When I was young and knew even less than I do now, I envisioned the turkey hunting learning curve as a long, steep slope.
Now, of course, I realize it’s a winding ridge, complete with numerous points, ravines and sheer faces. Along the way, you’ll find some flat trails where you can really make progress. However, you’ll also encounter many dead ends that make you scratch your head, retrace your steps and start again.
That’s been especially evident in my experience with the mobile hunting approach commonly called cutting and running. When I was introduced to walking and calling, I thought it was the best — and possibly only — way to hunt turkeys. You could stretch your legs for hours, find pepper-hot gobblers and kill them in lightning-quick fashion.
Maybe my early hunts spoiled me, because my singular devotion to mobile hunting soon began to result in blown hunts and busted birds, leaving me confused and hesitant.
But like anything else, after a few more springs on my butt pad, I began to form a better idea about the merits and drawbacks of cutting and running. Where do I stand now?
Squarely in the middle.
Don’t get me wrong. If I can get away with walking and calling to locate turkeys rather than sitting tight, I’ll take the mobile approach. Typically, I’ll walk along a long ridge or stretch of timber, stopping every 75 yards or so to call. I’ll only stop when there’s a good set-up spot nearby. In fact, I might stop every 30 or 40 steps if I encounter a terrain rise, bend in a logging road or similarly ideal setup.
I call fairly aggressively, hoping to strike a bird that’s serious about finding a hen. When I do so, I try to slip as tight as possible before setting up. This approach lets me cover ground and enjoy plenty of action.
The trouble with walking and calling is that, well, you’re walking and calling. When you move, a turkey can see you. And when you call, a turkey will focus on you. Unless the situation is right, cutting and running can run a lot of birds out of your immediate area.
The key is to know the lay of the land and habits of the birds. That lets you know if cutting and running is viable or might do more harm than good.
Basically, walking and calling works best if you’re hunting large tracts of land with good cover, such as big timber, rolling terrain or sufficient spring vegetation. Also — duh — it’s effective when turkeys are relatively vocal. Aggressively walking and calling does not work as well on small properties, in open areas or when turkeys are tight-lipped.
So, if I have 300-plus acres of timber to roam, and the local gobblers seem like they’re acting right, cutting and running is a good choice. Terrain and cover will hide my movements, and birds will probably answer my calling, revealing their location. Done correctly, walking and calling will likely put me in position to locate and set up on a turkey that wants to die.
Conversely, if I’m on a 40-acre dairy farm or a wide-open South Dakota prairie, or turkeys seem to shut up right after flydown, a cutt-and-run hunt can quickly become a cutt-and-bump hunt. If birds can see long distances and don’t announce themselves, you will get busted in short order.
Of course, hunting scenarios are not usually that cut and dried, so there’s often a fine line between being aggressive or playing it safe. It only takes a couple of gobbles and a bit of cover to make a great cutt-and-run hunt. Yet one open expanse of woods or a 40-yard-wide power line can turn a sure thing into a boogered gobbler.
Instead of choosing between the extremes, I often adopt a compromise strategy.
If I need to locate a bird and don’t have a sure-fire ambush lined up, I’ll adopt a cautiously mobile approach. Years ago, South Carolina turkey pro David Findley called this “piddle and crawl.”
Generally, I’ll slip slowly and quietly through the woods, listening for turkeys and looking for sign or distant strutters. Every 50 to 100 yards, I’ll stop, find a good setup and run through three or four calling series. If the area looks especially promising, I might sit there and call for a half-hour or so. If I don’t get a response after a while, I ease forward another 50 or 100 yards and resume calling.
I’ll always start with soft calling and get progressively more aggressive. Typically, I’ll start with some soft yelps and perhaps a bit of purring and clucking. That way, if a turkey is nearby, I won’t blow his hat off. If nothing responds, I might yelp louder and throw in some clucks. If that doesn’t net anything, I’ll often cutt and then end with some louder yelping.
Sometimes, I’ll combine cautious walking and calling with cold-calling. I might ease into a small stretch of woods and call every few steps, trying to get a feel for the situation. If I happen upon a great-looking spot, I might plop down, break out three or four calls and spend a couple of hours there. I can always move on later.
Other times, I might combine piddling and crawling with true cutting and running. When cover or terrain allows, I might walk quickly through the area, calling relatively aggressively. Then, when I hit an open patch or sparsely vegetated piece of woods, I’ll slow down and continue cautiously.
If a bird responds — whether I’m walking or cold-calling — I immediately try to assess the situation just as I would any other time. If the turkey is close, I’ll get down to business and start working him. If he’s far enough away, I might form an approach plan and try to cut the distance in half. If he gobbles at almost every call, I might call my way to him. If he only gobbles at every second or third series, I’ll be very careful.
Here’s the best advice I ever received on the passive-vs.-aggressive debate: Just be a turkey hunter.
In other words, don’t lock into cutting and running or any other tactic. Use your knowledge and experience, assess every situation individually, and then make the best informed decision you can. If that means walking a long ridge and hammering yelps into a coulee, great. If it means sitting tight over a creek bottom filled with scratching, that’s also great. Or if it means trying one approach but changing on the fly, do it.
Turkey hunting rarely offers up easy answers, and your best guesses will often be incorrect. Trust your scouting and hard-earned experience, and make the best choices possible. Through time, you’ll make enough good decisions to keep you eating turkey dinners.