Keeping The Turkey Hunting Edge

Practice woodsmanship, calling and change in the turkey woods this spring.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | February 1, 2008


There are several areas we must pay close attention to: woodsmanship, calling and change. By focusing on these three areas, you’ll find yourself keeping the edge all season long.

Webster’s dictionary defines complacency as, “self satisfaction accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.” This is a perilous state in life, and in the world of a turkey hunter, it eventually spells doom. When we hunt turkeys in a state of complacency, we are setting our- selves up for failure. It is probably one of the most common mistakes a hunter can make in the turkey woods, so it’s critical to stay on your game and keep the edge.

When I started turkey hunting, I got lucky. On my very first hunt I man- aged to pull three gobblers from a steep mountain ravine in northeast Georgia. When I pulled the trigger, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Over the next couple of seasons, I enjoyed a good bit of success and along with that success came a growing confidence. I began to believe that if I could get a bird to gobble, I could call him in and kill him. Over the next several seasons, I killed a few birds. Turkey hunting was pretty easy, I thought. I was quickly getting very complacent about how to hunt and kill turkeys. However, my lazy attitude was fixing to change after coming face-to- face with a gobbler on Cedar Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

He was hot. When he answered my call, he was on the opposite side of a wide, flooded creek bottom. He gob- bled nearly every time I called, but he didn’t seem to be willing to cross the bottom. I decided to get around on his side of the creek bottom. There was an old logging road on that side of the bot- tom that I figured I could pull him down.

When I reached it, I thought I should close the distance a bit before setting up. Instead of checking the bird once I got to the roadbed, I carelessly took off toward the bird. I had a spot in mind where I wanted to set up and work the bird, and I intended to get there in a hurry. The trouble was he had the same spot in mind. When I got there, he was already waiting on me.

He won, I lost—hunt over.

Where was my complacency? The answer is simple. I went to him with no caution whatsoever. I never once thought he might be on his way, in a hurry, and I was honestly shocked when I met him in the roadbed. I learned that just because this method of pursuit paid off in the past didn’t mean it applied to every gobbler.

In my first few years of turkey hunting, my success rate rose. My complacency rose with each successful hunt, which led to a missed opportuni- ty at Cedar Creek. How do we keep from being complacent? How can we keep an edge in our turkey-hunting game? There are several areas we must pay close attention to: woodsmanship, calling and change.

By focusing on these three areas, you’ll find yourself keeping the edge all season long.

Woodsmanship: I use the term woodsmanship to describe a hunter’s ability to blend into the area he hunts without being obvious to the animals, or turkeys in this case, that call it home. So, the best way to pull off that feat is to scout, thoroughly, and learn as much about a place as you can. It isn’t likely to do you a whole lot of good just to find a piece of woods that has turkeys. You need to find roost sites, feeding areas, dust sites, strut zones and travel routes to really maximize your chances. Remember, a turkey already has a better chance of survival than we do of slinging him over our shoulder, so if you start skipping out on the aforementioned duties, you can expect a downfall shortly.

I remember taking a client hunting one day a few seasons ago when I led us to a spot I knew the birds would likely end up after fly down. He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind, and my hearing, when I took us in a direction straight past and several hundred yards away from a group of obnoxiously vocal gobblers. He, at one point, even questioned my game plan. However, he didn’t seem to have a problem with my “competency” an hour after fly down when he pulled the trigger on a 19-lb., 4-year-old tom.

When you do your scouting, pay attention to detail. Figure out why a bird calls a particular area his stomping grounds. Don’t assume you just happened upon him. There is likely a good reason he’s there.

Calling: Calling is another vital part of turkey hunting, and it is important to be as good at it as you can be. While it might be good enough for some to learn how to make a few turkey sounds on one or two types of calls, it isn’t good enough for me. I used to practice calling from November until the season arrived. Now I practice more often including during the season. It is important to stay sharp.

I remember working a bird that seemed to be only slightly interested at best. After a 30-minute lackadaisical volley between us a few hundred yards apart, I decided to change calls. I pulled out a glass call and proceeded to scratch out three to five of the most repulsive notes I’d ever made in the turkey woods. I decided to shut up after that, and so did the turkey. It had been a while since I had even touched that call, and it showed at the worst of times in the worst of ways.

It was a little ridiculous to carry a vest full of calls if I wasn’t any good at using them. I had simply gotten complacent with my calling. I had become pretty decent with the diaphragm and had quit working as hard with other calls.

I believe it is important to know how to use as many different calls as you can, and know how to use them as best you can. You should be able to use all the calls that you take to the woods with equal confidence.

I probably use a diaphragm call about 85 percent of the time and several other calls about 15 percent of the time. I have probably called in as many birds with the 15 percent as I have with the 85 percent. I have learned that changing calls can make all the difference in the world.

The hunt that woke me up about changing calls was back in the earlier days of my turkey-hunting career. I was hunting the Oconee National Forest, and I had managed to instigate a conversation with another half-interested gobbler. We played the game for a half hour or so when I decided to change calls. Within 10 minutes the bird covered the 300 yards between us, gobbling as he came and was quickly in my lap.

Man, you talk about something clicking! From that point forward, I have made it a conscious effort to be as proficient as I can be on as many types of calls as I can. It is also important to understand that there is more reason to change calls sometimes than just to be doing it.

Countless times I have called from one spot and heard nothing, only to change calls and get a response. When you find the one he likes, go with it. Remember also, that you don’t necessarily have to sound as good as Joe Drake, Michael Waddell or Benny Briggs, but you do want to resemble a turkey. Real turkeys aren’t as good as those guys, so there is margin for error. Just practice every chance you get because you can always improve.

Change: One way to help raise the success rate is to let go of some stubbornness. I like to think that I am a flexible hunter who stays open to a new idea here and there. When I am hunting with someone else, I listen to their ideas and enjoy strategy camaraderie, right up until someone mentions decoys. I tried them early on in my turkey-hunting career and, except for a couple of occasions, had terrible luck with them. It didn’t take long for me to ditch the decoys, vowing to never use them again. I guess the first time in years I gave any thought to changing my position on decoys came during the preseason last year.

I have always enjoyed watching turkey-hunting videos, and my favorite over the years has probably been “The Truth” series from Primos. I bought their latest edition last year. It was basically a video pertaining to the use of a gobbler decoy they call “B-Mobile.”

Before buying the video I thought, “Here we go again.” I had visions of other videos where a turkey is about to pop into view while a hunter frantically tries to stick a decoy in the dirt. Nevertheless, I decided to go ahead and buy it. Now I don’t necessarily believe everything I see on a turkey video, but after watching this one I was seriously considering inviting Mr. B-Mobile on a hunt. The Primos boys rocked bird after bird over the new decoy, and it definitely had me curious.

One day at work I was approached by a friend of mine who had purchased a B-Mobile. We belong to the same hunting club in Putnam County, and I told him I was planning on going over there that afternoon. He asked if I wanted to take his new decoy with me, and try it out. I jumped at the opportunity to test drive one of those new decoys without spending the money.

When I got to the club, I went to a food plot. Now, I’m as green as a Granny Smith apple when it comes to the use of decoys, but I did my best to set up B-Mobile and a hen decoy in a squatting position to look as real as I could. When I backed off and set up, I’ll have to admit that the fake gobbler looked pretty good bobbing and pirouetting in the breeze.

I called sparingly over the next hour or so but had not heard or seen a turkey yet. Finally a hen appeared in the far end of the plot and began feeding toward me. I watched her closely as she took notice of the two decoys in the field and stared them down. I was somewhat relieved when she relaxed and began feeding again. She never paid any more attention to them and, in fact, fed all around them for the next half hour. Eventually three more hens came into the plot, and they too took notice of the impostors in the field. They didn’t seem to have a problem with the decoys either, and I was glad that the fakes seemed to have passed the first test.

Now I had four real hens, a fake gobbler and a fake hen in the food plot in front of me. I felt like a real gobbler would just have to check things out if one happened by. More time had passed when I heard what I wanted to believe was a turkey walking in the leaves down below the plot in a hard- wood bottom. I only heard it for a couple of seconds but knew better than to ignore it, so I clucked and purred a couple of times just in case. About five minutes later two of the hens began walking away from me, almost in a trot, toward the opposite end of the field. They were looking intently at something on the edge of the plot to my left, but I couldn’t see what it was. Seconds later that “something” was revealed to me in the form of a large strutting gobbler, running toward the decoys. I watched in awe as the big strutter slammed into the foam fake. For a second or two I thought about watching the show but thought about the old “bird-in-hand” theory and decided to drop him. He was a good 3- year-old that never said a word.

Now, I didn’t say all that to sell B- Mobiles. I told you to remind you how important it is to stay open minded.

Does that mean I’m going to use a decoy every time I raise a gobble from now on? No, but I did buy a couple and when the time is right, I’ll use them without giving it a second thought.

My high-school football coach was a winner when I played for him in the early 80s, and he is still winning today. He has stayed so successful because he is willing to change when necessary. He didn’t reach the 200-win plateau by being complacent. He taught me a lot on the football field, and I still apply his teachings today, even in the turkey woods.

The point is we have to stay open to change. We have to practice and work at it. We have to polish our skills, and we can’t take shortcuts. We have to stay on top of our game and expand our resources whenever possible. We have to do whatever it takes to keep the edge.

If you do, I think you’ll find your- self in more successful situations this spring. Good luck!

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