April 07, 2020
By Paul Rackley
The premise of turkey hunting is simple. You scout a good area and head in before dawn to listen for a gobble to break the silence. Once a tom sounds off, you try to imitate a lonely hen to get him to walk into range.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that easily. Numerous issues often arise to prevent tags from being filled by hunters. These factors include topography, troublesome hens and even gobblers made wise through run-ins with hunters. Luckily, there are ways to overcome these troublesome influences, all of which have worked for me at various times; it’s just too bad that none are an actual guarantee.
Benefits of Basic
After spending three mornings throwing yelp, cutt and cluck combinations at the same pair of gobblers from many different positions, I realized I wasn’t going to bring them in with fancy calling. This made me remember some early advice given by National Wild Turkey Federation biologist Tom Hughes. He says that since gobblers have great hearing and topographical knowledge, hunters should “keep calling simple and be patient.” He claims gobblers can pinpoint hens from long distances from just tree yelps, and often come to search the area later in the morning.
On the fourth morning, I took a turkey chair, got comfortable and resisted the urge to match calls with the birds. Instead, I sent out a few soft yelps early, followed by the occasional cluck and scratching. The pair came in quietly around 9:30. It is not always about fancy calling, and slowing down to the basics can provide birds the opportunity to come in.
Circle Them Wagons
Scouting can’t be emphasized enough for all hunting, but it is especially important when pursuing tough gobblers. Turkeys have preferred travel paths. This includes escape zones. Hunters who find these travel areas have a distinct advantage. However, it is best to not come at birds via these routes. Instead, come in from a different direction, possibly a quarter to a third around from the escape route. This provides a second chance at the bird if it doesn’t respond and heads away; you just have to beat them around to the path.
Of course, hunters can also circle birds without knowing escape routes. I’ve successfully circled birds, but I’ve also had them move much quicker than anticipated, particularly in hilly and mountainous areas. One episode taught me to never keep track of birds with turkey calls. Every time I yelped to determine their location, the gobblers fired back, but the hens pushed them higher and harder. I should have used locators instead to circle, which would have kept me in touch without alerting the hens.
One of the most aggravating spring situations is when a tom is sounding off and coming right in before locking up just out of range. I can’t number the times I’ve had this happen. Over the years, I’ve used various tactics to finish with a filled tag. The tactic that beats out all others, however, is using a partner. Mature birds often stop at 70 to 100 yards to require the hen to come the last little bit.
I’ve found that getting 40 yards back behind a tree provides the best opportunity to run the scenario. If the bird strays to the right, I can call or crawl to the left if necessary or vice versa. I can even ease further back to bring the target just a little bit closer to the gun.
Late Equals Success
I’ve always taken it personally when a turkey outsmarts me, which is the source of my biggest spring issue; I get locked in on a bird or group of birds and refuse to give up. One year, I targeted three gobblers drifting up and down a large creek for seven straight mornings, other than Sunday. I got close several times, but couldn’t close.
On the seventh afternoon, I headed back to the hill where I had worked the birds that morning. After easing to the top, I set up and waited about 15 minutes before making a few soft yelps and cutts that were met with multiple gobbles and the sound of feet running up the other side of the hill. When three heads popped over to see the hill, I dropped the one in the middle.
With so many hunters heading into the woods for a couple of hours each morning, turkeys become wise. Staying late, or even switching to an evening can throw turkeys off their game.
Spread it Out
There is something about running a hot gobbler thundering its dominance to the world. However, slow and subtle often works better; it is hard to bump a bird if you’re not moving. Setting up in a scouted location with some decoys can provide success. However, turkeys often see the standard decoy trio. In this situation, I’ve always felt bigger is better, which is why I shove a dozen or more into a bag and hide it in the woods until I’m ready to slow down for a bit.
Here is where scouting and maps become so important. I like to set up in narrow fields and openings with as many decoys as I can carry, all hens except for a single jake that goes in the middle and a fan off to the side. I spread the hens around, but keep all of them within 30 yards of my setup. This works really well with a blind, but know that decoys will occasionally be hit.
Just Walk Away
After being unsuccessful against a tough bird, where numerous tactics were applied, a lot of hunters might want to just walk away; that’s actually not a bad idea. Mature gobblers know that hens are supposed to come to them and not the other away around. This is one of the reasons birds lock up out of range. However, if you can make the bird think that the hen has lost interest or is responding to another tom, he will often break tradition to try and not lose his girl.
This works really well in hillier areas where hunters can walk off a ways before sneaking back and setting up. Now the trick is to control the calling. It needs to sound disinterested, or as if responding to another bird. It also helps to go over a hill calling and setting up right at the top.
I’ve spent a lot of years hunting public land, so I’ve come across a lot of tough spring toms. However, none reach the level the level of contrariness than one I named a bad word. This bird wasn’t my longest pursuit, but he teased me relentlessly. He gobbled at pretty much everything I sent his way, but wouldn’t come in. Time of day didn’t matter; I called and he answered but wouldn’t come into range.
I wanted this bird dead, so I put together a team of National Wild Turkey Federation staffers, along with a freelance writer who eventually went to work for Federal Premium, and used a topo map to plan a morning like a special ops mission.
I sent World Champion turkey caller, and videographer, Joe Mole with J.J. Reich (Federal guy) just southwest of were he had been roosting. I then had P.J. Perea and Brian Chatham, NWTF Junior Calling Champion, head in from the east. I set up alone near where I determined was his escape route. I figured if one of these great callers spooked him, I’d bust him on his way out.
Reich jellied that bird at 30 yards, resulting in some teasing about giving him a bird for a couple of years. Truth is I didn’t care who killed that bird; that joker needed to be taken out of the scene.
There are a lot of tough turkeys in the woods, along with numerous tactics for outwitting them. These are just a few that I’ve used successfully in the spring. None are a guarantee, but you can give them a try if your normal tactics leave you hanging.