Wild turkeys are wary birds and sometimes it seems like you simply cannot get close enough for a shot. They certainly have unbelievable instants and perhaps keener eyesight that any other bird in Michigan. If they get one glimpse of you or if something appears out of place they turn tail and become a Michigan road runner and sprint out of sight at lightning speed.
Overshadowing all other hunting factors, perhaps the number one reason Michigan turkey hunters fill a tag is because of location. Scouting can be a major factor in identifying turkey rich locations, determining travel routes and establishing movement patterns. But that does not mean by simply being in a gobbler hot spot will guarantee success, rather to be successful turkey hunters must utilize camouflage or blend into the environment and use savvy decoying tricks and calling strategies to get wild birds in easy range.
This involves getting inside a wild turkey’s comfort zone and using smart hunting tricks to seal the deal. Getting in the zone is what turkey hunting is all about and once you get kissin’ close to a big gobbler it will change the way you hunt for the rest of your life. You will no longer be happy with random long distance encounters and work diligently to seduce wild birds into easy range.
I learned about gobbler comfort zones years ago while taking telephoto pictures. I quickly realized that in order to get quality photos I needed to get very close, inside 30 yards, and go undetected while snapping images. Of course I discovered that hiding in a pop-up blind provided cover needed to get close. I was amazed at how wild turkeys pay no attention to man-made structures and I could take photos with ease. I still set up wearing full camouflage and learned how to steady my 500mm lens on a quality tripod. But savvy birds would hear the shutter; notice the large lens with shiny glass and skirt out of sight.
However, over the years I’ve noticed that once you get in a gobbler’s comfort zone they tend to ignore you. It is almost like they accept any unusual forms that are close. Seldom do they go bonkers if they pick you out and many times once you get inside 15 yards turkeys seem to not notice you.
It is exciting to slip into the comfort zone and witness the characteristics of these huge birds up close in your face. They are constantly communicating by making soft purrs and yelps to stay in contact. Close range loud gobbles will send a chill up your spine. There is something powerfully addictive about getting close to adult gobblers. You learn to love their struttin’, spittin’, drummin’, chirping’ and the multitude of sounds they make to attract mates. When other birds are close gobblers tend to be very relaxed yet constantly watching nearby hens that act as lookouts and sound a sharp alarm putt if danger is near. Sometimes a troop of gobblers will get downright goofy as they chase each other like teens at a dance, purring, clucking and dashing helter skelter.
In order to get inside a gobbler’s zone you need to identify his territory, learn his strut zone and determine which travel patterns he uses and the fields that are his home turf. Start by scouting in advance and entering his domain undetected, usually under the cover of darkness before daylight. The idea is to set up where you can cover a large area, say the length of a football field but your intention is to encourage the gobbler to eventually come your way and end up less than 30 yards from you.
In some cases a big bird might stray from his zone or perhaps he is henned up and busy with breeding chores. Not every wild turkey charges you at first light. Sometimes you need to be patient, give him time to cross a ridge or navigate a swamp before you get a peek at his huge black form coming through the forest. Each hunting scenario is different and you need to be adaptable if you want to succeed.
It helps if you can find a clear area for decoys and ideal backdrop to conceal your outline. Sometimes the best set ups have paths leading in several directions which allows birds to approach from a variety of locations. The trick is to try and foresee the future by anticipating a gobbler will hear your calls, answer and head in your direction. Select a stand where you can move without being spotted.
Far too many Michigan rookie hunters place too much faith in turkey calls and they neglect the basics of concealment, and most importantly decoying. Attracting a wild turkey is an art form. You just don’t make some yelps and continue with the same cadence and sound and expect birds to come running. Savvy callers use a variety of calls and often open up with a loud box call, then switch to yelps from a mouth call and seal the deal with sweet purrs made on a slate call. It is almost like performing a dance where one move cues a corresponding action. You make a few calls, a gobbler responds, you entice him with a variety of other calls and he sneaks close enough to see your decoys and now you are in a tango that includes moves and counter moves that entices the bird into the kill zone.
Deadly decoys are the trick to quick success; they are far more important than calls and set up location. Getting a boss gobbler to strut your way and come kissin’ close requires your understanding of wild turkey decoys and how to use them. The key to success hinges on use of a full strut gobbler with fanned tail. While some hunters swear by hen and jake decoys it has been my experience that full deks are absolutely deadly. If you are a novice turkey hunter or have difficulty calling gobblers I recommend you cut to the chase and learn how to use full fan decoys to bring gobblers running.
The trick is to replace the fake fan with real feathers and make the decoy mimic the exact visual cue as a wild bird. I like to glue on real wing feathers, butt feathers and custom paint the head. This deadly tactic brings gobblers running like no other, period. You see, there is the powerful sexual message that a fan tail sends out to all and sex crazed toms come running. To wild turkeys a fan indicates sexual readiness, dominance and gives birds a visual clue that a hot hen is nearby, ready to breed which causes gobblers to investigate the fanned decoy and they walk into the kill zone. One strategy is to position the decoy, hide in tall grass, brush or cover nearby and not do any calling. You would be amazed at the drawing power of a strutting gobbler decoy. Savvy hunters give some sweet turkey talk calls to get the attention of birds in the area but many times they go silent once the incoming gobbler is headed directly toward the kill zone. A full fan gobbler decoy brings toms to you, puts them in easy range and you are automatically inside their comfort zone.
Other times getting inside the comfort zone requires utilizing calling to seal the deal. This involves many different variables most of which are used on the fly as hunters feel their way through each hunt. Sometimes you need an understanding of the land, the layout of woods and fields so you can maneuver into position. Interpreting the mood of gobblers can be important and if birds are call shy you limit communication. On the other hand if a gobbler is fired up and willing to quickly respond to calls you can easily attract a gobbler with a series of yelps. Some hunters are expert callers and they can get the attention of toms and bring them close at lightning speed. The late Doug Thornton from Haslett was an ace at calling turkeys and on more than one occasion I’ve seen him light ’em up and bring ’em close with soft purrs. He was an expert at turkey communication and he could create a visual aspect of location to an unseen quarry. It was always a pleasure to see his birds come scouting with head high, looking for love only to find Doug’s 3½” mag. He was a master caller and excelled at finishing wild turkeys.
Often rookie hunters use the same vocalizations over and over and smart gobblers will hang up, not convinced the monotone is the real deal. Sometimes vocalizations outside the zone can last for hours and hunters never get close enough for a shot. It is always rewarding to have a gobbler talkin’ turkey but you cannot fill your tag on birds outside the zone.
There are also birds that simply are too busy following hens to come to calls or decoys. Sure they will gobble in response to your call but slowly melt into the landscape going the other way. In this situation a hunter must learn to get out in front of him. The trick to success often hinges on your ability to slip undetected through woodlands, swamps and rolling terrain and set up where hens actually walk past. This requires patience, advanced woodsmanship and knowing when it is time to shoot as Mr. Big strolls into the shooting zone.
If no birds are visible or you get no response to calling, try a run and gun hunting strategy. The idea is to cover ground and try calling in several different locations until you get a gobble. Once you hear him move to a better vantage point and call again. If he responds immediately that means he is facing your direction and could be headed directly at you. Some birds come in slow and easy with head high looking for other turkeys. Others drop their guard and dash into the kill zone in response to the call and they are dumbfounded that other turkeys are not in sight. The key to success is dictated by the mood of the gobbler. If you make the right move you can have birds in the zone before they make a break. The key to success involves finding open areas for calling and not making a peep unless you find a good backdrop to sit against. Instead of just blindly walking and calling, try to foresee or anticipate where a bird will answer and be prepared before you call. This will make getting wild turkeys inside the zone less complicated and end up spooking far fewer birds.
If you are hunting small properties do not over-hunt your location. Just like with deer, the more you go in and mess with gobblers in a particular parcel, the sooner birds will eventually avoid it. Try to plan your hunt and use travel routes that do not disturb birds. If you are hunting a location with only a few birds wait for the best conditions and slip into the area under the cover of darkness. Learn to sit tight and coax birds into the zone using realistic calls and full fan decoys. You’ll only get a few chances to bag a longbeard and convince him to tip toe into easy shooting range. Take your time, don’t rush the shot and enjoy the thrill of a magnificent game bird kissin’ close, fanning, drummin’ and dancing in your kill zone.