10 birdbrained ways to screw up your spring turkey hunt
You’ve read all the right how-to books and magazine articles, and watched every instructional video. Still, every time you think you’ve got the wild turkey figured out-maybe even in your sights-it does the unexpected. That’s the way it is with turkey hunting: there are simply no guarantees. Unless, of course, you’re talking about ways to mess up your hunt.
Since I first started chasing these skittish bronze birds 15 years ago, I’ve stumbled across numerous techniques that are sure to send you home empty-handed. In fact, I’m somewhat of a master of the gobbler screw-up, and I’m inventing even more boners every season. So take it from me: this is one set of foolproof tactics you definitely want to avoid this spring.
1. Overestimate the wild turkey
There’s a certain amount of folklore built up around big, old gobblers that suggests they’re imbued with supernatural wiles. And as many a hunter will tell you, if the wild turkey had any sense of smell at all (it doesn’t) it would be tougher than the toughest white-tailed deer to hunt.
Nonsense. Wild turkeys are genuinely birdbrained, wild creatures with limited intellectual powers, making them not much brighter than their barnyard cousins. Believe the mythology, though, and you’re bound to psyche yourself out.
Truth is, this is a game animal like any other, meaning it can be hunted successfully by first familiarizing yourself with its habitat and behaviour-and that means doing a lot of pre-season scouting to identify the likes of roosting and strutting areas. And remember: Leave your calls at home when scouting. The last thing you want to do is make a gobbler edgy or call-shy before the season opens.
2. Underestimate the wild turkey
It would be easy to write off the wild gobbler as just another barnyard bozo (especially if you didn’t read past the previous tip). From egg to old age, after all, this bird is on the lunch menu of virtually every predator in the forest, including snakes, skunks, raccoons, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, crows, owls and hawks.
So how challenging can they really be to hunt? More so than you’d think. Actually, the constant threat of predators has forced the wild turkey to become a master of escape. And for that it has developed some remarkable life-saving defences, such as incredible eyesight, hearing and speed.
Turkeys can spot motion at extreme distances, and they have phenomenal peripheral vision-in the order of 320 degrees. If you can see a turkey’s head, it’s almost certain that it can see you, so don’t move until its head is down or out of sight. To top it all off, turkeys can see colours, meaning they’re likely to pick up on any broach in your camo.
Just as refined is the turkey’s sense of hearing. The bird has an uncanny ability to pinpoint the exact source of a sound from distances of up to two kilometres. And when a turkey senses danger, it can burst off the ground as fast as a ruffed grouse and fly off at a top speed of approximately 80 kilometres an hour. And over short distances, it’s faster than a white-tailed deer.
3. Restrict your field of fire
On a hunt more than a decade ago, I called in a group of six jakes right toward me. I figured I’d just wait until the conga line passed my shoulder before mounting the gun, squeezing the trigger and taking out the lead bird. When the turkeys were directly to my left, I raised my side-by-side, swung, and, before I could touch off a shot, the trotting birds dropped their heads and kicked into drag-racing mode. By the time I got set, they were all out of range.
Shots at turkeys are few and far between, so you’d better make the most of each opportunity. One way to increase your odds is to be sure not to restrict your field of fire like I did with the six jakes. Instead, set up so that the shoulder you don’t shoot from (your “off” shoulder) is aimed in the direction you expect the bird, or birds, to appear from. That gives you an effective field of fire of approximately 120 degrees (60 degrees on either side of your off shoulder).
Better yet, you can nearly double your field of fire if you learn to mount and shoot your shotgun from either shoulder. It isn’t as tough as it sounds since, ideally, you won’t be trying to swing on a fast-moving target. Rather, you generally just need to get your shotgun into position in anticipation of a bird you can hear, but not yet see.
4. Always use decoys
While moving into position early one spring morning a couple of years ago, Dave Reid, a turkey hunter from southwestern Ontario, was startled to hear a roosted gobbler sound off. As his partner set up, Reid continued to put out his decoys as usual. “I moved only about 15 yards, but at the last step all of the birds flushed out of the tree and were gone,” says Reid. “We should have sat down and set up right where we were, but I was hung up on getting the decoys out.”
Remember that when you’re turkey hunting you have a whole tool kit at your disposal, so don’t rely too heavily on any one technique-whether it be ambushing, calling or decoying. Be flexible, adaptable and willing to try whatever strategy happens to match the situation. As Reid learned, decoys are like any other turkey-hunting tool: they can be effective, but they aren’t always the ticket to bagging a tom.
5. Use any old gun and ammo
Don’t bother patterning your shotgun before you head into the turkey woods, because any old load, in any shot size, will do the job. Spring turkey hunting isn’t like big-game hunting, where a season may boil down to one or two shots.
Follow that advice and you’re bound to never bag a turkey. Just like big-game hunting, you’re likely to get but a shot or two over the entire season, so you want to make every one count. Because turkeys are usually taken at a range of 30 yards or less with a head or neck shot, most hunters opt for premium, copperplated, buffered magnum loads of the smallest legal shot in their jurisdictions (many areas limit turkey shot to #4, #5 or #6).
You’ll also need a short-barrelled 12-gauge (or even a 10-gauge) with an extra-tight choke. You can swing a short barrel quickly and it isn’t as likely to get hung up in brush, while the extra-tight choke puts the most pellets in the small kill zone.
At the start of each season, or every time you change chokes or loads, pattern your shotgun as if you were sighting in a rifle. After all, precise aim is required to hit a turkey with a tight pattern at short range.
6. Don’t let up on the calls
Turkey hunters tend to make a real fuss about their calling abilities. Some wouldn’t dare head afield without a couple of diaphragm calls, a box call, a peg and slate and a tube call. Heck, if you’ve got ’em, you might as well use ’em. After all, what tom could resist a chorus line of ladies singing his tune?
Truth is, under most circumstances, turkeys aren’t woodland chatterboxes. So if you have a choice between calling too little or too much, err on the side of keeping your mouth shut and your calls silent.
Any big tom that’s in the area will have heard your initial yelping and clucking, but don’t expect him to come rushing right over. Remember, dominant gobblers will first want to service their existing harems in the morning before searching out new conquests. All the extra calling in the world isn’t going to make him show up any faster. If he heard you the first time, he already has a line on you and he’ll show up in his own sweet time. And in the meantime, be on the alert for any opportunistic young fellas looking to beat the old boy to the prize.
7. Always set up in the same place
I tend to be on the cautious side when closing in on roosting turkeys, preferring to get no closer than 250 yards from a roost. More confident hunters, meanwhile, are likely to set up within 100 yards. Trouble is, I often remain too far back from the roosting birds to see any action, while hunters who push too close risk scaring them off.
Whatever your personal style, don’t be afraid to change it a bit, especially if it’s not working. If you’re not having luck calling roosted birds to you in the morning, try moving closer to the roost or approaching it from another direction. For example, it’s often easier to call a turkey downhill than uphill. On the other hand, if you keep spooking the birds before setting up, try staying a little bit farther back.
8. Lose patience
It was 30 minutes until noon and the end of the day’s hunt. I’d spent the last two hours sitting against a tree, yelping once or twice every 20 minutes, and my butt and back were aching. Enough of that, I thought. With my shotgun across my knees, I slowly started rising to my feet when a gobbler stepped out in front of me, its eyes locked on my location. If I moved any further, I’d surely scare it off. Not that I could shoot from that position anyway, so I just watched as the bird trotted away. Five more minutes of patience and it would have been a completely different story.
Turkey hunting is 99 per cent waiting and one per cent action. If you’ve done your scouting, and are in position well before daylight, the best thing you can do is stay still, listen and call sparingly. Your eyes are the only thing you should move, so make sure you are comfortable before settling in for the long haul. To that end, try putting a plank between your back and the tree you set up against, and a camo cushion between your butt and the ground.
9. Don’t worry about the details
Getting set up before dawn is essential when turkey hunting, but if you’re not properly equipped, it doesn’t matter how early you get the jump on your quarry. That’s why it’s important to make sure you have everything you need well before you set out.
Since it’s difficult to carry out a proper visual check of your gear in the early morning darkness of the turkey woods, it’s best to devise a checklist and run through it the night before the hunt. Make sure you have everything you’ll need, including shotgun, shells, face mask, gloves, decoy, butt pad, backrest and flashlight, and check it off as you pack up.
Trust me, a bit of anal retentiveness sure beats crawling out of the woods just at legal shooting light to retrieve the key for your trigger lock (I only did that once). It’s close attention to detail that usually keeps turkey hunters from fumbling around in the woods and giving themselves away.
10. Don’t learn about wild turkeys
While moving in one morning to set up on a roost of birds that I had heard the night before, I spotted a strange lump on the limb of a maple. “Can’t be,” I said, having never before seen a roosting wild turkey. So I dropped to my butt with my back up against another maple about 20 yards away. For 40 minutes, I was entertained by a wild turkey on its roost, waking up slowly. When legal shooting light arrived, I couldn’t tell for sure if the bird was a tom or a hen. I needed to see a beard before I could shoot, and since I wasn’t about to pot a bird out of a tree, I waited for it to fly down.
Finally it dropped down, but I still couldn’t see a beard. Suddenly, turkey after turkey flew to the ground from the surrounding trees, and in minutes I was surrounded by 16 birds, all within range. Still, I couldn’t find a beard to save my soul. So there I sat, watching every last turkey quietly walk away.
That was the morning of the first modern turkey hunt in Ontario, in the spring of 1987. I later learned that most of those birds were jakes sporting tiny, but legal, beards. I also learned that I had better get to know my turkeys better before I set out again.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the excitement of that first hunt got me hooked on the challenge of hunting spring gobblers-or at least on inventing new ways to eat crow.