February 14, 2020
By Brian Lovett
Experts agree that the school of turkey hunting remains in session throughout our days in the woods. True, many hunters attain great skills and success. Yet even they will admit that turkeys teach them something new every season. And that constant desire to learn and improve remains consistent throughout turkey hunting’s ranks, from beginners to pros.
Becoming a better turkey hunter is often a matter of study, observation and time afield. However, a few tips never hurt. Consider these strategies next season. They might make the difference between an empty turkey vest and the heft of a fine gobbler over your shoulder.
BAD BOY BEHAVIOR
Turkeys are social creatures, as anyone who’s heard a roosted flock wake up or has chased a henned-up gobbler can attest. But part of that daily and seasonal social interaction involves a constant struggle for dominance. Turn that to your advantage with spring gobblers.
The most obvious method is to use a jake or strutter decoy. They provoke intense reactions from longbeards and bring them within range, even if they’re with hens. Often, the sight of a rival male is too much for a gobbler, and he’s compelled to intimidate or attack the interloper. Some gobblers might shy away from strutter decoys. That’s why so many hunters prefer a jake fake, as most mature toms won’t pass the chance to beat up a young upstart. An exception occurs in areas with high number of jakes — gangs of young birds will torment older turkeys.
You can also incorporate aggressive social behavior into your calling. Staging a mock turkey fight — with aggressive purrs and flapping wings — sometimes pulls curious turkeys in for a look. It’s also worth a try when an incoming gobbler suddenly loses interest and begins to drift away. Likewise, you can sometimes interact with aggressive hens by mimicking their calling, cutting them off and driving them nuts with aggressive cutting and yelping. Feisty hens might walk in looking to rumble, dragging a strutter behind them.
Sometimes, even the suggestion of competition from another male turkey can quickly change a gobbler’s mood.
A bird that ignores your hen calling might change his tune if you throw in a few jake or gobbler yelps, suggesting that the hen has another suitor. Also, it doesn’t hurt to throw out a few jake or gobbler yelps during quiet days when toms don’t seem to answer anything. After all, gobblers hear and interact with other male turkeys every day, and the subtle social prompt of boy talk can net results.
You’ve heard the turkey scouting playbook: Observe birds before the season; listen for gobbling during mornings and evenings; and search for tracks, droppings, feathers, dusting areas and wing marks that reveal the location of hens and gobblers.
That’s solid advice, but many hunters stop too soon. Turkey location and flock dynamics change constantly throughout late winter into early summer, and you should scout continually during the season to stay on top of the situation. In late winter and early spring, birds are still grouped up in the remnants of large winter flocks, often congregating near food sources. Some areas will hold hundreds of turkeys, yet other spots might have few. As spring progresses, turkeys begin to break up, with 2-year-old or other subdominant gobblers spreading into new territories within their home ranges. Likewise, hen flocks split apart as birds seek potential nesting areas. At some point during spring, turkeys will have dispersed throughout much of the suitable habitat in their home ranges. Then, as many hens nest and hatch broods, gobblers begin to regroup in bachelor flocks.
Listen and observe turkeys throughout spring to keep tabs on these constant changes. Note when you hear gobbling from new areas. Watch for solo hens near potential nesting spots, as a gobbler will undoubtedly follow at some point. Take an afternoon to walk previously unproductive ground while searching for sign.
Constant scouting also lets you keep tabs on the stage of the breeding season, which can provide a heads-up on imminent changes. When many hens begin to nest, gobblers become lonely and can be receptive to calling and smart setups. If you notice a longbeard or group of toms without hens, get out there. The action might escalate from dead to red-hot.
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
When calling, imagine that turkeys are someone sitting next to you on a bus. Maybe that passenger likes to talk, or perhaps is fairly quiet. Either way, you must start the conversation correctly to initiate a meaningful dialogue.
Many hunters ignore this, simply blurting out a few yelps, clucks or other turkey vocalizations without considering the situation. When birds are hot or you’re set up at a great spot, this can work. Many days, it does not.
First, analyze the scenario — time of day, the weather and phase of the breeding season — and consider how turkeys usually behave during those conditions. Roosted hens, for example, often begin their mornings with soft tree yelps or tree clucks, perhaps becoming a bit more vocal before flydown. Birds just off the roost often stay vocal for a bit before clamming up. Midmorning and midday turkeys usually stick with soft talk as they feed, loaf or travel.
Realistic callers imitate natural scenarios, gauge the responses of turkeys and react accordingly. Typically, that means starting with soft, sparing calling, especially with roosted birds or when beginning a sequence at a new setup. Often, that’s all you’ll need, as gobblers might respond and begin moving toward you. Remember, hens use quiet, seemingly content calling more often than they cutt, yelp loudly or purr aggressively.
Starting with soft stuff holds another advantage: You won’t blow the eardrums out of nearby birds. This holds true whether you slip into a blind at midmorning or walk for miles through big timber. Start with some combination of clucks, plain yelps or clucking and purring, and then wait for a response. Turkeys have fantastic hearing, and you don’t need to hammer them. After a few series, if needed, you can ratchet up your turkey talk to strike distant birds or stir up an aggressive reaction.
GET OUT THERE
Use these tips this spring, but don’t be afraid to experiment and create unique strategies. If a tactic works for you, go with it. That’s part of the continuing education program in the turkey woods.