By Bob Humphrey
When I started guiding turkey hunters, birds were hard to find and permits hard to get. Most of my clients were first-time turkey hunters and I advised hunters to take the first legal bird they could. “Get one under your belt, gain some experience and then hold out for a longbeard,” I’d advise.
Turkey hunting has changed since then. We’ve got birds everywhere and a lot of experienced hunters — and turkey tags are available over the counter in most states. No longer content with the first two-year-old longbeard that comes along, more and more hunters are holding out for a real limbhanger.
Those birds seldom come easy though. They’ll test your mettle and frustrate the heck out of you. Targeting one is an added challenge, but one more hunters are taking on, voluntarily. If you’re among this growing contingent, here are a few tips that might help you in your quest.
As with real estate, the single most important factor in turkey hunting is location, and this is especially true for older birds. This means scouting. You can be the best caller, have the best camo and a super-tight, long-range tom whacker, but if you’re in the wrong location, you’ll have to work harder. Conversely, if you’re in the right spot, you almost don’t need to call.
Turkeys will often follow a routine, especially early in the season, before they’ve been harassed by other hunters. If you can find a flock with a regular travel route, you need only to be where they’re going before they get there. Later in the season, after the birds have been hunted and the flocks break up, toms may move out of their regular haunts. That’s where in-season scouting pays off.
Avoid the Crowds
Your biggest obstacle to finding and hunting routine birds will be competition from other hunters. There’s a good chance someone else is watching the same flock, and two or more hunters working the same bird will only get in each other’s way, and more likely than not both come up empty.
You’ve got to find birds that no-one else will be hunting. One way is to secure exclusive permission from the landowner. Another is to scout off the beaten path. Get out early, hike way back in and listen for gobbling birds that may not be visible from the road.
This is one of the biggest mistakes that less-serious hunters make. They do most of their hunting by driving roads late in the afternoon, and owl-hooting at dusk. You’ll find birds this way, but they’ll likely be heavily hunted birds. A third way to avoid the crowds is changing when you hunt.
Far and away, most hunters concentrate their efforts on the first few hours of the morning. That’s when the birds are most active and most vocal. In states with a single season, they also concentrate on the first few days or weeks. However, hunting later in the day or the season has its advantages, particularly if you’re after a trophy.
As the morning grows older, hens begin to drop out of the flocks to lay eggs and incubate their clutches. This leaves the toms alone, and looking harder for prospective mates. Most of the hunters have left the woods too. Numerous times I’ve returned later in the morning to some of the most heavily hunted haunts in my area only to find lonely old toms looking for someone to call them.
The same logic applies to hunting later in the season. Those old, dominant toms that have been henned-up all season are now on their own, and still in breeding mode. As many a veteran turkey hunter will tell you, late season can be the best time to target a trophy tom. They’re often alone and much more eager to come to the call than they were earlier in the month.
While it helps, you don’t have to wait until late season to hunt henned-up birds — toms with a harem of hens. You just have to modify your technique. One way is to scout and look for a routine, as mentioned above. Another is to modify your calling.
Most hunters call too much. I’m often guilty of that myself. This can intimidate toms, and more importantly, hens. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re jealous, but hens will lead a tom away from a perceived rival — most of the time. You can sometimes avoid this by easing up on your calling. Call softly and infrequently. Don’t try to compete with the other hens, just let them know you’re there.
If that doesn’t work, you could do just the opposite. If you can get a hen fired up, she may come your way, and drag her suitor with her. You’ve got to test the waters, and may risk sending the flock in the opposite direction, but you won’t know until you try. If a hen answers you, call back. If she gets louder and more aggressive, do the same.
You could also throw down the competitive gauntlet. A tom with hens isn’t likely to leave his flock for one stray hen. But he might be more inclined to try and drive off a rival. And you can simulate one in several ways.
One is decoys. Place a jake decoy with a couple hens and you just might pique that old gobbler’s ire. You can enhance your rig’s effectiveness if you place a jake and hen in breeding posture, with the hen on the ground and the jake on top of her.
Another way is with calling. You shouldn’t be gobbling because that’s unsafe, and is more likely to attract other hunters than a real tom. However, you can simulate a jake. A jake’s yelp is slower, louder, and usually somewhat deeper in tone than a hen. These younger birds, though excited, are still aware of their social position and when yelping, may often break into kee kees. Like a herd bull chasing off satellites — a tom may come charging in if he hears a subordinate calling his hens.
Yet another call is the fighting purr. The theory is the same as rattling bucks: by imitating the sound of dominant rivals, you’ll attract other males. It works, but is best saved as a last resort.
A somewhat more radical approach to duping a stubborn, henned-up tom is to apply a little fall hunting technique. The basic premise of spring hunting is to locate a gobbler and call him to you. It works because it’s the breeding season, and toms are looking for hens. This is not so in the fall, when the typical method is to break up a flock of birds and call them back together. It works because they’re social birds and seek out each other’s company.
You can sometimes combine the two effectively, and here’s how. First, locate an active roost. Wait until the birds have flown up, and it’s dark. Then, go in and bust the roost, scattering the birds. That lonely old tom will sit up in the trees all night waiting to fly down and regroup his harem, and he’ll be much more eager to come to the call the following morning.
Unlike deer hunting, turkey hunting is often more fun if you hunt with a partner. This can also put you at a decided advantage if you’re dealing with a hung-up tom. These cagey old birds didn’t get that way by eagerly racing to the call. They’ll approach to a safe distance and gobble at your every call, but they won’t come an inch closer.
Have your partner back off 40 or 50 yards behind you and call from there. This will give the tom the impression the hen has lost interest and moved on. He still won’t come all the way to the caller; but he may come close enough to offer you a shot.
The Old-Fashioned Way
Modern turkey hunting is very different from the sport’s roots. But there are still a few pactitioners of the old way, often described as: “yelp three times on a box call and wait a half hour.”
No one really knows why, but there are some days when the woods are dead quiet; the turkeys just won’t gobble. You can go trolling along try to shock a bird into gobbling. But that often ends with frustration and tired feet. If you’ve tried all of the aforementioned techniques and you still come up empty, pick a spot, plant yourself and just call every half hour or so.
If you’ve done your scouting well, sooner or later a tom will come within hearing, and your calling might just be enough to lure him in. The toughest part is remaining still, silent and vigilant, often for hours. But on those quiet days a tom is very likely to come in silently. Just pretend you’re deer hunting. If you can do it in the fall you can do it in the spring.