Learning To Avoid Turkey Hunting’s Classic Mistakes

Knowing what not to do can yield success in the spring turkey woods.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | February 29, 2012

Here is a good example of what not to do. Notice this turkey hunter set up against a tree that was too small and in woods that are wide open.

The big Cedar Creek WMA gobbler had covered a lot of ground and was now getting dangerously close to decapitation. I had pulled the bird from the creek bottom below and over a high ridge opposite my setup. I guess he had probably covered several hundred yards when he finally appeared, walking steadily down the opposite hillside toward me. The bird seemed committed as he crossed a gully 100 or so yards below, but as he approached he began to swing a little wide. He soon was skirting past me at a distance close to 60 yards, and fearing he was not going to come any closer, I convinced myself he was closer to 50 yards and squeezed the trigger. He immediately spun out and retreated back up the hillside from where he had come. There was no doubt he wouldn’t be coming any closer then.

“Why? Why did I do that?” I wondered. It was a simple case of hitting the panic button before I needed to. The bird wasn’t in the least bit spooked or nervous while skirting my position, but the second I thought he was going to execute the classic drive by, I panicked and blew it.

I actually made two major mistakes that caused me to head to the truck empty-handed that day. One was the obvious, ill-advised shot and the other was a terrible setup. I had sat on the side of a hill where I could see the bottom below and a large portion of the opposite hillside. The only problem with that was, when the bird broke into the open, he fully expected to see the hen he heard from the open woods ahead. When he didn’t, he began sweeping wide and I ended the hunt, albeit in an unfavorable manner. It was a classic case of ruining an otherwise promising hunt.

I wish I could tell you this was one of only a few examples of how to ruin a hunt. Unfortunately, this is only one of many. I also am somewhat reluctant to admit it, but I have gained a pretty fair amount of experience in ruining a hunt or two over the years. I will share some of my favorite, or should I say, most despised, ways to ruin a hunt. I have probably even invented a couple of ways to end a hunt on a sour note along the way, but the ones we will look at are more apt to happen than most.

Let’s be honest here and admit that we all have managed to mess up from time to time in the turkey woods. That is part of it. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. The toughest thing to swallow when we mess up is it likely could have been avoided. Let’s look, now, at five ways to ruin a hunt and some ways to avoid them.

I’ll use the scenario of the hunt I mentioned above for starters. I said I made two major mistakes there, and both are on my list.

Setups: Nothing can ruin a hunt much quicker than a poor choice of where you sit to work a bird.

The WMA bird I was working that day was cranking pretty good and was actually getting hotter by the minute. I was pretty confident in my chances until he began to swing wide. The second he veered off the path that would have brought him straight to me, I realized I had committed a grave error in my setup decision. I have preached proper setup more times than I can count, but I sat down on a wide-open hardwood hillside and expected the bird to march right in. When he got to where he knew he should be able to see the hen and she wasn’t there, he began to swing wide.

So what could I have done? I could have picked a spot where the bird would have had to seek me out. There was a thicker area of trees behind me and another, more suitable area a little farther to my right. Either one would have caused the bird to come closer to find the hen — likely inside gun range.

I shudder to think how many birds have avoided certain catastrophe simply because I made a lousy choice of where to work him from. It all goes back to basic fundamentals. Finding suitable cover, facing the right direction and making him hunt me. I always prefer good background cover as opposed to foreground, and I believe it is possible to set up in woods thick enough to cause a gobbler to have to search for you without it being too thick for him to feel safe in or too thick for you to have a good shot opportunity. I have, at times, run across a bird or two that threw caution to the wind and never gave a second thought as to where the hen should be, but one ruined hunt seems to overshadow a bunch of good ones. Setting up wrong is an easy thing to avoid but happens an awful lot. When a bad setup turns out to be the reason a bird survives an encounter with you, well, it’s going to sting for quite a while.

Shooting Too Far: I’ll go ahead and get the other mess-up from the above scenario out of the way. I did hit the panic button, needlessly, but I also shot too far. It was a pure and simple mistake. Open woods and fields have always caused distance judging problems for me, and this hunt was no different. I let the thought of the bird getting away from me cloud my decision making and I took a terrible, risky shot. I knew better before I squeezed the trigger. I will go on to say that I have rarely ever taken a shot at a bird when I had reservations about doing so that ended favorably for anyone besides the bird. In other words, when in doubt, do without. It will likely save you a batch of misery and a bad memory that won’t leave you alone.

I could have avoided that one by simply holding off on the shot. Even if the bird had continued on his path that would have taken him out of sight it might have been possible to relocate, in a better setup, and call him into range. Instead, I made him a tougher bird to kill and went home without him. Always be sure of distance. If you struggle with judging distance like I do, you might consider using a rangefinder. Rangefinders are a great tool in the turkey woods, and by simply ranging some landmarks around your setup, you can be certain if a turkey is in range or not when he comes in.

Misjudging distance isn’t always going to result in a missed shot either. It might very well result in no shot at all. I know of several people who have called in gobblers and allowed them to walk away because they thought they were out of range; only to discover later when the bird left that he was well inside of it.

This one can get a little cloudy. When I was a green turkey hunter and was trying to scoop up any scraps I could from the veterans of the turkey woods, the one thing I seemed to hear most was, “You can’t move when a turkey comes in.” Well, as it turns out, that’s stretching it a bit. That doesn’t mean you can get away with a Zumba dance routine, but you will rarely shoot a bird that doesn’t require you to adjust your aiming point a little.

The key to pulling it off is knowing when to move and how to move. I have seen people lose an opportunity to kill a bird because they were afraid to move any at all, and I have seen people ruin a hunt by trying to quick-draw a bird. Both will generally leave you frazzled. Some will tell you they have pulled off a snap shot or two at a bird from time to time, but I don’t recommend it. It is risky at best. I believe the best time to move on a gobbler, if you have to move more than just a little to adjust your aim, is when he is well inside gun range, and I believe you will get away with it most times when the movement is slow and deliberate.

Let’s say you have a bird at 60 yards and he is approaching in a way that is going to make the shot difficult. If I am unable to get a bead on him, I will generally let a bird like that come on in, maybe even as close as 25 or 30 yards, and then I will start moving into position. Again, it is slow and deliberate. He will see you 99 percent of the time, but this type movement generally won’t send the bird exploding into parts unknown. He will usually just turn and start walking away. Just keep moving until you’re on him and put him down. Most times the bird will still be in easy gun range by the time you are able to put the bead on him.

However, if you give it the quick-draw maneuver, he is likely to try and get out of there in a big hurry. I have yet to lose a bird to slow and deliberate movement.

Overcalling: Here is another touchy subject. One of the most exciting parts of turkey hunting is when a bird gobbles. The excitement escalates a notch or two when your calling is the reason he is gobbling. It is a confidence booster, and it keeps you on your toes when you know you have grabbed the attention of a big old gobbler. If turkey hunting was simply going out and getting a bird to gobble, most everyone who hunted them would eventually be successful. While getting a bird to gobble is a measure of success, it’s not usually the main objective. I love to call to a turkey and listen to him answer me, but I must confess, after all these years in the turkey woods, I still get my biggest thrill when I peel a gobbler’s ’tater.  I have ruined an opportunity to do so on more than one occasion by simply opening my mouth when all I had to do was keep it shut.

I probably watched one too many turkey-hunting videos when I first started hunting them and got caught up in the old, “call ’em ’til they get there” trap. I finally realized it’s not all that common to call nonstop to a turkey until you shoot him.

As I have said countless times before, the least amount of calling you can get away with, the better off you are. Sometimes the least amount might still be a lot of calling, but a general guideline is to leave approaching gobblers alone. If he is coming, let him come. There’s just no reason in the world to keep telling a bird to come if he’s already doing it. Of course it helps when you can actually see the bird as he approaches. If you can’t see him, it’s best to play it safe and treat him as if he is coming.

Early season setups can be tough, but setting up against large trees with small background objects, such as dead limbs and tall grass or broomsedge, will help with concealment.

Getting Tired and Lazy:
This one happens to most of us at some point in the turkey woods. Early in the season we are focused. We cover ground, and we are careful when easing through the woods. We sit in pristine spots with the patience of Job.

Two weeks later, we are worn down a little, and we get in a hurry, we sit in terrible spots, and we take shortcuts. It is easy to stay sharp early on, but when the action gets a little slow and we get lazy, our chances of killing a longbeard dwindle drastically.

I had a client one day who I had placed in front of me about 25 yards away. I instructed him to keep his eyes open and watch the open field ahead. I assured him that I would watch the back door as I called occasionally. The season had reached a full five weeks by this time, and I was tired. You guessed it… I went to sleep on the man. I didn’t drift off, I crashed.

Somewhere in the middle of my field-nap the sound of a spitting and drumming gobbler woke me up and triggered an involuntary jerking motion which triggered an involuntary lift-off from the bird which now more closely resembled a quail than a turkey due to the speed in which he retreated.

I was embarrassed but was fortunate to have a client who thought it was pretty funny. He wasn’t laughing two days later when I still hadn’t managed to put a bird in front of him. Fortunately, he connected the last day of his hunt, and we could laugh once more. I’d be lying if I said that was the first time I ever fell asleep on a client. Sleep deprivation is a non-desirable companion in the turkey woods.

What about general laziness though? Laying your gun in your lap, even when you have a bird interested. Calling from the middle of an opening instead of walking a few feet to get in a place where you can drop quickly if a bird answers close by. Walking across the middle of a field instead of staying in cover. On and on I could go, but the point is there’s just no excuse for being lazy. If you aren’t in the mood, can’t stay focused or awake or just find yourself taking shortcuts, you should probably stay home and recharge your batteries.

We generally tend to get lazy when we’ve had less than desirable results afield. We start going through the motions. When you do that and you ruin a hunt, it makes for a very long season.

As I said earlier, there are a lot of ways to ruin a turkey hunt. These are just a few that are apt to bite most of us in our turkey seats if we’re not careful. I realize we are going to make mistakes in the turkey woods. That’s alright, too, as long as we learn from them and try to avoid repeating them. Just try to keep in mind, though, that a mean old turkey gobbler doesn’t really need any help to ruin a hunt.

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