April 27, 2020
With the early-morning sun cresting a stand of Douglas firs behind me, I feared too much time had passed. It had been more than two hours since the old tom last gobbled from his roost, and the woods were silent.
At first light, the tom had gobbled at every sound I threw his way, but once he hit the ground he shut down. Figuring he’d connected with a hen, I was preparing to move from my ground blind and try to find him. That’s when a ray of sunlight penetrated the forest fringe in front of me and the glowing head of a mature tom materialized.
The wise old bird came in quietly, cautiously, but puffed up the whole way. When he reached my full-strut tom decoy he froze, and that’s when I let him have it. It was my third and final gobbler of Oregon’s spring season, and he fell in the same place the two previous had.
I was hunting a bench that ran east-west for nearly a mile. Above it were several hills and valleys running north-south that connected to it. It was the perfect setting for hens to breed, nest, feed and roost. I’ve seen many benches like this across the West, and once turkeys find them they can be productive habitats to hunt—often for years.
I first discovered this bench eight years ago, while hunting fall turkeys. I’d never seen birds in the area before, only deer and elk. Once the turkeys found it, they set up camp and have been there ever since. The bench offers year-round feed, ample cover, ideal nesting habitat and many roosting trees. My family has taken dozens of turkeys from this bench over the years, both in spring and fall.
Benches are ideal habitats for toms, as well, especially because traveling along benches is easier than running up and down steep ridges. Don’t get me wrong, toms are capable of covering big country that would test the fitness of any elk hunter, but they don’t occupy such rugged land as readily as they do benches.
PATIENCE & PERSISTENCE
The most important lesson I’ve learned hunting turkeys on benches throughout the West is to remain patient yet persistent. Bench-dwelling toms seem to behave differently than other birds in the sense they are willing to move to find receptive hens. One day they might not budge from their strutting ground; the next day they could be two miles away, aggressively chasing hens and fighting other toms.
Last spring it took me five weeks and more than a dozen trips to fill my three tags on the bench. I knew toms were in the area, and more and more of them filtered through surprisingly often. Whether or not I got a tom to come in didn’t have much to do with my calling proficiency or decoy use, but whether a tom was within earshot of my calls at all.
Over the years, persistence has been the biggest factor in my success hunting turkeys along benches. Many birds, especially hens, live on benches year-round, and toms can move along them any time of year. In the fall, bachelor flocks might find food that keeps them there for days or weeks. Snow might push toms onto benches. Even high winds or an abundance of predators seem to influence when and where toms reside on benches.
Nothing has taught me more about hunting turkeys on benches than trail cameras. I’m not talking just one or two cams, but rather up to a dozen along a single bench. And I set all of them to video mode. Turkeys tend to speed by the lens so quickly, they’ll trip the sensor but are gone before the shutter can react.
Even in video mode, my cams might miss the bird, but they capture 10 seconds of sound that can be an education in itself. Hen and tom yelps, purrs and gobbling, even the dragging of wings as toms strut out of frame are common sounds I’ll capture, even if I miss a visual on the birds. These sounds speak volumes and provide clues to what the birds are doing at any given time during the season.
Once I find a location that’s routinely frequented by turkeys, I set up enough cams to provide a 360-degree view. Oftentimes, toms don’t use game trails and will actually push through surprisingly dense brush to reach a hen or aggressively approach a fellow tom. Upwards of 25 percent of the mature gobblers I capture on trail cameras tend to be in places you wouldn’t expect to see them.
I run trail cameras year-round on multiple benches in order to track turkey movement. Turkey populations throughout the West can fluctuate from one season to the next, and knowing what birds are around and when saves valuable time come hunting season.
When the season starts, I check all of my cameras every day because toms can be there one day and in a totally different spot the next. Last year, I had the second-biggest tom I’d ever seen appear twice on a trail camera. I hunted him for more than a week straight and never laid eyes on him.
Another time I caught a mature, bent-bearded tom on a trail camera at first light. Later that afternoon I caught him on another trail camera, 1.5 miles from where he’d been in the morning. What amazed me most about this was the amount of thick brush that tom had to negotiate to get from point A to point B.
The second tom I took off the bench last spring was the most vocal bird I’ve ever heard. He started gobbling on the roost, more than half a mile from my blind, and continued gobbling at every single sound I made. Multiple times he double-gobbled and twice he triple-gobbled. It took him more than 45 minutes to reach me, as he traveled through wet grass, briars and a quarter-mile-long stand of timber. When he finally appeared, he strutted and pirouetted out of range for quite some time. Once he committed to the hen and tom decoys, however, he did so with much conviction.
It was one of the most memorable turkey encounters in my more than 30 years of hunting these birds throughout the West, and the only calls I made were yelps from a diaphragm call. No other sounds were needed, as the tom responded to every sequence I delivered. In fact, he cut me off several times.
In situations where multiple toms are on a ridge, I’ll often utilize a variety of calls in order to keep their interest. Competition can be high among aggressive toms, especially if hens are up and moving, and I want to find that sweet sound that attracts an eager tom.
Once you locate a bench that turkeys like, keep going back. Be it 500 feet above a valley floor or 2,500 feet in the hills, if turkeys are on a bench, it’s for a reason, and toms will keep coming back year after year as long as the hens are there.
Turkey Season throughout the West can can see a wide range of weather conditions. From sub-freezing temperatures and snow in the early part of the season to driving rains and dense fog to high winds and dust, western hunters need gear that can stand up to whatever Mother Nature throws their way.
For years I’ve had great success with Point Blank Hunting Calls. Formerly Jones Calls—created by bowhunting legend Larry D. Jones—these calls are easy to use and deliver sounds turkeys love. Point Blank box calls and select slate calls are all-weather and work no matter how wet they get or how much moisture hangs in the air. Master yelps, clucks and purrs and you’ll be able to call in just about any tom out there. (pointblankcalls.com)
Your Eyes in the Woods
Trail cameras have become a key resource in almost any big-game hunting strategy, and should be utilized in your turkey hunting gameplans, too. Today’s trail cam technology offers hunters more and more helpful features, and a recent example is Wildgame Innovations’ Insite Cell trail camera.
The camera pairs with your phone to send automatic photo updates anytime, anywhere and allows hunters to check locations from the comfort of home or wherever they might be. It also comes with most premium Wildgame Innovations features, including Adaptive Illumination, which adjusts the camera based on distance to target; Lightsout invisible black infrared LED flash; Tru-Dual cams to optimize images for day and night; 32-megapixel image and 720p HD video capture; and Silent Shield for quiet operation.
With Wildgame Innovation’s new HuntSmart app, which automatically organizes and analyzes captures, the Insite Cell is even more useful. The app is available for iOS and Android devices and is compatible with all legacy Wildgame Innovations trail cams. If you have older models and want to place multiple cameras, you can link them with the app for increased coverage.
The app’s system has species recognition for popular game species and can separate captures without wildlife. It’s also “self-learning.” The more data it gathers about the property or area where it’s placed, the better its predictions and analysis will be.
The HuntSmart app is a free download, but subscriptions are needed for key features. Options vary based on number of captures analyzed, storage, etc. The Insite Cell trail camera also has different transmission plans based on captures per month. ($199.99; wildgameinnovations.com)
AUTHOR NOTE: Scott Haugen is the author of the popular book, “Turkey Hunting The West: Strategies For All Levels.” Order a signed copy atscotthaugen.com. Follow Scott on Instagram and Facebook.