Scouting and Calling
Author: Frank Ross
Someone once said that in Spring, hope springs eternal. I'm not sure who said it, but they must have been a turkey hunter.
Any turkey hunter, pursuing these wily birds on public land, has to be an eternal optimist with a heart filled with hope. The recovery of wild turkey populations is one of the greatest rags to riches success stories in America, but bagging one on public land is a test of persistence, planning and perseverance.
While more birds roam the woods now than at any time in our nation's history, the number of hunters is also on the increase. The secret is out. Turkey hunting in the spring is a lot of fun, and everyone wants to get in on the action. If you want to fill the tag you have in your hunting vest, here are a few techniques to consider.
Depending upon the weather in your particular local, and the state of readiness in both the hens and gobblers, calling will be met with varying results. In the early days of the season, when weather is warm and birds are starting to get fired up, not all birds will be in full swing. Some gobblers will be tuned up and working hard, while others will be just coming into the cycle, and others will be call shy from previous experience. A lot of other hunters will be walking the woods with the same expectations as yourself.
Curiously enough, what you do before the season will have as much effect on tagging a bird as what you do after opening day. The most important thing you can do to lay the foundation for a successful turkey hunt is scouting. It's a great time to be out in the woods, and what you can learn from walking and looking for sign will be invaluable when opening day dawns bright and clear. When the sun comes up on that important day, you want to be in the strutting grounds of a gobbler, not wondering where to start looking.
You should start scouting at least two weeks before the season, but not much earlier than that because their daily schedule will change as the weather continues to warm and food sources develop.
When scouting, look for feathers, scratched over areas, and droppings on the ground as well as in the trees. Gobbler feathers are a glossy bronze color with a black edge, while hen feathers are duller and have a brown bar. Gobbler tracks will be larger (3-1/2 to 4-inches) than that of a hen, and their droppings will vary as well. A gobbler's droppings will be elongated and sometimes have a hook at the end. Hens dropping are found in a small pile. Large scratched over areas indicate hens and juvenile birds, and smaller individual scrapes are usually made by gobblers.
Once you've found an area that turkey are frequenting, you need to figure out where they are spending the night. Look for tall trees with the telltale white markings of numerous droppings, near their feeding site. You want to be close to their roost at least a half-hour before daylight.
Gobblers are an interesting lot. They will tell you exactly where they are if you ask. Owl, crow, screaming peacock, pileated woodpecker calls and even coyote howlers are excellent for locating birds, but sometimes "Cutting" is the only way to get a big bird to gobble. The only way to be sure of what works is to try several. Just don't over use these locator calls or you will do more damage than good. When you enter the area that you have scouted, have your hunting partner stand about twenty yards behind you so that he will be able to hear clearly when you call.
With the blast of your call ringing in your ears, it is often difficult to hear the distant response of a roosting gobbler. Shock gobbling a flock will tell you where they are and how to approach them. You also need to keep in mind that when you get a response, there may be other hunters that hear "your" gobbler sound off. The more locating you do, the better picture you will be providing other hunters as well.
Once you've located your birds, it's simply a matter of setting up your decoys
and bringing them to the ruse. Judging the distance to that anxious gobbler can be difficult at best. If your locator call is answered with the gobbler sitting on a limb and facing away from you, it will sound like he is further away. Once he flies down, his calls will be muted and muffled by brush and trees that effect the sound. When making your initial approach, you need to get as close as possible before setting up. Get as close as you can without spooking the birds, but remember as you approach, your quarry is up in a tree and can see movement much further than you can. Once you move in close, you'll want to start "Cutting", but be prepared to set up quickly when you get a response.
Calling Them Closer
There are just about as many ways to call turkeys as there are callers. All require practice. Don't wait until the night before the season to start. In the early days, wing bone, slate and box calls were the only options.
In recent years, diaphragm calls have become the optimal way to deliver a wide variety of tones and inflections while keeping your hands on your gun.
Some hunters have a problem with getting used to the placement of diaphragm calls, but once you've mastered the technique, you'll be well on your way to bagging that prized bird. Numerous tapes, both audio and video, teach the technique, but the bottom line is -you have to put one in your mouth and experiment until you've figured it out. Several weeks prior to opening day, I put my calls in my pocket and call in my truck on the way to and from work. The use of my mobile sound studio not only gives me twice daily practice, it also keeps me out of hot water at home. About two days before the season, I start calling in the basement, and by opening day my bride is glad to see me go hunting.
Several types of diaphragm calls include multiple and split reeds and all of them produce a slightly different tonal quality. You might want to try out several types of calls to see which one you have the most confidence in. When you make that first call, it should be one that you are comfortable with and confident that it will sound right the first time.
When the curtain comes up, practice is over - it's show time and your reviews will come by way of an aggressive gobbler drumming in your face or a decided lack of action.
An important thing to remember is be patient. If you get a bird to respond, and then don't hear anything for a few minutes that doesn't mean he isn't coming. These birds are by nature slow and methodical. It takes them a while to negotiate the terrain and competing hens may also be vying for his attention.
Certainly it will be difficult to draw an active gobbler away from a flock of amorous hens, but it can be done. The most important factor is how far he will have to come, but another important variable is the time of day. After a morning of breeding activity, hens tend to wander off, and spurn the repeated affections of gobblers with raging hormones. When hens begin to wander, generally mid morning, you will often find a lonesome and vulnerable gobbler that is anxious to explore new relationships and add another hen to his harem.
Careful, cautious, hunting and good calling techniques can often stir up gobblers that are bored with their existing opportunities. Sometimes you can call hens in, and have the gobblers follow, but that is a little more difficult than calling in a lovesick gobbler. It is also complicated by the fact that hens are more wary, and with their exceptional eyesight, you'll have to be very still and well camouflaged or hidden by a good blind to avoid detection.
Regardless of what happens following that first series of calls, you will be improving your odds with each passing moment as you continue to stalk, call and learn what opportunities these birds will present. The hunter that is successful, will most often be prepared with good pre-season scouting, a thorough knowledge of the area being hunted, and confidence in the calls being used. For the latter, there is no substitute for practice and no time like the present to start.
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Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.
When he's not out hunting down another interesting story, Frank can be found near his home in western Nebraska where he now spends most of his time guiding his two sons and teaching them how to be successful in the field. "It's part of the responsibility we all have as outdoorsmen, to share what we have learned and pass on the passion. I take the same tact when approaching a story.... how can I help someone be better at what they love to do?"
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