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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 1999

Turkeys can hear and see you coming from a long way off. Here's how to bring a bird into range with stealth and finesse. © Herb Lange

Thinkin' like a gobbler

Tips and tactics to talk turkey and bring in toms in springtime.

Doug Hoskins


Turkeys can hear and see you coming from a long way off. Here's how to bring a bird into range with stealth and finesse.

© Herb Lange

Find a good spot | Scout before the season
Do your homework | Rein in the gadgets
Learning the language of love | Hunting tactics
Staying safe | When toms have hang-ups

Gobble-obble-obble!

The sound made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The snow-white head of a gobbler was plainly visible as he cautiously worked his way through the multiflora rose bushes on my hunting partner's Grant County farm. My arm muscles were starting to ache from holding my shotgun in the "ready" position for what seemed like a half-hour, though it was more like two or three minutes. The tip of the barrel was beginning to waver. My heart was thumping so loud I was sure the bird would hear it. I was breathing in short little gasps and my glasses were fogging up in the humid morning air.

The bird, in full display, was now about 40 yards away, still too far for my self-imposed 30-yard shooting limit. Another 10 yards and he would be both in the clear and in good range. My finger slowly started to put pressure on the trigger as the bird closed in...38 yards, 36, 34...

Before I complete this turkey hunting moment, let's go back to 1976. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources started a program with the Missouri Department of Conservation to trade some of our ruffed grouse in exchange for wild turkeys. From those original 29 birds released in Vernon County, turkeys have returned to much of their former range. We now have a growing population of more than 200,000 birds. In 1983, during the first spring turkey hunting season, 1,200 permits were issued in four zones. Today 50 zones are open to hunting. It's one of the greatest success stories in Wisconsin wildlife management.

Perhaps you've thought about adding turkey hunting to your outdoor activities, or maybe you've hunted the wily bird but haven't been very successful. Or maybe you just like looking at birds and taking photographs. Whatever your interest, just remember these tips are written for the spring hunter or photographer. Turkey behavior in fall is markedly different and many of these suggestions would not be viable for the fall season.

The privilege of spending quality "woods-time" in the spring is the greatest appeal of this sport. The fragrance of wild plum blossoms, the rich, musical O-ka LEEE of the red-winged blackbird, afternoon quests for tasty morel mushrooms, and spectacular sunsets just over the next rise make every turkey hunt a success, even when those strutting 25-pound toms have once again eluded your shotgun or shutter. To find turkeys, you've got to go where they are, and it's usually a darn nice place to be.

Find a good spot

Wild turkeys are found throughout the state except in extreme northern Wisconsin. Some of the heaviest concentrations are in the hills and coulees of southwest Wisconsin as well as the sand country of west-central Wisconsin.

If you applied for a turkey hunting permit before the December 10th deadline and if you were successful in the draw, the first thing you need to do is secure permission to hunt on land that likely holds turkeys. Approximately 90 percent of the wild turkeys in Wisconsin are found on private land. Begin contacting landowners in late January or early February, as soon as you receive your permit. Often landowners, particularly farmers, plan to hunt their land with family and friends during the first of the six spring hunting periods. After that, many are willing to allow access by others.

Once you have secured permission to hunt private land, don't take it for granted! Offer to help the landowner with making hay, chopping firewood, clearing brush, repairing fences and other chores. Bring the family a cooler of good Wisconsin cheese and sausage. Take the landowners out to dinner. Send them a card at Christmas time. Most importantly, respect the land and the owners' wishes.

Do not overlook public hunting areas. Many people incorrectly assume public land is always crowded and over-hunted. Not so! Many times, the person who is willing to walk in from the road or parking lot is amply rewarded.

Scout before the season

Walking the property where you will be hunting or taking photos is an absolute must prior to the spring season. I begin scouting with my hunting partners Jeff Engel and Dave Davis in late March. The birds are still in large flocks of sometimes 100 birds or more. Depending on snowmelt and available food, the flocks break up and the birds drift back to the areas where they will be found in April and May.

Scouting begins in earnest in early April and continues throughout the spring. Once the hunting periods begin, it's both inconsiderate and dangerous to tromp around the woods when others are hunting or seeking photo opportunities.

A selection of calls, and a good shotgun patterned before the hunt, are part of the turkey hunter's kit.

© Robert Queen
A selection of calls, and a good shotgun patterned before the hunt, are part of the turkey hunter's kit. © Robert Queen

Studying topographic maps and aerial photos will help you start your search near wooded areas.

Early-season scouting is best on the southern exposures of wooded hills – the first areas where snow melts and exposes acorns (a turkey favorite) and other seeds. As the spring progresses and all the snow melts, the northern sides of the hills will become the most active as "new" supplies of foods appear on the forest floor.

Walk the entire property, with the landowner if possible, so that you don't inadvertently stray on neighboring land where you don't have permission. Look for obstructions such as woven-wire fences, deep gullies, rivers, and the like. Even though turkeys are strong fliers for short distances and can easily fly across or over obstacles, they often times won't, and your hours of patient waiting and calling may be fruitless.

Also look for feathers, droppings, scratching and dusting areas, and roosts. Black-tipped breast feathers are from a tom turkey; brown or buff-tipped ones are from a hen. A tom's feces are elongated in the shape of a "j"; hen droppings are round, about the size of a nickel. Scratching and dusting areas are cleared of leaves and other debris. Turkeys generally roost in mature trees with open branches. Often you will see large amounts of droppings under these roosts.

Do not fret if you only find "hen sign." Where there are hens, there will be gobblers!

Do your homework

I firmly believe the more you know about your quarry, the more successful you'll be. When you receive a turkey hunting permit, the mailing includes a list of free seminars. These three- to four-hour sessions are taught by a dedicated core of volunteer instructors. DNR staff also attend to answer questions and provide tips about safety, ethics, and understanding the hunting regulations. I strongly encourage you to attend these seminars and others offered at sporting goods stores and sports shows. Helpful books, magazines and how-to videos are also available at stores, by mail and at libraries.

Since only male or bearded turkeys are legal targets during the spring seasons (either sex may be harvested during the fall hunt), you must be able to distinguish between gobblers and hens.

Adult toms and "jakes" (young male birds hatched the previous spring) have a "beard" that protrudes from the upper center of their breast. The length of the beard can range from only two to three inches up to over 12 inches. Even though beards can grow up to six inches a year, a four-year-old tom may only have a 10-inch beard, because the ends continually break off from dragging on the ground or being stepped on as the bird feeds.

Male turkey characteristics include shades of red, white or blue on the head and neck, and the practice of displaying or fanning out the tail. Do not rely solely on any of these other indicators unless you verify gender by seeing a beard. I have seen hens with reddish heads and I have also seen photos showing hens displaying feathers like males. About four percent of hens will develop beards, similar to the way some doe deer develop antlers. These bearded hens are legal targets and may be shot, but think twice because these birds reproduce and raise broods like other hens. Bearded hens will be about half the size of toms (10 pounds or so) and will generally be a lighter buff color compared to the darker, black-feathered toms.


Staying safe

Never wear clothing that is red, white or blue in the turkey woods. It can be mistaken for the colors of a male turkey's head and neck in the spring.

Always have a hill, large tree or rock behind you for protection from other hunters who may be approaching your calls from behind your hunting position.

Keep your wits and senses about you. Don't consume alcohol before or during your hunt.

Be sure of your target and beyond. Be sure you see a beard before you pull the trigger.

Wear or display blaze orange when carrying a dead bird out of the woods.

Never assume sounds you hear in the woods are turkeys.

Use a gobble call only to locate a tom, not to call one in.

Rein in the gadgets

Turkey hunting is truly a "gadget" sport. There's no end to the things that can be purchased to aid you in your quest for Mr. Longbeard. Shotguns, turkey shells, chokes, bows and arrows, camouflage clothing in all the latest patterns and fashions, a myriad of calls, decoys, blinds, seat cushions, etc. In truth, if you are already a hunter, you probably have most of what you need.

Complete camouflage is critical because these birds see so well. Any type of green/brown mixture will do the job. Your archery clothing from deer season or your waterfowl hunting garb will suffice nicely.

Any exposed skin can spook a turkey at close range, so gloves, face mask, and hat are as important as jacket and pants. Make sure your gloves have a long enough wristband to cover your watch. Pants should be long enough to cover the shiny eyelets on your boots. Avoid boots with white or light-colored soles, as these will stick out like neon signs when you sit down and stretch out your legs.

An old adage says: "There are 10 rules for a successful turkey hunt and the first nine of these are don't move!" You must be comfortable enough to sit still for extended periods (hours) at a time. Always carry a comfortable seat cushion (in camo) and take the time to remove sticks and stones that will cause you to fidget.

Turkeys have excellent eyesight, so cover up with camo for a successful hunt. © Robert Queen
Turkeys have excellent eyesight, so cover up with camo for a successful hunt.

© Robert Queen

Now, on to the most important part of a turkey kit: the gun or bow. Hunting the wild turkey with archery equipment is one of the most challenging and frustrating experiences I have ever attempted. Archery gear for whitetails will work fine for turkeys. You may want to reduce the pull or poundage, because your hold-time at full draw may be considerably longer with turkeys than for deer.

A shotgun for turkey should have the following features: 1) a camouflage or dull non-reflective finish; 2) a full or extra-full choke; 3) a relatively short barrel to aid in swinging on the target when you are in a blind or natural cover – I prefer a 26" barrel or less; 4) a sling with quick detachable swivels. Also consider sights – add a second aiming bead halfway down the barrel, rifle sights, or a low-power scope. Shooting at a turkey's small head and neck area is more like rifle shooting than shotgun shooting. The basic marksmanship principles of lining up your sights, holding your breath and slowly squeezing the trigger apply.

Any of the common gauges from 20 ga. up through 10 ga. are effective turkey medicine.

The capability to shoot a 3" or 3 1/2" magnum load is nice, but not a must. Some guns and loads are effective only out to 25 yards; others may be deadly out to 40 yards. The key is to know your particular gun's pattern and limitations.

Patterning your turkey gun is an absolute must. You owe it not only to yourself but to your quarry. Many "misses" are actually peripheral hits that didn't land enough pellets to kill the bird cleanly. Wounding your prey is neither acceptable nor humane.

Team up with a buddy, buy some #4, #5 and #6 turkey loads (buffered, lead shot) and see which one patterns best in your gun. Try shots at the head and neck of life-size turkey targets at 20, 30 and 40 yards. I also take a shot at 10 and 15 yards to make sure my pattern is not too tight at close range. I once shot a turkey in South Dakota that was coming at me at a dead run just nine yards away! You need to land at least six to nine pellets in the turkey's head and neck area for a clean kill.

To draw a turkey within range, you not only have to be where they are, but you have to fool them into thinking they are approaching a hen. I set up a turkey decoy about 75 percent of the time. Generally I put out a single hen at about 18-22 yards if I'm hunting with a shotgun or about 12-15 yards for bow and arrow or camera shots. The decoy draws a gobbler's attention and serves as a range finder. If I know exactly how far away my decoy is, it's easier to estimate the range of an approaching tom.

In the last few years hunters have been experimenting by using multiple hen decoys and even placing a jake decoy with the hens, to suggest a young sprout is messing with the harem. I have had mixed success with these variations. One word of caution: If you use a jake decoy, make sure you are sitting against a tree or rock that protects your back from a person who may think your decoy is the real thing. Be darn sure you have a clear view for at least 50 yards in front of you and can yell out if another hunter takes aim at your deke. Never walk through the woods carrying a turkey decoy unless it's completely enclosed in either a camouflage or blaze orange pouch!

Learning the language of love

For me, the use of turkey calls to bring a gobbler within 30 yards is the "romantic" and elegant part of the sport. Even though you may not harvest a particular bird, the fact that you lured him in close from a distance of a quarter mile or more is enough to consider your day in the woods satisfying.

Turkeys make 50 or more different sounds, but their basic language consists of the cluck, the yelp and the gobble.

You'll have to do more than gobble when calling turkey. The big birds have more than 50 sounds in their repertoire.

© Robert Queen
You'll have to do more than gobble when calling turkey. The big birds have more than 50 sounds in their repertoire. © Robert Queen

The yelp is the "long-distance" communication call of the wild turkey: "I'm over here, where are you?" The cluck is a softer, short-range call turkeys use when in close proximity to other birds. If you can make a passable yelp and cluck, the birds will come. Once you've mastered these two sounds, you can work on purrs, cutts, putts, whines, kee-kees and cackles just for the fun of it.

What is the best turkey call to buy? It's a matter of personal preference. Push-button and box calls are the easiest to master, in my opinion, followed by the slate/glass calls, mouth calls and wing-bone yelpers.

Learn to call turkeys by listening to audio cassettes, watching videos, listening to other people – and best of all, listening to wild turkey hens in the spring. Develop your own calling style and personality. After you hear actual hens calling, you'll realize they all sound a little different, too.


When toms have hang-ups

One of the most frustrating scenarios for the turkey hunter is "hung-up" gobblers. These birds come close to being within range, and then just stop. They might strut back and forth and gobble in the same spot for an hour or more, but they won't come any closer no matter how you plead your case of the "lovesick hen." Some techniques for dealing with hung-up birds are:

  1. If you've been calling a lot, call less or stop calling altogether. He may get curious, think you've left and come over for a closer look.

  2. If you haven't been calling much, try using aggressive cutts and purrs.

  3. If you can get away with some movement, scratch in the leaves with your hand or a stick to imitate a feeding hen.

  4. If there are two of you, have the caller move away from the bird as if the hen is leaving, possibly bringing the gobbler closer to the shooter.

  5. If you're alone, cup your hand over your mouth and turn your head to "throw" your calls, again to imitate a disinterested, departing hen.

  6. Imitate a turkey fight by using aggravated purrs or hitting brush.

  7. If the tom wanders off, move to where he was and call again. He may come back to that spot. There was something about it he liked.

Hunting tactics

There are two basic approaches to spring turkey hunting: Pick a spot and sit, or hear a gobble and go after it.

In my first few years as a turkey hunter, I relied on the first method. I knew from pre-season scouting that birds were using a particular area. I would go out in mid- to late afternoon, fashion a blind of sorts, pace off and place a marker for my decoy, clear a shooting lane or two, then return about a half-hour before shooting hours opened the next day. I stayed in that spot until the noon closing, regardless of what I heard or saw elsewhere. Sooner or later, a gobbler would often come within range of my set-up. This proved very successful, but sometimes monotonous.

Lately I've been using more of a "run and gun" technique, as my friend Dave likes to call it. I still get out at least a half-hour before opening. From a good vantage point on high ground, I just listen for gobbles. Many mornings I hear more than one bird. I pick the one that sounds closest and most accessible, then work quietly to within 100-150 yards. I find a big tree or rock to sit against and go to work. In this type of hunting, I generally don't use a decoy because I don't want to make noise setting it out. I also want to be prepared to move quickly and quietly to a different bird if this one doesn't cooperate.

This second method is more exciting. You don't have the advantage of a blind, you may be less familiar with the terrain, and there is always the chance you may bump the bird off his roost as you approach. If you decide to use this technique, be prepared to goof-up many more times than you succeed!

Once I'm set up, my calling techniques are similar in both situations. I start with some soft tree yelps (imitating the hen just waking up). A very common mistake is to over-call the tom when he's still up in the roost. I've found that the more you make him gobble on the roost, the less likely he is to come to you. He's going to wait for you to come to him. Also, the more he gobbles, the more likely he will attract live hens and lose interest in you. He may also attract other hunters.

Do not make hen calls until legal shooting hours! The gobbler may pitch off his limb and glide down right to your decoy. By the time you can legally shoot, he may realize something is amiss and move on down the line.

Try different types of calls as the morning progresses. I have called on and off for two hours or more with one type of call with no response from Mr. Turkey. My very first series of yelps with a different type of call brought a booming gobble from a bird that probably heard me all morning. Or try using two calls at once: a mouth-yelper and a slate or box-call, to sound like more than one hen. If sitting with a partner, call at the same time using different types of calls.

Another sound tip: Use a pair of turkey wings from a previous hunt to imitate a hen flying down. Use those same wings to scratch the oak leaves to imitate feeding turkeys.

If the gobbler responds, put your call down and wait for him to fly down to the ground. You should hear wing beats, or note changes in the sound of his gobbling. If he continues in your direction, do nothing! If he needs a little coaxing, use soft yelps and clucks. A good rule of thumb is to never call louder than the first time he answered you. He knows where you are, no use shouting at him.

Unfortunately, even though toms are in the area and may have heard you call, they don't always gobble. Sometimes this can be attributed to weather conditions, sometimes their harem of hens is in the same tree or close by, sometimes the toms are subdominant birds and are intimidated by larger toms in the area. Sometimes they just don't feel like "talking." If you are sure there are birds in the area, stick it out. Sooner or later something will happen.

If I haven't had any action by mid-morning, I go "prospecting" as my partner Jeff would say. Prospecting consists of walking the hills and ridges, and stopping to yelp or cutt in hopes of a response. A word of advice: take the time to set-up each and every time before you call. You may have a bird respond that's very close and he can be on you before you have time to unsling your shotgun.

Weather conditions can affect bird movement. Snow or pelting rain generally slows down gobbling and breeding activity, while light warm rain or drizzle doesn't seem to have much effect. Periods of nice sunny weather following a stint of bad weather frequently result in increased gobbling and turkey movement. After a heavy rain has subsided, the birds often move out into open fields or clearings to dry off and look for favorite delicacies like worms and night crawlers.

*

How did my own hunt end last spring? Just as the bird arrived at my 30-yard range marker, I ever-so-gently rested my gun barrel on a small shagbark hickory to steady my aim. Somehow I managed to knock off a loose chunk of bark. My quarry gave two sharp alarm putts and launched himself straight up like a 20-pound grouse! Boy, I sure find a lot of ways to extend my turkey season to Sunday!

Doug Hoskins has been a conservation warden for 28 years and holds a degree in Natural Resources Management from UW-Stevens Point. He is truly addicted to turkey hunting and travels the country with his hunting partner Jeff Engel conducting seminars and hunting as many states as possible each spring.