A veteran gobbler chaser debunks some worn-out beliefs he heard as a kid
I have seen a lot of gobblers come running like racehorses out of the gate and die with honor, dodge swarms of shot to live again, and, like the sun on an overcast spring day, never show. Win or lose, I loved every one of them. Yet when I was learning this game as a kid, I was often taught lessons about turkeys that I’ve come to discover are flat-out lies. Here are some of them.
Lie No. 1: “Wild turkeys are stupid”
I cringe and, yeah, even bristle when I hear this. Some hunters who don’t spend a lot of time with wild turkeys sometimes say this, as well as some non-hunters who have human-habituated birds in their backyards. It’s a common belief from back in the day that remains even now. But no true turkey hunter would ever think this.
Wild birds and animals survive instinctively. Saying one animal is “smart” and another is “dumb” isn't exactly accurate. As Archibald Rutledge wrote of their uncanny ability to see movement: "The turkey's eyes are such that he can see a bumblebee turn a somersault on the verge of the horizon." And in truth, hunting spring turkeys and fall deer during their mating seasons gives us a slight edge.
Lie No. 2: “Spooked turkeys end your hunt”
Hunters used to say your hunt was over if you messed up and whiffed on a turkey. “Oh, he won’t be back here anytime soon.” Not true.
Sure, you missed a bird, or blew turkeys off the roost, and that’s not ideal. But there’s a chance you may have done yourself a favor. If the flock scattered at the shot or winged off at your sudden appearance under their tree, watch where they go. With any luck, turkeys ran or flew in all directions.
Now set up the way you would in the fall, but this time, sit between a scared gobbler and his separated hens. Listen as turkeys regroup. Reposition if you must. Then yelp a lonely longbeard in.
Lie No. 3: “Roosted turkeys stay put all night”
You’ve nailed down a flock of roosted turkeys at fly-up time, which often means those birds will be there at daybreak — but not always. Ever find gobblers you pinpointed at dusk in another place at dawn? They moved during the night. Stormy weather can sometimes cause them to seek better shelter. I’ve seen single gobblers and mixed flocks move a good distance away by morning, likely under the light of the full moon. Or maybe they moved when an owl divebombed them, or another disturbance accidentally pressured the birds — like other hunters.
"I have seen a lot of gobblers come running like racehorses out of the gate and die with honor, dodge swarms of shot to live again, and, like the sun on an overcast spring day, never show. Win or lose, I loved every one of them. Yet when I was learning this game as a kid, I was often taught lessons about turkeys that I’ve come to discover are flat-out lies."
Lie No. 4: “You can’t sneak up on a turkey”
They used to say you couldn’t (or shouldn’t) slip up on a turkey for various reasons – safety mostly. And that’s still legit, depending on where you hunt. But soft steps on wet leaves? Putting terrain between you and an unaware flock as you slip closer? A culvert or dry creekbed or convenient low pasture for the approach? Sure, you can sneak up on a bird.
In some states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey, forget belly-crawling behind a turkey fan: it’s illegal to stalk a bird. And yeah, it’s often inadvisable to do it anywhere – like public land – even if it’s permitted. Rifles, mind you, are legal in some spring states. Then again, some hunters love reaping birds. (A good buddy of mine, who prefers to call his gobblers in, refers to reaping as “another sport entirely.”)
Repositioning, however, is a good compromise that can work wonders. Many of us do that all the time. Sometimes you need to advance into a strutter’s comfort zone and start calling from there. Repositioning can sometimes unhinge that hung-up gobbler by getting just close enough that he’ll come right in.
Lie No. 5: “You can't call a turkey downhill”
Turkeys go uphill, downhill and sideways to find other turkeys. And they come to your calling those same ways. Your biggest challenge is to make your setup so you can see and hear the bird advancing on your position, then to make a killing shot.
Lie No. 6: “You can't call spring gobblers away from hens”
Submissive satellite gobblers running with a dominant longbeard often look for a chance to breed. They’ll sometimes leave henned-up flocks and check out a hunter's calls. And as many modern hunters now know, you can call the boss hen so she does the dirty work for you, and pulls that stutter in with her.
Back in the day, hunters didn’t have dedicated turkey loads. A guy grabbed some so-called magnum shotshells of 2¾-inch No. 6s and thumbed three into his 12-gauge pump. Forty yards was truly the outer limit. Half that was far better. These days, kids are killing birds at these ranges with .410s and TSS.
Then again, just because you can take one beyond 40 yards doesn’t mean you should. Patterning modern turkey loads in a controlled situation with a resting gun and stationary target is one thing. Trying to make a shot while twisted up like a pretzel after as a gobbler pops into view, his head juking like a puppet, is another. Truth is, I’m still an under 40-yard guy. Letting a turkey mince steps in is the thrilling deal I want. And 20-25 yards feels just right – even if I could’ve killed it at 40-plus.
Lie No. 8: “Turkey poults drown in the rain by looking up”
Sounds crazy, right? That’s because it is. But you used to hear such things back then. Hypothermia kills young turkeys, not drowning in the rain. If you're hit with days of cold, wet weather after the poults hatch, you can expect some young birds to die of hypothermia.
Lie No. 9: “Turkeys don't cross fences or creeks”
Sure, turkeys hang up sometimes when faced with obstructions but others simply fly over fences or creeks. I’ve seen a simple hogwire fence stump certain turkeys like a Jeopardy question. Then again, other birds will casually fly-hop up and over these barriers. Each gobbler is different.
Lie No. 10: “Hens don't have beards and don't strut”
Some do. Found in less than 10% of female turkeys according to studies, adult hen beards are skinny, often 7 to 8 inches long and with a kink in them. Boss hens strut to show dominance, sometimes busting on hen fakes staked out in front of you. Some reliable sources have even seen and heard the rare hen gobble.
Just this spring I got a text asking if the pictured turkey was an adult tom or jake. My answer? Neither. The buff-colored chest feathers, bluish-gray head with a seam of feathers like a little mohawk, spurless pink legs and size told me it was an adult bearded hen. And she had a nice one, too.
I heard the kid took a ribbing for this from his buddies, though it was perfectly legal in the state where he killed it. But that’s a topic for another day.
Realtree turkey hunting editor Steve Hickoff has chased gobblers all over the United States and Mexico. He was born and raised in northcentral Pennsylvania, and now makes his home in Maine. Hickoff was named the NWTF Tom Kelly Communicator of the Year for 2019, a prestigious award reflecting his longtime work promoting hunting and conservation as a turkey hunting writer, editor and book author.