By Joe Arterburn
For as long as there have been turkey hunters, there have been frustrated turkey hunters.
As if turkeys aren’t frustrating enough on their own, Mother Nature sometimes pitches in to challenge turkey hunters’ skills and patience. And if that is not enough, there are even more challenges out there, like hunting turkeys on public land with other hunters who have chosen the same time and place to hunt as you.
Can it get any more challenging? Don’t ask. It’s best to address each challenge individually before you face them in the field—and before they conspiratorially combine to reduce you to banging your head against the nearest tree.
As a precaution against head-banging, I talked to three top turkey hunters about three top turkey problems. I could feel the intensity of their grimaces as I counted off the three obstacles: henned-up toms, hunting in high wind, and hunting on public ground.
We’ve been talking about it and dealing with it ever since turkey hunting became turkey hunting,” said Will Primos, founder of Primos Hunting.
Likewise, Bill Saunders, of Bill Saunders Calls and Gear, who started hunting turkeys in Idaho when birds were scarce and “they considered it harder to kill a turkey than a bull elk,” has dealt with a lot as a turkey hunter and a turkey-hunting guide.
Faced with problem situations, Matt Morrett, of Zink Calls and Avian-X, preaches patience “going back to what my dad drilled into my brain as a kid in the turkey woods: patience and never giving up.
Not to anthropomorphize too much, the problem with hunting a tom that has gathered a group of hens is that he’s surrounded by girlfriends, often jealous girlfriends, and is not very susceptible to your seductive yelps and purrs.
“I feel the turkey population has increased to a point overall that all of us face this situation more often than we realize,” Morrett said. “It is nature, and we are trying to reverse or go against the grain a bit when we are vocally trying to attract gobblers when his daily routine is to have his girlfriends at least meet him in the middle.”
In addition to patience, Morrett recommends announcing your location periodically, but not aggressively. “Lots of general flock talk,” he said. “Yelping, clucking, and so on, while occasionally adding a little aggressive cutting and ramping up the yelping, trying to gain attention or response from the gobbler. If he answers, I feel he is telling me to hang tight.”
There is often a small window each day when a tom will be more responsive to your calling, Saunders said. The window opens when the flock begins to break up, usually in late morning. Hens are feeding off by themselves, maybe looking for a secluded place to sit or nest, and after a while the tom finds himself without his harem to keep him interested. That’s when he’s most likely to respond to a call. In Washington State, in the Columbia River basin where he often hunts, Saunders said that window is from about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.: “the witching hours for me.”
The window depends on a lot of factors: the time of season, the weather, and the time of day. But, he said, time of day remains fairly consistent.
Switch Your Calling Target
Every flock usually has a dominant hen, a boss hen, that calls the shots and, Primos said, “dictates what’s going to happen.” Many a hunt has been foiled by a boss hen scolding the tom, keeping him from falling for the allure of that “hen” producing seductive calls.
“If she doesn’t like you, or she just doesn’t want anything to do with it, she’s going to take the whole crew wherever she wants,” Primos said “Quit worrying about the gobbler and try calling the hen.
“We are all guilty of wanting to hear gobblers gobble, and the louder we yelp on whatever device, slate, box call, tube call, whatever, the more likely he is to gobble.”
But calling hens takes a different approach. Primos said that though hens can be loud at times, probably 95 to 98 percent, if not 99 percent, of the time hens are very subtle. “They have no need to yelp and be that loud.”
Morrett agrees. “Non-aggressive flock talk, for the most part. Unless I feel the hen or hens are being aggressive, then I’ll get more aggressive with cutting and yelping.”
Primos prefers a box call for the soft sounds it can make “when you drag that lid across the sideboard so it just purrs, or you barely move it with no pressure at all, or you might even be lifting on it a little bit, just to get that slight, soft yelp.”
That way, you’re being more coy, more natural, he said, and if that boss hen answers, you should come right back with the same sounds she’s making. “Do exactly what she did back to her but not with quite the volume she did—then shut up,” Primos said.
Be patient. If she sounds off again, answer her with the same sounds, but with a little less volume. “Play the game with a lot subtler, softer yelping. It’s more natural. See if you can get the hen interested, because if you get the boss hen interested, you’re in the game.
“You’re trying to make her mad,” he said. Repeating what she says, challenging her dominance, like an annoying person repeating back everything you say—it’s hard to ignore.
Get in the Loop
If not pressured, turkeys are pretty consistent in their day-to-day activities. They fly down from the roost and generally feed and wander in a similar pattern each day.
“Whether it’s a circle or a variation of a circle, a lot of times they take the same path or close to the same path,” Saunders said. By placing yourself in or near that circle, in their pattern, you increase your chances of calling or bushwhacking a tom.
“If you spend enough time in the woods, you’re going to figure out that at 11 o’clock these birds will be within a couple hundred yards of this location,” Saunders said. Though most hunters want to spend their allotted time in the woods hunting hard, it can be more productive to take a day or so to sit on the outside and look in and get in tune to their pattern.
Divide and Conquer
Primos said another tactic is to separate the toms from the hens. It’s the fall hunting tactic of scattering the flock and then joining the conversation when they start calling each other back together. A gobbler will want to call up his hens, so sit down, get hidden, and wait. “Don’t say a word until you hear the first turkey,” he said.
Though neither you nor the turkeys particularly enjoy being out in high wind, it is probably more of a problem for hunters than turkeys. “We have witnessed a strutter showing off for his hens when the wind was blowing his tail over his head,” Morrett said. “But more often than not, turkeys use the landscape to shelter themselves out of the wind, which allows them to keep their sense of hearing much better than on a ridge top.”
So look for protected, out-of-the-wind places. Saunders often hunts rugged Washington terrain, so he concentrates on the leeward side of mountains. Primos looks for wooded hollows and likes to use a Tall Timber Gabriel Box Call, which has a tone that seems to work in high-wind situations. Morrett’s choice is also a box call “because of the volume and it is away from me a bit, and I can listen hard for responses. Another good thing on windy days is buddy hunting to have a good set of ears with you.”
Morrett said turkeys seem to stay closer together on windy days. Saunders said he’s noticed turkeys are not as vocal when the wind is blowing—probably because they are holed up in sheltered areas and don’t want to announce their location to prowling predators. When calling in high wind, Saunders also has a favorite call: a boat paddle call, with a higher pitch that he thinks pierces the wind better.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to wail on your call. Instead, call like you normally would. “People are so bad about giving a turkey human attributes,” Primos said. “They think turkeys hear like they do, see like they do, and nothing is further from the truth. I estimate a turkey can hear 200 to 1,000 times better than a human with perfect hearing.”
A turkey’s sight is uncanny and is able to spot the slightest movement. The combination of über-sharp hearing and eyesight makes Saunders über cautious when moving through the woods. “I don’t want to run into them,” he said. Even on calm days, turkey sounds can be deceiving just from the direction they’re calling. “The way he sounds calling away from you and at you can sound like there’s a quarter-mile difference while all he could be doing is turning his head in one direction or the other. And that happens more so in the wind because it is going to cut down the volume of what you hear.” So move slowly and cautiously.
Another high-wind tactic is to find a quiet spot in the woods and sit and wait and listen. “Everybody wants to be hunting—they want to be in hunt mode or kill mode all the time,” Saunders said. “There comes a point where you just got to sit back, relax, and listen.”
Hunting Public Land
Primos said the secret to hunting public land is doing your homework and not being afraid to walk. Saunders has done it, but he steers away from it these days, leery of inexperienced or over-anxious hunters stalking decoys or an unseen calling hunter. Morrett emphasizes this point: “The biggest concern on public land, in my opinion, is safety, for myself and the likely other hunters in the area. The other concern I have is being a sportsman and making sure I do not bother or intrude on someone else’s hunt.”
Other hunters are doing what you’re doing: listening for a gobble. “Remember that because the more you make a public-land turkey gobble, the more chance of another person hearing him, even if he is a mile away, and they are going to close in,” Morrett said. “Make the turkey gobble just enough to move in your direction or keep up his interest in you.”
Morrett said if he realizes he’s hunting the same turkey as someone else, “I want to get out of there ASAP, in hopes that the same will be done for me in the future.”
Primos knows someone he calls a “public-land master.” This hunter accesses all the current map and land-use technology to find “the most remote, inhospitable piece of property that no one would dare try to get to.” He often rides his off-road bicycle, because some of the places are up to a two-hour walk from his pickup. Turkeys seek these remote areas when they are pushed by “easy-access people, weekend hunters,” Primos said. He looks for states that allow afternoon hunting because “the afternoon is a glorious time to hunt public land.”
Saunders also recommends skipping the high-traffic times, such as opening weekend or, in fact, all of opening week. Plus, if you hunt weekdays, you avoid the weekend hunters. “There’s a lot of great pieces of turkey-hunting areas out there,” Saunders said. “You just have to be smart about it.”
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