It’s opening weekend of spring turkey season. Anticipation runs high as you quietly walk through the woods along an old farm road in the dark of predawn. Every day this week you scouted this 100-acre farm and heard no less than three toms gobble each morning. One day you heard six different toms. Another, you left the woods with two toms gobbling and drumming less than 50 yards away, just over the crest of a hill. Today you’ve got all morning to hunt, and weather conditions are perfect for toms to gobble: clear sky, warm and no wind. Moreover, not once during the week did you spook birds. They haven’t been pressured.
You ease into the pasture field, where twice this week you saw toms strutting, and set out a pair of decoys. Then you settle in at wood’s edge with your back against a big black oak. As the east sky brightens, a barred owl calls. You tense with excitement and wait for a tom to answer. None does.
It’s now light enough for toms to gobble on their own, but the only birds calling are songbirds. A crow flies over and lets loose a raucous caw; no toms answer. For more than an hour you sit, calling now and again—but nothing. It’s like the toms have vanished. What’s happened? Sometimes, even under ideal conditions, toms just don’t gobble. Some hunters call it quits when toms refuse to sound off. Yet on quiet days, chances are excellent that toms you heard gobble just days before are still within hearing distance of your calls. What’s the most effective way to hunt toms on days they don’t gobble? Here are some tips.
Small farms of 100 acres or so that offer a mix of pasture fields, row crops and small woods plots can offer phenomenal turkey hunting. They are, however, delicate resources. The open terrain makes it easy for turkeys to spot you and spook if you are up and moving. That’s the last thing you want to do if your only turkey-hunting spot is a small farm. Here’s why.
Compare the response of wild turkeys to humans and other predators. If wild turkeys see a human 200 yards away, they typically run or fly off—major spooked. If they see a bobcat or a coyote, even 50 yards away, often all turkeys do is stand alert and watch. If a coyote in hiding makes a rush at a flock of turkeys next to a woods lot, turkeys may just fly up in the trees, maybe no more than 20 yards from the coyote. That’s not the response if a human steps out. Though a wild turkey’s brain is no bigger than a walnut, they know the difference between humans and other predators. Wild turkeys perceive humans as predator supreme, and they do all in their power to avoid us.
If you spook turkeys several times—or maybe just once—they will change their routines.
Telemetry studies in Missouri show that the home territory of wild turkeys varies by season and ranges from about 240 to 2,000 acres. This means that if you are hunting on a small farm and you disrupt the pattern of the turkeys using it, at best they will change their pattern and become a little more wary but still be on the farm. At worst, they will move a ridge over—off the farm—leaving you out of luck.
On small farms, when toms are not gobbling, the way to hunt them is to pick a spot turkeys have been using, set up carefully, then wait them out. Sit for hours—from before first light until the end of shooting hours if necessary. This minimizes your chances of spooking birds and maximizes your chances of tagging a tom. Few turkey hunters, however, practice this approach. They equate long sits with boredom and an aching back and rear end. Yet long sits don’t have to be boring or uncomfortable if approached the right way.
On long sits for turkeys, problems with comfort are easy to handle. Use insect repellent so mosquitoes and ticks aren’t a problem. Bring cushions to sit on and place between your back and the tree you sit against. Many turkey-hunting vests offer built-in cushions. Pick a spot to sit that offers comfort: flat terrain that has you at a comfortable angle. Also, choose a spot that has you in the shadows and offers enough vegetation to break up your outline but also offers you clear shooting lanes. You can use clippers to clear shooting lanes or to trim leafy limbs to stick them in the ground around you. Setting up in the shadows with a proper screen of brush allows you to move a little and stay comfortable. When a tom walks into view, that’s the time to remain motionless.
Boredom is more difficult than physical comfort. It requires an attitude change. To keep a positive mind-set, scout carefully and set up in an area that you know toms are using. Remember that the longer you sit, the longer you give a tom the chance to respond to your calls. Bring food, drink (nonalcoholic, of course) and something to read. Doze. Just stay put. It is only a matter of time before a tom approaches.
Maybe a tom doesn’t show the first time you use this technique. Maybe he doesn’t show the second time. But if you stick with it, this approach will result in you wrapping a tag on a turkey. The success will convince you how effective long sits can be on days when toms don’t gobble. You’ll gain confidence in the approach and a sense of pride in your patience. It will also make you wonder how many chances at toms you’ve missed in the past by walking and calling.
Walk-and-Call or Modified Call-and-Wait
If your hunting area is large, consisting of close to 1,000 acres or more, you have options for hunting turkeys on days they don’t gobble. Say you have permission to hunt five farms in close proximity, all between 200 and 300 acres, and all a mix of small woods lots, pasture and row crops. Though long sits will work on these farms when toms don’t gobble, walking and calling in an attempt to make a turkey gobble may be the way to go. If you spook toms on one farm, you’ve got other farms to hunt; moreover, if toms aren’t gobbling on one farm, maybe they are on another. Walking and calling also works well if you have not scouted and are not sure how turkeys are using the farms.
To make a turkey gobble, aggressive “yelps” and “cutting” often work best. Box calls work well because of the volume they generate. Before you call, look around and decide where you could set up quickly if a tom answers. Sometimes, particularly late morning, if a tom gobbles at your calls, they come in quickly—sometimes at a run.
Use terrain features, such as hills, creeks and ditches, to limit the chance of turkeys spotting you, while at the same time maximizing your ability to see turkeys. Peek over creek beds. When you get to the edge of a wooded area, stay in the shadows and step behind a tree and peer into fields before you step out. Use binoculars and spend time glassing fields. Sometimes a tom may be just out of sight in a dip in the field. Even when you are on the move, patience is still part of turkey hunting. Your goal, if you can’t get turkeys to gobble, is to see them before they see you—a tough proposition.
Once you spot a tom in an open field, set up and call. If the tom pays no attention, watch his movements. He may head in a direction that allows you to move ahead of him and set up to ambush. Though this isn’t calling turkeys, it takes skill to move into position to intercept a tom that is not gobbling or responding to calls.
If the area you are hunting is expansive timber, hundreds or thousands of acres of woods (as found in the Mark Twain National Forest in the Missouri Ozarks), a mix of walk-and-call and sit-and-wait works best. Big timber in the Missouri Ozarks consists of ridges separated by draws or hollows of various sizes. An effective way to hunt this terrain when toms aren’t gobbling is to walk logging roads and stop at the top of ridges that lead to a draw. Here you set up and call. If nothing answers, sit for 45 minutes to an hour, call every 10 or 15 minutes, and listen carefully for a tom to approach. If the leaves are dry, and there’s little to no breeze, you can often hear a tom’s footsteps in the leaves more than 50 yards away. If no tom approaches, move over to the next ridge and draw and repeat the process. In a morning, using this system, you can cover more than a square mile of woods depending on the size of the draws you are calling into.
Do the turkey hunting tips in this article sound like work? They do—and they are. But when, after you’ve sat for five hours, a tom materializes in your decoy spread in full strut, or when, after your fifth set-up in the big timber, a tom sticks his head up over the lip of a ridge 25 yards out, you’ll find the effort all worthwhile.
Scenario 1—Hunting Farms in Close Proximity
If you have permission to hunt farms in close proximity, walking and calling in an attempt to make turkeys gobble may be the way to go. This approach also works well if you haven't scouted and are not sure how turkeys are using the farms.
Scenario 2—Hunting in Expansive Timber
If the area you are hunting is more expansive, a mix of walk-and-call and sit-and-wait works best. Set up and call, and if nothing answers, sit for 45 minutes to an hour, calling every 10 or 15 minutes. If no tom approaches, move over to the next ridge and draw and repeat the process.
- When on the move in the turkey woods, always wear at least a hunter orange hat. A hunter walking through the woods sounds much like a turkey walking. Protect yourself.
- When using a camouflage blind, other hunters cannot see you even if you are wearing hunter orange. To be safe, tie hunter orange on each side of the blind so it can be seen from all sides.
- Colors that should never be worn in the woods while turkey hunting are red, white, blue and black. Hunters may associate these colors with the gobbler.
- To be safe, wrap the bird in hunter orange before carrying it out.
Buy Your Turkey Hunting Permit at Home
As of March 1, you can buy all sport hunting and fishing permits at home online, 24/7, using the new e-Permits system. The system allows you to print permits on your printer and use them immediately. You will not need a color printer to print permits. You can still buy permits from vendors, if you prefer. You also can buy permits by calling toll-free 1-800-392-4115.
Turkey tagging procedures have changed with the change to e-Permits. The main difference is that permits no longer include a removable transportation tag. Instead, the permit itself is the transportation tag. Turkey permits have months printed along one edge and dates on another edge. Hunters will notch the month and day as part of recording their harvested game and attach the permit to the animal. They will continue to check harvested animals through the Telecheck system.
E-Permits are not printed on adhesive-backed material, so hunters will need to provide a means of attaching them to harvested game. Hunters are encouraged to put e-Permits inside zipper-type sandwich bags and attach them to turkeys with string, twist-ties, wire, plastic cable ties or tape. Protecting paper permits in this way will keep them readable and make it easier to write confirmation numbers on them when Telechecking turkeys. You also can print extra copies of permits in case one gets lost or ruined. As always, permits may not be shared and additional copies of a permit DO NOT provide additional valid permits for the buyer or others to use.
The change to e-Permits is part of MDC’s continuing effort to improve services and keep permit costs low in spite of declining revenues. More information about e-Permits is available at mdc.mo.gov/node/10900.
2011 Turkey Season Outlook
Although Missouri’s wild turkey population remains strong, the effects of poor reproduction in recent years due to several factors, including persistently bad spring weather, have reduced turkey numbers. As a result, this year’s spring season may be more challenging for hunters than in past years when production was higher and there were more birds on the landscape. Despite lower turkey numbers, Missouri is still widely recognized as offering some of the nation’s best turkey hunting. Each year, Missouri’s turkey harvest is among the highest of any state in the country. Although this year’s harvest is not likely to be as high as those of the early 2000s, hunters can expect some great hunting during the spring season.
This year’s spring turkey season is April 18 through May 8, and the youth season is April 9 through 10. To learn more about spring turkey hunting in Missouri, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/132.