5 Tips For The Early Bird

If you expect to bag a gobbler early in the season, here are some things you need to keep in mind. (March 2008).

It's been noted that the early bird frequently gets the worm. But that's true only if the early bird is prepared to actually get that worm.

When it comes to early season gobblers, famed turkey caller and veteran hunter Eddie Salter knows that often the most effective preparation comes in the weeks before the season opens.

Here's the pre-season program that Salter relies on to make his opening day a successful one.

It's hard to bag a bird if there isn't one in the immediate area. Your first step is to determine if there are, in fact, gobblers where you intend to hunt. If you're hunting new property this year, it's important to spend some time in those woods looking for tracks, droppings, dust baths, strut marks and other signs that birds are present.

Key spots to check are along creek bottoms, dirt roads, and field edges -- especially sandy clearings adjacent to a field.

All that can take a fair amount of walking. However, if you're hunting land you've scouted before, Salter has an alternative.

"If you've found turkeys in a specific area one year," Salter explained, "and the habitat hasn't significantly changed, you can pretty much count on finding birds there again.

"It all comes down to the hens," he continued. "They have preferred nesting sites and they -- and their offspring -- return to those areas year after year. They lead the gobblers into those spots.

"It's a proven fact that when a hen nests in a particular spot, most of her offspring return to within a few hundred yards in future years to hatch their offspring. If you know where hens have nested in the past, you know where at least some gobblers will be, because the hens actually control a lot of the gobblers' behavior during the early phase of the season."

Once you've found an area holding birds, narrow it down to make sure that you're set up properly on opening morning.

Salter's convinced the best way to do that is to be there at the dawn fly-down. The first 30 minutes after sunup is the best gobbling time and is the easiest way to pinpoint where the gobbler's daily movement will start. But after fly-down, Salter doesn't head off to breakfast.

"It's important to me to know which way that gobbler is heading when he comes off the roost," he said. "But to find that out, I don't want to shadow him real close. He's going to be heading towards hens, and you don't want to get up too close and get busted by them.

"I like to figure out his starting direction, then come back a couple of hours later and see if I can pick him up again by blowing a crow or owl call. That pretty much tells me his daily travel routine. A lot of times, a turkey will pattern himself if you spend the time to figure it out."

If you've located one or more birds and determined their daily travel route, the last step is simple.

"The evening before the season opens, I want to hear that bird fly up," Salter noted. "When you know where he went to roost the evening before, you can be pretty sure of being real close to him when he flies down in the morning.

"The only thing you've really got to watch is getting too close to his roost. If you roost the birds close, don't be in a hurry to leave. Wait until full dark and then slip out very quietly so you don't bust them off the roost."

Camouflage clothing is a fact of life for turkey hunters, and there are plenty of effective patterns on the market. Sometimes, however, a bit of manipulation is required.

"Things haven't fully greened up in many areas by opening day," Salter explained. "So to counter that, I like to mix and match my Realtree camo outfits. I want pants that will blend in with the ground I'm sitting on, and a top that matches the tree I'm leaning against. With the different patterns available, that's not hard to do. The colors are there; you just have to pick the right ones for the conditions."

If you want to see how truly effective your camo is, don't rely on a close-up view. Put it on and have someone look at you from 20 to 40 yards. That's the distance at which the bird's going to first encounter you. And while a lot of camo may look great up close, it can turn into a dark lump at a distance and appear out of place. That's not good.

"Think of it this way," Salter advised. "You're sitting in your recliner in your living room. You get up and leave the house for a few minutes, come back and find a man's blue jacket in your recliner. Don't you think you'd notice it?

"Turkeys aren't any different. You're in that bird's house, and he knows it as well as you know yours. If something's out of place, he'll spot it and react the same way you would.

"When it comes to camo," he added, "don't be out of place. When things green up later in the season, you can wear a full matching suit. But during the early season, you're often better off matching the pants to a leaf-strewn forest floor and the shirt to the hardwood oaks."

The same applies for gloves, facemask, shoes, and even your shotgun. In the woods, a shiny gun stands out like a neon sign -- especially when you start to move it.

Salter relies on Hunter Specialties No Mar camo tape to keep his gun discreet. He also wants to make certain that he, his gun, and his load are all on the same page when it comes to delivering that all-important shot.

Many hunters assume that if they put a "turkey choke" into their gun and buy the latest high-tech "turkey load," they should be good to go.

Not always!

There are four basic types of shot loads available to turkey hunters:

'¢ High antimony lead shot (commonly called hard black shot), '¢ Copper-plated shot, '¢ Nickel-plated shot, and '¢ The newer tungsten-based loads.

All kill turkeys quite well.Or at least they will if your gun/choke combo patterns them well -- and more importantly, puts them on the point of aim.

Not all of the above shot types perform the same way with the same choke tube. Copper-plated and nickel shot normally produce tighter patterns

from a tight choke than will plain lead. Tungsten-based shot usually requires a slightly more open choke because it is much harder than the others. It actually performs much like steel shot, and generally produces the best patterns from steel-shot choke tubes. It can be confusing, but it doesn't have to be.

"I normally advise hunters to purchase three or four different loads and test each with the choke tube they have," Salter said. "One of them, and maybe more than one, should work pretty well. If they are working well, there's no reason to run out and buy the latest 'new' turkey load and then buy extra choke tubes to try and make it work. Use what your gun likes."

Testing different loads has another advantage. Most hunters want the tightest 40-yard pattern they can get, but that's not always your best bet.

One problem in many Southern areas is thick cover that can let a bird get within 20 yards before you can take the shot. A tight pattern at 40 yards may be so tight at 20 that a miss is easy. A load that delivers what you might consider a marginal pattern at 40 yards may produce perfect patterns at 20 yards.

If you've tested several loads at various ranges, you know which one you want in your gun for open terrain, or for tight quarters.

Savvy hunters often carry two different loads, and may well change them when cover conditions change.

They also pattern those loads under the conditions they will actually shoot them. "I like to pattern the gun from the same position I'm going to be in when I shoot the bird," Salter said.

"That's normally from a Hunter's Specialties small four-legged stool, with my back against a tree. I put the target up and shoot from that position because the recoil can change the point of impact. If you're shooting from a sandbagged rest off a bench, you're getting a different recoil than you will in the field.

"Another thing I do in getting the gun properly sighted," he continued, "is to put up a target at 21 feet and draw a silver-dollar-sized circle on it. That's about how big your pattern will be at seven steps, and I want to get the sights set, or know the bead position I have to hold, to blow that little dot completely out of the target.

"When you get to where you can blow that little silver-dollar circle out of the target, your gun is perfectly sighted in, and will be dead on for as far as you're going to shoot a turkey."

Many hunters assume a 10- or 12-gauge shotgun is necessary, but it's not. With the loads and chokes available today, a 20-gauge becomes a viable tool that combines light weight with light recoil.

In fact, Salter most often uses a 20-gauge Benelli M 1 with the Winchester 3-inch Extended Range load in No. 5 shot. And he's not afraid to shoot a bird at 40 yards with it.

Once you've done your test-patterning and sight-checking, your confidence should be there.

Your next step is to get the bird within range. During the early season, that can sometimes require aggressive calling tactics.


"During the early part of the season -- when the majority of the hens have not yet been bred and are still with their flocks -- I want to be more aggressive with my calling and use multiple calls," Salter said.

"I'll run a mouth call at the same time I'm running a box call or a slate. On opening day I don't think you can talk too much to a bird -- at least until you get him to talk back to you.

"Multiple calls are important now," he continued. "I wouldn't want to go bass fishing with just one lure. I want options, and that's what multiple calls give you. You want to find out what that gobbler will respond to."

A good selection includes mouth, slate and box calls. The latter can be very important in the South, where humid air can muffle calls. But box calls have the ability to reach out. Hunters should learn to use all three types and in different ways.

"Changing the volume on your calls can be very important during the first phase," Salter explained. "Before a lot of breeding has taken place, gobblers are drawn to excited hens. Changing volume from high to low mimics an excited hen. You don't want to be monotone in your calling."

Excited calling is a proven way to get a gobbler to respond on opening day. Once he responds, however, you may want to change your tune.

"When you call and get a gobbler to respond so quickly that he actually cuts your call off, you're in great shape," Salter emphasized.

"He answered you immediately, and he's telling you he's a killable bird that wants to end the day riding in your truck. That's the bird I want to stay on. But now you may have to sweet-talk him.

"I'll hit him hard a couple of times and actually cut him off," Salter went on. "But once I get him heading in my direction, I tone it down. If he's that fired up and heading to me, I don't want to do anything to stop him or slow him down. I want to talk just soft enough so he knows where I am.

"If I keep talking hard, he may decide to stop and let the 'hen' come to him. By playing hard to get, I can make him come to me."

That's the way things are supposed to go -- but sometimes they don't. Every now and then (and for some hunters, more then than now), a bird decides to hang up.

Salter has a plan for that also.


Well-laid plans don't always come to fruition. That's when Plan B comes in handy.

"Sometimes you get a bird that will sit on the roost for a couple of hours after sunrise and gobble, but isn't in a hurry to come down," Salter noted. "Other times, you get a bird that's been pressured by other hunters.

"In both of these cases, I go into their area -- especially if my pre-season scouting has shown me their daily travel route -- and set up at mid-morning.

"I'll set up a quick portable blind on their travel route," he said, "call real softly, and not a lot. Then I just scratch the ground with my hand. I want to be a quiet hen. If I get any response from that bird, I'll stay and be real soft in my calling.

"The reason for the blind is that a lot of these birds come in without a lot of talking. They just show up. The blind gives you an advantage in not being seen before you can see him."

Staying put and talking softly pays off for some stubborn birds. Other may require that you go to them.

"Another situation," Salter offered, "is when a bird is gobbling real well, but won't come to you. Often this is not the

dominant bird, but a lesser bird that's had his tail feathers kicked by the Big Boy. He wants to go, but he's timid and doesn't want another whipping. This is a bird I'll move on.

"The way I'm going to move is not to him," Salter added, "but to circle around well behind him and actually get close to the trail he's already walked. Before I start, I'll blow a crow call just to locate him.

"If he responds, I circle him, while periodically blowing that crow call to keep him located.

"Once I get on his back trail, I can start talking turkey, and that bird will usually come to me. If he's too timid to move forward, he's plenty comfortable to move back over ground he's already covered because he knows that dominant bird isn't there."

It's always nice to have a Plan B --or even Plans C through E. But if you have the opportunity to do enough pre-season scouting to find several birds, then you can move on from a stubborn bird to some more willing participant.

Keeping these tips in mind will help you achieve that goal.

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