“Hung-up” gobblers are so common in turkey hunting as to be cliches. Discover some experts’ tactics to draw them closer.“The only certainty in turkey hunting is uncertainty,” Parker Whedon once said.
He ought to know.
Whedon has spent portions of seven decades successfully chasing longbeards, knows the literature of the sport intimately, is a nationally-recognized call-maker and during his early years in the sport, corresponded with icons such as Inman Turpin and Henry Edwards Davis.
While Whedon lives in North Carolina, a great deal of his hunting experience has centered on the Palmetto State. That explains, in part at least, his link with Davis, who resided in Florence and is widely recognized as the author of the finest book, “The American Wild Turkey,” ever written about the sport.
With his years of accumulated wisdom and countless hours afield, Whedon has learned sometimes standard “sit-down-and-call-him-in” approaches don’t work.
“You do what you need to,” he said, “and often that involves employing offbeat tactics.”
Another nationally-known hunter who has spent considerable time chasing toms in South Carolina, Mark Drury, takes a similar view of matters.
The founder of M.A.D. Calls, a former contest caller recognized as one of the nation’s best in the early 1990s, and the producer of widely acclaim videos about turkey hunting, Drury averages 60 hunting days in at least half a dozen states every year. He is also profiled, along with Brad Harris, in the book “Innovative Turkey Hunting.”
Drury’s view of tactics for dealing with toms is at once straightforward and complex.
“You read the gobbler’s book,” he said, “then try to figure out what will work when it comes to getting him within gun range. Sometimes decidedly unorthodox techniques provide an answer when you have tried standard approaches to no avail.”
With those thoughts from two experts in mind, let’s look at some techniques that stray well off the beaten path of turkey-hunting wisdom. They shouldn’t be viewed as your standard stock in trade, but rather consider them as a series of aces in the hole you might want to draw when playing the standard turkey-hunting cards doesn’t work.
The sounds of silence
Many modern hunters seem to be enthralled with the sounds of their own voices.
Venture afield with a young hot shot, perhaps someone who has placed in a local calling contest or two, and invariably you’ll wish you had ear plugs. They invariable call almost incessantly. Somehow they fail to realize that for the vast majority of each day, turkeys are silent.
Almost never does one encounter a hen that yelps and cuts constantly. Moreover, turkeys don’t become consummate survivors through blissfully ignoring things that seem out of step and out of tune with the world around them.
Calling too much, too loud, and too long sends them a clear message to the effect “something’s wrong; it would be best to avoid the area.”
Old-timers never made such mistakes. They called sparingly and softly, with the cluck being their favorite call. When they yelped, it was a short, subdues series of only four or five yelps. Similarly, they had little truck with cutting, fly-down cackles, and the like.
“Get his attention and lay a heavy dose of silence on him,” Whedon said.
Or, to put it another way, bring patience — an increasingly rare quality in today’s turkey hunting world — into the equation in a big way.
Double teaming that involves one hunter who walks away, calling as he goes, while partner stays in place, is a fairly well-known tactic. However, there are others versions of double teaming that receive less attention and can be just the ticket to punch a wary old gobbler’s clock for the last time.
One such approach that can be quite useful, especially during middle-of-the-day walking-and-calling sessions, involves simultaneous calling.
Two hunters using different calls, whether they’re locators or involve some type of yelping, often proves productive.
Drury is a staunch advocate of this technique.
“Throw enough sounds at gobblers,” he said, “and sometimes you’ll get one to shock gobble in spite of himself. Then you’re in the ball game and can take it from there.”
One day years ago, Drury and running mate Steve Stoltz evoked gobbles from no less than four Low Country birds using this approach.
Another noteworthy advantage of double teaming when trying to locate a bird focuses on one hunter calling while his partner listens. The individual who isn’t calling is much more likely to hear a response and be able to course it than the caller. That holds doubly true if he steps a few yards away to listen and really helps when a bird answers immediately.
Often, if he’s still yelping, a caller won’t hear the turkey. On the other hand, his buddy stationed a few yards away (and without the sound of his own calling ringing in his ears) clearly can hear gobbling.
Stoop to conquer
A good hunting buddy and highly-skilled turkey hunter, Rock Hill’s Darrin Dawkins, said one way to distinguish a truly determined turkey hunter is to look at the knees of his camouflage pants or coveralls.
If they show distinctive indications of wear and tear, you’re looking at someone willing to stoop in order to conquer.
The issue of putting the sneak on turkeys that hang up or seem to present other difficulties virtually guarantees an argument whenever several turkey hunters gather. Some deem such approaches unethical; others believe crawling is an aspect of the overall qualities of woodsmanship that loom large in the sport.
After all, in the final analysis we’re predators when we hunt, and successful predation involves stalking. Obviously, hunters need to keep safety factors foremost in mind any time they decide to slither toward an obstinate turkey.
That being said, it’s little short of amazing just how different the landscape perspective becomes for a hunter willing to crawl on his belly. A low profile enables him to make advantageous use of even sparse vegetation, and often permits approaches to a set-up spot, or possibly even gets him within shooting range of a tom when nothing else will.
Hunters almost certainly will meet hazards — briars, honey locust thorns, fire ants, bees, even snakes — along the way. But rest assured that sooner or later, there’ll come a time when it makes more sense to crawl than to call.
Moving on field birds
Nothing in the world of turkey hunting is much more frustrating than attempting to deal with a gobbler in the middle of a field with hens.
“Field turkeys ought to be covered by a special provision in the regulations that allow the use of a rifle,” Drury once said, only half joking.
Understandably the tom in such a situation finds matters distinctly to his liking and will display no compulsion whatsoever to abandon cooperative female company and security to approach a vocal but unseen hen. Vexing though such situations can be, there is one small advantage for the hunter.
Often the woods surrounding the field allow movement without much likelihood of spooking the quarry. When all else fails, it’s worth a try or, as Dawkins said: “You don’t have a lot to lose with a field turkey.”
Sooner or later the birds will leave the field, or maybe a hunter can, after a period of observation, discern a drift in a particular direction. The task in such situations is to take a circular route to get to the spot toward where the turkeys seem headed.
If possible, try to use slight breaks in the terrain or a useful bush or two to place decoys at the field’s edge. In fact, hunters might even want to try some crawling while holding a decoy in front ( remember safety, and never try it at public hunting land).
Often trying to cut field birds off at the pass will result in scaring them or even putting the turkeys in flight. But when hunters maneuver into position for a shot, the results are especially gratifying.
Of course, if hunters have the time, patience and persistence, they might remember two real examples of what might have been the ultimate in desperation tactics:
Well-known contest-caller and turkey-hunting personality Preston Pittman once became so obsessed with a tom using a field he spent several night hours digging a pit in the middle of the field in order to be hidden within the gobbler’s domain at daylight. Two other hunters, once having observed turkeys mixing with a bunch of cows day after day, attempted to blend in with the cattle by disguising themselves as, yes, a cow.
Pittman’s ruse worked; the other one didn’t.
Attack in reverse
During the Korean War an American general who was criticized for retreating from an untenable position said he hadn’t fled the field of battle, he just attacked in reverse.
Sometimes turkey hunters face similar situations.
A turkey, often a quite vocal one, will refuse to travel that final 50 or 100 yards. He seems to have drawn his version of a a line in the sand and expects the hen to come to him.
Any of a number of reasons can explain such behavior. There may be something about the setting which the tom finds disconcerting — a fence the hunter can’t see, a ditch or small stream, a tree lap or something else.
Perhaps the bird just likes his strutting ground, or maybe it’s just one of those turkey-behavior patterns hunters never fully understand. Whatever the case, the old ploy of pretending to leave sometimes ends a stalemate.
Even if a tom remains in place, strategic retreats offer a second option because they afford a hunter an opportunity to move to a new set-up site and watch to see if the gobbler finds it more approachable.
Depending upon the terrain, the retreating tactic might need to be repeated two or three times. With a bit of luck, hunters sooner or later will call from a location a tom might be willing to approach.
Dealing with turkeys that gobble at every call even as they walk away ranks second only to field birds when it comes to turkey hunting irritants.
Too often hunters stay glued to one spot, all the while listening to ever fainter gobbles before the bird finally goes out of hearing range.
Sometimes in situations of this sort a tom is following hens, but that’s not always the case. Ask anyone who has done a lot of hunting, and they’ll almost certainly recall sad tales of going, going, gone gobblers.
Two approaches may work during such situations.
One involves the obvious tactic of following the bird. If you do this, Dawkins recommends trying to maintain vocal contact with the bird so as not to bump him.
Yelping is acceptable, but if the turkey responds to crow calls, that’s even better. This tactic allows a hunter to get situated at a new set-up position before calling to the bird. It also removes the danger of a tom suddenly changing his mind and coming to yelps only to catch an unprepared hunter.
In Whedon’s words, sooner or later a tom that seems to be on a walk-away mission will make a stand.
When that glad moment occurs, a hunter wants to be there for the final act.
Against all odds
The previously-mentioned scenarios involve some degree of desperation. And most turkey hunters likely have considered one or more of these tactics in the past.
However, sooner or later there’ll come a time when one final roll of the dice demands an all-or-nothing effort. Usually it’s the last day of the season, the final hunt of a trip, or perhaps the last few minutes one can hunt before heading off to work or another vexing necessity.
When faced with now-or-never situations, the best thing to do is to take a moment to analyze the situation to determine if solution to salvage a seemingly impossible predicament presents itself.
Several options might be worth considering. For starters, try employing calling techniques that are dramatically different from those one normally uses or have been applied without success. Such tactics might include non-stop cutting and aggressive yelping, operating a diaphragm and a box or friction call simultaneously, staging a mock turkey fight, complete with the sound of flapping wings or even (in rare instances) gobbling.
Alternatively, if time allows, consider bust-up tactics such as those traditionally used during yesteryear’s fall hunting (and where still legal) days. Sometimes separating a henned-up tom from his harem, then giving him an hour or so to calm down, results in just the sort of attitude adjustment a hunter seeks.
Speaking of fall techniques, mention of another tactic is needed. Whedon has killed a handful of recalcitrant gobblers by running straight at them without slowing or stopping until within shooting range.
Surprised in this manner, turkeys sometimes squat in an attempt to hide, allowing the hunter to approach within shooting distance.
That may be the ultimate in desperation (or exasperation), but most turkey hunters have, at some point along the way, encountered a visible tom that blithely resisted all blandishments while continuing to strut in full view. During such circumstances, a wild charge at least offers an adrenalin outlet, if nothing else, and if it’s the last hour of the last day, obviously the time has arrived for desperate deeds.
Add these off-beat tactics to your turkey hunting bag of tricks this spring and chances are you’ll have a chance to use them.
Famed South Carolina hunting writer and long-time Palmetto poet laureate Archibald Rutledge once wrote, after having accounted for more than 300 gobblers: “After almost a half-century of hunting of the noblest game bird that graces America’s wild, I am going to confess that I am still in the kindergarten; and I doubt if any human being ever acquires a completed education in this high art.”
Still, the willingness to try unorthodox tactics has the potential to advance a turkey hunter’s education, and progress along the improvement road is something we all seek.
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