Hunting Sharp-Spurred Toms With Waddell, Rickey Joe and Roscoe Reams

With fewer suicidal 2-year-old toms in the turkey woods this spring, you’ll be hunting a group of older, much wiser gobblers. GON interviewed three professional Georgia turkey hunters and asked them what strategies they’ll be using this season.

Brad Gill | April 8, 1999

Now that the first week of turkey season is coming to a close, you may be left scratching your head. What’s wrong? Maybe you’ve discovered that those special tricks you used last turkey season that nearly had birds running you over just don’t seem to be working that well this season. If you’re in the habit of killing a bird or two every spring, but the majority of the birds hoisted over your shoulder are those easy-to-kill 2-year-olds then you better keep reading.

In the March issue of GON, DNR wildlife biologist Reggie Thackston commented on the poor reproduction year in 1997 which means that Georgia turkey hunters are now seeing a lack of 2-year-old turkeys. Since these birds are by far the easiest gobblers to kill, you’ll have to reach farther into your bag of tricks this year before you line up the bead of your shotgun on the old red, white and blue. I talked with three professional Georgia turkey hunters and asked them what special tactics they’ll be using this turkey season when dealing with gobblers of the older, wiser variety.

Michael Waddell 

Michael Waddell works in the television and video department for Realtree and is also a member of the Realtree Pro Staff. He killed his first Georgia bird when he was 12 and he hasn’t let up since. After dropping that first bird, the 26-year-old has dropped the hammer on more than 20 Georgia longbeards. Michael hunts turkeys all over the country, but focuses his Georgia turkey hunting in Talbot, Harris, Meriwether and Troup counties.

Realtree Pro Staffer Michael Waddell with a Georgia longbeard he shot last season. Michael will be using more realistic calling this season, along with trying to sneak up as close as possible to a roosted bird.

Michael admits that things will be a little different this season, but says there are several things you can change in your turkey hunting techniques that should help you adjust to hunting older birds.

“One thing I do if I know I’m dealing with an older bird is try to get as close as possible without spooking him,” said Michael. “With 2-year-old birds sometimes you can set up  200 yards out from them and if they’re hot, they’ll come over and through anything to get to you.”

One thing about an older bird is that he didn’t get those long, sharp spurs because he’s stupid. They got them because they are a little more “nature wise” when compared to the gullible 2-year-olds. An older gobbler knows that nature is simple, he’s supposed to gobble and the hen is supposed to come. That’s why it is much harder  to make an older bird come great distances. “You want to make an older gobbler have to commit as little as possible,” said Michael.

A prime example of this was seen when Michael was hunting an area of Texas, where the turkey population was made up  of older birds, similar to our Georgia situation this season.

“We had to almost sneak up to them,” said Michael. “If you didn’t get right on top of them, you could hardly kill them.”

After getting as close as you can to a roosted bird, Michael believes your particular calling style will be a bigger factor this season when dealing with this older age class of birds. Many hunters believe the majority of turkey hunting is simply knowing the lay of the land or just being woods wise. These things are important, but good, realistic calling will play a key role when trying some turkey talk with older birds.

“When you’re dealing with an older, more mature bird, calling can be a bigger key than what people normally consider it to be,” said Michael. “I do a lot of calling, but it’s soft, very realistic calling with a lot of personality to it. This year you’ll have to act more like a turkey, whereas when hunting a  2-year-old you can cutt and yelp wide-open making them gobble every step of the way.”

The turkey hunter must make every effort to let these wiser birds believe they’re listening to the calls of a real, live hen. Find a call that you are comfortable and confident in using and one that has good, realistic turkey sounds and rhythm.

“Creating an illusion is 10 times more important on older, harder pressured turkeys than 2-year-old turkeys,” said Michael.

Another thing that Michael has seen in his years of experience is something that all hunters who use decoys should note. It’s been his experience that when he used a jake decoy he got very little response from more mature birds. By simply removing the jake’s beard and replacing it with a long beard, like that of an older bird, he noticed a difference in the older bird’s reaction to it.

“On several different occasions we  had mature turkeys leave a huge flock of 20 or 30 hens and run all the way in to the decoys ready for a fight,” said Michael.

Ricky Joe Bishop

Ricky Joe Bishop is an acclaimed Georgia turkey hunter and is also well-known for his expert calling abilities. He has hunted Georgia longbeards for more than 20 years and concentrates his Georgia turkey hunting in the west-central portion of the state.

Ricky Joe Bishop with a Georgia tom he took on a turkey hunting trip several years ago in Meriwether County.

Ricky says things will be a little tougher this season since these older birds aren’t going to be as willing to stand around at 30 yards and put on a show for you like a 2-year-old.

“These older birds are coming in with one thing on their mind, to breed, and they’re not going to waste any time,” said Ricky.

Mature birds usually come in suspicious and if they see one thing that is out of place or doesn’t “feel” just right, then they’ll be gone. If you can be fortunate enough to have one within gun range you better take the first good opportunity you have to shoot.

One thing that will better your odds at one of these sharp-spurred toms is to do your homework, even more so than usual. Often, scouting homework is something we do only before the hunt. Although this is important, scouting all through turkey season can be beneficial, especially this turkey season. “Pattern these toms like you would an old buck,” said Ricky.

Look for roosting, strutting, loafing and feeding areas. Droppings, scratchings and multiple tracks with strut marks are great indicators of areas a group of birds are frequenting.

“Get in these places and set up some decoys and do some soft calling,” said Ricky. He believes you need a realistic set of calls to fool these wiser birds.

Ricky recommends a slate or glass call, but says you won’t have to call as much. This tactic should be beneficial during the early part of the season.

By late season, two things have happened. One, Ricky has done his homework, and two, the trees are covered in foliage. This homework has told him where his older bird will be roosted and the foliage will help him sneak up close to him before flydown time. “When they fly down you can give them a soft yelp,” said Ricky. “Hopefully if you can get close enough they’ll be almost in gun range anyway.”

Ricky has gotten close enough to a roosted gobbler that by simply scratching in the leaves or giving a few, soft calls he has pulled a bird into range.

Ricky killed an old tom with 1 5/8-inch spurs this way on the last day of the season last year.  “I knew his pattern and found his roosting area,” said Ricky. “I just soft called, he gobbled one time before fly down and he got within 40 yards of me.”

Roscoe Reams

Roscoe Reams has definitely been dealing with turkeys longer than most modern-day turkey hunters and has plenty of advice when dealing with older birds. Roscoe has hunted the eastern wild turkey since 1943 and has hunted with famous outdoor writer Charlie Elliott for the last 54 years. Roscoe’s primary Georgia turkey hunting now is done in east-central Georgia, around the Athens area, and in the north Georgia mountains where he has 2,000 private hunting acres.

Roscoe Reams (right) with long-time hunting buddy Charlie Elliott and a pair of sharp-spurred gobblers.

To start with Roscoe says the gobbling will be more sparse this season because of the lack of acorns seen in most parts of Georgia this past year. “Gobblers do not gobble well when they haven’t had a lot to eat,” said Roscoe. “They’re going to do just as much mating as they ever did, but chances are they won’t gobble quite as good.”

Most of the gobbling you generally hear in the first part of the season are those suicide-committing 2-year-olds.

“You are going to have to play every bird like you were calling to a bird that has been through at least one or two seasons,” said Roscoe. “You are going to have to start off real easy and feel him out before you do a great amount of loud calling. If you make one loud call you can’t take it back. You can always get more progressive and louder as a bird gets hotter.”

Another useful hint that may help you have an early Thanksgiving dinner this year is to change your setup strategy on a gobbling bird. “Don’t be afraid to get off the road,” Roscoe strongly emphasizes.

If you are on a logging road or following  a creek, especially on public land or a heavily-hunted private club, and hear a turkey gobble, move away from these easy-to-call-from areas. Everybody and their brother has called from these areas, so move to an area off the beaten path where maybe the birds haven’t heard a call from.

Once you have a gobbling bird and have a different angle on him you must pin down your calling technique. “If you are hunting an area where everybody is using mouth calls, use box calls, if they use a box then switch to a tube call,” said Roscoe. “You are going to have to change the pace on these older birds.”

Another thing to remember about older birds, especially in the mountains, is to use the contour of the land to your advantage. When Roscoe hunts his mountain property he leaves his cabin way before daylight to get as high up a mountain as he can.

“In the mountains it’s just like fighting for survival in a war,” said Roscoe. “The man that wins the war owns the high ground. You got to spend your time before light getting elevation. You can come down a mountain rapidly with little noise,” said Roscoe.

When a turkey gobbles Roscoe will quickly slip back down to the tom’s location, staying just above the turkey. If there is a thicket or some other obstacle just above the turkey Roscoe will get on the same contour line as the bird, but he never sets up below a roosted gobbler.

“Also, when the gobbler is in sight range, he better be in shooting range,” said Roscoe. “You don’t want to be sitting where an old turkey is out there 80 yards from you in the wide open where he can see everything.” If this is the case Roscoe says you better use hen decoys with a jake decoy.

Roscoe also mentioned a few simple tips that many hunters tend to overlook in their overall turkey hunting strategies, and it’s a combination of these simple things this season that could make the difference in a dead bird or going home empty-handed. Even things like the way you sit against a tree could greatly I’m prove your success this season.

“When you sit against a tree you don’t sit like you’re in a chair,” said Roscoe. By simply sitting with your shoulder against the tree, you can gain an extra 20 degrees on your gun swing. Also, keep your gun on your knee at all times, unless you are calling. Then have the gun parallel with your legs so if the gobbler approaches you can raise your gun with less motion than if it was laid across your lap.

Locator calls used to produce shock gobbles will play a bigger role this year since we won’t hear as much voluntary gobbling. Roscoe recommends using different calls in the middle of the day other than just sticking with the standard owl and crow calls.  Although Roscoe will generally start the day with a crow call, he becomes more versatile as the sun gets up.

“Later in the day I use a hawk, varmint or coyote howler call,” said Roscoe. “I’ve even used a little stadium horn when I hunted near the Mississippi River and tugboats were blowing their horns.” Just listen to the sounds in your neck of the woods that are producing shock gobbles.

Don’t get discouraged because you haven’t heard a bunch of gobbling or that the birds haven’t been running to your calls. Remember that with an overall population of 400,000 birds, there are still plenty of huntable toms out there. Look at these older birds as a new challenge, and if you’re having trouble, take these special strategies from the pros with you and hopefully it will help you roll your bird this season.

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