Taking the Farmland Tom

Hunting spring gobblers in farm country is different than hunting them in large blocks of unbroken woodlands. We have some tips to set you straight on how it's best done.

By Ron Steffe

In the eastern sky, faint pinks and grays are slowly becoming visible. Moving lightly from the west, the morning air carries the scent of freshly plowed earth, springtime grasses - and cows.

It also carries one other thing: the resounding gobble of a mature wild tom turkey. And at a point a mere 300 yards away from the 2-acre woodlot in which the gobbler is welcoming the morning, a man quietly sits.

Like any hunter anticipating and then hearing the waking call of a courting male, he feels his excitement level going off the scale. But somehow this hunter must curtail that inner energy and funnel it to his turkey-hunting skills.

He knows and understands that he's pursuing a wild turkey amid farmlands, where he has little advantage. He'll have to be apt and clever if he's to have any hope of bagging this tom. He'll have to call him out of the hardwoods, across a large cow pasture and past 30 relaxed dairy cows to his position.

It's not an impossible task.

In the 4-foot depression that the hunter chooses for his point of setup and calling, a steady trickle of water runs through long-dormant spring weeds beginning spurts of growth. Well prepared for these conditions, he sits on a small portable chair that keeps his backside above the water and his body hidden. Having scouted this farm and its turkey population, he knows that the exact place in which he now sits offers the best prospects for trying to entice a gobbler into shooting range.

Photo by Paul Tessier

A short 20 yards from the hunter's place of concealment, two hen decoys are stuck on poles in the ankle-high grass of a green pasture. They spin occasionally in the light wind - all the better for fooling the quarry.

After gobbling three more times, the tom goes silent for 10 minutes. Then, like a magical shadow slipping along the woodlot's edge, a turkey slowly walks out. The hunter's heart speeds, then slows: a hen. She walks into the pasture and begins pecking at the grass. Soon another gobble rings out; then, another shadow, and another turkey - a mature tom in full strut leaving his wooded bedroom for the grassy mead.

Twenty minutes of soft yelping, purring and cutting has brought the hen and tom to within 10 yards of the decoys. Calling in the hen is part of the strategy that the hunter stored on a mental list for his hunt plan. He was of course not certain as his day began that a hen would be involved in this hunt. But he was ready for the possibility.

The hen comes into the open pasture along an old fenceline and walks past the cows to the decoys. The tom follows - also as the hunter had planned, and hoped.

The burst of a 12-gauge Magnum shell ends the gobbler's courtship trot. The hunter carries the monarch, no longer king of this domain, from his farmland home. But, the human victor correctly assumes, another male will take this one's place.

The wild turkey and its ever-expanding range represent one of America's greatest wildlife success stories. Areas of the country that - coinciding closely with the arrival of the first European settlers - saw the loss of the wild turkey now lay claim to the big birds once again. Where suitable habitat exists, the birds have prospered.

Farm country is not excepted from this trend. The wild turkey has spread to the fields and small woodlots we associate with areas of agriculture. At such places, their numbers are on the rise.

The experience of hunting the farm country gobbler is every bit as exciting, and is as exacting, as is hunting toms living in large tracts of forested hills and mountains. In fact, the bagging of a farm-country tom often rises to a level of difficulty somewhat above and beyond that of taking a bird in big woodlands - added challenge that only adds to the reward of filling your tag with a farmland tom.

Many farms are in lowland areas; others are on hillsides, even on mountaintops. But to hold turkeys, they all need to have one thing in common: a section of woods - and it doesn't have to be a large area - that can provide the birds a roosting area. Tall trees with a mix of conifers offer the ideal enticement for turkeys to roost area.

Be it a spring, stream, water trough, lake or water-filled ditch, all farms have some source of water. And all farms where wild turkeys live provide the food sources that a turkey needs to survive. Otherwise, the birds simply wouldn't be found there.

For actually finding the birds, it's paramount that you scout a farm area just as you would scout the forests for big-woods turkeys. Scouting can be done at any time of year, for turkeys seen in the fall will most likely inhabit the same area come spring. Locating a springtime gobbler requires spending some pre-season evenings listening for gobbles; it may also necessitate putting some miles on your vehicle as you search for birds. And don't forget some time spent knocking on farmhouse doors and asking the residents if they know of any birds on the property. This is also an excellent time to seek permission to hunt, as you're in the process of introducing yourself and making a favorable initial impression, anyway.

Once you locate some toms, you'll be much better off come opening day if you've spent some time watching the birds from a distance. Stay hidden as you look for little habits peculiar to a particular tom. Perhaps he leaves his roosting area late, or goes to water early; maybe he struts the morning away on a certain piece of ground, or feeds in a certain section of a field. Any hint of a pattern that you can discern through such observation will increase your odds of bagging that tom come the time that you actually hunt him.

Don't expect a tom to come running across open land to your first calls - it just doesn't work out that way. Your best chance for success is to scout him and learn his habits and patterns.

Full camouflage is a must, including gloves and facemask, but be careful here. Green-pattern, oak leaf, woodland and other camo designs one ordinarily associates with turkey hunting can make you stick out like a sore thumb in farm country. Wear the wrong color in the wrong place and you can pretty much forget about taking a bird.

The correct camo color and style will depend on where you eventually choose a set

up point. If you hide and call in a woodlot, or call from one woodlot to another with open space in between, normal camo patterns will suffice, but if you have no other spot to sit in but in open territory, you have to match the colors surrounding you.

Corn stubble often remains in the spring season in farm country, as persistent foul weather sometimes prevents farmers from plowing those fields. If you hunt along the edge of corn stubble, you'd better match that color. Many waterfowl camo patterns incorporate corn stubble and yellow grasses, and these are thus smart choices for those setting up at such places. Setting up an ambush near a lone tree requires something dark in a tree-bark pattern.

The basic imperative here is to match the color of your hiding place, because hunting in farm country requires all the stealth you can marshal to fool these sharp-eyed turkeys.

Just as important is the correct choice of a shotgun and load. Ten- and 12-gauge shotguns with appropriate turkey loads are the top choices, simply because they pack more pellets and more wallop over a greater distance than do smaller gauges. Some days are different, and you may call a tom in to close range, but that's the rare occasion, not the norm. Most of the time you'll be shooting in the 30-yard-range, or slightly beyond, because gobblers more often than not grow ever more suspicious as they close in on a position from which they hear turkey calls originate.

If you've hunted gobblers before and have seen the sight of their leaving strut accompanied by the quick change of head color from white to red, then you know either that you've either been picked up or, at the very least, that the tom no longer trusts the situation and is about to head for another piece of real estate in a big hurry. When that happens, and if the turkey's within that 30-yard range, you'll want to have enough gun to stop him.

Decoys may help you bring that bird closer. In fact, you'd better have some fakes on the ground if you hope to call in the big birds at all, especially in open-field settings.

Farm hunting conditions differ in many aspects from those in the big woods pursuit of toms, but the most obvious - and thus most crucial - is the fact that turkeys can easily zero in on your calling position. You can hide among trees in big woods and soften your calls to make that tom believe that you're over the next little ridge or around the next point - but not so in farm country. A call in open fields or small woodlots can be pinpointed exactly, and if a tom sees no turkeys making your manufactured versions of his species' sounds, don't expect him to come in.

And more decoys are better than fewer. Boss gobblers are greedy when it comes to females; the more there are in his circle of receptive hens, the better he enjoys life. Two hen decoys will work nicely, but three or four will work better. Place a jake in the mix, and you'll have a bunch of "talking" turkeys that a tom can't resist.

As mentioned earlier, lightweight decoys that move in the wind seem to be a preferred choice at present. Movement adds to the realism you endeavor to achieve with decoys, and that added realism will almost certainly vastly improve your chances of bagging a bird.

Farms can be surprisingly devoid of cover. Modern-day farming uses every available piece of land, leaving no weedy edges or fencerows as part of the landscape. If turkeys live in the small patches of woods near these farms, they'll notice anything out of place in the open land. Fenceposts are a setup choice, but it seems they never fully hide a human body, and a turkey knows that a fat post doesn't fit among skinny ones. Sometimes a small depression in the ground (even a small hole) is a better place for a hunter to set up his ambush. With decoys in place, and knowing the direction from which the tom will approach, lying on the ground is the logical choice. Whatever you settle on had better be comfortable, because you may be in that position for a long time - and it had better be safe (a topic that we'll return to shortly).

To provide summer shade for livestock, farmers often leave solitary trees or small groups of large trees along field edges and in the middle of pastures. These are sensible places to set up with your decoys, especially if you've scouted the turkeys in these areas and know that they pass nearby.

Areas with water, in ponds or lakes or even troughs, can offer other smart setup points if a workable place to hide can be found there. A ditch would be a great place for your hideaway, as would a thick clump of brush, or crop fields already experiencing the growth of spring.

One other possible choice is to sneak into the woods in which the tom that you're hunting roosts - but do so only after he has left the woods. To be successful with this strategy, you'll have to have access to those woods from the side opposite the point at which the tom exited, and you'll have to enter so that you're not detected by your quarry - and you'll have to make all of these movements with safety in mind. But if a tom hears a hen back at the place that he thinks of as his bedroom, he'll more often than not come back home for some fun.

Make the place you choose to call from as easy and soft on your body as circumstance allows. Always keep in mind that you'll have to be still and may have to hold your gun for a long time, and thus have really no margin for error with an approaching tom. Put some serious time into choosing a setup position.

Calling to farm country toms requires the same assortment of yelps, clucks, purrs and cuts you make to their big-woods cousins - you simply have to sound like a turkey or, if you have multiple decoys, like multiple turkeys. If you have a jake in your decoy spread and have mastered the sound of a gobble, you'll be ahead of the game, as a gobbling jake may be what it takes to bring in a mature tom when all other calls fail.

It also helps to be proficient with a diaphragm call. The hand motion required to work a slate or box call is a no-no in farm country, especially as a tom closes in. You'll want to have your gun aimed and be ready to fire when the first opportunity to do so presents itself.

Safety in turkey hunting can never be stressed too much, no matter where you hunt. When you hunt a farm, find out from the owner if anyone else will be hunting there while you do. Try to hunt the farm alone. Certain setups, such as lying in a depression with decoys all about you, can be an irresistible invitation to an unknowing hunter. Sneaking into woods or a field can put you in danger if another hunter is already there. Know the layout of the property you hunt. If another hunter approaches your position without seeing you, always shout very loudly, letting that hunter know that you're already there. Keep an orange hat close by, too; you can wave it if needed, or wear it when moving about the property. No doubt some of these actions may spook a tom turkey, but no bird is worth risking your life for.

* * *
The wild turkey is a noble bird, and the farm tom is no pushover. In many ways, hunting the farmland tom requires hunters to bring

forth their best hunting abilities. If you're skilled enough, work hard at scouting and planning your hunt, and get downright lucky enough to bag a turkey down on the farm, then you'll understand the unique feeling that is the reward of hunting the farm-country tom.

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