Play The Terrain To Kill Mountain Gobblers

Hunting turkeys in north Georgia presents special challenges.

Joe DiPietro | April 15, 2010

As the sights and sounds of spring fill the mountains and valleys of north Georgia, turkeys are gobbling, and opening day left some hunters happy, while it left others hungry for more time in the woods.

While many things are different about hunting gobblers in the mountains as opposed to the flatter land of central and south Georgia, the most important difference is the terrain.

“Up here versus south Georgia, we’ve got mountains and hills to climb,” said Andrew Diaz, owner of North Georgia Taxidermy in Mineral Bluff. “You can get to an area a lot faster down there than you can in the mountains.”

Archer Chris Albrecht, co-owner of Flies and Fletching, added to that.

“The toughest part is hunting in the mountains,” he said. “The birds have lots of cover. They’ve got rolling terrain. They’ve got lots of predators, and they’re on the alert.”

Champion Custom Game Calls Pro-Staffer Eddie Ledford with his best-ever gobbler. Eddie said the bird had a beard longer than 15 inches. It was taken on Rich Mountain WMA last March.

Locating birds on the roost, taking terrain into consideration and being in the right place at fly down becomes even more important to easing a gobbler into range when you’re hunting ridges and valleys. On flat land, if a turkey pitches down several hundred yards away, you can go to it. In the mountains, going a few hundred yards can be a grueling affair.

“Turkeys tend to be more vocal at the start of the season, so you can get away with more aggressive calling tactics,” said Eddie Ledford, Champion Custom Game Calls pro-staff member.

Chris added, “I try to feel the birds out and see how they respond. I like using the usual owl call at first light or crow call throughout the morning to locate birds if I don’t already know where they’re at.”

While you can get away with aggressive calling, it’s important to take your time during the early season, too, Eddie said.

“Don’t call to a gobbler on the roost during the start of the season. You let the bird fly down, hit the ground, and then you can work a bird,” said Eddie. “In general you have two tactics. One, if he’s without hens then you can call him and work him fairly easy. If he’s with hens, then your tactics change to where you need to work the boss hen of the group to get her to come to you which will bring the gobbler in tow.

“A fighting purr works great in the early season. When they’re establishing dominance among the gobblers and the jakes, the birds tend to fight with each other, and that’s why I use the fighting purr.”

If a bird is henned up, it can pay off to listen to the dominant hen and irritate the fire out of her.

“You want to mimic the boss hen,” Eddie said. “If she’s yelpin’, yelp with her. If she’s cuttin’, cut with her. You want to match her note for note.”

The calling tactics may be the same, but a major difference when hunting mountains is the way sound travels.

“When a bird gobbles in south and central Georgia you can hear him for a great long distance,” Eddie said. “Whereas in the mountains, sometimes you can’t hear a bird that’s just right around the corner from you because of the layout of the terrain.”

Find a good valley or a big draw where there is water and food in the form of bugs feeding on rotting hard mast, and you’ll most likely find turkey sign. Even if they don’t gobble, there’s a good chance a gobbler will mosey through during the day.

When he knows the birds are there, Chris prefers to set up around fields and food plots in the valleys. But if he’s searching for birds or hunting travel routes, he’ll be on the ridges.

“As far as travel corridors, you’ve got to be up on the ridges,” he said. “If you’re down in the bottom, and you’re lucky enough to hear them gobbling up high, good luck finding them. They could be three ridges over.

“The birds up here can be very deceiving. What sounds like the other side of the ridge could really be one or two valleys over.”

Because of that difference, and because higher ground makes for a better listening post, it helps to start your morning on a ridgetop.

Chris Albrecht, a bowhunting guide with Flies and Fletching, said you sometimes have to hold at full draw for extended periods because a gobbler provides hunters with limited opportunities to draw a bow. Also, dark camo is preferable because the spring green-up in the mountains is several weeks behind middle and south Georgia. Chris likes 3D patterns that break up his outline. (Inset) He hunts a Gobbler Guillotine broadhead, which will lop the head right off a tom.

“Get up there before daylight, and use that as your listening and lookout point,” Eddie said. “If you’re on top of a ridge, you can hear a little longer distance and, obviously, if there’s a bird on the other side you can go to them that way.”

Blinds may be great for field birds that you know will come to the same place at the same time every day. But in the mountains, where you’ll likely be hugging ridges, scrambling to set up, it’s important to be mobile.

“If I’m by myself, and I hit a love-struck gobbler, there’s no time to set up a blind,” Chris said. “Ground cover like fallen timber or the base of a tree, broken up by brush is perfect.

“Hunting with a bow, you’ve got to be really deliberate with your movements. You’ve got to be absolutely still and only move when the bird is looking the other way.”

An early season gobbler group searches the mountain forest floor for food early in the morning. This month the action should really heat up in north Georgia as the gobblers break up in competition for attention from the hens.

Whether or not you employ decoys is dependent on the situation.

“I’ve always felt that decoys in big-game hunting provide an extra edge,” Chris said. “With turkeys, they don’t use smell, but they sure can see with those razor-sharp eyes. The notion of another bird sure goes a long way as a confidence booster to get them committed to your setup.”

However, Chris said a decoy doesn’t serve much purpose when you’re in the woods with the birds, and there’s so much underbrush that the gobbler wouldn’t be able to spot a decoy, anyway. But all three hunters suggested using decoys when hunting fields in the valleys or on food plots.

However, Eddie and Andrew, who rarely hunt private land, took a different view on decoys.

“Some people use gobbler decoys in the morning, but I don’t,” Eddie said. “Not that it doesn’t work, because it does, but I hunt public land. So, I don’t want to be carrying a gobbler decoy in the morning or be sitting 20-yards behind one.”

Finding good habitat and scouting for sign can be critical to nailing down a starting place in the vast expanses of public and private hunting property in north Georgia. If the habitat isn’t there, you aren’t likely to hear any gobbling.

“I like mast-crop stands near good water sources,” Chris said. “In the mountains’ many creeks and branches, what I’ve found is the heavy scratching areas where bugs are feeding on rotting mast crop leftovers from fall and winter… I always try to hunt someplace that’s got open areas, because that’s your gathering point. But let’s face it, in a lot of this land around here there are no openings, and old logging roads or any type of opening where they can strut is the next best thing.”

Chris will also use the steep terrain to his advantage if the morning gobbling isn’t hot and heavy. Along with being tough to climb, steep hills can create perfect funnel points.

“If you can’t get them to gobble, and you’re in a good valley or a big draw where there’s food and water and plenty of sign, I’ll just set up call softly every now and then. Basically it’s like hunting deer,” he said.

After hunting opening weekend, all three hunters had similar reports — the gobblers were grouped up and uninterested. This can be typical of the early season in north Georgia, where birds are often a little slower to get started because of the harsher, colder climate — especially this year. Chris, Eddie and Andrew all reported hearing and seeing birds, but none of them sealed the deal opening weekend.

“In north Georgia it’s still really quiet,” Eddie said. “On opening morning I saw four gobblers behind hens, and they weren’t very receptive to anything, and I never could get in front of those birds. On the second day of the season, I went to a different location and encountered the same thing. I was able to get in front of that group but couldn’t get the right shot off. If the weather warms up like it’s supposed to, I’d say it’ll be prime time by about the second week in April.”

Eddie said the birds are there, you just have to be willing to burn the boot leather to find them.

“I do a tremendous amount of climbing and walking ridges,” Eddie said. “There is exceptional turkey hunting in north Georgia if you’re willing to put in the work and spend the time walking in adverse terrain.”

Chris pointed to the terrain when explaining why mountain gobblers can sometimes be more of a challenge than flat-land birds.

“You can have the best setup at the perfect spot,” Chris said. “Next thing you hear that gobbler heading a different route. You change your setup thinking he’s farther away. Then you realize, easing up the ridge, he’s spotted you as you watch him fly over to the next ridge. All of the best setups can go the other way.”

Eddie rated the following public hunting lands in the mountains in his favorite order starting with the best: Rich Mountain WMA; Coopers Creek WMA; Blue Ridge WMA; and other areas on U.S. Forest Service land.

Safety was also a key point Eddie mentioned for public-land hunters.

“In general, use common sense,” he said. “If there’s a truck parked where you want to hunt, give that other hunter a chance and go to a different spot.”

As far as camo goes, Eddie, Chris and Andrew all agreed that a dark pattern is tough to beat for the slower greening mountains.

“Where south Georgia is already greening up when the season comes in, the mountains don’t green up until about three weeks into the season,” Eddie said. “So, you want to go with earth tones and real dark patterns.”

Chris goes with the 3D approach.

“I really like the Diffusion or Leaf Wear… It provides a great break up of your outline,” Chris said.

When it comes to gear, “it really helps in the mountains to lighten up your gear as much as possible,” Eddie said. And wear good boots. You’ll likely do a lot of walking up and down steep hills.

More than anything, though, all three hunters agree it’s the mountain turkey-hunting experience that keeps them going year after year.

“I’ve been turkey hunting these mountains 22 years,” Eddie said. “My most enjoyable part of turkey hunting is being in the springtime woods, hearing all the wildlife come to life, seeing the foliage come on and the weather. It’s not really about the kill of the bird as it is about the sounds. I just love to hear them gobble. Of course killing them is a bonus. And, boy do they taste good.”

Eddie took his largest mountain gobbler ever during the first few days of the 2009 season. The bird weighed right around 20 pounds, had a massive beard a little longer than 15-inches and spurs that went 1 1/4-inches long and 1 3/8 inches long. He shot the bird on Rich Mountain WMA.

“It may be hard to believe this, but I’ve got a witness,” Eddie said. “When I walked up to that bird and picked up his beard, about 4 inches of it crumbled and broke off. I don’t know if he had beard-rot or what. But, if that hadn’t of happened, that bird’s beard would’ve been almost 20 inches. I’m sure I killed the oldest gobbler on that mountain.”

To book a guided turkey hunt with Chris, call (678) 665-6844. For more information on Andrew’s taxidermy, call (706) 455-7892.

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