February 12, 2018
Eager to boost your Western turkey hunting success? These four turkey hunting tips will make it happen.
"Are you grabbing your vest?" I questioned my buddy, Brandon Ayers, nodding my headlamp at his turkey vest, still in the back of his truck. "Naaa, I have all I need," he came back.
Following a 15-minute hike up a ridge and out to its eastern tip, we got set up. Brandon was the caller on this morning. I sat 15 yards in front of him, with my hen stuffer decoy 10 yards in front of me.
With dawn came the echoing calls of toms on the roost. There were so many gobbles traveling throughout the valley, it wasn't easy pinpointing where they all were.
Brandon made a few soft yelps with a diaphragm call, so soft I could barely hear them. Multiple toms fired back with complimentary gobbles, and it felt like this hunt would quickly end.
An hour later Brandon suggested we move. "They're still with hens and won't move any closer. Let's go find more birds."
Two hours later a tom answered every sound Brandon threw out. Moving closer, we'd hoped to narrow the gap a couple hundred yards, then set up and call in heavy oaks. We barely made it to cover and the tom was on top of us. I quickly shouldered the gun, placed the bead on the tom's colorful head, and filled my first tag of the year.
1. USE ONE CALL
During our entire morning of hunting, Brandon, a part time guide and very accomplished turkey hunter himself, used only one call. Brandon only takes a half-dozen hunters a year, and could easily quadruple that number, but he doesn't. "I pretty much just do this for fun," Brandon smiled when I asked him why he didn't offer more guided trips, based on all the turkeys we saw that opening morning.
Brandon continued, "It's not easy making money as a part-time guide, and I don't want to go full-time, as I fear that could ruin the fun. Besides, you see how many birds we have around here; I want to keep it that way."
Brandon, owner and operator of Arrowhead Outfitters in Oregon (541-980-1597), is a firm believer in not overcalling. "I like to keep it simple, and I don't want to educate the birds," Brandon shared. "Anywhere I've hunted where there are a lot of birds, I've found the key to success comes in catching them in the right mood, not hammering them with 20 different calls, attempting to change their mood."
Brandon's philosophy makes sense. If birds aren't reacting, he simply moves to another place. His calls are always subtle. "If they're not ready to come in, I don't want to force things," he continued. "I'll mark where the birds are and come back another day."
Two weeks later I was back with Brandon, hunting the same ridge we started on opening morning. Again, we use a decoy and only his diaphragm call. Within five minutes a lone tom with a 10-inch beard came gobbling and strutting into the decoy. The shot was simple. "Yep, he was ready this time," Brandon smiled.
2. TOM DECOYS
Decoys can play a big part in turkey hunting success. In regions with high tom densities, I've observed fights among mature birds throughout much of the season, and they're especially common during the first half of the season.
During wet, cold, delayed springs, I've seen toms remain in bachelor flocks two to three weeks longer than normal, meaning these are also great situations to use a full-strut tom decoy. I also like these decoys later in the season when hens have gone to nest.
Some hunters like using tom decoys that are in half-strut or a walking position, as this sends the message that they are interested in the hen (decoy), but not overly confident. This semi-submissive decoy position can be an open invitation for an aggressive tom to come in, strutting his stuff as he approaches with the attitude that he's going to establish dominance, then breed.
There are tom decoys with red, white and blue heads, and ones with nearly all white heads. Brightly colored heads send the message, "Hey, look at me, I'm the dominant tom and I know it." A white-headed tom is one looking for a fight, and if he's strutting at the same time, he's saying, "Hey, hen, look at me, I'm big, tough and mad, and for you other toms, bring it on!"
I've had the best success using white-headed tom decoys in conjunction with hen decoys that are in a submissive, breeding posture.
I think this combination is effective because it sends the message that a hen is ready to breed, and that an aggressive tom is willing to take on any challengers. Where tom ratios are high, or many hens have gone to sitting on their nests, this can be a great decoy combination to get toms fired-up and moving in.
I've also had good luck using a brightly colored, full-strutting tom decoy over both a submissive hen decoy as well as one in a feeding position. I don't think these tom decoys issue such a sign of urgency.
Placing two or three hen decoys around a strutting tom decoy can be very effective. When a live tom sees a single tom with a group of hens, he knows his chance of pulling away a hot hen is good, so he'll approach.
One thing I do with all my strutting tom decoys is replace the synthetic factory tail with a real fan I've made. I like a real tail fan because it doesn't reflect light and the feathers move in the slightest breeze, just like on a real strutting tom.
3. MAKE A GAME PLAN
No matter how you plan on hunting turkeys out West, it's a major benefit to first try and figure out the birds' daily patterns. Find where turkeys are roosting, where they fly down, where they spend the day and how they re-enter the roost. Observe the flock dynamics and see who is running the show.
Is it aggressive toms warding off one another, calling to attract hens? Or is it hens going about their daily routine, being pestered by puffed-up toms with only one thing on their minds?
Some flocks travel more than others during the course of a day, and knowing where they go, when and why, is a bonus. Note their food sources as well as where they might get water, or retreat to when it gets hot.
One thing I've noticed over the years is how often turkeys go to water despite how much moisture is on the grass. Even on rainy days I've watched turkeys walk through drenched grass to drink from a creek.
When patterning birds, do so from as far away as possible with binoculars or a spotting scope, so as not to get busted. Disturbing a flock can throw them off their routine for a few days, and by that time a hen's breeding status may change which could result in the birds leaving your area.
Trail cameras are a valuable tool when patterning turkeys. Not only will trail cameras reveal where birds are, but they'll show how many birds there are, what they're doing and what time of day they're around.
Keep in mind that as turkey flock dynamics change throughout the spring, so does turkey behavior, thus their daily routine. How a flock moves and acts on opening day could be far different from how they move and act a month later, and at the end of the season.
Open your eyes, observe and interpret turkey movement. Don't wait too many days before making a move, as you don't want their patterns to change. Once a pattern is recognized, figure out a game plan and set up accordingly.
The more time and concentrated effort you put in to turkey hunting, the better the chances of punching a tag. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
4. JUST HUNT
If you're waiting for the perfect turkey hunting conditions out West, you may never fill a tag. For that reason, I hunt any time I can, not when the weather is most appealing or conducive.
I've taken spring birds in deep snow, amid well below freezing temperatures, in extremely high winds, in driving rainstorms, in tall grass and on the hottest of days. The key to success in any of these situations is knowing what the birds will be doing and capitalizing on their behavior.
If winds are howling, hunt the leeward side of hills, as turkeys don't like being in the wind. If it's raining or excessively hot, move into the trees, where turkeys often congregate. If it's cold, so what? Turkeys endure winter temperatures of well below zero in many states all winter long. If the grass is tall late in the season, great, as you now have a valued food source in the grass seed, itself, as well as a cover the birds often remain in all day long.
The worst move a hunter can make is not making a move. Sitting idle, wondering where birds are in any given situation, will never help fill a tag. The best way to become an efficient turkey hunter is by spending time in the field, learning from the birds themselves.
I'm not suggesting to be careless, for that will get you busted every time and will do nothing but educate the birds. What you learn from watching turkeys all season long is how they behave, and how this behavior changes with the season. This, in itself, will reveal how to hunt these birds.
Western turkey Guide Jody Smith (541-643-6258) may watch toms all season long before making a move.
"You might only get one shot at a mature, 4- or 5-year-old tom, and if he's not receptive, you may blow it," shared Smith. Once the hens go to nest and the grass gets tall, that's when I really like getting after big toms. We've taken a lot of our biggest toms in the last week of the season."
I've hunted with Smith, a personal friend for years, many times. He guides over 60 turkey hunters a year, and his success is mind-boggling; so is his knowledge level. I've taken some of my biggest toms with Smith in the final few days of the season.
This spring, pay close attention to what the birds are telling you. Learning from turkeys is the best education a hunter can receive, and there's no other way to accomplish this than being in the field as much as possible.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Scott Haugen is host of The Hunt, on Netflix. He is the author of the best-selling book, Western Turkey Hunting: Strategies For All Levels. For signed copies, visit www.scotthaugen.com.