We have all been there: In the woods early, ideal conditions, perfect setup, toms gobbling lustily on the roost the night before. What could possibly go wrong? Well, whatever happened yesterday is old news when it comes to spring turkey hunting.
There will be days when the hunter does everything by the book, no mistakes, and yet the only reply he receives is the derisive caws of crows in the distance. What causes spring toms to go silent is anyone's guess, but the bottom line is: They're not talking. When that happens, too many hunters give up and go home.
But before you decide to spend the day doing yard work, keep in mind that the same turkeys you've observed all season are still in the woods and their habits have not changed. They roost, they feed and they travel the same routes. All you have to do is find ways to take advantage of their silent mode.
It's not as difficult as it sounds if you truly know your birds and their habitat preferences.
Off the Roost
The best way to begin a day of hunting when toms fall silent is to get to the nearest ridgetop roosting site well before sunrise in hopes of cutting the flock off on its way into the valley. While the toms may be tight-lipped on any given day, the hens are sure to be yelping, clucking and putting just before sunrise.
Climb to the top and pause to listen for their plaintive, barely audible chirping. Once you have the birds pegged, work your way slowly and quietly to a saddle or bench 100 yards or so below them and just sit tight. Don't waste time calling to them — you know where they are and the odds are that when they leave the roost they'll head downhill to feed.
Of course, the birds make the final decision on where they are going. If you pick the right spot, it's simply a matter of waiting until the biggest tom steps into range, but if you choose wrong '¦ well, it's time to execute Plan B.
Should the roosted flock decide to leave the ridge in the opposite direction, give them about 30 minutes to fly down, assemble and begin feeding as usual. The plan is to circle widely around the flock, heading for the nearest ambush point between where they are and where they want to go.
Pre-season scouting should have revealed where the birds like to roost and feed. Use that information to get ahead of them and set up for a shot before the birds leave the woods and head into the open field. All of these ambush strategies are considered under the same heading: Run and gun.
Forget about decoys and calls, and just make use of the birds' natural penchant for moving and feeding downhill as they had all summer and winter. Don't disturb them, or change their habits, just use their daily roosting and feeding habits to your advantage.
Field Ambush Tactics
Once the flock has made it to the open fields below the birds' roosting sites, it is all but impossible to call the boss tom away from his group of hens. When the gobblers are strutting silently along with the flock, they likely will not leave the hens no matter how skilled you are with a call.
Try calling, of course, because there's always the outside chance that a particular gobbler hasn't read the rules on silent running, but in most cases you'll be ignored.
This is when the hunter's best tool is his binocular. Study the flock's pattern of movement and direction of travel and then come up with a scenario where the birds will walk right into a well-planned ambush. Field edges are the obvious place to ambush feeding turkeys, but there are all sorts of options.
Fencelines and hedgerows also provide good ambush sites, as do strips of woods, points of brush and even midfield brushpiles. The point is to find the most logical place to meet up with the birds, get there first and wait patiently until the flock feeds its way into range.
When planning a stalk on feeding turkeys, always choose the long way around, the route that will take you as far away from the birds and out of their sight as possible.
Remember, if you can see the birds they can see you, and if they spot you creeping around in the brush, they will disappear in a hurry. Go long, go deep, go slowly and do not keep poking your head out to see how the flock is doing.
Keep in mind that a successful midfield ambush may take hours to complete. The toms will continue strutting, the hens will continue pecking away and none of them have reason to be in a hurry. Get comfortable, sit tight, keep your shotgun or bow at the ready, and wait.
Look at it this way: You have a flock of birds headed your way with a nice tom among them. You could run all over the woods calling sporadically, hoping to get a response, or you could just sit still and wait for a guaranteed shot. On days when toms go silent, the latter tactic is often the better option.
Hunting Woodland Turkeys
Ambush tactics are great when the feeding flock is visible from long distances, but what happens in a woodland setting when no birds are in sight and they haven't been heard from since they left the roost at dawn? That is when a hunter's most useful tools are persistence and perseverance.
Even experienced hunters have trouble dredging up enthusiasm for a long wait in seemingly empty woods, but when the birds have been there all along and merely go silent there's no reason to think they've disappeared. They will go through the same procedures day after day whether the toms gobble or not.
In fact, many a hunter has been surprised by a big, lusty longbeard that showed up unexpectedly — and in those cases the turkey always wins.
For this reason it's important to approach "empty woods" with optimism and a positive attitude. You've seen birds there in the past and fresh sign is everywhere. The only difference is that for some reason the flock has gone silent. Non-aggressive toms are more difficult to fool but it's not impossible. You can beat them at their own game if you are up to the challenge.
Woodland turkeys have a daily routine just as their open-country counterparts have. They roost in the high hardwoods at night, fly down to feed at dawn and work the hardwood stands for acorns and other mast throughout the day. They'll work their way back to high ground in late afternoon to roost and begin the process of survival once more.
Knowing the turkeys' general daily pattern, the woodland hunter can use some basic setups to take a big tom even when the birds are in no mood to talk.
To begin the day, set up 100 yards or so above or parallel to the roosted flock. Get there 30 minutes before sunrise and remain quiet until the birds fly down and begin the day's foraging. Again, while the toms may be silent the hens are likely to purr, putt and yelp occasionally before and after they leave the roost.
Some longbeards will gobble a few times on the roost and then go silent, or they may gobble occasionally for the first hour or so. Once they are surrounded by friendly, receptive hens the gobblers may not utter another sound all day.
When the birds begin to fly down, try a few low-key yelps and clucks but don't overdo it. When the real flock is nearly silent it won't respond to standard calls, not even the most demanding and aggressive sequences. When turkeys want to talk you can't shut them up, but when they go silent there's not much the hunter can do to get a response.
With luck the birds will pass by your position and offer a shot, but if they go in another direction or are out of range, keep tabs on their direction of travel and plan a stalk that will put you into position farther down the ridge. That will be the game to play all day long, especially in wooded areas with plenty of hills, ridges, mountains and points.
Sit and call sporadically to let the birds know you are there, and then move on ahead of them if they pass by. Continue moving from ridge to ridge until the birds make a mistake — which they will.
On high ground where steep hills and mountainsides are the prevalent feature, set up on mid-slope benches or saddles, especially where mast is available. Turkeys will move from high to low elevations and everything in between during the course of the day so be sure you include the occasional flat or plateau in your strategy. Also, short stretches of old logging roads and woods trails attract turkeys during the day, either for picking grit or for the abundance of natural foods the birds will find there.
Still-Hunting for Silent Toms
It's the rare mountain or hillside that does not have a winding, twisting logging road along its face, which can provide hunters with easy access to feeding flocks. Start out high at dawn after the birds have left the roost and then still-hunt slowly down the mountain road — no calling or false gobbling, just peering intently into the brush and trees along the side of the road.
Pause at every curve in the road and move slowly and carefully around every turn because birds may be out of sight just around the bend.
Hunt slowly and intently at high alert with your shotgun at port arms. Expect to see birds above and below you and at every bend in the road.
Flocks feeding silently add an element of anxiety to the hunt because you know they are out there somewhere and that they could be anywhere — all you have to do is bump into them, pick out a nice tom and make the shot before the flock disperses.
Hunting Bumped Birds:
Considering a flock of turkeys may have 20 or more sets of eyes working against your two, it's logical to expect the birds to win the game of hide-and-seek more often than not.
However, turkeys traveling in a flock become extremely anxious when they are separated from the group, and that is where a patient hunter can up the odds in his favor.
Most "bump-and-call" theories suggest that the flock be broken up and then the hunter sits down immediately to call the birds back into range. This rarely works because spooked turkeys are not likely to return to the same place where they were just attacked by a predator (or hunter).
Instead, they move off some distance (50 to 100 yards) and then begin to reassemble. For that reason it's important that the hunter keep an eye on the direction the birds took when flushed and then tack on another 100 yards or so.
Swing around high or low, depending on which way the birds scattered, and then sit down, give the woods a few minutes to settle down, and call the birds back into range. The process may take an hour or two, but when things go as planned, turkeys will begin to show up singly or in small groups.
Be patient, call sparingly and wait for the longbeard of your choice to work its way into range.
The Roost-Site Ambush:
Many hunters balk at the idea of ambushing a silent tom at his roosting site but when all else fails, that may be the way to take a tom that hasn't talked back. Check your state's regulations before you try any of this.
The concept is simple enough: Pick a suitable spot high on a ridge where turkeys are known to roost and simply wait out the last few hours of the day until the flock arrives and prepares to roost for the night.
The birds usually feed their way from low ground to high ground, forage for a while beneath their preferred roosting trees and then, just before sunset, fly onto the heaviest limbs. The majority of turkeys in a flock will roost within a few yards of each other while some may prefer to roost on the periphery, sometimes 20 or 30 yards away.
The ideal place to be for a successful ambush is just below the roost and in a location where the entire flock must pass in order to reach its destination.
This is not intended to suggest shooting a bird off its perch, which is illegal in most states and unethical in all of them. However, it is perfectly acceptable to take them while they are on the ground. At that point the hunter has already put in a very long, frustrating day and should feel perfectly satisfied that he managed to outwit a big spring longbeard.