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Art, Science and Guesswork of Setting Up for Turkey Hunting

Having the appropriate setup for sightlines and shot opportunities means not being foolhardy along with having some woodsmanship skills. Of course, sometimes being lucky is part of the deal, too.

The first time I heard the phrase “I sat down wrong” was early in my turkey hunting career, when I was still brimming with the brashness of youth and inexperience, mired firmly in the know-it-all arrogance that comes from having a half-dozen kills under my belt but still not realizing the full scope of the awful things turkeys can do to you.

By Jim Spencer
For Turkey & Turkey Hunting

A group of us, turkey hunters all, stood outside a country store in the rural South, listening to a gray-stubbled man explain how he’d been beaten by a gobbler that morning. The reason, it turned out, was that he’d chosen a poor setup. I’d just checked in a suicidal 2-year-old, and I remember thinking, “Well, you silly old coot, how come you sat down wrong?”

I’m glad I didn’t say it out loud, because the unspoken words tasted bitter enough when I ate them the next morning. It was an hour after sunrise, and all the turkeys that had been sounding off so well at first light seemed to have migrated to Canada. I was covering ground, looking for action, but I was too inexperienced to understand the value of eternal readiness. Turns out I was only going through the motions. I was ambling along a ridgeline when a turkey gobbled at the sound of my feet in the leaves. He was so close I could hear the rattle at the bottom of his gobble. He was probably within shotgun range, though he remained invisible below the curve of the slope.

I immediately became a camo-clad Keystone Cop, looking for a place to be and having absolutely no productive thought in my entire head. I’d have been better off if he’d gobbled when I was farther away or not at all. As it was, the gobbler put me into a hopping panic. I jittered around like a drop of water in a hot skillet for a few seconds, and then took irreversible action without thinking it through — and thereby destroyed any chance I might have had.

I was in a thicket of waist-high blackjack oaks when he blew up at me, and instead of easing through the saplings or backing out of them to find a better setup, I yanked my headnet crookedly over my face, plopped down beside a dead snag maybe five inches in diameter and yelped. He hammered back from even closer, and only then, when it was too late, did I grasp the folly of my decision. Sometimes the best play is to stand to a turkey rather than sit — this being one of those times — but I was too green to know that.

Standing, I could see over and down into the blackjacks out to 30 yards. Sitting, however, the hand-sized leaves of those closely spaced young oaks walled me in like a one-car garage. I thought it was written in stone you had to sit, so I sat. And when I did, my world shrank to 10 feet. The turkey’s next gobble nearly blew my facemask straight.

Making the right setup is critical for the best sightlines and the best opportunity for a shot.

He couldn’t have been 20 yards away, and he stayed in there with me for the next 45 minutes, gobbling, drumming and obviously wanting to die. I could have obliged with a .410 … if only I could have seen him. I never even caught a glimpse of the bird, and he eventually tired of the game and went looking for a more cooperative hen.

Think It Through
I sat down wrong, like the fellow at the grocery store, and it put me at a disadvantage from which there was no recovery. As I trudged sheepishly back to my truck, I was thinking that old coot maybe hadn’t been so silly after all.

Sitting down wrong. It’s one of the most common turkey hunting mistakes. That morning was only one of the countless times I’ve done it over the years. In fact, I did it many times last season, and I’m certain I’ll do it some more this year when turkeys startle me into doing something without thinking it through — or even when they don’t surprise me and I still don’t take the time to think.

Thinking things through before springing into unwise action and painting yourself into a corner is possibly the most important factor in becoming a good turkey hunter. Blow the decision about where and how to set up and it doesn’t matter how well you know the land, how good you can call, how well you’re camouflaged or how tight your shotgun’s pattern is: Sit down wrong and you’re beat.

Fools Rush In
One of the easiest ways to fumble a setup is to get in a hurry. That’s why a turkey hunter should discipline himself to never call until he’s completely set up — or, at least, until he’s looked around and picked out a good spot he can reach in a hurry. Many turkeys are alive this spring because a hunter who called to them last spring neglected this precaution.

The nerve-jangling situation that blossoms when a turkey unexpectedly gobbles right in your face is not conducive to the analytical thought process that should go into making a good setup, and I can show you the scars. Even when you’re simply walking through the woods between calling locations, it’s a good idea to pick out a never-ending series of set-up locations. Had I been doing that when the turkey gobbled at my footsteps, I’d own his spurs and beard today.

That episode, incidentally, was far from an isolated experience. It doesn’t happen every hunt, but it’s happened to me more than a dozen times. As a result, I’ve learned to keep myself aware of nearby set-up possibilities as I move through the woods. It’s second nature now, and five of the last six birds that gobbled at the sound of my footsteps didn’t survive the encounter.

When you’re picking out a spot, whether a nearby gobbler has just rung your chimes or not, don’t get in too much of a hurry. If you’re not yet in contact with a turkey, you have plenty of time to consider the pros and cons of various setups and choose the one you think is best before making a call.

And although it’s probably counterproductive over the long haul to actually set up before calling — after all, it takes more time, and if the bird gobbles behind you, you’re going to have to adjust your position — it’s still a good idea to be within a step or two of the chosen spot before making turkey noises.

Even when a gobbler surprises you at spitting range, you probably have more time than you think. The reason a turkey gobbles at you in a situation like this is because he thinks you’re either a hen or another gobbler. Either way, he’s not likely to move toward you before you answer. Not very rapidly, anyway. Obviously, you don’t have all day to stand there and mull over the choice between this tree and that tree, but you don’t have to plop down in a blackjack thicket, either.

Making the Move
Likewise, if you’re working a bird from a given location and decide to move, the common tendency is to rush things all over again when you choose your new setup. Resist that tendency as strongly as you should have resisted it the first time. Take a few extra seconds and think. It’s a good investment of your time, because you’re liable to have to live with it for the next hour or so. And if the turkey hasn’t come in during the hour you’ve been calling to him from Point A, it’s a pretty safe bet he’s not going to come trotting over the hill before you get settled in at Point B.

While we’re on the subject of moving from one setup to another, here’s some hard-won advice: Don’t be in a hurry to make a move in the first place. Give the bird some time to make up his mind. Obviously, if the gobbler is steadily moving away fr om you and every gobble is fainter than the last, you’d better move — and soon. In the natural ebb and flow of things, the gobbler gobbles, and the hen goes to the gobbler. But because a turkey hunter can’t simply walk through the woods toward a gobbler, the hunter must convince the turkey to do the traveling, which, more often than not, takes time.

Other Set-Up Factors
Two of the most important considerations are the distance to the turkey and what lies between you and the bird. Sometimes you can do nothing about either of those factors, but if you can safely get closer or take another potential obstacle out of play, it’s foolish not to.

If you’re on unfamiliar ground, you’ll probably have to make an educated guess. But almost always you want to get as close as possible to the turkey before sitting down. Not only does this minimize the chance there will be a disasterspawning barricade between you and the turkey, but it also reduces the amount of ground the turkey has to cover.

Visibility is another consideration. You can have too much, as well as too little. I needed more visibility that day in the blackjack thicket, but there have been other times when I’ve had way more than I needed.

For example, last spring in western Oklahoma, a gobbler pulled me to the edge of the property I had permission to hunt. He was still a long ways off when I hit the posted signs, and the distance down the grassy slope and across a wheat field to where he was roosted was more than 600 yards. But I couldn’t get closer, and he was the only bird gobbling. So I set up in an oak clump along the fence, and when I called, he answered and pitched down into the wheat. Before long he was on the edge of the buffalo grass. But there he made his mark. He could see all the way up that hillside, and when he didn’t see a hen in all that open country, he declined the invitation.

I chose that spot because it was my only option, but I could have improved it by putting a decoy or two along the fence. (Another set-up decision gone wrong.) But even if I’d stuck a decoy, the odds were heavily against me because the gobbler could see too well. There are times when you’ll be forced to set up in wide-open places, but if you can avoid it, you’ll probably be better off.

Visibility-wise, I believe the ideal setup is where the gobbler will be out of sight until he’s within shotgun range. If a turkey is on the other side of a ridge, I like to position myself just under the crest. That way, when he tops the ridge he’ll be 30 yards away and in big trouble. Another factor to keep in mind is your field of fire. If a setup only gives you a gap of 15 degrees in which to shoot, it’s not a very good choice.

Usually, the reason some setups afford a restricted field of fire is because many hunters hide too well. I’ve seen hunters blind up so thoroughly that when the gobbler came in they couldn’t see it well enough to shoot.

Instead, sit more in the open with your back against a tree or other obstruction that will break your outline. If it makes you feel better, stick a few twigs or leafy saplings in the ground in front of you, but don’t overdo it — this is what your Realtree camouflage is for. You need good visibility, and aside from Realtree, remaining motionless is the best camouflage.

Along those same lines, remove any and all obstructions that would prevent you from swinging your gun when you set up. Run a test to see if the barrel will clear. If it won’t, break, cut or clip the offending twigs.

Also consider shade availability and sun direction. Sit in the shade if possible, and if it’s early or late and the sun is low, put yourself between the turkey and the sun if you can. You want the sun in his eyes, not yours. He’ll still be able to see better than you, but this helps to even it up some.

And whatever else you do, choose a comfortable setup. You may be stuck there for hours, unable to move, and if you’re not as comfortable as possible from the start, you’re in for a rough time. Nothing grows faster than a marble-sized pebble under the cheek of your butt. It’ll be as big as a cantaloupe in 30 minutes. Get rid of all such pebbles before calling, and do everything possible to improve your comfort. Smooth any bark burrs off the tree trunk, and make a comfortable, level spot for your feet. Use a seat cushion. Lay your water bottle, calls and anything else you think you’ll need close to hand so you can reach them with minimal movement.

No matter how much thought you put into choosing a good setup, there will be times when everything goes wrong anyway. The gobbler will come in behind you, a deer will wind you and snort, or something else will ruin it.

But if you’ll take a few seconds to think it through every single time you sit down to a turkey, it’ll pay off in the long run. And, even better, you won’t have to start as many of your stories with “First, I sat down wrong.”

Jim Spencer of Arkansas is a longtime outdoors communicator and diehard turkey hunter who has pursued gobblers throughout the United States.


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