I’m not real sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, early in my turkey hunting days, I made the mistake of believing that I could make a turkey do something he didn’t want to do. I even took that a little further and convinced myself that I could make him do it when I wanted him to. Eventually, I realized I was way off base.
Sometimes in turkey hunting, failure is the recipe for success, provided it’s mixed with paying attention to what went wrong. During my learning curve, I failed plenty. Opportunities to peel a turkey’s tater don’t come around often enough to be messing them up when they do. Forcing the issue will mess up a potential opportunity real quick, but I don’t mess up because of that as much as I used to. I think the turning point for me came on a hunt back around 2000.
I was set up on a bird in a light rain, and he had gobbled less than half a dozen times before he kicked off the limb and went silent. I despise a turkey that gets stage fright when he flies down, but he had nothing to say once his feet touched the wet dirt that morning. I called only once after fly down and zipped it up. Staring across the bead at the end of my gun down the old logging road, I expected him to come bopping along at any time. I wasn’t as sure after 15 minutes or so, and after a half hour, I began to wonder if he would show up at all.
A few years prior to that hunt I would have been up and moving, but experience had begun to keep me seated a little longer. I fought the urge to call, along with the thoughts of getting up and moving, for another 10 minutes. Thankfully, it was about that time I heard the faint sound of a twig snapping to my left. I didn’t have to see him; I knew he was there. I began easing my head around toward where I expected him to be, and sure enough, when I got turned as far as I needed to, there he was. He was less than 20 yards away, standing tall, staring at me. I knew he realized his mistake, and I knew my time was short to get around on him before he disappeared. He started walking away and went behind a big pine. I swung my gun around, and as he picked up the pace when he came from behind the tree, I hammered him. I laid my gun across my lap and exhaled for what felt like a full 10 seconds.
Lots was learned that morning. Why he decided to walk through the woods and sneak in to my left instead of strolling down the middle of the logging road made no sense, but it got my attention. Because of that bird, and a few others, I now expect the unexpected on every bird I strike. I cannot go on from here without mentioning the one thing that truly saved me that morning. I’d like to take credit for exceptional patience here, but the truth of the matter is, I had very little of it at the time. Yes, as I mentioned, I had experience telling me to sit tight that morning, but the biggest reason I did so was simply because I had no idea where to go if I got up. I didn’t know where the bird was after fly down, so I just waited. In the process, I accidentally learned a valuable lesson.
It was a combination of this hunt and several others that finally convinced me that I wasn’t completely wrong when I was thinking I could speed things up a little bit when meeting up with a gobbler. I was just wrong in the way I had been going about it.
Backing off and not forcing the issue was actually netting quicker results than trying to make it happen against the turkey’s will. I also began to realize that all those magical things that turkeys do are really not magic at all. It’s just turkeys being turkeys. When I began to understand more how a turkey goes about his business, things began to clear up for me a bit, and my winning percentage went up. Taking a gobbler’s springtime lifestyle into consideration can up your odds as well.
First Thing: Very few things are certain about a wild turkey gobbler, but one thing you can count on is his desire to court the ladies. A gobbler’s courtship ritual is his life’s driving force. Fortunately for us, it can be his demise, as well. Many will argue that the best time to kill a turkey is first thing in the morning. I would give the early morning hunt the edge but only because he will generally tell you where he is located.
This is fragile territory to me, however. I doubt there is much that gets a turkey hunter’s sugar up more than a chorus of gobbles echoing through the trees first thing in the morning. It is the gobble that causes lapse of judgment, missed appointments, sleep deprivation and often builds a mountain of irritability for thousands each spring. It is also the reason we want to dive on top of him at first light. I’m all for getting tight before light, but the biggest problems for most at daylight is the inability to allow turkeys to be turkeys for a little while.
Think about what the bird is doing before you start talking to him. I basically quit trying to dictate what he was going to do years ago. The key is listening and watching to be able to know what it is the turkey is wanting to do now. That’s a lot to decipher.
There are bad ways to gain a gobbler’s attention. Remember, he can be a picky individual a lot of the time. Only certain things will do for any given gobbler on any given day, and you need to give him the opportunity to let him tell you what it is he wants instead of throwing out one guess after another.
If I know he is with hens, which he is apt to be most of the season, I’m going to let him do his courting before I get too amped up. So, when he hits the ground, he’s got a good idea of the hens he’s got at his beck and call, including the one I’m pretending to be.
Just because he doesn’t come running in the minute he flies down doesn’t mean it’s time to panic. If it doesn’t happen pretty quickly, I’m not going to pressure him. When you pressure a gobbler, you might think you are pulling him in, but you’re likely pushing him away, especially if he’s an old one. They generally don’t like it, and hens won’t put up with too much of it either. Setups are very critical to every hunt, and I believe if you have a good one, the longer you can wait him out. Let him do what he wants to do. He knows you are there if you have called to him even a little bit. If you put yourself in a good setup, he might walk right by you.
Such was the case last spring with my longtime hunting partner, Bobby Knight. We had squeezed all the daylight out of the previous day hunting one of our favorite spots. We had seen a gobbler and a group of hens in the mid-morning hours, but we could never even get in the game. We never came close the rest of the day.
We were right back in there the next morning, and it was cold. A spattering of rain ricocheted off the brim of my cap as I sunk into my coat a little deeper.
“Not ideal turkey stuff,” I thought, as I watched the pines swaying in the stiff morning breeze. We felt good about our setup though, and we whispered through our strategy while we waited. Basically it was a “wait-and-see” approach.
We were on the edge of a small field and believed that if the birds were home, they would be back in the big pines across the field. We had just agreed that hearing even a single gobble would be pretty welcome considering the weather when two birds gobbled across the field and to the right.
Another gobble and 10 minutes later a mass of feathers and white heads appeared at the edge of the tree line in the far right corner of the field. They stood motionless as they surveyed the field, and when they eased into it, they separated enough for us to see that all five were jakes.
A few minutes later five hens entered the field and began their day feeding about. Though we hadn’t heard him yet, we still believed the longbeard we had seen the previous morning might be close by. He finally gobbled straight across the field and back into the pines a good 75 yards or better away. The aggressive, raspy yelping of the boss hen followed shortly, and she was roosted close to him. This seemed to fire the old boy up.
Years ago I likely would have given him an earful at this point, but that was then. We sat quietly and waited.
Twenty minutes passed before the jakes got nervous and vacated the field. We whispered amongst ourselves and reckoned that the boss was on his way into the field. Sure enough, within five minutes, he parted some high grass directly across from us and stepped into the edge of the field. He worked left of our position toward the hens and strutted to the 45-yard line. That was close enough for me, and I shut him down. Neither Bobby nor I ever touched a call.
There is no way that would have ever happened back in my earlier years of turkey hunting. I would have called at some point, and possibly I would have messed things up. Having a good idea of where the turkey might be to begin with, along with understanding what turkeys do, is all it took to kill him. I can tell you with absolute certainty that the more you learn about turkey behavior, the more you improve your chances of killing a turkey. Breaking down the hunt I just spoke of, it’s pretty clear to see why he died.
First of all, we had a good idea where he might have spent the night. Once we were set up, we decided to wait and see if he was home. I skip the owl and crow stuff until I have to use it, especially on public ground.
Secondly, the weather was rainy, and when we realized we had birds where we thought they were, we felt that they would likely head to the open field after flying down. It’s what they like to do. When the jakes and hens showed up soon thereafter, we figured our chances were getting better.
Finally, when the jakes got nervous, we believed the boss gobbler was on the way. When he showed up, he strutted toward the hens in the field. They worked their way toward us, and we knew it was only a matter of time. There simply never was a reason to call, and I’m not going to call just for the sake of doing so. Now tell me setups aren’t critical.
That’s the way the hunt played out on that particular morning. Turkey actions call for certain hunter reactions. If the birds had headed off in the opposite direction, then we would have at least let him know we were there. Still though, I believe matching your calling to the situation is the best approach, and if you think about what a turkey might be doing when you find one, you will be able to do that more often. Sometimes it might very well be that the best way to kill a turkey is to be quiet.
Later on: During the evening, turkeys are still going about their business, but it differs a little from what they are doing in the early morning hours. Many times hens have abandoned their suitors, and the gobblers are lonely. Knowing that is the case with turkeys later in the day has enabled me to kill nearly as many birds in the evening as I have killed in the morning.
One of the biggest differences between hunting turkeys in the evening and hunting them in the morning is not knowing exactly where a gobbler is at when you begin your hunt. When you head into the woods in the evening, you have to start somewhere, so your best bet is to start where you hunt in the morning. If turkeys like to spend the night in a particular spot, they will frequent the area throughout the day and are going to show back up close to roost time.
Gobblers also will frequent fields in the evenings, as well as open woods where they can strut and see as they wait for hens to show up. These are typical strut zones. Once you locate a gobbler in the evening, he might run over the first call you make, or he might burn up the last couple of hours of the day before committing.
I remember a particular national forest bird I struck one evening. He answered the first call I made and the next 15 or so as well. Over an hour later he was still standing near where he had been when I originally struck him. I began to feel the pressure of the setting sun and started pouring it on him. He gobbled several more times but only came slightly closer. I finally gave up and put my calls away. I figured he would be on the limb in a few more minutes, and I was already thinking about where to set up on him the next morning.
When I stood up, I realized he was going to be a little farther away the next morning as he turned and flew away from 30 yards out in front of me. During the short amount of time I had shut up and called it a day, the bird had decided to come on in. Forcing the issue had forced the bird to stay away. If I had shut up sooner, I’d likely been toting that bird out of the woods instead of watching him fly off into the darkening creek bottom. Just because a gobbler is lonely doesn’t necessarily make him a pushover.
I believe I’m pretty accurate when I tell you that you will kill more birds with less pressure. The main thing to remember is that there is a difference in aggression and pressure. Listen to what the turkey tells you, and think about what he is doing at certain times of the day. Above all, don’t get in a hurry. Just let him be a turkey, and kill him in his own good time.