April 14, 2022
One of the toughest turkey assignments is pursuing toms that know they’re being hunted. Close encounters with other hunters, the slamming of car doors and a sudden surge of bad calling can make mature toms cautious and hard to kill.
However, few birds are impossible to kill, and successful hunters have strategies to bag the tough toms as well as the easy ones. Florida’s Mike Tussey has several Grand Slams and Royal Slams with a compound to his credit. He recently sat down with us to share his insight on how he kills pressured toms.
THE GOOD NEWS
According to Tussey, hunters have two important advantages, even after opening day: First, gobblers in the spring are compelled to stay close to hens. Second, even during the breeding season, both hens and gobblers need to eat daily.
The first point is important because no matter how cautious a tom is, Tussey says, “Gobbler movement patterns won’t change much until hunter pressure pushes the hens around.”
At the beginning of the season, turkeys routinely move from preferred roosting areas to preferred strut zones, which often double as food sources. If you know where the roost area and the strut zone are, your chances of sitting down in a good place to kill a bird dramatically increase.
“Whether they are bugging in fields or scratching for leftover acorns, these are usually spots that a gobbler will come to and strut and gobble to attract a hen to the area,” Tussey says.
In other words, toms choose places that include feeding habitat that the hens prefer. The dominant tom in the best habitat is more attractive to the hens. Even pressured birds have to be in these places every day, and that makes them killable.
THE BAD NEWS
All those turkeys that were strutting in the big field next to the road before the season will “disappear” once the shooting starts, and it will take some work to find where they’ve gone.
For Tussey, that means thoroughly scouting the entire piece of land you intend to hutn. Maps can be a helpful first step in the process, but ultimately you have to put boots on the ground.
If the map shows an isolated opening or field away from the roads, go there to see if it has food that turkeys like and if it’s open enough to provide the visibility turkeys like in a strut zone.
If your map shows a ridgeline that a tom might use to gobble for hens, go there and see if there are leftover acorns or pine nuts hungry hens might search for. Of course, the goal is to find the turkeys themselves, or at least fresh sign in the form of tracks, scratchings and droppings.
HEAT IS ON
The more hunting pressure the turkeys feel, the more likely you will find them in a place that is hard for most hunters to get to. Good habitat on the other side of creeks, swamps, steep hillsides and thick brush—and far from road access—will grow more attractive to turkeys as hunting pressure increases. Tussey believes that the distance from the road is especially critical for public-land hunters.
“The heaviest hunter traffic will always occur closest to the easiest access points,” he says. “Your average hunter won’t be willing to get up early and take a two-hour hike before daylight.”
Even experienced hunters might find it intimidating to have to start the day with pre-dawn bushwhacking. Tussey strongly recommends GPS apps such as onX Hunt that let you know where you are, where your truck is and where on the map you are going. The best apps include a download feature that allow them to work in areas without cell service. Once you know where you’re going, dedicate yourself to putting in a full day, as Tussey firmly believes the least lazy hunter wins the day.
PATIENCE PAYS OFF
For Tussey, good scouting goes hand-in-hand with patient hunting. Take, for example, a classic quandary for mid-season turkey hunters. You’ve found turkeys. You get to your spot before dawn. You set up and call. You get no response. Now what? Move? Call again? According to Tussey, the best answer is usually to sit tight.
“As far as calling pressured birds goes, I personally will not call a lot,” he says. “I depend far more on scouting and knowing the area and knowing where the turkeys go when pushed. Then patience and more patience. If you’ve done your homework, be confident in your set up. Don’t be afraid to sit all morning.”
Just as scouting involves finding turkeys by looking in places other hunters are unwilling to go, Tussey believes patience involves hunting into the middle of the day after other hunters have given up.
“Many hunters don’t have the time to spend in the woods all morning,” Tussey says. “That 10 o’clock to 1 o’clock period is your open door to get in as others leave. The gobblers will still be looking for more hens to breed and you’ll have less competition.”
CLOSING THE DEAL
Don’t take Tussey’s confidence in killing midday birds to mean he starts late. He’s in the woods before light and is willing to hunt for as long as it takes. The restraint he uses in calling turkeys also starts early.
“With pressured birds on the roost, I normally wait to call until the birds are on the ground,” he says.
In his experience, especially on public land, calling loudly to a tom on a limb attracts other hunters to your gobbler.
“If you have scouted and have a good idea of the direction the tom is going off the roost, position yourself to intercept him,” Tussey says. “A few yelps and clucks will get his attention and the attention of the hens he’s with. Patience will help you kill more turkeys than aggressive calling.”
Tussey advises hunters to sit tight if they hear a tom respond to their initial calls but then go quiet. Pressured birds are likely to be less vocal than unhunted birds. That tom knows where you are and believes you are a hen. He wants the hen to come to him, but if that doesn’t happen right away, he will likely seek out the hen—and if he’s been hunted, he might come in silently.
“If a gobbler gobbles and gets quiet, I sit quiet, too,” Tussey says. “I scratch the leaves to simulate contented turkeys feeding. I sit patiently for at least an hour if the turkey refuses to gobble and give away his position.”
Eventually you will come across a tom that is pulled away by the hens he’s with and that don’t want to share their tom.
“If I call and he gobbles then leaves, I go to the last spot he gobbled and call just enough to let him know the hen is looking for him,” Tussey says.
He sets up there and settles in for what could be a long wait. The tom may not come back until he breeds the hens he’s with. But he won’t forget where he last heard a lonely hen that tried to come to him.
The gobbler knows the land he lives on, and he can afford to take his time. A hunter who matches the turkeys’ knowledge of the best habitat and is willing to take the time to make something happen is the hunter who gets to carry a turkey to the truck. This season, be that hunter.
BY THE BOOK
The Osceola turkey is a prized trophy for any avid turkey hunter. Living in Florida, I’ve had occasion to hunt them over the years with moderate success. Last season, I had the chance to hunt with arguably the South’s top Osceola guide, Mike Tussey. Tussey started Osceola Outdoors (osceolaoutdoors.com), located in Moore Haven, Fla., 22 years ago.
On my hunt we spent a considerable amount of time scouting the Lake Okeechobee area for a candidate gobbler. On the second afternoon we idled onto a sandy flat where Tussey glassed a vast pine stand. After few minutes of glassing, Tussey was done. I asked him if he had seen what he wanted to see, to which he simply replied, “Yup.”
The next morning, under the cover of darkness, we slipped into an oak hammock adjacent to the pines we’d glassed the day before. Mike quickly set a decoy spread, with one jake and one hen to pull the gobbler over to protect his turf and hen. He then fashioned a make-shift palmetto blind, concealing our position. As the sun began to rise, Mike called softly. Almost immediately a tom fired back, then several more joined in. In the early-morning light, we could see a tom silhouetted against the gray sky.
As if it were scripted, the tom pitched down behind a switchgrass thicket directly in front of us. Tussey began calling and soon we had another tom gobbling and charging in from behind. Five minutes later the first tom was on a dead sprint for the decoy. A moment later the hunt was over. — Dr. Todd A. Kuhn