By Andrew Johnson
Most people who don’t hunt wild turkeys think it’s probably pretty easy to lure in and kill an animal with a marble-sized brain. However, if you’ve spent enough time in the woods or on prairie ridges where turkeys roam, you probably understand how difficult, frustrating and satisfying it is to lure a spring gobbler in close enough to kill with your shotgun or bow.
There’s little doubt that wild turkeys are probably the most paranoid birds on the planet, which means to kill one, you’ve got to do your turkey-hunting homework. So, if you’re like me and can’t wait to get out this spring, here are 10 tips that will hopefully help you fill your tag.
1. Learn the Language
One of the draws of chasing turkeys compared to other hunting ventures is that you can often carry on a dialogue with a gobbler or even a boss hen that’s leading a flock of turkeys around on a leash. Sure, you can call other types of wild game such as deer and waterfowl, but turkey hunting is unique in that you can have a call-and-answer, one-on-one conversation with a wild bird.
If you don’t know the sounds and calls turkeys make and, more importantly, what they mean, then even the most expensive turkey call in the world won’t help you in the field. Take the time to research and learn the two-note cadence and rhythm of a hen turkey’s yelp, the difference between a “putt” and a “cluck,” or what attitude a hen uses when she starts cutting.
There are plenty of online resources available that have sound libraries of authentic turkey calls. Some of them, such as the National Wild Turkey Federation’s website, nwtf.org, even do a good job breaking down the different sounds and offer insight behind why turkeys make them.
Before you head out this spring, either learn or take a refresher course on turkeys and the major sounds they make before you decide to hammer away with that fancy new box call you got for Christmas.
2. Embrace Mistakes
Remember, you don’t have to be a great caller to successfully call in a spring longbeard — I’m living proof of that. The old saying that a real turkey wouldn’t win a turkey-calling competition rings true, so don’t be discouraged if your calls are not perfect.
Many hunters new to the sport try to immediately cover up a squeak, squawk or some other kind of slip by hammering away with loud, aggressive calls. Real turkey voices crack, break and are garbled quite often, but real turkeys never clear their throat after making a mistake.
A mature response to a calling mishap is to resist the urge to cover up bad or abnormal calls with even more bad calling. Instead, take plenty of time to regroup and start over. Have some patience with your calling abilities, and remember that mistakes are more the norm than the exception.
3. Practice Outside
A good friend of mine, who is a veteran turkey hunter, took me on my first spring turkey hunt years ago. After setting up and letting things quiet down, he broke out a slate call and scratched out a few notes — a few awful-sounding hiccups, actually.
“It’s amazing how much better this call sounded in my basement,” my friend said.
While calling mistakes are common, you still have to sound somewhat like a turkey, and the lesson here is simple: calls sound much different outside than they do in the store, your vehicle or your home. This is especially true with friction calls such as pot calls and box calls.
A number of environmental factors come into play here, but the primary culprit is moisture. Early spring mornings are often damp and cool, and the porous nature of some slate, glass and wood surfaces will grab and hold that moisture, changing the dynamics of your call. Rain can make some calls useless.
Practice with your calls in varying temps and weather conditions before hitting the woods. Take note of which calls are consistent, and which ones might require extra care such as a baggie or a small Tupperware container to protect them from the elements, even when you’re not hunting in rain or drizzle.
4. Shock ’Em Once
A common way to locate gobblers is to induce a shock gobble from them. During the spring mating season, a gobbler is all juiced up on testosterone and is a rather jumpy fellow, and a shock gobble is really nothing more than a reflexive response tom turkeys make that can give their exact location away.
Coyote, hawk, crow, owl and even peacock calls are all common shock-gobble calls. The trick, however, is after a gobbler sounds off once, put the locator calls away and get on your horse to get after that bird. After all, anything loud or scary enough to elicit a shock gobble probably shouldn’t be used more than once.
Also, don’t forget unnecessary sounds can give away your location. If you’re using a predator call, such as coyote yips, it’s highly unlikely the turkey that shock gobbled is going to wait around for the coyote to show up. More than likely, they’ll move away from the source of the sounds.
5. Use Nonverbal Communication
Turkeys are big animals. If you’ve never heard one swoop down off its roost or take off from the ground when it’s spooked, the sound is pretty incredible. In addition, any kind of animal that can weigh 15 pounds or more is going to make some noise as it roots around, scratching and feeding throughout the day.
Take advantage of the fact that turkeys are noisy creatures by adding nonverbal calls to your arsenal. Use your cap to imitate wing beats by slapping it against some brush or a cedar tree. Take a stick and kick some dirt or leaves around. Complementing actual turkey calls with other forms of nonverbal communication can sometimes be just the ticket to sealing the deal on a call-wary gobbler.
6. Know When to Hold ’Em
A big mistake too many turkey hunters make is actually calling too much or too aggressively. A few years ago I was on a hunt with legendary turkey caller Eddie Salter where we had five strutters hang up about 20 yards beyond shotgun range. They were all working hard to win the attraction of a single hen, who seemed content to mill around and peck away at some bugs in a river-bottom clearing.
The birds were hot, and as a thunderstorm brewed in the distance, they would shock gobble in unison with every crack of thunder. Initially, Salter had them all responding to his calls, but once the lone hen in the group quit calling, Salter went silent, too.
We had a hen decoy placed in front of our setup, and after 45 minutes of Salter’s silence, curiosity got the best of two of the gobblers as they finally paraded into range. While we were taking pictures of the big Eastern we killed that day, I asked Salter why he didn’t call.
“That hen would have dragged all those toms with her in the opposite direction if I went after her too much,” he told me. “She wasn’t talking, so that told me she didn’t want to get in a war of words. Sometimes it’s best to just wait them out.”
While it’s hard to beat the heart-pounding action of a gobbler hammering its way to your setup, it’s important to remember that calling too much can have an adverse reaction. Calling is important — and it’s true that great callers kill more birds — but the real trick is knowing when silence can be more effective.
If you run into a situation where a gobbler hangs up and won’t commit, try the silent approach and play hard to get. See if curiosity wins him over. It takes some patience, but waiting a gobbler out to see if he breaks can be just as fun as calling him in.
7. Close the Distance
There are times, however, when it’s best to make things happen. I can sit all day, but what I’ve found is more challenging and rewarding is to make a stalk on a bird, almost as if it were a mature whitetail buck. Plus, if a gobbler hangs up and won’t commit after an hours-long standoff, then you can either close the distance or go home empty-handed.
While many TV shows and DVDs dedicated to turkey hunting don’t showcase hunters crawling after birds all that often, I believe crawling, stalking or otherwise getting after a bird is just as important as calling.
Now, if the terrain is to your advantage, the obvious choice is to use it and maneuver closer to your target. However, out here in the plains, terrain is a relative term, and if there’s nothing but prairie between you and your bird, it’s time to take the fight straight to the bird and crawl directly at him.
Whenever I set up, I make sure my turkey vest and other gear is unhitched so I can easily slide out of it in case I need to hit the dirt. Also, I wear camo pullover shirts with no buttons or zippers that can get caught in grass, sticks or other unwanted debris. Ditching the buttons means you can slide on your belly easier, and it also reduces the chance you can snag something that might pop or break, giving away your location and alerting your target that danger is nearby.
8. Break up the Flock
It’s not uncommon to encounter a herd of turkeys in the Dakotas, especially early in the season. But that presents a problem, as most gobblers aren’t likely to leave their harem of hens, regardless of your calling skill level.
If you’re on a big wad of birds that’s out of range and your calls are falling on deaf turkey ears, take a trick from the fall turkey hunting handbook and scatter the flock — and by scatter, I mean sending them helter skelter in every direction. Simply easing up and spooking the birds in one direction is a no go. For this approach to work, you have to commit fully and charge in like the cavalry.
If you successfully break up the flock, you can then target individual gobblers as they try to regroup. Separating a gobbler from his harem can suddenly make your calls more effective, as turkeys — both hens and gobblers — have an inherent and incessant need to return not only to their flock, but also to their daily routine, including all the locations and travel patterns they prefer.
Scatter the flock, then set up and call softly and lightly, coaxing those lonely gobblers back into their comfort zone.
9. Wait for Midday Magic
Every morning turkeys go through a daily ritual of sorting out the pecking order, and it’s also the time when gobblers are the most vocal as they try their best to collect a hen or two for the day. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of the gobbles you hear in a day might occur right at flydown. As midmorning rolls around, it’s not uncommon for once-vocal gobblers to clam up for the day.
Once the gobbling dies off, it’s easy to pack it in and head for breakfast. However, it’s important to remember that turkeys, while they may be silent, still stay active all day long, which means you should, too.
This is where being mobile comes into play. Prospecting for spring turkeys is a midday game, so try the run-and-gun ground game, using yelps and shock-gobble calls to strike a willing gobbler. After you hear a gobble, move in as tight as possible to that turkey’s position. He should be more excited to answer your call if he knows his gobble brought you in close.
10. Turn Failure into Success
I know a lot of great turkey hunters, but I don’t know a single one that kills a bird every time out. What I’ve learned is that the really great ones take notes — lots of them — each time they head out and then use that intel on future hunts.
Turn unsuccessful trips into recon missions. Take note of turkey travel patterns, what fields they prefer, what calls they liked, what calls they didn’t and also take in the lay of the land on the ground you hunt. Date, weather, time of day and more should also be logged for future reference. All of these subtle details will aid your effort the next time out, possibly keeping you one step ahead of the birds and that much closer to success.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum. Contact him with new ideas and questions at [email protected] Or, follow him on Twitter @OutdoorForumMag.