COVER STORY: The ultimate rush of hunting wild turkeys has nothing to do with the kill but everything to do with getting kissin’ close, feeling the power of this elusive bird, hearing him drum and spit and witnessing a kaleidoscope of impressive feather colors up close….

While savvy hunters understand the importance of hunting with full fan gobbler decoys and the need to use calls to entice gobblers into shotgun or archery range, many overlook the most important element in successful turkey hunting, which is fooling a turkey’s eyesight. If you want to increase your odds for a big tom this spring listen up, I’ve got some hot tactics that work.

First and foremost, it goes without saying you need to be fully camouflaged before you hit the woods this spring. Keep in mind wild turkeys have super keen eyesight and if you want to score you have to pay attention to every detail. One trick is to get fully dressed long before season and look at your reflection in a full length mirror. The idea is to look for the details that could give up your position. Are your hands covered? Do you need a camo belt rather than the black one around your waist? Are your boots fully camouflaged? Many hunters make the mistake of wearing the same dark brown bottomland camouflage in spring when the environment is greenish. Sure you can get away with poor camouflage if you are hiding in a ground blind but if you are like me, sitting out in the open, you need to refine your camouflage to match the environment where you are hunting.

I’m a camouflage junkie and go hog wild to make my hunting gear look like the spring terrain. Sure I use plenty of green spray paint on clothing, hat, crossbow and all my gear. Ever look at the bottom of your boots? Often boots are dark black and your feet stand out like a black stop sign. You got it, mine are spray painted. Further my 500 mm telephoto lens is fully camo painted too! I know you think I’m nuts but in order to get quality pictures I’m often stalking wary adult gobblers and I need to be completely camouflaged head to toe, including expensive camera gear. When it comes to shotguns and archery gear mine are fully spray painted. Gotta admit it kind of broke my heart to spray paint my new $2,500 Ravin crossbow but when I was finished the result was an easy shot kissin’ close to a trophy gobbler. The following anecdote best describes my point.

It was a beautiful spring day with geese honking and robins singing as I made my way along the open field. I spotted a monster gobbler from the paved road, ditched my van, grabbed my Ravin, hunkered down and began a long stalk. I was crawling along a railroad track rather than setting up decoys and calling. My goal was to use the bank bordering the tracks to conceal my approach. Last thing I wanted was a sore butt sitting over decoys making turkey sounds. I wanted to stalk my prey; use aggressive hunting skills and advanced hunting tactics to slip into easy crossbow range.

The first hundred yards was a cake walk because I was hidden by the bank but when I got 70 yards from the gobbler the terrain became flat with less brush to cover my approach. Soon I was belly crawling through the bright green grass with crossbow strapped to my back and green face mask concealing my entire face. I could feel my pulse quicken as I slithered into range like a fox stalking a mouse. I moved directly at the big bird preoccupied with a little hen. He was doing a courtship dance in the open field far from any cover and each time he would turn his back and go into full fan I would move quickly.

But the little hen peeked around his huge fanned tail feathers, caught my motion and gave a soft alarm putt. The big gobbler responded immediately and lowered his fan, stood tip toed, extended his long neck and all of a sudden I was staring into the eyes of an alert wild gobbler less than 20 yards away. I slowly lowered my profile, laid flat on the ground, rested my chin in the dirt, closed my eyes and tried to relax and forget I was at point blank range with an alert trophy gobbler eyeballing me. I’ve been in this same position many times with camera gear and often the standoff ends with an alarm putt, turkeys quickly turning away and soon they are sprinting like crazed roadrunners for cover. Minutes slowly passed, I moved nothing and soon the hen wiggled her tail feathers in front of the old gob and he went bonkers and responded by going full fan.

When a wild turkey sees a hunter he keeps his head
extended while he turns on the afterburners and quickly runs out of shooting range. This defensive maneuver is highlighted by an ear piercing high pitched alarm putt every hunter hates to hear. Thomas Kirkland photo

When his huge fan blocked his view I slid the Ravin off my back and got into a prone shooting position. After a couple minutes I yelled at the mating pair and the big tom dropped his tail feathers, stood alert with head high as I centered the crosshair on his upper neck and touched the trigger. Twack! He hit the dirt like a ton of bricks and the 11-inch trophy beard and 26 pound gobbler was mine.

Sure I used advanced stalking skills to get kissin’ close to the trophy bird but my biggest advantage was wearing the proper camouflage from head to toe. But keep in mind most of this stalk was easy because I was hiding behind the track bank. If you want to increase your odds at harvesting adult gobblers you need to concentrate on staying behind cover. This holds true in the majority of hunting situations: those in blinds need to wear a face mask and hide behind curtains and ground hunters are wise to use terrain, trees, and brush, anything to hide their human outline.

However don’t make the mistake of setting up in thick cover where you cannot get a clear shot through the brush. Some hunters set up behind large trees and use the trunk to conceal their movement and outline.

Wild turkeys have super instincts and they have excellent hearing and off the hook crazy sharp vision. They can spot movement ten times better than the biggest buck in Michigan. Sometimes you simply can’t fool their eyesight and your hunt is blown before you begin. Wild birds found in areas with a high coyote population, which is fast becoming most of Michigan, are difficult to scout and vanish from sight at the slightest glimpse of a human, automobile or off-road machine.

I learned decades ago that it is difficult to blindside a wild gobbler because their eye placement is located high on their narrow skull. I believe they can see 320 degrees which makes them a challenge to approach. When on stand it is a good idea to raise your weapon when the bird’s vision is blocked by trees, brush, decoy, tail fan or other object. Keep in mind when wild birds slip kissin’ close inside 15 yards they are less likely to spot you because you are inside their comfort zone. Also, if a big gob finally sees you he is not likely to flush and fly like a rooster pheasant. Instead he will sound an alarm putt, turn his back to you immediately, hold his head high and look to sprint in the opposite direction which offers you a shot.

Wise hunters have learned a wild turkey not only has keen eyesight but their ability to detect movement is legendary. All too often incoming birds are spooked when they see a hunter move his weapon into shooting position, spot the movement of a hand sweeping across a slate call or box call. Keep this in mind the next time you drop the call and reach for your weapon. Any quick movement, whether camouflaged or not, quickly gets the attention of wise gobblers. Savvy hunters have learned to move slowly as molasses in winter when setting down calls, shouldering a weapon and taking the safety off. One trick is to watch the target bird and when he is distracted, blocked by a tree or not looking at you, make your move. Hopefully the gobbler does not detect you and the shooting is simple. However, some birds simply spot you hiding, covered head to toe with camouflage and they still pick you up and run for safety.

While many hunters prefer camo face paint I like my custom made ¾ style face mask complete with Velcro straps in back for easy on/off use. My model only has eye holes and my complete head is covered. Don’t make the common mistake of using a mask that doesn’t cover your neck and back of your head. I use a Russian military sniper balaclava and North Mountain has a 3D leafy ghillie head net that is tops. In a pinch I use the H.S Specialties camo leafy face mask. The trick is to cover your entire face when chasing turkeys.

A strong wind moving branches, grasses and leaves can be a big advantage concealing hunters from the sharp eyesight of wild turkeys. While the wind can make calling a challenge it serves to distract birds coming into your set up. Breezy weather requires aggressive calling that can bring birds running but some hunt-smart gobblers will hang up slightly out of shotgun range, eyeball your set up and scan the area for movement or anything resembling hunters. If they see anything abnormal they simply turn tail and melt into the forest.

I’ll never forget the trophy long beard I harvested on Doonsbury property near Beal City on a windswept cow pasture. A morning sit brought no birds because the wind was blowing 40 mph and they could not hear my calls. On the way back to the farm house I noticed two gobblers in a cow pasture. I hunkered behind a hill and watched how live cattle walked around the wild birds and they didn’t pay any attention. That’s when I got the bright idea to use a cow to block my approach. I slipped next to an old milk cow, followed her mane toward the wild turkeys. When I got close I could see the thick massive beard of one bird dragging on the ground. I was laughing inside as the cow meandered past the wild turkeys and I let go of the beast, raised my 12 ga. shotgun to my shoulder and when the cow cleared I dumped the biggest tom. His beard was almost 12-inches long and he had no idea a human with a gun was coming kissin ’close by hiding behind a cow. There’s more than one way to fool a wild turkey’s eyesight and apparently wild gobblers have no fear of six-legged cows.

My point is turkeys can be tough critters to fool because their eyesight is super sharp. Most are constantly standing upright looking for danger. Many have been harassed by coyote and they know the way to avoid attacks is to spot brown predators slipping through the grass and underbrush. Adult gobblers have encounters with hunters and some become so paranoid they refuse to approach calls until they thoroughly scrutinize the area in search of hunters hiding in the shadows. Some old toms are simply un-callable because they have been shot at and avoid lifeless decoys and men wearing camouflage sitting against trees. Some savvy hunters report the biggest gobblers they harvest come in silent. These wary birds are ever vigilant and in order to score you must wear fancy camouflage and use advanced hunting skills. Oh sure, some birds simply come in on a string and you gotta loudly yelp to get them heads up for the shot. However, many more peek through the timber or over hilltops unnoticed and they catch hunter outlines or movement and they slink away going in the opposite direction.

While a whitetail deer’s best defense is his sense of smell, a wild turkey depends on keen eyesight. It is your challenge to master the skills needed to fool the eyesight of wary adult birds. Put simply, it’s time to camo up turkey hunters and learn how to develop hunting skills that will hide you from the outstanding eyesight of monster longbeards looking for danger 24/7. When it all comes together and a huge longbeard moves into easy range the encounter is fulfilling because you have outsmarted a worthy adversary with far superior eyesight.