Turkey-Hunting “Experiments” That Work In Tough Times
If you’re having a hard time scoring on a bird, the author offers up five turkey-hunting tricks that have put birds on the ground.
When we think of drought we usually associate it with lack of water. We can also apply the term to the turkey woods when we go through extended periods of “dry” hunting. Let’s face it; there are times when we can’t buy a gobble, especially on heavily hunted public grounds. Those are the places where the number of hens and hunters can keep a gobbler’s lips sealed for days on end, or at least keep him a half mile from the end of your gun. It is during these dry times that we must reach deeper into our bag of tricks to lure in a wise, old gobbler. These are times we need to be creative.
Now, some creative ideas for one might be old hat to another, but the bot- tom line is, if you’re willing to experiment a little, you might hit on some- thing that causes a turkey to throw caution to the wind. While I am still learning every season, I am constantly searching for something new that will put a gobbler on the dinner table. I purposely try to avoid getting into a rut and will sometimes experiment with something a bit different than the norm. These can be things I just happen to think of, or they can be things I have learned from other hunters. I think we can all learn something from someone else here and there, and I’ll be glad to give credit where it is due. If I pick up on a tip from someone else, I don’t mind trying it if I believe it has a chance of working, and if the situation is right to do so.
Five things stand out in my mind that started out for me as experiments and wound up being the keys to several successful hunts since then. I have since utilized them from time to time and won’t hesitate to use them again if the situation calls for it.
The Cluck: I was hunting a particular river bottom on national-forest land a few years back without much luck. I had probably hunted it five or six times during the season prior to this particular afternoon and decided to try something different that evening.
Instead of walking and calling every 200 yards or so as I usually did, I decided once I got into the woods where I normally saw sign, I’d just cluck a few times and move on. I did this every 75 yards or so until I reached a clearcut. Once I got there, I skirted around its edge, still clucking every so often until I made it to the ridge overlooking the river bottom.
When I reached the ridge, I clucked a few more times and dropped off into the bottom. When I got into the bottom I stood quietly for about five minutes, fighting the urge to erupt into a calling explosion. The next sound I heard was a thunderous gobble from the clearcut above me. I raced back up the hill and barely got set up before the fan of a strutting gobbler was coming over the hill 25 yards from me. I believe the 2-year-old had followed me for some time, and when I dropped into the bottom he became a little concerned the “hen” was getting away. It cost him dearly.
Basically, I broke the routine I’d been using and likely hit on something the bird wasn’t accustomed to hearing. It is rare that you’ll ever hear anyone call to a turkey using clucks only. I’ve since used this method several other times to kill a bird. It is a patience tester, but it can be deadly.
Back-tracking: This is an easy one to try. It’s a lot like the method I spoke of above except any call goes, and you’re really covering an area more thoroughly. The first time I used back-tracking was about 10 years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised by the results to say the least. I was guiding a hunter at the time, and I told him I had an idea I wanted to try that afternoon. The idea was to cover less ground but to cover it more thoroughly.
When I go out hunting, especially in the evenings, I will often cover a lot of ground. While there is nothing wrong with doing that, I began to wonder just how many birds I’d walked by or left behind. Usually, unless I was planning on hunting a few different spots, the place I made my first few calls was a place I wouldn’t see again for several hours.
Now think about that. When we hunt turkeys, especially if they aren’t talking much, we don’t know if there is one close to us or not. This is when we either sit down and call for hours from one location, or we keep on moving. I used to almost always keep moving. Then I decided to try sitting in one spot for hours, and I would end up bored out of my mind if nothing got cranked up. This is the point where I decided to try something different.
I believe a gobbler’s personality is largely shaped by the circumstances he lives in. If he lives on Cedar Creek WMA, let’s say, then he is likely to be battle tested. That, of course, makes him a tougher bird to kill. He doesn’t generally run toward the first call he hears, and if we call once or twice in an area and move on, he might possibly come in after we leave.
So, on the afternoon with the client, I decided to walk in and call as usual. We continued for about a mile, calling some along the way. I didn’t travel nearly as far as I usually would have before I turned around and headed back toward the truck. My client asked if we were going to another spot. I told him we were going back to see if we left any turkeys behind.
As we back-tracked toward the truck, I called here and there just as I had done on the way in. Before we made it back to our initial starting point, we struck two different birds. He killed one of those birds less than 200 yards from the truck.
Think about that the next time you hurry through an area.
Tight to the Roost: When I began my turkey-hunting career, I was informed by many “experts” to never get too close to a roosted gobbler. Some said 150 yards was close enough, some said 100. Regardless of the exact distance, I always held back from a roosted bird. As the seasons went by, I never really understood just why I had to stop so far away when I knew, on many occasions, I could get a whole lot closer.
The first time I broke the “roost barrier” I was hunting with my good friend Cal Marsh. We decided to push our way in a little tighter on some birds one morning. We knew the exact tree they were in, and at daylight we were no farther than 75 yards from the roosted gobbler we had put to bed the night before. When the old boy sounded off at first light, I nearly jumped out of my camo. He never knew we were there until we started calling.
Three jakes showed up after fly-down, but the big boy never did. I did, however, begin to get tighter on my morning setups after that. I’m not talking about getting under the tree with him, but if the conditions of darkness and terrain will allow you to get tighter then by all means go ahead.
There will be times when you might not be able to get closer than 100 yards or so, but there will be other times when you can get well inside of it. If you can do that, you’ve made it a whole lot more convenient for the gobbler to check you out before he heads in another direction. Every morning I hunt turkeys, I get as close as conditions allow to a roosted bird, and it has caused the demise of several of them.
Just last year my good friend Bobby Knight and I doubled up on two 3-year-olds that were less than 100 yards from dying when they woke up that morning. We had put what we thought was one bird to bed the night before. When we set up on him the next morning, it was soon apparent that he had two more gobblers roosted with him and a fourth bird was cranking it up about 200 yards from us. We liked our chances when the birds hit the ground, and within 20 minutes or so all four showed up. Two of them lived to tell about it, but the other two were, well, delicious.
Of course, knowing where a bird is roosted before he wakes up is the key here. I don’t recommend trying to close the distance too tight on a wide-awake gobbler. Nothing gets the day off on the wrong foot quicker than bumping a gobbler off the limb, so err on the side of caution.
Dragging a Bird: This is a technique I read about in a book several years ago and is one I would eventually put to use. The book was written by the late, great Gene Nunnery and was entitled, “The Old Pro Turkey Hunter.” The title is fitting, and the book still makes for good reading every time I read it.
He mentions a heavily hunted bird in his book that he affectionately refers to as “Gallberry Joe.” Nobody could seem to figure Joe out. The bird, on the other hand, had seemingly figured out every move a hunter could make, even before the hunter made it. Finally, Gene fooled the old bird by working him up good and leaving him — several hundred yards behind.
When Gene began calling from his next setup, the bird would head to a spot about half way toward the new calling and would lock it down there. When Gene had called a while from another spot, he would leave the bird again, and again the bird would follow.
He finally tried an “experiment” of his own when he eased off to another spot to call to the bird. Instead of staying put he quickly went back toward the bird, cutting the distance in half. There he waited, and it wasn’t long before the old bird showed up, heading toward the direction of the last call he’d heard.
I finally gave this trick a try, and I learned it was a nasty trick to play on a hard-to-get bird that wants to play cat and mouse. I call it dragging a bird, and I own a few beards due to it.
Breaking the Sound Barrier: I learned the hard way you can’t kill every bird you encounter by hammer- ing him all the way to the gun.
It was my second year of turkey hunting, and I got into it with a north Georgia mountain gobbler. He was in a deep ravine, and I was stuck on a hill- side with one leg pointing straight down the hill to keep from rolling off it. While working this bird, I realized he would only answer my calling when I poured it to him hot and heavy. Each time I cutt and yelped with hard aggression, the bird gobbled, some- times twice or three times consecutively. The old bird was eating it up, and so was I.
It took about 15 minutes to get him into gun range, and when I dropped him I remember thinking, “This is as good as it gets.” I figured I’d just work all my birds like that from then on. Well, as I said earlier, that just doesn’t work on every bird.
It took a full season to get that nonsense out of my head. There is, however, a time and a place for it, and I still enjoy working a bird that wants it rough.
I had the pleasure of hunting with Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland, vice president of Mossy Oak, a few seasons ago, and he is one of the most aggressive callers I know. He is famous for his work on the tube call, and it is not something you’d want to be standing too close to when he cranks down on it. I noticed every time he called, it was with lots of aggression and volume. When I asked him why, he told me it was his style of calling. He said he was always looking for a bird that would respond to aggressive calling, and he did that until he could locate one. He mentioned that hitting on something different, such as a sudden burst of cut- ting in an otherwise quiet area of turkey woods would often cause a bird to gobble.
I figured if Cuz liked it, then it probably worked. Mostly, I had only used this method after locating a bird. I would only use it to try and heat a bird up. Cuz was using it for a different reason though. He was using it to locate a bird; then he’d heat him up. While it is important to check a gobbler’s temperature, it is also important to know we can sometimes set the tone by the very way we start our conversation with a gobbler. Once I started using it as a locator type call at various times of the day, I began to get into some pretty good battles and take a few birds with it. We all know the importance and rewards of soft calling, but sometimes it is the loud and raucous calling that will get the attention of a bird quicker than anything else.
Basically, experimental hunting means not being afraid to try some- thing different. We all have some old tried-and-true methods for taking an old gobbler, but it never hurts to try something new. The more tricks we have up our sleeve the better off we will be when we run up on a tight- lipped gobbler or one that refuses to budge. There is no method to work a turkey that works every time, and no two turkeys are alike.
“Always” and “never” are two terms that don’t apply to turkey hunting, so it pays to be flexible. The next time you’re out there running-and-gunning or just sitting by a tree and you think of something that you feel is worth a try, go ahead.
You’ve got nothing to lose by experimenting a little.
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