April 22, 2020
By Paul Rackley
The first time I got a response from a gobbler was a really good day. I was standing on a hill overlooking some rolling hardwood bottoms that dropped into fields. I had figured it was a likely area, so I kicked off a series of yelps and cutts and felt the thrill of getting a gobble in return.
For the first few years of my turkey hunting, my strategy was to find a likely area and try striking up birds with either locator or turkey calls. After all, that was what everyone said you were supposed to do. Sure, scouting was important, but hunting mostly consisted of listening for gobbles early in the morning. At the time, many experts recommended staying out of the timber altogether to prevent bumping birds.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized I could use many of the same tactics on turkeys that I used to find deer. This helped me realize that calling a gobbler into range is much easier if I am fairly close to where the birds want to go. I also realized that just because they weren’t responding to calls didn’t mean the birds had completely left the area. Hunting can get difficult after the first couple weeks of season, when the vocal birds have been killed, many of the hens have been bred and the mature birds have learned to keep their mouths shut. This is especially true on public land, where hunters of all skill levels try varying tactics and calls, which will educate turkeys in a hurry.
This is when knowing where birds typically travel becomes extremely important. Sure, aggressive calling to get a thundering response is really fun, but slower tactics are actually more productive when birds aren’t responding to calls. The typical spring hunt for me begins near where I’ve found turkeys roosting. If I can’t get one to come right off the roost, I change tactics by moving to where I’ve learned they’re traveling. While there is no guarantee I’ve chosen the right path—as birds can shift travel routes for a variety of reasons—my confidence is higher when I know birds have traveled through the area previously. Considering that it’s not difficult to pattern turkeys, it seems pretty crazy to ever head into the woods to call blindly. You just have to know what to look for to find the birds.
KNOW THEIR NEEDS
Turkeys, just like every other creature in this world, have certain needs that must be met. Most hunters know this. However, turkeys also have routines, which not every hunter realizes. Turkeys tend to travel the same routes or circuits to the same areas every day, as long as those areas provide what turkeys need and want.
Hunters can use this information to place themselves right in the path of the birds, or at least pretty close to where those birds typically travel on any given day. The simple fact is that it is much easier to call birds to where they already want to go than it is to pull them off course.
Now, in order to propely pattern turkeys, you have to scout. Yes, everyone says that, but not many actually perform this step. Or if they do, it’s a cursory effort. You can’t pattern birds by listening to gobbles from the truck. Sure, this can be a starting point, but if you want to actually find where the birds live, you have to carefully enter the woods. Of course, with today’s technology, scouting can easily be performed year-round.
Deer hunters rely on cameras to help determine where to set stands, but often pull cameras down or stop checking them after deer season. However, turkeys often use the same areas, as they have many of the same needs. Throughout the winter, turkeys gather in larger flocks and are constantly in search of food. As spring hits, they start to break up. This is when gobblers start vying for dominance even though hens aren’t quite ready to breed.
LEAVE THEM OUT
Leaving cameras set up, or even moving them to better locate turkeys, can provide useful information as the birds move into their spring patterns. Just be careful to not bump birds when checking cameras, as this can change patterns. If you determine turkeys are near a camera, back off and check it later, even after dark. Cameras that send photos to your phone have become more prevalent and less expensive in recent years, so consider adding one or two to your arsenal if your budget allows.
Locator calls are a great way to determine if birds are in an area, particularly coyote calls. Stay away from turkey calls, though, as these can mess with the birds and are illegal to use before the season opens in some areas.
When trying to pattern deer, hunters typically start with bedding areas. Just because turkeys sleep in trees doesn’t change anything. If you want to pattern turkeys, you need to start by finding where they spend the night. Luckily, hunters can find roosts by simply listening early in the morning and late in the evening. Unfortunately, turkeys change roosts often, as they can fly up into pretty much any tree. They do, however, prefer certain areas and types of trees, such as mature hardwoods with towering limbs. Turkeys also like to roost along their circuit, as long as nothing spooks them off their pattern.
In fact, turkeys often roost up and down running terrain features, such as creek beds and hill lines, and often move up to a mile up or down or in big circles during a circuit, sleeping in regular roosts along the route. Once roosts have been located, it’s time to expand to food sources, as hens will steadily eat, even after breeding has commenced.
Turkeys eat a variety of different foods. In fact, they’ll eat pretty much anything they can fit down their throats. However, some foods are preferred in the spring, and the food’s proximity to roosts means a great deal.Food sources include leftover acorns, but more likely consist of grasses, seeds and insects in transition areas where woods meet openings.
THE SEARCH FOR SIGN
Find feeding and roosting areas by looking for tracks, feathers, scratchings and scat. Large numbers of feathers and scat together typically marks a roost tree. Tracks might be hard to find in the woods, but scratching marks are easily located and show where turkeys are feeding.
Look for foot-long bare spots with the leaves piled up on one end. When searching for food, turkeys rake back leaves, which can also show you the direction in which they’re traveling. Follow these scratching marks to more feeding and roosting areas.
Of course, the goal of spring turkey hunting is locating gobblers, which are less concerned with feeding than they are with breeding. During breeding, gobblers will always attempt to stay with the hens, but hens often dump their escorts, which typically sends gobblers either into search mode or to their strut zones.
Strut zones are areas where gobblers can show off to potential mates. Sometimes gobblers create them on top of hills where they can be heard at long distances, other times in open fields. In all cases, gobblers choose long, fairly open areas where they can be seen and found by hens. Hunters should look for gobbler tracks (the middle toe is longer than the outer two) paralleled by drag marks left by their wings. Hunters who find a well-used strut zone are pretty much assured to find a gobbler.
SETTING UP FOR AMBUSH
Once I’ve determined where to set up, I put out a variety of decoys—anywhere from three to 10 hens with a single jake in the middle. I also like to stake out a fan nearby that I can rotate if I need extra help catching the a gobbler’s attention.
When calling, I usually keep it to a bare minimum, sticking to mostly feeding clucks and purrs. The thought here is to put the birds at ease, as if nothing is happening but casual feeding.
I also prefer to get slightly off the likely path of approach, as I don’t want turkeys staring at my decoys for an extended period of time as they close the distance—anything wrong with the decoys could spook the birds. I’ve actually had a turkey bust me because of breath vapor, so I’ve learned to leave nothing to chance. Sitting right in the path allows too much time for a bird to spot something that just isn’t right.
Patterning turkeys isn’t hard. In fact, I think they’re easier to pattern than deer, since turkeys readily reveal their locations in spring. Follow their calls, trails, scat and feathers to where they want to be and it will matter little if the gobblers have gone silent.
Note: This article orginally posted in April 2020 and has been updated.