Turkeys fly down and up to roost each day – this much you can count on. But you can learn much more from roosting turkeys than simply where to begin the next morning. Fine-tune the details and your odds of killing a gobbler skyrocket.
Hunting in the morning can put a strutter in range, right after they wing to the ground. If legal, being there when spring flocks return to roosts can also help you kill a gobbler, right before they wing up. If carrying a gun or bow isn’t legal in late afternoon where you hunt, scouting can get you ready for the next morning.
Finding and hunting roosts involves a few key factors. You must obviously locate the roost trees. Then, figure out exactly where the turkeys land and regroup after flying down. Know where they go after they regroup, and how they approach the roost area again in the evening.
HOW TO ROOST TURKEYS
- Eastern wild turkeys cover half the geographical region in the United States. They often haunt agricultural landscapes with grassy glades and livestock pastures. Nearby hardwoods offer roosts. Easy access to feeding areas (for hens) and strut zones (for spring gobblers) is the deal here. If turkeys can find thick-limbed oaks or maples above a creek, stream or swamp, they’ll often favor such spots for loafing at night. Piney woods from Alabama to Maine hold such roosts. Elsewhere, say in the Pennsylvania hills or Missouri farm land, big hardwood stands near open fields tend to draw birds.
- Osceola turkeys south of the Florida panhandle sleep in cypress swamps. They roost on limbs above hogs, snakes and alligators, fly to dry land and walk through bottlenecks to access bigger fields. As with the Eastern subspecies, pine woods and creek bottoms near pastures hold turkey roosts as well.
- Roosting cover for Rio Grande turkeys can include anything from natural live oaks to power line structures in areas where roost habitats are limited. In ranch country, roosts are often easily identifiable and less difficult to find than in the eastern half of the United States. Once turkeys hit the ground and open spaces though, patterning movements might be tougher.
- Merriam’s turkeys are somewhat nomadic, roosting in coniferous hills and the mountains of the western U.S. They can favor ponderosa pine and cottonwood roosts. River bottoms, canyon flats and semi-arid desert cover will also hold them. This subspecies often travels widely between roost trees and feeding/strut zones and can be highly visible from a distance.
Scouting/Hunting Tip: See piles of old and fresh droppings beneath big-limbed roost trees near open spaces? Chances are you’ve located a favored turkey roost – feathers, muddy tracks and scratching add to the evidence.
FIND THE MORNING X
Chances are turkeys you watched going to roost will fly down in the same spot the next morning.
You waterfowl hunters know what I’m talking about. It’s like finding the “X” to set your decoy spread in the predawn hours. Find the turkey X – the exact location where gobblers and hens will fly down, regroup and then move off in the morning. You’ll chance at pulling them in for a shot if you do. It’s the place those birds want to be. It’s where they’ll mill about for a short time before making tracks away.
Yeah, it might take some time to nail this spot down, but that’s part of the fun, too. In the hours before fly-up time, slip into the woods and sit. Listen. Chances are you’ll hear a little turkey talk on the ground, from clucks and soft yelps to shock gobbling at passing crows or other loud noises; maybe even a single gobbler on the move looking for company.
If you’re scouting, track movements of turkey flocks. Use a locator call sparingly to note their position. As the fly-up hour approaches, move undetected with the flock – in listening distance but not close enough to crowd them and send them running.
Slip along, stealthy as a shadow. When you think you’re close to the group, sit down again. If you’re in the roosting area, wing beats and sticks breaking as turkeys fly up to limbs should be heard, along with some roost calling. With any luck, you might have been close enough to see where birds took off from the ground. You’ve found the turkey X for tomorrow.
Be there the next morning early enough so turkeys can’t see you and kill the first longbeard that steps into range.
Scouting/Hunting Tip: Carry good binoculars to glass turkey movements as birds ease toward evening roost sites. Do this in the morning too as they move off. Walk slowly as you watch flocks at a distance. With any luck, you’ll spot them gather in field corners or hilly flats before winging skyward.
KILL 'EM IN THE EVENING
Is it legal to spring turkey hunt afternoons in your state? It’s not everywhere, so check. But if it is, hunting all the way till fly-up time can put gobblers on the ground.
Maybe you’ve hunted the fly-down window, nailed the roost, but the birds got together and drifted off. They’ll be back; you should too. Get in there and sit as early as necessary to hunt the time they move to the roost.
The trick here is to end your day’s hunt where you started it. If shooting hours insist you close the deal before they arrive at the roost, check out geographical travel lanes such as game trails, bottlenecks and man-made pinch points (fence lines; farm two-tracks) to intercept them.
A word about sitting tight: You can’t kill a spring gobbler stone dead if your butt hurts from sitting on one. That’s why comfort is the first priority for afternoon hunts. Don’t skimp on gear. This includes high-tech seat cushions and folding seats; even permanent blinds. Get in. Stay until the bell sounds.
Location rules with decoy sets in fly-down and fly-up zones.
Single Hen: Go simple. Stake a hen. Softly cluck and yelp. Wait for a strutter to slip in for a look.
Big Spreads: Roosted turkeys fly down and can be briefly separated, especially in woods situations. If you’ve nailed the fly-down location, get in there early, well before daybreak, and stake a big decoy spread: hens, a jake fake or two, maybe even a full-fan gobbler decoy. Stray turkeys might just slip in for a look at such a big decoy set. On legal afternoon hunts, birds might hustle to your position on seeing a bunch of turkeys going to roost.
Jealousy Set: Put a jake decoy right behind a belly-down hen (keep her stake stashed). Make it look like he’s about to breed her. Dominant territorial longbeards – especially satellite male adult turkeys – likely won’t stand for a juvenile gobbler moving in and breeding a hen. Then again, if jakes far outnumber mature gobblers, these juvenile gangs of males might run the show and keep longbeards at a distance. Shoot one and enjoy the fried turkey nuggets to follow.
Steve Hickoff is Realtree's editorial director and turkey hunting editor. He’s been beaten by more turkeys than he can remember, but kills enough to keep him fiddling with beards, spurs and tail fans until the next season.
(Editor's note: This article was first published on April 18, 2012.)