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In the Heat of Battle

(Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Brian Lovett’s new book, Hunting Pressured Turkeys. The 196-page book offers a concise, in-depth explanation of how to scout for, set up on, and kill wary longbeards. For more information, contact the author at bl_lovett@hotmail.com.)

Our hunt had started so well. After hearing little before flydown, my friend Dan Barden and I had trekked across a pasture and up a small ridge before stopping to call. At the first cluck, a gobbler hammered back 75 yards away. Barden and I exchanged wide-eyed looks as we scrambled for cover.

The bird was just over a crest in the woods at the field edge, so I anticipated a quick hunt. I yelped softly, and the bird double-gobbled. Man, it was going to be textbook. I switched to soft clucking and purring, scratching occasionally in the leaves. And the turkey gobbled at everything-even on his own. But then, reality set in. After five minutes, the bird hadn’t moved. Ditto, ten minutes later.

“Is there a fence down there?” I whispered to Barden.

He nodded.

“We’ve gotta get on the same side of the fence as him,” I said.

Barden shook his head.

“He’ll come through it,” he said. “There’s a low spot where they cross all the time. I’ve seen them do it for years.”

Ten minutes later, though, I wasn’t convinced. The bird hadn’t moved, and his incessant gobbling would probably soon attract a hen.

“Let’s go,” I said, standing. Barden eased from his setup and led the way.

heat2.jpgWe sneaked around the ridge to the north, where a logging road entered the pasture. After ducking through the fence, I kneeled and yelped. The bird hammered back immediately-from the woods, right where we had been five minutes earlier. I bowed my head in disbelief.

“Well, let’s sneak back up the logging road and set up,” I said.
We did, and the gobbler met us halfway there. We only saw a darting white head and heard a few sharp putts, but the message was clear: “You blew it, chump.”

Had I simply stopped calling and stayed put for five minutes, Barden and I would have exchanged high-fives over a flopping gobbler. Instead, I lowered my facemask in shame and cursed. Barden didn’t have to say anything. He’d told me so. So it goes when you’re in the heat of battle.

During your turkey hunting quests, you’ll encounter many similar situations. Your practice, preparation, scouting, game planning, skillful maneuvering, and practical calling will have brought you to the moment of truth: working a turkey. That’s when things get interesting.

“Working” a turkey is sort of a misleading term. You know, of course, that it refers to the process of calling in a bird. Sounds simple enough, right? You call, the bird responds, and he comes in … in theory. Sometimes, working a bird involves nothing more than clucking once and getting your gun up. Most days, it will be much more involved. And during some hunts, working a turkey will truly be work; a multifaceted effort involving calling, maneuvering, and on-the-spot decision making. If you make the correct decisions, you’ll likely experience a hunt to cherish. But if you make one incorrect decision, the encounter will leave you scratching your head and doubting your ability. And here’s another catch: often, you don’t have hard-and-fast guidelines on which to base your decisions.

The process of working a turkey is further complicated by the intensity and excitement of the moment. Calling back and forth with a gobbler, sweating about your next tactic, and anticipating seeing that big boy walking through the woods is exhilarating stuff.

Getting Down To It

All right, let’s assume you’ve located a bird, set up, and started calling. Immediately, many choices arise. How frequently should you call? Is the bird approaching or just gobbling at you? If he stops gobbling, what happened? What message are you sending? Should you move or stay put? These questions loom even larger when working pressured turkeys.

First – as always – start with soft calling, even if you’re not super tight to a gobbler. If a turkey responds and reacts to soft, subtle calling, let him. He’s probably pepper-hot. Sometimes soft yelping, a few clucks, and low-key clucking and purring are the ticket.

But if you must, don’t be afraid to get louder and more aggressive. Some gobblers seem to ratchet up their intensity when hit with cutting and loud yelping. (This generally isn’t the case with pressured turkeys, but you never know.) But remember, start soft, and work your way up as needed. The turkey’s response will tell you when you’ve hit the right mix.

Take your calling frequency cue from the turkey (veteran hunters call this “taking a bird’s temperature”). If a long beard is gobbling at every call, you can probably call a lot-maybe even every thirty seconds to a minute-without messing things up. You probably shouldn’t, though. The more you make a turkey gobble, the better the odds he’ll attract a real hen or another hunter-especially in hard-hunted areas. Further, calling a lot makes it much easier for a gobbler to pinpoint you, which leaves little room for error when the bird gets close.

When a tom is gobbling and moving toward you, it’s usually best to call just enough to keep tabs on him and keep him coming. The “perfect” turkey gobbles and moves steadily.

Conversely, when a gobbler only answers now and then, tone down your calling. You might get him to gobble by calling a lot, but that only tells him the hen is hot to trot and will come to him. If he’s only responding to every third or fourth series of calls, back off, and don’t hammer him. Try calling sparingly; say about every three to five minutes.

By not calling frequently, you put the power of curiosity on your side. It’s never a bad idea to get a bird fired up and then go quiet, making him hunt for the hen. This works especially well with hung-up gobblers. If a turkey gobbles in place but won’t move, stop calling for fifteen minutes, and be ready. Many will eventually break and come in for a look. Pressured turkeys probably won’t break right away, though. Often, they’ll prolong the process, so be patient. If you decide to go silent, sit tight for at least a half-hour to an hour, trying to catch a silent strutter slipping into the area.

Incidentally, you can call in any turkey with yelps and clucks. However, it never hurts to throw in other calls. Purring works especially well to reassure hung-up gobblers that the “hen” is just over the rise, waiting for them. Further, I’ve also seen kee-kees – a call typically associated with fall hunting – get birds to respond when nothing else worked. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it was late in the breeding season, and the kee-kees of young turkeys made those gobblers think some jennies were ready to breed. That’s probably reading way too much into it. Whatever the reason, it worked.

Be prepared for contingencies, too. Some gobblers respond to anything (or sometimes, nothing!). But many times, long beards seem to hone in on one call or sound. You’ve probably noticed that, if you’ve worked birds with a partner. A gobbler might jump all over the yelps from your box call but clam up tight when your pal clucks on a slate. Why? Maybe it’s pitch or tone. Or perhaps, the bird might think he recognizes the “hen” that’s calling to him. Conversely – and this is often the case – the sound might be new to him, and he’s simply inviting the “new hen” to join the party.

The point is that you should have several calls ready when working a turkey. If a bird is gobbling at your mouth calling, stick with it. But if he seems to lose interest, try a box, tube, or friction call. You never know what sound will spur his interest and break him.

Also, don’t be startled when a bird responds. Be ready to answer him and continue your conversation. If a gobbler cuts you off, it means he’s very interested. Likewise, if a bird gobbles and you immediately yelp or cutt back at him, you’re responding directly to his mating call and probably firing him up further.

Think about your next series of calls and the ones after that, too. If a long beard climbs all over your yelping, answer him back with more. Then, be ready to hammer out some cutting as he heats up. All the while, gauge the situation – the gobbler’s temperature, his distance, how fast he’s approaching – and be ready to stop calling or tone things down when you need to.

It should go without saying, but concentrate on realism when working a bird. Don’t break from two minutes of soft purring into a din of hellacious cutting. Ratchet up your intensity slowly. Also, don’t just blurt out the same monotone yelps and clucks time after time. The yelps of real hens rise and fall in volume and intensity. Make your calling sound pleading or excited; put emotion into it. Likewise, cast your calling to one direction or another. This will make it seem like the hen is moving.

The Toughest Call

Every once in a while, you’ll pick the perfect setup, work a hotheat3.jpg turkey, and consummate the hunt in grand fashion. But much more often, something will happen to make you question your setup. Maybe a bird just gobbles in place and doesn’t approach. Perhaps he approaches but seems to hang up. Or a bird might fire up but then seem to lose interest. Is it your calling? Is it your setup? What should you do?

To move or stay put during the heat of battle-that’s the toughest decision in turkey hunting. If you sit tight while a long-spurred gobbler slowly works in, you’re a wise sage. But if you camp out and the bird drifts away, you’re a blundering buffoon. If you make the right move at the right time on a hung-up bird, you’re a master strategist. Yet if you stand up and bump that turkey, you’re an impatient, overaggressive fool.

You’ll find plenty of published advice on the question, but much of it might seem contradictory. Many pros advocate a hard-charging style, and they kill loads of turkeys. But just as many preach patience and caution, and they also kill lots of gobblers. In truth, you won’t find many hard-and-fast answers. Much of the decision about whether to move or sit tight depends on your personality, the terrain, and the mood of the turkeys.

In general, many hunters move far too quickly. They lack patience or confidence in their setup, calling, or pre-season scouting. Remember, planning and patience kill turkeys. Calling is just the medium. This is especially true with pressured gobblers. If a turkey is interested in your calling and you’re confident in your plan and setup, it’s probably wise to stay put and wait the bird out. However, that’s a huge generalization, and simply sitting tight won’t work every time.

The key is awareness. If you can determine why a bird isn’t committing or where he’s going, you’re way ahead of the game. If you can’t, you might have to guess.

When a gobbler suddenly goes silent, sit tight and be ready. Odds are he’s walking in. Just listen for drumming, and watch for that softball head bobbing through the woods. Really, moving in this situation does no good. After all, you’re not sure where that gobbler is! And if you don’t know where he’s at, moving is a sure way to bump him. Sit tight for a while or until you get a fix on him again.
If nothing happens after a while-wait at least fifteen minutes but preferably a half-hour-cutt aggressively or use a locator call to make the bird shock-gobble. If that doesn’t work, you should probably try to find another turkey.

If a long beard suddenly hangs up but continues gobbling, sit tight for a bit. You’ll be tempted to hammer him, but it’s best to switch to soft stuff or stop altogether. That will play on the bird’s curiosity and might make him break and come in. Wait at least twenty minutes to a half-hour, and keep the faith. Something will happen eventually, whether the bird comes in, walks off, or hooks up with a hen. Just be ready to identify the situation and adapt to it.

Of course, if being patient and sitting tight doesn’t work, you’ll have to move. Maybe a bird’s approach is blocked by some obstacle, or perhaps the turkey just doesn’t want to come to your setup. Ease away from your tree, and-without calling-slip to a new spot that might let the bird approach more easily, whether it’s a ridge above the gobbler or an open flat or bench nearby. Sometimes, a quick change of scenery is all it takes.

Further, even if your covert move doesn’t improve your calling position much, it accomplishes something important: it gives the illusion of movement. After all, real hens usually don’t sit in one spot and call for a half-hour or more. Usually, they’re walking through the woods on turkey business: feeding, going to lay an egg, or traveling to their nest.

If a bird gobbles while going away, he’s telling you where to ambush him. Using your knowledge of the terrain, take your best guess at where the turkey is heading – a long ridge, field edge, timbered bottom – whatever. Then, slip around the turkey, find a likely setup, and call softly and sparingly – if at all.

If the turkey moves away but shuts up, you’ll just have to take your best shot. Set up where you think the turkey might be going, and give it a whirl. If nothing happens after an hour, move on.

In the end, your response to the move-or-stay question boils down to confidence. If you’re in a good spot and are certain turkeys will visit the area throughout your hunt, you’re not hurting yourself by staying put. If you can keep tabs on a moving gobbler and know the land well, you’ll likely sneak into position and be ready for the old bird when he walks into range.

Use your head, and draw from your experiences a field. After you build a mental library of how turkeys respond in various situations, your success rate will climb. If you mess up and spook a turkey, just laugh it off and move on. Remember, every turkey hunter makes mistakes.

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