April 01, 2020
Focused on a full-strut decoy 25 yards in front of my blind, the approaching tom had no idea I was near. When his patriotic head stood at attention, he never knew what hit him.
It was my third and final Oregon tom last spring, and while the bird came in as hoped, the hunt—and the season—was far from easy. A lot of pre-season scouting and preparation went into making my hunts successful. Combined with a month of hunting to fill three tags, my two months of prior scouting ultimately paid off.
For more than 30 years, I’ve been hunting turkeys throughout the West. While I learn something on each hunt, there are certain details I pay attention to year after year.
Tip No. 1: Scouting
The time to scout for turkeys is not a few days before the season. If cold conditions linger, birds may still be in winter flocks, making it easier to locate and keep track of them. Search for flocks of hens and young, together, as well as bachelor flocks of toms. Toms gather in age-class flocks in winter, separating as the turkey breeding season nears.
If turkeys are scattered, locate as many different birds as you can, both toms and hens. Hens will be gravitating to breeding and nesting locales; toms will split up and follow hens, establishing strutting grounds.
When scouting, in addition to live birds, look for loose turkey feathers, tracks and droppings. Utilizing binoculars and a spotting scope will greatly increase the number of turkeys you find and is a great way to observe their behavior from a distance so as not to spook them.
Tip No. 2: Run Trail Cameras
One of the best scouting tools is a trail camera. The more trail cameras you can set out, the more you’ll learn. Turkeys are very habitual and situating cameras along trails, forest edges and in fields will reveal exactly how many birds are around and what time of day they are moving.
Keep trail cameras active all season long, as birds will continue moving in and out. Set the cameras to video mode and the information you’ll learn will help you in seasons to come. My trail camera of choice for the West’s range of conditions is Stealth Cam’s DS4K, as the HD version captures amazing detail and sound.
Tip No. 3: Organize Gear
The more you turkey hunt, the more gear you’ll acquire; and the more gear you have, the more important it is to be organized. Be sure clothes, boots and rain gear are all in operating order. Opening day of the season may find you hunting in snow and sub-freezing temperatures, while late-season hunts can find the mercury hitting the 80-degree mark.
Be sure all calls are in good shape and any accessories are ready to go. From first-aid gear to knee pads, fire starter to an extra face mask, be sure you have all you’ll need for your upcoming hunts.
Tip No. 4: Prep Turkey Vest
Make sure your turkey vest fits snuggly. One of the biggest mistakes made is buying a vest that’s too large, which results in tangles during the most inopportune times of the hunt. Turkey vests have a lot of pockets and compartments, so make sure you know what’s in each, and make sure you can find key items in a pinch.
Having a turkey vest with an attached seat pad is ideal. Out West, you might set up in rocks, on roots of big trees or in wet grass; having a cushion keeps you comfortable and less likely to fidget when a bird is in view.
Tip No. 5: Call, Call, Call
While it only takes a few basic sounds to bring a turkey to within shooting range, the more realistic those sounds are, the better your chances of attracting a wise tom. The best way to achieve precise turkey sounds is through practice and making sure your calls are in good shape.
Make certain no reeds in diaphragm calls are split, and that there are no oils or residue on the surface of friction calls that may inhibit their ability to produce quality sounds. Practice making authentic-sounding yelps and clucks and you’ll greatly increase the odds of success.
Tip No. 6: Expect Success
Turkey hunting can be physically and mentally taxing throughout the West. Big country, scattered birds and rugged terrain make turkey hunting in this part of the country challenging.
No matter how many hours a day—or days a season—you hunt, always expect success. The moment you let your guard down is when an opportunity could present itself and you don’t want to miss it. The mental game of turkey hunting out West should never be underestimated.
Tip No. 7: Decide on Decoys
With years of turkey hunting under your belt comes a collection of turkey decoys. If you can get only one decoy, a feeding hen is usually tough to beat. These decoys can attract toms all season long.
If wanting to invest in a second decoy, consider a strutting tom. While this decoy can work wonders in the latter half of the season, it can also pull in aggressive toms all season long. I’ve had better success with my Dave Smith Strutter decoy than with jake decoys and jake/hen combination decoys the past two seasons.
Tip No. 8: Consider a Blind
Ground blinds are great tools because they offer 360 degrees of coverage. If you’re a bowhunter, nothing increases your chances of getting a clean shot more than hunting from a pop-up blind. If you’re a shotgun hunter, blinds allow you to move and work calls, stretch and stay comfortable for hours. Get a comfy, quiet stool and ensure the forest floor is cleared of noisy debris before commencing calling. Practice setting up, sitting in and shooting from your blind before you head afield.
Tip No. 9: Pick the Right Load
Turkey loads are way past where they were a decade ago. Whatever gun and choke you use, ensure the loads you hunt with achieve their designed pattern.
Last year I shot toms with Federal’s 3rd Degree (No. 5, 6 and 7 shot mix) and the company’s Heavyweight TSS No. 7 shot, as well as Browning’s TSS load in No. 7 and 9 shot. I shoot a Weatherby SA-459 with an extra-full choke, and it’s topped with Trijicon’s MRO. Every load performed flawlessly in extensive pattern tests and on hunts. Pattern well before hunting season so you know exactly how loads perform.
Tip No. 10: Practice for Real
Before hunting, try on all gear, including the turkey vest. Ensure boots fit with the socks you intend to wear, that base layers aren’t too confining and that your turkey vest is efficiently loaded. Be sure the vest isn’t too loose and key pieces of gear can be accessed while walking, standing or sitting.
If bowhunting, practice shooting with all your gear on and from various positions inside a ground blind. If hunting with a shotgun, shoulder your gun in multiple positions and swing in both directions to ensure there’s no binding or catching on clothing.
Start your spring turkey season now, by scouting and preparing gear. Scout all season long, for what you learn won’t just yield immediate rewards, it will increase your success for years to come.