No place in Michigan’s great outdoors is more appreciated, loved and highly sought after by wild turkey hunters than roosting sites. There is something powerfully addictive about watching adult gobblers come to the roost, dash across the ground, take flight and loudly soar through branches to their perch high above dry ground. There is much folklore and powerful medicine for long beard hunters that find roosting sites and put gobblers to bed the night before the hunt. This was the case last spring near Dansville.
It was the second day of the hunt when we spotted several large turkeys headed for a thick white pine grove near the Dansville State Game area. One peak through binoculars confirmed several adult gobblers and two carried long trophy length 11-inch beards.
I was hunting with friends Edward Carlin from Grand Ledge and Rusty Streblow from Montague and the next afternoon we setup in the pines. The needles surrounding the tall conifers were strewn with turkey droppings and there were several feathers on the carpet of needles, indicating birds were working the area. We set out a decoy and made some calls but got no response. When the sun touched the horizon and the wind suddenly went dead, I could hear something walking in our direction. To my right was a huge gobbler standing erect, head held extra high and I could see he had at least a 10-inch trophy beard as I shouldered the Benelli, flicked off the safety and prepared for the shot.
Out of nowhere came a second bird and he stood directly in front of my trophy, blocked a clean shot completely, unless I wanted to fill two tags with one shot. But this bird was closer and it too was facing toward the heavens, then charged our direction, ran across the forest floor, gained speed and took flight in our face. The sound of the huge pounding wings at super close range shocked us. We didn’t expect the wild turkeys to fly up to roost at such a close distance that we could almost feel the breeze from their massive outstretched wings. Small branches snapped from the powerful strokes of the large wings and soon the duo came to rest in pine trees directly above us. Then, more gobblers came running over the hill, took flight and loudly smashed through tree branches to reach resting sites nearby. We all had our safeties off and guns pointing at close range adult gobblers when I heard Streblow laughing. I glanced in his direction to see him looking straight up into the pines, smiling from ear to ear, 12 gauge at his shoulder. “I don’t know which one to shoot”, he remarked. Then giggled more and said “this is like shooting fish in a barrel. Can you shoot wild turkeys out of a roosting tree?” Streblow asked as he chuckled loudly.
We sat on the pine needles watching the outdoor spectacle and never fired a shot. At one point I could see 6 big gobblers dancing on branches less than 40 yards above me. Soon sunset turned to darkness and we slowly slipped away leaving the wild birds unmolested. But returned the next morning before sunrise, set out a hen decoy and harvested a big gobbler at first light as it flew down from the pine branches and raced toward the fake hen.
Perhaps the greatest feeling you get when you locate a roosting site is you know in the morning you will be on turkeys pronto. In fact, many wild turkey hunters work diligently to find gobblers, identify roosting locations and setup close by before daylight. Instant success is almost guaranteed if you can put gobblers to bed. This was certainly the case on a Grand River outing.
It was one week into the late turkey season when pouring rain brought flood waters to the mighty Grand River near Lansing. Come daylight I saw a group of gobblers marching across a stubble corn field that bordered flooded hardwoods. I figured the birds were roosting above the flooding. Come late evening I glassed the large open corn field and spotted seven gobblers all headed back to the same location. I slipped behind a knoll, pulled up my Bogs boots, got in the water and sneaked to the location where I saw the birds in the morning. As the setting sun touched the horizon I could see the big gobblers headed directly at me. I stood in 10 inches of water hugging a weeping willow tree bordered by two huge oak trees.
The lead bird had a monster beard at least 11 inches long and when he waddled within 40 yards I put the Benelli to my shoulder. But I became distracted by the actions of other gobblers. They all stood tip toed, eye balling the tall trees with flood water below them. Soon my prize gobbler was surrounded by his buddies when he broke rank, ran flat out, outstretched his wings and flopped to the big branches on the oak above me. One at a time all the turkeys took flight and joined the boss gobbler in the tall oaks. The wildlife spectacle had me so enthralled, interested in the actions of the big wild turkeys I forgot about shooting. Soon the light faded from orange to purple and dark blue as darkness settled in and I slowly waded away from the roosting site.
I was up at 4:30 am and readied gear for a fast-kill turkey adventure. In my mind I could see the huge gobbler leading the flock, his 11-inch plus broad beard almost was dragging on the wet soil. I slipped along the edge of the field, set out my hen decoy with gobbler in full strut and tail fanned, and then hid in nearby brush to wait the rising sun. When I set up the fanned gobbler decoy I noticed the clouds cleared and the moon was bright. I could see the shadow of my human form on the ground and wondered if the nearby roosted gobblers could see me.
At first light I made a few soft wake-up calls and immediately was answered by loud gobbling from the roosted turkeys. A second soft call minutes later brought an immediate reply from a deep throated adult bird and I was certain Mr. 11-inch was mine. There were no hens in the immediate area and I was convinced the flock of gobblers would be on top of me like bees coming to honey. I readied the shotgun, remained motionless and as dawn broke I could hear the loud sound of flopping turkey wings. My heart skipped a beat at the thought of the monster gobbler rushing my decoy setup. But the sound of another bird got my interest and I leaned forward to see a huge turkey flying with wings outstretched. However, he was flying directly away from me. Soon every gobbler in the flock was gone, all of them flew away from me and I was sitting on wet ground, gun in hand and not a turkey in sight. Oops!
Sometimes the best made plans go bad and when I think back on the hunt I’m certain I made two mistakes. First, birds probably could see me setting up in the pale moon light. Second, I was too close to the roosting trees and adult birds carefully scrutinized my setup, determined the decoys were fake and exited stage right. Hunting roosted turkeys can be as easy as pie or when the hunt goes south, sour as green apples. More often than not the reason sweet hunts go bad has to do with mistakes hunters make. Here’s why.
Wild turkeys are very intelligent birds and they have keen eyesight, hearing and fantastic instincts. The only reason they act shell shocked during spring hunts is their instinctive behavior during breeding becomes a priority and they are sex crazed. Any other time of year mature adult gobblers are difficult to approach, hard to entice close with calls or decoys. But during spring breeding season they are somewhat easy to fool.
Every bird is different. Some come running when they see decoys or hear a call while others approach with extreme caution. Rookie hunters often make the common mistake of overcalling wild turkeys. They call too loud, too frequently and fail to stop calling to allow curious gobblers to walk into range. This is certainly a common mistake when hunting roosted turkeys.
Poor camouflage can ruin a hunt in a heartbeat. Say you have them roosted, setup and begin calling and birds are coming your way but they stop, hang up, wonder back and forth and eventually walk in the opposite direction. Chances are they made out your human form. Wild turkeys have extremely good eyesight and if they get within 50 yards of you and you continue calling they can pinpoint your exact location. Once they have you nailed down their keen eyesight kicks in and they scan you for uncovered hands, a face, a gun not camouflaged and they can zero in on the slightest movement. If you are working a slate or box call and your hands are moving they quickly detect the movement and slide in the opposite direction. Heck, I’ve had birds spook because they picked out the black bottoms of my boots against the green forest floor. The trick is to be fully camouflaged, match your outfit to the environment and remain motionless when gobblers get close.
Hunting wary adult birds that have encountered camo clad hunters become shy, difficult to call and decoy. Some hunters make the mistake of shooting at wary gobblers that are slightly out of range or they get excited and completely miss easy shots. This causes some toms to become unhuntable and they avoid all calls, stay away from decoys and spend breeding season under the shelter of thick brush or other cover. This was the case with a Cass County monster tom that sported a 12-inch plus beard. He was easy to identify because his body was huge and his long beard was as wide as a paint brush. I called him close, drew bow behind camo netting and missed the kill zone but put an arrow through his hip. He was uncallable after that. Ran from decoys and on several occasions disappeared from his home turf for several days after he heard hunters calling. I finally spotted him following a hen along the edge of a freshly planted corn field. I stalked into position, laid in tall green grass, let the hen pass and arrowed the trophy at 12 yards. Sometimes savvy hunters need to use bushwhacking tactics to score on birds that are unhuntable.
I soon found photographing wild birds on the roost is a daunting task. If I setup on a roost birds would gather in trees 50 yards away. If I stalked roosted birds they would detect my motion, blast out of tall trees and glide for long distances and not return for days on end. On one occasion I used a huge tree truck to block my approach and I snapped telephoto shots by leaning out and shooting from the trunk. Instant replay showed the pictures were blurred so I flicked on the flash, leaned away from the truck and snapped a picture. That’s when all hell broke loose and every turkey within sight of the flash was spooked beyond belief. Gee, do ya think wild turkeys are sensitive to electronic camera strobes? I’ve taken my best roost photos during winter. By wearing snow camo and stalking through silent snow drifts the birds will allow you to get directly under them. Spook turkeys from their bedroom and in most cases they will not return for at least a week.
Finding roosting sites can be difficult and simple, depending on the birds. Usually if you spot a fanning gobbler near woods following hens and the sun is touching the horizon, you can expect him to roost within 100 yards of the opening. But don’t make the common mistake of walking across the open field when daylight is breaking because keen-sighted gobblers will see you in a heartbeat.
Some turkeys like to roost in the same location. Find it and you can have a short hunting season. But most use several roosting locations and they use alternate sleeping spots at random. Most locations are large trees with big limbs that can offer support for 25-pound gobblers. Branches that offer horizontal limbs are a must and gobblers like trees offering a clear viewing platform to spot approaching predators or hunters. Sometimes gobblers will simply select a large tree near feeding locations or they follow hot hens to the roosting location females select.
I know of a huge tree being used by turkeys every year. The huge oak is probably over 100 years old and several feet around at the base. It has large limbs paralleling the ground and provides cover, comfort and safety for wild turkeys. On one occasion I followed three big gobblers to the roosting tree. The next day a half dozen wild birds joined them and a few days later a dozen turkeys were perched in the huge tree. That’s when a wise old hen spotted me. Sounded the alarm and flew south, another bird flew east and turkeys scattered in every direction. I visited the roost tree the next evening and it was empty and it stayed empty for over a week until finally three gobblers were found on the large limbs. Based on my experiences, turkeys don’t always roost in the same location. If they do it is because they are certain no predators or hunters are in the area. Always approach roosting sites with extreme caution and if possible do not flush birds from their resting location.
Turkeys seldom fly into a tree and sit motionless. Instead they reposition several times, a process that takes a few minutes and provides endless enjoyment to those watching as turkeys fly from limb to limb, making a lot of noise slapping branches with huge outstretched wings. I’ve seen gobblers dominate their roosting tree by walking up and down horizontal branches and chasing out any satellite toms. Others allow gobblers to roost relatively close in the same tree. If the wind is howling birds tend to select large trees with sturdy limbs and a huge trunk to offer protection from the wind, rain or other weather, and they will spend the night close to the trunk half way up the tree. Nasty weather will prevent birds from spending the night far out on radically swaying branches.
Gobblers like to roost over water. Some feel the water offers safety from predators and others are certain the water helps adult birds to spot approaching danger. Just about any water will due, river, pond, marsh, flooding, lake, you name it. But ideal roosting sites have large trees with stout limbs found growing out of water or hanging over water. Some turkeys will travel great distances to find the appropriate tree above water. I think part of the reason smart gobblers like water is when they wake in the morning they frequently like to fly down and have a drink of cool water before starting their busy day. The relationship between big ole gobblers and water is somewhat unknown but I’ve noticed that most Michigan turkeys are found close to a water source.
Spring gobblers often lead hens to a roosting location. Come daylight the males wake up where they can see hens and they often let the hens fly down first and gobblers follow. Other times gobblers like to hit the dirt near hens and immediately begin displaying, fanning and gobbling to attract mates. Each hunting situation is different and smart hunters need to be flexible with hunting strategies and techniques they use.
Of course the trick is to put your gobbler to bed. I’m talking about identifying a particular bird and locating the roosting area he is using. Once you have him snoring on a limb, you sneak in before daylight, setup and hope he will fly into a well-conceived trap. This strategy requires a lot of scouting, woodsmanship skills to follow birds to their roost and turkey hunting savvy that makes fooling wary birds a cake walk.
This spring when you are tired
of calling with no response, tired of setting over decoys that draw no birds, get off your duff and start scouting. Locate the gobbler of your choice, pinpoint his roosting tree
and surprise the trophy at daylight with enticing calls and realistic decoys.