Strategies for all-season Toms

Steve Cobb said late-season gobblers are killable, but drumming may be your key that the bird is present. (Picture by Terry Madewell)

Fill your turkey tags with these tips

Turkey hunters in the Carolinas have a hunting season that lasts for several weeks and coincides with the turkey mating season. This offers hunters an extended period to sort out a successful strategy. But many hunters don’t fill their seasonal limits.

One reason is turkey patterns change dramatically during the course of the mating season, and hunters don’t adapt. Plus, hunting pressure impacts turkey behavior, and so do changing weather patterns.

It gets complicated to fool an already formidable game species. To consistently beat gobblers, hunters must evolve their strategy throughout the season.

Steve Cobb, from Union, SC, has diligently pursued gobblers for more than 40 years, not just in the Carolinas, but nationally. He’s been a Hunter Specialties Pro Staff member for a quarter of a century, and has won multiple, major calling championships.

Cobb said he’s learned many turkey truths that have helped him throughout the years.

“As turkey season evolves, a consistently successful hunter will change and evolve with the phases that turkeys go through,” Cobb said.

The phases can be subdivided in different ways, but for simplicity he refers to it as early, middle and late season strategies.

Areas blackened by controlled burns are prime spots for turkeys by mid- to late-season. (Picture by Terry Madewell)

“The important part is knowing that these time periods actually reflect significant changes in the world of turkeys, gobblers and hens,” he said. “These changes directly impact what strategies are likely to be successful.”

Early Season Strategies

Cobb said the opening week or two of hunting season provides excellent opportunities, along with challenges.

“The good news is that gobblers have not been pressured. So the intrusion of hunters is not yet an issue,” he said. “But that changes quickly, so take advantage of this early opportunity.

“A hunter can get an eager, willing bird early in the season that works in and offers a clean shot,” he said. “This can occur all season. But it becomes less likely as the season continues.”

Cobb said early season is prime-time for hunters to confront the dreaded “H” word: “Henned” gobblers.

“Gobblers can be taken but it’s typically the result of elite calling combined with endless patience and a dab of luck,” he said. “Dominant gobblers likely have multiple hens early in the season and it’s unlikely they’ll leave a harem of hens to come to a call from a place they haven’t been hearing hens. Turkeys have their own internal flock patterns.”

Cobb said one workaround is to leave the ‘henned’ gobbler and find another bird willing to respond. But that’s not always possible.

Longbeards will often be found in fields by mid-season. (Picture by Terry Madewell)

Gobblers with a harem of hens can be killed, but it takes a good plan.

“Early season turkeys can be creatures of habit, and habitat,” he said. “Once I know where they naturally want to go, that’s where I’m going to be before they arrive,” he said.

“Ground-zero may be a food plot, acorn hollow, a creek bottom or an opening in the woods,” he said. “Hunter concealment is crucial because typically before you can take the gobbler, you’ll likely have to pass the eye test of multiple hens trekking ahead of him.”

Cobb said match the surroundings where you hunt with your camo pattern. For early season, he prefers a bland, dark camo pattern and avoids bright leafy green patterns if the woods are not greened out.

“Mossy Oak is a great camo pattern. They make multiple color schemes for a reason, to blend in to your specific surroundings,” he said.

Cobb said this is prime time for a subordinate longbeard to slip in quietly while the boss is occupied.

“Pay due diligence to the gobbling bird, but don’t focus solely on him,” he said. “I’ve taken many big longbeards that approached quietly while working a henned gobbler.”

Cobb said his most successful calling tactics early in the season include purrs and soft yelping, especially when gobblers are still on the roost.

“If a gobbler is not surrounded by live hens, you’ve got a real opportunity,” he said. “Late morning, from 10 o’clock and after, I’ll be more aggressive with yelps or cutts to attract a gobbler that’s separated from the hen flock.”

The best early season habitat is often creek and river bottoms, Cobb said.

“Open fields have usually not greened out and dormant grass doesn’t attract many bugs or grasshoppers,” he said. “Generally, wooded areas are prime early in the season.”

Mid-Season Strategies

Cobb said by the middle of the season the scenario is changing rapidly for gobblers and hens.

“Instead of having 10 to 12 hens in a harem, the gobbler may be down to a handful or less because many hens are now sitting the nests,” he said. “Plus, hunting pressure is having an impact on turkey behavior, and already wary birds trust nothing.”

Cobb said scouting ahead of the hunt is as crucial now as early season.

“Even if I have a successful hunt, if I hear other gobblers during that morning, I pay attention to where they go,” he said. “I’m always scouting for tomorrow, even when hunting today.”

It often takes multiple calls to work a gobbler into killing range. (Picture by Terry Madewell)

Cobb said by mid-season, gobblers are easily spooked by anything that’s not natural.

“I’ll typically let the gobbler make the first calling move during mid-season,” he said. “I’ll let the bird gobble on the roost before I make any calls and then I’ll make one ground tree call. That’s simply a subtle tree call made from the ground. It must be late enough for a hen to actually be on the ground before I make the call.”

“It’s crucial to understand that if he’s gobbling before I make the call and he stops gobbling for a bit, he heard it and knows my location,” Cobb said. “Individual gobblers have distinct habits. So no set formula exists for every gobbler, but I employ patience and soft calling first. If he wants aggressive calling, I’ll crank it up later.”

Mid-season habitat is changing significantly, with the woods greening up and fields now likely having bugs and grasshoppers as potential turkey food.

Cobb said if you’re fortunate enough to have had controlled burns on your land, those blackened areas are now likely showing some succulent greens and are attractive to turkeys.”

“Logging decks from clearcut areas are highly attractive to gobblers,” he said. “In this scenario, get to that location early and use realistic decoys to keep a gobbler’s eye focused away from you, since concealment options may be limited.”

Cobb said camo patterns must morph to match the mid-season habitat. If hunting a burn area, you’ll likely sit against the base of a blackened tree. A black, or really dark, shirt will blend better than green patterns.

“Think about what the gobbler is looking at as he approaches any of your setups,” he said.

Late season challenges

Late season hunting can be a challenge and the pressure of weeks of hunting has a gobbler’s sense of survival in hyperdrive.

“Pressured birds can be difficult. But by late season, gobblers are all over the map in terms of how they may react,” he said. “Many hens are now sitting on nests. So lonesome gobblers are a possibility.

“Good calling, fortified with patience, is the key,” he said. “This time of year, my first knowledge that a gobbler has approached my location is hearing drumming. A gobbler I heard 300 yards away at dawn may walk in quietly an hour or two later. Revert to the early-season scenario of looking and listening. Even a dominant gobbler will often drum in late-season because he’s just ultra-cautious. A realistic hen decoy can help.”

Use different calls to seduce more gobblers. Similar calls made from different material will produce different sounds. (Picture by Terry Madewell)

Cobb said a late-season gobbler that’s been without a hen for a few days may respond aggressively to calls.

“The much-loved, and appreciated, ‘kamikaze’ gobbler can make an entrance anytime of the season. And late season is no exception,” Cobb said. “If a bird gobbles aggressively to a call in late-season, he’s killable. Aggressive calling can work in this situation. But I’m going to start low-key and adapt to what that gobbler wants.

“As a calling guideline for late season, less is usually more,” he said.

Habitat patterns are similar to mid-season, except when it’s really hot. Gobblers will often go to shaded settings during mid-day.

Pinpointing a gobbler’s location by using locator calls changes for Cobb by late season.

“During late season, I won’t owl hoot early to locate a bird,” Cobb said. “I’ll let the crows crank up and usually hear a bird gobble at them. Then I’ll move into position and make my call. Slow down, let it happen naturally.”

Cobb said good calling excels when turkeys are most difficult.

“Take the time to become proficient at calling. Learn to use more than one call, so you’ll have options,” he said. “Don’t wait until the night before the season opens to practice your calling. Become an excellent caller and produce realistic sounds appropriate to the time of the season. Elite calling, and patience, are the successful strategies you can utilize effectively all season.”

About Terry Madewell 812 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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