By Christian Berg
Any bowhunter who has ever ambushed turkeys from a ground blind knows how effective that strategy can be.
But let's be honest; sitting in a blind for hours on end is about as exciting as watching paint dry. And on particularly slow days, you simply can't eat enough snacks, take enough naps or read enough magazines to maintain your sanity until sundown.
If you've had your fill of hunting turkeys from a blind — or simply are looking for a way to turn the odds in your favor when gobblers aren't cooperating — this article is for you.
Keep reading, and I'll show you how you can leave ground blind boredom behind using nothing more than a simple tail fan as a deadly deception that will literally have longbeards running into your lap!
Seeing Is Believing
In many ways, effectively employing a tail fan to lure gobblers into bow range goes against every turkey-hunting rule you've ever learned. After all, these birds are renowned for their keen eyesight, and turkey hunters are constantly hammered with the fact that even the slightest twitch — never mind drawing a bow — can send a wary tom sprinting in the opposite direction.
So, I was more than a bit skeptical last spring when Jimmy Roseman, a guide at Osceola Outfitters in St. Cloud, Fla., suggested we abandon our ground blind and get after some gobblers using spot-and-stalk techniques and a tail fan as a decoy.
Just two hours and two setups later, however, my first Osceola gobbler was lying dead at my feet in the aftermath of the most exciting morning of turkey hunting I had ever experienced. And now I am not just a turkey fanning convert; I'm a full-blown evangelist!
Roseman agrees the thought of gobblers literally running to their deaths toward a tail fan with no body, head or legs attached doesn't make a whole lot of sense to a human mind. But considering we are dealing with an animal that has a brain the size of a walnut, perhaps it's best not to overthink things.
"I don't understand what it is, but they sure are mesmerized by it," said Roseman, who has successfully used his fanning techniques across the nation. "And once they get locked on it, you can tell by their posture they are coming, and they won't leave until they get up close and see what it is."
Roseman said fanning is so effective he gets a positive response from gobblers about 80 percent of the time. And because of that, fanning accounts for the vast majority of turkeys taken at Osceola Outfitters.
"With this method, you don't have to be a good caller," Roseman said. "You don't have to call at all if you don't want to. And you don't have to sit there waiting for things to happen. You get to make things happen."
But like everything in hunting, there is a bit more to killing gobblers with a fan than holding up the feathers and releasing arrows. So, let's take a look at a few of the finer points of hunting with a tail fan.
The first thing you'll need to fan turkeys, obviously, is a tail fan. Although there are a variety of reproductions on the market, the real thing is hard to beat. Chances are, you or a hunting friend has an extra tail fan stashed in a freezer somewhere. If not, just use the one from the next gobbler you arrow.
Cutting an intact tail fan off a dead bird is easy with the aid of a good, sharp knife. Be careful to cut away as much flesh as possible, leaving just enough to hold the tail feathers together. Once removed from the bird, rub a little Borax on the flesh to prevent spoiling and let the fan air dry. Once dry, the fan is easily carried in a pocket or pack and can easily be opened and closed by hand.
The second thing you'll need to fan turkeys is, you guessed it, turkeys! When it comes to using the fanning method, Roseman cautions that not all birds are created equal. Ideally, you are looking for a lone longbeard or a small bachelor group of two or three toms. All of these birds are likely to respond to your fan with curiosity or aggression. A dominant gobbler with hens, meanwhile, is more prone to view your fan as a threat that prompts him to round up his hens and head in the opposite direction.
The third thing you need to effectively fan turkeys is the right terrain. Once a potential target is located, you must have sufficient cover to move into position without spooking the birds in the process. Picking your spots is key here, Roseman said, because otherwise you end up investing a lot of time and physical effort into stalks with low odds of success. Experience has taught Roseman that when the cover and terrain is not in his favor, it is better to simply keep moving and find another bird or birds in a more favorable position.
For example, if you see a lone gobbler in the middle of a wide open field and there is no way for you to move into position without being spotted, don't bother. But if there is a fencerow, ditch or other cover where you can close the distance and set up for a shot before presenting the fan, go for it.
There is no hard and fast rule regarding how close to get to the gobbler or gobblers you are stalking before presenting the fan. This necessarily will vary from setup to setup, but 50-100 yards is a good rule of thumb. More importantly, you need to make sure there is a clear line of sight between you and birds.
Although shotgun hunters can often hunt solo, present the fan and entice turkeys close enough for a shot, this tactic works best for bowhunters who employ the buddy system, with one person getting and holding the birds' attention with the fan while the shooter sets up for the shot somewhere along the anticipated travel path between the birds and the decoyer.
That's exactly what Roseman and I did on our hunt. On the first setup, Roseman spotted a lone gobbler in the distance and figured we might be able to flank the bird's direction of travel, find an open area and get its attention with the fan. After hustling into a position, I knelt along the edge of a brushy fencerow while Roseman crawled out into a cattle pasture and began working the fan.
That's when I realized one of the challenges of this strategy is the inability to communicate as the bird is approaching. Although I could tell by Roseman's eyes and continuous fanning action that the bird had seen the fan and was likely closing the distance, there was no way to know exactly what Roseman was seeing. So, I was completely taken by surprise when that gobbler stepped out of the fencerow 10 feet in front of me. Instinctively, I drew the bow, which sent the tom running in the opposite direction, and I decided not to take the marginal shot.
"You've got to be ready, and if they do pop out close to you, wait until they get past you and get focused on that fan before you draw," Roseman said. "If you can let them go right on past you and don't move, a lot of times you can get a shot."
When presenting the fan, Roseman always dresses in full camouflage, including gloves and a facemask. He will typically break cover in a belly crawl, getting himself out into the open before slowly lifting the tail fan above his head and opening. Then, he slowly moves it side to side to imitate the action of a strutting gobbler moving back and forth.
"You can open and close the fan, and I'll make it go up and down," Roseman said. "When the birds go into strut, I'll bring it up and open it like I'm going into strut. And when they go down, I'll bring the fan down into a submissive posture and then bring it up again."
Closing the Deal
As previously mentioned, one of the biggest factors in successfully fanning birds into bow range is simply finding them in the right spot. And later in the morning, Roseman and I got our big break in that regard.
We had spotted a lone gobbler from several hundred yards away across a cattle pasture, but after ducking into the cover, closing the distance and stalking back toward the field edge, the bird was nowhere to be found.
We spent about half an hour trying to relocate him before finally giving up and heading back toward the truck, only to be surprised by a group of three other longbeards that somehow appeared in the pasture between us and the vehicle. Better still, there was a 50-foot wide clump of palmettos out in the pasture that offered a perfect spot to set up for a shot if Roseman could lure the toms in our direction.
"I'll slip out into the field and start fanning," Roseman said, "and if the birds start moving this way, wait until their vision is blocked by that clump and hustle out there."
The plan worked to perfection. I huddled in the brush along the field edge as Roseman crawled out and presented the fan. Almost immediately, the gobblers began slowly moving toward him, taking several minutes to close the distance from a couple hundred yards to less than 100. And when the trio disappeared beyond the palmetto clump, I sprinted across open ground and knelt down in shooting position on the side of the clump closest to Roseman.
Now it was impossible for me to see beyond the clump or know what the gobblers were doing. However, Roseman was lying on his belly in the field and working the fan just 30 yards to my left — close enough to speak to me in a loud whisper.
"Fifty yards," Roseman whispered. "Forty yards. Thirty yards. Draw now!"
Obeying Roseman's command, I drew my Hoyt, settled at anchor and peered through my peep sight. Seconds later, the three birds entered my field of view just beyond the palmetto clump. They were only 20 yards away.
As I picked out the largest bird and slid my top pin onto its body, the gobblers caught my movement in their peripheral vision. But by then it was too late, and I released my arrow just as the birds stopped their advance and craned their necks to investigate. The shot was perfect, anchoring my bird as the remaining two toms ran across the pasture to safety.
"That was incredible!" I shouted to Roseman. "I can't believe it worked."
Of course, Roseman knew better. My first Osceola gobbler was merely the latest in a long line of them to fall under the fan's magic spell.
"Just like everything in hunting, it's not a guarantee," Roseman said. "But when it works, it sure is fun."
Indeed it is.