Read Turkeys' Behavior and Respond Accordingly
There’s one thing I love most about turkey hunting: interaction. As turkey hunters, we are constantly interacting and communicating with turkeys. Whether communicating through the vocalizations of calling, or through body language with decoying, we’re sending and receiving signals to and from the turkeys we hunt.
It’s an ongoing, unwitting game of love on the turkey's part and a furtive attempt to outfox a fairly cunning critter on the hunter’s.
Call it double-dealing, if you will.
I’ll call it turkey poppers with fries.
As a serious turkey hunter, I try to make my efforts as effective as possible. Doing so greatly increases odds of success. That means tailoring my tactics to the time of year and the current breeding phase at that time.
Those phases are: first peak gobbling, suppressed gobbling, and second peak gobbling. Understanding how turkeys behave in each of these, how to recognize them, and what tactics to put into play are all important for consistent success each spring.
Each of these phases have easily-identifiable differences between the other two in regard to gobbling, strutting, and breeding. Recognizing each one will cue hunters as to what calling, decoying, and tactical approaches to use.
Editor's note: This Realtree.com mega-feature was first published March 4, 2016.
The first peak gobbling phase falls during the early season. It’s arguably a hunter’s best time to tag out on a spring gobbler. I know it’s my personal favorite.
How to Recognize: Birds are just beginning to break apart from their wintering groups. Gobblers are voicing their opinions from every corner of the woods. Hens are beginning to break away from their family groups. The spring woods is about to explode with frenzied action.
Calling: Calling to turkeys during the early season — or first peak gobbling — is fun. It’s the perfect time to be aggressive with your calls and really try to get that turkey fired up. I use cuts and aggressive yelps early in the season. If a bird is hot, cutting you off, and seems pretty interested, cut him off, too. Put some feeling and emotion into your calling. It’s the little things that will help pull that turkey within range.
Decoying: Hens have yet to be bred. Gobblers’ testosterone is high and caution is low. So fights are frequent. The most effective decoy set for early-season gobblers is a strutting decoy, accompanied with a hen. Place the hen decoy in feeding or alert mode. Since hens are just becoming receptive and the toms are in full-strut mode, the presence of a strutting “intruder” can be just enough to bring that longbeard within range.
Additional Tactical Approaches: Run and gun hard. I don’t sit in one spot for very long early in the season unless a special situation calls for it. The birds are still likely grouped up. If you see them moving in a certain direction, swing around and get ahead of them.
The suppressed gobbling phase generally falls around the middle part of most states’ turkey seasons. This is without a doubt a tough time to be in the woods. But it isn’t impossible to kill a turkey during this phase.
How to Recognize: The bulk of the breeding is taking place. Hens are throwing themselves at strutting toms. Satellite birds are running around trying to steal hens away from their superiors. But things are slowing down for hunters. Toms are gobbling less, therefore, they are less receptive to calling. Why? They are finding hens faster off the roost. Oftentimes, the “one-and-done” gobble before fly down signifies birds hooked up as soon as they made their landing.
Calling: Birds are still gobbling, but on a lesser scale. They’re henned up, so they aren’t coming to calls very often. That said, you can still call turkeys in, especially satellite birds. Stick to the plan and call much like you did during the early season. Just don’t expect quite as good of a response.
This is the time I like to call to the hens instead of the toms. If you hear a hen, mock her. Recreate her sounds note for note with the same cadence. Do this long enough and she might just come looking for a fight. I usually have a pretty good success rate after getting a hen fired up. Because that tom will be right on the hen’s heels when it comes walking down your gun barrel.
Decoying: Use a breeding pair. A jake and a hen pair in the act may be just enough to attract the attention of a boss tom. Being that gobblers are less receptive to calling, put decoys in open areas easily observed at greater distances, such as strut zones. These are spots frequently used by both sexes throughout the breeding cycle.
Additional Tactical Approaches: Fan in that turkey. It doesn’t want to come to the call because it already has hens. But if you challenge it with a tail fan, it’ll get fired up for a fight. Just be safe when fanning, reaping, and belly-crawling turkeys.
How to Recognize: The last phase of the breeding cycle can be tough to hunt. Most hens are already on the nest. Very few of them are left to be bred. This results in more frequent gobbling. The bad part is toms don’t act as tough and confident as before. Gobblers running to the decoys like contenders in the Kentucky Derby won’t happen as often. Toms are beaten and bruised from a long season of chasing tail feathers.
Calling: Birds have felt pressure all season long. Now is the time to pull the reins back and tone the calling down. I call less often during the late season. Also, I use softer calls like clucks and purrs instead of louder cuts and yelps.
Try unconventional tactics like scratching in the leaves and using a turkey wing. Another thing I do is sit longer. You never can be sure how long it will take a turkey to come in.
Lastly, see if birds are grouping back up. If they are — or if you hear the three-note yelp (yaw-yaw-yaw) of a gobbler, repeat it. It might just come storming in.
Decoying: Gobblers are more cautious in their approach. Turkeys still desire the companionship, but dread the drama coming from rival birds. So strutter decoys during the late season will not prove as successful as during the first peak gobbling phase. Instead, use a single hen or a pair of hens. This will be more welcoming to gobblers of all dominance levels.
Additional Tactical Approaches: A lonely bird has been gobbling but won’t come the entire way. Use the “pendulum play” to lure in that leery tom. How’s it work? Simple. Have the shooter set up roughly 100 yards from the gobbler. A second hunter — the caller — should get behind the hunter about 75 yards. Just make sure they are out of sight. If the turkey goes left, the caller moves right. If the tom moves right, the caller swings left. Oftentimes, that turkey will work a little closer to the hunter with each change of direction. Other times, it just comes straight on in. The rest of the time, it gets away. But that's why they call it hunting instead of killing.