Turkey Hunting Truths

Turkey hunters can avoid a season’s worth of frustration by reading what the author has to say about setups, overcalling and rushing success.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | February 1, 2009

Donald Devereaux Jarret

With deer season gone and winter throwing its last punches, my thoughts shift primarily to turkey hunting, a time that energizes my soul for a two-month period every spring.

If you’ve never been turkey hunting, or maybe you’re a newbie, this article highlights turkey-hunting truths that should get you started in a positive direction. It was written to get you over those rookie bumps in the road much quicker, while alleviating many hours of frustration that often torments a brand-new turkey hunter.

You’re not a rookie? Read on. Many times we get so set in our ways, even if they’re wrong, that we often overlook simple mistakes that we may be making that are resulting in a lack of success. Sometimes we all need a turkey-hunting tune-up.

But if you’re a brand-new turkey hunter, I must warn you before reading any further: turkey hunting is powerfully addictive and gets its spurs in you like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know many who’ve gone only a time or two. Once those gobbles get in your head, you’re through — at least that’s how my addiction started.

When I began my turkey-hunting career a couple of decades ago, a close friend felt the need for me to join the turkey-hunting fraternity. When I decided to join up, I read magazine articles and bought a few calls. I practiced regularly until I thought I could pass for a turkey. I had some old Woodland camo, an old single barrel shotgun and a few calls. I was ready!

One step away from the screen door of my Daddy’s old mountain cabin on that first morning was all I needed. Three turkeys gobbled to the first barred-owl note I ever offered to the spring woods. The gobbles alone gripped me to the core, and I have never been the same.

I hope this scenario plays out for you this spring. As you grow in your turkey-hunting career, you’ll quickly learn there’s not a sure-fire answer for anything that goes on in the turkey woods. Turkeys will be turkeys, which spells unpredictability.

However, there are three areas of turkey hunting that can affect the result of a turkey hunt more than any other areas. Following some simple turkey- hunting guideslines in the areas of setups, overcalling and rushing success will roll more gobblers in front of your shotgun.

Setups: This is No. 1 in my book. It is the most underestimated part of a turkey hunt, but it is crucial to success or failure. Setting up on a bird is when you place yourself in a suitable strategic location in order to work a bird into range. That sounds simple enough, but if you don’t pay attention to where you’re sitting when you work a bird, you’ll pay dearly for it.

Early in my career I paid little attention to detail where setting up was concerned. I slipped through my first two seasons unscathed. Then, in my third season, I located a bird three days before the season that was begging to be shot. I declared myself the man for the job, and the morning I went to collect my prize, I found the old bird rip- ping and raring to go. He gobbled well before daylight, and he wasn’t particular about what he gobbled at. I recall him blasting off at an airplane, geese, crows, woodpeckers, owls and later my calls. Easy bird to kill, right?

I placed myself on the crest of a hardwood ridge with my back to a small oak. The woods were open, and I had great visibility out to 150 yards. When the bird gobbled up my fly-down cackle, he pitched toward me. I could smell him cooking already.

In less than 15 minutes, he appeared on the ridge with me. He stood 55 yards out, directly in front of me. The bird was smoking hot, and I thought I might not have to shoot him because he was going to gobble him- self to death. This proved to be delusional thinking, however, because 45 minutes later he was still breathing and still gobbling. That bird whipped me. When he finally left the scene, I was a total wreck. I think I aged 10 years that morning.

“What just happened?” I thought.

What happened was I had selected a very poor setup. When the bird appeared on the ridge, he expected to see a hen. When he didn’t, he locked it down. He was prepared to wait until she showed. Setting up in open ground like that generally spells doom to a hunter. Each time I set up on a bird, I go through a mental checklist to increase my chance at success.

Setup Tips:

• Always have a good setup location picked out before you call. If a bird hammers your call closeby, you don’t want to be scrambling for a spot.

• Set up with a good background in mind. You want something behind you that’s wider than your body. Look for a big tree, thicket, bush or logjam. I’ve also set up in a ditch before, with nothing but my head and shotgun above ground. Also, try to set up in the shadows or shade. Doing this in combination with today’s camo patterns will help you melt into your surroundings.

• Avoid hunting wide-open hardwoods or pine stands. If a bird is hammering in one of these open areas, it’s critical that you find a little thicket to set up in. If no cover is available, a slight change in terrain, causing the bird not to see you from a long distance, can often pull him into range simply because he can’t see you. You basically want to set up in a place that causes the bird to hunt you.

• There’s a fine line between making sure you’re hunting a place thick enough to conceal you and a place that’s too thick. Too thick is a problem. Don’t set up in a place that has a lot of bushes, limbs, vines, tall weeds or grass in front of you. Not only will this limit your ability to see an oncoming gobbler, but it can also restrict your shot and your ability to swing your bar- rel if need be.

• When hunting fields, sit at least 20 yards from the edge. Setting up on an edge means the bird should be able to see the hen. However, you can set up on an area of the field that has some terrain that will allow the bird to be in range when he comes into view. The only downside to this is that you better be on your toes.

• When you’re faced with a barrier, such as a creek, fence or ditch, try to set up on the side of the barrier the bird is located. I’ve had red-hot birds march back and forth on the opposite side of a creek, just thundering the woods apart. Some birds just won’t cross a barrier, no matter how much they’re willing to talk. Make it as easy as you can for him to walk right down your gun barrel.

Overcalling: How much calling is too much and how much is not enough? I always try to err on the side of too little. The least amount of calling you can get away with, the better off you are.

To decide how much to call, you’ll first have to read a bird. A good rule of thumb is, if he’s talking a lot, you can get away with calling a good bit. If he’s sporadic, gobbling once every 15 minutes or so, you might want to be careful. Keep your calling to a minimum. While overcalling can be as simple as talking to the bird too often, I believe the absolute worst example of overcalling is when someone calls to an approaching bird.

I remember guiding an individual from New York who asked me if it’d be OK to call some. I told him it was his hunt, and if he wanted to call it was fine with me. The first time he called I was glad to hear he was more than adequate with the box he was using.

We finally struck a bird that wanted to play. We set up in a good spot back in some thicker woods but could see across a large open meadow. Soon the bird appeared 200 yards away. He was a whopper of a bird with a paint-brush beard. The big gobbler never hesitated entering the grassy opening and appeared fully content to commit suicide.

I sat a dozen yards behind my client, just enjoying the show. When the bird was just inside 100 yards, he gobbled, broke into a strut and began walking toward us again. At 75 yards, my client loosened his grip on his gun, picked up his box call and stroked out five to six yelps. The strutter stopped and stretched his neck to find the hen. Before I could get a grip on the situation, my client called again. I was in shock. I whispered loudly for him to stop calling, but it was too late.

Why he did this I have no idea. Maybe he had watched too many turkey videos where someone screamed at a turkey all the way in until it died. I don’t know, but whatever possessed him to do it caused the bird to lock it down for the next 20 minutes. When the bird did start walking again, it was away from us. I don’t believe the guy called again for the duration of our hunt.

It is quite tempting to call to a red- hot bird, particularly if he answers regularly. The truth of the matter is, the more you hammer a bird, the more likely you are to cause him to hang up. The more eager you sound for extend- ed lengths of time, the more apt he will be to wait you out. In other words, don’t put more sugar in the mix than the recipe calls for, because it likely won’t turn out like you want it to.

Calling Tips:

• Never, never, never call to an approaching gobbler. If you can see or hear a bird closing the distance, let him come. There is no need to tell him to do something that he’s already doing.

• Don’t start calling too aggressively. It’s OK sometimes to blurt out a nasty string of cutts to locate a bird, but starting softer is better. Remember, until the game begins, you’re just trying to find one that wants to play. If he wants you to pour it on him, he’ll let you know in good time.

• Let a bird tell you how to work him. If he’s hot, you can be fairly aggressive with him. If he’s not talking much, you shouldn’t either.

• If a gobbler is with hens, pay attention to the hens. Some hunters attempt to aggravate the hens and try to get them to come over for a fight. In turn, they hope the gobbler will follow.

Others prefer to soft call to the hens in hopes they will be accepted. Here the hope is that the hens will come over to “welcome” them to the flock, with the gobbler in tow.

Both can be productive, but if you opt for the aggressive method, be prepared to apologize quickly. If the boss hen gets agitated or intimidated and decides to go in another direction, the gobbler’s likely going with her. The instant you detect her pulling out, you better tone it down in a hurry.

• Once you get a bird going, try turning the tables on him. When you get a bird gobbling, start calling, or answering, him. Answer him when he gobbles but no more. Nothing’s automatic, but I’ve used this strategy to add quite a few beards to my collection.

Rushing Success: I suppose the most common example of rushing success is seen when gobblers go quiet. Running around the woods firing off on the loudest box call you can find can get a bird going, but I’ve found success more often when I slow my hunting strategies way down. The bottom line is you can’t rush success. Every turkey will come when he wants to, at the speed he wants to and at the level of vocalization he wants to.

I was hunting last spring on Cedar Creek WMA and was thoroughly disappointed at daylight when I hadn’t heard a single bird gobble. I knew I was in a good spot and had gotten into several battles there prior to this particular morning. Instead of running-and-gunning all over the place, I did some slow trolling. Confident in the area, I would move a few hundred yards each time, set up and do some calling. I ended up covering about 1 1/2 miles, but it took me three hours to do it.

A few hours passed by the time I reached an area on the creek where I had worked a few birds earlier in the season. It was approaching 11 a.m. I made a few calls and squatted down with my back against a tree as I peered over the creek bottom ahead. I stayed there until my knees begged me to get up. I looked down the bottom again and decided to move a little farther.

After three steps, I saw him. He was a good thick-bearded bird slowly walking along the shadows of the creek, heading straight to me. I was in a bit of a predicament as I was basically standing in the wide open. I was holding my gun in my right hand and knew I was going to have to try to get it shouldered while the bird was coming. I gradually but steadily began raising it to my shoulder while watching the bird. I finally managed to get the bead on the bird and dropped him at 40 yards. He never said a word, and I nearly blew it. Had I not just happened to take one more look down the creek, he would have spotted me for sure.

If the birds aren’t talking, running about the woods in a hurry isn’t likely to change things in your favor. The younger version of me would have never killed that bird because the only gear I had was wide open. I have taken quite a few birds since I learned the value of the “granny gear.”

Tips for Success:

• Don’t be in a hurry when birds are quiet. Slow down the pace. You’re not likely to ever run up on a turkey and kill him. Take your time, and good things will happen.

• Stay alert and attentive. When a gobbler goes silent, he’s either lost interest, or he’s slipping in. The odds are 50/50, and that’s pretty good odds when you’re dealing with a gobbler.

• Keep your mindset that just because the birds aren’t gobbling doesn’t mean they’re not coming to your calling. They are likely ambling along at leisurely paces, feeding, strut- ting and doing what turkeys do. Some will do this and slowly move to your calls.

• Don’t give up on a turkey or move too soon. As long as a bird is interested in you and doesn’t lock it down in one spot for too long, give him time. Back off the calling, and wait him out. Nothing pushes the “hurry-up” button on a gobbler quicker than a good ol’ silent treatment.

• If you opt to set up somewhere and call a while, stay focused. It’s easy to daydream when you’re waiting one out. Any time you’re in a turkey’s neighborhood, one could show up at any minute. Be ready when he does.

When you head out to the turkey woods, set up in a good spot, call accordingly to the bird you’re talking to, and let him do his thing. You’ll eventually find one that does exactly what you want him to.

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