Skip to main content

Lessons Learned from Last Turkey Season

If the toms threw you a curveball last year, put those frustrating hunts to good use this spring.

Lessons Learned from Last Turkey Season

When in doubt, use soft calling especially on highly pressured gobblers. Birds that have been pestered by loud hunters will often respond to more realistic, subtle sounds. (Author photo)

I was hunting turkeys in the Virginia highlands last April, periodically blowing on a crow call, when a gobbler sounded off about 200 yards down the mountain. I quickly moved to the top of a nearby rise, set up against a wide hardwood and sent some yelps down the hollow. The response was instantaneous, and soon it was easy to tell by the ever louder gobbles that the old boy was heading up the mountain.

I could tell that the tom was tracking to my left, so I slowly shifted my attention that way. Then, after about 10 silent minutes, he gobbled from directly behind me—no more than 20 yards away and on the other side of the rise. Maddeningly, I could hear him spitting and drumming. Making matters even more frustrating, I had positioned a hen decoy about 20 yards in front of me. If he had just peeked over the hump he would have seen it.

Five minutes more passed before I heard another gobble, but it was clear that the tom had drifted away. I pivoted to the other side of the tree and made some excited yelps, which generated another gobble that was farther away still.

A week before, a different gobbler (or perhaps the same one) spent half an hour gobbling 75 yards to my left, circled 150 yards out in front of me and below a flat, then moved off well to my right. Why do Eastern gobblers act like this, and what can we hunters do about it?

A BIOLOGIST’S PERSPECTIVE

Mike Dye, the upland gamebird biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, offers perspective as both a biologist and a hunter.

“One reason why turkeys often come toward us from what we perceive as unpredictable directions is because they are scared of just about everything,” he says. “It’s often said that turkeys are afraid of their own shadows, and that’s not far from the truth. They may perceive that coming to the sound of a hen calling may put them in jeopardy, especially if they’ve experienced negative interactions with humans and predators such as coyotes.”

Dye feels that mountain and hill-country Easterns are especially difficult to understand, particularly those that dwell in the highlands.

“As far as I’m concerned, the old saying that it’s harder to call a turkey downhill is true,” he says. “A turkey feels more at ease when it’s up high and can see what’s in front of him. And if he spots danger, he can easily fly down a mountain to safety.”

The upshot of this instinct is that a gobbler may strive to position himself above the source of a sound, as the tom in the opening anecdote did.




Another situation that may bedevil us hunters involves the extent that hunting pressure plays in a turkey’s behavior. Dye says studies have shown that gobblers may restrict their movements and change their home areas after the first week or two of a given season, especially if they have encountered hunting pressure. They also may reduce their gobbling frequency and even stay longer on their roosts in the morning.

Hunting pressure may also cause a gobbler to circle a hunter calling to him and not fully commit to coming in. Some gobblers have even been known to vacate their home areas. Studies have shown that turkeys will avoid common travel areas such as trails and logging roads.

Predators such as coyotes can affect turkey behavior, according to Dye. One study made note of an anecdote in which turkeys ignored coyotes when the canines first entered a field, as the birds did not yet perceive them as a threat. But, when coyotes began to slink toward the flock and transitioned into a predatory mode, the turkeys quickly departed.

Recommended


A final factor, Dye says, is vagaries in the terrain. He once set up on a gobbler that had to negotiate its way through or around two small thickets before the bird could be seen. Adding to the challenge that this particular bird presented was that turkeys often perceive traveling through dense copses as particularly risky behavior. Dye had chosen the wrong side of the closer thicket to set up along. When he realized his mistake and tried to reposition, the longbeard spotted him and spooked.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Perhaps the easiest of these scenarios to solve is the last one cited. Dye says that hunters who intimately know of the vagaries of their hunting grounds can often anticipate the direction from which a gobbler might approach. Of course, he says, it’s often difficult for hunters to really learn all the nuances of larger properties and vast expanses of public land. But if an individual learns the standard travel ways, pinch points and feeding, watering and dusting areas, he has a much better chance of success in terms of predicting which way a gobbler might approach his position or the places a bird may go.

Denny Gulvas, of Dubois, Pa., has been filming and studying turkeys for the better part of four decades, and often spends seven months of the year in the woods. I asked him what I should have done differently concerning the longbeard mentioned in the opening. For example, should I have moved to the other side of the hardwood when the gobbler first arrived on the other side of a hump?

“No,” says Gulvas. “I’ve seen gobblers stick the upper inch of their heads over a hump too many times to recommend a risky move like that. When filming, I’ve moved a finger an inch or two on a lens and had turkeys 35 yards away spook. It’s amazing how well they can see.

“So, you should have stayed right where you were and made light, subtle purrs—what I call feeding purrs. That’s what a real hen would have been doing in that situation. Feeding purrs are a very calming sound. Many people would make a cluck in that situation, but those clucks can get you into trouble.”

Gulvas says a turkey will sometimes give a “what was that?” cluck when, for instance, a squirrel makes an unexpected sound. That type of cluck could cause a potentially interested gobbler to pause and not come closer. And, he adds, many hunters don’t know the difference between light feeding clucks and the louder “what was that?” version. The feeding purr is the best option, especially if an individual can simulate that sound with a diaphragm, leaving his hands free to mount a shotgun.

Gulvas also offers advice for how I should have dealt with the gobbler that moved from my left, then out front 150 yards, and finally to my right.

“The left-to-right semicircle gobbler was for sure an ultra-cautious bird,” he says. “Your best chance of killing him would have been when he moved below that flat. You could have done what I call ‘walking yelps,”—yock, yock, yock. Normally I don’t like to do much moving, but if you are sure that a gobbler won’t see you walking, that would be a good situation to try this tactic.

“The walking yelps show that the hen is still excited about hearing the gobbler, and that she has made some movement toward him, which is what happens naturally and what the gobbler expects to happen,” Gulvas continues. “Another positive of this tactic is that every other gobbler in the nearby area will also have heard you and the first gobbler. This could result in a satellite tom coming to your position, which wouldn’t be bad at all.”

Bruce Ingram Curveball Toms, hunter walking and calling
Everything likes to eat turkeys, which is why they prefer to avoid thick cover where their chances of being ambushed are greater. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

Once you’ve made your last walking yelp, don’t call at all and sit still for an hour or so, says Gulvas. Don’t be surprised to see a tom suddenly appear nearby.

Another frustrating aspect from last spring occurred later in the season when toms that had received hunting pressure from myself and others began staying longer on the roost and gobbling far less. The solution?

“Lots of people like to crowd a roost tree in situations like this, but I think that’s one of the worst things to do,” Gulvas says. “The reason a gobbler stays on the roost is because he can see a long way in any direction and watch for trouble. Set up far enough away so that he can’t see where you’re calling from. Make light tree yelps before dawn, make a fly-down cackle at dawn, then make nothing more than feeding purrs. At some point in the morning, his desire to mate should hopefully get the better of him.”

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Learn

Bass Crash Course: Shallow-Water Power Lures

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Destinations

Minnesota Double Down: First Visit to New Farm Goes Perfectly

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Bass Fishing in the Wind

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Hunting

She Kills The Biggest Bird of the Year

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Unlock the Patterns Squarebill Crankbaits

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Learn

Tips for Cooking Over an Open Fire

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Videos

How to Build the Perfect Campfire

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Hunting

First Morning: Father/Son Iowa Turkey Double

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Destinations

Shot the Same Bird! UP of Michigan Double Down

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Hunting

Work and Play: Merriam's Turkeys in Wyoming

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Gear

Winchester Waterfowl Loads

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Gear

Winchester .400 Legend

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now