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Turkey Tactics: To Sit or Go?

Certain turkey hunting situations require you to make an aggressive move on birds, while others favor a wait-and-see approach.

Turkey Tactics: To Sit or Go?

On small properties, being patient is often best. If you bump a bird trying to run and gun, you may never see him again. (Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak)

It was a classic turkey standoff. Dad and I had struck the gobblers late in the morning—a pair of toms that climbed all over my calls. Our original setup felt like a long shot. More than 300 yards of real estate separated us from the gobbling pair and, while we plunked our butts down immediately, I knew we were asking them to come a long way to investigate the hen they’d heard. Fortunately, I was able to spot the birds with my binocular and realized, after a few volleys back and forth, that this exchange could be at the stalemate stage.

On one hand, we could dig in our proverbial heels and get just as stubborn as the turkeys. In fact, I’ve had that work more times than I can count over the years. On the other hand, we could take the fight to the gobblers, using cover and terrain to slip in closer. More than once I’ve wiggled in tight to an obstinate gobbler, yelped and clucked a few times and barely had a chance to snick the safety off in time to kill the bird.

So, what did dad and I do that fine May morning? I’ll tell you, but you’ll have to wait a bit. Being able to answer the “Should I wait, or should I move?” question is one of spring turkey hunting’s toughest skills, and coming to the right choice requires careful thought. Here are some factors to weigh when deciding whether to sit tight or get a move on.

PROPERTY SIZE

Perhaps the most obvious factor in this decision is the simplest: Do you have room to move? Some of my best turkey properties are just 20 to 40 acres. On ground like this, it’s not only wisest, but also safest, to simply sit still and force birds to come to you. In fact, moving around a lot on small properties is often counter-productive. I don’t believe turkeys are smart in the sense that they are capable of thought, but they are super sharp when it comes to recalling places where they have encountered danger and those where they haven’t. Bump birds much on a small tract, and they are likely to start avoiding it on principle.

On the other hand, I hunt huge tracts of public land in Wisconsin with more room to move than I can handle in a season, much less a three- or four-day hunt. Plus, the terrain is rolling and the cover thick, which means that if I’m careful I can re-position on a gobbler with little fear of spooking him. Not to sound too cavalier, but if I bump one bird, I’ve got plenty of territory to cover to find another one. In short, I can afford to be aggressive on an individual bird, knowing that with a little work I can find another.

AVAILABLE TIME

Among the biggest factors to consider when making the move-or-stay decision is how much time you have to work the turkey. I remember well when several of the states I hunted closed at noon or 1 p.m. (this is still true for some states) and any time I struck a late-morning turkey, I knew the clock was ticking on any decision I had to make. Of course, the same holds true if I run into a hot turkey in the evening (and yes, this happens). In certain scenarios, I’m often limited to just a couple hours of hunting, like when I squeeze in a flydown hunt before work. I tend to be a little more aggressive on such hunts, pushing the envelope if I feel I have a chance at getting tight to the bird.

Scott Bestul, turkey-tactics-go
Large tracts favor aggressive approaches, as do limitations on your time, such as shooting hours that end midday, a small window of time in which to hunt or when the season’s end is near. (Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak)

On the flip side, some situations practically demand patience. Whenever I bow-hunt turkeys, I just set my mind to a different pace, one where I dig in and wait for turkeys to make a mistake. The caveat here is I’ve typically done the necessary homework of scouting and listening to birds. I know where they like to be and the times of day they prefer to be there.

So, if I’ve done all this prep work, why bomb around and potentially bump the very gobblers I’ve invested so much time into understanding. In my mind, it’s far better to rely on MRI (most recent information) and let turkeys do what they already want to do, albeit with a little coaxing from my calls and decoys. As my old friend and turkey expert Mark Drury likes to say, time means nothing to a turkey.

BREEDING PHASE

One of the most critical factors to any turkey hunt is having a handle on the breeding progression of area birds. If your state opens—as many do—before peak breeding occurs, the odds of a gobbler coming eagerly to calling skyrocket. This situation is comparable to the late pre-rut for whitetails. While males of the species are primed and ready, most females are not ready to breed.

This leaves the guys highly vulnerable to calling, as the girls they’ve been pestering have been largely uninterested. Suddenly, they hear one who sounds receptive, and it’s off to the races. Whenever I know I’m ahead of peak breeding, I tend to be more patient, even with a bird that gobbles a lot but doesn’t seem to be moving. Generally, if I just settle in and keep talking to him, I feel I have a good chance of him breaking and coming into my setup.

Once hens become receptive, however, the gloves may have to come off. I’ve hunted with some of the country’s very best turkey callers, and even they would admit they’re not good enough to call a tom away from a hen that’s determined to breed. If you’ve got any fade in your camo, you’ve heard and/or seen this: a gobbler, one that may even talk to you now and then, in the company of a hen that is determined to be the only show in town. She will sass you, boss you around and do her very best to lead the longbeard into a place where she has his full and complete attention.

When turkeys are behaving like this, I almost always get more aggressive, especially if I can see the offending duo and use terrain and cover to get tight with them. If I can anticipate their route and get ahead of them, even better. Once again, calling to a bird 50 to 100 yards off—and already heading your direction—is usually far more successful than yelping from afar.

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Once the breeding peak is past, things get really interesting again. I’ve had such a wide range of responses from late-season gobblers that I view it as one of my favorite times to hunt. I’ve had gobblers literally run to a hen yelp from half a mile, while others seem uninterested in girl talk but are desperate to group up with their fellow toms. Others still almost yawn at calling, as if they simply want it all to be over.

At this time, I mix patience and aggression. If I strike a gobbler, the first thing I do is sit down and take some time to figure him out. However, if he’s not moving, I put my track shoes on and take the fight to him. It’s a balancing act, but it’s also an excellent time to kill one of the biggest toms of the season.

GOBBLING TEMPERATURE

There are many skills that a successful turkey hunter must acquire, but few are more important than the ability to read a bird’s mood by the frequency and intensity of his gobbling. My old-school buddies refer to this as “taking his temperature,” and most of us have heard of this in one form or another. If a gobbler is letting it rip, we say that he’s “hot.” And most of us know enough to plunk our butts down and let the gobbler walk into his own death.

But any temperature below “smoking” can sometimes be difficult to read, like the gobbler that starts out hot but then responds only occasionally. Or one that gives a good roar or two right off the bat, then shuts up. What do you do with birds like those? Is the tom with a hen and simply hoping to draw another into his harem...or is he just an old stubborn tom that’s used to planting his feet and waiting for girls to come running?

There are rarely easy answers when attempting to figure out these lukewarm turkeys. Sometimes, changing up calls will fire one up. Other times, a long period of silence will pique a tom’s curiosity or irritate him enough to make him gobble hard and come walking in. Other times still, just the smallest change in calling location can make a bird think his girls are getting away (or coming closer), and he’ll start gobbling his head off again.

One of my favorite tactics, assuming I have time, is to just keep mixing up yelping and gobbling and clucking and fighting purrs. This often attracts a somewhat more distant gobbler that comes in and completely changes the dynamic. Many times, the original gobbler will realize he’s got competition and bluster his way in, the lead suddenly removed from his feet.

Taking a gobbler’s temperature is a skill honed over many seasons and probably never completely mastered. But I try to learn something from every turkey, whether I kill him, bump him or never completely figure out why I failed. This, in my mind, is the beauty of spring gobbler hunting: dueling with turkeys as often as possible, losing some showdowns, celebrating others and learning something from every one.

MAKE THE CALL

Let’s revisit that turkey standoff I alluded to at the outset. What did my dad and I do with that pair of late-season gobblers? Well, after a series of gobbles in response to our yelps, the buddy birds drifted off just a bit. While they still gobbled occasionally, we were able to read their mood just enough to know that they were losing interest. It was time to make something happen.

I actually shut up for a time, not caring if the birds wandered off a bit. I knew they were close to a good food source and wouldn’t stray far. Then we packed up, crept into a nearby wood line, and started cutting distance to the birds. One of the best parts of hunting in May is that abundant foliage often makes moving toward birds highly possible. And in this case, we were able to slip so close it was almost too close.

When we’d approached to what I thought was about 75 yards of the last gobble, I pulled out a pot call and made a simple cluck and purr. The responding double gobble was so ferocious we literally dove for cover, scrambling to set up. Within minutes a pair of pulsing white heads were in view. While I knew no calling was necessary to lure the birds into gun range, I wanted the toms to focus on my position and hopefully not spot any movement dad made as he raised his gun. Seconds later the 870 boomed and a late-season trophy was dead in the clover. We don’t always choose the right option when answering the “stay or go” question, but that day, happily, we did.




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