February 17, 2021
Calling is only part of the equation. Start by meeting them where they're going.
Daybreak in early March, the oak hammocks, palmetto scrub and cow pastures of Florida are often covered in a haze of light ground fog. On some occasions, cooler than normal temperatures will lay down a blanket of denser fog, obscuring everything within six feet of the ground. On this particular day, it's the latter scenario and the fog provides good cover as I cross a stretch of open pasture that would ordinarily betray my presence to any roosted turkey.
Typically, on a turkey hunt I like to be settled on the ground before the cardinals start the day. Their wakeup call is usually the first daylight bird song you'll hear in the flatwoods, and once they get cranked up the gobbling isn't far behind. As I near the dim road at the edge of an oak hammock where I know there are birds roosted, I'm still walking and a cardinal is hard at it chirping to the new day. The light is coming fast but I'm not worried. The morning quiet is gradually giving way to the various early sounds within the oaks. Right on cue the first faint tree clucks of a roosted hen confirm my suspicion: They are on the opposite side of the hammock from my position. I no sooner process this thought when the stillness of dawn is rattled by an explosive gobble under the canopy.
At the sound, a second bird cuts off the first, lighting up his position in a pine tree a hundred yards distant in the middle of the pasture I've just crossed. Using the low brush and a curve in the terrain to conceal my movement, I calmly walk another 100 yards away from the sound of the turkeys. You see, there are several different routes for them to follow once Big Daddy Longbeard assembles the harem and leaves the flydown area. It's never a certainty which path they'll take, but based on previous observations, I'm reasonably sure they want to be in this patch of mowed pasture where I'm now settling in. They will probably come right down the road I walked in on. Today, I'm sitting in a patch of brush with my long-time hunting buddy Joe and his 10-year-old son Tanner. Tanner is hoping to end a 3-year quest for his first Osceola gobbler and you can cut the tension in the air with a knife.
Pre-season scouting will reveal other information much more useful than a sunset gobble.
A lifetime of turkey hunting has taught me many things and one of them is, it's always easier to call a bird to you if you're calling from where he wants to be in the first place. That little nugget of information will put more birds in your lap than all of the best decoys and fancy calling in the world combined. It's a lesson a serious turkey hunter can't learn soon enough.
What a lot of turkey hunters like to do is to locate a gobbler on the roost the evening before a hunt and make him shock gobble. The plan often then consists of getting as close as they can to said roost before daylight, hoping to catch the bird when he first hits the ground. That's a good start if you're unfamiliar with an area and need to find a bird to get in the game. But experience has demonstrated to me that this plan won't often go as you hope. Typically, a bird won't hit the ground where you expect him to, nor will he come running to your gun.
A few days of pre-season scouting will reveal other information much more useful than a sunset gobble does, come opening morning.
I want to know where those birds are going to be an hour after that first gobble in the morning.
Spending time on the ground watching from a distance through binoculars while doing nothing to disrupt the birds' daily routine will make you a better hunter. Resist the urge to interact with birds before you hunt them and you'll learn a lot about how their day unfolds. In the most basic terms, here is a rough outline of what goes on in a turkey roost. At daylight, the birds wake up scattered in various trees and at some point the first hen will fly down. Soon after, other hens will join her. A gobbler(s) will usually stay on the roost either gobbling or quietly strutting, spitting and drumming on a limb, trying to collect on the ground below him the girls he flew up with the night before.
Despite how it might appear to the casual observer, the hens are calling the shots the moment the gobbler flies down. Some hens are going to head to a nest and leave the group while others are going to get on with their day feeding, scratching and, eventually, loafing. Big Tommy is going to strut along behind them doing his best to romance one of these gals and wait for the green light to breed her. Along the way they might run into a number of distractions. Predators of every description may pop up at any given moment. Other wildlife, cattle, a rancher or another hunter passing by, all may throw a curve at the plan but they'll eventually get back to their routine.
Contrary to outward appearances, turkeys don't do anything randomly. They have a plan each day that involves food, water, preservation of life and, during spring breeding season, finding and utilizing suitable nesting cover to rear their young. No matter what else happens in the course of their day it always circles back to these elements.
Turkeys are equipped to handle surprises with a liberal dose of caution. This is why when a strange bird (read, hunter) suddenly appears at their roost site and unleashes a barrage of unfamiliar vocalizations, birds often become nervous and exit stage left as soon as they hit the ground. While employing these tactics can result in a bird at your feet at times, more often than not you get to enjoy the morning show and then watch them leave. Your next move usually involves trying to get ahead of the birds, attempting to cut them off, a not so simple task with so many sets of eyes on high alert.
Prior observation at my location showed us that while these birds would roost in the oaks consistently, they had numerous options after flydown. Some days they lingered in the shade of the hammock before moving on. Other days they hit the ground running and got right down to business. On foggy days like this, they remained on the roost for what seemed an eternity waiting for the visibility to improve before they sailed earthward hoping to avoid the waiting bobcats and coyotes, real or imagined. They never seemed to leave in the same direction on consecutive days, which could be problematic. The one constant we had observed was that the hens would invariably make their way to our present location by the time the sun was high enough to light up this piece of ground. Here, they would scratch for bugs while the gobblers stood on the sidelines strutting and biding their time. This might involve a wait of an hour or more. Our plan was a low impact hunt that would place us in the strut zone at this point whereupon their arrival, the birds would be met by an interloper. After placing a half strut Jake decoy in a plainly visible spot standing over a hen decoy in a breeding position on the ground, we waited.
Resisting the urge to call too much, we listened to an occasional gobble and tried to monitor the birds' position as they started to move. With the fog now burned off, the woods fell silent of any turkey sounds and time dragged on. At this point a plan that often works for me is to throw a few lost hen yelps and kee kee runs at the birds. The scenario in my mind involves presenting the sound of a young bird or two that have become separated from the flock. This is a move that appeals to the hens rather than the gobblers while I remember who's leading the way. I want to give the hens a little nudge and since we believe they are already headed our way we are merely trying to speed up their progress.
Following a few pleading notes from Joe and me working together to represent two different birds in search of the group, our soft calling was met with the sound of a concerned hen. Unable to resist her motherly instinct she softly clucked back to us as if to say “hey, we're over here” and started moving in our direction. We put the brakes on our calling and she continued clucking, waiting for us to join her and the group. After a few minutes of quietly searching for us she clucked again, this time closer but we couldn't find her in the brush.
Knowing they were closing the distance, we gave one more series of young Jenny whistles and put the diaphragm calls in our pockets. This proved to be more than the hen could stand and she appeared on the two track where we had walked in, coming straight down the road with the whole crew in tow. Our strategy that began as a seemingly vanilla plan was about to get real, and quickly. Pulling up the rear of this group were two longbeards in full strut and they would soon be in a position to see a young Jake putting his best moves on one of their hens.
This is the moment where things can get dicey for a 10-year-old on a turkey hunt. Discretion would dictate that a responsible adult would be trying to calm a young lad and settle his nerves for the shot. With Tanner in a comfortable shooting position we were ready.
The gobblers noticed our decoys and hustled past the hens looking for a fight, closing the gap to within shot range quickly. Having been instructed to not shoot immediately and allow time to enjoy the show, the youngster waited patiently with the safety off, ready to fire. As I clicked away with my camera watching the gobblers throttle our decoy, Joe and I decided we don't turkey hunt to calm down and neither should the boy so we broke loose with our mouth calls cutting excitedly and the birds gobbled over one another with abandon.
Having enough of our antics, on cue from his dad, Tanner dropped the hammer and seconds later my friend and his son were standing over the boy's first longbeard.
For rules and regulations for the 2019 Turkey Hunting season click here. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2018