April 03, 2023
I haven't heard a turkey gobble in four days. It’s 9 a.m., threatening 80 degrees, and it seems my chances of finding a longbeard are about as good as my chances of finding a pot of gold. I’ve resorted to driving Forest Service Roads, drinking coffee, and complaining. A buddy texts me and says he’s having similar luck. We wallow about in our misery. I send a text back that says: “I hate turkeys.”
Then a hen sprints across the road 100 yards ahead, neck outstretched and kicking up dust like the Road Runner. She’s been completely and thoroughly spooked. It’d be easy enough to just keep driving, but if there is one rule never to break in big-woods turkey hunting, it’s this: Do not ignore hens.
I pull the truck over, shut it off, and step out. Following the sounds of gravel popping under truck tires, it takes a while for the cardinals to chirp again. So I pour more coffee and wait—watching the clock and forcing myself to allow the woods to settle for a full 15 minutes.
After 12 minutes a turkey gobbles—crisp and clear and just 200 yards away. I thumb shells into my shotgun as quietly as I can, throw my satchel over my shoulder, and scuttle off into the woods. The turkey is sounding off steadily as I crawl through a shallow creek, soaking one arm to the elbow. I’m eyeing a broad poplar on the creek bank for a setup, but when I get there, I don’t like it. The gobbler is at the base of a ridge no more than 70 yards ahead, but there’s nothing but flat creek bottom between us. Still, I’m afraid to move anywhere else. I make four soft yelps.
The immediate silence is exactly what I expect. Shortly, I see a flash of movement ahead, a glimpse of a turkey lowering himself gently out of strut. Then he’s gone. After a silent 10 minutes, the turkey gobbles again, but now he’s halfway up the ridge and 100 yards farther away. Now, I think, I might be able to kill him.
Thirty years ago, most of us learned to turkey hunt just like this, by sneaking to within 100 yards of a gobbling bird in the woods and coaxing him into range with hen calls. Some hunters carried a collapsible foam hen, but most didn’t use decoys at all. Then along came the Carry Lite Pretty Boy decoy and, at about the same time, the pop-up ground blind. Hunters suddenly realized that the legendarily wary game bird—which can “see a bumblebee turn a somersault on the verge of the horizon,” as famed writer Archibald Rutledge so eloquently put it—had a serious character flaw. He would lose his damn mind to attack a strutting plastic monstrosity sitting next to a tent in a wide-open field. Turkey decoys only got better, and the most effective ones imitated gobblers and jakes and not hens. Reaper decoys like the MOJO Scoot-N-Shoot and Flextone Thunder Chicken took the concept of challenging dominance even further. Within a few years, the trendiest turkey tactics all seemed to bring gobblers running in to fight rather than, well, you know.
The new-school techniques made plenty of old-school turkey hunters bristle and squirm. Fooling a gobbler in the timber with hen calls, one-on-one—well, that was a gentleman’s sport. Only unwashed heathens antagonized Ben Franklin’s noble bird by crawling around in fields behind a dried fan. It’s dangerous, the purists said (though hunting accident statistics really haven’t proven that). But things seem to be slowly changing again. I don’t think the unwashed heathens have necessarily seen the error of their ways (I still enjoy reaping a turkey myself), but the current state of turkey hunting means revisiting some of the classic tactics out of necessity.
Turkey populations in many areas of the Southeast and Midwest aren’t what they were 10 years ago, and so those pasture corner strutters that were so susceptible to decoys aren’t as easy to find. That aside, challenging a gobbler’s dominance works best early in the season, when much of the actual breeding is taking place (and when luring them with hen calls is least effective). But recent research suggests that too much hunting pressure, too early, can negatively impact nesting success and, ultimately, turkey populations. Some states such as Alabama, Arkansas, and Oklahoma have delayed their opening days as a result. Alabama is taking it a step further by prohibiting decoys for the first 10 days of the season.
And with all that in the backdrop, there’s the public-land cool factor on social media. That’s a great thing, so long as all those eager new hunters stay off my favorite ridge come April. (Calm down, bro. I’m kidding. Mostly.) Most eastern public lands consist primarily of big timber, places where nobody wants to haul around blinds and decoys and where crawling around behind a turkey fan seems hazardous indeed. So the classic “call a turkey to you” approach makes the most sense. And it’s certainly the most fun. In fact, there’s nothing I’d rather do in all of hunting—period—than fool a longbeard one-on-one in public timber. Here’s what’s worked for me.
Take Small Bites
My favorite public-land spot is over 100,000 acres. It’s in the South, and that’s all I’ll tell you. I only started killing turkeys there after I stopped trying to hunt the whole place. I’ve got a few areas I know well that consistently hold birds. That’s where I spend the most time every spring. But every February and March, I pick out a few new spots on the map to walk and learn. If I see something promising, like scratching, tracks, or a winter flock, I drop an onX Hunt waypoint and come back later in the spring to listen for gobbling. It might take a couple seasons to add a new hotspot to my milk run, but they add up over time.
Walk And Gun
Silent mornings are the norm now, especially on pressured public land. Jumping from place to place when nothing’s talking is a good way to spook turkeys. I’ve had better luck by slowing down and spending the early morning hours working the same few hundred acres I’ve scouted and where I know turkeys live. It’s not an ambush. I move around and do some blind calling, but mostly, I listen. Sometimes I’ll get in the truck and drive a loop—like I was doing on that hot morning last year—but it’s a small loop driven with a purpose, with lots of stopping and listening. I rarely use locator calls because I’d much prefer to find a turkey that’s gobbling on his own. That can take a while—days even—but I’ve yet to have a season when it hasn’t happened at least a few times. But you have to be there to hear it.
Run A Mouth Call
In the absence of a decoy, a gobbler’s eyes are on the source of the sound. He will see you working a slate call striker. You don’t have to be a contest mouth-call champion, but being practiced and confident enough to make a realistic yelp on a diaphragm at the moment of truth is a huge advantage.
Each winter I try a dozen or more new mouth calls, but I hunt only with my favorite three or four. I buy a backup to my primary call, too. Some downplay the importance of calling, but being a good caller is a huge advantage. With that in mind, you don’t want your opening salvo to a gobbler to sound squeaky and fake. Mouth call reeds need to be moistened and separated to run properly, and so I warm my call up in the truck, making yelps during my drive to the woods. A mouth call’s sound quality will decline as the latex and tape become too saturated with saliva. That’s where the backup comes in handy.
My buddies give me hell for carrying a “man purse” instead of a vest. I traded my turkey vest for a T3 Bolt Bag (designed as a military grade bug-out bag) several years ago, and I have been happier with life ever since. The bag, which is essentially a satchel, carries my calls, shells, a bottle of water, a ThermaCell, pruning shears, and not much else. But that’s all I need. I wear binoculars in a chest harness, and I’ve downsized from a heavy 12 gauge to a lightweight Benelli M2 20. Loaded with TSS shells, it’s just as deadly as my 12, especially in the woods where shots rarely exceed 35 yards. If I need to crawl to a different setup, I hang the satchel on a limb where I can see it, and come back to get it later, hopefully when I’m carrying a gobbler by the feet.
You can’t dally when a bird is sounding off, but don’t rush into a bad setup and start calling just because you hear a turkey. Get close. If the terrain lets me sneak to within 60 yards of a gobbler before yelping to him, I’ll do it. At that distance, turkeys will often quit gobbling and drum in response to your yelps—so don’t panic if the hot bird suddenly goes “silent.” When you know he’s heard you, shut up, and let his curiosity kill him. If after a stretch of silence, he gobbles again and sounds closer, you’ve all but got him. Stay quiet and be ready to shoot.
In hill country, setting up above the turkey is best. But beware of getting too close to the break of a hill; you don’t want a gobbler appearing at five yards and surprising you. Also, beware of big deadfalls and briar thickets. Turkeys can see through that cover well enough to know if the “hen” is there or not—and they know it provides security. You want a good, open shooting lane that’s at least 20 yards long—and 30 or 40 yards long is better.
Putting It All Together
I made a wide, flanking half-circle and hustled up the back of the ridge to where I thought I was finally above the gobbler. A bead of sweat gathered at the tip of my nose as I caught my breath and waited. He couldn’t have been more than 50 yards below me when he gobbled again, just out of sight. I sat down, shouldered my gun, and yelped softly. It was quiet again, but not for long. The turkey gobbled, and he was so close I could hear the rattle of his breast feathers. For 30 minutes he gobbled and drummed, wing tips dragging in dried leaves. And I couldn’t see him. Even the 20 gauge became heavy. Still, I didn’t move. I didn’t yelp again until he finally materialized in front of me in silence, a brilliant, iridescent contrast to the green spring woods. I just needed him to stretch his neck out a bit, and when I yelped, he did.
I sent a picture of that turkey, hanging by the spurs on a dogwood limb, to my buddy, with a text that said: “I take it all back. I love turkeys.” And I meant it, too.