I hated turkey hunting so much for so long. I would go every season and hopelessly spin my wheels trying to turkey hunt like a well-edited TV show. I could make turkeys gobble like they were completely out of their minds and I would never take one home. I got so sick of burning vacation time that I almost quit entirely.
Everything changed when someone opened their mouth and gave some unwarranted advice. It seems so unbelievably elementary that you feel silly sharing it with someone else, but it opened up a whole new world to turkey behavior. So, like I should do more often, I started questioning everything that was happening in the turkey woods. Through the lense of this simple, obvious, almost obnoxious, yet world changing advice, I started punching tags instead of eating them.
Turkeys don’t do anything they don’t want, or have, to do. That’s it. See how annoying it is? It’s true. You can be the greatest turkey caller in the world, but if a love sick, hungry, or spooked gobbler does not want to come to you, he won’t.If you are able to convince a gobbler to approach your setup through calling or decoys, there’s a high likelihood you are also not the only reason he wants to be there. I’ve killed very few gobblers in random places that have no other reason for them to come than they simply coming to my calling. Upon closer inspection, they came to me because at some point in their daily routine, the location I sat up and called from was close to a food and water source, was a frequent strutting or dusting location, or was a travel route for hens at some point during the day.
Don’t let this hurt your turkey caller ego. Good calling is important, especially in scenarios that don’t allow for perfect setups or pre-hunt scouting. Knowing how to strike up a bird at 11:30 and get where he wants to go is a skill that is developed over years of hunting. But did you notice the key words? Strike him up, and get where he wants to go. That’s hard to do without knowing the land and even knowing the regular behavior of a specific tom.
The help of this silly phrase comes when you understand that turkey hunting is not just making arbitrary calls and hoping that a turkey will gobble back and come to where you think “looks like a good spot”. When I began to realize my odds would increase dramatically if I formulated my hunting plan around a turkey’s daily routine and used calling as a supplement to that routine, turkey hunting became exciting to me again.
The 2017 season was a testament to this in two separate states. In Missouri, I was able to harvest two turkeys, on two different days, at the exact same tree. Why? The ridge I was hunting on has been a strut zone for years. When? It was well after fly down, like it typically is at this spot. Both turkeys, while roosted several hundred yards from one another, gobbled well on the roost, pitched off to a group of hens, and went directly to their morning food sources. Both of them then began to gobble very infrequently, to which I replied with soft yelps and purrs. Within a few minutes, I had a strutting tom within shotgun range and made it home in time for breakfast. On a 3 day trip to West Texas, the toms would gobble well on the roost, get with hens immediately, then begin gobbling like crazy once they were within 100 yards of a food source. They would not respond to any calling, presumably because of high predator populations. The opportunistic thing to do was use their pattern against them and I was able to kill two beautiful mature Rios.
What’s the lesson? Wild animals are only limited by their natural instincts and geographical/man-made barriers. Other than this, they are free to follow those instincts and work every day to survive. We may think they are playing our game, but in reality, we are playing thiers in ways we often never see. If we are to be consistent in harvesting these creatures, we have to respect their norms, not our assumptions.
Two Definitive Strategies
- Going All In
Applying this principle to actual hunting scenarios can feel a bit abstract. There are two approaches that I’ve used that have proven effective. The first is a very traditional approach, particularly in states that only allow hunting in the morning/early afternoon. Roosting turkeys the night before a hunt can give you helpful information about a bird’s general location, but is often unhelpful when you walk in the next morning to discover he has moved overnight or has a group of hens opposite of your set-up. If you feel the need to make an aggressive move on a turkey like this, I recommend taking the morning before your hunt to determine the direction he flies down. Glass the area if possible, looking for potential high-yield food and water sources. That’s where the hens want to be. Narrow your focus on access to that food or water source and set up using very little calling and be ready at fly down.
- Playing His Game
While going all in is a good option for limited time, I like studying a turkey well and inserting myself in his “strut zone” or the area he will be coming to after he has gone through his initial morning routine and then goes to strut and gobble. In my opinion, it’s one of the most exciting places to set up. It may not produce the hard-hitting early morning gobbles and displays that first light on a food source does, but it has consistently proven more successful than option 1.
More on Calling
If you are going to build your hunting strategy around this idea, calling does have to enter the equation at some point. The purpose of your calling, when you are setting up in an area a bird frequents, is to simply let him know you are in the area. You are working for a recognition gobble, not necessarily a shock or aggressive response. I typically will only call every 20-30 minutes beginning very softly and working into a sharper yelp-cut sequence at the end of my call. If there is no response, I will try again in that same time span, often switching from a mouth call to a friction call. Once I get a response, I will shrink the space between calls to only a few minutes in between, and I track the sound of the gobble. If each gobble sounds closer, I get ready for the shot. Once I hear the low tones of the gobble, I know he will be in range very soon.
I admit it. I’m not a committed decoy user. I’ve had great experiences with decoys, and I’ve had not-so great experiences. If you are setting up in an area that you know one specific tom, or even better, a group of them like to strut and gobble often this can be a fantastic location for a strutter decoy and hen configuration of some sort. If I’m hunting a single lone tom that may not be a dominant bird, I tend to lean more toward a lone feeding hen decoy. While working to trigger aggressive responses in turkeys is very exciting and especially appealing for the camera, I don’t like to depend on decoys to seal the deal. Setting up well in an area that is frequently used anyway has always proven more effective for me than decoying.
The idea that wild animals live entirely by instinct and that they will not go or do something they don’t want to do sounds pretty passive. At least until you observe it in the field. When you begin to play this as one of the leading factors in developing your hunting strategy, and then begin applying more layers of hunting techniques, things will begin to change. They have for me.