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Gobbler Gaffes: The Top 6 Turkey Mistakes

The reasons turkey hunters strike out on public land are many. Here's how to avoid the biggest ones.

Gobbler Gaffes: The Top 6 Turkey Mistakes

Calls that sound authentic and align with the ongoing turkey chatter stand a better chance to draw wary gobblers within range. (Shutterstock image)

It was opening day of the draw hunt, and I was right where I wanted to be. It had rained the entire previous week, but it wasn’t raining just then, and I had been sitting quietly at my spot in the dark for half an hour. Given my excitement, it was difficult to keep still. Dawn finally arrived, and it was fly-down time for turkeys.

I had chosen a particular spot to set up because the previous fall, on a late-season deer hunt, I noticed the area had undergone a management burn the spring before. I was close to the bottom of a burned sidehill, now in full-spring green-up, that sloped into a tree-covered flat that had escaped the flames.

I figured toms would roost on the far side of the flat, fly down and come to the open, burned area to look for hens and food. I called and two turkeys immediately sounded off. Then they gobbled again, this time much closer. For public-land birds, these sure seemed eager to come and get shot.

I got ready, but nothing happened. I called again and the gobblers reciprocated but would not come any closer. Shortly, they started moving away, still returning my calls while steadily increasing the distance between us.

I waited until all hope was gone, then went into the flat and instantly realized what had prompted the birds’ departure. The previous week’s rain had turned the dry, flat bottom I found last fall into a shallow, swampy pond. It wasn’t even knee-deep, but clearly the turkeys would not wade it.

The likely chance at killable toms had quickly turned into a missed opportunity. I never got a shot, but not for the reasons most hunters consider usual hurdles of hunting gobblers on public land. This had not been a case of interference from other hunters, a lack of turkeys or birds unresponsive to my calls. Those can be problems, of course, but I don’t believe they are the main culprits of hunters’ failure to tag out on public land. Truth is, there are six bigger obstacles, all easily overcome, and they involve decisions that hunters make in their approach.

1. LACK OF TERRAIN FAMILIARITY

Since I had previously hunted deer in successive years on the particular wildlife management area (WMA) described above, I had a general grasp of the ground and knew birds were around. That’s helpful information, but it’s not enough to kill turkeys consistently.

A hunter has to know how the birds use the habitat and move through it over time. Although the woods can look the same from year to year to us humans, the habitat changes continuously from the turkeys’ perspective. Changes in food plots, a larger or smaller acorn crop, controlled burns, thinning operations, road closures or openings, an increase or decrease in predators and the turkey population density—and rainstorms—alter gobbler movements, changing where they feed, breed, nest and roost.

Learning how game uses a piece of public land takes commitment. The familiarization process, of course, is not exclusively requisite to successful public-land hunting. For hunters of private leases, success hinges on spending time working the area year-round, setting up deer stands, putting in food plots, scouting and deciding where and when they should hunt. Hunt club members typically talk to each other about their hunts, so each member of a club has access to a great deal of information about what worked or did not.




Most public-land hunters, to their detriment, don’t put in the time and effort to figure out the land they will hunt. Many scout one day on the weekend before the opener, pick a spot that seems promising, then just show up to hunt, hoping they can find their spot in the dark.

2. STRAYING TOO FAR

While hunting the WMA with the highest success rates in the state seems to make sense, its distance from your home could make that an impractical proposition. It’s not easy to find time to travel halfway across the state to scout an area when you have work, family and other commitments.

Those who pursue hunts on statistically appealing but unfamiliar WMAs are far more likely to fail than others who hunt on a parcel they know well, even if it has a smaller population of birds. If focusing on hunting a spot near where you live means you can visit it more often and come to a deeper understanding of where the turkeys are, that’s where you are most likely to succeed.

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3. NOT ADAPTING TO THE SITUATION

Public lands with good turkey populations under draw-hunt systems are periodically subject to brief periods of intense hunting pressure. Between deer season and the first turkey hunt of spring, the woods are quiet. Then suddenly, on opening day, there are vehicles driving around before dawn and the quiet is interrupted by doors slamming, human voices and a wave of people stumbling through the trees at fly-down time, followed by lots of completely unrealistic calls clearly not made by hen turkeys.

Mature gobblers have seen this movie before and know it means danger. Fortunately for hunters, turkeys have a limited range of responses to danger. Unlike older bucks, for instance, they won’t relocate 3 miles away. Gobblers won’t just leave their hens, and the hens won’t abandon areas where they have successfully nested.

Turkeys will still be around. They still have to sleep at night, breed in the morning and eat enough to live. What gobblers will do, however, is move away from roads, become far less vocal, attempt to gather their hens immediately after fly-down in the mornings, and avoid large, open strutting areas.

Adjusting to these changes in gobbler behavior requires nothing more than common sense. Get to the WMA earlier in the morning than other hunters. Go deeper into the woods than others are willing to. Hunt on the other side of challenging terrain features, like steep hills, swampy ground, large briar patches and creeks, that most hunters won’t traverse. Plan ahead, integrating these adjustments into your scouting and spending as much time as you can watching individual groups of birds move throughout the course of the day. Undisturbed birds will fall into roosting, strutting and feeding patterns that can hold until opening morning.

Before daybreak, sit as close as you can to roosting areas without busting the birds. Sit between roosting trees and where turkeys will feed after breeding. Ideally, gobblers will roost between you and the nearest road. Turkeys associate roads with people and danger. If you are calling in the opposite direction from the road, you have an advantage.

4. NOT ADJUSTING YOUR CALLING

It is often best to call in a restrained way, taking your cues from the local turkeys. If you are loud and aggressive while the turkeys are silent, they will know you are not really one of them. Start with soft, contented hen feeding noises. Loudly scratch leaves or pine needles on the ground next to where you are sitting—few hunters do this, but all turkeys do when they feed.

It’s OK if distant birds can’t hear you; you are talking to nearby gobblers that are quietly looking for hens. Wait a bit to see if they show up. If not, call more loudly, perhaps imitating two hens sorting out the day’s pecking order. Then wait some more. Have confidence turkeys that don’t immediately come running will remember where these hen noises came from.

5. HUNTING THE WRONG GOBBLERS

Keep in mind that a henned-up tom that responds to you but refuses to leave his harem is not the only gobbler in the woods. In fact, that is not the one you are most likely to kill. It might have five or six hens with him, which means there are four or five less dominant gobblers around without hens. Those are the birds bound to sneak into your position silently. Not because they know humans are hunting them, but because they are 2-year-old birds and get beat up by the 3-year-olds when they gobble aggressively.

A cautious tom will approach your position and try to see if a hen is there without exposing himself. He will stop in cover and look at the opening through it. If he doesn’t see a real hen, the tom will sildently fade back into the woods as silently as he came, without you even knowing he was there. You want to set up in spots where the gobbler has to step out of the brush—within gun range of your position—to confirm a hen is there.

One classic setup involves positioning yourself near a curve of an abandoned road, where cover forces toms to come around the corner to look down the road. Another proven tactic is to set up alongside a big fallen tree in a small opening. An approaching turkey will have to come out of the cover and work around the tree to see if the hen it has been hearing is behind it. Any edge cover that turkeys can’t see or move through easily, such as a briar patch, will serve the same purpose. Above all, be patient. Hunters fill tags when turkeys make mistakes. Spend enough time on each setup to let turkeys make those mistakes near you.

6. NOT BROADENING HORIZONS

Most public-land hunters focus solely on WMAs, but they are not your only option. Don’t overlook federal land in the form of National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs), Army Corps of Engineer (USACE) land, large military bases and national forest land outside of WMAs.

There is pretty good turkey hunting on the Piedmont Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Savannah Wildlife Refuge along the Savannah River in South Carolina, the Florida Panther refuge in Florida and many other NWRs in Southern states. Remember, though, the basic premise that you are better off hunting a decent spot close to home than chasing “ideal” hunts far away. That holds true for NWRs as well as WMAs.

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