How To Pattern Trophy Toms
September 24, 2010
Our expert explains how to find, pattern and hunt the dominant bird in your area.
by Robert W. Streeter
This might be the morning, I thought to myself as the big tom and his entire entourage slowly worked my way. I had been hunting this particular bird for 11 days in a row, and now it finally looked like he was going to slip up.
He had roosted just about where I usually found him, but when he and his hens flew down, they moved well out of range from me and began feeding.
Feeding, huh, I thought. Maybe that is the key this morning. I slowly reached over and grabbed a good-size stick and scratched the leaves. All the while, I would let out the occasional cluck, and used plenty of soft purring in between.
The scratching got the gobbler's interest. He turned, abandoning his harem as well as the two lesser toms that were in the group, and slowly started my way. When he came within 50 yards or so, I had a chance to put the stick down and get my gun up as he passed behind a big oak tree. The seconds seemed to take forever as he continued along toward my two decoys.
Finally, his neck stretched out and my old Remington 870 spoke. The bird was a beauty, with a thick double beard which measured 10 inches and a tack-sharp set of spurs.
I'm not much for competition, but I immediately ran and got him weighed for the local turkey contest. My dose of humility came at the scales, when it was revealed that the dominant tom of Farmer Bob's woods weighed only 17.5 pounds. He had apparently run himself ragged during the breeding season and lost out to a heavier 2 1/2-year-old bird.
Even though he was no contest winner, that bird got my prize. It took several mornings of hard hunting to figure things out and eventually fool him.
WHAT MAKES A TOM
Depending on where you live, the weight and beard length of a tom turkey can vary a great deal. In some areas, a 9-inch beard is a good bird, and if the beard is 11 inches, it is a slammer!
Spurs are probably a better comparison from state to state. Body weight of turkeys is probably the poorest means of comparison. My example above is a good point. My bird was smaller, but I'd put my money on him in a fight with the tom that won our club's contest. There are other states where even the best bird from my state wouldn't be impressive. Comparisons between turkeys vary when it comes to braggin' rights.
In my humble opinion, a trophy tom turkey is the dominant bird in a particular area. How many hunters can go and shoot the dominant tom off an area? How many of those can take out the dominant bird on a given area with a fair degree of regularity? Not very many. When you think about it, a lot of nice turkeys get killed each year because a hunter lucked out by being in the right place at the right time with the right tom.
Most turkey hunters hunt for a bird. This is fine, and this is the way we all start out, but eventually I got to the point where I'd hunt for the bird. After a couple of days of hunting on one of the properties where I have permission, my mind is made up regarding which bird I am after.
From my experience, taking out dominant toms with any degree of consistency is hard work and incredibly challenging. I have spent up to a couple of weeks trying to take an individual tom. I have passed up easy shots at lesser birds in the process. Like a trophy deer hunter, you have to pass up everything else in order to get the big tom.
TROPHY TOM PHILOSOPHY
I developed into a turkey hunter late in my hunting career. My buddy Bob Shaw taught me a great deal about calling turkeys in both spring and fall. His tactic is to keep moving until he gets a bird that is going to work the call. I have taken birds this way, but where I differ from my mentor is that my bowhunting background carried over into the turkey woods.
Turkeys, especially big toms, can be patterned much like deer can. Once you have hunted a particular property for a couple of days, a pattern will begin to reveal itself. The big bird on a particular property will have a fairly reliable routine that you can sort out. The routine is going to change during the season, for example, after all of the hens in his area are bred and are sitting on nests. At that point the gobbler may wander over to an adjacent property. Once you figure out his routine, you can get a crack at him.
Too much emphasis is placed on being an awesome turkey caller. Don't get me wrong: It is great to be an extremely proficient turkey caller, and it is great to sound so good that toms come running, but often they do not.
The worst turkey callers in the woods are hens. They do not sound smooth, with beautiful rhythms and perfect sounds. They sound terrible, like a messed-up old box call, and often call very little. Mastering a quick yelp, a cluck and (a very important call) the purr is the way to go in my opinion.
PATTERNING AND HUNTING TOMS ROOSTING WITH HENS
The first thing to do is establish the gobbler's roosting site. Ordinarily, the first time I hunt a farm during the season I take my best guess as to what is going on, then set up my decoys and hunt. When I get a response from a roosted tom, I pay attention to whether or not he is with hens. Dominant birds are often with a harem of hens. Usually once the birds hit the ground, the hens will lead the tom away from me. If this is the case, the hunt for this guy is over for the morning.
I have found that it does not pay to push them too hard when going after big toms. If you try to get in front of them and start banging out the mating yelps and calling heavily, often the dominant hen in his harem will lead him away. Worse yet, if you push him too hard, he may start roosting elsewhere.
After a morning or two of seeing what happens when the birds leave the roost, it is time to start playing the chess game. By now, you should see a pattern start to emerge. The hen will lead the tom away in a predictable manner. She has her own agenda every day. The flock will usually go off and feed, then the hens will be bred and head for their nests.
What I try to do is get in their way. For example, when I took the tom in the beginning of this article, I had the pattern of these turkeys down. They would fly down off the roost and scratch and feed their way north each day as they headed for the alfalfa field that was the tom's strutting ground. By following the pattern and uttering a little feed talk along with some vigorous leaf scratching with a big stick, I scored. Everything was done according to the pattern the birds had, and all of the pieces fit together.
In this situation, the less calling the better. I usually call to verify that the birds are still roosting where they were the night before. Aft
er the birds hit the ground, I call very little. An occasional cluck or purr is about it. The minute you get competitive with the lead hen in the tom's harem (by using a lot of yelping) the pattern is going to change.
Some big birds are taken each year by immediately switching to hen talk once a hen responds from the roost. By using non-aggressive hen talk, sometimes the hen will actually lead the big guy right to you. This is one of the favorite tricks of Bob Shaw, and it is one he has used to take some monster toms. Simple purring and the occasional cluck in the same rhythm the hens are using can work very well.
The exception to this is when the hen becomes aggressive. One gamble you can try on a "henned up" tom on the roost is to get super-aggressive with your calling and try to pick a hen fight. My friends and I have killed some very nice birds that followed their hens into range.
PATTERNING DOMINANT TOMS WITHOUT HENS
When you get to the point in the turkey season where most of the hens are nesting, the big toms are not going to have a group of hens with them on the roost and can often be alone on the roost. This does not always mean a sure thing, however.
For example, the first time I ever played the patterning game was with a big bird roosting on a ridge near my home. He was definitely the one that I wanted to get.
On opening day of the turkey season, I got a response from him at the top of a big hardwood ridge. He was roosted in a patch of hemlocks, high up near the crest of the ridge. I didn't get very far with him on the first morning from my location near the fields below him. He worked his way down the ridge toward the east.
The second time I hunted him I was on top of the ridge, set up to the east of his roost, but just couldn't quite get the shot. On the third day, a group of jakes came within 10 yards of me and made the mistake of walking toward the big guy as he paraded back and forth with a hen. It was the first turkey fight I have ever seen, and it was by far the best. He literally beat the tar out of those six jakes, and at one point he had one of them pinned to the ground with one foot wrapped around the little guy's throat. Needless to say, that was the last gobble that I heard out of those jakes that season.
Days passed before I could finally get it through my dense head that there was a pattern. Every morning I hunted him, he would gobble like crazy from that patch of pines and then head east. I was doing my level best to call him in, but his favorite hen would usually show up and take him away, always just out of range.
Finally, I set up between him and the field to the east and placed one decoy about 30 yards uphill of me, and the other about 30 yards below me on the route he usually took. I then took out a diaphragm call and uttered one "cluck" when he was on the roost. Then the call came out of my mouth and went back into my pocket.
At precisely the right time, guess who strolled up to my downhill decoy, right on time? By patterning the tom and not getting his hen riled up, I was finally able to get that elusive bird.
PATTERNING AND HUNTING BIG TOMS IN
Wacky weather definitely affects spring turkey hunting. One phenomenon that has happened for a couple of seasons is that the breeding is just about over and done with by the time turkey season is underway. This makes for tough hunting.
This is the most controversial part of the way I hunt, and I am sure someone out there is not going to like it, but I find that if they want to hear tom talk, that is what I give them. Using a gobbler call to bring in a big tom is dangerous during the spring season, and doing it on public land is insane.
As far as gobbling calls go, I only use them on private lands that I hunt and am certain that I am the only one there. As an added precaution, I always set up in an open area where I have a good backstop with an excellent view around me. The system is also used after I have figured out where the birds are most likely to head after they fly down.
I usually gobble a couple of times while the birds are still on the roost, then use a few rough clucks to mimic tom talk when they hit the ground. That is the easy part. The hard part is getting a crack at the big guy when he comes in with several of his buddies.
TIPS FOR HUNTING BIG TOMS
Much like whitetail bucks, by the time a tom turkey gets a heavy beard, he has seen just about everything and has more than likely been shot at. They can be extremely suspect of certain calling patterns. Most hunters use a single call, be it a box call, diaphragm, slate or push-button call. I was taught to use at least two calls. My friends and I usually use push-button calls, because they produce a great purr, and a diaphragm call. This way, it sounds like two different hens are present at the calling site. Slate and glass calls can also be used this way.
If they are legal to use where you hunt, decoys are a plus, and two or three decoys are far better than one, especially if you are hunting a tom who sticks to a particular route.
The best decoys to use are the lightweight models that move with the slightest puff of wind. You can use them as a spread on either side of your location to guarantee that the big guy will see at least one of them.
I'm not the world's greatest turkey hunter, but I do believe that if you give me access to a property I can take out the best tom on that property, if you give me enough time. It may be because I'm too stubborn to give up.
The habits of turkeys have a pattern, just as there is with a big whitetail buck. All you have to do is look for it and then make sure you capitalize on the weak spot.
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