After two months of turkey hunting, my enthusiasm was winding down. I’d hunted earlier in the week without hearing a gobble, and now, on the final day, sitting off a field with Primos Hunting Calls’ Tommy Barham and my friend Rob Copeland, who had yet to kill his first turkey, the situation was no better.
Despite not hearing anything, we set our decoys and alternated calls every 20 minutes. An hour and a half later, three young toms raced into our setup. On a day that had originally held very little hope, my best friend killed his first wild turkey, and I learned that it’s never too late to find success with the right game plan. Here’s how.
1 SPEAK SOFTLY
Keep calling to a minimum and use calls you didn’t use earlier in the season. Barham prefers a tube call. Not only does it allow him to make a full range of hen and tom vocalizations, but it’s a call few hunters use, meaning toms will be less wary of its sound.
Barham recommends calling softly at first with just a few basic yelps. If nothing answers, he’ll run through the series again, lending the calls more volume and a sense of excitement. Then, using the same tube, he responds with a gobble. This works to convince nearby toms–particularly dominant ones–that eager hens and competing males are nearby. For those hunters who have yet to master a tube call, you can perform the same call sequence using a diaphragm to make yelps, then use a gobbler shaker for gobbles.
But don’t overdo it, he warns. “Turkeys aren’t doing a lot of calling at this time of year, so you shouldn’t, either. You want everything to seem as natural to the gobbler as possible,” he says. Instead, Barham remains silent for 10 or 20 minutes, sometimes even longer, before making more calls.
2 USE THOSE DECOYS Many hunters have mixed feelings about decoys, but they’re almost a must in the late season. “When you’re sitting there, not calling a lot, decoys act as a constant visual beacon,” Barham says. They are particularly useful in field setups and open terrain, where turkeys can spot them from far away. While two hens and a jake work best in most setups, H.S. Strut’s Ray Eye suggests that when challenging a tom with gobbler yelps and other male calls, a jake by itself will work fine.
3 BE PATIENT Late-season hunts are notorious for slow action, so don’t expect to go out there and start laying down calls like you’re in a contest. It’s going to take an adjustment in attitude and approach. By the end of the season, there are few properties left where turkeys haven’t been pressured by hunters. As a result, surviving toms are call-shy. With mating season drawing to a close, both hens and gobblers are also less vocal and typically less excited for action. Forget running and gunning for toms; instead, bring a deer hunter’s patience to the woods.
4 TEAM UP Joining forces with a hunting partner is also a great way to score on hard-to-call, late-season turkeys. Toms will often linger just out of shotgun range. To defeat such birds, a silent hunter should sit about 40 to 50 yards in front of the one doing the calling. Barham and I have used this tactic over the years with near-perfect success.
5 PLAY THE PECKING ORDER
A single-note gobbler cluck is a good call to use, since it’s sufficient to let nearby turkeys know you’re there without getting too vocal. In fact, Eye recommends that hunters play to a gobbler’s desire to maintain or increase its position in the pecking order.
“I grew up hunting on national forest land in Missouri, where every day was like hunting late season,” Eye says. “What most hunters don’t realize is that although turkeys may only be interested in mating during a short time each year, they constantly fight and try to reset the pecking order.”
Eye uses gobbler yelps to challenge nearby toms. These yelps are more drawn out, with a slower cadence, though not without some excitement. They don’t have to be raspy, either, Eye says. He’ll also mix in gobbles and what he calls gobbler putts–low-volume, high-pitched putting sounds gobblers make while feeding (not to be confused with a loud, sharp alarm putt).
Other low-key calls include purring softly on a raspy diaphragm or slate to simulate feeding turkeys. Use a stick or your hands to rake leaves on the ground–the sound turkeys make while scratching for food–for added realism. Turkeys will typically rake leaves two or three times before pausing to look at the ground, and then may do it again. Don’t make such a ruckus that you can’t hear an actual bird approaching.
6 MAKE THEM HUNT YOU Bo Pittman, a famed turkey guide whose family owns White Oak Plantation in Alabama, is renowned for his “lack” of calling. His regimen involves scratching out a few calls on his cracked slate and then settling back for a short nap. It isn’t often that his clients return without a close encounter with a longbeard. He scouts religiously, so he knows where the turkeys will be during the day and how to set up near them. “If that turkey heard you, he knows where you are. You don’t need to keep calling,” Pittman says. “Let him come looking for you.”
7 SIT TIGHT
At this time of year, you have to be willing to sit in one place and let the birds work to you. First, you should learn from scouting where turkeys are likely to hang out. Then you can sit with confidence, knowing the chance of a longbeard being nearby is pretty high. Nothing kills a hunter’s patience quicker than hopelessness.
Second, make sure you’re comfortable. Bring a foldout turkey stool topped with an extra cushion like the self-inflating Bun Saver made by H.S. Strut. Besides providing extra cushioning, the seat allows you to sit low, but off the damp ground. Find a large tree to sit against for both comfort and safety. A short, foldout fence blind is perfect for allowing limited movement, such as working a call, without being spotted by a bird. Or maybe you prefer the total concealment of a larger tent-blind.
Plan to sit tight for more than an hour, closer to two. Again, birds are call-shy and slow to work late in the season. Give them plenty of time before getting up. I’ve known hunters to stay in the same spot an entire morning. For those extremely patient few, the reward is often a shot at a tom.
8 WATCH YOUR BACK With turkeys more cautious and less vocal, odds are when one comes into your setup, it’s going to do so quietly. Set up in a way that allows a wide field of view facing the direction from which a turkey is apt to approach. Field and food plot setups are ideal. Not only do turkeys frequent these areas to strut during midday, but the open terrain provides a great place to spot a tom long before it gets into range. Instead of setting up beneath the crest of a ridge, set up where you can see down the slope. Just keep a wide tree behind you to avoid being skylined.
9 LISTEN FOR CLUES Listen for subtle clues that a turkey is approaching. The alarm chatter of a squirrel or blue jay can be a dead giveaway. Also listen for footfalls in leaves. Track a bird’s progress by sound as it walks, and don’t move until it’s wandered into your field of view. Another sound many beginning turkey hunters fail to notice is the spit and drum of a strutting gobbler. It will often be a sharp pffftttt sound–akin to the snapping of a small twig at a distance–followed by a low rolling dmmmmm. Imagine a distant car driving by with its radio blaring and bass set high and you will understand what to listen for. If you hear this sound, a turkey is close–probably less than 75 yards away.
10 FOCUS ON FIELDS
Gobblers like open areas where they can watch for danger and be seen by hens. Seek out hardwood ridges that command a good view or creek bottoms lined with mature trees that bisect clear-cuts. The latter make for ideal strut areas and travel corridors through which birds will move. Logging roads offer easy traveling and good visibility for both turkeys and hunters. And of course, food plots and agricultural fields are ideal.
Fields of short grass provide perfect areas for hens to hunt for insects, their primary diet at this time of year. This makes such places doubly attractive to toms. Clearings planted in clover and chufa are like magnets. Turkeys particularly relish chufa–a grassy plant with small nutlike tubers at the root. For the hunter with the time and tools, it’s well worth the effort to plant food plots that will attract and hold late-season turkeys.