Getting Tight to Turkeys

By Mark Goodwin | May 19, 2010
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2007

Trouble working turkeys in close? Try these time-tested techniques.

At 30 yards, a majestic tom turkey crested the wooded ridge in front of me. He continued walking my way. At 15 yards, he stopped and stretched his neck to look. He was close enough that I could see his feathers ruffling in the slight breeze. I carefully aimed the 20-gauge Parker double-gun and applied pressure to the front trigger. As the old shotgun bucked against my shoulder, I knew I’d met half my season’s limit.

I’ve hunted turkeys for close to three decades and have taken birds out to 40 and 50 yards with specialty shotguns coupled with shot shells loaded specifically for hunting turkeys. Tagging turkeys at those ranges, however, is not nearly as exciting as working a turkey to within 25 yards or closer.

That’s why I often hunt with my great, great grandfather’s Parker. With 2 3⁄4-inch chambers, barrels choked full and shells loaded with an ounce of 7 1⁄2 shot, the old shotgun does a fine job of tagging turkeys out to 30 yards, forcing me to work the turkeys in close. Here’s what hunting with shotguns with limited range has taught me about getting tight to turkeys.

Scout Early

Turkeys are creatures of habit. They have favorite roosting areas, loafing areas, feeding areas and, in spring, places where they go to breed. They also have preferred routes they use to get to these places. If a hunter learns these patterns in his turkey-hunting area and sets up accordingly, calling in turkeys becomes far easier.

Learning the daily patterns of turkeys in an area requires scouting. Scout a week or two before the hunting season opens. Turkey habits change with the change of seasons. Scouting close to the hunting season increases the likelihood that what you see during scouting will be what you see while hunting.

Scouting for turkeys in spring is made a little easier by toms gobbling and giving away their location. For a clear idea as to what toms will be doing when the hunting season starts, scout the week before season, three or four days in a row, before first light.

Calling before season is fun, but it can pull toms off their regular patterns, giving a false picture concerning their habits. Calling to toms before the season also risks spooking the toms, which makes calling them in during the season even tougher.

Missouri’s fall turkey season opens October 1st, which makes the last week or two of September a good time to scout. Get to the timber before first light. Listen for turkeys as they call from the roost before flying down to feed. If you hear turkeys calling from the roost, don’t call to them. See which way they pitch out and where they go to feed.

If you hear no turkeys, walk the woods and fields. Look for droppings and shed feathers. After feeding, turkeys often move to areas where field and woods meet. There they loaf and dust. Check for slight, circular depressions in the ground, 2 feet or so in diameter, which turkeys often make when they dust.

Set up Wisely

Once you determine the daily patterns of turkeys, the next step is deciding where, in relation to these patterns, to set up to call. The key is a set-up that will counter the number one defense of turkeys: their superb eyesight. It’s because of the peerless vision of turkeys that many hunters clothe themselves from head to toe in camouflage and hunt from manufactured ground blinds.

Such gear helps, but the best way to keep the turkey from spotting you is to call from positions just above or below a rise in a hill or around a bend in the terrain. Arrange it so that when a turkey first steps into view—or can see you—it is in range to shoot. A veteran turkey hunter shared this amazingly effective strategy with me more than 25 years ago.

Stay Concealed

Even though your set-up forces a turkey to come in blind, you still want to remain unnoticed. Portable blinds are great, but you can construct your own blind on the spot by clipping a few leafy branches and sticking them in the ground around you. Leave room for your shotgun to move, and leave some spaces to shoot through.

Though turkeys are unrivaled at picking up motion, they have limited depth perception. A big tree at your back and a screen of cut limbs in front make it tougher for turkeys to see you. It’s also a good idea to place yourself in the shadows. Setting up with full sun shining on you makes it easier for a turkey to spot you.

Call Sparingly

Loud, frequent calling will sometimes call toms into close shotgun range. However, most of the time such calling results in a gobbler holding up at a distance and waiting for the hen to come to him. Sparse calling typically works best in spring. Get a tom to answer you, then go silent and wait for the tom to come looking for “the hen” he heard.

Turkeys use clucks to check the location of other turkeys, maybe more so than any other call. If you cluck, and a turkey answers back, that may be all the calling you need. Turkeys have phenomenal abilities to pinpoint the location of sounds. One cluck, under good hearing conditions, will let a turkey know where you are.

A good rule of thumb for calling turkeys in the fall, if no turkeys are calling, is to start with soft clucks and purrs. If these get no answer, increase volume and use other calls to get a response.

If you have scattered a flock in the fall, and turkeys are calling frequently to reassemble, imitate their calling pattern by calling frequently.

Sit Still

Sitting still seems easy, but some hunters have a hard time understanding exactly how still they have to be. While sitting, don’t turn your head, don’t scratch an ear, don’t raise your hand. When a turkey is in view, you can move nothing.

Only move when the turkey can’t see you. Let’s say you see a gobbler standing nearby, but he’s wary and slowly walking away from you. If the tom steps behind a tree, make a quick move and be ready to shoot when he steps out. If there’s no obstacle to cover your move, let the turkey win. You might manage a shot, but the chances of crippling the bird and losing it are too great.

If you are calling a tom and he is gobbling back but moving away, you may need to circle around and try to get in front of the bird. Use foliage and the terrain, such as hills and draws, to screen your movements from the turkey.

Anytime you are up and moving during a turkey hunt, wear hunter orange for safety. Put a hunter orange cap or vest on and make your move.

Hunt Often

Your goal is to get a turkey to approach close so you can tag it with a clean shot. The best way to improve your odds of tagging a turkey is to hunt often. Even if a hunt lasts only 45 minutes or so before or after work, you’ve still improved your chances. Each outing also improves your knowledge about turkeys and your turkey hunting skills.

You’ll gain other benefits, too. You’ll create fine memories of beautiful days afield, you’ll see wildlife and beautiful sunrises, you’ll have stories to share with friends and family, and you’ll experience that special sense of relaxation that comes over everyone who spends time hunting in the woods.

This Issue's Staff

Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Circulation - Laura Scheuler