Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90-percent mental, the other half is physical.” Much the same holds true for turkey hunting. No matter what your level of education or degree of turkey knowledge, a turkey hunter’s success or failure will ultimately depend on the conscious decisions he or she will make during the course of a hunt. And while we might not know how turkeys think, we have a pretty good idea what they think about. Arm yourself with a little logic, and the HuntStand app, to make the right moves this spring.
Smart turkey hunters glean an edge by learning all they can about the bird. There is an amazing amount of detailed research available for those who wish to study the regal birds in-depth. And then, for hunters in the know, there is also state-of-the-art equipment that delivers instant, practical, in-the-field hunting advantages.
The HuntStand app, for example, lets you log every roost, strut, or feed location on your chosen hunting tract. It also offers detailed satellite views of the terrain, allowing you to connect dots and find preferred travel routes. The app can also pinpoint your best bets for easy land access to help you avoid spooking resident birds.
In addition, the HuntStand app delivers current and forecasted weather conditions, the current moon phase, and projected feeding times. This helps plan a smart and productive hunt. With this helpful info, and much more, turkey hunting has indeed entered a new era of efficiency.
With all of this science and gear available, turkey gobblers should be extinct or severely endangered. That is, except for one small detail: turkeys are survivors! Their skills and instincts have been polished to perfection over hundreds of thousands of years of selective evolution, and they are totally focused on their continued survival. And while it’s true we humans who chase turkeys are vastly superior in intellect, information and equipment, we also are handicapped by one glaring weakness. We are humans and we think like humans! We have choices, options, and opinions that are often distorted and/or otherwise colored by human perceptions and emotions. This is why a consistently successful turkey hunter will try to get inside a turkey’s head. The difference is huge.
Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90-percent mental, the other half is physical.” Much the same holds true for turkey hunting.
Thinking like a turkey means you can’t consider turkeys on an “adversarial” level. Turkeys don’t consider you at all—until they see you. Your hunt is not “you against them;” you are simply hunting them. Turkeys are not matching wits with you or trying to “trick” you. Turkeys have no way of knowing you are imitating their calling. They have no idea that you even exist as anything more than a tall, ugly, two-legged predator. When they avoid you turkeys are merely being turkeys and thinking like turkeys—and you must keep reminding yourself of these facts. After you use your HuntStand App to assemble your scouting info, logical ambush locations, and weather conditions, take what you already know about turkeys, and use your head!
If you are thinking like a turkey, consider what you believe a turkey is thinking about at a given time and try to use that knowledge to your advantage. Sure, a gobbler might let down his guard a little when he is up to his eyeballs in testosterone, and a hen might put herself in harm’s way to protect her poults. But day-in and day-out, a turkey’s main agenda is survival. The late Lovett Williams had the best two-word description of wild turkey behavior I’ve heard. He said wild turkeys are “uncompromisingly cautious.” They are the square-root of paranoia.
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With the above in mind, ask yourself what you would do in these typical situations if you were a turkey:
- If you were a turkey would you studiously avoid thick brushy places where visibility is low and danger might lie in wait? I think you would. If you’re thinking like a gobbler, you know where he won’t go, so you won’t look for him there, or try to call him through such a place.
- If you were a turkey and could hear a hen yelping—and you could pin-point the exact spot where the yelps were coming from but couldn’t see a hen—what would you do? Would you think that was a man calling and run away? I don’t think so. If you were a turkey you would be confused. You would hold your ground and wait for more information; that is, wait for the hen to show. You would then be a “hung-up” turkey. If you’re thinking like a turkey you’ll set up so the gobbler can’t see where the calling is coming from until he comes over a hill or around a curve to find you.
- If you were a turkey and a bobcat jumped out of the shadows and nearly made a meal out of you, your initial reaction would be to fly up in a tree. Then what? Would you stay in the tree all day quaking in fear after such a close call? I don’t think so. If you scare a turkey he is going to get in a place where he feels safe, usually high up a tree, and stay there until he forgets why he flew up there. If you’re thinking like a turkey, give him at least an hour. Turkeys scare easily but they get over it quickly. They are too busy being turkeys to sit in a tree and shake all day just because of a close call.
- If you were a turkey gobbler in the spring and you heard a hen yelping 400 yards away, would you run right to the spot to investigate? I don’t think so. You would gobble in response to the yelping and try to call the hen to you. She is supposed to come to you. When she doesn’t show up you would probably gobble again and wait. Maybe she didn’t hear the gobble. You might decide to get a little closer and gobble again, which usually means you are committed to investigating the yelping.
- If you were a turkey would you gobble at hen yelps but not investigate them because you knew they were artificial? I don’t think so. If you gobble at a call, it is because you believe a real hen is doing the talking. You have your turkey reasons for not coming to the call, which could include you being a subdominant gobbler trying to call the hen out of another gobbler’s territory, or some physical barrier that is keeping you from coming in. Whatever the reason you wouldn’t gobble at all if you didn’t think the hen talk was legit.
- If you were a big tom, gobbling and moving steadily toward the sound of hen yelps, is the reason you suddenly quit gobbling due to the fact that you don’t like the sound of the call, or because the caller made a mistake? I don’t think so. You have your turkey reasons for shutting up. It could be that you saw another hunter, a coyote or some kind of predator. Or, you saw a real hen that came to the gobbling.
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These problems and many more like them call for “command decisions” that you must make on any given hunt. How you make them will likely determine the outcome of your adventure. No one knows for sure what or how a turkey thinks, but we have a pretty good idea what they are thinking about. You can use what you know to anticipate their reactions and responses in specific situations. You won’t always win this game but if you’re smart you will be glad you got a chance to play. And you will definitely become a better player if you can think like a turkey.
Among the current wave of cutting-edge turkey hunting tactics is fanning and its many variations: reaping, creeping, and crawling. In gaining a deadly tactic are we eroding turkey hunting traditions?
I killed my first turkey gobbler in 1961 so I guess you could call me old school and old-fashioned, even though I have tried to stay on top of new developments and trends in the world of turkey hunting. My respect for and admiration of the magnificent bird has only increased through my many years of intense scrutiny and avid pursuit, and everyone who knows me knows I hold wild turkeys in the highest esteem. Yet I am a little embarrassed—even disappointed—when these regal birds display a behavioral flaw that makes them appear, from all perspectives, to be downright stupid.
The wild turkey’s nearly flawless survival instincts have served them quite well for hundreds of thousands of years; they haven’t had to change much about their behavior to continue thriving, but there’s a fairly large caveat to this statement. Gobblers in the spring have an exploitable chink in their armor. A glitch in their git-along, if you will. A kind of selective blindness that allows a full-grown human, in wide-open plain sight, to crawl into effective shotgun range by simply holding a turkey tail fan in front of his face. This behavior is such an uncharacteristic anomaly in a creature so highly programmed and aware of its surroundings that I still find it hard to believe a gobbler can be so easily duped. And yet, sad to say, he can.
And leave it to humans to find an exploitable weakness. I first heard about the “tail fan” tactic back in the ’80s from friends who hunted in New Zealand, and even saw it work first-hand, but when considering New Zealand we’re talking about a country so overpopulated with feral turkeys they are an annoying nuisance. Knowing all New Zealand turkeys had come from domestic stock, and had no natural predators, I didn’t give such “tame turkey” tactics much consideration, other than thinking it would never work locally, stateside, with truly wild turkeys. I was, of course, quite wrong.
I do know the sight of a tail fan has a mesmerizing effect on turkeys. If it didn’t, a 12-pound turkey hen would never allow a strutting 20-some-pound gobbler in bad need of a manicure to walk on her back until her internal organs were nearly mashed out of her body—but I never in my wildest dreams imagined a tail fan would turn into a popular hunting device. Wrong again!
Using tail feathers to approach a turkey is developing a growing number of advocates, especially among a younger generation of neophyte turkey hunters. This growing popularity, I believe, is due in large part to TV shows and feature articles touting the tactic. It seems traditional turkey hunting strategies have become tired and redundant after so many episodes of, “strut, gobble and boom” scenarios (and realistically, how many different ways can you shoot a turkey?). So when something new comes along the media is quick to jump on it. The personalities and pundits describe this “exciting new tactic” in glowing terms by giving it catchy names: “creeping,” “fanning,” or even the most-demeaning of names: “reaping” (Let’s go reap some turkeys!). The term even seems to hold some real appeal for the younger generation.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no personal problem with how anyone chooses to hunt turkeys, as long as their methods are legal and not detrimental to the turkey population. What I am concerned about is losing sight of, and growing away from, the portrayal of turkey hunting as a calling and a craft. The thought that this noble pursuit is a singularly unique and demanding activity that requires skill, intellect, patience and deliberation—as opposed to something as simple as crawling across a field with a handful of feathers.
The true essence of turkey hunting, as I see it, is communicating with another species using its own language and on its own turf—and carefully manipulating individual birds to the hunter’s advantage. But what about the creepers? Do we put these individuals in another category? Do we label them turkey hunters or turkey creepers?
There are more, deeper questions as well. Will the allure of the active pursuit and instant gratification of creeping up on a turkey eclipse the desire to learn and appreciate the time-honored turkey hunting traditions? Are the “creepers” missing out on the thrill of intimate conversation with another species? On the satisfaction of planning a successful hunt strategy? Are they missing out on the feeling of accomplishment at the culmination of a successful, hard-won encounter? These are questions I ask myself when I am contemplating what the future holds for the sport of turkey hunting.
There are many more turkeys now than when I started turkey hunting, so I think my generation is leaving the resource in pretty good shape. But my generation is also on the way out, and a whole new group of potential turkey hunters will soon be taking our place. Will those new hunters take the time to learn the basics of turkey hunting, those time-honored traditions, or will they shoot for the soft spot?
I hate to even admit that turkeys have such a gaping hole in their biological armor, but the weakness is most certainly there, should anyone choose to exploit it. You might have guessed my own personal choice by now. I have avoided exploiting this turkey weakness. In my mind my choice to avoid fanning is every bit as clear-cut and definitive as my choice to avoid exploiting how a deer behaves in a spotlight—but that’s just me. I’ll say again: I have no problem with how anyone chooses to hunt turkeys as long as it is legal and doesn’t do harm to the population. And I’ll admit there is a certain amount of strength and stamina involved in crawling across an open field—something I don’t think I could handle these days, even if I had the desire.
In the end my message is fairly simple. As turkey hunting evolves, I just don’t want us to get too far from what I love and respect about turkey hunting, too far removed from the pursuit that reached out and grabbed me by the throat and so enthralled me as a young outdoorsman and has continued to deliver—over so many decades—many untold hours, days and months of pure enjoyment, adventure, and yes, even hard-won lessons. I am a better outdoorsman, and man, for all of it. I can only hope that with solid parental instruction, and the deft teachings of conservation organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation, the grand tradition of turkey hunting will continue for generations to come. It’s been said that when it comes to opinions, everybody has one. What you’ve just read are mine; it’s my hope that they’ve struck a chord among my turkey hunting brethren.
Here’s how to beat the summertime blues and keep your hunting skills sharp—while doing your part to reduce the local fawn and turkey poult mortality rate.
If you are into using calls to attract and manipulate wildlife, you are most likely a spring turkey hunter. And you will probably soon be suffering from a case of post-hunting-season depression that starts kicking in about the end of May, or the first week in June. Those mean and ornery blues like to strike a week or two after the local turkey season closes, and this nasty case of depression can last until sometime in late August or early September—when the first bow seasons begin.
My advice? Do not despair and don’t store your hunting boots and camo clothing away just yet. I don’t have a cure but I am prepared—as the psychiatrist told the winsome nymphomaniac— “…to offer you some temporary relief.” We are talking about coyote hunting here. In the summertime! And what’s not to like? You get to camo-up, sneak into the woods in the early a.m., pick a spot with favorable wind conditions checked on your HuntStand app, then set up and call. Sound familiar? It should. My favorite strategy for summer predator control is as close to turkey hunting as you can get without a gobble, the only real exception being you’re dealing with some highly advanced noses. But once you see a big song dog bounding across a field, making a beeline for your calling stand, I’m betting you will be cutting back on your time at the beach this summer.
Summer Is Prime-Time For Duping Predators. It just so happens that a coyotes’ nutritional demands are greatest from April through September, due to the extra burden of bearing and raising pups. Prey species like deer and turkeys are more vulnerable in the summer months, especially during nesting and fawning time, and you can be sure your local coyotes are taking advantage of this situation.
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You might get some verbal grief from fur hunters and trappers who might want you to wait until winter to call your local dogs, but waiting until the pelts are prime will most certainly increase the mortality rate of the prey species you want to tie your tags on this fall.
In spite of increased hunting pressure and loss of habitat, coyotes are robust survivors. They are extremely over-populated in many areas, so most states hunt them year-round and impose no limits. But there can be restrictions so be sure to check your local regs before making a plan. For whatever reason, New York and New Jersey don’t allow summer coyote hunting. Michigan requires written land owner permission that is easily obtained, but most of the rest of the country is wide open. Again, be sure to check your local game laws before you go.
Coyotes are extremely territorial during the summer months when they are feeding and raising their pups. Their quick, hostile response to interlopers and their increased nutritional demands make them as responsive to calling as they will be all year. And if you like calling game animals as much as I do, it’s a match made in game-calling heaven. In May and June when female coyotes are giving birth, I start my calling sequences with distressed coyote vocalizations (yips, short howls, and coyote pup and canine pup distress squeals) to try to stir up their parental instincts. I have had great success with the pup yips and shrill squeals. I like to make regular use of an open-reed predator call, but the coyote pup distress calls on my Johnny Stewart Preymaster digital call are more consistent and much easier to make. If I get no response to my “pups in pain” calls I’ll typically lay on some rabbit and/or rodent distress cries. The photo above contains some of my favorite predator calls. Left to right are: Knight & Hale Howler, Knight & Hale Fawn Bleat, Knight & Hale Screaming Cottontail, and Primos pinch reed call (actually a crow call but by pinching the reed I can make very convincing mouse squeaks) and finally, a 2-reed diaphragm call for hands-free coaxing with squeaks and squeals.
In late July and August, the local pups are more mature and their appetite rules their behavior. I might start my calling sequences with a short howl or two to get their attention, but my real emphasis is on my prey-in-distress calls. If I could use only one call during this time period, it would most certainly be a cottontail distress call, which I consider the universal predator call. Still, I like to travel with a whole pocketful of squealers and squeakers, plus my Preymaster Digital call filled with a full range of distress calls, so I can pick and choose as I see fit.
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If the wind is blowing, coyotes have a tendency to circle down wind to scent check the caller. However, In the early morning calm, they usually come straight to the call so that is when I do most of my hunting. I’ll typically start calling 30 minutes after first light and continue until it gets too hot for me and/or the coyotes. Typically, I’ll call for 45 seconds to a minute and a half non-stop with a remote caller, with shorter sequences when using manual calls for obvious reasons, then wait and watch for two or three minutes. If I am in an open place that looks good and I am comfortable, I’ll continue to call at those intervals and stay put for 30 minutes or more. If I am in the woods where the leaves keep the sound from carrying well, I’ll move every 10 or 15 minutes to cover more ground.
Finding productive coyote hunting locations shouldn’t be a problem for you in the spring and summer months. I like to hit the local roads and look for fresh-cut hay fields, the fresher the better. The hay-cutting and gathering equipment turns those hay fields into smorgasbords full of easy meals for hungry coyotes, by stirring up (and often skinning up) the rabbits and mice and birds that live and nest in the tall grass. The fields in my area are usually cut and baled twice a year; in late spring and early fall, so you should have numerous opportunities to exploit these coyote magnets. And even better, you shouldn’t have any problem obtaining hunting permission. It would be most unusual for a farmer to ask you not to hunt coyotes on his place, and as a bonus, you just might develop a relationship that allows you to also help him control his deer and turkey populations. Simply put, effective predator control opens doors and opportunities.
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Again, my gear is reminiscent of turkey season. I “camo-up” from head to toe complete with gloves and face mask, the same outfit I would wear chasing the wariest of toms. I prefer to check my HuntStand app and choose days when slight or no wind is forecasted, but if conditions are breezy and my chosen ambush spot offers 360 degrees of visibility, I will set up cross wind, double-checking my precise setup with the HuntStand app ScentCone. When I am hunting around hay fields in the daylight I like to set up in the woods, 10 to 20 yards from the edge. I know the coyotes don’t mind hitting the open fields to look for mouse and rabbit nests, but they seem to be more relaxed and respond to calling better in cover where they are less exposed.
Wherever you set up be sure you have adequate concealment with maximum visibility, preferably with some type of obstruction to cover your back. I do most all of my predator hunting in the southeast so I don’t have the advantage of the wide-open spaces found out west. To compensate I try to get as concealed as possible in my setups, and try to stay alert as possible. I know from experience that things can happen very quickly in such close quarters.
Setting up in the woods also favors my choice of weapons. Most mornings I’ll be carrying my trusty 870 Remington (3½-inch 12-gauge magnum) stuffed full of No. 4 or 5 shot. Rifles seem to have more “sex appeal” with today’s predator hunting crowd but in the field and forest country where I hunt, things can happen fast and I want to be ready. The shotgun is fast and final. If I set up right, most of my shots will be inside of 40 yards and the 3½-inch loads pushed through an extra-full turkey choke are lethal at such ranges. When I am working on predator control, I’m not taking any prisoners. I know coyotes have to make a living, but they are prolific breeders with few natural enemies, and their numbers must be controlled to maintain a healthy balance. Your local hunting efforts won’t place coyotes on the endangered species list but every one you take out of circulation means one less consumer of huntable wildlife roaming the woods. And of course, in the process you’re out there hunting and having a ball. Bored? Downtrodden? Take this feature as a wake-up call to get over feeling sorry for yourself just because spring turkey hunting seasons are winding down or over. It’s time to camo-up, get out there with them, and “Run ‘em Hard!”