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When the warm breath of spring cloaks the thawing earth with a welcome dose of vitality, a hunter’s thoughts naturally turn to images of strutting toms and thunderous gobbles that split the morning like the firmament splits the earth and sky. Ask any die-hard turkey hunter her opinion of this season and the response will be virtually universal: this is what we live for!
The beauty of the spring hardwoods, the scent of freshly turned soil, and the sight of turkeys dotted against the backdrop of new growth is more than enough to make hunting these majestic birds worthwhile, but let’s face it: bagging a big spring tom is really where the rubber meets the road. When a hunter successfully sends a well-placed arrow or perfectly aimed load of number five shot into a gobbler, well, it’s definitely the coup de gras.
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to take spring turkeys in a variety of states including: Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Texas. Likewise, I’ve also missed my chances to bag birds in a number of states. And through all of these experiences, I have discovered some tricks of the trade that just might help you to fill your tag on a big spring turkey this year. My top ten favorites are listed below:
1. Scout early and scout as often as you can. There is no substitute for knowing where the turkeys are, what their routine is likely to be throughout the day, and how and where they travel. Key in on the basics: roost trees, feeding areas, and strut zones. Even if you do nothing else, this is the most important element to consistently filling your tag.
2. Practice using a variety of calls. I recommend that hunters become competent with and carry several different calls with them in the woods. Personally, I like box calls, slate or glass calls with wood and acrylic strikers, and mouth diaphragms. With this variety, you can produce a number of variations in terms of pitch and volume, have the option of calling hands-free, and also call effectively rain or shine.
3. Use a blind or natural cover to conceal movement whenever possible. The more concealed you are, the more likely it will be that you can change positions or move into an optimal shooting position without detection. This is particularly important for bow hunters, but also an overlooked advantage for gun hunters.
4. Use binoculars. I cannot even count the number of times that scouting with binoculars while hunting has revealed birds, their direction of travel, and the potential route I might take to get into position for a set-up. Often I have discovered tight-lipped toms following hens through distant fields and been able to sprint ahead and intercept them for a shot. It’s been said that a hunter can’t shoot what she can’t see but with binoculars, at least 50% of that equation is addressed.
5. Let your calling mirror the mood of the bird you are calling to. In other words, if you are working a fired-up tom that gobbles and advances every time you call, call aggressively with lots of excited cutts and yelps. On the other hand, if you are calling to a gobbler that delays his response to your calls and is not readily advancing toward your position, drop the tone and frequency of your calling. Focus more on clucks, purrs, and softer yelps. This more subtle approach may just be enough to convince the gobbler that you are a real hen and bring him in for a shot.
6. Just because a tom gets quiet, don’t assume he isn’t coming. Too often, a hunter grows short on patience and assumes that the bird she was working has lost interest and left. Unless you can confirm that the bird is moving away from you, your best bet is to assume he is on the way. Sit tight, revert to soft yelps, and don’t move! Many times, a gobbler will sneak in silently and crane his head above the foliage to find the hen. When he does, you will be ready with one well-placed shot.
7. Where regulations permit, hunt in the afternoon. If you haven’t bagged your turkey in the morning, don’t despair. Although hunting gobblers off the roost can be truly exhilarating, hunting afternoon turkeys that are feeding their way back to a roost area can be highly productive. Get set up in a location close to where turkeys are known to roost and subtly call every ten minutes of so. Also, scratch the leaves and purr like a feeding hen. As toms walk through the area they will typically come to your location to check it out. Be ready and this could be your chance.
8. Prepare for long shots. Knowing your limits is important in every aspect of hunting and turkey hunting is no exception. Still, if you have an opportunity to practice longer shots before the season and become proficient at stretched ranges, it is definitely to your advantage. For example, being able to take an ethical and lethal 50 yard shot, as opposed to only a 30 or 40 yard shot, will enable a hunter to increase her odds at taking a bird…especially later in the season when turkeys have become more cautious.
9. Use camouflage, especially on the hands, face, and neck. Everyone who has hunted turkeys knows of the legendary eyesight of these amazing birds. And, when it comes to concealment on a critter that can see as well as a wild turkey, the devil is in the detail, so this is not the place to cut corners. My own approach is that if it glares, shines, or contrasts the colors of the terrain in any way, it gets covered in camo. That goes for everything from my face, hands, socks, the gun or bow that I carry, to even removing or covering my earrings. I leave virtually nothing to chance and my advice to any would-be turkey hunter is that you follow suit.
10. Hunt as often as you can. In my experience, the single best way to improve your odds of both taking a turkey and advancing your hunting skills from year to year is to hunt as often as you can. Don’t be afraid to try different techniques, to make mistakes, or to push the envelope from time to time. The wild turkey that eludes you is a far better teacher than the bird that ends up in the back of your hunting vest after a few hours in the woods. Learn the lessons that nature provides and you will become a more successful gobbler hunter this year and every year in the future.
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