Turkey hunting is a character-building sport where creativity and adaptation in the heat of battle determine success or failure or any given hunt. If a hunter adapts successfully, a gobbler may be tagged. If wrong decisions are made, the less-desirable outcome prevails and character building continues.
Hunters with the grit to persevere will learn a lesson for future encounters with gobblers.
Hunters who make part of their livings hunting turkeys generally have built plenty of “character.” For pros, the paycheck depends on getting gobblers on the ground, and they’ve learned specific methods to get that done. Following are some of their tips to help others tag a turkey.
Steve Drummond, 48, from Effingham, produces the Low Country Wildlife television show with Stacy Atkinson, who hails from the same area. Having to capture hunts on video ensures they must employ their best tactics at all times.
“The first thing that helps promote turkey hunting success is persistence on a daily basis, coupled with continuity as the season progresses,” Drummond said. “I hunt nearly every day, and that puts a lot of things in my favor. Although I hunt in a lot of different places, being afield every day enables me to pattern the stages of a gobbler’s life during the season in terms of continuity. From early season, when gobblers are eager to get with hens, through the time period when they are with hens and then when hens begin to break away to sit their nests, the gobbler and hen interaction changes. That will dictate how I hunt.”
Drummond said hunters relegated to weekend hunting can still track these changes by focusing on what gobblers and hens are doing week to week.
“Early in the season, hunters can be a bit more aggressive, and when gobblers get with hens we have to adapt,” he said. “Toward the end of the season, when hens sit nests, a more-aggressive scenario can be good. Know what the turkeys are doing, and you can hunt more effectively.
“On a daily basis, persistence is needed — but not to excess,” he said. “Pushing a turkey too hard before you know the gobbler’s circumstances in terms of where he wants to go, hen availability and other factors you can ruin the hunt for the day.”
Drummond said that binoculars are vital for a variety of reasons. He said every elite turkey hunter he knows uses binoculars.
“Binoculars are crucial because I want to see turkeys at the first opportunity, especially at long distances,” he said. “With binoculars, I can distinguish between gobblers, jakes and hens and see if they are together. I can determine if the gobbler is henned or alone (and) I’ll approach the hunt differently. I can thoroughly check a field for turkeys and get an idea on their movement pattern and then decide on a plan of action to call the gobbler.
“I use binoculars as I stalk around openings and look downs woods roads and trails,” he said. “It’s the only visual advantage I can have over a turkey. With this tool, I can see clearly a long distance and watch a gobbler’s reaction to my call. I develop a plan based on what I see the gobbler doing. If he’s moving away, I can determine the direction of movement and often discern his likely target, allowing me the opportunity to move and set up before he arrives.”
Atkinson said that, after years of watching gobblers in the fields and woods, he’s learned they can be extremely patient.
“Patience by a hunter kills turkeys,” Atkinson said. “When I first started shooting videos of turkey hunts, I often thought having the equipment was a burden, and it sometimes forced me have to sit when I wanted to move. I’ve learned the opposite is true. As the season progresses, gobblers can be extremely patient in terms of responding to a hunter’s calls. If a gobbler is being that patient, I must be more patient.
“Turkeys are very wary all the time, but after being hunted a few times, their patience compounds,” he said. “One of the things that can ruin a hunt is getting in a hurry to kill a gobbler. Keep things natural as possible. We’re already trying to get the gobbler to go against a natural instinct of having a hen approach him when he gobbles. They sometimes approach our position quickly, but often not. Let them set the pace of the hunt. If I can keep his interest elevated with calling, the odds are on my side he will eventually make his move in our direction.”
Atkinson said a move is sometimes necessary to stay on a bird or get set up in the direction the gobbler is moving.
“I make moving more of a last resort — not my first option if the gobbler doesn’t approach quickly,” he said. “It’s not based on the clock. When I feel my setup is not right or that particular bird requires something else, I’ll pick up and go. It may be 10 minutes into a setup or two hours. But the gobbler dictates the timetable.”
Steve Cobb of Union, a pro staffer for Hunter Specialties, said taking the high ground on a gobbler improves odds of success. He said he’s called gobblers from all types of setups, but he’ll take the high ground, especially in the Midlands and Upstate.
“An ideal setup for me is to be above a gobbler, facing his direction with my back leaned against a tree that’s large enough to break up my outline,” he said. “I see several advantages to this.
“A gobbler likes to work up a hill,” he said. “The high ground gives me a visual vantage point, and I can usually see the gobbler before he can see me. I can also better gauge my calling tactics based on seeing his reaction to my calls. I’ve learned gobblers are more likely to approach within gun range in this setup.”
In addition to these advantages, Cobb said getting the high ground first can help avoid surprises by a gobbler.
“If you don’t get the high ground, the gobbler may take that advantage on his approach to your position,” he said. “Sometimes a gobbler will be close when he first gobbles, and I have no time to get to high ground without risking being seen. In this scenario, I scan the area for higher ground in the direction of the gobble and set up when I can see that spot. A wary gobbler may be approaching and then get quiet and slip in from the high ground.
“Even if you can’t get the high ground you can be prepared for the gobbler to take it and you’ll have the edge,” Cobb said.
Atkinson refers to his pal, Drummond, as the “turkey whisperer” but said that, in reality, Drummond’s calling is often far from a whisper.
“He will make soft, subtle sounds with the best of them when necessary, but his go to call is actually the gobble,” said Atkinson, who’s seen it proven absolutely lethal on longbeards.
Drummond admits he loves to use the gobble call but does so with some restraint.
“I don’t recommend gobble calls on public lands, but on private lands where we know where everyone is, it is an awesome and vastly underutilized call.”
Drummond said good shaker calls are on the market, but his favorite is the mouth-operated Haint gobbler call.
“I don’t just use the gobble call as a last resort; I use it as a primary part of my calling strategy,” he said. “I’ve found that a gobble call will often get quick and numerous returned gobbles. This immediately gives me the position of several gobblers. I always have a good hunting setup in mind when I gobble in case a dominant bird gets jealous and approaches quickly.”
Drummond said his experience has taught him that using the gobble call, along with a gobbler decoy, is lethal.
“Think about it, if a hunter uses a decoy of a mature gobbler, and many do, then making the actual gobble call simply adds realism,” Drummond said. “And I’m not stingy with my gobbles. If a bird gobbles, I’ll often gobble back and even try to cut him off. If he gobbles three times I’ll gobble back three times. That usually gets his interest and once he sees the decoy, odds are good he’s coming in.”
Drummond, who owns 301 Taxidermy in Effingham, said using realistic decoys is vital, and he often gobblers he has mounted.
“It’s hard to beat the real thing, and that does give me a good starting point,” he said. “Realistic decoys are available on the commercial market, and this is a case where you get what you pay for. Early in the season, birds may decoy in easier, but as the season progresses, they get wary. Realistic decoys will significantly enhance your odds of having a gobbler move in. I enjoy videoing youngsters hunting their first gobbler. Using realistic decoys really helps get birds in close.
“I use a full-fan gobbler decoy, and I place it where the approaching gobbler will see the fan, not the body of the bird,” he said. “Based on my experience, that’s crucial. The big, puffed up part of the decoy should face away from the gobbler you’re decoying. One preferred setup is to place the decoy at the edge of the woods with the fan toward an open field.”
Drummond said the gobbler decoy is often all he needs when calling a bird.
“But on a tough gobbler or one that I really want to bring in close for a youngster, I will use hen decoys as well and have at least three very realistic hen decoys set around the gobbler. This extra effort usually seals the deal.”
Atkinson said it’s important to know when a turkey moves into range or is still far enough away to be safe.
“Know the effective range of your weapon and be realistic about your ability,” Atkinson said. “Whether you hunt with a gun or a bow, know the distance you can shoot. Getting a bird in close is great for video, but we need to finish the hunt successfully.
“The second ‘range’ factor is the distance to the turkey when he gobbles,” he said. “As foliage grows, turkey sounds don’t carry as far. I like to hunt in the woods, and during early season, I can hear turkeys long distances. By mid-season, that has changed considerably, and by late-season, the change is dramatic.
“Leaves muffle the turkey sounds, leading hunters to misjudge the distance, often thinking he’s further away. They’ll move closer when they should get on the ground immediately. Factor the vegetative growth into your ranging, and if you’re wrong, err on the side of getting on the ground. You’re still in the game if you set up too early, but it’s over if you get busted.”