Frustrated spring turkey hunters have a way of gathering like a flock of fall poults coming to each other's calls, sharing coffee and tales of woe until anecdotes become hard-and-fast laws of the woods.
Many, if not most, of the problems hunters have harvesting a bird can be solved, according to legendary hunter Ray Eye, by spending more time in the woods than the cafe.
Pre-season scouting can allow you to nail down the tendencies of the birds on the land you will hunt, and hunting with a "scouting mindset" will allow you to adjust when those tendencies change.
"Excuses are the biggest thing that's wrong with turkey hunters," says Eye, not known for mincing words. "You hear every excuse in the book when guys aren't filling their tags. But if they knew those birds better, they could hunt them no matter what stage of the breeding season it is."
Eye admits that it can get more difficult to call toms in when it's the peak of the breeding season and the birds are "henned up," as they say. It's tough to sell that big gobbler on the idea that you're the one when he already has four girlfriends in tow. But again, if you know the travel tendencies of a group of birds, you can get ahead of them, call, and often get that tom to come over and check you out.
"I spend much more time scouting than I do hunting," says Eye, who manages 8,000 acres of prime Missouri turf for hunts that include writers and broadcasters. "I get in the woods and live with those birds for weeks before the season starts."
The turkey hunting excuse Eye cringes at more than any other is the idea that the turkeys are "call-shy" after a few days or weeks of the season. "There is no such thing as a call-shy turkey," he says. "Why would a turkey shy away from another turkey? They don't know that we have calls that imitate them. How could they know that? Guys will hear a turkey gobble on the tree, set up on him, call to him, and the bird flies down and walks away, and now he's automatically call-shy?
"What the guy doesn't know is that tom has been flying down and walking off the end of that ridge for 22 days in a row, and he's just doing what he's been doing all spring. Sure, if a person doesn't sound like a turkey, that turkey isn't going to come to it, but it's because he doesn't know what it is, not because he's call-shy."
Eye backs up his claim by going into hard-hunted public grounds, and wearing out some shoe leather to find out where the toms have been spooked off to. "People who hunt public ground are banging around in the open, crashing through the trees, walking around skylighted, and slamming their car doors," he says. "And then they complain because the birds are call-shy. They aren't call shy. They're still out there, and they'll gobble, and they'll come to you if you sound like a turkey. But you have to go find where they're at. We do it all the time. We kill state (public land) birds all the time."
There really isn't a magic bullet when it comes to pre-season scouting, in Eye's book. He is simply careful, always using the terrain to hide his movements as he checks out the woods. He often glasses areas from a distance at many times of day, noting the time when birds are out strutting in certain openings. In this way, he can chart the tendencies of the birds, and know when they might be approaching a given strutting ground, even if he doesn't know where they fly up. He dictates notes into a tape recorder in his truck, then transcribes them into a scouting notebook back at his base camp.
And, contrary to many hunters' ways, he calls aggressively to birds, on the land he will hunt, prior to the season.
"Calling to the turkeys, getting them to gobble, is the best way to count birds on your land," Eye maintains. "You can call 'em up and let 'em walk away, call 'em up and videotape 'em, whatever you want. If they get spooked, they don't know what you are. You're a coyote or a dog or something. If they get spooked, they aren't going to stop coming to calls. They have to come to calls if they're going to get together and breed."
Because he calls to birds ahead of the season, Eye often correctly predicts which birds are going to be the first to be bagged (they appear very receptive and willing to gobble). And because he watches groups of birds from fly-down in the morning through the early afternoon, he knows where they go, what they do, and where they end up at different times. Armed with this knowledge - and a philosophy that includes calling aggressively regardless of what anybody says about the current mindset of the turkeys he brings many hunts to a happy conclusion, for himself and his guests.
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