Turkey Hunting Strategy | Hunting the Terrain
Let’s be honest, nothing about turkey hunting is easy. Despite their small brains, goofy noises and clumsy means of half running, half flying from place to place, turkeys are actually pretty intelligent. Studies have shown the birds are able to recognize one another by their distinct individual voices and many a seasoned outdoorsman has experienced not only turkeys’ inquisitive natures but also their frustrating refusal to cooperate with calling and annoying ability to detect even the slightest movements from well over a few hundred yards away.
For those that just can’t say no to a challenge, spring turkey hunting is perhaps one of the ultimate experiences. From gobbles that seem to shake the very ground they stand on, to the fantastic display of strutting, spitting, drumming and aggression directed at other birds, whether real or imitation – not to mention that other-worldly Old Glory colored head – turkey hunting imparts a thrill unlike any other.
Like most game animals, wild turkeys are creatures of habit. Their basic needs are simple and easily met in the area surrounding their preferred roosting spots: food, water, cover and ample quality habitat conducive to breeding and traveling, since flocks require lots of space. Knowing these needs and how the birds are using your choice turkey hunting spot to meet them, is the first step toward hammering a longbeard this spring.
Locate the roost
First and foremost, you’ve got to know where the birds are. For most hunters, especially those heading afield in the wee hours of the morning or the last few just before dusk, that means knowing where the birds are coming from or returning to – it means knowing where their preferred roosting spots are located.
This means scouting is a must. So, grab your binos, spotting scope and some snacks, and put the birds of your target flock to bed. The best part? If you’ve got all the right equipment, you won’t even have to leave your vehicle.
Plot your path in
Once you’ve located prime roosts, take note of access routes to prime setup spots. Keep in mind, these paths are seldom the most easily traveled, given the importance of getting into position and your decoys set up (often in the dark) without disturbing the still-roosted birds. If you plan to hunt in the evening, it’s important to find a point of entry that’s both easy to navigate and also allows visibility into nearby bottoms, cover and fields that might serve as travel corridors for birds feeding their way back to where they’ll spend the night.
Now that the roost has been identified, how close is too close for setting up? Generally, 80 yards and under is dangerous territory. Not only do you risk the chance of blowing them off the roost, you could also cause the birds to relocate to neighboring properties. Whether or not that’s worth the gamble depends on the situation and the number of birds utilizing the roost location. As the season progresses, for example, it’s not uncommon to find toms bouncing around solo or in pairs while searching for love. Earlier in the season, expect the birds to be spending their time grouped up.
Know the lay of the turkey hunting landscape
No matter where you’re hunting, you’ll want to be familiar with the terrain – routes to and from where you plan to hunt, travel corridors utilized by the birds at different times of day and where food and water sources are in relation to your setup spot – and confident in your ability to use your surroundings to your advantage. In all instances, do what you can to avoid open areas and always hug the cover to help conceal your movements. If the sun is up, walk a little and stop to listen, maybe even use a locator call like owl or crow to see if you can get a shock gobble response.
If you’re going into your spot in the dark, it may be best to avoid sticking tight to cover to reduce the chance of blowing out a roosted bird you didn’t know was there. Too many hunters make this mistake and have no idea the real reason for their lack of success is spooking birds without knowing it. Turkeys have incredible eyesight and they can pick up movements quickly, even from a distance in low-light conditions.
Choose your tactic
Local topography will play a big part in how and where you set up to hunt. Not sure you can haul a blind through that tangle of brush and branches without rousing resting birds from their roost? Don’t. Set up with your back against a tree instead. For this turkey hunting scenario, we’d suggest investing in a technical vest complete with a kickstand and plush padded seat to help you pass the time a bit more comfortably.
Not many trees surrounding the ag land you’re planning to hunt? Throw a blind up a few weeks before the season opens so the animals have time to adjust to its presence (staked down and thoroughly decked out in vegetation pulled from the surrounding landscape, of course), or don a ghillie suit and wait things out on your belly in some tall grass. That said, if time doesn’t allow for your blind to soak on a property, don’t be afraid to pop one up the same day you plan to hunt. While turkeys are extremely intelligent, they are far less blind shy than most big-game animals.
Hunting from a blind?
Ground blinds are incredible tools for hunting turkeys. They help mask movement, are far more comfortable than sitting on the ground and keep you out of the elements. For starters, get the thing set up prior to your first outing. There’s nothing worse than crashing through cover and busting birds while carrying a bulky blind and then waiting out the rest of your sit without seeing a single critter. And don’t forget a folding chair that you’ve tested at least a time or two and won’t mind spending long hours perched atop. Note: It’s best to just leave this in the blind – don’t mess with dragging it in and out if you don’t have to. However, if you’re hunting public land, remember that leaving anything behind is a risk.
Since your aim is to blend into the blind itself, be sure to wear dark camouflage patterns or black clothing and cover as much of your face as possible (go ahead, slather on the face paint); pull your hat down low, your facemask up high and keep your head tilted down so your eyes are hidden. Even though you’re sitting in a blind, that doesn’t prevent your skin from reflecting sunlight penetrating the blind.
Going au naturale?
Setting up along a transition line or with your back against a tree? We recommend sticking with camo that’s appropriate both for the season and your surroundings (a western-inspired pattern in the hardwoods of the East Coast … might want to think twice about that one). Deciding which pattern on the market is the best of the best isn’t worth the time (it’s a Ford-Chevy-Dodge kind of discussion if you ask us); the only wrong decision a turkey hunter could make would be not wearing natural colors that blend with their surroundings.
Little-to-no cover at your disposal?
In every turkey hunting scenario, use the terrain to your advantage – even in places where cover is lacking. When setting up, keep travel corridors in mind. Not only should you have a clear view of your decoy(s), you should also have a clear line of sight to both sides as well.
If you’re not using a blind, try lying prone with your hood up, face covered and elbows at the ready, as you’ll likely be using them in place of shooting sticks. For those that prefer the flexibility and freedom that comes with running and gunning, ‘reaping’ tactics can be successful. Carry a strutter decoy or last year’s turkey fan. Not only are both perfect for keeping your face hidden, but they’ll also entice longbeards on the move at midday, convincing them they’re headed to compete for a chance to breed.
As always, practice safety first. It is strongly recommended hunters do not attempt to reap turkeys on public land. Hunters are shot every year during the season. To keep yourself and others as safe as possible, be sure you’re familiar with your surroundings and never split up with a hunting partner unless you’ve each committed to a game plan.
Don’t overthink the decoys
Whether you’re turkey hunting in the morning or evening, expect the birds to feed toward your decoy setup, either en route to water and other prime feeding locations early in the day or a preferred roosting location closer to turkey-thirty, just before dark.
Here are a few simple tips to keep in mind when planning your turkey decoy setup:
To minimize the risk of the already wary birds detecting any movements you might make, set your decoys beyond your setup location rather than between you and the approaching turkeys. Doing so keeps their focus where it should be – on that perfectly placed hen-jake combo – not on you. Ideally, the birds should walk past you to get to your decoys.
You’ll also want to make sure those decoys are set within reasonable shooting range, or at least your own personal comfort zone. If you’re not interested in taking a poke at a bird that’s more than 20 yards away, it’s best to set your decoys inside that 20-yard stretch. While there are plenty of turkey loads on the market today capable of killing a mature turkey beyond the 70-yard mark (when a properly restricted choke tube is matched with your shot size and you’ve practiced making shots at extreme distances, of course), far more birds are wounded than harvested when hunters shoot past 40 yards. Do your homework before attempting shots like these.
Turkeys can travel in groups or solo, depending on the time of year and time of day. Typically, they’re found in small groups during the spring season when most hunters are pursuing them. To make your decoy spread as convincing as possible, set your dekes so they’re all heading in the same direction and don’t be afraid to lean on Mother Nature a little bit while you’re setting up – wind helps provide some movement to the spread, giving the idea the birds are moving the direction they are facing. This encourages incoming toms to catch up with your group. If there’s cover nearby, try positioning your dekes as if they’re headed that direction.
Decoy types and number of decoys used often depends on where you’re at in the turkey hunting season. Early in the spring season, for example, the tried-and-true hen and aggressive jake pair work wonders. But the closer you get to the end of the season, the less gobblers seem to like the looks of this setup. At this point, the birds have been beaten up plenty of times, potentially shot at or watched a buddy or two shot in a similar setup, causing them to hold at a distance while surveying the situation. Will they still commit? Most likely, though a few hen decoys with no tom or jake dekes is a safer setup. The more pressure birds experience throughout the season, the more effective this tactic is.
Ultimately, the best way to draw live birds into your decoys is to use the most realistic looking fakes you can find. From posture to paint-jobs, the more lifelike your decoys are, the better chance you have of getting some action. Long story short, if you’re able to spend the money, buy the better decoys.
Turkey hunting gear for any situation
A few other items that should make it into your setup site, wherever that might be, include:
- Turkey vests or smaller hunting packs are perfect for getting your must-have turkey hunting gear into the field. Plus, they leave your hands free and ready to pull up on any birds you might encounter while trekking in or out.
- Shooting sticks – Preferably an adjustable, swiveling unit with a wide base, like Vanguard’s Quest Tripod, Bipod and Monopod Combo or their Veo.
- Range finder (or a whole heck of a lot of experience gauging distances the old-fashioned way), just to ensure those decoys are poised at do-able distances within your personal comfort zone.
- Compact binoculars that’ll stand up to rain and slip into an easy-to-access pocket on your vest or pack (a pair of Vanguard’s Orros Waterproof/Fogproof Binoculars with non-slip outer armor work perfectly).