Fly-Up Gobblers

Some of the best turkey hunting occurs in the late afternoon.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | February 20, 2005

Forty-five minutes had passed since he’d last gobbled, and I was exhausted. I had gotten myself into a battle with a tough, old bird, and the best I could figure he’d whipped me pretty good. We went at it on and off for about two and a half hours when he finally seemed to tire of the game. When it all started, I felt as if he was going to be one of those suicide, afternoon gobblers, but after about an hour I realized I was in for it. His best was better than mine, and after an extended silence I pulled myself from the tree I had been pinned to for what seemed like an eternity and headed for my truck. I had made it about 100 yards or so when the old bird let loose of one of those, ‘See-ya-later, Punk’ gobbles. I could tell the old bird was sitting on a limb, and for the next 10 minutes I stood in the middle of an old logging road, in an aggravated state of disgust, listening to him boast of his victory.

This was about the tenth time I’d tried to put this old joker over my shoulder in the afternoon. Every time I’d start calling one ridge over from where he liked to roost. Most times, in a matter of minutes, he’d be gobbling his head off headed toward me. I’d plop down and think this would be the afternoon he would come in running. He’d gobble for a half hour to 45 minutes, and the show would be over. I’d never see him. I’d bang my head each time and wonder why I didn’t just head over to where he had been roosting, set up, do some light calling and wait for him to slip in there. After enough trips to school, I eventually learned to do just that.

I’ve had the good fortune to hunt turkeys all over the country, and for a good many years I usually treated each sub-species of turkey differently. Sometimes I might call to a Merriam’s just as I would an Eastern or an Osceola, but usually I had it in my head that when I was hunting any particular subspecies of turkey, I had to hunt them a certain kind of way. However, after 11 years of hunting and guiding all over the United States, there’s one tactic that works on all turkeys — hunting roosting areas for fly-up gobblers.

Donald Jarrett with an Oconee National Forest bird that he killed at fly-up time on opening day in 1996.

We’ve all heard that if you can figure out where a bird is roosting you have greatly improved your odds of killing him. I agree, but I believe that most of us have always assumed that the phrase is speaking of the morning hunt. If we don’t connect with that gobbler in the morning, we tend to forget about that particular bird until the next morning’s hunt. If you want a better way to fill up your turkey fryer, discipline yourself to stay in the woods until the birds go to roost.

Let’s face it — Eastern turkeys aren’t the easiest birds in the world to pattern. They will roost in the same general area lots of times, but it seems that they are more prone to roost wherever they end up, usually spending their days strolling between two or three roosting areas. However, if you hunt hard enough you’ll run into birds that continually roost in the same stretch of woods every evening. One day in South Dakota it finally clicked that hunting these fly-up areas can be great way to score on a turkey.

I made it to a roosting area an hour before I knew some Merriam’s should be there to stage before flying up for the night. After setting up, I threw out a call or two now and then, and about 30 minutes after my latest series of calls, I spotted turkeys coming over the hilltop 300 yards out. There were lots of them, and I liked my chances. I began to pick up the calling a bit, and after about 30 more minutes I managed to grab the attention of a 4-year old, sharp-spurred gobbler. I shot him at 15 yards. When he hit the ground in a pile of feathers, I laid my gun across my lap and enjoyed the show that all the other birds were putting on some 200 yards away. Another 20 minutes passed when all the gobbling and fighting ceased and the 37 birds pulled into a single file and headed to the roost in the draw below me. When the birds reached the roost area, they began flying up. They were scattered about in several cottonwood trees no more than 125 yards away.

When darkness arrived, I walked over and picked up my bird. As I was walking out of the prairie, I began to question myself as to why I hadn’t been using this method back in Georgia on Eastern turkeys. Memories of the countless evenings I had retreated from the woods well before roosting time began to flood my mind. I decided to make it a point to find a bird at home as soon as I could that I could try this method on.

The first opportunity I had to try this on a Georgia bird arrived on opening day of the following season. I had scouted a particular river bottom heavily in the weeks prior to opening weekend and managed to get there three mornings before work during the week before opening day. Each of the three mornings I managed to hear several birds up and down the river, but one bird in particular was roosted on the same bend of the river each morning. He was an annoying rascal who taunted me each morning as I left the woods. Since I realized this bird had established a pattern of roosting on the river bend, I began to reflect on the previous season in South Dakota when I had taken a last-minute gobbler close to his roost area. I felt good about my chances if the bird wasn’t pressured before I could get a crack at him.

Many of us are aware that on public land, which is where this bird called home, gobblers are frequently changing their roost areas. I believe that is largely because of the constant harassment they and the hens they seek receive. If you can find a bird on public land roosting in the same general area for more than three or four days, I highly recommend you get to work on him before he “disappears.”

Private property seems to be slightly more predictable where the subject of roost areas is concerned. I’ve hunted some private property over the years, and on more than one occasion I have had the landowner point out a particular bird in a particular location for me. I’ve heard them say things such as, ‘He’s been down there on the creek every morning around 8 o’clock for the past week’ or ‘I’ve seen him over by the hog pen every evening for the past couple of weeks.’

I knew every day this bird roosted on the river bend could be his last once the season started, and unfortunately I would not be able to hunt him opening morning due to a previously planned hunt with a friend on a local WMA. I could only hope the bird would remain comfortable with the same bend in the river a little bit longer.

Opening morning was kind to my friend and me as we managed a double-double at the local WMA. That morning we were nearly overrun by five gobblers that closed in on us quickly from a couple of hundred yards. We shot four of the five toms with just three shots and headed for home.

Later that afternoon we headed to the river in search of another bird. I told my friend about the bird I had located on the bend of the river, and we both agreed that he might return to the same area that afternoon. We parked the truck and began our long walk toward the river. We reached the end of the foot-travel road about 30 minutes later and came to a spot directly above the river bend where the bird I’d been hearing had been roosting. I called, and to our delight we got an immediate response down below. We split up and dropped into the bottom to work the bird. Two hours later the bird was still hammering everything we threw at him, but he stayed hung up between us. I began to feel a sense of urgency, as I feared the bird would fly up soon. I decided to gobble at him and create a mock fight with fighting purrs on a slate. He triple-gobbled and ran directly toward me until I folded him at 38 yards. It was 15 minutes until dark on opening day, and my season in Georgia was over. I firmly believe had we not engaged in battle with this bird he would have already been on a limb at the time of day I pulled the trigger.

Now that particular hunt doesn’t really prove a lot other than the fact we were fortunate enough to catch him there on the river bend when we got there. I did, however, go back the next morning, minus a gun, and managed to hear only one bird gobble about a half mile down the river. Maybe the one I shot was the one I’d been hearing, maybe he wasn’t, but I’d like to think he was. The point is, I had put myself in an area I knew birds roosted in and if they are there in the mornings, aren’t they there in the evenings?

Stop and think of the number of times you’ve hunted a particular bird in the morning never to return to the proximity of where the bird has been roosting. Think of how many times you have hunted him in the evenings in that same area, giving up within the last hour of daylight assuming he was a no-show, only to return the next morning to be greeted by a chorus of gobbles from the exact area you gave up on.

When hunting birds late in the evening I have found the Eastern subspecies of turkey to be a tight-lipped character most of the time, so you probably shouldn’t expect to hear him gobbling all the way in to the roost. Even Easterns I have fired up late in the evening usually seem to taper off before hitting the limb.

When hunting a fly-up gobbler, I won’t lounge around all afternoon where I think a bird is going to roost that evening. However, if I know where a bird has been roosting regularly, I will eventually try to end up there if I am still empty-handed an hour or so before fly-up. This last hour or so can be a bit boring at times, but it can be quite rewarding when a good bird shows up. I know I have had countless evenings end where I didn’t hear a single gobble. Then, the next morning I’d return to the same spot I’d been standing at dark the evening before and hear several birds sounding off.

When moving into this last-minute mode, I tend to slow things down a good bit. I have noticed a lot of hunters get really antsy the later in the day it gets. This lack of focus and patience is what causes a hunter to go through every call in his vest in less than 10 minutes with an hour of good hunting light left. This flood of calls from beneath a tree just doesn’t fool too many gobblers, and it really isn’t natural sounding when you think about it. I have come to realize that the best way to kill a turkey any time of the day is to blend in with his surroundings. I’m not just talking about your camo pattern either, I’m talking about the sounds you make and how often you make them, too.

For instance, I was hunting a hardwood bottom one evening that I knew held a few good birds. I had struck out several times in recent trips to the area, but I had taken a bird or two from there in previous seasons, so I couldn’t stay away. I knew on more than one occasion I had heard birds fly up on a side hill over a small creek and decided to spend the remaining daylight there. While I sat debating on what call to use, I began to realize that it probably didn’t really matter. The birds weren’t talking at all, so I slid a mouth call in and sat quietly. The only sounds I was hearing was a slight breeze rustling through the early spring foliage and the songbirds. I sat silently for a full 20 minutes and then let go of three soft yelps. They just blended in. I didn’t get a response, and I admit that momentarily I fought the urge to call again. There was a time when I would have given in and let it all hang out. Not today though.

It was another 15 minutes before I made another sound — a few scratches in the leaves. The next thing I heard was the spit and drum of a 2-year old gobbler I shot five minutes later. He was simply slipping in quietly to roost on the hillside. Ten minutes later he would have been doing just that. This was a last-minute gobbler at its finest.

Overcalling to an approaching bird is a good way to keep him away. I feel that until you get ready to get up and leave an area, you need to assume a bird is on the way even though he may be slipping in quietly.

Hunting turkeys in Georgia is as exciting and challenging as it gets. In order to be successful year in and year out, you have to make good use of the whole day. A lot of turkey hunters don’t put much stock in evening hunting, particularly in the last hour or so.

I have kept a good record of turkeys I have killed or guided to the kill over the past 16 years, and I can honestly say I have been responsible for as many turkey deaths in the evening as I have been in the morning. I am still amazed at the number of turkey hunters who don’t hunt the evenings. I love turkey hunting too much to give away my hunting time, and since I have realized a way to make better use of it, I reap a reward every now and then.

Make up your mind to stay later if you want to become a more rounded turkey hunter. Remember that it happens when it happens, and it just might not happen until the last minute.

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