Before we get started, please keep in mind that I will be speaking primarily about hunting the Eastern Wild Turkey as that is the only bird with which I am familiar, but I would imagine that the basics would translate easy enough to hunting Oceolas, Rios, or Merriams. I have been hunting turkeys since 2008, when I went with Adam on my first hunt in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and have managed to harvest a dozen or so longbeards. Each and every time out is a learning experience when hunting turkeys. This should never change. Gobblers react differently year to year, day-to-day, even hour to hour depending on many factors, so be aware of your environment, weather conditions, setup, calling techniques, what worked and more importantly what didn’t. They will all help you down the road to becoming a successful turkey hunter.
Now where to begin. If you are planning to chase after spring long beards you must first learn if there are any birds to hunt. Scouting will play a large role in your success. You will want to look for “scratchin” in the leaves or where the turkeys have kicked the leaves away in search of food. This will tell you that birds are in your area. You may find their tracks in exposed patches of soft soil or their droppings which are all indications of their presence. The best indication of course is to hear one gobble.
Your local DNR sets the hunting season to open and run during average peak breeding times. Gobbles can be heard echoing through the woods usually around two weeks before opening day. “Roosting” a bird is a great way to locate where a gobbler has chosen to spend the night. Turkeys leave the ground and seek refuge in trees for safety during the night. Unless disturbed by weather, fire, human pressure, etc. the birds will often roost in the same area or even the same tree, near a ridge top, hill, or other location where a gobbler can hear and be heard. Typically a Tom will gobble in the tree just before daylight or as the sun sinks below the horizon. You will want to be in a position where you can hear these birds and get an idea of their location so that you can fine tune your setup.
BEWARE: DO NOT call to the birds prior to the season opening! Use your locator calls such as an owl, crow, or woodpecker, but do not use your turkey calls or at worst, use them sparingly. You will end up educating the birds to the sound and rhythm of your calls making it more difficult to call them later when the season opens. It can be done, but why make things harder on yourself.
Once you have located a bird, your setup is key to being successful. You can use a groundblind (natural or artificial) for concealment but don’t be married to it. The blind approach really limits you to relying on the bird’s normal movements or your ability to coax that bird exactly where you want him to go. Although this can be very successful, and in some cases, the only way you can obtain enough cover so not to be picked off by a sharp-eyed tom, you may find that you need to relocate several times to stay ahead or get in the right position.
By far, our most successful approach is the “run and gun” technique. Here we will approach a roosted bird before daylight. Hopefully he will gobble on his own or at a natural instigator like an owl or another gobbler. If he does, great, let him go. If not, give an owl call to see if he will wake up. Once you have confirmed he is where you last left him, try to set up around 100 yards from the gobbler. This should be enough distance so not to spook him on the roost yet plenty close enough for him to hear your calls. Should he gobble in a different location or not at all, you are not stuck in a blind and so have the flexibility to easily relocate as often as needed.
In undulating or mountainous terrain, always set up even to or above the tom in elevation. Although a turkey can be called down hill, more often than not, they will find a place above you, usually out of range, where they can see and gobble, and gobble, and gobble. This is because in nature the hens go to the gobbler and you’re trying to reverse this situation. So if you are above him, he will not be able to see through the underbrush as well and will be forced to come find you.
A turkey’s greatest defense is their eyesight. Full camo from head to toe is a must. You will want to find something that will break up your outline such as a large tree, dense brush, fallen tree, etc. I called in Kevin’s first gobbler from behind a stray garbage can. Once you are tucked into your ambush site, place your shotgun on your knee with the barrel pointed towards the sound of the gobbles. Movement must be kept to a minimum as these birds will spot you before you can ever see them. So as the gobbler comes in, only move your gun when his head goes behind a tree large enough to fully obstruct his vision. If he comes in too fast, or you are unable to follow him, don’t panic. You can always “pop and shoot.” A turkey will usually hesitate for just a second when spooked before making a run for it. Just long enough to pop up and shoot him quickly. If he “putts” (alarm call) and he is in range, shoot him, or you will miss your chance.
Of course, none of this matters if you can’t convince a tom that you are just another hen, eager to mate, and not a hunter. A few years ago, I killed a big gobbler without making a single call. Adam, Kevin, and I were set up in the path the gobblers were taking from their roosting site to the top of a ridge where they would strut and were fortunate enough to intercept a bird. But 9 times out of 10, you will need to call to coax that bird into position.
The general idea is to call enough to let that gobbler know that you are there and excited to mate. Then let him come find you. I prefer to wait until you know that bird is on the ground to call, especially if he has been gobbling his head off in the tree. If he has been a little tongue-tied but your sure he is there, wait until dawn to begin calling or about when you start to hear crows waking up and calling in the distance. Keep it soft, remember you want to give just a few yelps to let him know you are there. Once he is on the ground, you can get a little more aggressive with some excited yelps and mixed cutting to get him fired up and coming. Be careful not to call too much. Often frequent calling will get him gobbling and hang him up. So long as his gobbles continue to get closer, I like to call every 5-10 minutes or so, just enough to keep him interested. If it does sound like he is going away from you, try increasing the excitement in your calling with more cutting mixed into your yelps. It may prove to be just the ticket to turn him around and get him fired up again.
These are the basics to help give you an idea on how to hunt spring gobblers. Experience is the best teacher so do not get upset if you do not find success right away. Patience and innovation will prove to be your biggest assets while hunting as few hunts ever go like clockwork. Practice your calling and learn how and when to use it, and you will soon find gobblers tripping on their beards to get to you!
Good luck and happy hunting!
strutting gobbler photo obtained via public domain