Learning To Hunt Turkey Flocks
A turkey-hunting tactic when gobblers don't want to cooperate.
Opening day of turkey season often varies in terms of what can be expected. I have witnessed openers where solo gobblers came running in to the call, piles of jakes were chasing each other and fighting, or groups of hens were by themselves. However, more often than not I seem to witness large flocks of a mixture of mature gobblers, hens and jakes mingled about in a manner that seems like they weren’t quite sure what they were supposed to be doing.
It takes time for the turkeys to get into the full swing of things. They are sometimes still shaking the winter off their feathers come opening day. There are also times the season will open before turkeys have broken into smaller groups and scattered out. In some cases the larger flocks will have broken up, but the birds might not be scattered very far apart. Such was the case for me on opening day last season.
I was on a hunt with longtime friend Jake Hill and his wife, Misty. Misty had never killed a bird, and we were going to try and fix that. I met them at one of my favorite stomping grounds that afternoon, and we began our search for a cooperative bird. I had a place in mind that I wanted us to get to and planned for us to spend the evening there. The area was a high, flat ridge that rested between two creeks, and the sign there was abundant. My preseason scouting had given me reason to believe that this would be a great place to open up the season.
We decided to sit on opposite sides of a huge oak tree. I was facing a wide, open, flat oak bottom below the hill, and Jake and Misty were facing up the hill. I suggested we start with only occasional calling and patience. Within an hour, we began to hear birds scratching in the leaves farther up the hill in the direction Jake and Misty were watching, and soon a bird gobbled.
The birds eventually showed themselves and were slowly working into gun range. There were eight or more birds in the flock that appeared, and as a result of their slow mingling about, a shot didn’t materialize right away. I, being on the opposite side of the tree, couldn’t communicate with Jake too well, so I had to work the birds by “feel.”
I would occasionally call and scratch in the leaves and soon got a response from two hens down the creek a couple of hundred yards away. One of them began cutting at me in disapproval, and I decided to return the favor. Seconds later a bird gobbled near the hens, and the birds in front of Jake and Misty gobbled. Briefly, I thought of Custer.
I have run into this situation from time to time over the years, and while having a flock of turkeys in your lap sounds like the ideal condition, it can be one of the toughest hunts to end in your favor. Learning to create a window of opportunity when dealing with flocks will increase your chances of taking a bird.
Too Many Birds: There is little else that will boost your calling confidence more than calling in an entire flock of wild turkeys. It’s a rush for sure, but it’s also a dicey situation that will likely be a challenge to pull off. More than one set of turkey eyes is tough to avoid, and obviously the more turkeys you call in, the greater the chance you have of being spotted. This is particularly so the longer the hunt drags on. It’s exciting to be a “part” of the flock, but one bad move, even a slight one, can end the hunt in an instant.
Setup is the key here, and of course good camo and sitting still is of utmost importance. Flocks are more apt to appear in the early season than at any other time, and when it’s early, the cover is scarce. Large-based trees, log jams, brushpiles or anything else you can find that will break your outline and help you blend in is good. Be selective when deciding where to set up, and be still.
Different Directions: Flocks can vary in size, and when you have more than one you are dealing with, you can find yourself in an indecisive state. You will need to commit to one of them, and your commitment might change during the course of the hunt. One flock might have a loudmouth in it that gobbles every time you call, and the other flock might be a passive group altogether. That doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to attack the mouthy one just because he likes to gobble. It just means you need to determine which one you will work and get on with it.
You need to send a message that you are a turkey, and you want to join the party. The bigger the flock, the more likely a gobbler is in the bunch, so don’t ignore one group just because the gobbling is coming from the other group. Treat both groups as if there is a gobbler amongst them. Most of the time, especially in early season, there will be. I will just go with the one that is closest to me initially. Sometimes, the other group might show up first, but that’s OK, too, especially if a big boy is with them.
Pick One: There are times when you will be close to a flock at fly-down time. In fact it’s pretty common. In early season you will deal with more numbers of birds at fly down than at any other time of day. It’s a wonderful time in the turkey woods when that happens. It’s a deflating time when the whole flock wanders off in the opposite direction.
When you are sitting there waiting for the birds to fly down, keep in mind what you are dealing with. You will have lots of hens and multiple gobblers in the trees, and the competition for the hens will be running high. I will usually try to set the tone early on. I don’t like to be a bystander, and I don’t like to play catch-up. The best time to cash in on a flocked-up gobbler is before his feet hit the ground. If you are working a flock with several gobblers in it, you stand a chance of using his competitive nature against him. Go ahead and grab his attention from the get-go.
I recall several seasons ago my good friend Nathan Mason and I were sitting tight on a roost area that held a large number of birds. There was a bunch of gobblers in there, too. I had Nathan out ahead of me about 15 yards. The gobblers started the show that morning, and the first one to fire off was probably less than 80 yards from Nathan. The second he opened his mouth I jumped on him with some aggressive yelps. When he answered, I dogged it off. He got antsy when a few other gobblers sounded off and started cranking pretty good. It would have been easy to mess things up here and start answering every bird that gobbled, but I just don’t think that helps your chances as much as it hurts them.
I like to call with a purpose, and if I just call every time I hear a bird gobble without reading the bird, I’m just making noise. Sometimes that’s all it takes, but I prefer to pick one out and work him alone. If one of the other gobblers gets a little jealous of the attention I’m giving his rival, then that’s fine, too.
It took the bird in front of Nathan about 15 minutes to pitch, and the second he hit the ground, I did a fly-down cackle. He made sure he was going to be first on the scene, and he died less than five minutes later.
It’s not over then either, sometimes. When working flocks, or any other time for that matter, it is a smart move to sit tight after killing a bird. Getting up and running wildly toward a dead bird is a surefire way to run off the rest of the birds and give them an education to boot. Sometimes the shot will flush the flock, but sometimes it won’t. Give yourself a chance, and let the birds settle down. Even if another shot doesn’t materialize, you have let them calm down and ease off instead of running them to the next county by jumping up and running toward a bird that is doing the death flop. There are times when the birds will scatter when you shoot but will soon settle down and resume business as usual. Don’t assume the birds are gone just because they have moved out of sight. When birds are in flocks, and they get scattered, they will likely want to regroup like they do in the fall.
Listen for turkey sounds, and when you hear a bird, get yourself back in the game. I have shot birds from large groups, and within a few minutes the birds that scattered acted as if nothing had happened. If you will pay close attention, you might be able to distinguish between a bird that is knee deep in hens and one that is roaming around inside the flock hoping to get lucky.
Boss gobblers tend to be the ones that pop off in the close proximity of the hens while the subordinate gobblers are gobbling all over the place. That morning, after Nathan killed his gobbler, the birds scattered a little bit, but we sat tight and let them calm back down. I remember the birds being very vocal. Hens were talking virtually nonstop, and different gobblers would sound off every few minutes. I kept calling off and on, just trying to stay connected with the flock.
Soon we heard a bird gobble a couple of hundred yards out. Even with all the commotion, I could still tell the bird was gobbling at me. I told Nathan to be ready because that bird would be coming in soon. I called only to communicate with that particular bird from that point on. Fifteen minutes and few calls later, the big gobbler showed up 20 yards in front of Nathan. He put his second bird of the morning in the dirt.
Where They Want To Be: If you are willing to put in some preseason homework, you can pick up some valuable information. I recall a hunt one morning a few seasons back with professional outfitter Mike Moody, of South Dakota Hunting Service. I invited him to come to the South one year before the South Dakota season opened. I wanted him to experience Eastern turkey hunting on some public ground.
He accepted the invitation, and the second day of the season found us set up on a wide opening on the side of a roadbed that led to an open field. I had seen birds in the field in the morning and evening on scouting trips to the area and knew the birds liked to roost below the field. Strangely, even though the birds would roost less than a hundred yards below the field, they would walk an old roadbed out of the bottom and travel 300 yards or better on that roadbed through the woods before walking into the field. I fought the urge to set up above the roost area in the edge of the field that morning and set us up in the roadbed.
The birds acted like they read the script, and it took little calling to pull them straight to us. Unfortunately, Mike missed the bird, but we were where we needed to be. We just basically got in their way, but scouting the area prior to the season allowed us to do it. It’s still probably the most effective way to take a gobbler home with you, flock or not.
First Come, First Serve: You may find yourself at some point in the enviable position of being the focal point of two converging flocks of turkeys, which brings me back to opening day a season ago.
We already had one flock on the scene, and Misty was still waiting for an opportunity to shoot. She could have already taken a jake by this point but was holding out for the full fan that was parading back and forth behind several hens. It was also apparent now that there was a small flock down below me in the bottom. Since we already had a small flock on top of us, I continued to work the ill-tempered hen below while Jake and Misty focused on the birds in front of them. Eventually, I pulled the hen across the bottom to the base of the hill below. We were now going at it pretty good, and seconds later she cackled as she flew uphill and landed 25 yards in front of me. It all ended five minutes later when Misty shot the big 2-year-old tom in front of her at 40 yards.
In this particular case, the hunt ended when the first gobbler to show up got his head removed. Generally, whether I’m hunting alone or with someone else, I want the first mature gobbler that shows up to be the one to pay the price. I’m also keeping in mind that it might not be a “one and done” situation. Just like on the hunt I spoke of earlier with Nathan, it is possible to kill more than one bird from one set up when dealing with flocks.
Most times I will work birds in a flock like I’m working one bird. If you pay attention to what you are hearing, you will notice if the birds are just talking or if there is one in there that is talking to you. I don’t try to overdo it, and I don’t try to answer every bird that makes a noise. Remember to keep it natural. If they are talking a lot, then it’s OK to join in with a little more chatter. If they aren’t talking much, keep it toned down. Using different types of calls can help, too. There’s certainly nothing wrong with creating the sound of your own flock.
Flocks will test your nerves when they get in your lap, but if you can keep them in check while you wait for your chance, you just might pull a longbeard out of it.
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