Lessons From the Turkey Woods

Here's what chasing gobblers all over the South for nearly 40 years has taught this expert hunter about the pursuit of turkeys.

The author back in camp, admiring one of his most recent gobblers and reflecting on what hunting these birds has taught him about the sport. Photo courtesy of Gene Smith

By Gene Smith

Hunters, writers, and seminar speakers have often been guilty of making turkey hunting sound more difficult than it really is. That was particularly the case 25 or 30 years ago, when restored turkey populations were blossoming and the almost-lost art of turkey calling and hunting was being revived.

It's true that consistently taking wild turkeys is tough, but it can be learned. I am walking proof of that. Having hunted these birds for more than 40 of my 70 years, I have picked up on several elements of what it takes to be able to eat wild turkey regularly. And, like today's outdoor television show hosts, writers, and hunters, I'm willing to share with you what works for me. But first, let me set the stage.

In October 1960, just shy of my 27th birthday, I first saw wild turkeys, and it set me on fire. At the time, I was working for the former Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. A flock ran out of a cornfield as we drove by. Until that day, I was not certain that wild turkeys still existed. I had grown up hunting rabbits and squirrels, period. No deer. No turkeys. No ducks where I lived, and few quail.

The next fall, by pure chance, a co-worker, Phil Hester, and I, floating down the river, saw a small flock of turkeys that had gone to roost in the swamp. The lights really began to come on. At the first opportunity, on a Friday evening, we crammed our mosquito headnets into our pockets and headed for the river, hoping to roost our first turkeys and thus set up a Saturday morning hunt.

I didn't own a caller; maybe Phil did. Once more by sheer luck, deep in the woods, we chose to stop and listen in the precise spot that the birds were about to choose as a roost site. Soon we heard turkeys and saw blue heads approaching off through the trees. With headnets in place, we lay down on our backs beside some rotting logs and scooped some dry leaves over ourselves.

I remember to this day how my heart pounded as the young turkeys surrounded us, calling softly to each other. It was memorable and magical. One little hen walked over and looked me straight in the face from inches away, made soft, purring notes, and moved off unperturbed, cocking her head sideways, clearly about to pick her limb. I was glad when she stepped away, for I had thought she might peck at my eye.

The other birds seemed a bit nervous, and continued to mill around us in the gathering twilight, frequently glancing skyward. I know now that it was past their normal fly-up time. Just then, a man, not far off, started calling his companion's name, very loudly. My heart fell as turkeys went everywhere, some flying and some running, setting up a torrent of swirling leaves. The guy, whoever he was, was obviously lost and panicky about possibly spending the night in the swamp.

Phil and I sat up and looked blankly at each other; then we cussed him, his buddy, his momma, and our bad luck as we put away our mosquito netting and headed for the car. I guess the fellow got together with his pal; the yelling stopped. We just left, and never did get to hunt those turkeys.

Phil and I did have a capital idea at about that same time, although it would be years before more business-savvy people would turn it into big money. There being no army surplus stores or other sources of camouflage clothing for hunters, we made ourselves some homemade camo shirts and pants by daubing green and brown fabric dye onto old work khakis. It looked pretty good for several years.

Being a weekend hunter for the most part, and moving often in my state job, I didn't get hot and heavy into turkey hunting per se. In the course of general hunting, for small game and feral hogs, mostly, I missed my first two shots at wild turkeys. On both occasions, I stumbled into flocks and shot wildly at departing birds. I knew nothing whatsoever about setting up and calling to fall birds after a flush or scatter. I had no mentor, no magazines, no books - and certainly no turkey-hunting seminars or videos.

It was not until 1967 that I bagged my first wild turkey, a jake. I attribute him to my first real turkey-hunting mentor, David Swindell, who, besides having been educated as a wildlife biologist, is a superb woodsman and hunter. He called with a small, plain slate cupped in his bare hand. I think his striker was a cedar peg.

We were hunting together but had separated to hunt in different directions the day I shot the lone jake, which I didn't call up. When we rendezvoused later that day, Dave showed me the little stub of a beard hidden deep in my turkey's breast feathers.

It was in the same vicinity that, in 1969, 1 took my first spring gobbler, which I called to on the roost with a Lynch World Champion box given to me by my father-in-law, E. J. Swingle. I heard the bird leave the roost, just beyond a small creek, and I remember hearing the air swishing through his wings as he sailed down and alighted not 20 yards from me, only to be greeted by a swarm of Double-X sixes from my Browning A-5.

I jumped on top of him to keep him from flopping into the creek. That gun is still in action, but the Lynch caller has long been retired from service, as have a couple of Neil Cost boxes and several other callers in my collection.

I'm still learning about this great game bird, for after Dave came a succession of knowledgeable mentors and champion callers from every section of the country. With the ongoing education came opportunities to hunt with many of those guys over much of the United States. There could be no better mentoring than what I enjoyed during the 19 years of association with the National Wild Turkey Federation before my retirement in 1995.

What follows was gleaned from all with whom I've worked and hunted, and from my own trials and errors and successful hunts. Take it and build on it.

First, know the bird and its strengths and weaknesses. Its strong suits are its eyesight and hearing and a remarkable ability to detect and avoid danger. Survival is the wild turkey's game, and its foot speed and powerful flight help it win more often than it loses. Its vulnerability comes in the form of its gregarious nature (it flocks with its own kind and will respond to and investigate calls); its predictability (turkeys will travel over the same daily or weekly routes); the male's peculiar tendency to gobble at various sounds (owls, slamming car doors, mill whistles, crows, woodpeckers), thus revealing its location; and, finally, the big one, the gobbl

ing of dominant males in the spring (letting us, the hunters, know their whereabouts).

Now remember that, although you're hunting gobblers, your ultimate goal is to have a gobbler hunt, find, and approach you. Make it as easy for him as you can.

I can't overstress the importance of a proper setup. Figure out where you would walk if you were a gobbler. Use lanes, woods roads, and firebreak trails to your advantage. Gobblers love to travel these. Look for scratching, feathers, and droppings in such areas. If a bird gobbles on the roost within 100 or even 200 yards of such a spot, set up there.

Avoid setups where the bird is across a stream or fence or on the back side of a field. Get nearer if at all possible. Eliminate all known physical obstacles between you and your bird. The better you know the terrain, the higher your chances of harvesting a gobbler.

Some say setup counts for 80 percent of getting the job done; I'm inclined to agree. That being the case, I'd say that maybe 10 percent is about calling, while the other 10 percent is about patience and sitting perfectly stone-still as the bird approaches closely.

Patience is the real key here. Most hunters give up on a bird much too soon. Gobblers don't wear watches - they're more into sundials, I'd say. A gobbler, full of himself and expecting his hens to come to him, might take 45 minutes to edge 100 yards in a caller's direction. Get comfortable and give him time; then give him more time. But be ready, gun on knee, finger near safety, when you know he has committed and is sidling on in response to your calls. Should he see you move now, the game is over.

I once was calling to a bird that was deep in a mountain hollow. It seemed to me that he was not coming out. I decided to ease into the hollow with him. The next time he gobbled, he was up on the rim where I had been, undoubtedly looking for me.

Next, know your calling do's and don'ts - when to call softly and when to pour it on, and especially when not to call at all. Less calling is always better than excess calling, particularly if you're not yet a really good and confident caller. If a gobbler commits, remain silent as long as he's walking your way. If he turns away or loses interest, give him some sweet, reassuring yelps or purrs.

Always call lightly before topping a ridge or rounding a bend. There might be a big gobbler standing just out of sight. But if one responds, be ready to hit the ditch or find a hasty setup. Many times, such a bird will catch you unprepared to do the deed you came to do, and that is a genuine disappointment.

Remember, too, that some gobblers come in silently. Just because you haven't heard him in a while doesn't mean he had business elsewhere. He might even be circling to check you out from all sides. Be alert, but be prepared to lose the game if he walks up behind you, in which case you're basically helpless. Snap shots don't often nail old gobblers. Let him go - wait for another day.

As for shooting, there are three important points: (1.) Pattern your gun with the loads you'll be using. (2.) Resist the universal temptation to shoot too soon. A strutter is farther away than he looks. Don't try 50- and 60-yard shots; in spite of what you hear or read, long shots, even with modern choke tubes and tailor-made turkey loads, result in a lot of crippled birds. (3.) Get down on that stock comb. Most misses on birds can be attributed to improper gun mounting. The tendency is to peek over the front sight at the bird instead of cheeking the stock tightly and concentrating on the aiming point, the birds lower neck. The result is a shot column that sails harmlessly over the gobbler's head, leaving the hunter sick in the pit of his stomach.

Been there? So have I.

Buddy hunting is fun, and my cardinal rule when taking someone, young or old, who is new to the sport is to sit shoulder to shoulder. Whispered communication is essential to success. One of my mentors would always remind me that I could move my eyes but not my head. Good advice. The guide or mentor needs also to offer reassurance and instructions to his charge during the last critical moments of a hunt: "Don't move." "Don't move at all!" And if the bird is in the open, "Shoot!"

But if its head is behind a tree and the gun is pointed slightly the wrong way, the mentor needs to whisper instructions to "Adjust your aim," so the shooter can drop the hammer when the bird reappears. All such stuff needs to be rehearsed before the hunt.

Both hunter and mentor sometimes need to shift around a tree to face a bird coming from an unexpected direction. This can be accomplished as long as the gobbler and any accompanying hens are out of sight - and sometimes a leading hen or two can be waved away before the unsuspecting gobbler comes into view.

A young guide and I worked such a deal on a big tom that had gobbled all morning, far down a hillside below us. But his gobbles were getting closer, so we knew our chances of giving him a truck ride were good and getting better. Then two hens popped up over the rise in front of us, and we waved at them, successfully flushing them off the mountainside.

My guide thought the game was over, that the gobbler had been alerted and alarmed. He started to stand, to call it quits. I urged him to park it again, because I could hear the gobbler drumming. Our turkey was just out of sight, and close, but he decided to stall, probably pondering his girlfriends' sudden departure.

The guide decided to risk backing away behind me some distance, calling as he went, hoping to make the gobbler think that his hens had gone in that direction. It worked: Shortly the boss gobbled hard, and I could almost feel the cold air vibrate at the sound. Then he stepped into view, with more hens to either side, but behind and below him. I didn't have to adjust my aim more than 2 or 3 inches. He went down flopping, and hens went in all directions.

My guide was back at my side before the echoes died. We were two happy turkey hunters! We whooped and hugged like kids, then said a prayer of thanks for the beauty of the young morning and for our great good fortune.

That's what turkey hunting is all about. Enjoy it - and remember to play it safe.

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