By John Dudley
Spring is nearly upon us, and that means turkey season is right around the corner. There's nothing quite like the gobble from a boss tom echoing through the timber at first light.
It's a thrilling sound that can instantly send your adrenal gland into overdrive when you hear him coming your way. On the flip side, your day can quickly drop into the dumps if you don't play your cards right and you hear him slowly fading off into the distance.
My job in this article is to make darn sure you and your bow are always going to be in front of that sneaky little super strutter. I'm going to lay out some foolproof turkey tactics I have employed successfully for the past 20 years.
Use Your Deer Sense
Any good deer hunter spends a fair amount of time scouting. When turkey hunting, I have found the same to be true. You need to know where they are going to be when the season opens and also know how to adjust as the season continues. A lot changes in the turkey world as spring progresses, and with season dates varying from state to state, your plan of attack must be tailored to your hunting area. Really, this is no different than shifting your deer-hunting strategy based on what bucks are doing Sept. 1 versus Nov. 1. Turkey movement falls into various "stages" throughout the season.
In early March, turkeys are typically still flocked up, and you are likely to see large bachelor groups of jakes and toms. They may roost separately from the hens in areas with abundant roosting options, but they can also be piled into one big group if roost sites are limited.
During this early period, mature toms will stick together once they come off the roost and go through a daily routine resembling that of a summertime bachelor group of velvet bucks. This is what I commonly find in Nebraska, where there can still be snow on the ground for the season opener.
Sometime in the first half of April, depending on the weather, the bigger bachelor groups will split up, and some sub-dominant toms will travel to smaller pockets of cover and surrounding habitat. Now you might find only one or two gobblers with a smaller group of hens. In my home state of Iowa,
I often find hundreds of birds in a single block of timber on April 1, but by April 15, those birds will have spread across miles and miles of countryside. And instead of hearing several birds gobbling on the roost, you may be down to hearing only one. It's not that there are fewer turkeys overall; it's just that they are less concentrated.
Finally, as April turns to May and hens build their nests and begin incubating their eggs, toms will begin roaming farther and cover a lot of ground. Late morning can be an action-packed time during this period, because a tom is just like a rutting buck that is striving to find another lady to breed after his morning lady lays down.
I know lots of hunters who are not successful simply because they fail to pay attention to what is happening. Be aware of what stage you are in and broaden your area of focus the later the season gets. Try some of the smaller pockets of timber that aren't in your main area. Second, the later the season gets the better the opportunities will be later in the day.
There are exceptions to this, but generally speaking during the opening weeks the first hour of morning is dynamite. Then as the season progresses, mid-mornings get better and better. Then during the final weeks, the afternoon and evening hunts will seal the deal.
Key on Three
Unlike the traditional shotgun turkey hunter who heads to the woods before sunrise, listens for a gobble and then goes to it and starts calling, I choose a different route. I key in on three areas to strike fast on my birds. The first is a strut zone. I have found that many turkeys like to fly down and get to a strut area to put on a show for a while. The strut zone can be near or far from the roost; regardless, they will have one. In some areas, this could be on a ridge top or maybe a field edge.
I have found I can actually build a strut zone by planting my fall deer plots close to the roost area. It's a two-for-one deal for me. I plant wheat, rye or clover as close as possible to my timber where turkeys like to roost. These are spots where toms rush first in order to strut, dust and soak up some morning sun. If you don't have a green plot, simply using a mower to clear a half-acre of brush or native grasses near the roost can be equally as good. The birds are there for the dry spots with short grass. Either find one or build one and you will be set!
The second key area is what I call the Fly Zone. This is where the birds congregate before flying back up to roost. The roost is a spot most people focus on in the morning. Hunters sneak in, call and hope to get a tom to run right in. As you may know, that isn't the case most times. Morning hunts off the roost are hit or miss. However, in states where evening hunts are legal, this "fly zone" near the roost is often my favorite spot. Birds love to stage up on a ridge or flat field or CRP bench so they can get a running start to fly up to roost. Finding these spots in your hunting area will produce more often than morning hunts when the turkeys are leaving the roost.
The last key area is turkey crossings. Believe it or not, over the years I have learned to forget about chasing birds around all day and just set up my Bale Blind next to a crossing area. Turkeys don't like fences, and if you happen to hunt a farm with old hog wire along the bottom of a line fence then you are all set for an awesome hunt. I have two places where I shoot multiple birds every year simply by setting up next to a little hole in the fence where birds like to cross.
I found these spots by watching birds from afar and figured I'd give them a try. Next thing I knew I had a single-file line of turkeys waiting to cross the fence. It was a slam-dunk and works every year exactly the same. All I have to do is put in the time.
As I mentioned earlier, I often hunt turkeys like I hunt deer. I know calling sometimes works perfectly, but other times it doesn't. I have found that being on time is arguably better than being a good caller. I'm not a great turkey caller and it's safe to say many of my friends aren't either. However, we hammer the gobblers by being in the right spots at the right times and use our calling as a secondary measure.
We learned years ago that our trail cameras do all of the homework if you have them out. The key is making sure your camera's clock is set accurately, because the time of day is a valuable asset to knowing your bird's pattern. I'm a big fan of using game cameras to help pinpoint not only the areas turkeys frequent but also the "stages" of movement we discussed at the beginning of the article. This helps maximize the productivity of your time in the woods and minimize the amount of time you spend away from work and family.
Over the years, I have lost track of how many turkeys I have taken with my bow. Many of my success stories in my local area have come with only an hour or so to hunt. My game cameras have been my tools to tighten up my efficiency. I have tagged out while only using the hour before work, my lunch break or even the last hour after getting out of the office.
Get your cameras out several weeks before season starts. Focus on the key areas you know your birds will use and start to log the times birds show up. These cameras can also help confirm your strut zones, fly zones and turkey crossings. You will be surprised to discover how predictable turkeys are if there aren't a bunch of hunters chasing them around the woods.
If you are dealing with other hunting pressure, I urge you to dodge the traffic by keying in on the areas where you believe birds may be during the last few hours of shooting time. My experience is that patterning afternoon or evening birds is often the best for the boss toms of the timber. Most people hunt early mornings, and if the gobblers are henned up, they will be frustrated and gone before lunch.
The use of hunting blinds over the last decade has completely changed bowhunting for turkeys. There is nothing better than being concealed and stress free about ranging your bird and drawing your bow. Several years ago, I went one step further and mounted my Bale Blind on an old wagon frame. I can hook up my ATV or tractor and pull it around to any new field where I'm seeing birds.
I find that turkeys are more likely to move off the field slowly when you roll in on a farm vehicle versus them sprinting off the field and taking flight in panic, which is what they usually do if they see you walking in. This is a proven tactic for days when I need to try something new and adjust my hunt according to the pattern of the birds. I just drive in while it is still dark, turn off the engine and get in the blind. On active farms, this is an awesome method to have options and make quick changes to fill your tag.
I know there are a lot of hunters who count down the days until turkey season. They are just as fanatical about seeing a boss tom as other bowhunters are about giant bucks or bugling bulls. Personally, I'm a fan of all of them, but there's no doubt turkey season brings renewed purpose to my practice sessions, sharpens my bowhunting skills in advance of big-game seasons and often rewards me with a few shed antlers or morel mushrooms. Put the tactics I described here into use this spring, and I promise you won't need to buy a Butterball turkey at the grocery store!