Hit-and-Run Tactics for Spring Turkeys

Sometimes you can sit behind a decoy all day while a gobbler struts on the next hilltop. This calls for drastic measures, as our expert explains.

by Bob Humphrey

One of the most important characteristics a turkey hunter can possess is patience.

The classic spring turkey hunting scenario involves locating a gobbling bird, setting up on him and calling him to the gun. However, things don't always go according to plan. Pressured birds or birds that are accompanied by hens may be reluctant to come to the call. Also, many toms stop gobbling and slowly, silently strut toward the hunter, who must have the resolve to wait them out, no matter how long it takes.

Perhaps the next most important quality is experience, which is how knowledgeable hunters decide when that old gobbler just isn't coming and when it's time to make a move. That can be one of the toughest decisions a turkey hunter makes, but often it's the only way to get that bird. Experience also helps in knowing how to go after a reluctant bird, and it sometimes even makes up for lack of patience.

One experienced hunter I know has been hunting gobblers since he was a young lad. For the better part of the last 20 years, he's been guiding hunters at home and in several other states. George's turkey hunting motto is: "If you can't call 'em, crawl 'em."

While he has nothing against sitting and calling, he believes that if you really want to kill a turkey, you've got to be mobile. And he claims that most of the birds he's killed are longbeards that he went after rather than waiting for them to come to him.

What follows are some of his techniques, as well as some other hit-and-run turkey tactics.

Photo by Stephen B. Antus

One of the more familiar methods of hit-and-run hunting is to try to circle ahead of a gobbling bird. How many hunters have you set up on a roosted bird only to have him fly down and go the other way? When a gobbler leaves the roost in the morning, he knows where he's going, and if he has hens, he'll go where they go. If the hunter is in the right place, he may not even need to call. If not, no amount of calling will change his mind. Most hunters stay put and try to call the hens back, but often that doesn't work, either.

At this point, the only recourse is to do an end-around and head him off. Phase I of this process begins by determining the bird's direction of travel. Next, circle out wide enough to avoid spooking him or any birds in his company. This sounds easy, but it is not! Turkeys can travel surprisingly fast when they're feeding and even faster when they're moving to a feeding area. In order to avoid the turkey's legendary eyesight, the hunter must make a wide loop out and around, which means covering a lot more ground than the turkey does. Hunters must be in good shape, particularly in hilly terrain.

Another problem is the need to keep tabs on the bird's location, which can be done if he keeps gobbling. If he remains silent for long periods, make him gobble. This is best done with loud shock calls like crow, woodpecker or coyote. Hold off on the turkey calling until it's time to set up and you're ready to shoot.

The next move is critical, and according to George, this is one of the places where most hunters mess up. "If you think you've gone far enough to get in front of the bird, go a little farther. With all the excitement, the adrenaline is pumping, and most hunters have a tendency to cut in too soon," he said. "Give yourself plenty of margin for error."

He also suggests shifting gears. "Stop. Calm yourself. Stand still for another 10 to 15 seconds and listen for another gobble," George said. "If the bird is still moving, or if he seems to veer away from your calling, move out in front and set up, but don't start calling yet."

If the bird stops and begins gobbling from a fixed position, it's time to move into Phase II.

Despite what the experts say, turkeys are not impossible to put the sneak on. George has proven that many times. Perhaps some of his eagerness to move on birds is because he grew up in the South, where sneaking birds was the traditional method. (It's important to remember that he only uses this technique on private land where he has complete control over who is on the land, so he doesn't have to worry about other hunters. Do not try this technique when you know other hunters are in the area or if your state laws do not allow it. Safety must be the foremost consideration - another good reason to calm yourself before moving in for the kill.)

The key, according to George, is getting inside the turkey's "comfort zone." Pressured birds will often hang up at 70 or 100 yards. The hunter can call all he wants to, but if the gobbler doesn't see a hen, he's not coming.

"Get close enough so you have to bring the bird only another 15 to 25 yards," George said. "A lot of times it's impossible to make that move, but if so, he's a lot easier to take. But you can't do it by standing up and walking; you have to crawl."

How to do that depends on several variables, including the lay of the land, environmental conditions, time of day, and the presence or absence of other animals. In flat, open topography, it's nearly impossible; conversely, a few hills here and there could provide enough cover. It's also tougher early in spring, before the leaves come out. Later on, use the foliage to your advantage. The position of the sun is also important. If it can be put at the hunter's back, he'll have an edge.

George also recommends trying to stay in the shadows, which is why this technique works better early and late in the day (where legal in the spring) when the shadows are long.

"When you're ready to move in the last 100 yards on a bird," George said, "go directly at him, never move right or left." A compass will help in navigating for the final approach.

The key to the final leg, according to George, is getting an "eye lock" on the bird.

"You need to see him before he sees you; go low and slow," he said. A turkey's eyesight is much keener than ours, so use binoculars.

"If he's gobbling, he's running that neck out every time he gobbles. Look for that movement."

If he's strutting and spinning, it is possible to catch movement of his fanned-out tail.

Don't go by sound alone, though, because a bird can fool you.

"Make sure to get a couple of gobbles if you think he's going away, because he may not be," George said. "If a bird gobbles facing away, he'll sound farther away. Then, when he turns back, he'll sound closer again. Make sure you know where he is before you move in."

If the bird does start to move off, George suggests running to the last place he gobbled from and then calling. It's a long shot, but sometimes the right call will stop the bird and bring him back.

The closer you get, the more things can go wrong. When you are crawling on your belly, little things suddenly become giant obstacles. In some areas, venomous snakes are a concern - yet another reason to go slowly. While crawling, George keeps his gun in front of him and in his right hand (he's a right-handed shooter).

"Put something solid between you and the bird," he said, "like a large tree or a thicket. I always pay attention to the canopy. The brush is often thickest under spots where the canopy is open."

While it is important to remain focused on the turkey, it is also critical to be aware of the surroundings. If the gobbler is in the company of other birds, the odds of getting inside his "comfort zone" are considerably less than if he's alone. The presence of other animals, such as squirrels and deer, could also blow a good stalk.

Sometimes when a gobbler gets into his strut zone, he'll pace back and forth like a duck in a shooting gallery.

Les Peters, another accomplished turkey hunter, has learned how to use this to his advantage. Each time the bird turns and moves away, Peters moves a little closer. It may take several attempts to accomplish, but eventually, when the turkey returns, he'll be in gun range.

"Calling at this point is a make-or-break situation," George said. "When you start calling, you alert the turkey to your position."

George often opts for more subtle attracting sounds, such as scratching in the leaves. "It's important to match the cadence of a feeding hen. Sometimes I'll even throw the leaves out where the gobbler can see them."

By now, the gun is up and in the shooting position.

"If a turkey catches you out of position, your best bet is to move slowly and deliberately. You'll never beat them on the quick draw," George said. "The turkey will still react to the slow movement by alarm-putting and walking slowly away, but he may remain in range long enough for a shot."

When hunting in open country, adapt these strategies to the situation by borrowing a page from the mule deer hunter's handbook - try a little spot-and-stalk. Begin by glassing from hills or bluffs and listening for gobbles. Just as with the end-around method, the objective is to try to determine where the bird is going and to get there ahead of him. There won't be much vegetation to use for cover, so you will have to rely mainly on topography. Small hills can sometimes afford enough cover. These areas are also frequently laced with narrow ravines, which also offer a topographical advantage and often have some degree of vegetative cover. Here, binoculars take on added importance.

George also recommends trying to pick out some feature on the land near the turkeys to use as a landmark as you proceed.

In open forest, be careful on the approach. A bird can spot movement down the side of an open hardwood ridge from a long way off. If he's on top, which he most likely will be, get below him and use the topography as cover.

Once in the bottoms, move on a more direct path toward the bird. Try to approach along as steep a route as possible, as it will provide more concealment from above, and a bird is less likely to come toward you.

While it's not always true, a general rule of thumb is that it's easier to call a bird uphill. Try to get above the bird if at all possible. Of course, if the bird is moving down, do likewise, as it won't be easy to turn him back up.

Rivers or large streams offer great hit-and-run opportunities. Most hunters access their hunting areas by land, but going by boat offers several advantages. First, waterways provide easy access to areas that may otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, to get to on foot. Second, it is possible to come in from an atypical direction. Third, it is possible to cover more ground with less effort and to move fast if necessary.

This technique works best early in the day, while the birds are still in the bottoms, and before they move into the fields to feed. There are several ways to go about it, but a typical scenario begins by motoring upriver or downriver, away from the crowds, well before daylight. Then, just sit and listen. High banks and running water sometimes make it difficult to hear, so climb up on the bank and listen. When a bird gobbles, motor up as close as possible without spooking it, set up and begin calling. If something goes wrong with that bird, jump in the boat and find another one.

Gobbling can't always be heard over the din of a motor, so cut the engine every quarter-mile or so and listen. If necessary, do some crow or turkey calling to elicit a shock gobble.

Waterway hunting can also be done by canoe. The best way to do this is to have two vehicles. Park one at the downstream end of the hunt, and then drive up to the launch site and float downstream.

While canoeing may be slower and may require a bit more effort, the approach will be virtually silent, or you may call and listen as you drift. In snake country, be cautious of water moccasins, which like to loaf on limbs overhanging the river.

Though most turkey hunters would be reluctant to admit it, I'd venture to guess that overall success with running and gunning is measurably higher than sitting and calling. However, every encounter with a gobbler is unique. Different birds react differently under similar circumstances, and even the same bird may act differently on different days.

Calling a bird to the gun is a rewarding experience, but so is toting one out of the woods. The key is in knowing when it's time to move. You may blow a few opportunities by being hasty, but hit-and-run gunning may also put you in range of birds where you otherwise might not have a chance.

The hit-and-run method you use will depend on numerous factors, but in all cases, safety should be foremost in your mind at all times. Follow your state laws on this, and use common sense if it is likely that you will run into other hunters.

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