Where the hens cluck in shaded glens and toms strut and drag their wingtips in the buttercups, your turkey hunting needs a strategy to employ.
In the Cree language, they called it “misihew.” In Cherokee, it is “gv-na.” The Lakota called it “wagleksun.” And in the Blackfoot tongue, it was “omahksipikssii,” which means big bird. To the tribes west of the Rockies, the bird was virtually unknown. A warrior who brought home a turkey feather had a real trophy to show for an adventure that had taken him far to the East through enemy country.
In the West today, because of the foresight of the National Wild Turkey Federation and other sportsman’s groups, we have turkeys and turkey hunting and we don’t have to go far to find them.
In Oregon, Washington, California or the Rocky Mountain states, a hunter seldom has to drive more than an hour to find good habitat. Where the hens cluck in shaded glens and toms strut and drag their wingtips in the buttercups, a hunter needs a strategy to employ.
The day before a hunt, I try to envision where I saw turkeys on the last scouting trip and what they are going to do from the moment they leave the roost tree in the morning. Plan A is always an ambush where I catch the birds moving from the roost to a meadow, or from feeding to loafing in the middle of the day.
The Well-Planned Ambush
I expect turkeys to show on the same path scouted the day before. In the ideal scenario, I set a ground blind about 30 yards from the trail. Decoys — perhaps a hen and a jake — go close to the blind, never more than 10 yards out, and are positioned so a gobbler on the move doesn’t see the fake until it is already in range.
Decoys are the weakest links in my setups. When a gobbler spots a decoy, the game changes. He might have been charging the call and now he sees an unfamiliar turkey. He might attack it or try his charm. Chances are, he stops to eyeball it from a distance. Suspicious. Twenty yards out is where I want him.
Go into the blind before daylight, and as sunlight starts to chase the shadows out, that’s when to start calling. Use a box call or diaphragm to make soft hen yelps and clucks. Switch from a box to slate and back again. At this time of day, it is easy to get a tom to gobble back. Try to pinpoint his location and imagine the route he will take. And remember, he is on his own schedule. He might want to grab a bite to eat on his way in. Or he might have to recruit a lieutenant to come with him. A tom can show up in five minutes or it might work a four-hour circuit on its way to a willing hen.
In any case, if the gobbler quits answering the calls, don’t give up on him. They don’t all gobble all the way in. Less talkative birds are just as eager to breed hens, just as fun to shoot and just as good to eat.
Hunters are prone to call louder when thinking birds are a long way out, but this can be exactly the wrong thing to do. Quieter calling is what works best when turkeys are loathe to show themselves. Make the calls as soft as possible, sticking with hen yelps, clucks and feeding purrs. Think about it. That turkey brain is tuned to turkey language, to hear turkey communication. It’s how they survive. It’s how they find each other. And their hearing is better than ours. Loud calling is seldom necessary.
Be ready when the bird reacts to the decoy. This is where the most realistic decoys are worth their money. A gobbler that doesn’t like the looks of a decoy is likely to turn tail and duck for cover. If he holds up and he is within the patterned range of the gun … shoot!
Different Types of Turkey Calls
Two Lonely Hens
Two hunters who are competent callers can employ a strategy of setting up a 100 to 200 yards apart in good country to sound like two lost hens.
Commit to an hour in a good location. And don’t expect toms to gobble back, especially if it is late in the season. This is a great way to lure toms from one property to another. The magic of this strategy lies in two hunters sounding as much like needy hens as possible. A group of gobblers is way more likely to invest their lovesickness in a setup if they think they have twice as much opportunity to find love on a particular hill.
Scott Haugen, author of Western Turkey Hunting, maintains that it isn’t hard to learn to make the sounds that can help convert a gobbler into turkey dinner. Haugen says the turkeys he has killed have been tricked by hen yelps about 80 percent of the time. If a hunting partner isn’t proficient with a box call, sit him down in front of a video and make him practice. In 15 minutes, he should be a good enough caller.
Set up on the same slope or on both sides of a hill, both hunters with their backs to trees, wearing facemasks and gloves on each hand. Each one should call soft and quiet, making hen yelps and clucks, with an occasional “lost hen” yelp. The gobblers are listening and they are moving, especially before mid-morning. These are good scenarios in which to use a decoy, too. In the trees, the decoy is visible from time to time as the gobbler moves in, trying to get a better look.
One of the most common mistakes hunters make is thinking they have to move every 10 to 15 minutes. That’s because our attention spans are too short. The patient hunters are the ones who fill their tags every season. Plan a meet-up spot after an hour. If no birds show themselves, move to a new spot and start over.
The Fleet Footed Hunter
When I think back on my best turkey hunts, one that stands out was a pine-forest run-and-gun series of ambushes and call setups with a gobbler that answered back but didn’t change his course. I was hunting with outdoor writer Troy Rodakowski on public land when we heard the bird gobble.
Rodakowski yelped back, but the bird was on a ridge line and didn’t come toward us. What we didn’t know was it had a hen along. And she was keeping him in line. We had to get in front of him. And get in front we did. Several times we set up and called, then ran ahead again before he committed against the best advice his hen could offer. Our soft calling finally won him over at less than 30 yards.
Be ready to employ this strategy when a bird sounds like it is on the move, answering the call, but headed elsewhere. Use the terrain to stay out of the line of sight, but move fast to get out ahead. Go where he is going. Set up against a tree with facemask in place and gloves on hands and throw some quiet yelps with the cedar box. Wait, watch and listen. If he gets by, then move again and try to line out in front of him. It’s more of a long shot than my other two favorite methods, but it’s a good way to cover country, and there is always a chance to bump into another boss gobbler while trying to close the deal on this one.
The Gathered Gift
A hunter can make use of almost every part of the turkey. Build a call out of the wingbone. Put spurs on a necklace. Glue the beard inside a spent shotgun hull for a trophy, and use the feathers for fly-tying or decoration. Make a wreath out of the large and small tailfeathers of three turkeys. The turkey feather is still a symbol of adventure, of good days spent with good friends in good country.