The booming gobbling from the hilltop was only 100 metres away, so I quickly flipped down my seat pad, sat down on the wet leaves and pegged out three clucks on my pot call. The tom answered right back with a gobble. It’s showtime, I thought, getting my gun ready.
Twenty minutes later, however, the show was only still in the first act. The tom was continuing to gobble to my calls, but he’d only strutted to the crest of the hill, still some 80 metres away. Then things got worse when a nearby hen yelped. Normally, I scare off interfering hens by waving my hat and drowning out their alarm putts with excited cutting on my mouth call. But since the tom could see me from the crest of the hill, I couldn’t move.
Then the hen walked right to my set-up, cussed me out and sashayed up the hill to the tom, which happily followed her away. I sat there feeling sorry for myself for being the loser in a love triangle when I realized my mistake: I should have gotten closer to the tom before I started calling. That said, getting close to a hyper-wary prey species with such keen survival instincts as a wild turkey isn’t easy, but with planning and stealth, it can be done.
1. Pick your battles
Of course, sometimes planning must take a back seat to thinking on your feet when opportunity knocks. Consider my situation with the hilltop tom. The rain had taken the crunch out of the leaves and he was strutting out of sight over the crest of the hill, so I could have snuck to within 40 metres of him before I set up, even if it took me 10 minutes or more to cover the 60 metres. Then, when he strutted to the crest of the hill to check out my call, he would have been in range—and mine before that thieving hen showed up.
For the most part, though, your chances of putting a big ol’ tom in the freezer vastly improve if you can figure out a way—well ahead of time—to get within shotgun range of his comfort zone before calling. And by comfort zone, I mean how far the gobbler is willing to walk to investigate a call.
Sure, there are careless jakes and eager two-year-old toms that will hotfoot it long distances to your set-up, but as a rule, the farther a long beard has to travel, the less he likes it. Also, the longer the distance, the more things can go wrong, such as the tom getting intercepted by real hens, spooked by other hunters or blocked by an obstacle. To close the gap, though, you first need to know where he is.
2. Find the roost
Many spring toms give away their location by gobbling at their roost site, both in the morning and the evening. So to find a roost, you must be in the woods during the last hour of daylight, listening (leave your bow or gun behind). If you don’t hear gobbles, use owl or coyote locater calls to trigger nearby toms to respond.
When you do get a gobble, switch into stealth mode and make your way toward the direction it came from. Always use the lay of the land or thick cover to stay hidden. Keep in mind that a tom can see a lot farther when he’s roosting up on a tree limb. The goal here is to get close enough to identify the tree or clump of trees the tom sleeps in without spooking him.
Once you’ve identified the roost, pick out a set-up tree within 50 metres of it. Find a spot that’s open enough for the tom to fly down to or walk to in the morning, yet lets you remain concealed. A tom wakes up eager for hens, so setting up close to his roost makes your yelps the easiest ones for him to get to.
Also make sure it’s a spot you can easily get to the next morning in the dark. To help find it again, mark the spot on your GPS, count steps between landmarks you can see at night or put reflective markers on trees.
When you return before sunrise, shine a small-beam flashlight at the ground in front of your feet to help you navigate the woods; you don’t want to blindly step on twigs or scrape through brush, which could wake up your quarry. If it’s completely dark out, the tom will still be asleep and therefore not see the light. Once you’re within 100 metres of the set-up tree, douse the light and continue slowly, feeling for twigs underfoot to avoid snapping them. Plan to arrive at your set-up tree and quietly settle in about an hour before first light.
Keep in mind there could also be hens or jakes roosting in the same area, and you may accidentally bust them off their roosts as you sneak in under cover of darkness. If this happens, it’s not necessarily game over, as the birds won’t know what spooked them. In fact, it can sometimes help by separating the tom from the hens, making him easier to call in at first light. In short, the risk of bumping birds does not outweigh the advantage of getting in tight to a roosted tom.
3. Make him roost
If you find a tom that roosts in an area where you can’t hunt or get to in the dark, or if you simply can’t find his roost, you can still get close and hunt him in the morning. The trick is to force the bird onto a roost of your own choosing.
To do this, leave your bow or gun at home and set up in the evening near a likely looking roosting area. The aim is to call in the bird just before dark, after legal light, when he’ll be forced to find a nearby roost. If he comes right to you, don’t do a thing—just let him wander around looking for the source of the call until he gives up and flies up to roost. Then you’ll know where he’ll be in the morning.
In order not to spook the tom, wait until it’s completely dark before you get up and sneak away. When you return to your set-up before first light, the bird should still be in his roost. He’ll also still believe there’s a hen in the area, and he’ll come looking for her when he hears your first soft yelps at legal light. Be sure to use the same call that enticed him the night before.
4. Close the gap
Around mid-morning when the hens go to their nests to rest or lay eggs, many toms head for strut zones to gobble and strut in hopes of calling in a hen. If you hear a tom gobbling repeatedly from one location, he’s likely in a strut zone—forget about calling him away from it.
Instead, you need to get in tight to the tom before you start calling. Once again, stealth is a must. Use variations in elevation to hide your approach, for example, or crawl behind thick tree trunks, blown-down trees or thick brush. Move in as close as possible immediately after he gobbles, following the sound right to his location. You want a chance to get the tom’s attention before a real hen does—if one shows up in the strut zone, she’ll lead him away from you.
Only move closer when you can’t see the tom. If you accidentally make a noise, instantly freeze or slip behind a tree. Soft noises that sound like hens shuffling and scratching in the leaves won’t spook him, but they’ll likely make him walk over or look your way to investigate. After all, finding a mate is at the top of his mind.
If he steps into view then walks back out of sight, take note of where he stepped into view. That spot will probably be close to the limit of his comfort zone, so you want to get within shotgun range of it. When you run out of cover and are as close as you can get without spooking the bird, get your gun up and start calling with some soft clucks and purrs.
Getting in tight like this before setting up takes nerves of steel and footfalls like dropping feathers, but the risk pays off big time in excitement—and, of course, turkey dinners.
Pop-up blind tips
Field-strutting gobblers are the toughest wild turkeys to get close to—unless you place a pop-up blind in their favourite strut zone. For some reason, even smart old toms seem naive around pop-ups. Using a blind rules on rainy days in particular, because turkeys often move to open fields when it rains (plus, it will keep you dry). Here’s how to hunt effectively from a pop-up.
- Set up your pop-up blind the day before your hunt, and plan a stealthy pre-dawn approach.
- Open the windows only on the side you expect turkeys to come from. That way, toms can’t look right through the blind and see your profile or movements.
- Sit back a gun barrel’s length from the blind window in order to stay in the shadows and not get busted.
- Wear black clothing so any movement you make is less likely to be detected.
- Replace the noisy Velcro fasteners or zippers on the windows with buttons or ties. That way, you can quietly open the windows in case a tom comes in from the opposite direction (don’t forget to close the windows on the other side first).