The author shares some of his most successful turkey-hunting tactics learned over more than 35 years of hunting in South Carolina. (April 2010)
The author with a pair of toms he killed on a "scatter and call back" hunt. –ª Photo courtesy of Bennett Kirkpatrick.
Wild turkeys were introduced into the Midlands and the Piedmont sometimes during the '50s. This stocking proved to be a huge success.
I started hunting turkeys during the '70s with John Good of Rock Hill; it was strictly trial and error with an emphasis on error. We read everything that we could, and listened to every tape we could find. Ben Lee made a tape that we about wore out listening to, and practicing calls with.
What little information that we could get favored diaphragm mouth calls. After purchasing one, I went out to my car to practice. A single sound wouldn't come out of it! After going back into the store, I told the owner that the call was defective, and would not work. He chuckled, and gave me my first lesson using a mouth call. At least I could get a sound out of it now. Determined, I practiced religiously in my car driving down the road between customers that I called on. At last things began to fall into place.
South Carolina had a fall season then. John and I hunted a farm that we knew had turkeys. We split up in the bottoms next to the Broad River. About mid-afternoon, I heard my first actual wild turkey yelp. My calls went unanswered, but the hen was generally coming my way; the yelps went between the river and me before fading out. I went to John, and told him what had happened. We struck out toward where I last heard the hen. John got an answer to his calls that was several hundred yards away. We eased through the trees until we were almost to the river when a loud cluck broke the silence. About that time, around 15 turkeys flushed in front of us like a covey of quail. They were sailing through the trees overhead. After picking out a big one, I fired. The hen folded, and fell to the ground. As soon as she hit, she ran like a fox with its tail on fire. It took two more shots to anchor her. Success at last!
That hunt started a spark in me that I have yet to be able to put out. The turkey season opens in the Lowcountry on March 15; the rest of the state opens for the entire month of April. I hunt every day except Sundays. I am a walking dead man when the season closes.
Good fortune has smiled on me in that I have killed my limit of five wild turkeys almost every year for over 30 years. Most years I call 10 to 30 toms within shotgun range. Some are killed by me, and some by friends.
What do I owe this success to? Being able to use multiple types of calls helps; the majority of toms I kill have been exposed to three or more types of calls during the hunt. Being proficient with both wind and friction calls is a big plus. Beyond good calling, woodsmanship is more important. Regardless of how good you call, it is useless unless you in an area that the tom wants to go.
Just what is woodsmanship? From a turkey hunter's vantage, woodsmanship takes on a detailed skill set: A person who can walk through the woods, and spot evidence of the presence of turkeys, such as tracks, loose feathers, strut marks, dusts, droppings and actual sightings. This person can evaluate a piece of property as to where turkeys would probably inhabit, and places where their presence would be negligible. He would note where thickets, gullies and streams are located that might block a turkey's approach. This hunter can walk through the woods almost noiselessly, and can use what cover is available to hide his movements from turkeys. His sense of direction is superb. This is just a partial description.
After surveying a new piece of property, figure out the probable roosting areas. Return the next morning well before daylight to one of these probable roosting sites, and position yourself high enough that you can hear from several directions. A cardinal is usually the first bird you will hear as daylight approaches.
Efforts to locate a tom on the roost before this time are usually useless. After the cardinal sings, your chances soar. The call of the owl "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?" is my go-to first effort. If no gobble comes in response, try a second time. If this fails, try a gobble or crow call. If still no gobbler responds, move 100 yards, and repeat the procedure. Keep this up until around sunrise; your chances of roosting a tom after sunrise drops drastically.
If a tom responds to your efforts to make him shock gobble, make every effort to quietly get within 100 yards or less of his roost tree. But keep in mind that it is better to set up a few yards farther from the roost than an inch too close!
If possible, set up so that when the tom comes in, he will be in range when he makes his appearance. A calling sequence that has proved deadly for me has been to softly tree call after I set up. If no answer, tree call again just a little bit louder. If you get a response, keep quiet and concentrate on the direction of the gobble. He knows where you are. Do not call again until you hear the tom fly down, or fly-down time comes.
Use a fly-down cackle followed by a few lively yelps. Do not call again unless he responds, or 10-15 minutes pass. Many a tom has gone home with me because of this tactic.
Another tactic that has been extremely effective for me is a Breeding Jake decoy system that I dreamed up back in the '70s. Rufus Morgan told me if we could just mount a jake on top of a hen decoy, it would drive an old, jealous tom crazy. After working out the mechanical details to accomplish this task, this system has accounted for well over half of the toms I have bagged since then. In a field or open woods situation, stake your Breeding Jake on top of the hen decoy 25 yards out in front of your setup. Off to one side, and 10 yards farther out, stake out a hen decoy. These two known distances will help judge when a tom is in killing range. The tom will always come to the Breeding Jake first.
Another good tactic has been to note where you see toms strutting in a field during the day. Get to that spot at least an hour before you normally see toms there, and put out a Breeding Jake Decoy system. Call sparingly about every 15 minutes.
When a tom is out in a field with hens, call to the hens instead of the tom; try to pick a fight with the dominant hen. When she responds, call back with the same call she used only with much gusto. Reply to her every call with a like call with just a little more feeling. After a while, she will come toward your calls to fight the hen that is challenging her dominance and the tom will follow.
A fall hunting tactic that will work in the spring is to flush a flo
ck, and then call them back. Use this as a last resort, however. If you can't call up a flock in the field after an extended time, get up and rush the flock while barking like a dog. Some hunters like to fire into the air in addition to this.
This tactic will work only if you get a good scatter. If everyone flies off together, no amount of good calling will make them return. On a good scatter, set up where the tom entered the woods, and wait about 15-20 minutes before making a call. Quite often, the tom will return to gather up his harem.
On an afternoon hunt in McConnels, I had worked a group of hens with two toms for well over an hour with no luck. A pair of Air Force jets buzzed over the field and turkeys flew in every direction. Hurriedly, I went to the opposite side of the field, and set up my Breeding Jake Decoy system. It wasn't long before I heard a gobble down in the woods. Answering with a series of yelps, shortly I saw one of the toms racing down the side of the field toward my decoys. He stopped just short of the decoys and I shot him. While he was still flopping, the other tom ran up, and started fighting the dying tom; he got a good dose of Remington No. 5s too!
These are just a few of the tactics that have been successful for me.