Flowers and trees are blooming, way ahead of schedule this year. Dogwoods were blooming in March for the first time I can remember. Trees are already leafing out. Bluebirds are nesting in the nest boxes, and Canada Geese are sitting on nests on the sides of ponds. Geese and turkeys are reportedly hatching the first chicks of 2012 already. Opening day of spring gobbler season fast approaches, and this year the birds are already full in the swing of things. When you step out into the spring woods this year, you had better be ready to hit the ground running. Here are some tips and pointers I’ve picked up in my years of playing tag with these wily birds.
First, prepare yourself for the woods before you go. Rubber or neoprene knee boots keep your feet dry, help keep ticks from getting a start up your legs, and will keep all but the biggest of poisonous snakes’ bites from penetrating to your skin(LaCrosse, Muck, Etc). Lightweight camo pants and a light long-sleeve camo shirt help hide the bulk of your body, and camo gloves and a camo facemask finish the get-up. You don’t want to leave any skin exposed. It stands out in the woods to a turkey’s eyesight, and the mosquitoes will attack it. Next you need bug repellant- There is a long-lasting type that you can spray down your clothes with before you are going to wear them, and it will keep bugs off the clothing for many outings, but you don’t want it or the sprayed fabric on your skin, especially not freshly after it is sprayed(Permanone). There is also the more temporary type that we all have used many times that can be sprayed directly on clothing and the skin(Off, Cutter, Etc). Focus this skin safe type around your facemask, gloves, and seams between pieces of clothing.
Second, get a fanny pack or turkey hunting vest to organize and carry all the gear you will need while out in the woods. I’m a vest man myself, and have one made by Mossy Oak that I have used for many years. Lots of pockets, big pockets, and a blaze orange “wrap” that can be hidden until you’re carrying a dead bird out of the woods are the things I would look for in a vest, and most vests will have these features. When I’m hunting I carry a lot of gear in my vest. I have extra shotgun shells, clippers for trimming branches where I sit down, binoculars for looking for birds far off, two slate pot calls, a glass pot call, a crystal pot call, an aluminum pot call, a box call for a hen, a gobble box, chalk for the box calls, several diaphragm calls, push-button calls for fighting purrs, two crow calls, two owl calls, a pileated woodpecker/peacock call, a hawk call, my lucky white Bic lighter, and the kitchen sink. There’s a reason I want a vest with a lot of big pockets.
Third, and I can’t emphasize this enough, prepare your gear and familiarize yourself with your gear. Practice with your calls. Break them in. Get an instructional DVD on how to use them. And get to know your gun. Pattern your gun with the shells you are going to use on a turkey head target, see how well it patterns, and how far out it will reliably kill a turkey. Then don’t shoot farther than that. Ever. If you want to shoot further, try other choke/shell combinations until you find one that can be consistent at those greater distances. Nothing pisses me off more than someone who doesn’t pattern their gun and then takes a long shot on a bird and cripples him up. Thanks for feeding the coyotes, now take your game wasting butt home. Part of being an ethical and responsible hunter is to take ethical shots where you know you will be successful. I let a bird walk last year that wouldn’t come those last few steps to where I knew I could take him. I ended up getting him the following week at twenty steps. Another guy I know took a long shot just a little past what he knew his gun could do. He ended up with a pile of feathers and never saw or heard the turkey again. A coyote or a buzzard had a free meal, and he lost a chance to bag a great bird. Don’t be that guy.
Fourth, make a plan for how you want to take a bird. Do you want to run and gun, or do you want to sit and wait? Running and gunning means moving through the woods actively seeking a gobbling bird. Whether using a locator call like a crow or owl, or using actual turkey sounds, you are trying to elicit a gobble, and then move as close to that bird as you can without him seeing or hearing you, and then to set up and try to call him in. This is the most fun way to hunt, how most people do it, and is what most people think of when they think of turkey hunting. But it’s also a good way to bump a lot of birds, and to educate them that someone is in the woods and that someone is after them. Early in the season, with less foliage out, you’re even more likely to be seen and to spook the birds. The other way to hunt the birds is to go to a known area the birds are likely to use, and to wait them out. This is much slower and more boring, but can be even more successful. It reminds me of still hunting for deer in many ways. A logging road, food plot, creek bottom, or edge of a field are all great places to set up and wait a bird out. When doing this, I like to put out a few decoys, usually two hens and a jake or full strut gobbler. This way an approaching Tom will see some of his hens with another male in his territory, and likely come in to run the interloper out of the area. For years I’d find a nice tree to lean back against, clear the leaves away, then cut a few leafy branches with my clippers and stick them in the ground around me to create an impromptu blind. It worked plenty, but a few times I would shift position to stay comfortable not realizing a turkey was nearby until it putted and ran away after having seen my movement. In the last couple of years I have started using the large pop-up style blinds commonly used by many archery hunters. I was a skeptic at first- how could a turkey that notices the blink of an eye, not notice a giant 6 foot camo box that just showed up from nowhere? After using one the last few years now, I have come ‘round and now am a firm believer in these blinds. I own three now. The advantages are undeniable. If I have an area that I want to sit and wait a bird out at, I now set my blind up in that area, put out my decoys, then climb inside the blind with a comfortable directors chair to sit in for the wait, a small cooler with snacks and a drink, a book to read to pass the time, and use my vest as a pillow if I want to curl up on the ground and take a nap. It lets a morning, or a whole day, go by relatively quickly and comfortably. Wear dark clothing to help you blend in with the shadows inside the blind, and feel free to move all you want below the “windows”, just be aware that you can still be silhouetted as you move above/within the window.
Fifth, use the foliage to your advantage this year. As the trees green up and leaf out, birds will sound farther away since the sound has more to block it as it travels to you. Keep that in mind as you move in on a bird, so you don’t bump it. But also keep in mind, that as the trees leaf out, you will have a lot more cover to hide you from a bird. This will let you move in a lot closer, especially if there is a slight breeze to give you some cover noise in the bushes. One of the nicest birds I ever took was a stubborn old bird at the end of a tough season. He walked a wide open hardwood ridge all morning long, and had several hens with him. He would answer a call, but over several hours he never took a single step in our direction. As it approached lunch time the breeze picked up and the leaves were rustling on the undergrowth. I took almost an hour to inch forward on my belly the 80+ yards I needed to get within range of the ridge he was pacing back and forth, and after getting there and making a soft yelp or two, in the end I dropped that bird at 28 steps as he made his way back to me.
Keep these pointers in mind, and I wish you success this spring. Good Hunting!