Unsung Secrets of Successful Turkey Hunting

By Mark Goodwin | April 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2003

Dawn approached through a gray, overcast sky,"We're a little late," I whispered to my teenage son, Michael, and his friend Kevin.

As we walked up the hill of a cow pasture, I pondered the possibility of calling up a gobbler on this March morning. Turkey hunting season was a month away, and though I seldom work turkeys during the preseason, Kevin had never seen one respond to a call. Sparking his interest in turkey hunting seemed worth the risk of wising up an old tom.

The wooded ridge at the top of the hill revealed bare branches against the gathering light. As we quietly entered the timber's edge, I scanned the trees in the predawn. Seventy yards away loomed a large, round silhouette among the limbs of an old white oak tree. Squirrel's nest or turkey? I couldn't tell.

Quietly, we eased next to a thick-trunked sugar maple and sat down. As I stared at the form in the white oak, I thought I saw it move. I waited a few moments and then gave some soft tree yelps.

"Geeobble!" The black form puffed and made a slow, deliberate turn on its limb to face us. Another turkey gobbled a short distance down the ridge.

"Don't move," I warned Michael and Kevin.

I called no more. Ten minutes later, and after little gobbling, both birds pitched down and began slowly walking away from us. When they moved out of sight behind the lip of the ridge, I cut loudly on my diaphragm caller and then followed the call with coarse, snappy yelps. Both turkeys gobbled, crested the ridge and walked straight to us. For 15 minutes they strutted, gobbled and drummed. Half the time they were well within shotgun range.

At one point, one of the gobblers walked up in full strut and faced us, 10 steps away, breast feathers shimmering. The duo finally moved off and out of sight. They never once "putted" or showed any sign of alarm.My own introduction to turkey hunting, and the keys to this morning's success, came 20 years ago. Fresh out of college and serving as the new science teacher at a rural high school deep in the Missouri Ozarks, I linked up with a local family that for generations had hunted turkeys for food and sport.

Those friends taught me the true secrets of successful turkey hunting.

I've shared them with my children, and I'd like to share them with you. I can summarize them in three simple principles.

Hunt where the turkeys are

This seems too obvious to merit mentioning, but it is the most important key to successful turkey hunting. Many hunters forget this simple strategy and, instead, over-emphasize equipment. The error is understandable. Today's turkey hunters can choose from many kinds of decoys, blinds, callers, camouflage, shotshells, chokes and shotguns; all of which are marketed as essential. Though quality gear is important, the best equipment will have little value if used where there are few turkeys.

What's the best way to find a spot that supports lots of turkeys? For starters, understand that turkeys are not distributed evenly throughout their habitat. Some areas support large populations, while other places that look just as good have few birds. You have to scout to find productive locations.

A prime time to look for turkeys is in late winter, when turkeys gather in large numbers to feed in cut grain fields. They are easy to see at these times. Driving country roads and glassing grain fields can reveal the whereabouts of big flocks. After you find birds, determine land ownership by studying plat books and then seek hunting permission. You can purchase plat books from most county courthouses.

My first success at finding a topnotch place to hunt turkeys came after I moved away from the Ozarks. I had earned a graduate degree and accepted a teaching job in southeast Missouri. Through scouting, I located a flock of about 60 turkeys using a cut corn field 20 minutes from my home. I asked and gained permission to hunt.

That spring, on my first preseason trip to listen for turkeys, I heard 11 different gobblers as I stood in one place. Hearing that many toms from one spot is always a good sign, especially for a rookie turkey hunter. I needed a lot of chances.

I made many mistakes that season. I would set up on a turkey and then spook it. Gathering my gear, I would move to another ridge, call and get an answer from another gobbler. I would botch that setup, too, and then move to a bird gobbling in the bottoms. The season was, in every sense of the phrase, a comedy of errors. Nevertheless, I filled my tags, not because I was highly skilled, but because I hunted where there were a lot of turkeys.

Persistence and Hard Work

This principle is almost as important as having access to a good place. Turkey hunters I know who tag turkeys year after year scout before the season, gain access to productive hunting spots, and then they hunt nearly every day of the season. Some take time off from work or modify their routines so they are afield every morning for a short hunt before work.

A room full of students awaits me Monday through Friday at 8 a.m. During spring turkey season, I rise each day before 4 a.m., pack a change of clothes in the truck and drive to the woods. I hunt until 7:15 a.m., and then change clothes and go to work.

After school I come home and visit with my family. After supper, I'm in the timber again to roost gobblers for the following morning. If I wake to rain in the early predawn, I gather my stuff and go to the woods anyway. That's why I own rain gear. If it's thunder storming, I may sit in the truck and wait for the storm to pass. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn't.

Although I am bushed by the end of the season, I've enjoyed some exciting hunts, probably learned something new about turkey hunting and made some fine memories.

After two or three days of hunting, many turkey hunters opt to sleep in until the weekend. On the weekends they hunt until 9 a.m. or so, and then quit for the day. Such a schedule may keep a hunter well rested, but it greatly reduces his or her chances of slipping a tag around a gobbler's leg.

Proper Attitude

The final secret of successful turkey hunting is to enter the timber knowing that you will not kill every turkey you set up on. No matter how polished your skills, a whole season may go by without killing a bird. Even under the best conditions, the finest turkey hunters probably never tag more than half the turkeys they attempt to call. There are too many hitches in turkey hunting.

You might, for example, do your preseason work and pattern a gobbler's routine. For four straight days the tom may have gobbled hard on the roost, and then pitched down to a field to strut and attract hens. On opening day, you set up at the edge of the field with a couple of hen decoys, close to where the turkey has been strutting. You fully expect the gobbler to stroll into shotgun range shortly after shooting hours begin.

The turkey gobbles, just as he has for four days, but at flydown he pitches to the ridge and struts 30 yards from his roost tree. He stays there and won't budge. You know you didn't alert the gobbler. You set up in the black of early morning, giving the area plenty of time to settle. Why didn't the turkey follow the routine of the previous four days? The answer is simple. The situation involves a turkey, and no turkey is completely predictable. That's part of the mystery and allure of the sport.

So, when the day's hunt is over and a capricious old gobbler has foiled your best efforts, tip your hat to him and enjoy the other gifts that spring turkey season offers. Pause to admire spring wildflowers, enjoy watching warblers and other small birds as they flit from tree to tree in search of insects. On the walk back to the truck, watch for morels. Maybe you'll find a few. The next day you'll be back, and if you apply these secrets of turkey hunting, a fine tom may be yours.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler