Turkey hunting has been likened to a game of chess, where the players-both hunter and hunted-often make a move and then a counter move (or call) in response to the actions of their opponent. Checkmate is when you have a longbeard flopping at your feet or when the wily ol’ tom makes his way safely out of Dodge, clearly recognizing that all is not what it seems in the woods that day. The latter scenario is more often the case.
Despite all of the tit-for-tat that transpires between bird and man, most hunts, and particularly birds, follow similar patterns that a hunter will encounter time and again. Rather than obsessing over the miniscule details of every failed (or even successful) hunt and applying that to the next bird he or she faces, a hunter is best served by identifying the type of tom or hunting situation they are in and laying out their strategy based on that assessment.
The Situation: A tom roosts near a field edge where he can pitch into the open at first light and struts and feeds often out of shotgun range from the wood’s edge.
Best Approach: Get there early. Ideally, you’ve scouted this bird out and know where he prefers to roost. Slip in under darkness and get as close to that spot as you dare, ideally within 75 to 100 yards. Set a gobbler decoy with the fan facing toward where the tom should pitch into the field. Set it no more than 20 to 30 yards from where you’re sitting. Upon the tom’s first gobble, make sure you are close enough. If the turkey is not where you thought and it is still dark enough, reposition yourself and your decoy. If not, deal with it. It’s not worth risking a blown hunt by spooking the bird. Yelp softly. If the tom answers, he knows you’re there. It’s time to sit and wait. Calling to hear him gobble will do nothing but keep him in the tree longer and possibly attract other hens or hunters. Upon pitching down, this longbeard should stroll right down to check out the unfamiliar challenger. Pop him as he steps around to face off with your decoy. If the gobbler gets skittish, work him with soft calling and if you fail to seal the deal because of the decoy, dump it and come back in a day or two with the same approach, just sans decoy.
Wildcard Options: So what if a gobbler is already in a field? As the bird struts, wait until its fan is blocking its view. Then reach as far into the field as you can while keeping yourself concealed in the brush and stake out a full-strut gobbler decoy or hen. If going with the former (my preference), turn the deke’s back to the gobbler and toss out a gobble or two with a shaker call. If using a hen, lay out some yelps. Don’t have a decoy? Determine which direction the gobbler is slowly working and try to set up along the field edge where it can be intercepted. If the bird appears or has proven to be call-shy, don’t make a peep. Settle for the ambush.
The Situation: Whether hunting the clearcuts of the South, the open farmlands of the Northeast and Midwest, or the drainages of the West and Southwest, streams and creeks are often bordered by the best trees around for gobblers to roost. The damp soils here are also the first to green up in spring, making them an ideal spot to catch turkeys feeding on the new, leafy shoots and insects.
Best Approach: Work the cover of the trees much like the birds will. Ease along, calling every 100 yards, tossing out soft yelps at first and then launching into more aggressive cutting if nothing initially responds. Cutts can sometimes pull a gobble from an otherwise reluctant tom. If one hammers back and is close, sit down immediately and get ready. If the bird continues to hang back, work him gently, offering the occasional call to keep him enticed.
Wildcard Options: Turkeys use the tree-lined streams in grown up clearcuts as the open understory provides for safer travel. These areas act as virtual funnels and hunters can hang in these spots when gobbling activity is light and simply call periodically in an effort to intercept birds as they move or roost along these areas. For birds that have moved into open pasture or open clearcuts to strut, use the cover along these waterways to slip into position before calling.
The Situation: Whether on a wooded ridge, open hilltop or simply strutting on a slight rise in coastal woods, turkeys like to own the high ground where they can see danger and be seen by hens.
Best Option: You always want to take the high ground before working one of these birds. Back off and do an end around far out of sight of the gobbler so that you can slip in from a spot higher than the bird. At the very least you get at an equal altitude. Then set up and work the bird like you normally would. By getting even with or above the gobbler, you ensure that he can’t slip in and look down the slope where you will be more easily spotted. Be careful not to silhouette yourself against the sky.
Wildcard Options: For reluctant birds, use the terrain to keep yourself hidden as you slip into place. If the tom finally gobbles to your calls, hit him like crazy with more yelps and cutts until he pops into sight, then back off and let him come looking for you. Once he’s in sight, you can tell when he needs a call and when to shut up by whether he continues to approach or not. As long as he is coming your way, keep quiet.