By Bob Humphrey
As my truck rolled down the gravel road I turned to the fellow I was guiding and revealed, “this is one of the heaviest hunted spots in the area. The road ends up ahead and there’s a field off to the left. At dawn it looks like a parking lot.” No response was necessary. The look on his face said it all: “If that’s the case, what the heck are we doing here, and at 10 a.m.?”
The road dead-ended, in a spot as deserted as a football stadium on Monday morning. Fresh tire tracks and boot prints covered the ground, revealing the flurry of activity just a few hours before. But now the place was empty — hard to believe it was still opening day of turkey season. It was even harder for my client to believe me when I told him there was a strutter in the field.
I learned to hunt turkeys, and still do most of my hunting on land that is open to the public. That means with little exception I’m hunting pressured birds. I’ve also learned over the last two and a half decades that being successful means beating the competition, which includes both pressured turkeys and other hunters.
One tactic that has served me well, as illustrated in the opening passage, is to hunt late. And one example is late morning. Everybody wants to be in the woods at dawn, especially on opening day. That’s when the birds are most vocal, and seemingly most vulnerable. Given the choice, I too will take first water any day.
However, it doesn’t take much pressure to shut things down. Before long the sun comes up, the woods get quiet and folks have to go to work. Whether they score or not, a good many of those early-bird hunters will leave the woods after the first hour or two. The birds are still there, and can actually be more vulnerable.
Most spring turkey seasons are timed to begin after the majority of hens have bred. They may still be flocked up at dawn, but will peel off and leave the flock to lay and incubate eggs as the morning wears on. By mid to late morning the hens are gone and the toms redouble their efforts at looking for love. Most of the hunters are gone too so you’ve got a much better chance at calling a bird without interference.
The same is true, to a large extent, of hunting late in the season. Those older, dominant birds that were henned up all spring had what they wanted (hens) and no reason to leave them. Suddenly they finding themselves alone. Meanwhile, with a good many early-season hunters having tagged out or given up, you may also find yourself alone.
I’ve observed a phenomenon at this time of the season I call the shuffle. Once all the hens in a particular area have been bred, a dominant tom will sometimes leave his home turf and strike out in search of more. Seemingly overnight, longbeards begin showing up in areas they haven’t been all spring — sometimes leaving un-huntable private land for huntable public land. They’re eager to mate, and they’re on unfamiliar ground, which makes them doubly vulnerable.
One of the most obvious ways to avoid hunting pressure is to avoid the most obvious birds. It took me a while to learn this, partly because of naivete, but mostly due to my own stubbornness. Scouting from the front seat of my truck I’d find a bird, study his habits, stake my claim and assume because I’d been watching him every day that he was mine. Come opening day I’d quickly learn he belonged to a half dozen other hunters as well.
I still do a lot of pre-season (and in-season) scouting from the truck, but I take a slightly different tack than most of the competition. First, instead late afternoon and dusk, I scout at dawn. Second, I do far more listening than I do looking, employing a technique know as triangulation.
It works like this. I hit the road before dawn, stopping at frequent intervals and listening for unseen birds gobbling from the roost. When I hear one, I draw a pencil line on a topo map from my location to where I think the bird is. Then I try to drive around the block of woods he’s in, stopping at several more locations and drawing at least two more lines. The intersection of these lines is a reasonably god estimate of where the bird actually is. If I do this for several consecutive days with the same results, that bird moves to the top of my list of prospects.
The principal advantage is that the birds can’t be seen from the road. Nothing draws a crowd like a visible bird, and most hunters scout from the road. The farther away you can get, the less competition you’ll have.
One spring, while hunting in northwestern Connecticut, I tagged out in two days. Rather than go home, I jumped across the border to some huge state forest land in Massachusetts. By wearing out some shoe leather and getting a half mile or so back into the hills, I was able to tag two birds in two states in one morning.
On a much broader scale, you can avoid competition almost entirely by hunting large, rural states. Western states like South Dakota have some of the largest federal land holdings, and some of the best public land turkey hunting in the country. A successful do-it-yourself Merriam’s hunt can be relatively easy and inexpensive.
Even when hunting invisible birds well back from the road you should still expect the unexpected. There are always a few dedicated hunters out there who, like you, are willing to go the extra mile to find an un-pressured bird. And according to turkey hunting etiquette, if they beat you to the hotspot, it belongs to them, at least for that morning.
Furthermore, you may have your birds patterned to the minute, but the first time they get busted by another hunter, their routine changes. You may have another hunter stumble in on you, or the birds might just not be cooperating on a particular day. That’s why it’s important to have a Plan B, C, D and E.
This is where scouting becomes particularly important. Try to locate as many different gobblers on as many different parcels as possible. Don’t put all your turkey eggs in one basket. This way when something goes wrong, you’ll have options.
Also, scout at odd times of the day. Most hunters will be scouting birds at dawn and dusk, and will hunt where they see birds at those times. However, Turkeys travel considerable distances over the course of a day. By 10 or 11 am they could be miles from the roost. If you know they’re coming, get there ahead of them and you’ll probably have them to yourself.
Dare to Be Different
I remember my grade school guidance counselor used to tell me not to be afraid of being different. I think she was talking about peer pressure rather than hunting pressure, but it turned out to be applicable to both.
That heavily hunted parcel in the opening passage serves as a good example here as well. All the locals hunted it first thing in the morning. By nine or 10 they were gone and I’d often have it to myself. Over time, I also noticed most hunters set up along the field edges. By going a quarter mile back in the woods I could sometimes work a bird without interference, for a while.
I’ve also applied this philosophy to my calling. Despite what some of my peers say, I firmly believe that birds can become call shy. If everyone’s walking around the woods doing loud plain yelps, birds become conditioned to it, and are less eager to approach.
When hunting public land I’ll often use a much more subtle calling scenario. I may still call a lot, but I use more soft purrs and scratching in the leaves to simulate contentedly feeding turkeys. If that doesn’t work, I’ll set out my decoys and won’t make a sound.
Speaking of decoys, hunting pressured birds sometimes calls for some radically different tactics. Most guys use one, two or three decoys, usually including a jake and hen or hens. Pressured birds, especially toms with hens, may overlook or even avoid them.
That’s when I use my confidence spread. I’ve put as many as eight or 10 decoys out at one time. My reasoning is that if it works for waterfowl, why not for turkeys? And it does seem to work.
A special note of caution is advisable here. In order to appear more realistic, my confidence spread includes at least one strutting tom or jake. On heavily hunted public land this can sometimes attract the wrong kind of attention. For that reason, I only use it on larger fields, where I have a good vantage of any approaching hunters, and they of me. It’s hard to imagine anyone could mistake my plastic decoys for the real thing, but it happens.
You can apply the “dare to be different” philosophy to the weapon you choose as well. The reason there are so many hunters where I live is that there are so many people; and those people live in developed areas. So do turkeys. They’ve adapted quite well to living around the trappings of man in my part of the world. Many of these suburbanite birds go largely un-hunted, unless and until a bowhunter comes along. One of my best birds came from a small parcel of state-owned land that was too close to houses to discharge a firearm, but not a bow.
Weather or Not
Bad weather can be a bane or a boom, depending on whether or not you use it to your advantage. I used to hate hunting turkeys in the rain. Then I began to take notice of a few things.
First, there’s an inverse relationship between weather severity and hunting pressure. The worse the weather, the fewer hunters in the woods. Second, turkeys tend to prefer open areas, like fields, on rainy and windy days.
The real revelation for me though was when I discovered pop-up blinds. That’s when I realized if I set one up on the edge of a field and waited patiently, I could hunt in relative comfort, and with little competition. Now I actually look forward to rainy days.
These are but a few of the tactics I’ve discovered and adapted over the years for dealing with pressured turkeys and those who pressure them. Each situation is different and often unique circumstances call for their own specific techniques. Don’t be afraid to try something new or radical. You might blow a few birds in the process, but if it works, you could be the one strutting around your local state game lands.