With hunting wild turkeys, it’s not always about how good you can call. Don’t get me wrong, you definitely need to master true-hen sounds with all the calls you plan to use. However, you don’t necessarily have to be a world-champion caller to consistently punch your tags. In fact, I’ve been around some competition callers in the past that could absolutely spit feathers, but often struggled on the stage that really counts – in the woods. The truth is woodsmanship skills coupled with an in-depth knowledge of wild turkey behavior is basically what separates a turkey hunter from a turkey harvester.
Correctly reading the current hunting situation, turkey activity and transitional phase of the season is the real secret to success. Knowing exactly how and where to setup and what calling strategy to use for each hunting scenario is the key to consistency. On that note, I’ll break down each transitional phase and go over some matched hunting strategies that will keep you busting beaks and ground-checking beards from opening day through the end of season.
1st Phase Explained: Early-Season Transitional Period
In many parts of turkey country, you’ll find fall and early-winter bachelor groups of longbeards have recently split up, and mature birds are becoming increasingly more interested in hens. You’re subject to see a lot of strutting, posturing and even fighting among gobblers. It’s not uncommon to find multiple male birds locked down with several hens throughout this early-transitional phase.
In most cases, major gobbling activity will peak on the roost and right after fly-down with an occasional sporadic gobble throughout the day. Mature longbeards will spend the majority of the day strutting for large flocks of hens and following the ladies wherever they may go. “Henned-Up” is the term that many hunters use to describe this period.
1st Phase Hunting Strategies
During this early segment of season, it can be extremely difficult to coax a gobbler away from multiple hens. This is why you need to setup as close as possible to these lovesick longbeards before calling. Start out with soft and subtle calling tactics consisting of muffled purrs and light clucks. Out of curiosity, you might be able to pull the entire flock into close range or bring that gobbler those much needed extra few steps.
If this fails to do the trick, switch gears and try aggressive calling strategies. Loud challenging yelps and agitated cutts can potentially strike a jealous nerve with the lead hen. With this tactic, you want to trigger a response from the dominant hen and then basically call her out. The key is to mimic the boss lady’s yelping, but call louder and interrupt her as much as possible. Over the years, I’ve witnessed dominant hens lose their cool, ruffle their feathers up, and lead the entire flock right down my gun barrel.
Another aggressive calling strategy is to initiate a fighting purr sequence to simulate a fight. Hitting locked-down gobblers with screeching purrs, intense cutts and angry yelps can turn the tables in a hurry. You can add some serious realism to your calling by simply beating your hat against the ground or your chest in short spurts to generate the sounds of flapping wings during this staged fight.
Consequently, you can get even more aggressive with your tactics by implementing spot and stalk strategies to move in dangerously close. Glassing high-traffic areas to pinpoint large flocks of turkeys and utilizing the terrain to sneak into range is a deadly technique. In heavily wooded areas, try using shock calls to locate gobblers and monitor their line of travel. Once you know the direction the flock is traveling, carefully circle out and sneak ahead of the turkeys before setting up for a sit. Layoff of your calls and simply let the flock work their way to you for a potential shot opportunity.
If you feel safe in your hunting area, you might want to try fanning and stalking. There are several oversize-strutting decoys and tail-fan mobile blinds you can hide behind and crawl right up to henned-up gobblers. However, make sure you exercise safety and extreme caution when using this aggressive tactic. You also need to be prepared to shoot in a hurry and at point-blank range, because dominant longbeards will often run straight at the intruding gobbler all swelled-up and ready to rumble.
2nd Phase Explained: Peak Transitional Period
As the season progresses, more and more hens will start mating and begin breaking away from gobblers after they’ve been successfully bred. This period is very similar to the peak of the whitetail rut, and is considered to be one of the best times of the season to hunt turkeys. Gobblers can be extremely vocal and very responsive to calling, especially those mouthy 2-year-olds that are overly excited and desperately looking for love.
Toward the end of this second transitional period, a large percentage of hens will be sitting on the nest throughout extended periods of the day. This scenario leaves fired-up longbeards feeling lonely and neglected, which makes them gobble more frequently and cover more ground looking for hens. With the right hunting strategies, mature Toms are highly vulnerable during this brief segment of the season.
2nd Phase Hunting Strategies
When things are really starting to get cranked up, implement run-and-gun tactics that enable you to call and cover a lot of ground. Simply sneak through the woods or along field edges behind cover to locate gobblers. Glass open areas and utilize shock calls to trigger a response from lonely longbeards. You also can hit gobblers with a series of loud cutting calls followed by pleading yelps. If you use hen calls with this tactic, exercise caution around other hunters and be ready to setup quickly on longbeards that answer you within close proximity. When at all possible, call from high-ground vantage points and with the wind to get more reach and volume.
After triggering a response, setup close to the gobbler and hit him with an aggressive and seductive series of cutts and yelps. Once you’ve got the longbeard fired-up and moving toward your setup, tone down your calling and use soft yelps and light purrs to coax him the rest of the way. Running-and-gunning is an exciting way to hunt turkeys, because it keeps things interesting, allows you to cover a lot of ground, and increases your chances of getting on a fired-up gobbler.
3rd Phase Explained: Late-Season Transitional Period
Toward the end of season, the majority of hens are no longer available to breed and gobblers spend the majority of their time working and visiting their strut-zones. At this point, the remaining longbeards are often increasingly more call-shy, and very skittish due to extended periods of intense hunting pressure. These survivors have been bumped, jumped and in some cases even shot at. In addition, they’ve heard so much good and bad hen calling over the spring season that their heads are still ringing.
Plus, several weeks of fighting, strutting and breeding have left them feeling tired and not as anxious to go the proverbial extra mile for a hook-up with another hen. Overall gobbling activity will significantly decrease during this late period, and longbeards are more likely to spit-and-drum to attract any willing hens. If you want to punch those remaining tags during this time, you’ll need to adapt and modify your tactics and setups.
3rd Phase Hunting Strategies
During this late transition, target strut-zones and use minimal calling to avoid spooking call-shy longbeards. Go with super soft clucks, light purrs and gently scratch the leaves with your hand to mimic the sounds of feeding hens. When hunting conditions are tough, this type of finesse-calling can generate some action. Overcalling or just calling too loud in general at this point can cause gobblers to stray off in the opposite direction.
Another productive strategy during the late-season is to pull out a play from your deer hunting playbook and use ambush tactics. Setup a blind overlooking a turkey high-traffic area and simply wait them out. Focus on key locations such as feeding areas, roosting sites, strut-zones, dust bowls and major travel routes. In areas offering good visibility such as fields, try placing a single hen or half-strut Jake decoy in plain view. If you’re hunting a known strut-zone, setup a full-strut gobbler and receptive breeding-hen decoy pair to grab a wary longbeard’s attention.
In order to have continuous success throughout the entire spring turkey hunting season, you have to be able to identify each transitional period and adjust strategies to each of these behavioral phases. Learning how to do this will ultimately put more gobblers in the back of your vest than fancy calling. This knowledge, coupled with good woodsmanship, is the difference between a turkey hunter and a tag puncher.