"Swamp gobblers are a special breed of turkey; they often require more from a hunter than upland birds," said William Terry, a guide from Van Wyck who owns Legacy Premium Game Calls and has won six South Carolina State Calling Championships. "The basic reasons are they can be less vocal at times, harder to pattern and most importantly, they live in terrain that often gives them a huge advantage. To harvest a swamp gobbler, a turkey hunter has to utilize all the tools and tricks at his disposal."
Terry's experiences with swamp gobblers have helped him develop some specific strategies for hunting these elusive longbeards.
"Obviously, water is the key when hunting swamp gobblers," Terry said. "Turkeys generally prefer to roost over or near water anyway, but swamp gobblers have that luxury easily at hand. They will occasionally roost along the edge of swamps, but generally back in the swamp, often over a high spot or island. Sometimes, that's where they'll fly down and many times spend a lot of their early-in-the-day breeding time in those hard-to-get-to spots.
"That habit can make them very difficult to call out," he said. "They are in their private comfort zone, and sometimes, even the best caller in the world can't call them to the gun at that point. That's one thing that happens that makes some hunters think they are almost impossible to call.
"But this is where knowledge of the habitat is crucial. If there are isolated islands or ridges and you have no way to get out there once it gets light, then you've just got to wait and hunt that bird later."
Terry said he spends a lot of preseason time scouting and learning the land around swamps, drains, ditches and creeks on the lands he hunts. He'll pinpoint roost trees, which can be identified by lots of droppings under the tree.
"These gobblers will change locations as the seasons change, but knowledge of good roost trees and roost areas where several roost trees are located, are a great place to start. If I know the lay of the land and hear a bird gobble early, I can usually pinpoint the area and know if I have to wade though some water to get on an island with him. Or I'll know if there's a ridge that leads back to higher ground out of the swamp where I can set up."
Another expert is Bill Davis, owner of Pure Gold Premium Shotgun Chokes. Davis hails from McConnells, but like Terry, he hunts gobblers across South Carolina. Davis said hunting swamp gobblers makes dealing with water part of the hunting process.
"It does change the playing field, because part of the playing field is a swamp," Davis said. "One of the keys to be consistently successful is to learn tactics that make the water your ally, not your enemy."
Davis said that the swamps, ditches drains and even standing water can cause turkeys to move in specific ways. Part of the hunter's challenge is to learn these features and use them to their advantage. He also said food plots adjacent to swamps are prime targets for swamp gobblers.
"There are no set answers for every situation," he said. "Gobblers would rather walk around water than through it, and sometimes a drainage ditch or small creek run will cause them to change course dramatically. Don't try to call them over or though these obstacles, I recommend you change your position to make coming your way a natural situation. I try to intercept him in the route he would normally travel. That's one of the best recipes for success on swamp gobblers. Once you know where he's located, get between that spot and where he may be headed. Use the swamp to make it convenient for the gobbler to walk to you."
Terry said that hunters often don't have the luxury of doing a lot of scouting, but there are some common strategies he employs when hunting swamp gobblers in new terrain.
"Generally, I'll get out in the woods very early and get close to the swamp," he said. "If I have a map, I'll check it before the hunt and look for high spots that lead in and out of the swamp, routes that a gobbler might naturally take. If I can find something potentially good, I'll usually set up in that area, about 30 yards from the edge of the swamp.
"My general philosophy, especially if I haven't roosted a bird the evening before, is to keep things low key with soft, subtle calls to begin with," he said.
Davis and Terry agree that a general rule of thumb is to let the gobbler gobble on his own when feasible.
"I think it's just a more natural thing to let a gobbler make the first move, in terms of gobbling first," Davis said. "That way I know his position, but he has not heard any turkey sounds from my location. It's a slight edge, but it can really pay off at times."
Terry added that swamp gobblers sometimes stay quiet longer than he prefers.
"When a certain time in the morning arrives, I'll use locator calls such as owl hoots or soft tree calls. Before it gets too light and I cannot make a move on a gobbler, I want to know his location. Whatever I do, I'll begin softly, then get louder. If I make a move, it's slow, quiet and subtle.
"Sometimes these birds won't gobble until they get on the ground. I like to say that almost anyone can kill a hard-gobbling bird, but it takes a good hunter to kill a silent gobbler or one that only gobbles a couple of times. I seem to run into a lot of these types in the swamps."
Terry said that some tactics he uses effectively are staying clear, but within range, of a gobbler's movement route.
"If a gobbler is in the swamp and working down a peninsula toward the high ground, I don't always get on that peninsula with him," he said. "But I will set up within gun range off to the side. If for some reason he gets by me, odds are good he'll be using that route as ingress and egress that afternoon and next morning. I may hunt other gobblers later, but I'll be back waiting on him late in the evening and the next morning."
Davis and Terry agree that patience is essential when working a gobbler, but it is crucial on the swamp gobblers.
"Many times, these gobblers will slip in quietly, maybe 30 minutes after gobbling only once or twice," Davis said. "It's easy to second guess and figure he's not coming. But if a swamp gobbler responds to your call then gets quiet, sit as long as you think you should and then sit about that much longer before moving. You'll likely end up with more swamp gobblers to tag."