February 24, 2021
By Doug Howlett
Editor's Note: This timely turkey hunting article is featured in the South edition of the March issue of Game & Fish Magazine, currently on sale at newsstands across the country. Learn more about the March issue. Interested in a subscription ($8 annual)? Click here.
The 2021 turkey season is just around the corner, and all indications suggest it promises to be a good one across the South. Now's the time to begin thinking about and formulating your game plan for getting your gobbler.
If you've hunted the same property for years, odds are you have a good idea were turkeys hang out each season. That doesn't mean you shouldn't scout before opening day. And if you're hunting a new spot or hitting an unfamiliar public area this spring, you absolutely need to get out there before the season starts and do some recon. But don't start too early, and don't overdo it.
Flock composition and the breeding behavior of turkeys are changing rapidly in the weeks just before the season begins. For that reason, it does little good to scout more than a couple weeks before the opener.
Instead, slide out to your property a week or so before opening day and determine where at least a few gobblers roost and where they go when they fly down. There's little need to spend more than two or three mornings determining patterns, as you want to keep human activity to a minimum. To make the most of your scouting forays, follow these guidelines.
1. Get Out Early
Turkeys gobble most at first light. Get there just before sunrise on days with little wind and position yourself at a field edge or on a rise so you can hear better, then get comfortable and listen. There's no need to do a bunch of owl hooting, crow cawing or yelping. In fact, just leave your turkey calls at home. Too many hunters mess up by running calls and educating birds before the season even opens.
2. Pinpoint Toms
Take note of where you hear gobbles, then return on one or two additional mornings to make sure toms are gobbling from the same roosts. This is where you're going to want to start when the season opens.
3. Break Out the Rain Gear
Rainy weather drives turkeys into the open because falling rain makes it hard for them to hear danger approaching in the woods, plus they prefer to dry their feathers in the open once the rain stops. On a rainy day, set up just back from a field edge with your bino and glass birds in the open to determine how many strutters are present and how many hens are loitering with them.
GEAR TO GRAB
A gun, shotshells and calls are critical to any hunt, but some other pieces of gear are nearly as important though often overlooked.
1. Lightweight Vest
I hate big turkey vests. Their bulk can be inhibitive when running and gunning, plus they tend to have so many pockets it can be impossible to find an item when I need it. That's why I travel light with a small pack or a streamlined, bare-bones vest like the ALPS OutdoorZ Long Spur pack ($99.99; alpsbrands.com) to tote just the essentials and keep them well organized.
2. Ratchet Cutters
Whether clearing shot-blocking or vision-obstructing limbs or constructing a makeshift blind from cut branches, a sturdy set of ratchet cutters allows you to trim saplings up to an inch in diameter quickly, quietly and with ease. The HME Heavy-Duty Ratchet Shears ($9.99; hmeproducts.com) is a personal favorite.
A turkey's eyesight is sharp, so yours need to be, too. A quality binocular is the prescription. I like compact 8X or 10X models, like the Bushnell Prime 10x28mm ($129.99; bushnell.com), for scanning distant shadowy field edges or parsing details in cluttered forests.
4. Seat Cushion
Setting up on turkeys often means sitting on hard, wet, uneven ground, often for hours. You can't sit still if you aren't comfortable, which makes a quality seat cushion, like the Hunt Comfort Scout ($59.99; huntcomfort.com), a critical piece of gear.
THREE OPENING-DAY STRATEGIES
While every hunt is different, I've noticed in my 25-plus years of spring turkey hunting that certain patterns and scenarios play out again and again. Your odds of tagging a tom are never better than they are with unpressured birds on opening morning. These three strategies can bring success right out of the gate.
1. Get Tight
Your season really starts late in the afternoon the day before opening day. Get out there that last hour of daylight and listen for the flapping of birds' wings as they fly to roost and the last, late gobbles before sunset. In the morning, pinpoint the gobbler and ease in under the cover of darkness as close as you dare—ideally within 75 yards.
Wait for him to offer up his first gobbles of the morning, then respond with just a few soft tree yelps. If he cuts you off, he knows you're there. Shut up, get your gun up and wait for him to pitch down, hopefully within range.
2. Get Aggressive
It's opening day, which means it's early in the breeding cycle, and odds are the tom you're calling is probably with hens. Once the flock flies down and gets together, offer up some yelps and cutts until you get a hen to fire back. As soon as she does, switch to fall calling mode and mimic her every sound, working her up in intensity and volume. She'll get fired up and angry at the intruder.
Turkeys love a good fight, and as the hen moves in to challenge this agitator, the flock will often follow. You want a heavy turkey load, preferably No. 4s, for this type of hunt. Shots will most often be taken at the edge of your shotgun's range as the gobbler straggles behind the others as they approach.
3. Make a Field Ambush
Often, flocks will head to an open field, food plot or pasture where they can feed on insects as gobblers strut. Field gobblers, especially ones with hens, can be among the toughest to hunt or call in. Here's where your deer hunter's patience comes into play.
Using your binocular, watch the turkeys and determine which way they are heading and how they are acting. Once they start working down an edge of a field, loop around the opposite way and set up just inside the trees where you can make a shot of 40 yards or so into the field.
Offer a few yelps to make them think a bird is there, but then put away the call. However, if you called earlier and the hens took the longbeard the other way, don't even do that. Sit in silence and let them work their way to you. When a shot presents itself, take it. It's not an exciting tactic, but it can be productive.
12 OR 20?
A 12-gauge is standard equipment for most turkey hunters, but 20-gauges have been coming on in recent years.
There’s no question that more gobblers have fallen to 12-gauge shotguns over the last 100 years than any other gauge. The inherent versatility of the 12-gauge to take game as large as deer and black bears or as small as squirrels and doves, depending on the load, makes it a true hunter's choice. Payloads are traditionally at least half to even three-quarters of an ounce greater than those found in the smaller 20-gauge shells, meaning more pellets and increased downrange energy.
That said, a 12-gauge is heavier to tote in the woods, often by a pound or two, which can be felt over a long day of hunting. It can also make it more difficult to hold steady when set up and waiting for a gobbler to slowly make its way into range.
Over the past decade, however, developments in shell technology—including better wads that hold patterns tighter and denser and more high-tech shot materials—have greatly improved the lethality of 20-gauge loads on a turkey’s tough head-and-neck vital area.
These factors have also improved the potential maximum range of 20 gauges to distances once reserved for 12s. Shells like Winchester's Longbeard XR and Federal Premium's Heavyweight TSS in 20-gauge deliver performance more akin to a 12 gauge. As such, more hunters are opting to slim down their shotgun.
Here’s the deal: A shotgun with a standard full choke tube will deliver a tight enough pattern to kill a turkey out to 40 yards.
But for the ultimate in downrange performance, a shotgun needs to deliver a dense pattern past that range without gaping holes in it that could lead to an inadequate number of pellets in the small head and neck area of a gobbler.
For this reason, many hunters opt for X-full or XX-full choke tubes to produce denser down-range patterns. When shooting smaller shot, such as No. 5 or even No. 6, an XX-full choke can work well. For larger shot, such as No. 4s, go with a full or X-full because you can actually constrict the larger shot too much and cause the pellets bounce off each other during flight and disrupt the uniform spread of your pattern.
However, it’s worth remembering when shooting these tighter chokes at turkeys up close—say at 15 or fewer yards—that your pattern is barely larger than the diameter of a shotgun slug, making it easy to miss a small target. More turkeys are probably missed up close than in the 25- to 35-yard range.
Regardless, always test your gun/choke/shell combination on the range first. If it doesn’t pattern well, change your shells before buying a new choke tube. Shotshells are much cheaper.