If you watch hunting shows on television, you see hunters consistently taking turkeys with ease, almost without fail. That’s not reality, folks. Far more turkey hunts end up with no bird. What you see on TV is seriously edited footage, with the tapes of unsuccessful hunts tossed in the wastebasket. There are plenty of reasons you might go home without a gobbler–poor judgment, ignorance, carelessness or just plain bad luck, to name a few.
Having hunted the big birds in 18 states and completed three slams, I’ve learned through experience that there is no single key to success. Every hunt is different, and many times I’ve wanted to kick myself for making a dumb mistake. Here are 10 common errors I’ve made and have observed others make in the turkey woods.
1 BEING IMPATIENT
How many times have you gotten up from your calling site and spooked a bird that was headed your way? I’ve had that happen more times than I care to remember. It’s tough deciding when enough is enough. If I’m in a good spot, I discipline myself to sit for at least 30 minutes, more if I feel confident. That’s not to say that if you’d given it one more minute, you’d have killed the bird that sneaked in on you, but staying longer is better than leaving too soon.
2 MOVING TOO QUICKLY
Plenty of turkeys live to see another day because a hunter raised his gun too quickly or waited until the bird was in full view. When the bird is approaching, get your gun up and poised long before you can see the gobbler. If you’re concerned about holding a heavy gun for a long period, rest it on a special knee brace that straps to your leg.
Never sit where a tree in front of you is so close that it obstructs the swing of your gun. If a bird comes in from the right, and your barrel is on the left side of a tree, you’ll have to raise the gun, clear the tree and take aim. Not good.
3 CROWDING THE ROOST
If you’re lucky enough to roost a bird in the evening, mark the spot well so you can find it in the dim pre-dawn light. When you return in the morning, don’t use a flashlight if you can help it, and don’t approach the tree so closely that the bird can see you. Closer is better, but not if the bird spots you. If you can get within 100 yards, count yourself lucky, though there are places where that’s too close.
4 NOT SETTING UP
Many birds are survivors because the hunter called without being in a setup position. It’s common to try calling when you’re walking along to strike a bird. It’s about then that a gobbler will respond from so close he’ll rattle your teeth. If you want to run and gun, find a nearby place where you can plop down quickly and be ready to shoot within 10 seconds or less.
5 CALLING OVER BARRIERS
Turkeys don’t like to cross obstructions to respond to calls. That includes creeks, small steep draws, fences or extremely thick patches of brush. Many times you’ll be in an area unfamiliar to you and unaware of the terrain and obstacles. Scouting helps you to learn the country. If you’re calling to a roosted bird, be on the same side of the fence or creek he’s on. If he hangs up because of an obstacle, make a careful move and get on his side if you can.
6 CALLING TOO MUCH
Birds might be turned off by excessive calling, especially at the roost tree. It’s tempting to pour it on as the gobbler responds, but a few soft tree yelps are best. At the roost, continue calling softly until he flies down and makes a commitment. If he turns away, increase your calling.
I like to match the gobbler call for call if he’s hot, but when he begins to make an approach, I shut up and let him find me. I believe in calling softly using timid tones, rather than loudly and aggressively, although there are times when the latter is necessary. Strong wind, hesitant birds and distant gobblers may require louder calling.
7 BEING POORLY CAMOED
Wear camo from your nose to your toes. Try to match the pattern with the foliage and forest type, and always wear a head net or face paint. Be aware of a shiny watch or a gun barrel or a shiny stock that glints, and be sure your white socks aren’t in sight.
Any exposed patches of skin should be covered, or you can bet that a turkey will spot it. The late Charlie Elliott, a longtime writer for OUTDOOR LIFE, once told me that if you’re not wearing gloves, you might as well be waving flags when you move your hands.
8 MISSING THE SHOT
To the inexperienced, missing a big target like a turkey at 30 yards seems almost impossible, but it happens far too often, and to veteran hunters as well as beginners. Pattern your shotgun before you go, and be aware that most guns will shoot somewhat high. For that reason, aim just where the neck meets the breast, and never shoot when the bird is strutting or moving. Wait until he stops and sticks his head up. You can make him do that with a sharp cluck. Never try a body shot.
9 QUITTING TOO SOON
Many hunters figure the best hunting is over by midmorning and head for camp, especially if it’s hot and the woods are silent. That’s a serious mistake, since gobblers might become more responsive as the hens leave them to head for their nests. Hunt all day and never give up (but be aware that in some states you must quit at noon). You never know when a lonely gobbler will be interested in your call.
10 NOT NOTICING BIRDS
A silent gobbler may come at you from an unexpected direction. Choose your calling site so you have the maximum view of the area around you, and always be on guard for a quiet bird. Turn your head slowly if you must; it’s best to cast your eyes about from side to side. Before you leave your calling site, look all around very, very carefully.
FIRING LANES When you establish a calling site, be sure there are no trees, saplings or branches immediately in front of you. When a bird gets close, you want to be able to swing your barrel without hitting any obstructions; otherwise, you might have to maneuver the gun awkwardly, drawing attention to your position.
Scopes for Turkey Hunting
Some people question the need for a scope on a shotgun when turkey hunting. Unlike in other forms of shotgun hunting, where you swing with the target or point and shoot in front of it, the shot on a turkey must be precise. Scopes allow pinpoint shot placement and also aid quick identification of a gobbler if you want to size up his beard. Plus, some hunters wear bifocal or trifocal glasses, which can make it difficult to line up the sight(s) on a shotgun. The acceptable aiming point is about 8 to 10 inches below the tom’s head where the neck meets the breast, since shot patterns tend to fly high. Never take a body shot.