Aggressive Moves For Early Bird Gobblers

There are times to be aggressive, and early in the turkey season is one of those times.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | January 26, 2010

The author and his 17-year-old son, Devereaux, with a Putnam County gobbler they took on the 2009 turkey opener using a soft, but “first-to-speak,” type of aggression. Donald said the hunt will always stand out as a hunt where minimal calling was required. Sometimes the gobbler will pitch out to the first “hen” he hears at daylight.

Opening morning of the 2009 turkey season had arrived, and I couldn’t think of a time when I was more eager to start the season.

I had scouted the area I would be hunting a couple of days earlier and had found four mature gobblers and a wad of hens roosting on the edge of a wide, flat hardwood bottom. I set up within 75 yards of the roost and listened as the spring woods came to life. The Putnam County birds were gobbling well that morning, and at one point one of the gobblers had me in a tizzy, strolling past me at 30 yards.

Two days later, on opening morning, my oldest son, Devereaux, and I were easing into that area to set up. Devereaux was just a few weeks shy of turning 18, yet he had never killed a turkey.

We were seated by a big pine tree about 75 yards from what I hoped to be the gobblers’ landing strip, and I hoped to be able to pull one in from there.

Eventually daylight began its push into the eastern horizon, and within five minutes, a bird gobbled from a monster pine tree down in the oak flat.

That is when my mind went into rewind mode and ended up all the way back some 12 years earlier. I had been experiencing a bit of bad fortune on my morning hunts. It seemed every bird I set up on lived to see another day. I had gotten myself into a rut by letting every bird on the limb dictate my every move. I vowed to change things up on that particular morning 12 seasons ago.

I had managed to set up on a creek across from a flat just within 100 yards of the boss hen. All the gobblers were a 100 yards down the creek. Normally I would be overly cautious to avoid upsetting the hen, but that day was different. I threw caution to the wind, and the minute she opened her mouth, I hammered her. She began cutting profusely in my direction, and I answered each of her profanity-laced yelps with a vulgar serenade of my own.

The gobblers down the creek were tearing it up, and within 30 seconds she pitched to a spot 25 yards in front of me. She carried on for 10 minutes as I watched seven longbeards approach from down the creek. Five minutes later, I connected on a big gobbler.

After that, I could have easily started aggressively calling on every morning setup, but past whippings warned me. I did, however, begin to incorporate this style of aggression in more hunts, and when used in the correct situation, it has been deadly.

This isn’t the only way to show aggression on a turkey hunt. Your willingness to be aggressive in the turkey woods starts weeks before the first turkey gun ever roars.

Pre-season Aggression: Never, ever take a turkey call in the woods prior to the season. However, be aggressive in trying to find birds before opening day ever arrives.

If you’re planning on trying to achieve an ideal setup and an early season score, it’s best to plan ahead. Prior to the beginning of every season, I spend three weeks to a month in the woods scouting. Your goal should be to know the area and the birds that live there before you hunt.

When I scout birds in a roost area, I watch the birds and pick up on things I might be able to use later on a hunt. It might take two or three trips to pick up any habits or patterns a gobbler has. When you discover something as valuable as a particular direction he goes when he leaves the roost or where he prefers to pitch down, you’ll want to hunt this bird opening week. These patterns are likely to change, especially on public land where pressure is high.

In my pre-season scouting, I don’t try following a bird when I’m scouting for fear of spooking him and messing up everything I’ve learned about him. I think you can learn enough by sitting, watching and listening at the roost sight to kill a good number of birds.

I watched a gobbler on three separate mornings one spring just before opening day. He had a habit of pitching to the same little hump on a hill about 75 yards from his roost tree.

Once the bird pitched to that spot, he would go to the bottom where the hens flew down. He always traveled around a large patch of plum bushes. There was a big oak tree about 40 yards from the end of the plum thicket. It was a perfect spot to work the bird the morning I went in to hunt him.

On that particular morning, the gobbler pitched into the bottom instead of on the hill. I called a few times, and before the hens that were roosted in the bottom could fly out, he was working his way up the hill toward me. I believe he thought a hen had pitched to his normal fly-down area, and he felt comfortable traveling toward me on his usual morning route.

That routine travel route cost the 3-year-old his life. When you get there on the morning of the hunt, you’ll have some options for setting up that will allow you to get in the best spot to work a bird, depending on which tree he spent the night in — or where he decides to pitch out.

Some good pre-season scouting put this bird in the freezer.

Early Morning Aggression: There are two types of aggression where turkey calling is concerned. The first type is what we all think of when we think of aggressive turkey hunting — loud cutting and yelping. Then there is the another type of aggressive hunting that simply means being first.

We have all heard the old boss hen cranking it out at first light. Knowing this, we often strive to let out the first “hen” yelps of the morning. Often, a cutt is the first sound we want to make. However, cutting is not as common as we would like to believe. Cutting will either aggravate a hen enough to make her come over with a big gobbler in tow, or it’s going to tick her off enough to pull the plug on the whole show.

I have had a tremendous amount of success by being the first one to speak to a gobbler at the morning setup without ever “raising my voice.” Gobblers wake up ready to go, and I have had gobblers get very interested very quickly, just because I grabbed his attention first. This early morning aggression of the soft variety brings me back to the 2009 opening-day hunt with my son, Devereaux.

When the bird gobbled, I quickly let him know I was there. I scratched out three soft yelps on a slate. He hammered back. Within five minutes we watched as the big bird glided into the landing strip below. Five seconds later another gobbler lit within 10 yards of the first gobbler, followed by a hen that landed next to him, as well. The birds strutted briefly and began walking straight toward our setup. I soft yelped two times to steer them into a shooting lane. Within 60 seconds, Devereaux dropped his first bird.

As long as I am blessed with a memory, I will never forget the seconds before Devereaux shot or the emotional celebration that followed. It will always stand out as a hunt where minimal calling was required. In fact, I can’t think of another hunt where I called less to a turkey that ended up going home with me.

Just because you hear the word “aggression” in turkey hunting doesn’t always mean loud, wild calling. Taking an aggressive approach to simply be the first bird to speak to a gobbler can often put him over your shoulder.

Aggression on Far-off Gobblers: A few days after the hunt with Devereaux, my good friend Bobby Knight and I ventured to Cedar Creek WMA. We planned to hunt a creek bottom where our preseason scouting had given us reason to believe we would be toting a bird to the truck that morning.

We probably heard five or six birds at first light, but the closest birds were a couple of hundred yards away and on the opposite side of the creek. We decided to drop into the wide, flat bottom and set up.

As mentioned earlier, if the bird is close, I will generally start softer. However, on this morning with the closest birds 200 yards away, I decided to start with a little more volume and sass. By the time we got set up, the gobblers were on the ground, so I immediately did two fly-down cackles on my best box, and the two gobblers across the creek went ballistic. A couple of hens in the proximity of the gobblers woke up then and began to shout their disapproval, but it was too late. The gobblers had already begun making their way toward us, and within minutes they were just 100 yards away but still on the other side of the creek.

Things got quiet for a couple of minutes as Bobby and I hoped the birds were navigating a place to cross the creek. Sure enough, within five minutes two longbeards appeared on our side of the creek. They cautiously approached our position as they strutted across the wide creek bottom. They began veering to our right, and when they got in range I dropped one.

It was another case of aggression paying huge dividends. It’s a tactic that won’t work every time, because no tactic ever does, but it is another piece of my arsenal I resort to quite often.

Quiet Aggression: I used to set up at least 125 yards from every bird I had on a limb, even after pre-season scouting. I think that is why so many birds I thought loved me lost interest instead of running over me. I’m a firm believer in giving yourself a chance, so if you can get tight on a bird without blowing him off the roost, it’ll up the odds of rolling a bird. The key is go early, be quiet, get tight and settle in.

If I’m hunting pressured birds on a WMA, I like to get within 100 yards of a bird. This can be tricky, especially by the time the season gets into its second week. It doesn’t take long for a gobbler’s preferred roosting area to go from a remote spot on a creek bottom to anywhere up and down that same bottom for a mile and a half. Pressure will scatter turkeys all over creation, and haphazardly strolling through the woods toward where you think birds are roosted can sometimes result in flushed birds and a ruined morning hunt.

I like to arrive in my general hunting area with plenty of time to creep toward my expected setup place. Running behind schedule and hurrying to get set up generally results in another victory for the birds. I’ve had entire flocks of birds come out of trees before day, nearly sending me into cardiac arrest as they exploded from the roost.

You need to take your time, so give yourself plenty of it. You might still bump a bird, but it’s less likely if you slow down.

Once I arrive at my planned setup area, I’ll just wait for him to gobble. Even though pressure will cause the birds to start roosting in different areas, it helps a tremendous amount to at least be where I think he’s supposed to be roosted. Often I’ll hear him 150 to 400 yards away, close enough for me to still slip in quietly. Also, it’s usually still dark enough that I can get set up within 100 yards of him. Also, I can’t tell you how many birds I’ve heard gobble that I walked under in the dark, which is another reason to go early and be quiet. I don’t mind back-tracking for a gobbling bird.

I believe a turkey is generally comfortable where he roosts, and I believe the comfort zone around the roost is generally inside a 100-yard circle. So, go early, be quiet, get tight and settle in.

Aggression and Hens: The biggest decision you’ll have to make when dealing with hens is whether you plan to challenge them or try to get them to accept you. I generally let my decision rest on where the hens are roosted in relation to the gobbler. If they are close to the gobblers, I don’t get too aggressive. I believe if the hens are roosted close to a gobbler they will be more apt to take your presence as a threat if you start out too harshly.

I have had better results trying to get them to accept me by using soft calling. If they are closer to the gobblers than you are, they are more apt to go to the gobblers and head in another direction if you get too heavy on the calling.

So, when a hen goes the other way, it’s not always that they are trying to steal the gobbler. I think sometimes the hens are either intimidated or they just don’t like a loud-mouthed hen that they don’t recognize. He just ends up going with the hens he can see. That, to me, is why it’s so important to play it safe and go soft when dealing with a hen that’s close to a gobbler.

If the hens are a good ways from the gobbler, especially if they are farther from him than I am, I might be more apt to pour it on hot and heavy. I want to get his attention before he starts thinking about other options.

I was working a bird one morning that was roosted 100 yards from me. He had hens past him another 150 yards or so away. He stayed on the roost for 30 minutes, trying to decide which way he wanted to go. He gobbled constantly at the hens and had answered my tree calling at daylight, but I was starting to get nervous and felt like he would soon be pitching down and heading to the real thing. I gave a fly-down cackle and immediately did a loud assembly call.

He was in easy gun range within five minutes. He was either going to stay on the limb until the hens hit the ground or until a hen said something that made him want to fly down. Either way, getting loud and aggressive proved to be the right choice on that particular morning.

Evening Aggression: I enjoy employing an aggressive approach in the evening at a gobbler’s roost site. If you find birds in an area several different mornings in a row, they are likely spots to try an evening-aggression setup.

I will often spend the last couple of hours of an evening hunt in a roosting area. It’s important to hang in there until dark. I have left areas thinking the birds weren’t coming, and I’ve bumped them as I was walking out.

Make plans to set up for at least a few hours. Turkeys can fly up as early as an hour or more before dark or as late as five minutes before good shooting light ends.

I’ll call every half hour or so, just to let the gobbler know I’m in town. I don’t do much elaborate calling, just some yelps, clucks and purrs for the most part. Scratch in the leaves some to sound like a hen feeding.

I have also had gobblers loafing in their roost area well before fly-up time. I believe they arrived early in hopes of intercepting the first hen that showed up.

An evening hunt can be tough to stick out, especially later in the season. It doesn’t get dark until late, and the days are long. You’re worn out and thinking about supper. However, you need to be committed, or aggressive, in your approach to stay in the woods until fly-up time.

Turkey season kicks off next month. This month begins the first stage of aggression as you start your pre-season scouting. And, the next time you have a little trouble killing a bird, you might want to get aggressive, one way or another.

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