By John Sader
The wild turkey, native to North America, is a favorite game bird among hunters of all skill levels. Readily available in Canada, The United States, and Mexico, these birds provide both excellent table fare, and a challenge that can humble even the most seasoned veterans. When it comes to turkey hunting there are no guarantees, every outing will be different.
Behind my desk, as I write about turkeys, are the fans and beards of some of my more memorable hunts. In front of me, and in view all day every day, is my personal best and favorite hunt to date. Each one of them carries their own story, but more importantly, their own different way in which they were hunted. All but one were hunted on public land. I live and hunt these turkeys in an extremely popular and pressured tract of about 300 acres. On most opening days there’s usually around 10 people racing to their spots hours before shooting light. With highly pressured birds, you must be able to change the variables that you control. Vary calling frequency and cadence and use different types of calls if you have them. Move spots if birds aren’t where they should be when they should be. Read the situation, the timing of the weather can be different from year to year. Some years the breeding season will start early, some years it will be late. Be ready to sit in different areas or hunt in spots earlier or later than you usually would. One opening day a couple years ago, a hunter bumped a bird that was walking towards us. We came back to that spot every day for a week before we saw that bird again, but this time the bird didn’t come in from the same path, nor did he come in at the same time.
The classic way to hunt turkeys, at least this is the most common method taught to beginner turkey hunters in Ontario, is the sit and call method. It is a tried and true way to hunt turkeys, and I’m willing to bet it has put more birds down than any of the other methods. Oddly enough my first bird wasn’t taken with this method. After you’ve done your scouting, find a nice wide tree to settle against, set your decoys and start calling. Growing up, we were taught to choose a tree taller than our head, and wider than our shoulders. This is for our own protection from other hunters in case they mistake our decoys for real birds. In that case, their shot would hit the other side of the tree, and not us. This method is great both inside the forest and at a field edge. With any method, the best way to increase your chances at getting a bird is knowing where they roost and what their path is throughout the day. I would also try to set up as close as you can get to their roost because it minimizes the chances of someone else spooking the bird or some other factor causing the bird to change its route. My first classic style bird was also the first time I had ever seen or heard of turkeys with multiple beards! Check em’ out!
This was my first successful method hunting turkeys. The Ontario government had recently allowed turkey hunting after a successful reintroduction program. Back then we had access to private land and this place was PRIME turkey country. There was a herd of cattle and somewhere around 60 turkeys grouped up. They stayed flocked together, which is not the norm. These turkeys were as predictable as predictable can be. They roosted on the back field, flew down around sunrise, lined up like soldiers, and walked along the fence until they reached the field with the cows. These turkeys spent the day among the cows, pecking at the dirt between them. We sat at the edge of the field at an elevated position. Like clockwork the birds came along the fence in single file. We were sitting on the other side of the fence in a little bit of brush. All we had to do was wait until a nice tom walked in front before shooting. Easiest hunt ever.
Hunting blinds are excellent turkey hunting tools. Not only do they give you more options in terms of finding a spot to hunt from, but they also give you some leeway if you’re not the most statuesque of hunters. My father is a huge fan of hunting from a blind, but he’s not one to go out and spend money on a bunch of popup blinds to put on public land. He will however spend a good day combing the forest floor for logs and branches to build natural blinds. These are great for public land because you can always have a spot to hunt somewhere. Another great reason to have multiple natural blinds is the ability to move when things are slow. Too many hunters will pack it in too early on days where the birds aren’t gobbling rather than just trying a different spot.
My biggest tom came on a day like this. We didn’t hear any gobbles and we got to the area late, so we didn’t get our first-choice spot. Sat for an hour…nothing. We moved about a hundred yards to another natural blind. After calling for 15 minutes, 3 hens came. They inspected the hen and jake decoy then proceeded to constantly cluck, cluck, cluck. Our natural blind was built around a large coniferous tree, so we were well hidden, but only about 5 yards from them as they continued to blabber on and walked around the blind. After about 15 minutes they left, no longer interested in the strong silent type that were our decoys. Just as I started to pack up, I spotted movement in the corner of my eye. I thought it was the hens again, so I lifted my head ever so slightly to get a better look. There he was in full strut, showing off to my shy decoy hen. I couldn’t believe he was there; no gobbles, no indication he even existed. He showed up completely unannounced. If I hadn’t been in a blind, there’s no way he would have made it as close to me as he did.
Run and Gun
I don’t recommend this method on public land, if there are other hunters around, you’re bound to run into trouble sooner or later. For this setup, mobility is key. Have collapsible decoys that fit in a backpack, and a clip-on seat. Know the land well. Now is not the time to step on every single branch in the forest. If the birds come off of their roost and don’t come your way, move out and away before hooking back silently ahead of them. The trick here is to get far enough away that you can walk quickly as you pass them and be able to silently put yourself ahead of them along their route. Although this is the most exciting way to hunt turkeys, don’t do it unless you are sure that they are moving away from you. Often, toms will answer to your calls, but they will take their sweet time coming to you. Sometimes this could take hours, and they might even stop answering completely as they do a lap around the area you are seated. Again, run and gun at your own risk. I’ve done it at least once a season, and it has only worked once. Sure, you mitigate boredom, but the risk of bumping a bird is not really worth the heartbreak.
In my area it's been warmer than the last few years, and I fully expect the turkeys to be actively courting by opening day. The mosquitoes will be eager to feast, and I’m feeling the popup blind is going to be key this season. If I’m right, on opening morning there will be a glorious cacophony of gobbles.