It’s late March as I write this, and with spring rapidly approaching, all I can think about is turkey hunting. I just read an article in the Missouri Conservationist in which the author took a friend on his first turkey hunt. One morning out and they brought down two gobblers. Hard to believe, right? It’s a little different from my experience. Most days, I’m lucky if I see a turkey, let alone have a shot at one.
The spring turkey season pits hunters against the wariest of woodland creatures: the mature gobbler. This is the wily bird that I stalked last year, wooed with clucks and purrs and cutts. Until he finally lost patience with gobbling at me and came in for a closer look. Then he “made” me, as they say, and the hunt was over. So this year I’m going back to turkey hunting basics.
1. Location Scouting
Many hunters like myself don’t have the luxury of choosing between half a dozen 100+ acre farms to hunt. You probably already know where you’re headed this spring. I do. And since I can’t (won’t) change that, I’ve made it my business to get to know the turkeys there. Here’s what I wanted to know:
- Roosting trees. In my case, I discovered these the loud, startling way of bumping birds several early mornings. There are usually feathers on the ground beneath that the birds lose when flying up or down, and sometimes you can spot the droppings as well.
- Strutting zones. Fields, clearings and open areas where gobblers go into full strut for their hens are great ambush locations. Supposedly one can spot the wing drag marks, though I’ve never had luck with that. Instead I’ve spotted the toms strutting from a ways off (with my binoculars).
- Food sources. I think that identifying food sources for turkeys can be tougher because they eat such a wide variety of food. However, in the areas I hunt they seem to be after acorns, berries, and grasshoppers.
- Travel routes. If you can figure out how the birds get from roost to feeding areas and strutting zones, you’ve got your ambush.
2. The Hunting Setup
I’m in full-on stealth mode this year. That means head-to-toe camo, of course, including gloves and face mask. A lot of what I’ve read about turkey hunting says you only need something to break up your outline, and as long as you have good camo (and stay still) you’ll be invisible. I don’t buy it.
At least, I thought I was pretty well broken up and camouflaged when that tom busted me last year.
Perfect Cover: My Ground Blind
This spring I get to break out my secret weapon – the ground blind. It worked like a charm during deer season; the deer came so close I got to use my 20 yard pin. Done right, I’m thinking this will be an important part of my setup for turkey hunting. It’s quiet, it conceals my movement, and it covers my hands while I’m calling.
As for where to setup, my general strategy is to get as close to the roost trees as possible without being detected. This is a fine line to walk in the dense woods an hour before sunrise. As far as I know, there’s no early warning system for when you’re about to bump a turkey off of roost. There’s just an explosion of feathers that usually causes the heart to skip a couple of beats.
Using Turkey Decoys
It’s kind of a hassle to carry turkey decoys around, but I do try to use them in the field. I’ve got three hens and a jake decoy, but I rarely use the latter. Yes, if you believe many of the hunter-writers out there, the jake decoy might be the perfect thing to draw in a territorial gobbler. However, I’m hunting mostly public ground, where the pressured birds are harder to coax in. I use the decoys for three purposes, really:
- To give the incoming tom something to look at
- To lure in and comfort hens, which may also draw in a gobbler
- As yardage markers, especially if I’m hunting with my bow
I greatly prefer the collapsible decoys — remember that carrying a full-sized decoy through the woods isn’t safe!
Turkey Call Choices
Last year I pulled out all the stops, and took just about every kind of turkey call imaginable out into the woods with me. Here were my impressions:
Crow and Owl Locator calls
The idea is that the calls of other large birds may induce a shock gobble out of toms in the area. I’ve not had much luck with this, but it may have to do with the area I hunt. There are already lots of owls and crows, so the turkeys may be accustomed to them. Especially the crows. I hunt along a large reservoir with a lot of crow traffic, and even the real ones don’t seem to induce gobbles, so I wasn’t surprised when I had no luck.
My Hoot Flute was fun to use — I ended up catching the attention of another owl, which was fun but not useful for the next morning.
Classic Box Call
I still think this is one of the easiest calls to use, and the sounds from my Primos Wet Box are incredibly rich. As described, it will work even if it gets wet from rain or dew, thanks to a special resin coating. The two-handed operation isn’t ideal, but it’s great for walking-and-calling to locate birds.
The Tom Coffin
This is one of my favorite calls, one I’ve used for several years. It allows for one-handed operation; you can even mount it to the barrel of your shotgun. When I get the angle and pressure right, it works beautifully. Sometimes that requires some trial-and-error, which can be frustrating. I also hate the way the call sounds off when it’s bouncing around in your bag or pocket.
That said, the one-handed operation and relatively small size are so convenient, I use this call more than any other.
Ol’ Betsy Slate Call
Here’s a new call that I used last year and absolutely loved — the Ol’ Betsy slate call from Primos. No other call offers the range of different call types and volumes. Using it takes a bit of practice, and you absolutely can’t get the slate (or striker) wet. Even so, I love the fact that I can yelp, cut, and purr from the same call. It does require two hands, but the range of motion is far less than a box call. Once I’m set up in my blind and ready to announce my presence, this will be my go-to call.
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