March 14, 2023
By and large, tagging a spring gobbler is challenging even for experienced turkey hunters. But hunt these birds long enough and eventually you'll cross paths with a tom that is noticeably more difficult to kill than the average bird. These gobblers are often older, larger and far more educated than the 2-year-old toms that make up much of the spring harvest.
When you come across a difficult older tom, the sensible way to fill your tag is to stop hunting that tough gobbler and hunt the easy birds instead.
But if you were sensible, you'd clean your garage on your days off, or mow the lawn or pretty much do anything but hunt turkeys. For a committed turkey hunter, putting a tag on that one tough bird can become the focus of an entire season.
To do that, according to longtime Florida turkey guide Mike Tussey, you must alter the way you set up, call and maneuver on this bird. Tussey, who has multiple turkey slams to his credit, says that how you adjust your hunting begins with first recognizing that you've found an older gobbler and then understanding that the behavior of said gobbler is different from that of younger birds.
FIND THE BOSS
Judging the age of a gobbler by sight alone is difficult in the middle of a hunt. The best indication of age is spur length, but spurs are hard to see on a gobbler coming to a call at 30 yards. Typically, if two gobblers show up at once, hunters will shoot the one that looks like it has the longest beard, but beards can become worn down, so they are not a reliable indicator of age.
There are three practical methods of identifying an older, dominant tom: trail camera photos or videos, scouting with a good binocular and observing the behavior of the bird itself.
Pre-season trail cameras should be set up on known strut zones and feeding areas frequented by turkeys. At this point, you don't have to know there's a big tom around since this is much the same strategy you'd employ to look for any turkey. Aside from identifying a big tom by spur length, trail cameras might give you clues that you're looking at an older, dominant tom in other ways, such as the behavior of the bird. If you see multiple toms on camera, but one is taking center stage and even pushing other mature-looking gobblers around, that bird is likely older and bigger. Rest assured, the other turkeys know who's the boss.
Ideally, trail cameras will give you an idea of when and from which direction an older turkey is routinely coming to the trail camera location. On public land it may not be practical to leave trail cameras out, so your scouting must be done in person. But even on your own hunting lease, trail camera evidence of a nice bird should be followed up with boots-on-the-ground scouting.
Aside from glassing turkeys on power line rights of way, long farm roads and in fields, scouting can offer other clues. For example, several turkey prints laid down at the same time in a strut zone, with one set of gobbler tracks being bigger and deeper than the others, is a sure sign of an older bird, even if you've not yet laid eyes on him.
Of course, if you put in enough hours at the right place, such a bird might reveal himself. Tussey says that he became aware of one of his most memorable gobblers—and the first he'd ever seen with spurs more than 2 inches long—without the evidence of trail camera footage. "I found that bird while scouting. He walked by me at three yards," Tussey says. "I was in awe of the biggest spurs I had ever seen."
PATTERN THE BIRD
Being aware that your hunting area has a trophy gobbler is not, in itself, going to bring the tom into gun range. Blind luck aside, killing such a bird is likely to take several days of hunting, in Tussey's experience. The standard run-and-gun approach to finding turkeys, which is a highly effective method for finding killable 2-year-old birds, won’t often work on boss gobblers.
Patterning is much more important with older toms than it is when hunting younger turkeys. The reason is the older and more dominant the gobbler, the less likely he is to chase hens long distances. That's partly because he can choose to hang out wherever the most hens find the habitat to their liking. If other gobblers object, he beats them up. He'll be surrounded by—and will be breeding—hens more often than other gobblers. Even if your calling convinces him you are a hen, he’ll expect the “hen” to come to him.
The more exactly you can pattern an older gobbler as he moves from roost to strut zone/breeding area to feeding area and back to the roost, the closer you can set up on where he wants to be. Tussey notes that the closer to him you set up, the more likely you are to kill him, because your calls don't have to move him very far out of his way.
"Two springs ago I was trying to harvest this older bird with Nomad co-founder, Jason Hart," Tussey says. "Jason and I hunted this smart, old tom. He would only gobble a few times and then he would strut and spit and drum [out of gun range] and expect the hen to come to him. Older toms will act like this. In nature, he gobbles and the hen comes to him."
Although it's frustrating when a gobbler acts like this, it does provide you with important information that can help you develop a plan to take the bird—eventually.
"A gobbler that responds but doesn't come in is a sign that you are hunting an older gobbler," Tussey says, noting that that clue changes the way he approaches hunting the bird.
"In cases like these, patience and less calling works better than loud, aggressive calling," he says. "Also, scouting and knowing where that old gobbler likes to strut is critical."
Tussey says knowing the gobbler’s strutting zone is the key to patterning the bird’s daily movements. Doing that gives the hunter a huge advantage—one that Tussey ultimately used to kill the bird with Hart.
"On the fifth day, I had a plan. Two or three days prior, the old bird had hit the ground and gone down a road and then stepped off into the woods. My plan was to get on that road where he strutted to attract hens," Tussey says.
He knew that he couldn’t call the tom in over long distances, but early in the day he could move the gobbler short distances while the bird was still rounding up his hens for the day. Tussey didn't necessarily know where the bird would cross the road, but thought some subtle calling would get the gobbler to come around a curve to check out hen noises.
"On that fifth day, patience and very little calling brought me my first gobbler with 2-inch spurs," Tussey says.
CHANGE THINGS UP
Tussey's duel with that gobbler shows the benefits of knowing both the hunting land and the gobbler's (and boss hen’s) tendencies. Often, when we hunt the same piece of property year in and year out, the birds pattern us since we are creatures of habit.
For example, it's common for 2-year-old gobblers to travel with one or two other male birds early in the season. Every time over the last couple of years that you called in a group of three gobblers (or a couple of gobblers and a jake or two) and killed one of them, you educated the surviviors. You taught them that your calling sequence is deadly and that the place their buddy was whacked is dangerous.
To remedy this, you should change set-up locations. Never let the birds pattern you. For example, if you always call from your favorite set-up location or along a road to locate birds, try moving silently to the other end of the property before daylight to call from a place the birds have never seen or heard you.
Also, if you've killed turkeys on your hunting ground with your favorite box, slate or mouth call, using that call may eventually become a way of telling the older birds where you are. Your call has become not the sound of a hot hen, but of death. While it's very sporting of you to warn the gobblers that you're there to kill them, it's not an efficient way of tagging big, mature birds.