In the world of turkey hunting, calling has always been the primary method of filling tags. It is also the most fun way to kill a tom. Honestly, nothing says spring like a big, old longbeard responding to your calls with a thunderous gobble that echoes through the hardwoods. Communicating with these birds is a blast!
Over the years, however, I have come to the conclusion that many wise, old toms have figured out our love for calling them, and this has made it more difficult to trick them into thinking the soft purrs and yelps they’re hearing are a real hen and not a hunter! As a result, I now find myself calling less and waiting more — and filling more turkey tags in the process.
It’s no secret the vast majority of turkey hunters pursue these birds with shotguns in tow. Based on my observations, however, a growing number of bowhunters are discovering the allure of taking toms with archery tackle. Bowhunting turkeys in the spring offers an opportunity to keep your shooting skills sharp at a time when big-game hunting opportunities are virtually nonexistent. And given a turkey’s keen eyesight, consistently getting to full draw on these birds — especially if you choose to hunt outside of a ground blind — is about as challenging as it gets.
Many bowhunters have also figured out that hunting turkeys out-of-state is a relatively inexpensive proposition compared to deer and elk, making for a fun-filled road trip that is affordable for the blue-collar bowhunter.
With so many turkey hunters out there, both gun and bow, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find turkeys that haven’t been hunted and called to already. Once turkeys become aware of hunting pressure, they will often move to adjacent properties where they can’t be hunted or — perhaps even more frustrating — become virtually silent.
As hunters, the most tempting thing to do when the birds won’t gobble is to call even more! The thought process actually makes some sense, right? I mean, if one call doesn’t elicit a response, let’s try another; then another. Before we know it, we’ve tried every call in our turkey vest with nary a gobble heard in return. Now, repeat this process with multiple hunters across multiple properties across multiple seasons, and it’s not hard to understand why so many turkey hunters these days are complaining about “educated birds.”
So, what’s the answer? Well, for me, it has been to shift my strategy to one of calling less and waiting more.
During the spring breeding season, hen turkeys actually seek out gobblers to mate. This is why toms will gobble and strut for hours in one spot, waiting to attract a hen. This also explains why some stubborn toms will stay in one spot and gobble all morning but never move toward our calls no matter how hard we try to coax them in!
So, how does a savvy bowhunter figure out how to trick a tom into coming in even though that is the opposite of how it actually happens with real hens? The answer is by playing off his natural curiosity.
A mature tom has heard every yelp, cluck, purr and gobble any man can produce. He’s made it through a few hunting seasons and is wise to those who “over call” or use the wrong calls at the wrong times. My plan for dealing with such birds is simple: I want to locate the bird and get him to gobble at me. This lets me know that he knows I am in the area and he is at least somewhat interested. I will then only call every 20-25 minutes while making sure I change locations between each calling session. This allows me to sound like a real hen that is moving around in the timber, slowly feeding and walking, but not committing to him. This drives him nuts. Here is where the “waiting game” comes into play!
Turkeys are curious, and typically these toms will get anxious and come looking for the “hen” they have heard. Sometimes, they’ll gobble as they come in; other times, they may come in silently. Either way, once they start moving in your direction, the odds are now in your favor to get a shot opportunity, because he has been fooled into thinking you’re a real hen and not a hunter. This strategy works any time of day.
So, what about those bowhunters who use blinds and decoys and can’t move around? Well, I suggest using the same calling less strategy minus the changing locations part. Let the decoys and minimal calling play to your advantage and give the gobblers time to work their way into your setup.
Next, let’s take a look at my game plans for three different times of the day: first light, midday and evening. All three periods hold great potential and, if hunted correctly, can yield excellent results.
For a bowhunt right off the roost, I typically want to have already located a tom the night before so I have a good idea of where I want to set up in the morning. If I have not located a bird the night before, I will use a “shock gobble” call, which could be a goose call, coyote howl or owl hoot to get him to gobble on the roost so I know where he is located.
Once a gobbler is located and still on the roost, I use the cover of darkness to get within 200 yards or so of him. From that point on, I like to see how things play out. If I do not hear any hens nearby, I will use soft tree yelps and clucks to spark his interest. Once he gobbles at me, I know he has located me, and I will not call again for 20-25 minutes or until he flies down. Again, the theory is for him to know he heard a hen but for me to not over call. I want him to fly down and come searching for me in the direction that he heard me call from.
If he has hens with him, I typically will not call at all while the flock is on the roost. There are several reasons for this: First, it is very important to listen to what tone, pitch and sounds the hens are making. If a hen hears you call, she is very likely to fly down and take the entire flock directly away from you, because you are perceived as competition. Second, once the birds fly down, they usually have to regroup, and if you’ve paid attention to the real calling you’ve heard, you can mimic that and trick a gobbler into thinking you are one of the hens he roosted with.
This period, from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, is my favorite time to hunt and when I’ve notched most of my turkey tags over the years. This is because, at this point of the day, most hens have either been bred already or have headed to their nest. This leaves amorous toms feeling lonely and looking for love — the perfect scenario for a bowhunter!
My game plan during this period is to work from the outside in on a piece of property and cover ground until I find a bird that wants to play the game. I like to start by aggressively calling from edges of timber or close to fields where I suspect birds will be. I’ll walk a few hundred yards between calling sessions, which are usually about 30 minutes apart. Again, this makes me sound like a real hen that is ready to breed. The plan is to find a gobbler that is alone and get him fired up that a new girlfriend is in town. Once this happens, I will play on his curiosity, go silent and let him make the final moves.
This drives a hot tom absolutely nuts! Typically, these birds are now red-hot and eager to go looking for the hen they heard, as it’s the middle of the day and the first-light breeding frenzy with hens is over. I really feel that toms are most vulnerable during this period, because many hens are either feeding or sitting on their nests by this point in the day. Gobblers know this, which makes them very quick to react to any hens that show interest in them.
A lot of states are now allowing bowhunters to chase gobblers all day rather than just until noon. This provides an awesome opportunity to fill a tag! Evening hunts can be absolutely dynamite if hunted correctly and offer a great starting point for the following morning’s hunt if you’re not successful that evening.
During this time, birds will be wrapping up their daily travels and heading back toward a preferred roost site. Toms will also be trying to find a hen, or group of hens, to roost with. This gives him a good starting point and less competition in the morning by already having hens with him. I like to intercept toms on their way from fields or feeding locations to where they will be roosting. Contrary to popular belief, turkeys will gobble quite often in the evening, especially if fired up! So, my plan is to call very lightly, close to known roosting areas, in hopes of getting a gobbler to respond. As long as I am properly positioned between the gobbler and the intended roosting location, he should naturally continue to work his way directly toward me.
At this point, my plan is to call one last time and then change locations quickly to convince him I’m a real hen moving around before I go roost. This should be enough to trick that old tom into closing the distance.