Spring turkey hunting tips from a state record holder
By Tonya Bland
Playing hooky from school wasn’t something my parents took lightly as I was growing up, but when it came to hunting season, I may have woke up ‘sick’ a few times eager to find myself set up against an oak tree waiting on a big tom to strut in. I had hunted hard for Kentucky’s youth weekend with no luck, and left broken hearted, my parents couldn’t say no to my 11-year-old puppy dog eyes when I wanted to continue the chase for my first turkey into the following week.
I could hardly contain my excitement that brisk, cool morning as my father and I hopped in the truck and took off down the road to catch the birds on the roost. The first setup was unsuccessful for the birds pitched out the other direction, but we still had a few tricks up our sleeve. That day, we snuck around that group of birds and patiently waited for them to come to us, and I killed my first jake.
As I grow older, looking back my father has taught me more than I could ever imagine when it comes to chasing long beards, and I learn more on every hunt we share together. I have learned a lot over the past 14 years of turkey hunting; here are some of my tips:
Making sure your gun is going to kill the animal you shoot at with an ethical shot is the most important thing next to gun safety before entering the woods. Patterning your shotgun with the right shot for turkeys and the range you are comfortable shooting is a must before learning the tricks and the trade of hunting turkeys.
By firing different loads through different chokes, you’ll discover better patterns than others. While some makers simply call them ‘turkey chokes,’ these are essentially ‘extra full’ or ‘super full’ chokes that extend out of the muzzle and are usually ported. Traditional turkey loads run in size #4, #5 or #6.
Finding the right choke tube for your barrel and practicing at various ranges will increase your probability of an ethical kill.
When it comes to your pattern, you want at least 18 or more pellets on the neck and head of the bird at 40 yards; however, good shooting systems will place 30 or more across that kill zone. Whether practicing or when the time comes to shoot at a real bird, make sure not to aim for the head, but rather put the sight halfway down the bird’s neck so you’ll get pellets both high and low across the neck.
Many people get discouraged when trying out new calls or not having great success, but we have all been there, so don’t give up. Find yourself an easy-to-use call, such as Fan Collector Calls’ Triple Tease. This call can make every sound you are trying to make when calling a turkey, from a fly down cackle and soft tree yelps, to fighting toms and attention-getting cutting for those hard-to-get toms.
My best advice is to try out many different calls and figure out what feels good in your hand and what is easiest for you to work with and learn. Then, listen to the hens! Even as a beginner, if you sound like them, then you’re in business. Even the worst sounding hen out there sounds good to a lonesome tom.
First thing in the morning, you don’t want to tear down the woods with loud cuts and yelps; if you listen you will hear that first hen start to yelp, then you too should start your soft tree calling with some light purring and yelping. As daylight progresses, you can start to get a little louder and aggressive with a few cuts to try and convince the tom you are the dominant hen and he needs to come to you.
Locate the Birds
Besides patterning your gun, it’s also important to pattern the birds. Pre-season scouting will help you know roughly where the birds are at different times of the day. Knowing their roost location(s), any fields they frequent and their strut zones are a few examples of areas to know to better your odds.
Another key factor is you don’t want to get too close to roosted birds, especially if daylight is starting to break, because they will skyline you and will pitch out the other way. Personally, I like to try and get in around 100 yards, sometimes closer, from the tree the birds are roosted in if I am hunting in the woods.
Getting in close will make it easier to get the gobbler to want to come to you, but being close also means you must try and limit your movement because the better you can see them, the better they can see you. These first few tips don’t always work as turkeys are, of course, wild birds and definitely have a mind of their own. If things don’t work out in your favor and the birds just do not want to comply, you always have a backup plan.
If the birds pitch the other way, you want to try to get back around the birds so they will ultimately be coming into your setup again. Keeping your distance and keeping up with their location by calling every now and again will allow you to circle around the group of birds and put them back into your lap. Usually this first setup after them flying off the roost is the most important and successful because the toms are still wanting to gobble and they haven’t forgotten about the hen they heard earlier that morning.
Even if this attempt is still not successful, the scouting you did preseason should help you know where they want to go and about what time they should be there. These few tips will definitely increase your odds.
Running & Gunning
Some toms aren’t as easy to persuade as others so be prepared to get down and dirty if you really want to seal the deal. They don’t always like to be called to, so when they don’t want to come to you after a few attempts of sitting and waiting, you go to them. This is my favorite technique called running and gunning.
You can’t always rely on a call to do the work for you, so in order to close the distance between you and him, you crawl to him making sure to keep watch of the other birds around. This technique requires cover such as tall grass or brush, unless you are behind something such as a turkey fan or strutting decoy, which can be very successful if the bird you are after is a dominant bird. However, sometimes a less dominant bird will shy from an approaching fan or decoy. With or without a decoy, this method has helped me kill most of my turkeys.
There is so much to learn about turkey hunting and it will take years to perfect your skills and abilities, but each hunt you will learn something new, as you should. There is not a hunt I go on that I don’t learn something. It takes time, effort and patience to be successful, so never give up. And don’t forget to pass down what you learn to the generations to come and show them the importance of hunting and the same joy it brought to you when you harvested your first wild turkey.
Tonya Bland currently holds the Kentucky state record for NWTF best overall typical Eastern Wild Turkey harvested by a female with a modern firearm, which also places 2nd in the nation for the same category. She is prostaff for Toxic Bowfishing, Fan Collector Game Calls and Surrender Outdoors TV as well as partners with Slay Odor Neutralizer.