaches but hangs up at the edge.
The next key is to be prepared that he may approach one of two ways. A bird approaching you directly, with the occasional gobble so you can track him and be ready, is of course preferred. But it doesn't always happen that way.
Often when a gobbler does make the decision to come to another woodlot to check out the hens, he will take a roundabout way and approach from one side or the other, or even circle and come in from behind. If there is any high ground available for your setup, you should take that position. Odds are good if he circles he will go there.
You will need to give yourself a setup that enables you to be hidden from the side and back should he approach from one of those routes.
If gobbler won't come to you, then you have to make the move to the gobbler. Study the terrain and even if you have to walk a long distance out of your way, use whatever cover or topography change available to conceal your movement. Generally do not go into the woods at the point you heard the bird gobble; instead, approach from the flank or backside. The first key is to successfully get into the same woodlot as the bird without being seen. Then begin the calling process. If he answers your call and you are in the same woodlot, the game is on.
This is a situation a lot of hunters like to hunt, but it does present unique challenges at times. A creek bottom is an ideal place to find a gobbler that is willing to gobble and respond. But usually one of two things make the situation challenging. First, the creek bottom may be quite open '‘'‘ and open woods favor a gobbler.
The second potential problem is that there are areas of open woods interspersed with very thick and heavy cover. That makes your getting close to the gobbler more difficult in terms of knowing which corner to cut. Plus it means you have to guess as to where he will appear if you sit and try to call him to your location.
I've learned that often the key is the type of gobbled response you get to your call.
With a little experience, or even just paying attention to how the bird gobbles and using your gut instinct as a guide, decide if the gobble was aggressive or passive. By aggressive, I mean he cut your call off or gobbled hard right at the end of your calling sequence. A passive gobble would be an obvious response to your call, but one that has more of a "come hither" sound to it rather than "stand your ground, I'm coming to you" response.
Of course I like the "stand your ground" type of gobble. If I get that feeling, I will quickly set up in the best concealed position I can as long as it affords visibility. Lean back on a big tree, one wider than your body if possible, and get your knees up and prop the gun on your knee. Be ready. Sometimes the bird will continue to gobble and you can track his progress. If this is the case, and it often is, you will have a good idea of the general area you're going to first see him. Whether he will be in range at that point or not, you can have the gun pointed in that general direction. Thus only a minimal, last-moment adjustment will be needed for the shot.
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Of course the other scenario is that the bird comes in quietly. In that case you just have to make your best guess based on the terrain. Factor in that gobblers like to be able to see where they are going and will want to see the "hen" they are approaching as soon as possible. But that is not a 100 percent rule. Nothing is in turkey hunting. But you've got to commit to something rather than just let the gun lie useless in your lap. If you pick wrong, odds are good you can still make the adjustment slowly as the bird approaches and walks past other cover. But nothing is worse than having the gun lying in your lap when a gobbler steps into full view at 35 yards.
If the gobbler doesn't approach or you are certain he's not coming to you, you need to close the gap. If cover is available, you can take the direct approach, but that's a longshot in my opinion. It has worked for me on some occasions, but usually ends up in a standoff, and gobblers usually win standoffs.
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The better option is to just go ahead and get into cover on the high ground and go to the gobbler or even past him and get back into the bottom and re-start the calling process. Often he will come to a different position. But I'd use a different call than used the first time, to sound like a different hen.
On some days it's just difficult to get a gobbler to answer a call. Whether it's the weather, their mood swings, your calling, the sound of the stock market crashing, or any of a myriad of reasons, they just won't gobble.
One way to approach this situation is to simply pick a spot, set up and stay there for hours upon lonely hours calling periodically hoping a lost gobbler wanders by. It apparently can happen from what I've heard.
But for me, and for many turkey hunters, the fun of the sport is taking the game to the gobbler. One tactic that has worked just about every place I have hunted is what can be referred to as mini set-ups.
It's different from the run and gun technique in that it is purposefully at a much slower pace and has a much different effect. With the mini-setup tactic, you are picking places that you are willing to some invest time hunting, but not an eternity.
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Even though you don't have a gobbler actively working you, it doesn't mean there are not birds in the woods that can be had. Silent gobblers are not as exciting or as much fun perhaps as gregarious gobblers, but in reality they often require more skill to kill. I'm not saying this type of hunting is for only silent approaching gobblers. But it is a key component to the success of this tactic.
The key, as usual, is the setup. Survey the woods you are hunting as an entirety and pick a place that you would expect a gobbler to favor. Find a setup where you can see as much territory as possible yet still be hidden. Most of the experts I've hunted with will begin with a soft, subtle call just in case there's a bird close by. Give this effort at least five minutes to work. If you hear no gobble or see no gobbler sneaking in, then opt for a loud cutt or long series of loud yelps. Reach out and try to touch a distant gobbler. Sometimes you'll get that gobbled response and the game is on. But again, give it several minutes to let the game play out before calling again.
Then, try a medium level call or even back to soft and subtle again. All the while change the specific type of calls you use. Use mouth, box, slate glass or tube calls in no specific order. Sometimes one of these will just seem to push the right button on a gobbler and he'll sound off.
After 20 to-30 mintues, it's likely time to quietly leave that area and slip toward another potential place. I have on occasion set up like this and moved several times before encountering a gobbler. But generally, especially on those days when birds seem to be more hush-mouthed than normal, this can be an exceedingly productive tactic.
And it is a tactic where you are still actively pursuing the gobbler, albeit at a slower pace. And that just might be the real key to success on some days.
WORKING RIDGES OR HIGH GROUND
Just like hunting creek bottoms, hunting higher round can have challenges and opportunities. Ridges are often excellent mid-morning and mid-day hunting areas because gobblers are often on the move looking for hens. During the breeding season gobblers will often find the
hens dispersing to do their "mother hen" business in the morning, leaving the gobbler they started the day with all alone. One tactic gobblers will employ is to get on the high ground to look and listen for available companionship.
Ridgelines, or actually any high spots or high ground, have a lot going for them. One is that they are natural travel routes for turkeys. Gobblers can pitch off to safety if they see predators. Plus, often there will be a woods road along the top of a ridge. Gobblers love to walk along these more open areas. Their vision is enhanced along the open road and they can be seen further by any hen willing to approach and show herself. Gobblers love to strut and an open woods road on high ground is a prime place for longbeards to strut their stuff.
Setups are often not hard to figure. Best case scenario is to be on a ridge and get a gobbled response to your call from a bird further down the same high ground. Being on the same level with the quarry is one point in your favor. Often the best strategy is to quickly get down and setup. If he will come to you, your odds of taking that bird are much better. Unless he is very far away, I would seldom make a big move in his direction. My primary reason to go in his direction, for example, would be to acquire prime cover for the setup. That's a worthwhile trade-off. Often if he's not interested he'll gobble again as he walks away, likely inviting you to join him but also indicating he's not coming to you.
In this case, you have to double-time it and get in front of him. Essentially that's the key to any turkey hunting success: if you can get between where the bird is and where he wants to go, you're in business.
Remember, first and foremost there are no "rules" in the sport of turkey hunting. There are, at best, quasi-guidelines. But these are some of the patterns that have worked through the years when I've hunted with guides, call makers and other high-profile hunters who really know what they're doing. Again, have a plan for these situations, and work the plan. When it quits working, wing it. But at least you'll have a foundation on which to begin with tactics proven effective by many good hunters.