A veteran turkey hunter once said, “The very first time you hunt a gobbler is the best time to kill ’em. Your chances go down accordingly every time you hunt him after that.”
A smart old gobbler wises up quickly. He’ll figure out where you’re coming into the woods from, the sound of a familiar call and have his escape route planned way ahead of time. The chances of him making a mistake go down proportionally after the first encounter.
Opening Day for many is not the first day turkey season opens for the season. Our state has split seasons that extend over a month. Many hunters opt for early season hunts thinking birds that have not been pressured will be easy marks. There might be some truth in that, but early season hunts are often plagued by bad weather. Later in the season, the birds have probably played the game a few times, but the weather is likely to be much nicer and hens are likely to be on their nests, and gobblers will still be looking for love. Early season hunts tend to be short. Hunts later in the year tend to be longer, offering more opportunity.
Finding places to hunt should be a priority. These can be private or public. Well in advance of the season is a good time to renew friendships with farmers who have allowed you to hunt in the past. It will give you advanced notice on crop rotation and how it might affect turkey movements. The farmer can give you a heads up on turkey populations in the area and updates on access, parking, neighbors and when you can hunt. On public lands, scouting missions can give you an idea of farming practices on adjacent private lands, access roads that may have closed or the fact that your favorite big-woods spot was clear cut over the winter.
A great tool for scouting from afar are the new apps, like On-X (www.onxmaps.com/hunt-app), which allows you to identify property boundaries and their owners, potential travel routes and edges and fields that turkeys will use. Combine this with glassing from afar.
Whenever your opening day is, scouting is paramount. It’s best done from a distance. There’s absolutely no sense in educating turkeys more than they already are. Find a good vantage point and note the time and place of turkey movements.
Turkeys will be concentrated in big flocks near food sources in late winter. This is a good starting point. As spring approaches, the birds will break up and segregate by sexes with bachelor groups of toms and hens. Try to determine where birds are entering and exiting the fields. Late afternoon scouting may help you determine where they’re roosting.
Listening can be as good as seeing. Listening at sunrise and sunset can give you a pretty good idea where exactly turkeys are roosting without disturbing them. Calls later in the morning can give you a heads up on travel corridors and where gobblers like to spend the mid-morning through mid-afternoon hours loafing. Make special note of gobbles you hear after the initial fly down. This can give you a heads up where to set up to waylay a tom at mid-morning once the hens leave.
Look for droppings, tracks, feathers and other signs that turkeys are using the area. Scratchings can reveal a feeding area that turkeys are likely to visit after they’ve had a chance to wake up. Turkeys use their powerful legs to move leaves and corn stalks to reveal tasty morsels underneath. Gobblers love to strut on trails and logging roads for the ladies. Look for long primary feathers, big tracks and drag marks from their wings when they’re strutting to pinpoint a prime ambush location.
Use locator calls to induce shock-gobbles from toms, but do it sparingly. Don’t use the calls you’d use to try and attract them. You want that to be a surprise.
Use the preseason time to practice with your calls. It’s always better to be proficient on more than one type of call. I like diaphragm calls because they do a great job of imitating subtle clucks, chirps and fly down cackles, and it leaves your hands free, but it’s hard to beat a friction call for making sultry purrs and cutting. Experts say the box call is the easiest call to learn how to use. It pays to be proficient on more than one call.
I’m not sure why, but turkeys are not as blind-shy as white-tailed deer are. Put a blind up in a new spot, and deer will pick it out in a heartbeat. Turkeys won’t even pay any attention to it. If you’ve done your homework and know where a gobbler is strutting, don’t be afraid of putting a pop-up blind up. It will shield you and allow you to make subtle movements, but more importantly, it will allow you to spend more time in the field. There’s no substitute for that. Don’t be afraid to stick it out during bad weather. Cool misty days are often the best.
Matt and I had done our homework before our late-season turkey season started. A friend had given me permission to hunt his 200-acre property, half of which was big woods and half was cultivated fields. A turkey haven, in other words. A couple of scouting forays had indicated plenty of turkey activity, and we heard several toms sounding off. Our hopes were buoyed that Matt could kill his first gobbler.
On opening day, we snuck into a spot we’d picked to call from in the dark and waited for daylight. Just as the sun was peaking above the horizon, a deep-throated gobble resonated across the wood lot along with a bunch of sleepy tree yelps. I responded with my most seductive clucks and purrs just to let them know we were there. The birds finally flew down and scratched around for a few minutes and then went in the complete opposite direction that they had gone on previous mornings, with the gobbler sounding off as they left. We cautiously backed out to devise a new plan.
The next day we set up where the turkeys had headed the previous day. The birds flew down again yelping and purring to greet the new day and then took the route they’d been using. To say we were disappointed was an understatement. We played this cat and mouse game for two weeks. If I called, the gobbler went the opposite way. We tried not calling and got the wise tom within 70 yards but couldn’t get him closer.
So we devised a plan. I put Matt on the side of a ridge the turkeys traveled when headed to the field. I went in the opposite direction and waited for daylight.
The birds started sounding off from the roost again and flew down. True to form, as soon as I called, they started to move the opposite direction right towards Matt, with the gobbler sounding off the whole time. Anticipation grew as the gobbler was bellowing each time I called. I knew he was headed right past where Matt was hiding. I expected to hear a gunshot at any second. But it never came.
After a half-hour I headed towards where Matt was sitting. He was still shaking. “Dad,” he said excitedly. “He walked about 10 yards behind me, gobbling the whole time. I couldn’t turn around!”
We stood and could see the tom on the top of a ridge in the field. I gave a couple of excited clucks, and he responded with one ‘see-ya’ gobble as he disappeared over the hill.