Swamp Gobblers

The author says bottom birds are finicky and require different tactics.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | March 29, 2020

The sandy road glowed in the darkness as longtime friend Jonathan Barber and I traced it toward the swamp’s edge. We finally reached the end and stood pacing, waiting for the first early morning gobble from the Savannah River swamp. We had hunted together here before and had tangled with some tough old birds. We killed a few of them but got our tails handed to us on several occasions.

Swamp birds are a finicky bunch. I think they might even hate humans, and I know it to be a fact that they will present a different challenge than birds of other terrains. They use every inch of the swamp to their advantage and will test your patience. They will cause you to second guess every move you make if you allow them to and almost always take longer to show up in gun range. The important thing to remember is that they are still just turkeys. 

Now, I don’t mean to imply that they are anything short of remarkable in their ability to beat us, but they are still just turkeys. I believe the combination of a turkey and swamp habitat is a recipe for a tough hunt for the most part. South Georgia swamp birds act like Osceola, as would a Rio Grande or Merriam’s turkey if you dropped them into the middle of a swamp. Their senses are heightened, and their survival skills are as sharp as the spurs they grow because of it.

I have been successful at taking a few swamp birds between Florida and south Georgia, and I believe it is largely because I fully understand there is a difference between these birds and how you hunt them than any other bird you will hunt. Trusting your decisions and sticking to them can make all the difference.

To Move Or Not To Move 

This is a common decision that has to be made almost daily and constantly in the turkey woods. The swamp is no different. The swamp is a harder place to navigate undetected though. Some believe the cover of the thickness in the swamp offers you a better opportunity to move on a bird. I’m not a fan of it though. I think the bird always has the upper hand in the swamp, unless he is willing to do enough gobbling to help you out. 

The author says, “As with any turkey, one of the most critical points of hunting a swamp bird is where to sit and work him. The roadbeds are always nice, but they aren’t always available. I look for openings that provide my best vantage point.”

Everything seems to make noise in the swamp. The boot-sucking mud, the bumping against palmettos to the occasional noise one makes, albeit in an involuntary manner, when stepping a little too close to a cottonmouth. Those things combined with being seen without ever knowing he was there add up to a lot of abrupt ends to hunts. I have had much more success on swamp birds by letting him do the work. If I can get him to hunt me, I’m right where I need to be. I just don’t do a lot of moving on a swamp bird unless he’s gobbling enough to keep me posted on his position, or unless I go way out of the way to assure that I don’t bump him. 

Easy Does It 

I’ve said a thousand times that the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ don’t apply to turkey hunting. However, I will say that most of the time, the softer stuff is the go-to method for me on a swamp bird. Of all the swamp birds I have killed, soft has worked more than any other method. That’s not to say I have never hammered a bird in the swamp and killed him. It just means I haven’t found nearly as many that cooperated with hard, aggressive calling. I believe the nature of a swamp gobbler is one that relies on his senses tremendously. 

As a general rule of thumb, they gobble less and respond less, and on birds with that demeanor, I call less. I have found some swamp birds that died because of a few simple clucks and a lot of silence. I believe swamp birds are more curious by nature because of their habitat, as well. If they can’t see you, they have to find you. If you are deep in the swamp and have the patience, he will come looking.

Finding The Zone 

As with any turkey, one of the most critical points of hunting a swamp bird is where to sit and work him. The roadbeds are always nice, but they aren’t always available. I look for openings that provide my best vantage point. Sometimes these might be pretty good-sized openings, while others may be small. The small openings can get you busted if you aren’t really alert. I worked a bird for over an hour one day from a small opening, probably no more than 20 yards across it in any direction. When the bird finally slipped in, unannounced, he appeared on the proverbial “wrong side” and busted me almost immediately. 

Try setting up in little openings and letting the gobbler hunt you after you’ve called.

Now, before I say anything else, I’d love to take this opportunity to address the “wrong side.” There is no wrong side for turkeys to approach. Turkeys always come up on the right side. But if we set up wrong, we have set up on the wrong side. If a bird shows up where you would rather he didn’t, it’s on you. It’s his fault he lived, and it’s your fault he didn’t. Setups are always crucial and if it’s the wrong one, it will cost you most of the time. It’s always important to give the bird a sense of security. Getting into his comfort zone and giving him time to show is where it pays off. Once you find his comfort zone, he will come to the kill zone. You need to be there when he does.

Change Of Plans 

Lots of times the way you work a bird will need to change in the middle of the hunt. It might very well be that the way you planned to work the bird isn’t likely to pan out if you are expecting him to get in gun range. So, in that case, you will need to adjust. That could mean something like relocating or changing calls. 

I have already said that I like the soft stuff on the swamp birds, but I might also change the type call I’m using, as well. If I had to pick one call to carry in the swamp for the soft stuff, I’d pick a scratch box every time. Of course you can always go with a slate or a diaphragm, if you can get soft enough. I like to call loud enough to locate one with, but after that, I’m toning it way down. 

The thick stuff will muffle the calls somewhat, but I have killed more birds in the swamp with subtle, soft stuff and a whole bunch of patience than any other way. There are just too many things that can cause a bird to hang up in a swamp, and I believe a lot of loud calling can just add to the list. 

And so it was with my friend Jonathan Barber and I. We waited as long as we could for a voluntary gobble but soon relented, and I owled. Two birds popped off, one at a few hundred yards, the other about 125 yards. We reckoned we could work him from the roadbed and scrambled for a setup. 

Swamp birds are accustomed to holding up in dry patches and small clearings where they simply wait for the hen to do all the work. By going there and exercising patience, you could find yourself taking a photo like this during the spring.

An hour passed and the bird had gobbled only a couple of times. He had been silent for a good 40 minutes when we reluctantly decided to move. We had no idea where he was by now, so we figured we would try to ease along and get back on him. After covering a few hundred yards through the swamp on an old winding trail, we struck him again. He had drifted away from us and was a good 200 yards from us now. We found a good clearing off the side of the trail and set up on him again. 

The first call I made was soft and unassuming. He ate it up, and over the course of the next two hours, he heated up. He eventually moved inside 100  yards, and there he stayed, moving back and forth and out of sight, gobbling plenty but never closing in. 

We sat quietly for a good 45 minutes, resisting the temptation to call. We believed he would break eventually. 

Another 20 minutes had passed when Jonathan spotted the bird, running across the far edge of the wooded side of the opening. I called, he gobbled and a hen chimed in, obviously offended by what I had said. It quickly became apparent that she had hit the trail we had walked in on, and we believed he would follow her. 

A minute later, the gobbler appeared walking straight down the trail toward us. He disappeared from our view when he passed some palmettos, and when he appeared again, he was inside 10 yards of us on that proverbial wrong side of a large live oak. He knew immediately that he was in trouble and spun out, heading back down the trail. I spotted a small opening through some palmettos and rolled him at 38 yards.

We retrieved the bird and went back to the big live oak we had been stuck under for the last two-plus hours and finally relaxed. The final plan had worked. We had turned the tables on the old boy and gave him the impression that our interest in him was minimal at best. This brings me to the final but best tactic I have ever used on swamp birds.

It’s All In The Spin

A good while back, I was working a bird on a piece of national forest ground. I had spent the morning listening to several distant birds popping off in different directions. I was hunting a pretty swampy area that held some birds but had been unable to close the deal, or even come close to it to this point. It wasn’t a spot I was particularly fond of due to the nature and frequency of whippings I had taken in there. I wanted to kill all of them in there. I almost felt like I owed them the death penalty. Of course, deep down, I really looked forward to the challenge, but they were scratching on my last nerve by this time.

I had pulled a good many tricks out of the bag on them, and none had even come close to working. I’d generally pick a bird out and tear out after him just on the good side of daylight. Then I would play chess with them until they whipped me and left. It had gotten old by now and on the drive over to the turkey woods that particular morning, I wasn’t sure where I was going to hunt until I felt the familiar pull of the old swamp birds and gave in to the temptation. 

As I rolled down the highway, I began to think about how to approach them and about what plan might be best that morning. I knew it would take something different. I just didn’t know what that was going to be. I had a spot in mind that I had attempted to kill them in previously. I had set up in it several times, but they would never come in the opening while I was there, and when I called from it, they would gobble plenty but never seemed to get another step closer to it. I had a hard time understanding why, especially with all the sign in there. It wasn’t very big, probably no farther than 45 yards across it in any direction. I had even had a bird gobble from it once, but that was when I was calling from 100 yards away from it. Still, I liked the spot and was just hard headed enough to start there at daylight.

I worked my way into the area in the dark, careful not to crash into too much as I slowly walked along. When I reached the clearing, I got everything set up at the base of my usual tree. As I waited for daylight, I couldn’t help but feel like I was repeating the same routine I had fallen into over the last couple of times in there. 

Soon the owls were cranking pretty good and shortly thereafter, a bird gobbled a couple hundred yards away across the boggy flat. He was followed after his next gobble by a second bird farther behind me and then a third bird along a pine ridge 100 yards or so away. I had been hearing four in the surrounding area but one was a no-show. Either he didn’t want to play or somebody had found a way to take him out of the equation. No matter, I still had three within earshot and still had confidence that this would be the day. 

Eventually the one across the bottom grew red-hot and gained my full attention. I slid down the tree and pulled up a seat. I had considered not talking to him at all until he was on the ground, but after 15 to 20 gobbles, I gave in and softly yelped four or five times. He double gobbled, and I shut it down. He gobbled another 10 or so times before pitching into the bottom somewhere straight away from me. Then, he and his buddies shut it down, too. I wanted to call something terrible, but I quickly reminded myself that that hadn’t worked before, and I was still racking my brain for something different. 

It was 8:30 before I heard another gobble. The bird in the bottom finally let one loose, and he sounded as if he was another 100 yards farther from me than he had been when he was standing on the limb at daylight. I began second-guessing everything I had done to this point. 

“Do I need to call or not”, I thought. 

“Do I need to move?” I asked myself. 

The author with a gobbler he killed using the same techniques outlined in this article on how to hunt swamp turkeys, which present some unique challenges.

When he gobbled again, I answered him, and he gobbled again. I resisted the urge to get into a full-blown shouting match and said nothing. A minute or so later, he gobbled again. I answered, as lackadaisically as I could, and he gobbled again. The next time he gobbled he had shaved 100 yards off the distance between us, and that’s when it hit me. From that point forward, I only answered him when he gobbled a time or two. Not once did I call to him without him calling to me first. 

Within 15 minutes, he closed from 200 yards to 40, and I rolled him. He was a stud of a bird, and I learned one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned on a turkey since. Turning the table, I believe, works on an egotistical gobbler a lot of times when nothing else will. I have used this tactic on a lot of birds since that day, and a bunch of them never roosted again. It’s not just a swamp bird thing, but it certainly can work there, too. 

Swamp birds are accustomed to holding up in dry patches and small clearings where they simply wait for the hen to do all the work. When I represented a hen in a place where turkeys liked to be in that jungle that morning, he knew I was there. When I relayed to him that I could care less if he was there with me or not, it spun the entire hunt around. Except for my boots, I was bone-dry when I pulled the trigger. He had mud and water all the way up to his belly feathers.

As is the case with every turkey, swamp gobblers present their own, unique challenge. Make your decisions count. Move if you need to. Take it slow and easy when you can. If you have a change of your original plan, get on with it. Get in there where they like to be, and if you can spin the whole hunt on him, do it. You will be rewarded plenty when you throw one of those old swamp gobblers over your shoulder. 

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