Like many of you, I have piled up many days in the woods and fields trying to get close enough to a gobbler to shoot at it. I slug it out just like you do, knocking on doors, hunting public land and pitching tents to stay right out in the hunting spot.
One thing I always try to do is draw connections among different spots, comparing how the turkeys seem to want to play when they’re coming to the call. For whatever it’s worth, here’s a common thread that I see regularly, regardless of the exact nature of the terrain.
By Mark Strand
Video courtesy of Shane Simpson and callingallturkeys.com
It seems to me that turkeys might, and do, come in low at times; in other words, from well inside the woods or from down in the bottom of a ravine or shallow draw. But more often than not, they seem to prefer approaching from up top, on the outside, looking in and down.
In other words, when turkeys have an elevated position that’s at least semi-open to approach from, they often choose to use it. Even when the land is fairly rolling or flat, in most cases, I have been able to find the “top of a hill” and have had good success coaxing turkeys into approaching it. This idea helps me choose where to sit (or stand) to try to call up a bird.
Obviously, the makeup of any hunting spot can create exceptions to this, particularly in places where there are huge expanses of mature timber. But at least in my experience, even when turkeys start out gobbling and yelping from inside the woods, it seems they often end up coming to you from the outside edges of an open area, peering down toward your calling position from just outside the woods.
We have all seen those ghost-like snake heads, silhouetted, bobbing and sliding along between trees, following the rim of a hill. The right turkey in the right mood will step into the woods and come all the way down to you. But most of the time, if your setup is too far down in the woods, your chances of getting a shot are slim.
At least, that’s how things seem to play out for me.
Most of the Hill
Here’s the other half of the deck: Although it seems important to take control of these elevated approach positions, it also seems like you need to stay back far enough to keep from invading the actual top. Looking back and analyzing the percentages, I have decided that when any type of hill and opening exists, that’s where I try to get to when working a bird. If I’ve been moving while working the bird, it’s where I will usually stop and try to make him come the rest of the way, because of my confidence that he will.
In my experience, even when you are forced to make a little noise while moving up on the hill to a more promising shooting position, it’s well worth it as long as you don’t think the turkeys can see you while you’re making the move.
The noises you make while walking, though, have to sound like what a deer or turkey would sound like walking over the same terrain. If your boots shuffle on the ground, making scraping sounds, and
if your clothing scrapes against branches, tree bark or thorny bushes, there is a good chance the turkeys will be repelled by those sounds. Even if they continue to gobble, it’s likely they will not approach the source of those sounds.
My best strategy has been to go slowly, focus hard on making only natural sounds and stop to call from a few points while I’m on my way up to the final set-up position. That lets you keep tabs on the birds and sell the illusion that the hen is coming part of the way to them.
Not So Close
This next idea might run counter to what a lot of you believe, but for my money, in almost all situations, there is such a thing as setting up too close to the edges — too close to the top of the hill. When you sit just inside the edge of cover, or right at the top of a hill, I think that often compromises your chances of calling turkeys to you.
If your calling is coming from barely inside the cover, that can seem to make it more difficult to convince turkeys to approach without visual evidence that you are what you say you are. This is especially true if you are asking a turkey to cross a large open area, such as a field. If you’re close to the edge, they seem to wonder why you don’t just step out and show yourself. (I’m not giving them credit for thinking about it; it just seems to be a natural tendency.) Turkey hunting is not like a James Bond movie, where the siren stands behind the dressing barrier, flashes a little leg and calls in Mr. Bond. If you’re that close, turkeys want to see you.
Granted, when you’re sitting close to the edges or on top, you can see more. That’s why most hunters choose such a spot. There’s a lot to be said for being able to scan a big field. But despite the lure of taking complete control of these elevated approach positions, I usually stay back far enough to keep from invading the actual top. My percentage of shooting opportunities from birds worked increased when I stopped going all the way and started, instead, taking most of the hill, remaining in the cover and then choosing a setup spot.
I try to be within shotgun or bow range of the top, because so many birds come to the edge and peer down and in, or strut back and forth up there, where they can be seen by hens down in the woods. If you can take a shot at a gobbler that stubbornly remains just outside the cover at the top of the hill (and remember, the hill might just be a slight rise), you win. For my money, it’s all about letting turkeys do what they’re comfortable doing without squatting on a natural stopping point for them (the crest of a rise).
The Blind Factor
You might think I’m missing an obvious answer, something that lets you occupy the catbird’s seat and have good success: setting up a blind at the top of the hill. I’m with you there. Placing a blind in a kill spot, putting out a decoy or two and calling is a proven method.
But plunking down in one place is not what we’re talking about. This is more of a mobile hunting strategy, for times when you are walking and calling, covering ground, looking for an interested turkey. In those situations, you’d be in the middle of working a bird, so heading up to the top of the hill — or walking right out into the middle of a clearing — and setting up a blind and decoys would not be one of your choices.
This is open to rousing debate, too, but I also believe, all other things being equal, turkeys don’t necessarily love seeing your blind at the top of the hill or out in the clearing. Yes, they will approach right to a blind — and do — but I tend to believe they approach with less hesitation when they don’t have to look at it for 150 yards.
To me, this approach shines in many places within the modern landscape, with terrain that features smaller blocks of mature trees with interspersed openings, pastures and other fields. In many cases, fingers of cover extend into larger open areas, creating opportunities for hunters to slowly move along the bottom, inside the cover, prospecting for toms that are in the right mood.
I think of places in Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Alabama and more. Whether it’s in a moderate-sized chunk of timber or a thin ribbon of trees, there are often options where you can skirt along, roughly within shooting range of the tops of rises or hills. Even when the land seems flat, it rarely is. There always seem to be low spots you can use as travel routes through turkey territory.
Sure, you hit birds that are right down in there with you; another reason to move with stealth. Assume there are birds that can hear you walking, and give them only sounds that will keep them in the area. One key is to split your time between looking up and looking down, pretending like you’ll break your mother’s back if you step on a stick. Another key is to resist the weight of your foot striking down on the ground, so you step softly. And I’m repeating myself, but it’s so important to avoid letting your boots scrape the ground as you walk. Especially when hunters get tired, they tend to get sloppy and let their boots scrape. Scraping boots make sounds that drive turkeys into the next area code.
If you’re slipping along like this, keeping sound to a minimum, stopping to call, at some point, you’ll hit a bird that answers. From your position, it should be easy to quickly and quietly choose a spot to try to call him to. In fact, it’s a great idea to stop and call from places that you would like to sit down; places that you think turkeys would willingly approach. That way, there’s no panic or major distance to cover after you get the bird started toward you.
These ideas are certainly open to debate, and we know how amazing it is to watch a strutter come a quarter mile across an open field. No denying that. But I think turkey hunters, in most situations, should back off a bit, taking only most of the hill and asking the turkey to come look over the top.
Just make sure you don’t sit too far down the hill. When the turkeys approach and are pacing back and forth along the crest, make sure you’re playing your position and are able to shoot.
How does this compare to what you’ve seen out there?