May 07, 2020
By Joel Nelson
Editor's Note: Midwest turkey hunters should check possible state reg changes due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Some of the best turkey habitat I’ve hunted throughout the Midwest features some combination of field edge and woodlot. Open spaces and big rolling timber with mixed pasture, crop fields and a myriad patchwork of greenery amid a broad mix of land uses. As you’d expect, most differing habitat types are bordered by a fence. Some fences are simple. Others are more intense, like the four strands of barbed wire my dad used to run on the farm. You could play a tune on any of those fencelines, and I’ve still got a few arm scars from slinging wire over T-posts.
Those fences are tricky to cross for hunters and turkeys alike, and the birds know it. As many hunters complain about hung-up birds opposite a fence, I dare say I’ve killed more birds because of them than I’ve lost on their account. That’s not to say a bird on the other side of any obstacle is an easy target, but there’s definitely value in looking at a fenceline as a funnel rather than a foe.
FENCE POST ACCURACY
A turkey’s first line of defense is its eyesight, so you’re already at a disadvantage when talking about fences along open fields. Yet these locations are so often where we hope to sit during the initial part of any turkey hunt. That legendary eyesight is twice as sharp in the wide open or at distance, especially when bright, sunny mornings offer few shadows in which to hide. This makes it rather impossible to move on birds that might spend hours in front of you, but woefully out of range. It’s also why you should choose wisely when selecting your first stand in any field hunting scenario. Most times, that location will revolve around a fence—a simple barrier that turkeys will cross at will…except when you need them to do so.
Growing up in southeastern Minnesota, most of my hunting experiences involved crossing multiple fencelines every day, just like the turkeys. Over time, and through scouting, I came to find places in the fences where it was much easier to cross, while torn pants and bruised egos offered proof of the spots where it was difficult. Again, just like the turkeys, I crossed where it was easiest. It’s amazing to me now that after a few decades hunting the same farms, how so many generations of turkeys have crossed a fence at the exact same location over the years. It should come as no surprise, though, as these are logical pinch points that focus turkey movement across the landscape.
In some of the plains states I’ve been able to hunt, fences can be even more important, as a hunt years ago in Kansas taught me. It ultimately took us a few days to catch on to the gig, but those Rios offered us only two chances daily to tag out—after fly-down as they left the cottonwood-rich river bottoms, and in evening as they headed back to them. The remainder of their day was spent in wheat fields larger than you could see across. Birds worked in massive groups that utilized one of two different fenceline crossings, and although we observed the location twice daily,we never did get the drop on them. We found out the hard way that close was never close enough, and we couldn’t call even the satellite toms away from that clan. You had to be within gun range of the exact crossing, which sounds easy until you’re trying to figure it out from behind binoculars on a 1,000-acre wheat field where every fence post looks the same.
That lesson holds true throughout the Midwest, and everywhere else for that matter, as the number-one rule of fence hunting is to be right on the birds as they spill out onto the open ground. “Fence-post accuracy” is what you need when selecting a spot, and your scouting needs to be precise. Forty to 50 yards off can be too far when hunting big groups, as you need a clear shot of a tom among many hens, and so often the hens shield their boys as they work into the fields farther and farther away from you. Precision counts here in a very big way. In the past, I’ve found success in flagging a crossing with nearby brush, a broken limb or really anything to give you the visual clues you need to be in the right place at the right time come opening morning.
MAKE IT EASIER
Rule number two is to never make them have to cross a fenceline to get to you, if possible, which sounds like common sense, but is easier said than done. If birds are coming in the morning from timber, and eventually making their way to the fields, setup in the woods. I’ve had better luck steering birds in cover before they hit the crops, rather than trying to persuade them across wide open spaces. Again, makes all the sense in the world; easier said than done. Your scouting sees them in the fields, and your natural tendency is to select a field-edge perch with a great vista, but that puts the turkeys and their incredible eyesight in an advantageous position. That said, even the most formidable fencelines have a weak spot somewhere.
Trail cameras make scouting easier these days, but even before their prevalence, it was pretty easy to see turkey tracks on the leafless areas where birds would scoot under those barriers.
If crossing one fence is bad, two or more is surely worse, but I hunt in a few areas where intersections of fencelines meet, creating an “X” that forces you to choose one of four quadrants from which to expect turkeys. Of course, you can hunt near the intersection of all of them, but usually birds end up coming from the direction you least expect. At least you’re close to them in this scenario, but even in these kinds of doomsday crossings, birds will often have a method to their madness. Nothing beats scouting for these tougher-than-normal crossings, as scouting is the great equalizer. More than any other tactic, previous knowledge of preferred crossings turns a fenceline into a funnel.
From a calling perspective, so often we fail at getting birds to cross these areas because they’re being attracted on a semi-straight line to a location they’re not used to crossing. That’s why, if I can see them and they’re heading even remotely toward my location, I won’t call to them until after they’ve crossed. Let them negotiate a fence on their own time, in their own manner, and they’ll head through a spot they know and like to cross.
Excite them with a call, and even if they want to get to you, they somehow lose their ability to cross where they normally do, and you’ll hang them up more often than not. I’d rather re-position on him and call to a place he wants to be, than force him to travel through a wall he doesn’t want to move through.
Of course, there are birds that are exceptions to the rules, like a Wisconsin gobbler that fell last spring after crossing two different fences and was ready to cross a third before we toppled him at 25 steps. I’ve also had birds fly over fences, hop through the middle of them and scoot underneath as if the obstacle wasn’t even there. Each tom is different, and desperate birds will do crazy things.
Spend some time glassing those fields before you hunt them. Remember that if you’re there too late, they’ll already be in the field and you’ll have missed your chance at identifying where they cross. Chances are that even if they’re working a particular zone in a field one day, they might not be the next, especially if the hens lead the toms away from your calling or decoys. Be where they want to cross and you just might be punching a tag before the sun tops the trees.
Many folks hunt longbeards with the same shotgun they use for waterfowl or upland game, but a dedicated turkey gun can have its advantages. Two new affordable options from Escort serve as examples.
The PS Turkey Hunter semi-auto shotgun and Field Hunter(FH) Turkey pump-action shotgun feature an optics rail, adjustable fiber optic front and rear sights, shorter barrels, removable choke tubes and camo patterning. Both also have hard, chrome-lined barrels for durability and corrosion resistance and come with studs for a sling.
They’re available in 12 and 20 gauge as well as .410 bore, which, with today’s impressive TSS—and other heavier-than-lead—loads, has become the darling of many serious turkey hunters. The 3-inch chambers handle light 2 3/4-inch target loads to 3-inch magnum loads. Each has a hardy advanced polymer stock and forend with textured grip surfaces and a soft rubber buttpad for recoil reduction. Weight varies from 6 to almost 7 pounds, depending on model.
In the PS Turkey Hunter, Escort’s self-regulating Smart Valve Piston gas system and FAST Loading System, which enables faster loading with one hand, are the main forces behind the gun’s operation. With the FAST Loading System, the gun’s loading button acts as both carrier latch release in loading and bolt release when the bolt is locked back. The FH Turkey, operates via the sliding forend, which is extended for easy, quick cycling. Either option is a suitable choice for taking a tom this year. (PS Turkey Hunter: $499.99; /FH Turkey: $399.99; hatsan.com.tr) — Drew Warden