The early morning gobbling activity was over, and I hadn’t heard a turkey in hours, however, my confidence rose as I alternated between light calling and scanning the field for birds. As I watched my decoys, four mature gobblers silently raced each other to my setup.
Shifting my gun, I placed the red dot on the closest gobbler’s head and neck, and knocked him off his feet with a load of No. 5s. Unsure of what just happened, the remaining gobblers came back to the decoys. With two more tags in my pocket, I took the opportunity and shot the next-biggest tom — he fell less than 10 yards from the first. Two longbeards in 20 seconds!
I regained my composure and walked out to see what I’d shot. Both gobblers had 10-inch beards and long spurs. As I sat down to calm my nerves and admire my turkeys, I was reminded how little gobbling often has to do with successful hunting, and how productive hunting quiet turkeys can be.
A Different Point of View
Early on I tried to hunt like the “experts;” however, closing the deal on gobbling birds didn’t work consistently for me. I located birds, called well (often getting multiple responses from birds on the roost), but had difficulty closing the deal.
Determined to get a bird, one morning I decided to stay put after the morning gobbling had ended. Around 10:30 I watched as a tom silently walked down a timber road toward my setup. That morning I killed my first turkey!
Replaying the morning in my mind, I wondered what had made this particular hunt a success. Why was this bird quiet when he had heard and responded to my calling? I began to question how important gobbling really was to successful hunting.
Forget Conventional Wisdom
Accepted turkey-hunting wisdom asserts our success depends on gob- bling. We are “programmed” to believe that vocal gobblers are the only receptive toms worth hunting. As a result of what we’ve been conditioned to expect, when toms don’t gobble, we move on in search of more “productive” hunting setups. However, the new locations are often no more productive than the ones we left. “The birds just weren’t gob- bling today,” we say as we drive home tired and frustrated, and we wonder what we’re doing wrong and hope that tomorrow will be different.
Gobbling is very exciting and can be a key factor when hunts follow the accepted script, but ask yourself how often does this really happen? For most of us, “textbook” hunts are the exception, not the rule because many gob- blers are relatively quiet and over- looked. To consistently locate and hunt these overlooked quiet birds, forget what you’ve been taught! Gobbling is highly overrated and is unnecessary to be consistently successful on adult gobblers. Quiet birds are a lot more common than we’ve been taught to believe, so I want to encourage you to limit or eliminate your dependence on gobbling as the primary component of your hunting strategy, and I want to provide you with successful strategies needed to kill receptive, but quiet gobblers. These strategies are not difficult (unless you consider carrying a gobbler back to the truck a hassle). The key is to take advantage of a wider range of natural turkey behaviors.
Think about what really influences turkey behavior and makes them vulnerable, and then use that information to develop systematic and effective strategies. By exploiting the nature of the birds, it makes our hunting more predictable and effective.
The Waiting Game
Toms often gobble well from the roost, revealing their location and implying they are interested. However, once their feet hit the ground, their willingness to cooperate declines rap- idly because hens often roost with or quickly reach most available toms, especially the loudmouths! Without a backup plan for the “hen dilemma,” our season can slip by while we wait for conditions to improve — if they improve at all. To overcome the problem, we need to understand it by looking at variables that can make gobbling unproductive.
The Gobbling Dilemma
Consider the logic of using gob- bling as our primary hunting tactic (“gobbling-dependant hunting”). By nature, gobbling toms tend to attract hens, that’s why they gobble. The more he gobbles, the more hens he attracts. Once a gobbler is with hens, he’s far more difficult, often nearly impossible, to call in and kill. It may not make sense in view of how we’ve been conditioned to think, but early morning gobbling is often counterproductive and generally something to be avoided!
The problem gets even worse as gobbling activity and hen densities increase. How often have you been working a “hot” gobbler only to sit helplessly as a hen lures him away? Other Factors
Hens are enemy No. 1 to a successful hunt, but a variety of other factors also suppress gobbling, making gobblers less likely to respond to con- ventional calling techniques.
Some gobblers are naturally quiet, so they naturally gobble less.
Weather — wet, windy or cold conditions — can slow gobbling, but not necessarily turkey activity.
Hunting pressure — excessive or poor calling — only educates turkeys, and sloppy hunting — getting busted and missed shots — quickly make birds go quiet.
Although often overlooked, high predator populations (coyotes, foxes, bobcats) may have a significant effect on gobbling. As predator numbers increase, gobbling often decreases, sometimes dramatically. When they gobble, toms do so defensively and are reluctant to come to our calls due to predator risks.
Other turkeys can also be to blame. Some properties hold older, dominant gobblers that tend to suppress gobbling by submissive adult toms. Until the dominant gobbler is killed, area gob- bling is often suppressed.
Sometimes it isn’t a lack of gob- bling it’s an immovable tom. Many birds love to gobble, but hold their ground waiting for us to come to them. Stubborn gobblers are a common problem.
Last year I watched my wife call to a gobbler 30 yards away through a screen of brush. That joker gobbled dozens of times, but was too stubborn to leave his position. He expected hens to come to him. I finally got a shot one afternoon after he quietly jumped a creek in response to my natural calls. Seeing Is Believing.
Last season my wife and I killed six longbeards the first week of the sea- son, but none gobbled as they came in. Including the six, we had more than a dozen adult gobblers come to our calls without a single gobble!
Oh, we heard gobbling every morning, often several gobblers at a time. However, the birds we killed limited their calling to subtle locator clucks or no calling at all. If our primary strategy had been based on gob- bling, we might have moved on to greener pastures. Instead we placed our emphasis on behavior and had good success.
I killed two mature gobblers and my wife killed a third within hours of each other from the setup mentioned at the beginning of this article. Hunting another property two days later, I called a huge silent strutter away from four hens at 9:30 a.m., but I missed. Hunting another property mid-week, I called in and shot a bird with a 10-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs, as he noiselessly circled my decoy. Later that week, my wife killed two longbeards with one shot as they quietly confronted her decoys.
We also videotaped numerous longbeards and jakes as they came to our calls without announcing their presence. These experiences plainly demonstrate that even during periods of little or no gobbling, turkeys are active and willing if we focus our tactics on natural behavior.
Consider the Facts
Using gobbling to locate and call- in hard-hunted Eastern gobblers isn’t easy. A 2007 Georgia DNR survey concluded that hunters invested an average of about 10 days in the woods per gobbler, and success rates on public WMAs hover around 7.5 percent — this is in a state with an estimated population of 300,000 turkeys and only 48,000 hunters!
With our long season, it’s possible to wait until gobbling conditions improve and still have a decent chance at bagging a turkey. But if your time is limited and birds aren’t gobbling, your season can be a bust if you depend only on gobbling.
Gobblers are a lot like ducks — it’s possible to call them to where we want them to go, but our odds are much better if we are already hunting where they want to be. To be consistently successful, we should focus on natural behavior, and position ourselves where turkeys naturally want to go, using calls they naturally expect to hear during the most productive times of the day. That’s where patterning comes in — it reduces the importance of gobbling.
Patterning involves unlocking cur- rent preferences and tendencies (locations, moods, vocalizations). Armed with this knowledge, we can determine what techniques gobblers are most likely to respond to. This minimizes the role luck plays because our focus is on areas and conditions turkeys already prefer.
Suppose you scout a field and locate good sign — lots of tracks, feathers and droppings. After a couple of mornings without action, you logically assume it’s an afternoon spot. Since gobblers concentrate more on socialization than mating in the after- noon, you are better off to use contented calls associated with relaxed after- noon birds. Taking it a step further, since birds normally form groups as they prepare to return to the roost, you set decoys in relaxed positions designed to mimic natural afternoon turkey behavior.
This is basic patterning — using logic to determine what the turkeys already want to do, while avoiding the trap of making turkey behavior fit into our preconceived ideas.
Developing patterns requires information, and it is scouting that provides the clues we need to predict where and when to hunt to be in the right place at the right time. Turkey behavior can be predicted depending on where they are. Therefore you’ll improve your odds by breaking down your scouting by areas such as woods, fields and roosts.
Wooded areas provide food, cover and roosting locations. Therefore the woods tend to be most productive first thing in the morning, at the end of the day, and when it’s hot. To increase your odds of a shot, look for semi-open areas with signs of concentrated activity like overturned leaves. This indicates feeding/strutting areas which can be outstanding mid-morning through mid- afternoon hunting spots.
Watch for dusting areas in loose soil areas like woods roads and creek banks. These are predictable locations, so if you find concentrations adjacent to an area of good cover, consider giving these areas a try later in the day.
Fields and pastures provide good visibility, food and areas for socialization. Focus on concentrations of sign, especially if supported by sightings. Toms become more predictable and receptive after the hens leave and they’ve had a chance to settle down, so I’ve had my best luck hunting fields late-morning and early- to mid-after- noon. However, don’t expect much afternoon gobbling. Perhaps once morning mating is over and the birds are in groups, calling is less essential. Or maybe turkeys are less comfortable announcing their presence as they near the roost. Whatever the reason, I don’t hear much p.m. gobbling in fields, which makes quiet tactics important for afternoon hunts.
Roost sites provide predictable starting and ending points for daily activity, making morning and evening hunts easier to plan. Roost proximity also influences turkey calling preferences allowing us to better tailor our calls and decoys to the mood of the birds.
If you see birds, pay attention to their body language and listen to their calls (if any). Do they look nervous, content, aggressive, excited? Is there a connection between their behavior and their surroundings? If so, can you make generalizations about their behavior that might help you elsewhere?
As turkeys come off the roost, they normally take time to get settled. Birds squabble, preen and wander as they re- establish pecking orders and reassemble for the day, making consistent hunting difficult. Mornings are a good time to see and hear birds, but don’t confuse action with success.
By isolating peak periods of vulnerability, we can use the bird’s natural tendencies to our advantage. It’s during these peaks that gobblers actively look for company and are willing to come to our calls.
If I only had a few hours in which to kill a gobbler, I wouldn’t waste it watching the sun come up — it’s just too unpredictable. Instead, concentrate on times and places where turkeys are most predictable. I guarantee your odds of success will improve. If you’ve never tried it, you’ll be surprised at how good hunting can be after the mid- morning lull. Mid-morning and early afternoons are when quiet gobblers are the most likely to be active and receptive.
At first, sitting and calling without gobbling takes faith, especially if you’ve been taught gobbling is essential to success. However, your confidence will improve as you focus less on listening to early morning gobbling and start scoring on quiet late-morning birds.
If your time is limited, I believe the very best times to kill a gobbler are between 8:30 and 11 in the morning, and again between 1:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon. Other peaks to watch for are right before or after a light shower, the days following killing a dominant bird and when hens are actively nesting.
Don’t rule out early morning hunting entirely — what we see and hear in the morning increases our understanding of turkey’s habits, which can help set the stage for hunts later in the day. Also starting early sometimes primes gobblers. I’m positive several tight-lipped late-morning gobblers I killed were enticed by early morning calling, and returned later to investigate after things settled down.
Hunting gobbling toms requires overcoming their natural behavior by getting gobblers to come to us, so it’s logical that we’ll be more successful by going to them. Setup in high-traffic areas where they already want to be and attempt to tweak their natural movements within shotgun range.
Don’t be lazy. React to what the birds are saying, and adjust your setups at the first sign of an emerging pattern. These details get you into the action faster. Often moving your decoys or blind just a few yards can greatly improve your effectiveness.
This is an area where teamwork can really pay off. By comparing notes with a partner, you’ll become more efficient in identifying and taking advantage of subtle preferences and developing patterns.
Don’t set up right on top of the birds, too many things can go wrong. Look for a hideout with good visibility at least 25 yards away. These are relaxed turkeys, and they may approach from any direction, so set up with a solid backdrop.
Quiet gobblers can be a waiting game, so get comfortable. You’re not running and gunning, so you can afford to carry some essentials. I recommend using a ground blind for concealment. Use a stool. You are less likely to get busted if you are not wiggling around repositioning a sore backside. Bring binoculars — it’s surprising how often you’ll use them to identify distant birds and help gauge their reaction to your calls.
Roosted birds often gobble their heads off, but they’re calling you and the area hens to them. Each response we get from a roosted gobbler advertises his presence to every other hen in the area, which allows hens to accurately pinpoint his location, helping them get between you and the gobbler as quick- ly as possible. The last thing you want is competition from real hens, so limit pre-dawn calling while the tom is on the roost through the first half hour of daylight. A few soft calls to let the bird know where you are is all that’s need- ed. I know it’s hard to limit your calls when a gobbler is responding to every- thing you say, but remember, odds are that joker will get henned up if you keep him talking.
Keep it natural once the gobbler’s feet hit the ground! Real turkeys generally limit their calls to soft clucks and quiet yelps if they say anything at all, so when targeting quiet birds it’s vital to tone it down. Call at regular intervals, but use restraint — it’s a lot more appealing. Use realistic turkey sounds, like soft clucks and purrs, occasionally working into some subdued yelps.
Call for a few minutes gradually tapering off, and then stay quiet for 10 or 15 minutes. You can gradually increase the intensity every second or third sequence if you want to. But remember, the louder you call, the more time you should wait between sequences — say 15 to 20 minutes until starting your next soft calling sequence. The key is to get a traveling gobbler’s attention and give him time to come in.
Here’s another area where team- work can really pay off! By combining two subtle callers, you project a realistic imitation of turkeys going about their business.
If a tom gobbles, especially later in the day, avoid the trap of responding and stay with your sequence. If he goes quiet, resist the natural tendency to get another response by increasing your volume and quantity. You can’t force him to come, and extra calling risks sounding unnatural or too eager. Give him time to come in!
Toms don’t have much trouble finding and attracting hens, so when they see a hen decoy they’ll often hang up out of range waiting for our plastic impostor to come to them. Gobblers fresh off the roost are more likely to come into shooting range if they’re required to hunt for company. We’ve all had gobblers hang up, so leave the decoy in your vest at first light.
Once hens wander off to nest or feed, gobblers get lonely and competitive and a jake-hen or gobbler-hen decoy combination can really help. It appeals to the sexual and territorial instincts of a gobbler, especially if it’s accompanied by appropriate calling. I use strutting gobbler and receptive hen decoys later in the morning and the results are often outstanding. Conclusion
There are days when the turkeys gobble well and cooperate by strolling into shotgun range. Unfortunately when things are quiet — which is most of the time — many of us are left with few options. Don’t panic the next time the woods are quiet. Give logic and natural turkey behavior a try. You’ll experience a new level of success, and you’ll have a lot more fun.