“Over there… I could barely hear it… but I heard a gobble…” I was guiding my friend and US Army Veteran Varren Davis on his first ever turkey hunt and I was in production mode. Sitting in a blind all morning chatting with Varren was a lot of fun, but it yielded no turkeys. I decided to take matters in my own hands and show him a different way to hunt and call birds.
Another loud series of yelps from my diaphragm call confirmed by suspicion that there was a big old tom turkey out strutting in the nearby hayfield. Varren and I hoofed it fast to the wet spring hayfield just in time. I sat us both up next to a wise old oak tree, with Varren on a stool and me on the the ground.
I called again, this time a bit softer. “GOBBLE! GOBBLE!” Varren’s eyes lit up.
“He’s coming I said, as I could hear more gobbles resonating from over the small hill. Get your gun ready. I’m going to shut up.”
As if on cue, a giant red and blue head crested the hill at about 75 yards. Varren whispered: “There he is,” trying hard to stifle his excitement.
“Let’s let him come in and look around a bit, I’ll tell you when to shoot.” I replied. And sure enough, the tom did as I expected. When I setup for a turkey hunt, I try to always be in a certain situation where once we see the tom – it’s almost too late for him. In this situation the 75 yard hill crest wasn’t a perfect distance away, but it worked well enough. Any tom worth his salt will always want to make eye contact with the hens that he hears. I try to setup over a hill crest, or around a corner, or wherever I can find to make it such that when the tom is in plain sight of where the calls are coming from, that he’s also in shooting range.
Seeing no decoys (because we did not set out any) and getting a bit nervous, the tom decided to call it quits at about 40 yards. As he turned to walk away, I whispered to Varren: “Take him.”
“BOOM!” The combination of my Winchester SXP and Hevi-Shot 3 1/2” Magnum Blend rattled the river bottom, and we closed the chapter on Varren’s first turkey! I don’t know who was more excited, Varren or myself. We ran up to the bird and Varren stopped for a moment to admire him. It was a beautiful tom, and to date the biggest I had ever called in. With a big thick beard, and long dagger spurs, this was a true limb hanger, and we have pictures to prove it. All in all it was a great hunt.
Anyone who has turkey hunted more than once knows it’s often hit or miss, and turkey behavior is as unpredictable as the weather. That being said, there are things that I do to continue to put the odds in my favor to help me match wits with these wary springtime adversaries.
Whenever sitting in a blind hasn’t paid off, or I’m bored, or in a hurry, or for whatever reason, I love to Run-n-Gun turkey hunt. I don’t really “run” until I have to, but more or less walk around and call. I pay attention to the lay of the land, and try to remain as hidden as possible while also staying at the highest elevation so my sound travels. When it is raining, turkeys will be in the fields because they can’t hear well in the woods. When it is windy, they will be in the lower parts of the land like a valley because they can’t hear well in the wind. Also they will be in open areas in the wind too, if there are no places to escape the wind. Either way, the birds wander around all day eating and drinking and breeding, so I like to wander too.
I simply call loud, every 100 yards or so, and listen. Usually I’ll belt out a loud series of yelps and clucks – essentially “cutting.” As soon as I call, I stop and listen. Often it will take a tom a moment or two to gobble back. When he does, I call again, and quickly I start to take mental notes. Where is he? Are his gobbles getting louder or softer? What way is he traveling? How many are there? I try to get within 100 yards or so of the tom. Generally he will meet me halfway, where he comes toward me as I’m traveling toward him. Keeping in mind my philosophy of setups, I look for the perfect tree, or stump, or whatever to sit against, so when I do see the tom – he’s pretty much a dead bird walking.
As much as I look for a perfect spot, there often aren’t any. One time I killed a bird hiding next to a fence post. Another time I was standing in a clump of maple tees. Basically anything to break up my silhouette and hide movement will work.
If the hunt doesn’t go as planned, I’ll let the tom wander off and go back after him when I feel it’s safe. I’ll try to switch up my calls a bit if he doesn’t seem interested in my same call again.
Run-n-Gun hunting is a lot of fun. I also look for shed deer antlers, mushrooms, and scout deer hunting spots. All in all, when the action is slow or I’m bored, I get up and try to make an opportunity happen.
Often many frustrated hunters will see toms, and hear them gobbling, but they will be uninterested and locked on hens or “henned up.” I’ll be the first to admit calling a tom away from a live hen that may be ready to bred is next to impossible, but…there is another option. I call to the hens. There are three ways to call to hens that have worked for me in the past. The key is to quickly be able to read the hens body language and communication.
If I see a tom locked up on a hen, I listen for the hens calls. Let’s say she is yelping. I will start by mimicking her yelps and cadence, but at a much softer, submissive tone. I’m hoping that she is not threatened by my calls. I also hope that she wanders toward me to make this new girl part of her flock. If it works, she’ll bring the tom in tow and I’ll kill him. If she is not responding, I call again, but at a tone and cadence that is equal to hers. I’m hoping she is at least curious and will come toward me. If not, I’ve got one more option. I will then call much louder and more aggressive than the real hen, hoping to challenge her.
I’m not saying this hen calling strategy will work all the time, but it certainly is an option that beats simply watching them all walk off.
I love turkey hunting with a buddy. Not only is the camaraderie part of the fun, but having a calling partner can come in handy. I like guiding new hunters as well, but when we are both able callers, it becomes even more fun. There are several partner hunting strategies to utilize, but I prefer two of them. Strategy number one is to separate from my partner at maybe about 100 yards distance. Then with our cellphones we communicate by sending texts to each other. We take turns calling, maybe each guy ever other 10 minutes or so in hopes of finding a bird someplace. Ideally the bird will hear partner A’s call, and try to walk right by partner B for an easy shot, and vice-versa. Sometimes partner A calls in his own bird as well. Either way, once one bird is down, it’s time to relocate for a new setup and a chance for the other partner to score on his bird.
When partners are sitting together, I also like to use this handy trick when a tom hangs up just out of shooting range. Let’s say partner A already shot a bird. Partner B will be the shooter now, and waits patiently. Partner A does the calling, and a big old tom shows interest, but he wont quite commit. Partner A will then crawl backward, away from the tom, trying to fool the bird into thinking the hen is losing interest. Partner A is making noise all the way, breaking sticks, scratching leaves, etc… really selling the trick of a calling hen walking away. Ideally the tom will panic, and come running to catch up to his would be girlfriend…right into Partner B’s waiting shotgun. If it doesn’t work, I will leave that tom alone, and go find one who is willing to cooperate.
As I mentioned earlier, I make noise while turkey hunting by breaking sticks, scratching leaves, etc… Birds are noisy, and the old adage about being silent in the woods is only wise in certain situations. When calling turkeys, I make as much noise as possible. However, I also try to keep my movement down to a minimum. I don’t want to be dancing out in the woods because any bird that is curious will soon be running away.
Hunt in Phases
The best calls will fall on deaf ears, or no ears at all, if we don’t understand turkey behavior. I hunt them in phases, and hunt all day whenever possible. All day hunting is legal in my home state of Michigan, but it is not legal everywhere. My first phase is near the roost. I try to sneak in really quiet and early, well before any songbirds are making noises. Once I hear the birds roost gobbling, I ONLY make a few soft tree yelps, and then I shut up. The chances are good that the tom I’m hearing is already surrounded by hens, and any calling I’m doing is going to continue to educate the birds of my pressure. If he has no hens with him, he’ll fly down and come in a running to investigate the sweet girl he heard while roosted. The birds tend to fly down into the wind, and away from the sunrise to maximize their flight control and comfort in landing, so I keep that in mind too. I generally try to get within 100 yards of the roosted birds. Much closer and I risk bumping them.
After a few hours of sunlight, I go to a strut zone. Generally in the turkey world, the hens will get bred and then return to the nest mid-morning. The amorous toms will still be looking for love, so they will find a nice open, sunlight spot to strut. They need to be seen, and they want the suns rays to illuminate their iridescent feathers. A strut zone could be a field, ridge-top, river bottom, two track, etc… anywhere when the bird can properly show off. I usually try to show up to the strut zone before the birds do and just wait. I’ll call a bit if a hear a gobble, or if I see a bird that isn’t close enough, but usually I just wait. I don’t like to use decoys as often as most people do. Rather, like I mentioned earlier, I like to adjust my setups to create a situation where the tom is within sight distance, he’s also in shooting range. I think some decoys often give the tom too much of a chance to analyze the whole situation and back out of committing. When I do use decoys, I face them toward me so that any bird will have to put his back to me for the proper eye contact he needs.
About noon or so, if I still haven’t killed a bird, I head to a new farm and start over in a strut zone. Some people who are limited to certain properties may not have the luxury of leaving. In that situation, I would change my calls, try to sit by a water hole or dusting location, or simply take a nap. Any toms that have heard my calls in the morning will eventually return to investigate, it’s just a matter of how bad I want to kill that individual bird and how much time I have.
Many well meaning hunters miss the best hunting of the day while they are at breakfast complaining of “henned up” birds. The reality of turkey hunting is that the birds wander around all day and can easily be called in under the right circumstances. I start each day with a plan, stick to it, and create my own opportunities when there appear to be none. Get aggressive with your calling this spring and make an opportunity for your self as well. As always, be safe, shoot straight, and have fun!