You know the drill. Get up way too early and head out to where you’ve roosted a gobbler or two, then sneak in, quietly set up, and wait for fly-down. But what happens if the birds fly the opposite direction and aren’t coming back anytime soon? It’s time to use aggressive spring turkey hunting tactics.
Maine’s Bob Humphrey has played that game plenty, but even better news? He’s got a handful of smart strategies aimed at those turkey hunters who aren’t looking to play the tedious sit-for-hours waiting game.
“What I like most about turkey hunting, is that if it ain’t happening where you are, you can get up and try to make it happen,” Humphrey says, matter-of-factly. And he knows of what he speaks.
Humphrey started turkey hunting back in 1980 when Massachusetts held its first modern spring turkey hunting season. He’s since hunted turkeys in more than 20 states and done some turkey guiding, and was the first person to bag a turkey grand slam with a crossbow. He’s also written two books and many magazine articles on hunting the majestic birds, and spoke recently with us about a few of his more-aggressive, advanced spring hunting strategies.
Q. What’s a good strategy to employ when your early-morning roost hunt implodes?
Humphrey: Most everybody goes out and roosts birds, but relatively few hunters scout their turkey areas between about 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. And if you’re going to hunt that time of day you should scout during that time. Finding where the local birds want to be during the middle of the day can be critical, and one of my all-time favorite places to ‘run and gun,’ is a powerline right-of-way. One of the reasons, is that here in Maine it’s mostly large stretches of woods, and those right-of-ways offer a nice open area; they are prime turkey-attracting strut zones.
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Q. How does an aggressive hunter approach such an area?
Humphrey: I like to slowly stalk along those right-of-ways and call intermittently. In the South, you might be walking a winding two-track in a pine plantation. Sometimes as you’re moving, you get a response, and you can stop and set up for 20, 30 minutes and work that bird. But if nothing happens, you get up and move, cover maybe another quarter mile, call some more, and you can continue that process for several hours.
When I’m doing this, I also do what’s called ‘backtrolling.’ That’s when, at some point, you turn around and continue the same process, walking back down the same route you came in on. I learned this years ago, when I was making my way back to my truck and ran into two toms, strutting, in the exact spot where I had just called, maybe 15 minutes earlier. Using this technique there’s a high probability you’ll run into responding gobblers that, for whatever reason, like to come in silent.
I generally move along at a pretty good pace, but try to be as quiet as I can. I want to be able to hear a distant gobble, or maybe a turkey scratching very close. In the turkey woods you pick up a lot just by listening; if you’re making too much noise you can miss important clues that can lead you to birds.
You know the drill. Get up way too early and head out to where you’ve roosted a gobbler or two, then sneak in, quietly set up, and wait for fly-down. But what happens if the birds fly the opposite direction?
Q. Sounds fairly simple and sneaky-effective; what types of calls do you like to use, and what types of sounds?
Humphrey: My favorite for this technique is pretty much a box call or a slate, and usually a box, because I want something really loud. My first calls from any one spot are typically a few soft yelps, so I won’t frighten anything in the immediate area. But then I try to be as loud as I can. I want my calls to broadcast as far as they can possibly carry. Typically, I’ll throw out a series of simple, loud hen yelps; I’ll do this twice, maybe a third time, and if I don’t get a response I’ll move on.
And if you’re hunting out west, don’t be afraid to jump on a 4-wheeler, or a side-by-side; those western birds really like to spread out, and with an ATV you can cover a ton of ground. You can call, listen and look; then jump back on the machine and move a half-mile or mile, and that can be very effective.
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Q. Let’s say you’re on a favorite powerline and a gobbler responds. What’s the next move?
Humphrey: If I first strike a bird and feel he’s a long way off, my first move will typically be to cut the distance in half. If I do that and feel he’s still a long way off, I’ll likely try to cut that distance again; the closer you are to that bird, the greater the probability that you can call him to you.
But in general, once you’ve struck a bird, then it’s back to conventional wisdom; you want to take that bird’s temperature. If he’s aggressive and fired up, give it right back with your call; the goal is to get him really worked up, then shut up and make him find you. However, if he’s tentative, give him a little enticement and hope that you can slowly lure him in. But if he continues to come, back way off on your calls. And if I’m alone, I’ll have a diaphragm call in my mouth and when that bird gets to within 75 to 100 yards, I might give a little scratch at the ground, or a soft purr, just enough to say, ‘I’m over here…’
The whole time I’m looking for a good spot to set up; I need something to lean up against, otherwise you will get extremely uncomfortable. I’m also looking for something to break up my outline; a tree trunk is usually the choice. Out in front of me I want an area open enough that a bird is going to feel comfortable walking through it; ideally a smaller opening that will make them feel comfortable enough to strut, but not so wide open that when they look over, say, from 150 yards, and can’t locate a hen. If they do that they’ll typically decide it’s not worth the trouble to get any closer.
Q. Do you have any ‘secret spots’ that seem to pay off regularly?
Humphrey: Earlier I talked about the value of scouting, and having intimate knowledge of your hunting grounds. And you can’t beat using HuntStand to see a detailed aerial view, and the topographic overlay that’s going to show rivers, creeks, and things like steep hillsides and banks, all of which can be barriers for incoming turkeys. And those aerial photos will also show hidden fields, which turkeys love.
For very specific spots, I like to look for dusting sites, which are usually very dry, concave bowl-shaped areas; usually found on higher ground, with very fine, sandy soil. It’s a place where, anywhere from late morning, to mid or late afternoon, turkeys will show up. It will be after they fill their crop, and they’re done mating, and so now they’ve got a chance to sort of take a deep breath, and do some preening and feather maintenance/parasite removal. If all else fails, you can set up over one of these areas, stay silent, and try to stay awake. Because at some point, those local birds will show up.
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Q. Any closing thoughts for budding/anxious turkey hunters out there?
Humphrey: The two biggest mistakes made by turkey hunters are they call too much and they don’t call enough; the rub is to find that middle ground. To do that you’ve got to constantly be communicating, and try to understand how a bird is reacting. If he’s coming in, let it happen.
Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in learning more turkey hunting wisdom from the well-traveled Humphrey, check out his informative book, Pro Tactics: Turkey Hunting.