The No-Excuses Turkey Season: How to Make this Spring Hunt Your Best One Yet
Remember all those longbeards you screwed up on last year? Trying to forget, eh? No reason for a repeat, because this spring is going to be your best one yet
Harold Knight once told me that, back in the day, if you messed up on a turkey, you “thought about it a while” because you might not get on another bird for a few days. The legendary call-maker was a turkey hunter back when there weren’t many turkeys to hunt.
But the thing is, I messed up on my share of gobblers just last season—when there were a lot of turkeys to hunt—and I’m still thinking about them. In fact, in 25 years of turkey hunting, I can’t remember a single season during which I didn’t somehow blunder my way right out of a bird or two.
We’re betting that if you’ve spent any time at all chasing turkeys, you’ve probably messed up on a few toms too. Mistakes happen. We won’t say that’s half the fun—but learning from them sure makes you a better hunter. Excuses, like the 15 frequent offenders that follow, don’t teach you much of anything—and they pretty much guarantee making the same mistake again. —W.B.
1. They’re not gobbling, so I’m not going.
By my best tally, I’ve shot, or seen shot, 39 gobblers in the past three seasons in Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, and Nebraska. Some were on prime private ground, while others were on the most pressured public stuff you can imagine. Seventeen of them were classics that came in gobbling, strutting, and acting the way we think turkeys should. Ten were killed by crawling to them across an open field behind a fan or reaping decoy. Calling probably played a hand in all the other encounters, but the birds came in silently.
That’s a bunch of dead turkeys that supposedly didn’t play the game.
I’ve listened to some good hunters and, recently, a biologist speculate that our ever-evolving tactics are indirectly breeding a quieter bird. That makes sense. Some turkeys gobble more than others, and gobbling turkeys are easier to kill. You don’t have to poll too many public-land elk hunters to get the sense that bulls don’t come screaming in to bugles these days as often as they used to either. Yet people still manage to fill elk tags, same as turkey tags.
Turkeys are diurnal (i.e., daytime critters), so even when they’re not gobbling, they are moving about. On a quiet morning, many hunters want to “go fire one up!”
Yet when nothing is answering, running and gunning usually turns to running and spooking. A quiet morning is the best time of all to set up near good sign, do some blind calling, and have patience. This doesn’t have to mean just a cluck here and there either. Call aggressively for a few minutes, be quiet for a half hour, and then try it again. If you’re fairly sure turkeys are around, stay with it for a couple of hours or more. Most of the birds you kill like this will slip in silently, but every now and then one will belt out a gobble—and all of a sudden you’ve got a classic turkey hunt on your hands. —W.B.
2. I missed.
You’ve got your gun tricked out with a red-dot sight and an Extra-Full turkey choke, and with that $10 shell, it’s supposedly deadly at 70 yards. Now it’s opening day, and you’ve got a tom strutting in to your setup. He gets inside 60 yards and…boom. You shoot. He flies off.
What the heck?
As turkey guns, chokes, and loads are now designed to be more effective at longer ranges, hunters want to shoot birds at longer ranges—often without practicing or really understanding the downrange ballistics of their loads. When was the last time you took your turkey gun to the range just to train for 70-yard shots? Besides that, most of us suck at judging distances beyond 30 yards, especially in an open field. Was that tom really at 60 yards? Or was it more like 68?
Even with a dialed-in turkey-specific rig, the best range at which to kill a tom is still about 30 yards. So, when that strutter is coming in, enjoy the show and let him come. —A.R.
3. He was coming in and then left as soon as he saw my jake decoy.
Some turkeys just don’t want to fight, and you’re taking a chance on spooking one any time you deploy a jake or gobbler decoy. Learn to read an incoming tom’s body language. Full strut and a white head are good. If a gobbler looks like that, he’s comfortable and probably about to open a Sam’s Choice–size can of whoop-ass. Kill him once your decoy has taken a sufficient beating. Conversely, a tom that’s “slicked down” with a bright-red head is intimidated, nervous, or both. You might get him to stand and gobble, but he’s probably not coming in for a fight. If he’s in range, shoot.
Generally speaking, you’ll have better luck with jake and tom decoys earlier in the season, while pecking orders are still being established. In the final days, switch to hens only or, if you’re hunting in the woods, no decoy at all. —W.B.
4. It’s too cold and snowy.
Last year, my Minnesota turkey season opened with about 6 inches of snow on the ground and temps in the teens. In a week of scouting before the season, I hadn’t heard a single gobble, but turkey tracks in the snow told me where a flock of about 20 birds was hanging out. I got on them opening morning, but the toms ignored my calling and my decoy. Same thing on the second morning. On the third, I backed off the roost and got between the turkeys and a private cornfield where I’d seen them head the previous two days. About an hour and a half after fly-down, two toms came charging in, gobbling like mad, and I killed one of them just before he started harassing my hen decoy. It was a sunny 35 degrees.
Hunting in winter weather can be miserable if you’re expecting springtime turkey behavior. Turkeys in a winter pattern roam around in big flocks, and they usually don’t care much about your calling or decoys. But they’re super predictable. They generally roost in the same spot every night and feed in the same places every day. Pinpoint their winter roost (just follow the tracks in the snow until they all congregate at an obvious roost area) without blowing them out, and you’ll have a good chance of killing a tom as he slinks by.
And when the weather does warm up, even by 10 degrees, you’d better be out there. On the first sunny morning after a bitter-cold week, you’ll likely have your most exciting hunt of the season. —A.R.
5. He was flying, so I couldn’t shoot.
A few springs ago, my wife, Michelle, and I were set up at the base of a limestone bluff working a tom that was mostly uninterested. After a half-hour of silence, we stood to leave—and a turkey flushed from off the bluff behind us and sailed over our heads, treetop high. I noticed a red head and beard, and thought to myself, I could’ve killed that bird had I been ready.
No sooner did that thought form than I heard the thud of wings, and the bird’s twin brother embarked on the same flight plan. I swung my gun, pulled the trigger, and watched him spiral through blooming tulip poplars like an 18-pound shuttlecock. The thump on the ground took the flop right out of him.
I haven’t shot a ton of gobblers out of the air, but I have killed four or five. Their top flight speed is about the same as a mallard duck’s, and they’re bigger, so it’s not particularly difficult. There are really only two major rules: Don’t shoot unless there’s a clear view of the head, and don’t get so rattled that you stop your swing. Wattles, beak, bang. —W.B.
6. He gobbled 100 times on the limb, then flew down and never made another peep.
A lot of hunters think that turkeys fly down and then immediately start walking off. That’s rarely what happens, says Shane Simpson, four-time Minnesota state calling champion and owner of CallingAllTurkeys.com. When a gobbler hits the ground, he might preen, scratch, and strut for an hour or more before going anywhere. If you hear hens talking, try calling to them, Simpson says. If everything is quiet, stay quiet yourself. The gobbler knows where you are, and he may be coming in—slowly. Get comfortable for the wait, but keep your gun ready. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood up too early and spooked a tom at the edge of shotgun range, just looking,” Simpson says.
After 45 minutes, call to the bird again, but make it interesting. Try some cutts and excited yelps. Those sudden sounds will often surprise a tom into gobbling, which will at least give up his position. —A.R.
7. Jakes keep running off the toms.
I run into this most often when I’m hunting Rio and Merriam’s gobblers in open country, but it can happen with any of the subspecies. Jakes find safety in numbers, and groups of them will amass to terrorize every other turkey in the neighborhood, especially adult toms. If you’re using strutter or jake decoys, the mob will run right into the setup, leaving interested longbeards to strut on the periphery. Once those jakes are in your spread, the odds of getting a longbeard into the decoys are usually slim—so, if he’s strutting within gun range, kill him.
Otherwise, there’s little you can do besides wait, let all the turkeys drift away, and make a new setup on the longbeard. One afternoon in Kansas, I called up seven jakes and a lone longbeard three different times. Each time, the jakes beat the gobbler to the setup, and he would hang back and strut just out of range. Finally, they drifted into an open pasture, and the jakes temporarily lost interest in aggravating the tom. Through my binocular, I watched the longbeard work into a cottonwood drainage 1,000 yards away. I made a wide circle, set up at the head of that drainage, and scratched out a few notes on a box call. Within minutes, that tom came running in, silently, and I killed him. When I went to pick him up, the jakes were standing in the pasture 100 yards away, rubbernecking. They were on their way to fight that tom again. They just weren’t quite fast enough to save him. —W.B.
8. They never gobble at my crow call.
Stop me if you’ve heard this: Gravel pops under tires. A truck engine shuts off. Caww, caww, caww. Silence. Door slams shut. Truck starts. Gravel pops under tires. The sequence repeats itself in five minutes a mile down the road.
I wouldn’t say crow calls are inherently ineffective (although I’ve never had much luck with them). But they do seem to bring out the half-ass in people who don’t want to walk more than 10 yards from the truck to strike a bird. If that’s your routine, though, keep after it because you’re leaving plenty of gobblers behind for the rest of us. —W.B.
9. I struck a bird, and he busted me before I could sit down.
Last spring, in Texas, I was easing along a sendero in the middle of the day, hitting a call every few hundred yards. A Rio gobbled and sounded a mile away. I moved ahead 50 yards and was searching for a thorn-free bush to lean against when the turkey gobbled again, right on top of me, before popping into view at 30 yards. He was gone before I could get my gun off my shoulder.
I’ve had to relearn this lesson a few times: Don’t make a turkey sound unless you’re looking at a good place to sit down right away, because things can unfold in a hurry. And for Eastern hunters traveling West, Rio and Merriam’s toms have a high-pitched gobble that often makes them sound farther away than they actually are. Moreover, these subspecies cover a lot of ground in a day, and so they aren’t shy about running 300 yards to get to you.
I guess you could try a crow call to locate them too. —W.B.
10. Public land is way too crowded.
If you bumped into too many other hunters on public land last year, find the best-looking farms in your area on a mapping app, and then drive around on a Saturday afternoon before the season opener and ask for permission to hunt those spots. Make it clear that you only want permission to hunt turkeys (you’ll be long gone by deer season), you won’t be hunting with a big group, and you won’t rut up the fields. I bet you’ll land at least one in 10 of those spots—probably more. Why? People might pick up the phone and call these days, but not as many are willing to knock on doors and shake hands. With many farmers, that goes a long way.
If you swing by after the hunt with a thank-you card and a case of beer, I bet you’ll gain permission on that farm for years to come too. —A.R.
11. Sucker hung up behind the swimming pool.
That happened to me while I was hunting near the edge of an Oklahoma City suburb. The bird was wild, but he liked to strut in an HOA-approved yard in the shade of a swimming pool. On another morning, in eastern Nebraska, I had a turkey hang up behind an amphitheater. The property was owned by the Boy Scouts, and that amphitheater was used for deep-woods storytelling. I got a bird in both places.
One lesson here is that turkeys will hang up on an obstacle such as a fence, creek, swimming pool, or amphitheater. But you know that already. The better lesson is that not every setup can be found in a textbook—sometimes you have to roll with what you’re given. A gobbler might not want to cross a creek or leave the swimming pool to come to you—but if he’s anxious enough, he might do it anyway. Any gobbling turkey is killable, so stick with him. —W.B.
12. The Season opens too late.
You’ve been listening to turkeys gobble for a couple of weeks prior to opening day. Then, when you finally get to hunt, it’s dead quiet. It’s easy to believe the turkeys are all finished talking for the year.
The reality is many states set their seasons around two gobbling peaks. The first happens in the early spring, when winter flocks are first breaking up. Biologically speaking, it’s important for this peak to occur with minimal disturbance because it’s when a lot of the actual breeding takes place. Traditionally, turkey biologists in many states try to set the hunting season late enough so that at least half of the hens are on the nest by opening day. That’s necessary to maintain good turkey production.
Once those hens are on the nest and the toms get lonely, the second gobbling peak occurs. That’s during hunting season in a perfect world—but sometimes the first week of the season falls in the lull between the two peaks. Good news is, I’ve never seen a slow early season that wasn’t followed by at least some uptick in the gobbling action later on.
Of course, poor weather, turkey numbers, and hunting pressure all play a hand in how much gobbling you hear. But the chances of the turkeys being “done” before your season opens are basically zero. —W.B.
13. All of my gobblers are dead.
One season, I scouted out a bunch of public-land spots and found so many gobblers that it seemed too good to be true. It was. On opening day, other hunters were all over my turkeys. Spots that were full of action went dead quiet—because the turkeys were dead. I finally shot a tom after wading through a hip-deep swamp to get to a hardwood ridge that no one else seemed willing to access.
Lesson learned: Anticipate pressure and leave the easy turkeys for everyone else. When you find a beautiful field on public land that’s within walking distance of the road, don’t even bother hunting it. If you get midway into your season and find that all of your turkeys are gone, throw your game plan out the window and go scouting. Don’t burn a morning in the same old blind when you could be out striking fresh birds on new ground.
It doesn’t hurt to keep a pair of waders in the truck either. —A.R.
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14. I’m not sitting in the dang rain.
On opening-day eve in Kentucky last season, I glassed two strutters in a food plot and got pretty excited. I knew some rain was in the forecast—but I didn’t expect that food plot to be navigable by bass boat the following morning. An overnight deluge had caused the creeks to jump their banks, and the rain was still coming down.
But still, it was opening morning. I pulled on some raingear and went hunting. Around 9 a.m., there was a short break in the wash, and a turkey gobbled. I called him in to 50 yards, where he hung up out of sight and eventually drifted away. I didn’t kill a bird that day and had to run my clothes through the dryer, but it beat sitting on the couch and complaining.
Fact is, if you’re only going out on the warm, clear mornings, you’re missing out on a lot of good turkey hunting. It rains in the spring. But even the nastiest days usually have a lull or two that lasts long enough to call up a gobbler. —W.B.
15. All of this gear is too expensive for me.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to hunt with turkey legend Ray Eye. I met him in the dark that first morning, and when the sun came up, I saw that he was wearing a gray Mickey Mouse T-shirt and a vest that looked to be older than I was. It turns out that Ray didn’t happen to land a camo sponsorship that year, so he thought, Screw it, I’ll wear this Mickey Mouse shirt for all my hunts. Plus, Ray really likes Disney World. And that spring, just like every spring before it, Ray piled up a whole mess of turkeys.
The point? You don’t need a bunch of expensive gear to be a successful turkey hunter. If you think a new camo pattern, decoy, or gun is going to make the difference this season, you’re thinking about it all wrong. Spend less time obsessing over gear and more time in the woods. Walk slow, be quiet, and listen. You’ll shoot more birds. —A.R.
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