Talk `Turkey Hunting’, especially `Spring Turkey’, and images race to mind of a big Tom being coaxed in to a set of decoys … to be felled by the shotgun blast or arrow of an awaiting hunter. While that is exciting indeed, there are other ways to go after these great birds, particularly during the off-season. Which way is the best? In my opinion the best way to go after these birds, as with any game animal is, ultimately, the way you want to. Here are a few ideas.
Spot and Stalk
My favorite way to go after these birds, any time of year, is `Spot and Stalk’. I head out with one of my daughters in late afternoon and we glass an open hillside popular to some local birds. Early in the season we spot from about a mile distant, but as the season drags on, and the birds get the wiser, we spot from two miles (definitely spotting-scope time). At two miles we remain on a well traveled road; any closer and the birds retreat to cover.
The species of turkey around here (north Idaho) is the Merrriams. These birds have incredible eyesight. Spot and Stalk is challenging, for with these birds, especially the Toms, there is no tolerance for mistakes. Once seen, `you’re done’. We encounter deer and elk on such stalks, which often don’t spook at half the distance that will spook a Tom. Additionally, big game seem to take a look and then `decide’ … whether to hide, retreat to safety, or continue with what they were doing before noticing. A big Tom Turkey, in my observation, never takes the time to `decide’, he simply ducks his head and starts to leave. Fast.
A big Tom never, in my observation, assumes he’s not noticed; he leaves.
So the challenge in Spot and Stalk is to `spot’ the birds at large distance. The `stalk’ part then requires not being seen thereafter at all until you have managed to get within kill distance.
Getting into killing range is not easy. The advantage to the Spring of the year is that the ground is relatively quiet (moist and green) and the vegetation low. Typically we hunt folding terrain and use it (the ground) for cover to get close. It requires a good estimate at the bird’s movement between time of spotting and getting close enough. For birds spotted two miles away – they can manage to move quite some distance before closing. It is a difficult technique. (Maybe that’s why I like it.) In folding terrain and with feeding birds one must be ready to see a head pop up, and then take the bird (if legal) at the moment of opportunity. Any hesitation … the bird ducks, and may not be seen again.
Cell Phones and Text Messaging
One variation of the Spot and Stalk method is to bring electronic communication into the `equation’ (cell phones, FRS radios, whatever). A spotter can remain at distance keeping track of the bird(s) location while directing the stalker into killing range. In my opinion these birds are tough enough to hunt that I don’t mind some helps. This method is particularly fun with teenagers as cell phones and text messaging are already very much a part of their lives. And texting is pretty quiet. And it amazes me that the events of a hunt may already be on Facebook, complete with pics, before we are even home! One of my hunting buddies wants to try his Bluetooth the next time. (I think I know what that is – but I don’t have one.)
Driving and Flushing
The birds around here walk/run uphill and fly down. With some knowledge of bird locations and retreat habit patterns it is possible to `drive’ birds to a hunter in ambush. Getting the birds to move is easy – just be spotted by them; getting the birds to move to where you want them to is not as easy. I have found, however, what I call a `Man from Snowy River’ approach can work beautifully. On foot (or claw?) the birds will generally retreat directly away from a hunter. So if I am driving the birds to a friend or daughter, just changing my walking direction a few steps this way or that (now that they have spotted me) can directly them quite beautifully to my waiting partner, stationed ahead of time to catch them in their retreat.
Similar to driving, but downhill, you can position a hunter in an area in which you estimate the birds will fly to, when flushed. Then flush the birds. If it worked every time it would be hard to call it hunting, but sometimes it does, and it’s fun. It’s possible to take a Tom in the air, or wait till he lands. In the air they may not be as distinguishable from hens, particularly looking into the sun.
Listen and Stalk
In the Spring of the year it seems particularly that the birds are more vocal. Though not easy, it is a lot of fun to creep through the forest and brush and listen for their banter. Toms, obviously, are gobbling in early morning and late evening, and sometimes other times during the day. But it is not easy to get up on a gobbling Tom. If you are quiet you will find that whole `herd’ can actually be pretty noisy, as they cluck and call and chirp and … back and forth. Quietly, sneakily, sleuth-fully … close the gap and see if you can get a shot.
To and From Roost
The Merriams roost in trees at night, around here, conifers. It’s possible to find a favorite roosting place and wait for the birds at evening. If they have spent the afternoon in the `valley’ below the birds will start their march uphill before sunset to roost. Big birds will typically climb up past their tree of choice and turn around and fly down to it. Birds seeking roost from hillsides or fields above will fly direct. Once in the trees the birds feel less necessity to be out of shotgun range, and it is possible to shoot them from roost – though I don’t find it any sport. I want to get them before; I’ll try and ambush them on their `march’. Another way to hunt these birds is anticipate where they will come off roost in the morning, and be there waiting for them, perhaps between roost and favorite feeding area.
Cover Ground and Come upon Them
Depending on the terrain and bird concentration it is possible to get a shot at a Tom by just the sheer coverage of a lot of ground. The terrain has to be just right so that you can `happen’ upon them in gunning range. Often, however, these birds will hang out in places where they can see you coming long before you are in range, and they will slip (or fly) away before you get close.
I must note somewhere, and I guess here is as good as any, I have never been able to run and `catch up’ with a wild turkey. No matter how slow it appears they may move – it seems even in their slowest it is faster than me. I cannot seem to ever run a turkey down. Plus, running with a loaded gun isn’t the greatest of ideas – especially in the rugged, rocky, yucky terrain identified as Idaho.
The `covering ground’ method works where there are a lot of birds, a lot of folds in terrain, and you want to get a lot of exercise.
Sign up for Depredation Hunts
As with any game animal – I sign up for depredation hunts. Depredation hunts are opportunities to get into large numbers of birds, meet new landowners, hunt new areas, and learn more about your game. My daughter and I drew depredation turkey hunts this past year and the experience was absolutely amazing. I never knew these birds could make so much and so many kinds of noises. And I never knew they gathered in such concentrations. One afternoon I looked across what I thought was a draw void of turkey – only to see – just a few minutes later – a group of three hundred Merriams Turkey emerge – with another hundred or more in periphery. What an experience.
Doing Whatever it Takes
My son has a video game where the soldiers crawl along the ground in search of the enemy seemingly without effort over long distances, and sometimes through snow, and with all their stuff. Try it sometime – crawling is very tough. And sometimes the only way to go after these birds is to do just that. Crawl … flat against the ground. It is not bad for the first few feet; beyond that it is quite tiring. Add to that mud, snow, rain, thistles, and you begin to feel discomfort you didn’t dream of. Additionally, if you are able to get within killing distance of some birds – you will notice the next difficulty – raising up and getting off a shot in a timely fashion. By the time you are close enough your body will have taken on some shapes that make normal movement difficult. If, however, you are able to crawl across some expanse of bare ground, and score, and can add the episode to your list of successes, you will have something to talk about.
Do What Others Think You Can’t
Don’t tell a young hunter what they can’t do in pursuit of game. To go after these birds my teenage daughter was willing to do whatever it took, without second thoughts. No one told her she shouldn’t wade across a river in February, if the birds were on the other side; and no one told her that she couldn’t use the river to assault the birds, if the river banks were too brushy. The enthusiasm of youth can impress the most serious of senior hunters. Before she was convinced of how hard it is to get close to a wild turkey – my daughter could actually sneak TOO close. Don’t tell a new hunter what they can’t do, or what is too hard. It is amazing what you can do before someone older says it can’t be done. Us older hunters have more mature egos that boast of how hard it is to get these birds. Let a young hunter do it the way he or she wants to. You’ll be in for a show.
Whatever Way You Want to
The above are some of the ways we have hunted birds around here. I have another way I want to try some time – just to try it – just because I want to. For fun! The other day I saw a Tom strutting up to a goose ornament in a farmer’s yard. I have some Canada Goose decoys – I think I’ll take a couple out … and see if I can coax in a Tom. Why? Because I want to.