Your best chance to kill a gobbler can be after other hunters head to the truck, and hens head to the nest.
It’s amazing how much an effect mental attitude has on my willingness to hunt turkeys. I suppose it’s human nature, actually. Charged up and inspired at daylight by the mystery of what adventures a new spring day will bring sends my senses into overdrive as I wait, eagerly anticipating the first gobble of the morning. Hearing that gobbler sound off or a hen yelping, regardless of what time of day it is, increases my heart rate like no other sound, sometimes causing me to throw caution into the wind and wade waist-deep creeks, run through briar thickets or other crazy things only a possessed turkey hunter could understand.
But let six hours lapse without seeing a turkey or even so much as thinking I might have heard a far-off yelp, and I begin to wonder if I’m wasting time and should be at home cutting the grass. That’s exactly what had happened to me one April afternoon a couple of springs ago in Cherokee County. A glance at my watch revealed it was almost 2 o’clock, and I wondered where in the world the three gobblers I had heard at daylight could possibly be.
“Too dang hot to sit right here any longer, Stanley,” I mumbled to myself as I stood up and gathered my stuff. “Might as well go find a different patch of woods to doze off in.”
I had set up in four or five different locations since daylight, but hadn’t actually ventured more than 300 yards from where I had started hunting. I was familiar with the area and fairly certain that sooner or later some of the hens would slip off to their nests. If I stuck it out long enough, maybe one of the gobblers would get lonely and come looking for the persistent, lovesick hen I was pretending to be.
Pep talk completed, I walked back to the powerline where I had started the day. I was walking the woods edge and just short of cresting a big ridge where I could see for a couple of hundred yards when I heard a gobble.
Quickly dropping down to one knee I shouldered my old, worn 12-gauge Remington and pulled up my face mask. The bird gobbled again, just over the top of the hill, and I was about to begin crawling for cover when I heard something walking in the woods to my right. I spotted a gobbler, and it was obvious he had heard the other bird too, as he was making a beeline straight for him.
I turned as the gobbler walked behind a big tree and yelped softly on my mouth call as he stepped out in the edge of the powerline. That did it.
He quickly made a 90-degree turn and began walking toward me, craning and straining his neck in an almost comical manner, no doubt trying to figure out what in the world was this kneeling, camouflaged blob.
My little internal voice began a countdown as I ever so slowly increased pressure on the trigger. “Forty… thirty-five… let him keep coming… thirty yards… okay that’s it, close enough… BOOM!”
I was up and after him as quickly as I could, pouncing on the flopping bird like a big cat.
“Man, what a rewarding hunt,” I thought to myself later as I walked the mile or so back to my truck, swapping shoulders with the 20-lb. bird every couple of hundred yards.
As I pulled onto the paved road at 3:15 p.m. that afternoon I realized that although it would have been a thrill to have shot him right after he flew off the roost, taking a mature gobbler in the afternoon after an almost all-day hunt was even sweeter. And heck, to top it off I still had time to cut the grass when I got home.
During their first four or five years of chasing turkeys, most turkey hunters become discouraged by late morning when the action traditionally calms down — if there was any to start with. And let me tell you, those days of not hearing a peep even in an area with plenty of turkeys is not at all uncommon. It’s one of the many things about hunting turkeys that can cause you to question your sanity — one morning they’ll be gobbling and yelping to beat the band, and the next, under identical circumstances, the woods are silent. But just because the woods are suddenly quiet doesn’t mean it’s time to give up. There are still a multitude of reasons why you should stick it out. Here are some of the best reasons that experience has taught me over the years…
They’re Out There Somewhere
Unlike deer, turkeys don’t wander off to some thick area or swamp and bed down for five or six hours after an early-morning flurry of action. You may not hear much out of them, but you can bet they’re out there somewhere — it’s up to you to attempt to figure out where, and put yourself in a position to be successful.
At times, this kind of hunting can really test your patience, and you may soon discover how mentally tough you are. As hunters, we’ve been programmed to act and react to turkey vocalizations, and obviously that’s one of the things that make this quarry so exciting to hunt.
Some hunters may have the wherewithal to sit in a tree all day without seeing or hearing a deer, realizing they’re not all that vocal and may come by at any time.
However, take these same hunters, put a turkey call in their hand and a shotgun across their knees as they sit against a tree and not hear a turkey for an hour, and you’ll see their patience disappear in a hurry.
You’ve got to tell yourself that a gobbler could be just around the bend in the logging road or in the next food plot and that he’s vulnerable under the right circumstances. This is where scouting and knowing the habits of turkeys in your area can really pay dividends and give you the confidence you need to persevere.
What are the preferred, available food sources? Are there food plots nearby? Turkeys love to hang out in and around fields, pastures, powerlines and other open areas during midday, especially on rainy days. Are there any in the area you hunt?
Do you know of any funnels, such as open creek bottoms passing through a clearcut, that will dictate movement from roosting to feeding areas?
Do you know where the hens like to nest? Where have you seen turkeys during the middle of the day in the past? The answers to clues such as these are extremely important, and understanding and then taking advantage of their affect on turkey movement can often make the difference between failure and success.
Gobblers Are Predictable (Well, Sometimes)
Oh, what a life a mature gobbler has in the springtime! Fly off the roost early in the morning, mate with some hens, show dominance by spurring another gobbler, eat a few bugs, search for more hens to mate with, then fly back up to roost at dusk and recharge with enough testosterone to do it all over again the next day.
The chink in the armor of that routine that a hunter can most take advantage of from late morning on comes into play when the gobbler is searching for hens. This is something a gobbler will find himself doing more and more as the season progresses and the hens begin leaving the harem earlier to sit on their nests.
At this time, predicting where gobblers will go after they suddenly find themselves a bachelor can become a little easier and should be a key factor in your hunt. As gobblers strut and show their stuff in hopes of impressing a hen, they know their chances of attracting attention are best in an area where they can be easily seen. If this happens to be a food plot or feeding area that hens frequent anyway, it’s all the better. Commonly referred to as a strut zone, this area could also be a logging road, powerline, field or just an opening in a creekbottom. You’ll find plenty of sign here — tracks, droppings, feathers, and if the ground is conducive, “figure eight” marks where a gobbler’s wings drag the ground as he struts. If you’re lucky enough to discover one of these zones — stock up on patience, set out a decoy, hide and get comfortable — your odds of bagging an after-prime-time gobbler just went up considerably. Kinda like the only lady in a bar full of men, having fewer real hens to compete with in the afternoon can possibly get you a lot of attention.
When the Going Gets Tough, Wait ’em Out
Once you’ve narrowed down the “where” in your gobbler quest, it’s time to consider the “how,” and there are a couple of different schools of thought on that as well. My favorite method is to build or set up a blind in a pre-scouted area, put out a couple of decoys, get settled and call sparingly. Turkeys generally don’t call as much in the afternoon, and I like to follow suit to sound more natural. A few clucks or yelps every 15 minutes or so feels about right to me. I prefer to worry a gobbler a little, making him think the hen is playing hard to get rather than over-call and have him hang up waiting on the hen to come to him.
I don’t camp out in one spot all afternoon long, even though I have done that in areas I really had lots of confidence in. I usually spend an hour or two in an area before relocating to another, and it’s not uncommon for me to make a loop and end up hunting right back where I started before the day is over.
Patience is the key to this type of hunting as the pace is usually much slower compared to early morning. Gobblers often take their sweet time coming in and many times will not gobble at all. This is why I prefer hunting out of some type of blind. This prevents you from getting pinned down and allows movement when you suddenly have a gobbler pop into view unannounced at 30 yards. Blinds can also prevent you from being spotted as you eat lunch, stretch your legs and shift around a little while sitting for long periods.
A buddy of mine laid down and took a nap in his blind about 2 o’clock one afternoon. About 30 minutes later he woke up and was startled to find two gobblers walking around and inquisitively checking out his decoys a mere 20 yards away. Had he been hunting with a shotgun it would have been a piece of cake, but by the time he got his bow to full draw they had meandered out of range.
I carry a portable blind that sets up in about a minute, but always first attempt to take advantage of any natural blinds I can find such as blown-down trees. Piling up a little brush or a few limbs around your blind if you can’t find anything natural can help fool a sharp-eyed gobbler as he cautiously comes in looking for a hen. The bigger the tree you can find to sit against the better. If possible, sit with your back to an area you don’t expect the gobbler to come from as a result of the terrain — a creek, thicket, etc. — so you won’t get caught in a poor shooting situation. Remember, he’s likely to come in silently, not giving you the advantage of tracking him by his gobbles and giving you the opportunity to move and fine tune your position as he approaches within range.
Decoys work well with this style of hunting. Not only do they give you added confidence as you sit for long periods, they can diffuse a gobbler’s hesitance to come in close when he’s expecting to find a hen, but doesn’t see one. The same gobbler that may have run all over you in the excitement and heat of the early morning moment may now cautiously and silently work his way in. He’s plenty killable all right, but it may require that all the puzzle pieces be in the right place for success.
Make Something Happen
For all you impatient hunters who just read the previous section and are cringing at the thought of sitting in one spot, yawning and scratching for hours at a time — don’t fret — there’s another, more aggressive tactic that may be more to your liking. This approach involves walking logging roads or perhaps a ridge top in a likely area and calling aggressively every 100 yards or so. This tactic is an attempt to elicit a “shock gobble,” which is an immediate reaction that allows you to pinpoint his location.
A word of caution here — before you call, it’s a good idea to have a nearby tree picked out that allows you a place to set up quickly. It may not happen often, but sooner or later you may stumble onto a gobbler that comes running in to your calls, and you’ll have to react in a hurry. This seems to work best if you have a good-sized piece of property without much hunting pressure, and I know of guys who take birds in this fashion every year. A loud cutt or cackle seems to work best, possibly because of their excited rhythm, but any call may work.
As you move along you may want to mix in some locator calls also — crow calls, hawk calls, predator calls — you just never know what might grab the attention of a gobbler and make him sound off on any given day. The caveat to this kind of hunting is watching out for birds that don’t gobble but still come in. As a result, I’ve used a variation of this “cruising” technique in the past by setting up and remaining for about five or 10 minutes after calling aggressively before moving on and covering more ground.
Ready, Weather or Not
There’s an old adage that says, “If you can get a gobbler to respond in the afternoon, you can kill him.” I certainly wouldn’t etch that one in stone, but I will add one of my own that I feel confident won’t perch me too far out on the proverbial limb. “Your chances of calling in a gobbler are better under certain weather conditions.”
Any day is a good day to go hunting, but if you gave me a choice I’d take a warm, overcast day with little or no wind. Turkeys don’t gobble as well when it’s cold, and as a matter of fact it causes the action to cease even earlier in the morning. Windy days dilute the action as well and make it hard to hear birds calling. If there happens to be a light rain or drizzle, head for the fields, food plots or other openings — apparently to get away from the noisy sound of water dripping from the trees.
Many years ago I was hunting Oconee WMA on a rainy afternoon, walking a logging road that led to several food plots. Not having heard any responses, I was trudging back to my truck to change my soggy clothes when it started to thunder. Immediately a gobbler responded to the thunder near a food plot I had just passed. I jogged back to a bend in the road and quickly got set up. The gobbler never answered me directly, but it gobbled every time it thundered and I could tell he was coming in fast.
I dusted him at 20 yards just as the big rain drops started to fall. Now, I don’t like being out in the woods when it’s thundering anymore than the next guy, but it sure can be an effective locator call!
The next time you get a chance to talk to a veteran turkey hunter — one who has really paid his dues — ask him about hunting after the morning peak. I can almost guarantee you he’ll have some exciting tales to tell. File those away and think about them this spring when the action has slowed and you’re contemplating giving up.
Remember that the real definition of prime time is whenever you pull the trigger — regardless of what time of day that happens to be.
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