Five Plans for Tough Toms

It's great when turkey hunting goes in favor of the hunter, but when it doesn't seem there's anything you can do to outwit those tough old toms, here's what you should try.

by Mike Lambeth

No sound stirs my senses like the gobble of a wild turkey in the springtime. The resonant melodies made by a lovesick gobbler make a turkey hunter's blood pressure rise. Gobblin' fever is a disease experienced by multitudes of hunters who lie awake on spring nights trying to figure out a way to outsmart a tom. Wary, tough old birds can make us all talk to ourselves at times.

Gobblers seem to get smarter each season. Savvy hunters have learned that by adapting their tactics and taking a few tips from some seasoned veterans, success is only a few yelps away.

Before you go into the woods to hunt your spring turkey, listen to these words of wisdom spun from our turkey experts. This advice is certain to give you the necessary ammo to tag a tough tom this season.

Without a doubt, scouting plays an important role in the success or failure of a spring turkey hunt. Hunters who do their homework reap dividends that weekend hunters never experience.

Far too many hunters drive the country roads surrounding their favorite turkey haunts in an effort to do some "pre-season" scouting. This scenario normally takes place near dawn, a week prior to the season opener. Sometimes hunters adapting this tactic are rewarded by distant gobbling. Their momentary elation fades to despair when they return to find the turkeys fly off the roost in the opposite direction or, worse yet, the entire flock has relocated.

Sadly, this dilemma could have a different outcome, if hunters put more effort into pre-season scouting. By spending time in the woods, hunters can easily pattern the everyday movements of their local flocks, giving them the ability to approach opening day with confidence, and to be rewarded for their planning.

Seasoned hunters have learned that serious scouting should take place no earlier than three weeks before the season opens. According to Bill Jordan, an avid turkey hunter and founder of his own camo company, "Scouting months in advance is normally a waste of time due to turkeys changing their patterns prior to the season opening."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

So what should you look for when you begin scouting, and how can you effectively scout and not scare the turkeys?

According to my close friend and turkey-hunting expert Alex Rutledge, "The best advice I can offer is that you need to be careful when slipping into areas that hold turkeys. If you disturb turkeys too much, you can completely move them out of an area. For that reason, I spend more time glassing turkeys from a distance. This way I can observe their habits and not disturb their daily routines. When turkeys move off to feed or loaf, then I can safely scout and look closer for further turkey sign."

Turkey sign comes in several forms, with the most common being turkey tracks and droppings. Tom turkey tracks are generally 3 1/2 to 4 inches long. Hen tracks are considerably smaller.

Gobbler droppings are elongated and typically form a J-hook, while hen droppings, in contrast, form in piles. Large piles of droppings near the base of trees normally indicate a roosting site.

Another telltale sign of turkey activity is loose feathers. Gobbler feathers are generally a glossy bronze color with a black trailing edge, while hen feathers look duller, with a dusky light brown edge. Turkeys generally lose feathers daily as they fly down from the roost and as they fight when establishing a pecking order.

While looking around a woodlot, you might also discover large areas where the leaves have been scratched away from the forest floor. "These areas are normally made by a flock of hens and juvenile turkeys," says Jordan. "If you spot an area where leaves have been disturbed about the size of a medium-sized buck scrape, it was probably made by a gobbler."

Other signs of turkey activity are strut marks in roads and dusting areas. Gobblers prefer to display for their hens in relatively open areas, like roads and creekbeds. Anytime you find gobbler tracks in these areas, check beside them for scrape marks in the dirt where a strutting tom dragged his wingtips. Gobblers are notorious for using the same strutting areas daily.

Dusting areas are normally sandy areas where turkeys wallow out a bowl-shaped impression in the ground while covering themselves with sand or dirt to repel mites. These areas are found near roads, sandy creekbeds, and near the edges of fields. Watch for gobblers to frequent these areas in search of hens.

As opening day approaches, go to the woods early and late, and listen for gobbling. Most states set spring turkey-season dates during peak gobbling periods.

While scouting before the season, never call to turkeys! While attending outdoor trade shows in January and February each year, I am constantly amazed at the number of "green-horns" who boast about having already called in toms while scouting. This practice can frustrate the birds and make them call-shy.

Knowing the daily patterns of the turkeys you are hunting dramatically shifts the odds of success in your favor. This knowledge allows you to set up along a turkey's travel corridor, which can also help in intercepting so-called "hened-up" gobblers.

I have shared several turkey camps with Eddie Salter and have learned a great deal from this turkey-hunting legend. Salter's vast knowledge of turkeys and turkey habits was honed at an early age. Salter learned as a youngster that it was a necessity to be a good caller to get turkeys close enough to shoot.

Though Salter has won many national and regional turkey-calling championships, while actually hunting, he calls only as much as necessary. "Most guys call too much and too often," he explains. "All hunters, including myself, love to hear turkeys gobble. However, hearing a turkey gobble does not necessarily mean that you are going to kill that particular turkey. I have learned that sometimes not calling is the best method."

Case in point: Salter and I were hunting late one morning when we raised the distant gobble of a tom on the far side of a huge plowed field. Using available cover, we cut the distance in half and emerged near the edge of a fence that bordered the field. Eddie positioned me upright with my gun resting on the top of a fence post, while he lay down and ma

de a simple series of yelps. The yelps were answered immediately by a gobble 100 yards away.

"He is on the way," Eddie advised me. "I am not going to call anymore." Seconds later a beautiful eastern longbeard walked over a terrace and homed in on our position. My No. 6s anchored the 27 1/2-pound tom and high-fives were in order. The heavy tom was my best ever, sporting a thick, 11 1/2-inch beard, and sharply hooked 1 1/2-inch spurs.

Left to my devices, I would have called every 10 seconds and, in turn, blown that opportunity. But by being silent when the tom committed, I was able to harvest my best turkey ever.

Another day, my wife Donna and I found a midday gobbler gobbling every 30 seconds. The "hot" longbeard was walking down a powerline right of way about 400 yards away. We set up, called, and were answered by a thunderous gobble. I continued to call aggressively, invoking a gobble with every series. The tom closed the distance to 75 yards and seemed to parallel our position, not coming any closer.

I whispered to Donna to get ready because we were going to play "hard to get." Seconds later the bobbing red head of a huge gobbler appeared just over the terrace in a field. The silent treatment made the tom come running. Unfortunately, in my excitement I'd set my wife up in a bad location, causing her shot to miss the longest-bearded turkey I've ever seen.

I am by no means advocating not calling to turkeys at all. I actually call a great deal, and I receive satisfaction from calling a turkey close and then making a clean kill. Nevertheless, I am learning lately that sometimes calling less or calling very softly is the ticket when hunting call-shy, educated turkeys.

Sometimes toms that are in the presence of hens will "courtesy" gobble when called to, but they won't leave the flock. Aggressive calling sometimes works to incite hens to check out their competition, but many times soft, casual calling is just what the doctor ordered on tough toms.

The key to success when calling can be summed up by the old adage, "Less is more."

Verona Inabinette chases gobblers all over the country every spring. Her pursuits have culminated with her taking grand slams with both conventional shotgun and muzzleloading shotgun. Inabinette has taken a world slam by adding the Gould's and the occilated turkeys to her bags of Rio Grande, eastern, Merriam's and Osceola birds.

Inabinette has been a videographer for over 10 years. Her extensive hours behind a camera have given her an education on the habits of turkeys, and the best places to set up to intercept wary gobblers. Her hunting experience makes her a favorite speaker for hunting groups. In short, Verona knows turkeys and their habits.

"When I set up on a turkey, I try to move under the cover of darkness to within 60 to 75 yards of a turkey roost," she advised. "I have learned the hard way that trying to get too close many times will spook the birds off the roost before shooting time."

Inabinette sometimes spends days trying to pattern specific gobblers before formulating a strategy. But, like the old saying goes, the best-laid plans sometime go astray. In turkey hunting, I have found that there are no absolutes. When toms have been meticulously patterned, they can still leave you scratching your head.

I once heard veteran turkey hunter Ray Eye tell a story of trying to outwit a longbeard for several days. It seems that if Eye set up on one side of the roost and called, the turkey would fly the opposite direction. When he would set up on the opposite side, the turkey would fly to where Ray was the previous morning.

Eye concocted a plan and enlisted the help of a friend. He positioned his friend on the far side of the roost and instructed him to call every couple of minutes. Eye then positioned himself on the opposite side of the roost.

You guessed it; the wily old tom pitched down nearly in Eye's lap, trying to avoid the cacophony of turkey talk on the other side of the hill. A load of No. 6s retired the bird.

When moving in on a turkey, always keep brush between you and the bird. Moving on turkeys is challenging; you'll inevitably bump turkeys in the process. However, you'll also be able to set up and kill turkeys that you wouldn't have other wise.

I was hunting a hened-up tom several seasons ago and watched while the majestic bird displayed near an abandoned homestead 80 yards away. The tom gobbled when called to, but when the hens decided the gig was up, he followed them over a small hill. When the turkeys were out of sight, I ran to the last bush on my side of the hill and lay prone while purring with my push-button yelper. Thinking he had left a girlfriend behind, the gobbler rushed to within 10 feet of my ambush, and I connected with a magnum load.

Being mobile when you need to be is the key to success.

Ransom Jones has been chasing turkeys for nearly 50 years. He's taken turkeys in several states and has multiple grand slams to his credit. I've learned a lot from hunting with him.

To complete his first grand slam, Jones headed to the Black Hills for a late-season Merriam's turkey. Jones was hunting a snowy landscape when a gobbler responded nearly a half-mile away. The hunter and hunted played a game of cat and mouse for nearly an hour, before Jones finally took the bird over decoys at 25 yards.

During the exciting hunt, the bird stubbornly strutted out of range 60 yards away while Jones patiently tried to coax in the big tom. Jones wooed the gobbler with soft, contented clucks and purrs.

"Remember, if a hunter can see a turkey, then the turkey can surely see the hunter," Jones advised. His advice for coaxing toms the last few yards is that hunters must remain totally still during that crucial time. Any unnecessary movement and the tom will be gone.

Jones admits that some toms will stand their ground and wait for the hens to come to them. For that reason, when all else fails Jones will pick up the tempo of his calling and become aggressive and sometimes even gobble to challenge the gobbler into coming the last few yards into gun range. Sometimes this tactic works, and other times it fails, so don't be afraid to experiment with a variety of calls as a last resort.

Decoys are probably one of the best weapons a hunter can have in their arsenal for coaxing in tough toms. Veteran turkey hunter Brad Harris relies heavily on decoys when turkey hunting. Harris has done extensive research on the proper decoy placements for maximum benefits. His findings are amazing.

Consider this: Harris has video taped 400 to 500 turkeys called in to decoys. About 95 percent of the time when a jake decoy is used with a

hen decoy, a gobbler will approach the jake decoy first. Harris explained that the reason is simple. "It is a dominance thing. Mature toms are also provoked to be aggressive toward jakes with brightly colored heads. Gobblers will literally attack jake decoys."

Harris says that to be a successful turkey hunter you have to fool a turkey's eyes and ears. "Calling turkeys is good, but it helps to have decoys on the scene to validate the call source," he said.

Harris says that any properly placed decoys will do the job. He advocates placing decoys in an area that offers a clear view for approaching toms but safety from approaching hunters. Harris allowed that placing a decoy in tall grass actually defeats the purpose because of limited visibility.

When using decoys, exercise caution. Many decoys today have very authentic heads. Be safe when carrying decoys in and out of the field.

Even in this high-tech age of turkey hunting, a good woodsman will win out over a good turkey caller on most days. This is not meant to minimize calling but to put an emphasis on knowing the woods you hunt and the habits of the turkeys you are pursuing. Be where the birds want to be, and you are apt to hang your tag on a wily old longbeard this spring.

There is an old saying that goes, "I would rather be lucky than good." By digesting these tips and becoming adaptable in the woods, today's turkey hunters can become both lucky and good.

Ransom Jones offers this piece of advice handed down from a turkey-hunting legend: A wild turkey can see you thinking and hear you change your mind.

I am sure glad turkeys can't smell! Here's hoping your spring hunts are safe and successful!

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