Spring turkey season is fast approaching. In my mind, it’s hard to beat the challenge of calling in a good-sized tom. Turkeys are one of the wiliest and cunning game animals roaming the woods and fields of the great American outdoors. Their acute vision and naturally suspicious nature makes them notoriously difficult to get within range of your turkey gun. Still, the spring provides us with an opportunity to catch a big gobbler as the males have only one thing on their mind this time of year—hens.
The first step in successfully harvesting your spring gobbler is properly scouting the land prior to your hunt. Identify the openings and fields where hens gather to search for food such as grasses, seeds and insects. Look for scratches, tracks, or other signs such as feathers or droppings. Hen feathers will appear buff colored, while gobbler feathers have a much darker, almost black appearance. Try a locating call from an open area at a relatively high elevation, such as an owl hoot or crow call and listen for an answering gobble. Towards dusk, listen for roosting birds. Once you have identified the areas that the turkeys are in, try to find an open area that you can set up on from nearby cover. For whatever reason, turkeys are more likely to investigate calls uphill, so have your setup uphill from a tom rather than downhill.
You can use many different call systems to bring in a wary gobbler. Friction and box callers consistently rank as some of the most effective and popular. Box calls are easiest for beginners. It is important to keep most call systems dry. Water and moisture easily affect wood and slate-friction calls. The Primos Wet Box Turkey call is a waterproof box caller favored by novice hunters. It’s a single-sided box that is easy to use and works in all-weather conditions. Friction-based scratch callers take a bit more skill to use, but are much more versatile. The crystal surfaced Freak scratch caller includes a leg strap so that you can call one-handed. Whatever type of call you use, make sure to learn how to use it properly. If you don’t know an experienced turkey hunter that you can learn from, instructional videos and even YouTube videos are great for hearing what the various turkey hen calls sound like so that you can imitate them accurately.
Some novices mistakenly use gobbles to call in a tom. Remember, the tom uses gobbles to call in hens. You want to call in the tom, so gobbling is not the best tactic. Instead, stick with locating calls to identify where a gobbler is, and then use hen calls such as cuts, whines, yelps and clucks. Calling too much too often is another critical mistake. Only the most aggressive toms gobble frequently. Less experienced toms will gobble quietly and infrequently, if at all, for fear of incurring the wrath of a dominant tom. If the longbeards aren’t calling, try setting up on the edge of a field where you may be able to spot one emerging from the tree line to feed.
At times, hunters both love and hate decoys. Some swear by them, while others insist that they are useless even to the point of frightening off a tom when, while still out of range, he struts for a decoy and receives no response from the motionless lure. With a proper setup however, you can use decoys to your advantage. Try to stake out a couple of hens a good 20 yards or so past where you are setup. Position your setup so that you are midway between where your decoy is and where you expect that big tom to emerge from so that you’ll be able to take him as he closes within 50 yards of your position. Another tactic is to throw an aggressive jake in with a couple of hen decoys, enticing your gobbler to come in and teach the young’un a lesson.
In general, there are two types of decoys: foam collapsible, and solid rubber, foam, or resin. The collapsible decoys are easy to transport, but they can spin unnaturally in the breeze while the heavier rubber and foam decoys will be unaffected. Modern decoys look incredibly realistic. Always survey the area when collecting your decoys at the end of a hunt to make sure that no other hunters are stalking your fakes.
Proper camouflage is critically important when hunting turkeys. Turkeys have very acute vision. They will vanish at the first sign of trouble. Don’t just grab any camo pattern and expect it to perform well. Match your pattern to the terrain you are hunting. If you’re hunting pine forests, Realtree AP Camo isn’t going to help you much. At a minimum, plan to have a fully camouflage suit including hat and face mask. Dark colored boots and socks are fine, but appropriately camouflaged versions will give the paranoid tom less chance to spot you. A turkey hunting vest with a built in seat pad is also great for carrying extra shells or calls, and the seat pad gives you a dry seat when setting up an impromptu ambush.
Now that you have the proper gear and located the turkeys, it is time to quietly move into position and set up your ambush. It’s not necessary to get too close. Your goal should be to sneak to within 200 to 300 yards, set up your position, and then call the tom in the rest of the way. As usual, move into position as quietly as possible, so watch for those sticks and twigs! When setting up to call in your tom, choose a tree or bush big enough to cover your outline so that no part of your body protrudes outside of the shape of your cover. Sit with your off shoulder—left if you’re right-handed—facing towards where you expect the tom to approach so that you have the widest arc possible for you to aim in. Be sure there are no obstacles between you and the turkeys. Don’t set up where there are any creeks or fences between you and your quarry.
Try to arrive at your setup location before dawn. As dawn begins to break, use a few hen clucks and yelps to bring in your turkey. Don’t call too much, and don’t call too loudly. Just a short string of calls is all you need. Once you have spotted your gobbler, keep all noise and movement to a minimum. Never call to a bird that you can see as they might spot your movement. Wait until he is behind some cover before moving your gun up into position so that your movement doesn’t give you away. If he’s strutting, wait for him to finish so that you have the best shot at his head and neck area.
Don’t give up if your plans don’t work right away. Turkeys are extremely cautious, and may get spooked before they even get to you. If your first setup is unsuccessful, don’t be afraid to locate the turkey with a crow call or owl hoot and quietly move to a different location where you can begin to call him in again. If you’re lucky, and if all has gone according to plan, you will soon have that spring gobbler in your oven along with some fantastic memories of a great hunt.
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