Mar 10, 2015

Tackling The Toughest Turkeys

By: Brian Lovett

I chuckle sometimes when I hear about tough turkeys. All turkeys are tough, aren't they? If they weren't, turkey hunting wouldn't be the challenging, yet rewarding, sport we cherish.

But let's face it, some turkeys are more difficult than others. Many environmental or social factors can morph your typically difficult gobbler into a tough 2.0 — or worse — version. And sometimes, after getting whipped by an especially difficult turkey a time or two, you might think that gobbler can't be killed.

That's where the good news comes in. You can kill any turkey. None are impossible. The key is realizing what's making a gobbler tough and adapting your tactics.

Here's a rundown of six of the toughest turkeys you'll encounter and some practical tips on how to kill each.

Henned-Up Gobblers

If hen turkeys knew how much we cursed them, their feelings might get hurt. Yet spring is breeding season, so what do we expect? Of course gobblers want to be with hens. When they have ladies, however, they typically ignore our best hen imitations.

The best way to kill henned-up gobblers is to think like a bowhunter during the whitetail rut. Experienced archers know they must hunt areas where does concentrate, because during the breeding season, that's where the bucks will be. Likewise, to get tight with henned-up gobblers, you must key in on the location and patterns of hens.

First, try to get very tight to birds before flydown. Do this by roosting turkeys aggressively the nights before you plan to hunt. When you're reasonably sure birds have flown up for the evening, slip near likely roosting spots, and use an owl-hooter, coyote howler or fly-up cackles to prompt a gobble. If a bird responds nearby, try to get an exact fix on its location — right down to the specific tree he's in, if possible. If a turkey is relatively far away, cut the distance, and try to get him to gobble again. Keep slipping closer until you have a good idea of where he's at. Back at camp, use your knowledge of the land (you scouted dutifully before the season, right?) to formulate an ambush plan.

The next morning, use the cover of darkness to slip as close as possible to the gobbler. This is easier if it's cloudy, rainy or windy. If it's clear and calm, you'll have to get in the woods very early — at least an hour before fly-down time — and be very quiet. If you're stealthy and patient, that henned-up gobbler might fly down in your lap.

If you can't pull off a roost hunt, try to pattern the movements and habits of hens in your area. Usually, hens fly down, mill around the roost a bit and then head out to feed. If you can determine where they're going, you've identified a great ambush site.

In early spring, turkeys often focus on the first areas to green up, such as logging roads or clover fields. Or, in farm country, they might hammer stubble fields of corn or beans. If the previous fall's acorn crop was good, they sometimes stay in the timber, focusing on natural mast. Later in the season, birds spread out in preparation for nesting, and food options abound. You might have to identify several potential feeding spots.

Sometimes, you can use hens against a gobbler, calling them to you and dragging him along in tow. This seems to work best early in the season, when hens are still sorting out their pecking order. The key to calling in hens is to gauge their mood. It's best to start with soft, clear calling — vocalizations that don't indicate aggression or dominance. Sometimes, this "asking for acceptance" will yield similar responses from hens, and their social curiosity might lead them to you. Other times, a hen might try to assert her dominance. Then you can ratchet up the intensity of your calling, mimicking her and cutting her off. This might make her race angrily to your setup.

Field Turkeys

Birds in wide-open pastures, fields or meadows can spot danger a mile away. That's partly why they love such spots. The good news is that turkeys don't stay in fields forever.

If turkeys are consistently using an open area, don't be shy about putting a pop-up blind near where they enter or exit the field, or in the middle of the field itself. Turkeys don't typically notice or mind tent blinds (at least for now), so why not use them? Throw a couple of decoys around your setup, run a call now and then, and wait for the field birds to filter in.

If you're without a blind, avoid the temptation of setting up right on a field edge. This works sometimes, especially if you have a decoy out. However, it's better to set up about 50 yards inside the timber. Trees, brush and shadows give you better cover, and if a gobbler comes to the field edge to check out your yelping, he'll already be in range.

Here's a neat trick. Have you ever noticed that turkeys rarely walk from one end of a field to the other? Think of a football player taking a kickoff in the end zone, racing down the field and then running out of bounds at the 30-yard-line. Likewise, turkeys will often feed along a field for a considerable distance but then duck into the woods at some point. Look for roads, gates, openings or finger ridges that provide natural exit points for them, and set up shop there.

Rainy-Day Gobblers

Honestly, I think light to moderate rain affects turkey hunters more than turkeys. The cliche about turkeys still being out there is spot-on. They have to live in the rain and are quite accustomed to it.

During wet weather, turkeys often head to open areas, such as clear-cuts, agricultural fields or cattle pastures. Some folks think they do this because rain hinders turkeys' hearing and eyesight, which are their main defenses. All I know is that turkeys often frequent fields during or after rains, so that's where I focus.

Often, I'll set up a blind in or on the edge of an open area. The blind keeps me dry and comfortable for hours, and I can cold-call and wait for birds to appear.

If I feel more mobile, I'll often slip through the wet woods, glassing open spots and hoping to catch a glimpse of turkeys. Walking and calling isn't a bad option, either. The wet woods are quiet, and it's surprising how close you can get to turkeys some rainy days. Also, don't assume that birds won't gobble when it's raining. I've seen them light it up during some miserable days. You just might have to get a little closer than normal to birds to prompt a response.

When rain persists all day, turkeys might head to roost a little earlier than normal. Further, they might roost in areas that provide more cover, such as pines or other trees with large canopies. Identify these spots, and try to cut off birds when they approach.

One more rainy-day tip: Acquire a good selection of waterproof calls. Mouth calls and waterproof boxes are obvious choices, as are friction calls with aluminum, ceramic or other synthetic surfaces. Keep wooden box calls in a plastic bag to avoid moisture, and do not take your wooden strikers into the woods when it's pouring. If wooden strikers get soaked, they're ruined.

Windy-Day Gobblers

Wind might be the toughest condition for turkey hunting. Birds don't seem to gobble much when the breeze blows, and if they do, you can have great difficulty hearing them. Turkeys also won't be able to hear as well, but I think our abilities are more impaired than theirs when it's windy.

The No. 1 rule for hunting in the wind is to get out of it. Turkeys do likewise. If it was windy the previous day, birds might roost lower on ridges or points, or in stouter trees. They don't want to be tossed around by a gale all night. Locate several potential windy-weather roosting spots, and concentrate there at dawn.

After fly down, turkeys often congregate in relatively calm spots, such as ravines, creek bottoms and the leeward sides of ridges. You might have to set up and wait a while in such areas, but being out of the wind at least lets you hear a gobbler when he responds. Walking and calling is typically more difficult in gusty winds. Even if you hear a gobbler, it's much tougher to accurately course the sound and determine his whereabouts.

Turkeys also frequent fields when it's windy. Maybe that's because, as with the conventional wisdom about rain, wind inhibits their sight and hearing. If nothing else pans out, try to slip through cover and glass open areas in hopes of getting a visual on birds.

Also, use appropriate calls during windy days. Loud, high-pitched yelpers rule the day. You want that sound to carry through the wind.

Hot and Cold Turkeys

Hot and cold are relative terms. In the South, unseasonably cold spring mornings can shut down turkeys like nothing else. Here in Wisconsin, birds might gobble their heads off on 28-degree mornings. But when the mercury hits 70 in the Midwest, birds tend to clam up.

When it's unseasonably cold, turkeys often head for food. Hens certainly seem compelled to chow down during chilly days, and even gobblers sometimes take a break from breeding rites to grab a bite. Focus on the best food sources in your area. If it's early in the season, glass or set up at corn, bean or winter wheat fields. If acorns blanket the forest floor, pick out a good timber setup, and spend some time there. Don't be shy about calling, but don't expect a bird to fire up at excited stuff. Mimic a hen going about her business, uttering soft yelping, clucks and clucking and purring.

When it's warm and sunny, turkeys often seek cool, shady spots. In fact, loafing is actually one of the most overlooked aspects of turkey behavior. As the sun warms the landscape, birds tend to leave fields and open timber to find cooler, darker areas. The best way to hunt these spots is to identify them and be there before turkeys arrive. Yes, you might strike a gobbler in one of these areas, but if he's not fired up — and he often won't be if it's hot — you're more apt to bump him with a clumsy approach. Look for nice, cool shady spots to while away some midday hours. Take a blind if it helps you wait longer. Call now and then, and keep listening and observing. If you get a distant response or see a bird passing through, you can always formulate a plan and go after him.

Pressured Gobblers

Oh, this devil is a tough one. You want to make a tough turkey tougher? Put some human hunting pressure on him. This is how truly evil turkeys are born.

No, turkeys don't get call-shy. If they did, there wouldn’t be more poults every summer. But they get people-shy. That is, after they get spooked while approaching a calling "hen," bumped while feeding on a ridge or downright scared out of their wits when they're sprayed by shot at 75 yards, they tend to act differently. No longer do they rush into hen-yelping or gobble nonstop. They tend to stay in safe areas and want hens to come to them.

But there's a silver lining. Even mega-spooked turkeys don't go anywhere. Turkeys have relatively small home ranges. In fact, research suggests that many turkeys live and die within the same square mile in which they were born. Even when shot at or otherwise almost killed, they do not abandon these home ranges. After all, instinct tells them they're intimately familiar with that land, and their chances for survival there are greater than in unfamiliar territory. So they stay, albeit in a seemingly foul mood.

The key to killing pressured turkeys is to gain a deep knowledge of the land and, when possible, the habits of turkeys there. Don't just slip within 100 yards of a roost and start yelping. Have an idea where turkeys go every day, and wait for them there instead. Seek secluded flats and finger ridges where birds might loaf away the day. Identify natural travel routes from common roosts to feeding and loafing spots. Count on spending some time in these areas, watching, listening and observing.

Yes, call, but be smart about it. Always start soft and subtle, and throw in long periods of silence to play on a gobbler's curiosity. A pressured turkey will often come in silently.

Above all, don't give up. When hunting pressure subsides during the week or late in the season, pressured turkeys often get somewhat easier.

Six for the Season

There you have it: tactics to tackle the toughest half-dozen gobblers you'll likely encounter this spring. They won't work all the time, but no turkey strategy does. None will work without persistence and an open mind. Hunt as much as you can, and learn something every day. Sometimes, one gobble or a solitary yelp from an unexpected spot might let you connect the dots for a great plan. Also, remember that the harder you hunt, the more likely you are to encounter other turkeys that aren't so tough. If a 2-year-old rushes into the ambush you had planned for an obstinate field turkey, take the newcomer. If a distant gobbler suddenly fires up and marches in, go with it.

The more time you spend honing your skills on difficult turkeys, the better prepared you'll be when a gobbler wants to play.