The opening of turkey season, for those marvelously miserable souls Tom Kelly, the sport's poet laureate, describes as the "Tenth Legion" is "a day worthy of trumpets blasting and choirs singing." Yet the only choirs we care to hear involve a chorus of songbirds, while the trumpet of choice is a lordly gobbler declaring dominion deep in a hardwood slough. An acquaintance put it, "I'm always excited beyond belief on Opening Day, and by the time dusk falls on the last day, I'm mightily relieved."
That's what turkey hunting does to you. It wears you out with pre-dawn risings and a perceived need to stay afield constantly, because there's always the possibility that persisting until light gives way to night will let you roost a bird. All in all, it's a blessing the season only lasts a few weeks. Otherwise, the human population might include a sizeable number of turkey hunters wandering through the year like zombies.
Turkey hunting's addictive allure has no match when compared with other types of hunting, and at no time does its magic and mysticism loom larger than in the early season. Your anticipation has been honed to a razor's edge of sharpness, and aspirations are high for bagging a fine gobbler. Here's a collection of 10 tips, tactics, and techniques to help you do just that.
My turkey hunting mentor, Parker Whedon, has hunted South Carolina's woods for more than six decades. Some of the finest advice he ever tendered was pithy and to the point. "Get a gobbler's attention," he said, "then lay a heavy dose of silence on him."
Overcalling may well be one of the finest turkey conservation tactics known to man. Obviously, you have to "read" a turkey's temperature to some degree, but almost all the shows you see on television feature hunters calling too loud, too long, and too often. Steel yourself to wait out a gobbler. Over time, patience and perseverance will pay dividends. The old-time method of occasional clucks and soft yelps every 15 minutes or so has distinct virtues.
THE REWARDS OF ADAPTABILITY
Adaptability comes in several forms. A willingness to change calls, try something different - walking and calling instead of spending long hours at the edge of a food plot, for example - or using various locator calls. We all have our tried-and-true "go to" calls, and tactics, but versatility and experimentation can be good-especially when nothing seems to be working.
Knowledge of the terrain you hunt can make a world of difference. A ditch, pine thicket, fence, or any of many obstacles can produce a "hung up" turkey. The whereabouts of good listening spots can be a major help at daylight.
Then, there's familiarity with favored travel routes, strut zones, dusting sites, and much more. Indeed, one of the best things you can do is get your hands on a topo map or aerial photograph of the areas you hunt.
WOODSMANSHIP DOES WONDERS
Old-timers often suggest that "calling skills are important, but at the end of the day it is woodsmanship which gets turkeys."
According to Rock Hill's Darrin Dawkins, an exceptionally adept caller, "The ability to ease through the woods quietly and having a good feel for how turkeys behave are the most important aspects of my approach to hunting."
Woodscraft is comprised of many parts, with the ability to read sign, translate the sights and sounds of the woods, blend into one's surroundings, and understand the quarry's habits and habitat being among them.
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE DAY
There are times in turkey hunting when it's necessary to get in a hurry. Such occasions might come when you hear a distant gobbler on the roost and need to get closer before fly-down time or closing ground after hearing a shock gobble. For the most part though, haste makes waste.
Bo Pittman, a hunting guide from Alabama, put it this way, "You've got to think and act on turkey time, and turkeys don't punch a clock."
Take it easy whether it comes to working a gobbler or being sure and steady as a gobbler slowly makes his way toward you. Impatience is your enemy.
AVOID THE MISERY OF MISSES
Any turkey hunter who says he has never missed a bird has just revealed one of two things: either he hasn't done much turkey hunting, or else he's a fellow you don't want handling the collection plate at church.
Get many opportunities, and you will miss. But there are some steps you can take to avoid this mess of misery. For starters, know your gun and its capabilities, and that doesn't mean a split-second decision that Ol' Betsy can kill one at 60 yards when the gun's effective pattern breaks up at 45 yards.
When you set up on a bird, pick out your shooting parameters - in terms of distance - and force yourself to abide by them. Misjudgment of distance is a major factor in misses.
Even more common is the failure to get "wood to wood" (i.e., the wood of your hard head nestled tightly against the wood of your gun stock). "Peeking" - when you have the front bead on the bird but are not looking straight down the gun barrel - will result in you shooting high, and this is appreciably more likely with the short-barreled turkey guns that seem to be all the rage. A second bead at mid-barrel can help; some folks resort to a special turkey scope.
Such matters revolve around personal choice or preference, but the best thing you can do to minimize misses is to remember that most come from excitement. Of course, getting excited is a part of the sport's joys, and when adrenaline stops, you need to take up dominos.
The typical early-season hunter heads out well before daylight, enjoys peak gobbling time in the hour or two that begins at dawn, and by 10 or 11 a.m., is headed out of the woods with a cup of coffee and sausage biscuit foremost in his mind.
Turkeys, while cutting back on vocalization, continue active throughout the day. In the early season, when gobblers are typically keeping company with hens after fly-down, you may actually have a better chance of getting to work a bird in the afternoon.
Dawkins firmly believes in hunting from dark to dark. "It's exciting to hear gobbling at dawn, but when you get a longbeard responding in the afternoon, there's a much greater likelihood he will come to you," he said.
The message is clear - hunt in the afternoon, cutting down on the amount and volume of your calling, but sticking with it nonetheless.
ROOSTED AIN'T ROASTED, BUT IT HELPS
Honest and experienced hunters will tell you they probably ended up killing no more than one out of every 10 birds they roost. Still, starting the day knowing the whereabouts of a gobbler is definitely preferable to heading afield with nothing but hope as an ally. Accordingly, it is a good idea to try roosting a bird the evening before Opening Day, and the same holds true once hunting actually begins.
CALL WITH CONFIDENCE
Veteran hunter and guide Eddie Salter, a pro staffer with Hunter's Specialties, once offered his best advice on calling.
He didn't even have to think about it. "Have confidence in your calling," he said.
That translates into practice and having more than one type of call with which you are comfortable, but it also means having a "money" or "go-to" call. Most hunters have a favorite, and it attained that status because of their confidence in the call.
Salter also offers a second tip connected with a favorite call. "When you make a bad yelp or lousy cluck," he said, "don't stop abruptly. Turkeys would never win a calling competition, and (they) make what seem like poor calls to human ears all the time. Just continue your sequence as if nothing happened."
DO DESPERATE DEEDS
Inevitably, at some point early in the season, you face a dilemma. It's the last day you have to hunt for two weeks, or you are in the final hour before leaving the woods. All the advice offered about patience and taking things slow is out the window.
Maybe a bird has hung up, calling his head off but refusing to come. Or perhaps he's in the middle of a field, henned up and happy. It's at such times you might want to consider desperate deeds.
These come in a variety of forms. Staging mock turkey fisticuffs with fighting purrs is one tactic that can work. Or you might consider sneaking and peeking, crawling instead of calling. Never do this on public land; it's dangerous and should be attempted only on private land where you know no one else is hunting. Some consider this approach unsporting, but in my view, it involves sound woodsmanship and is more sporting than sitting alongside a chufa patch.
Yet another desperation tactic can be to get up from where you have been working a bird and walk away, yelping softly as you do so. Move 100 to 150 yards, sit down, and shut up. Hopefully, you will make a cautious tom think he has lost a hen, and he'll come a-looking.
Maybe one or more of these 10 suggestions will work for you, but in the final analysis, failure is the hunter's lot far more often than not. Triumphant days are rare and wonderful occasions, but even when they don't happen, few things can match the simple, pure joy of a walk in the spring woods.
Editor's Note: Jim Casada is a full-time freelancer who is one of the nation's most prolific writers. He is the author of three books on the subject. For information on ordering these or other books he has written, visit his web site (www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com).