Those who belong to the latter clan recognize that it is a sport chock full of mishaps, miscues, mistakes, mischances, misses and pure misery. In no other sport do participants actually revel in misfortune, but spend any time in a turkey camp, and it's a virtual guarantee that you'll hear at least as many tales involving words and phrases such as "hung up," "henned up," "call shy," and "walk-away gobblers" as you will accounts of success.
Furthermore, anyone who has much experience in the rites of spring realizes that the only absolute in turkey hunting is that there are no absolutes. Yet all hunters to improve by cutting the odds a bit, bettering our calling and sharpening our woodscraft in the uneven quest to take longbeards. That's why the following tips are offered.
These pointers don't guarantee turkey on the festive family table, but they do have the potential to make you a better hunter. Anyone who tells you they are a turkey killing machine is inviting a world of hurt for themselves, just as anyone who says they have never missed a turkey is either a stranger to the truth or simply hasn't shot at many gobblers. Ongoing improvement is about as much as loyal foot soldiers in the Tenth Legion can ask or expect, and what follows is presented in that light.
Most turkey hunters call too loud, too long and too often. Stop and think about what you experience in the turkey woods. It likely will involve far less conversation between turkeys going about their daily business than what you throw over the woodland airways. Adjust accordingly. One way to do that is to take a peek at your watch. When "blind calling",a series of yelps and a cluck or two every 15 minutes should be plenty. As for calling to a responsive gobbler, try to read his temperature and get an idea of how much or little calling he wants. That being said, wisdom from one of the sports' true old masters, Parker Whedon, is well worth keeping in mind: "Get his attention, and lay a heavy dose of silence on him."
Living on Turkey Time - the Value of Patience
A common mistake for turkey hunters, from beginners to experts, is getting involved in a "time is important" frame of mind. Turkeys don't punch a time clock and don't keep banker's hours. You shouldn't, either. There is no finer trait a turkey hunter can possess than patience, and that translates to spending lots of time in the woods, willingness to play the waiting game, the ability to stay still for hours and much more. Rest assured that patience will, over time, produce dividends.
Along with patience, persistence is a fine friend of the turkey hunter. It's all well and good to be in the woods at daylight to revel in the spring world awakening during the 2- or 3-hour period when turkeys are typically most talkative. Yet it is the willingness to hunt and hunt hard during the middle of the day, along with roaming in the gloaming to roost birds or searching avidly for moments of afternoon delight, which rank right behind patience on the list of identifying hallmarks of top-rate hunters. If nothing else, more hours afield translate to added encounters with birds, and additional time in the woods also provides more opportunities to learn.
The Water Equation
An old tidbit of wisdom in turkey hunting circles suggests that turkeys are never happier than when they roost where they can hear droppings hit water. That truism is but one of many parts of the water equation, which the savvy hunter will keep in mind.
Turkeys regularly use rivers as escape mechanisms, flying from one side to the other with a will. Similarly, when hard pressed, they can make a perfectly good living in swamps, utilizing high spots for feeding. In the glorious days of greening-up spring, tasty bits of vegetation appear earliest in river and creek bottoms, thereby attracting birds. Gobblers love to strut in such areas, and the sandy stretches often found there are a fine opportunity to read sign. Farm-pond dams are often a favored display spot as well. In short, water figures prominently in turkey habitat and turkey behavior in a whole host of ways. Use creeks, branches, rivers, swamps, and ponds to your advantage. They are turkey magnets.
The Wonders of Woodsmanship
Calling contests get lots of attention, and there can be no doubt that the ability to do a reasonable job of replicating some of the sounds in the wild turkey's vocabulary - yelps, clucks, purrs, fly-down cackles, tree calls, and the like - is a notable asset. Yet when it comes right down to it, the collective set of skills generally known as woodsmanship is even more important.
A wise hunter will constantly be looking for "sign" in the form of droppings, tracks, dusting areas, strut marks, scratching and the like. He will have a pretty good idea of how old the sign is and, in most cases, be able to distinguish between that made by hens and gobblers. He will note likely roosting spots, know how weather affects turkey behavior, understand preferred habitat, recognize favored, and more. A good turkey hunter is, without exception, a sound woodsman. He will understand the ways of the woodlands, know when to crawl instead of call, recognize prime set-up spots and turkey travel zones, and in general be tuned in to the ways and wiles of his worthy adversary.
The Virtues of Versatile Calling
For reasons known only to lordly longbeards, a type of call which floats a gobbler's emotional boat one day, setting him into paroxysms of gobbling that strain his vocal chords, will be met on the morrow with the sounds of silence. Accordingly, it behooves the hunter to achieve at least a reasonable degree of proficiency with several types of calls. There are five basic types: boxes (regular ones, paddle boxes, and scratch boxes), diaphragms, tubes, friction calls (slate, glass, and other surfaces), and suction yelpers (wingbones and other air-operated devices. All have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, diaphragms leave the hands free and require minimal movement, while box calls are probably the easiest to use, tubes difficult but productive, slates notable for the soft and realistic sounds they provide, and yelpers special because of the way they carry great distances and yet can be toned down to the softest of calls. The basic point is to be versatile - able to use at least three types of call and ideally four or five. There will be days when that versatility will serve you well.
Although it is something better learned in person than described in print, knowing where and when)to set up on a bird is something every hunter should cultivate.
Two key factors loom particularly large. You need to be where the gobbler is comfortable, and the ideal set-up situation is one where the bird will be within gun range when you are first able to see him. When it comes to the comfort factor, there are places gobblers simply don't like to go. They aren't likely to plow through a cane brake or a briar thicket to get to you, and something as seemingly insignificant as a little branch or barbed wire fence - both easily negotiated by turkeys on a daily basis - can cause a turkey to hang up.
Knowing the lay of the land you hunt will help you avoid such situations. When it comes to what might be called your vision zone, it is a good idea, when possible, to get where you can shoot as soon as a longbeard is in sight. That might put you 30 yards from a ridge line, at a similar distance from a travel corridor, or the like. Every situation has its own parameters, but you always want to be well hidden and comfortable. Poor set-ups are a great turkey preservation mechanism.
The Comfort Factor
Ill-advised movement has cost hunters many a turkey over the years. The answer is simple yet often overlooked. Use a good cushion. Give careful consideration to toting a little stool, which removes all likelihood of butt-bothering contact with roots, rocks and other earthy protuberances. Try to avoid setting up on steep hillsides where the tendency will be to slide and constantly readjust your position. If it's warm enough for mosquitoes, a Thermacell unit can be a mighty fine friend. Yet another alternative, and it is an excellent one if you happen to be hunting with a youngster, is to carry a little portable blind that can be readily erected and permits a bit of movement without the danger of being "made."
The key thing is to think about comfort as you set up; not at the point where a gobbler is on the way in and any attempt to reduce some sort of misery has the potential to give away your position.
Know Your Distances (and Your Gun)
There's no aspect of turkey hunting, not even a miss, comparable to the gut-wrenching feeling you get when a turkey is crippled and escapes. In all likelihood, it will die a lingering death. Most such scenarios result from shots taken at distances that are too great or lie beyond a gun's capabilities.
As a result of the development, in recent years, of loads with heavier-than-lead pellets and added downrange impact, the temptation to "stretch the barrel" has become widespread. Simply put, 40 yards is far enough. Anything beyond that becomes problematic. Moreover, one of the enduring and endearing aspects of turkey hunting is the thrill of calling them close. Every concerned, ethical hunter should make a point of studying distances and going through exercises of judging them in various settings. With practice, you will be able to judge distance consistently within three or four yards. That ability, along with sound knowledge of how your gun patterns and what load it handles best, gives you just what you need.
Closing the Deal
Second only to the dismay connected with crippling a turkey is the abject disgust connected with a clean miss. Hunt turkeys long enough and rest assured, you will miss. Nationally noted hunter Brad Harris once said his missed an incredible 12 birds in a row over a long run of misery. He considers 13 his lucky number,, because that was the shot when he finally broke that terrible string. Few of us will ever endure that much trauma, but misses do happen. For the most part they are avoidable. There are several steps which will help.
The old chestnut about wood to wood - he wood of your hard head to the wood of the stock - is a good starting point. Most misses come as a result of failure to get down on the gun in proper fashion. Another option is to use a scope, although that raises specters such as fogged up lenses, dead batteries on scopes that use some kind of dot for target acquisition, and the difficulty of lining up on a moving turkey. All too often, we see the target but fail to notice impediments between the gun barrel and the gobbler's neck. A sweet gum sprout at 10 yards can eat up a tight pattern and bushes at 30 yards can take far too many pellets out of the kill zone. Try to stay calm, squeeze the trigger rather than jerking it, and make as sure as is possible in the moment of truth that you perform properly.
There you have it - 10 ways to improve your likelihood of success. They don't address all the issues and certainly don't answer all the questions. After all, as Horace Kephart, that old sage of the outdoors who was once known as the "dean of American campers," once suggested, "in the school of the outdoors there is no graduation day."
How true that is for the turkey hunter, but the ongoing process of education, the constant opportunity to learn something new, gives the sport much of its magic and mystique.