I've heard turkey hunters complain that the how-to lessons they read in magazines are often hard to apply in our neck of the woods. Here, embattled gobblers behave like they've had the survival training and experience of an Army Ranger who's been to Fallujah. With that in mind, I asked a few of the better local turkey hunters how they got to the point where they can pretty reliably fill their gobbler tags. Their answers should be helpful as you hit the woods in a few weeks.
Jason Morrison: When I asked Jason Morrison, taxidermist at Buckhaven Wildlife Art, what advice he'd give a new hunter, or any hunter who is going through a dry spell, he replied instantly. "One word patience. Without it you will call in lots of turkeys that you never realize you've called in, but you won't see them because you'll be gone. I've killed several turkeys after I woke up from a nap, and there's an important lesson in that. More than a few times I've shot gobblers 2 hours after making my last call."
Jason continued, "Pressured turkeys are often slow to come in, or they come in silently. I believe 50% of the turkeys will come in without gobbling because their lives are constantly threatened. Maybe they've been beat up by a boss gobbler, spooked by a bobcat, or hassled by a hunter. They figure out quickly when hunters are after them."
Tim Smith, with his big collection of turkey beards and spurs, and a shotgun that’s ready for the season
He's right. Hunters need to realize that turkeys are so overloaded with anxiety that they couldn't be cured of their neuroses even on Sigmund Freud's couch.
I once called in a gobbler that hung up at 70 yards, froze like a statue and clammed up for almost an hour. He never moved a wattle. If I hadn't been able to see him, I would have thought he was long gone. I seasoned him with patience, and he tasted especially good.
I'll add one tip to Jason's advice. When you finally do need to leave a calling position after not hearing the gobbler in a long while, offer a sharp cluck or two and wait another 10 minutes. You'll be saying, "I'm right here. Where are you?" He just might show up.
Dr. Paul Bialas: I don't suppose doctors ordinarily appreciate it when you take extra time to talk turkey at your doctor's exam, but I asked avid turkey hunter Dr. Paul Bialas what he'd suggest to a hunter who has limited time to hunt. Almost jokingly, Dr. Bialas said, "I'd recommend working hard at getting access to good property where other hunters don't have permission and where you can get in and out fast."
Most of us have limited time, so that's not a joke. It's common sense advice for any hunter. And I have to admit it's common sense I lacked many years ago. I hunted too many places just because they were convenient, even though many other hunters went there for the same reason. Lack of access to good hunting land puts you at a big disadvantage. Whether you hunt on private property, state game lands, or national forest, don't wait until the week before the season to explore new places.
Finding new places to hunt is part of pre-season scouting. Time put in scouting will usually save time and reduce frustration during the season.
Tim Smith: Tim Smith of Smith's Custom Guns ought to know a thing or two about turkey guns one of his specialties is building them. I pointed to Tim's big rack of turkey beards and spurs and asked, "What should a hunter do to make sure his shotgun can produce a collection like that?"
He said, "Every turkey gun should not only be patterned, but the center of the pattern should be at the point of aim. Take your choke into consideration. Today's chokes give very reliable results. Choose a choke between .660 and .680 the tighter ones work best with smaller shot such as No. 6, the larger ones with No. 4 or 5."
Smith also suggests testing some of the great new turkey loads on the market. "You're looking for a tight pattern that leaves no gaps in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards or more. Hevi-Shot, a high density alloy of tungsten, nickel and iron, produces some of the best patterns and it retains energy for deep penetration. If recoil is a problem, we can do some things to reduce it."
Bear in mind one caution to Tim's point. You can lose more turkeys with a 60-yard shotgun than you can a 40-yard shotgun IF it encourages risky shots at marginal distances. The last thing you want to do is hit a turkey and let him get away. When hunters misjudge distances, or shoot at marginal ranges, they often can't be sure whether they have missed or wounded the gobbler.
Dick Zimmerman: I invited Dick Zimmerman to share some calling advice. Dick has hunted several states, and killed a gobbler in every Pennsylvania spring season since 1971 until 2009 when his string was broken.
"Lots of people call too much, or call too loudly. A hunter should relax, and let the gobbler come. If the hunter is anxious, his calling can reflect that anxiety. If the gobbler is close, a loud call will sound unnatural. A soft call will encourage him. If he's gobbling and coming closer, don't answer every time he gobbles. Talk back only every third or fourth gobble. Resist the urge to call, call, call."
Dick's advice is right on target. If you listen to real hens, they seldom call loudly. And calling too often will make the gobbler think the hen wants to come to him. That's what the gobbler's instinct says should happen, but the hunter hopes to reverse that instinctive behavior.
I know way more exceptional turkey hunters than I can name Wally Ciukaj, Rick Sharp, Jake Byler, Ron Farnham and many others whose advice would cover everything from calling to woodsmanship. Turkey hunters can talk almost endlessly about virtually anything remotely related to turkey hunting: guns, loads, camouflage, decoys, scouting, blinds, calls, and more.
No doubt you know some good turkey hunters I don't know, but every turkey hunter should tell you to make safety your first aim it's infinitely more important than getting a gobbler. And remember, be considerate to your fellow hunters courtesy goes a long way toward insuring safety in the turkey woods.