Written by Jim Richhman, reprinted with permission from HuntingLife.com
Since the introduction of hunting television, turkey hunters have been plagued with the idea that turkey hunting should be as simple as waking up late, finding an obscure logging road to walk down with your hunting buddy, casting a few calls, and a few frames later, seeing an explosion of feathers in the shiny new decoys. What makes matters worse, is that there seems to be millions of two year old long-beards that make us think that every turkey should come in running, gobbling, drumming, and strutting right up to our gun barrels!
Seasoned veterans of the sport can tell you that while seeing some of the hottest turkey hunting action in the country on your favorite hunting show is great for getting all of us pumped up for hitting the woods, it’s not generally so great for actually making you a better hunter. It certainly doesn’t make you more patient when playing a chess game with a lock-jawed, henned-up, 25lb butterball on a never ending oak ridge top. There are a lot of variables that determine a turkey’s behavior, but one truth stands out amongst the multitude of turkey hunting one-liners that has helped me more than any other. An old wary long-beard will not go anywhere he doesn’t absolutely want to go. And because of this, there is only one counter-measure to help level the playing field; effective scouting.
Here are ten high-powered scouting techniques that will, at very least, help you get out of the “fraternity of the two year old”, and begin zeroing in on the toms that are more satisfied staying out of the spotlight of the call and the camera.
#1 Using optics for turkey hunting
Being able to observe turkey behaviors from a distance, and especially off the roost, can be a lethal method of scouting.
Several years ago, I was planning my wife’s first turkey hunt on our family farm. I needed to find a place that would allow us to get on a bird quickly without a lot of hiking and would allow for a good pop-up blind set. One week before her hunt, I parked my truck about 700 yards above the river bottom hay fields and at first light, I realized the value of glassing. Eight hens flew from the roost, across the river, and into the bright green field. As they settled in, a lone gobbler flew across the river and they immediately disappeared into a line of timber. This happened for six more mornings. Each day there would be one less hen. When my wife’s day to hunt arrived, one hen walked within inches of our pop-up blind, and the Gobbler nearly brushed the blind wall before locking on to my strutter decoy and began trying to beat it to death. I never made a call, and we went home with my wife’s first Missouri longbeard.
I contribute being able to glass that area and see the precise place where the turkeys would come across the river and then quickly slip into the wood line as the deciding factor of killing that turkey. What I discovered after we harvested that tom, was that if we had set up only a few yards either direction of where we did based on a guess rather than good glassing observation, we would have cut ourselves off from any possible shot opportunity.
#2 Use trail cams for turkey hunting
Although some of us become rather bored with trail cameras after deer season, it’s hard to get around how useful they can be when trying to nail down the habits of a stubborn gobbler. Being able to set a camera in an area where glassing is not possible can reveal a lot about time, weather, breeding activity, and so on. Sometimes, the best way to catch a big, mature tom is to give up on killing him at fly down, and set up at an ambush point and wait it out until later in the morning. Trail cameras can give that edge of knowing when and where to set up for the siege.
#3 Pattern the lens
In the story I mentioned earlier, hen behavior became the most valuable piece of the puzzle in designing a hunting plan for that specific tom. It became clear that this was his group of hens and he was going to stay with them everywhere they went. I knew from observation of fighting off multiple other toms and staying so close to the group, that as long as one hen was using that field, there was a good chance he would stay there. Likewise, at this point in the season that particular year, hens were still very grouped up across our property, so what I observed for my wife’s hunt, became a critical part of designing my own hunting plan. On day two, I filled my tag on another old tom that was hanging close to a big group of hens. With this tactic, it needs to be pointed out that observing hens on a macro level (property wide) and a micro level (group to group) is very important in how to structure everything from how and where to set up, all the way down to how, or if, you should call. What are the hens doing? Where are they feeding? Are there multiple toms with them? Which tom seems the most dominant? Where do the hens come from? Where do they disappear to when I can’t see them anymore? These are all vital questions to ask when observing hen behavior.
#4 Figuring out gobbling times and sounds
One of my favorite things to do as a kid was head out early with my grandpa to listen for turkeys. I had no idea what we were really listening for other than to count how many birds we could hear. Since then, I’ve discovered that every gobble can have value.
#5 Early morning ”on the roost” gobbling
Gobbling can be useful in determining the general location of turkeys. Some hunters, by knowing their hunting property very well, can almost pinpoint the exact tree a bird is gobbling from, move in, and try to harvest that turkey as soon as his feet hit the ground. Roost gobbling can be deceiving however, as wind speed and direction, the movement of the turkey on the limb itself, and the location of the roost tree can throw the sound of a gobble in a way that can confuse the human ear and cause you to set up poorly. Personally, I have found roost gobbling to be valuable in identifying general roosting locations of multiple birds across a property. I then use that information to determine whether a turkey is roosted in an area that will be topographically friendly to calling. In other words, will I be able to position myself in the direction he will want to go after flying off the roost. This generally means uphill of him if he is roosted in big timber, or along a field edge if he is roosted along a creek bottom or the like.
#6 Focus on early morning turkey roosts
Where I hunt, turkeys will typically gobble like crazy on the roost, fly down, gobble long enough to let the hens know where they are, and then shut up for at least an hour as they feed for the morning. Those few gobbles after they hit the forest floor have proven to be some of the most valuable gobbles of the day. I’ve found that the direction a turkey is going immediately off the roost as he gobbles can be the most deadly place I can set up. My goal when scouting a bird like this is to pinpoint the travel route he uses so that I can set up there at first light. This is also useful in hunting turkeys that can be easily bumped from a roost location.
#7 Look for late afternoon gobbling locations
These gobbles can mean a few things. First, and what we hope for the most, is that a gobbler has broken away from hens and is looking for another. With regard to scouting, this can be an opportunity to find a good location to hang a trail camera, specifically if you hear multiple gobbles in one spot. Second, this could be a henned- up turkey that is simply letting his potential intruders know he’s there. Either way, this is a turkey that is giving up his position and is giving you an opportunity for a late morning ambush.
#8 Spend time scouting evening gobbling routines
The legal hunting time ends in Missouri at 1PM. Therefore, gobbling after this time is chalked up to the next day’s hunt. Evening gobbling for the hunter who can legally hunt the afternoon can mean game on. Sometimes, these late afternoon gobbles mean a tom that is beginning his evening ritual of seeking out hens to roost near. For those of us who can’t hunt the evening, this is a chance to suit up, go out, and try to pinpoint where that Tom is roosting for the next morning. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at the spurs of a gobbler that was just this story. A dear friend heard this bird gobbling at 3:00 one afternoon. It continued until nearly dark. The next morning, we went into the area he was gobbling, and with very little calling, I shot the biggest gobbler I had killed to date at 8:30AM.
#9 Scout for turkey roosts
This scouting technique doesn’t seem remarkably valuable, but to know the lay of the area a turkey is roosting can give you an idea of whether or not to pursue a tom immediately at daybreak or wait him out on a travel route or feeding location. It can also shed light on the number of turkeys you are dealing with and the gender of the birds using that area. I’ve also heard it said that a turkey will return to his roost area at some point throughout the morning, or even multiple times through the day. This may be because of the food source he is roosted near or another useful feature of the roosting area.
#10 Observe for turkey hunting success
Commonly used by whitetail hunters, spending time in a non-hunting situation for the purpose of simply observing travel activity can give up a good deal of useful information about the turkeys you will be pursuing. This is also a great time to capture “b-roll” for those hunters who like to film.
#11 Create a turkey hunting scouting log
Before and during turkey season, there are always two items that can be found in my truck; a notepad and a set of binoculars. I’ve been able to identify more patterns using these two tools than any other technique I have used. There is no way I could contain and bring back to the front of memory all of the gobbles, locations, and specific turkeys that I scout throughout the pre-season. Here’s what to record:
- Property you are hunting.
- Location you’ve spotted the bird on the property you’re hunting
- Weather conditions
- How many birds are there?
- Brief description of the direction they went.
- Identify the tom by a name or number
#12 Every gobbler is an individual
Once you have identified a gobbler and settled on going after him, begin taking in everything you can about his roosting site, his feeding locations, hen count, whether or not he is aggressive toward other toms, etc. Not all turkeys will do the same thing the same way every time. That’s what makes turkey hunting the challenge that it is.
#13 Get boots on the ground for turkey scouting
There’s no substitute for on-foot scouting. This is a great opportunity to take a kid or a friend with you and simply look for turkey sign. Droppings, feathers, dust sites, roost trees, etc. Most importantly, physical scouting allows you to see and understand changes to property. The farm I hunt was logged in late 2016. The spring 2017 season is going to bring a whole new set of challenges because of downed trees, tree-tops and so on. These make great places for birds to hang up when calling and to be attacked by hiding predators. Calling a true boss gobbler in is challenging enough when there isn’t a lot of topographical issues, but when there are added challenges, the only way to avoid them is to know they are there.
#14 Wild turkey roosting
This is a technique that I was taught by my grandpa in the same way you may have been. We would get fully suited up for hunting, (minus our guns of course) and go late in the evening to listen for turkeys to fly up into their roost trees. We liked to avoid using an owl hoot or other location call because we wanted to leave the area as undisturbed as we could. From time to time, we would hear a gobbler fire off one last time as he flew up. For grandpa, I think this was just more of a time to enjoy being in the turkey woods, but somehow, he could tell whether or not he was going to be able to work a bird the next morning. Many hunters like to use a locator call to roost a turkey, this can be helpful, but has the potential to do two things, depending on the location of the turkey, can be as deceiving as an early morning roost gobble. Second, if you are hunting public ground, you could actually give the location of a tom away to another hunter.
#15 Get outside
Last but not least get outside. You cannot find Super Tom’s on your couch.
I like to do my homework when it comes to killing big Gobblers in the spring the same way I like to when I’m after big whitetails in the fall. I’m certainly not against filling a tag on an over-zealous two-year old, but killing the one that makes me shake my head in disbelief when I hear him gobble on a frost-covered spring morning, is what keeps me going back year after year.