Stuck in a rut on your turkey hunt? Check out these frequently asked questions and answers below from turkey hunting pros Sadler McGraw, Chris Kirby, and Scott Ellis and make your next bird hunt a successful one.
1. What do you do when a gobbler hangs up out of gun range?
Sadler McGraw: If he has answered my calling en route to where I am set up and I am able to observe him where he is hung up at, I will increase my calling intensity and frequency to provoke several gobbles. Then I will go completely silent for an undetermined amount of time. There is no set limit, just what feels right. Sometimes it will take two or three times to make him break and close the distance those final crucial yards. If he won’t commit, let him drift off and try to relocate to a better set up.
2. How often do you call when you have a gobbler answering you?
McGraw: I will bombard a turkey with excited calling from the tree all the way to the gun if he wants to hear it. But, most times I test the water to see how fired up he is. I let him dictate how much I call. You do not want to exhaust your repertoire at the start of your engagement. If this occurs you won’t have anything left that he hasn’t heard in the first five minutes of the hunt.
Chris Kirby: The gobbler dictates to me how much I call. I like to get the conversation in my favor, i.e. I call, he answers, I call, he answers, I call, he doesn’t answer…not a good situation, he could be coming, going or staying put. I like to reverse that and answer him. He gobbles, I call, he gobbles, I call, he gobbles, I wait…put the onus of the search back in his court. Let him gobble two or three times and then answer, his desperation to breed will most likely bring him in.
3. How much should I call to a gobbler on the roost?
McGraw: When I set up on a roosted gobbler, I try to set up within 100 yards of his tree. As everything starts to wake up, I like to tree yelp until I receive a direct response from him. I will usually repeat this process a couple of times. If there are vocal hens roosted nearby, I do just a little more than what they are doing. Then you hope he flies down in your direction.
Scott Ellis: I call as little as possible. I give him a couple of tree yelps, mixed in with some bubble clucks–only enough to let him know there’s a hen roosted nearby. Once I’ve identified he is on the ground, I then give him a flydown cackle. Now the conversation truly begins.
4. What is the best shotgun and load for turkey hunting?
McGraw: The best shotgun is the one that you are most confident in. I have said before the reason that I shoot a 3.5” is that there is not a 4” magnum in production yet. But seriously, whichever gun, shell, and choke combination you choose, make sure that you know the gun’s limitations.
Ellis: With today’s shotguns, shells, and chokes, the turkey hunter is left with many options. Try as many loads and chokes with your gun as possible. Conduct a patterning session with your buddies with everyone, at a minimum, bringing different loads. This will enable you to experiment without as much of a financial burden. Choose the combination that performs the best in your gun.
5. What are the main calls (turkey vocabulary) I should learn to spring turkey hunt?
McGraw: If I were told I could do only use one sound this year while hunting, it would be the plain hen yelp. That is the sound that I hear most often from hens during the spring. It is a sound that gobblers respond to in almost every situation. It is easy to perform on any call, and with minimal practice you can gravitate from plain hen yelps into more aggressive calling if the hunt dictates it.
Kirby: During the spring, there are three basic sounds you need to employ. Yelping, cutting and clucks and purrs. Master these basic sounds and then add personality. Basic yelps are just that, add some speed and volume change and it will intensify the conversation. Mix in some excited yelps and cutting together to fire him up and then finish him off with the relaxing yet intense cluck and purr.
6. What key factors should be taken into consideration when I am setting up on a gobbling turkey?
McGraw: Before I set up, I try to deduce what would be the gobbler’s path of least resistance in route to my position. I like to set up so that I can capitalize on natural and man-made terrain features such as creeks, bluffs, thickets, ditches and roads that will funnel the turkey to me. If needed, I will then decide where I will position my decoys.
Ellis: The set up can make or break any spring hunting scenario. It is probably the most important aspect of the hunt. There are a couple of key thoughts to consider. Always be mindful of obstructions and barriers that could hinder a turkeys progression to your location. If hens enter the equation, place yourself in between the gobbler and his harem. If he has hens you have little control of the situation. When attempting to locate a gobbler(if your running and gunning) identify a suitable set up before you make a sound. This is why it is best to first locate a gobbler with a non-turkey sound. This will give you time to search for the best available position to begin your conversation with the gobbler. Lastly, always consider visibility. It is futile to attempt a set up when you do not have the ability to spot the gobbler as he approaches.
7. What is the best tactic to employ on pressured turkeys?
McGraw: If I have a pressured turkey that I have not been able to do anything with in the morning, I will start out by leaving him alone in the morning and will hunt him in the afternoon. Here in my home state of Alabama, we are allowed to hunt in the afternoon, and it has allowed me to take a lot of long spurred gobblers that wanted no part of me during the morning. I don’t change my tactics, except pursuing him in the afternoon. Remember, turkeys don’t get call shy, they get people shy.
Ellis: First and foremost I will curtail any aggressive calling. Hunting public land my whole life, I have learned that both hens and gobblers will become less vocal when pressured. I will imitate a lone hen in quest of company with soft three to four note yelps, mixed with purring and clucking. I have also found that setting up and blind calling in an area that you know has turkeys is more productive than my favorite method of hunting: running and gunning. I will set up in areas that the hens are frequenting regularly whether it is due to a food source, water, or a roosting area. Remember–where there are hens, there are gobblers.
8. When a turkey gobbles but heads in the opposite direction, why is he doing this and what should I do?
McGraw: When you have a turkey that strikes out in the opposite direction you have to make a decision, “do I try to circle in front of him or do I go find a gobbler that is more cooperative?” If he is the only gobbler that you have to hunt, by all means get in front of him and try to figure out where he wants to go. If you have other turkeys located, go after them and save this one for when he is ready. I always say a gobbler has five minutes every year that he will succumb to a call, you must decide if you are there for the right five minutes.
Ellis: More times than not a turkey that answers you, but is putting ground between himself and you is either following hens, call shy, or has a predetermined destination. Before he gets completely out of earshot, I elect to call with as much excitement and lust as humanly possible. Over the years this tactic has sometimes yielded success. Often he continues on his wayward track. If this fails, reposition on him. Make a generous loop around him and in front of him. Ensure you provide yourself with a generous buffer between you and your quarry when making this move. Spooking him is a definite possibility. Set up and either make the decision to call or just have him walk by and perform an ambush. Sometimes a turkey hunt does not include pretty calling in a perfect situation. Remember–we’re not turkey calling, we’re turkey hunting.
9. What should I do if I hear hens calling in the distance?
Ellis: I will attempt to call any hens that are vocalizing during a spring gobbler hunt. Many times there is a gobbler either with them or in the vicinity. Sometimes you can call the whole flock to you with the gobbler in tow. Other times a gobbler may overhear all the sexy conversation and stop by to say hello. At worst you get to learn from the master–the wild hen.
10. How long should I wait if I’m working a tom and he then goes silent?
Ellis: The easy answer is 30 minutes longer than whatever you feel was a long enough wait. Patience probably harvests more turkeys than any other factor alone. Whether you’re set up blind calling or just wearily waiting on a stubborn longbeard to approach your calls, one key point to remember is how far he was from you when he last gobbled and whether he was moving toward you or away from you. Obviously if he was traveling away from you and goes silent, it is time to change calling locations and attempt to relocate him. If he is advancing toward your position and then ceases gobbling, raise your level of awareness tenfold and do not move a muscle. Listen intently for soft foot steps, spitting and drumming. Search for that gorgeous red, white, and blue neon bulb glowing in the spring woods.
11. When should I use a hen or gobbler decoy?
McGraw: I let the terrain and timber type dictate my decoy set ups. If I am in an area where a gobbler can make eyesight with my decoys from a considerable distance, I like to employ a strutting decoy and a hen together. This is especially effective in fields or wide open hardwood swamps. I think when a gobbler can spot the strutting decoy from a distance, he will have confidence to approach. If he emerges from a more dense area and he is startled by the site of another strutting gobbler, he feels there could be confrontation and will sometimes decide to go else where.
Ellis: Being forthright, I am not an advocate of decoys. Since decoys were revolutionized back in the early 90s I have deployed them in various situations and scenarios. I have had more turkeys shy away from decoys than approach full bore, whether looking for a fight or looking for love. I believe in having a gobbler search for the hen he is hearing. This can be accomplished by proper set ups. Position yourself where you can see the gobbler, yet the hen is searching for could be hidden from view. Understandably this will not always occur, especially when setting up in hardwood bottoms and open timber. In that situation I will muffle my calling and call much more sparingly, especially when having made eye contact with him. Chances are if he advances close enough to verify that he cannot locate the hen he is hearing, he will be in gun range.
12. What is a good tactic to use on field gobblers?
McGraw: The field gobbler is my favorite to hunt, just for the simple reason of being able to view him approach from a considerable distance. I am a huge fan of the strutting decoy for field gobblers. If I am in a situation where multiple gobblers are using the same field, I will deploy a strutting decoy and a single hen decoy for my setup. If the gobbler and I are on the same side of the field, I will try to place the decoy just past my set up in case he hangs up out of gun range. This will enable me to harvest the tom even if he does not make direct contact with decoy. Also, remember to have the strutting decoy facing you, frequently the gobbler will approach the decoy head on in an apparent confrontational scenario. If you position the decoy away from you and he approaches it face to face, it will hinder your ability to make the shot.
13. Speaking for yourself, what one factor has led you to harvest more gobblers than any other?
Kirby: Patience and confidence in my calls and calling ability.You can’t expect every gobbler to come running in. When you are in the woods with a gobbler answering, at one point you are going to think you have to do something right now–change location, change your call, change your calling sequence, call softer, call louder. This is a critical moment. Stop and do nothing for 10 minutes. The gobbler is not going to leave the country. Look at your watch and wait 10 minutes, it will feel like forever. However, it will give you a moment to adjust and think more clearly about your next move. You never know, the next time you hear or see him, it could be right in your lap.
14. How does having better than average calling skills benefit the turkey hunter?
Ellis: Having the ability to produce realistic turkey vernacular will ultimately increase your odds of harvesting that elusive longbeard. Learning all of the wild turkey’s extensive vocabulary, learning their meaning and being able to emulate those sounds will put you at an advantage over about 95% of your competition in the turkey woods. Finding a good call such as any of the Woodhaven Custom Calls line will also aid in reproducing better than average turkey sounds. Combine these skills and good woodsman ship ability, a successful turkey hunter will emerge.
15. What do you use to locate gobblers?
McGraw: The crow call is my preferred locator here in the Deep South. I use a “Real Crow” from Woodhaven Custom Calls. You hear crows from dawn to dusk every day, and very often when you start using the crow call, other crows will join in. This is what will trigger a gobble. Owl hooters are productive at daybreak, but I seldom elicit a shock gobble after the first hour of the day. A crow call will work any time, any where and on any sub species.
Ellis: Through the years I’ve probably used every loud, raucous, animal sound that occurs in the wild. High ball mallard calls, elk bugles, bellowing cattle, pileated woodpecker, etc. It is not logistically feasible to carry all of these types of calls as part of your turkey gear, but I will throw in a duck call or even a coyote howler for good measures. The obvious choices are crow, owl, and hawk. I’ve had great success with all of them throughout the day. I feel geography plays a key role in what gobblers will respond with the most success. I feel whatever sound a turkey hears less of he will respond to with more frequency. Bear in mind a tom will gobble at a car horn or a clap of thunder. I’m not condoning the latter, but do not be afraid to utilize slightly unorthodox tactics to elicit a response.
Image courtesy Scott Ellis