The greenhorn gobbler guide
A turkey tenderfoot’s take on how to topple a tricky tom (or not)
My very first turkey-hunting foray took place many years ago in Quebec, together with a group of outdoor writers. I shot a nice tom, although I must confess to learning little about hunting gobblers in the process. At home in Alberta, where turkeys are on a draw, opportunities are fleeting. Although I’ve been drawn twice in the past, there are now 17,500 hunters competing for just 125 tags, making it highly unlikely I’ll ever hunt turkeys in my home province again.
The first time I drew a tag, I foolishly passed up a jake early on day one. Naively figuring turkey hunting was a relatively easy endeavour, I wasn’t about to settle for anything less than a tom. The following morning, my partner and I set up under a roost and sat there dumbfounded as two toms and a handful of hens marched toward our decoys at first light, closing to within 60 metres before abruptly making an about-face and walking out of our lives forever. That jake turned out to be my only legitimate opportunity of the hunt.
The second time I was drawn, I received a pre-hunt crash course in tactics from renowned Alberta turkey guru Jim Clark. Unfortunately, my hunting partner became violently ill soon into our hunt and had to be confined to a motel bed. I frantically alternated between tending to him and racing out to find a turkey, but common sense led me to give up the charade after a day and a half and get my friend home.
Yes, my turkey hunting history makes for a rather short story, although my success rate has improved markedly over the past couple of seasons, thanks in no small measure to my old friend and newly found mentor, Tim McEachern (above right, with the author). Two years ago, at Tim’s invitation, I joined him and Outdoor Canada editor Patrick Walsh at Tim’s turkey camp west of Walkerton, Ontario. I managed to bag a good tom and repeated my success last year, twice. As I write this, I’m planning to join Tim and Patrick again this year to attempt a three-peat.
I’m far from an accomplished turkey hunter, but the lessons I’ve learned over my brief tenure in the turkey fields and woods may well serve other newcomers to the game.
LESSON #1: DECOYING
There’s no shortage of quality decoys, from ultra-realistic hard-bodied models to collapsible foam bodies, in everything from full-strut toms to submissive hens. And for each there’s a strategy for when, where and how to best use them. At the end of the day, however, the easiest toms to fool are those that aren’t already with a receptive hen. That means almost any decoy or combination of decoys can, under the right conditions, lure in a lustful, curious or aggressive tom to within shooting range.
I’ve sat over every imaginable decoy combination during my short turkey-hunting career, including a hen decoy painted white under the notion the strange coloration would represent a weak, vulnerable, submissive hen, an obvious and easy mark for a lurking tom. Rather than draw in birds, however, I believe a decoy’s most important function is to hold the attention of closing toms, keeping them from focusing on you as you sit in wait. That makes decoy placement critical to success. Ensure you evaluate the landscape and place your decoys where they can best be seen from wherever you believe a tom will approach, without you being in the direct line of the bird’s sight.
A viable alternative to decoying is to use no decoy at all. Tim often hunts without them, forcing gobblers to search for the source of the calls that have attracted them. Without decoys, superb concealment for the hunter is essential, but Tim has used this tactic successfully on many occasions. Much like white-tailed bucks succumbing to rattling or calls, toms on the prowl for hens are often betrayed by their own lust and curiosity.
LESSON # 2: CALLING
Turkeys have a complex language, complete with gobbles, yelps, clucks, purrs and much more. I’ve heard that if you aren’t fluent in their language, you’ll have little chance of success, but that hasn’t been my experience. I’ve come to believe that the simple hen yelp is the most important call to learn and mimic—after all, that’s what I’ve heard the most from real birds when I’ve been in the field.
I also think it’s more important to exercise a little role reversal, rather than learning all the calls. I know how good it feels when I call and a tom answers, so I can imagine how he feels when I respond to him—he’s brimming with confidence there’s a lady pining for his arrival. Get in a tom’s head and you’ve already tipped the odds immeasurably in your favour.
Once a bird has announced himself with that first gobble, respond, but don’t call again unless he gobbles back first. Make him search for you. It can be difficult to have the patience not to call when you know there’s a gobbler around and all’s gone quiet, but you’re far better off being pursued than being the pursuer. It’s like a business negotiation—whomever talks first is usually the one who ends up losing out.
When the action finally heats up, don’t be afraid to use several different calls. Box, pot and mouth calls are all effective, but their whole is greater than the sum of their parts if you use them in combination. It’s to your advantage to have a tom believe he’s headed for a harem rather than a single girl.
LESSON #3: CONCEALING
Turkeys have otherworldly eyesight, so full camouflage—including a face mask—is critical. A gobbler knows his territory like you know your living room, and anything that looks the least bit out of place is sure to attract his attention.
Getting yourself comfortable with your back against a tree is equally important. With no shortage of turkey seats on the market, I can’t say that one is necessarily better than the other—just choose a model that’s comfortable for you. The more relaxed you are, the less likely you are to fidget at precisely the wrong time.
Also make sure that your calls, binos, water bottle and anything else you might want, including your shotgun, can be accessed with absolutely minimal movement—one false move when a tom is within eyesight can mean game over. Murphy’s Law is never far away when turkey hunting.
LESSON #4: SCOUTING
More important to success than decoying, calling and staying hidden is hunting where there are turkeys. It seems obvious, I know, but many hunters strike out because they hunt a property simply because they’ve found birds there in the past. But turkey hunting is much like waterfowling, in that if you don’t scout, your success rate drops accordingly. Turkeys can and do move considerable distances in response to a wide range of variables, and this is particularly true for toms during the breeding season.
So, do your homework, and that means talking to landowners, gaining access and scouting properties to identify where turkeys are regularly showing up. Of course, there are also opportunities on crown land, but private land offers much less hunting pressure. And by maintaining strong relations with private landowners, you can also make timely phone calls to learn where and when turkeys are active.
LESSON #5: IMPROVISING
A lesson I learned from fishing has great application in the turkey fields: don’t die in the hole. On some days, toms won’t gobble, or they’ve simply moved from where you expected to find them. If you’re not getting a response, pick up and move to another location. You can always return in the evening or the next day to try again, but when it’s not unfolding as anticipated, change your plans.
I made a rookie mistake on my first Alberta turkey hunt, for example, when I sat and watched two toms walk away after closing in just shy of shotgun range. I didn’t know any better at the time, but I’ve since learned they probably just saw something that made them a little nervous, given they didn’t run. Whatever the case, my mistake was to stay put when I should have quickly snuck around to where the birds were headed and set up again. They were ripe to be picked, but I missed the signs.
The lesson here is to be aggressive when the situation demands. Be proactive about making something happen instead of hoping it will, especially when the signs are telling you it won’t.
LESSON #6: CLOSING
Back to those two toms I took last season. Well, I didn’t exactly kill two birds. I should have, but instead I learned a lesson about how resilient turkeys can be if not anchored. Twice.
When my first tom came in to about 35 metres and hung up, I hit the switch and he went down in his tracks. I immediately lowered my shotgun and, as if on cue, the bird regained his footing, took a few steps forward and went airborne. Fortunately, I was able to rise, shoulder my gun and swing on him, getting off two shots in quick succession. The tom, exhibiting the classic brain-shot symptom common to waterfowl, spiralled high in the air before spinning back to earth, stone dead, while I breathed a sigh of relief.
The next day, from the exact same location, I had another tom respond to my calls and decoy. I shot him at a measured 28 metres and watched as he collapsed on the spot. With other turkeys still in the field, I waited patiently, not wanting to scare them off and ruin a possible opportunity for Tim or Patrick. Ten minutes later, when the lingering birds finally waddled off into the bush, I went to collect my prize. I was about halfway to the lifeless turkey, however, when he jumped to his feet and took off at a full run into the forest. I stood stunned in the field, my shotgun propped up against a tree back at my set-up.
Despite the considerable effort we made to track that tom, we didn’t see hide or hair of him again. Tim, amid his barely contained chuckles, advised that wasn’t the first time he’d seen a turkey rise from the dead, but it was a definite first for me. The final lesson here? Turkeys are tough, so don’t assume you’ve got a dead bird until he’s firmly in your grasp. Instead, always be ready for a follow-up shot. When turkey hunting, a bird in the hand is definitely better than, well, a bird in the bush.