The Killing Fields: How To Hunt Field Gobblers

A field gobbler is likely the toughest bird to kill. Employing some different techniques is often what’s needed to be successful.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | April 3, 2018

Turkeys have a way of utilizing their surroundings that makes getting one into gun range a pretty tough row to hoe.

In the timber, they seem to always manage to put a ditch between themselves and the hunter. Or maybe just a slight rise exists there that the hunter doesn’t know about until the gobbler steps onto it, locks it down and struts and gobbles for what seems like an eternity as he surveys his surroundings.

In the fields, it can be an even tougher engagement as turkeys roam in and out of them and can easily spend hours out of reach as the hunter begs from a distant tree line. Personally, I think field birds just might be the toughest to kill.

The first field bird I ever killed was a very long time ago, and I killed him more from being able to move close enough to the edge he was near than I did from calling him in. I used some surrounding woods and a little bit of field terrain differences to get into range. When he stuck his head up to find the hen I pretended to be, I folded him up. It was the fourth bird I had killed, and I was pretty happy about it.

Time eased along, and I began to get a whipping on a regular basis when I tangled with a field bird. I don’t guess I ever really began to understand how to improve my chances in wide-open spaces until I began guiding on the prairies of South Dakota. Open ground is the norm in the prairie, and I knew if I was going to be consistently successful there, I would have to learn to be a better hunter on open-terrain gobblers.

I used to treat all turkeys the same, no matter where I was hunting them. Woods, fields, wherever, it didn’t matter. I either sat up and called or did the run-and-gun routine. I eventually decided that I had to change things up a little if I was going to bring more field birds home with me.

I won’t have you believe that I have it all figured out yet, but my success rate has jumped significantly since I changed my style. Adding several methods to my arsenal has helped me tremendously when dealing with the arrogant likes of birds that hang in the fields.

Decoys: I absolutely despised decoys for years. I had bought one after a few years of turkey hunting, but after watching gobblers skirt my position when they spotted the fakes, I swore them off. It took years before I gave them another try. I had it in my mind that I would rather see a turkey come in and leave because he didn’t see what he was looking for than I had a gobbler leave because he saw something he didn’t like, such as a decoy. And so it went for the next 15 years or so.

But one day a friend offered me the use of his new gobbler decoy, and I decided to give it a test drive. A couple hours later, I was wiping gobbler blood off my friend’s decoy with the sleeve of my shirt. I had removed a portion of the bird’s head when he ran in and bowed up at the decoy at 15 yards. I was intrigued to say the least.

I was seasoned enough to know better than to start throwing one out every time I sat down, but I did go buy one. So what made me try it in the first place? Honestly, I just had to see for myself. I had come to the realization that many of the birds that I had been unable to kill in the fields were simply not willing to come to the call alone. They needed to see something.

I realized that this isn’t anything new to a lot of hunters, but if you are just starting out, I highly recommend getting a good hen and jake decoy right off the bat. I believe if they work for you one time, they will have paid for themselves. I personally have had better results with jake decoys than mature gobblers. I have watched mature birds lose interest pretty quickly the instant they saw a mature decoy, but I have never had a mature bird leave because of a jake decoy. I have watched my jake decoy get absolutely violated by both jakes and longbeards.

Setting up a jake and a hen decoy will often signal to a mature gobbler that the jake either has no respect for the older bird’s status in the pecking order, or that he is trying to slip in and steal one of the superior bird’s hens. Either way, most mature gobblers won’t tolerate it, and they will come in with a pretty bad temperament. It’s all about giving the gobbler something to see, and it’s important to put the right thing out there, especially in the fields.

Worth a mention when talking about decoys is the technique of fanning. I’ll go ahead and share with you that I’m not a “fan” of this strategy.

If you have not seen this via Internet, television or witnessed it firsthand, fanning is a method used to draw birds in by using the fan of a once living turkey or a synthetic one. The fan is held in front of the hunter as he or she shuttles or crawls along toward the gobbler until the gobbler is convinced that the fan is that of another strutter. The idea is to agitate the gobbler until he approaches gun range, at which time the hunter basically quick draws from behind the fake fan and shoots the gobbler. It is particularly a method used for field birds.

The main problem I have with fanning is the safety aspect of it all. I can’t imagine crawling around with a turkey fan in front of my face. Certainly don’t ever do this on public ground, and if you’re going to try it on private grounds, make real sure nobody is around.

By setting up 200 yards from a field edge, the author called this bird to the gun.

Off The Edge: I recall a hunt several years ago when I made the decision to hunt a particular field I had been hunting off and on for a couple of weeks. I had seen birds there but could never convince them to get into gun range. There were generally a few hens and one or two gobblers that frequented the field in the evenings.

Each time that I had seen the birds, I had a front-row seat to some fine turkey action. They would walk around feeding and were perfectly content with their surroundings.

The first time I hunted them I was set up in a shady spot on the edge of the field. I called to them a couple of times, and the hens never fed in my direction the remaining time I sat there that evening. Since the hens didn’t come, the gobblers didn’t either.

The next time I hunted them, I called softly. The gobbler that was with them fired back, but the hens stood tall and scanned the tree line I was in. They never took as much as a step in my direction.

The next time I hunted them, I was set up 25 yards off the field edge, and I watched the birds for more than an hour before I ever called. There were several hens and a couple of longbeards with them. I watched as a dominant hen would occasionally push a younger hen out of the way that had gotten too close. Eventually they fed around a bend in the field, and I could no longer see them. The shadows were getting long, and I knew I needed to try something if I was going to have a chance.

I clucked and purred a couple of times and waited. A few minutes later, I tried again. The fussy old hen cutt hard at me, and within seconds, she came walking back into sight. She walked to the edge of the field and began pacing back and forth, purring and clucking in an aggravated manner as she did.

A minute later one of the gobblers came walking around the bend, his beard swinging with every step. He appeared to be doing a drive by to see what all the fuss was about. He was a touch over 20 yards from the field’s edge when I sent a screaming hot load of 6s toward his big white head. He dropped, and the other turkeys scurried into the tree line across the field.

This had been the closest that any turkey had been to the edge of the field on any evening. Setting up off the edge made all the difference. In the woods or around fields, setting up where a bird has to look for you can help you close the deal.

Blinds: The first time I ever witnessed turkey action from a blind I was guiding a bowhunter in South Dakota. We ran a lot of bowhunters back then, and we needed to get our clients as much of an opportunity to get a shot with a bow as possible. We would occasionally let a hunter run and gun with a bow, but we eventually decided to set up blinds to conceal the movement when our hunters would draw on the bird but also to decrease the education a lot of birds were getting when they busted us. The results were astounding.

For years though, hunting from a blind was almost sacrilege to me, and if it weren’t for bowhunting turkeys, I wouldn’t have been able to accept it. I then started to occasionally take a child and hunt from a blind, and I began to realize that blinds were quite useful in many applications of turkey hunting. Hunting field birds is certainly one of those times to utilize blinds.

One thing that is interesting to me is the lack of concern a turkey seems to have for a blind. I have seen turkeys walk within inches of a blind, even when they are not brushed in. Try setting a blind on the edge of a field or smack dab in the middle of it if you want to. I think you might be very surprised at how little attention turkeys will pay it. Blinds can give you a tremendous edge and allow you to be in places you couldn’t get away with, like fields.

Personally, I believe calling a bird up is pretty exciting, whether you are sitting in a blind or leaning against a tree. You still called him up.

Stack The Odds: The best preparation work we can do as turkey hunters is to do all we can to stack the odds in our favor. I can think of no better way to do that than by scouting. Do your homework by scouting the fields you plan to hunt before you hunt them if you can.

Pay attention to what is in the field. Find out what, if anything, is planted there. Obviously some food sources are preferred by turkeys over others.

Take note of areas the birds like to enter and exit fields. Turkeys are creatures of habit, and sometimes a simple observation of where a gobbler enters or leaves a field could hold the key to his demise. Find out what is drawing him there in the first place.

Pay attention to where he likes to strut. It could be the shady, back corner is his favorite place to spend the evening. If you know where a bird likes to hang out on a field, you can often approach the field from a particular direction that will help you score. Sometimes a bird will not walk all the way across a field and then exit the woods to look for a hen that’s calling to him, but he won’t mind slipping right off the edge he’s standing by to go check things out.

Sometimes I’ll just ease real slowly toward a field, taking time to listen along the way. If he gobbles, I won’t rush to the field and try to set up. I’m on his time, and all I want to do is get close enough for him hear me call. I’d much rather call a bird back into the woods and out of a field than I had to try and slip up to the edge of one that I know might have a gobbler already in it.

Longtime friend Bobby Knight and I did just that not long ago. Bobby had just knocked the flop out of a lonely midday bird a few hours earlier, and we decided to head to a field we knew might have a bird in it. We had seen them there before the season and noticed how they liked to hang out and strut routinely in the back of the field in the evenings.

We were nearing a bend in the road that led to the field when a bird fired off from the back of the field. We sat down, and I went to work. He held his ground in the field for a few minutes, but not being able to see me and unsure if I was coming to the field, he broke and walked into a swarm of 6s in the middle of the roadbed. We had set up nearly 200 yards from the bird.

Lonely, mouthy birds tend to cover the ground if you don’t overdo it. Working birds away from the field edge is one of my favorite ways to do it. After we sat and relieved the hunt for a few minutes, we gathered up our gear and headed out. Before we could go 50 yards, another bird gobbled from the back of the field. We laughed and headed to the truck.

However you decide to hunt field turkeys is entirely up to you, but with some homework, persistence and some new techniques, you can turn those frustrating days in the fields into some great memories.

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