By Judd Cooney
Late to the Turkey Trot
by Judd Cooney
When Eddie Salter told me we would be hunting an Alabama gobbler that had snergled him on several occasions, I knew we had our work cut out for us. Eddie is a world-class caller and hunter, but those Southern gobblers always seem to present a challenge toward the end of the season. After a month of being hunted, already sharp survival instincts are honed to a fine edge.
We got into this gobbler’s stomping grounds well before daylight, long before the bird started sounding off. Eddie set me on a small knoll where I enjoyed a good view across a timbered bowl. Then he crawled into a thicket 50 yards down the slope, hoping to call the gobbler off the ridge and by my stand, counting on the calling to keep the bird focused on the thicket and not on me.
It was a well-thought-out plan of attack. Unfortunately, the gobbler had his own ideas, staying up on the ridge above, gobbling enthusiastically to every persuasive hen sound, hot-wired but not to the point of moving down off that ridge.
After strutting back and forth for half an hour, the cantankerous gobbler meandered off in the opposite direction, to an old logging road that circled around the upper edge of the bowl. I watched the gobbler move along that roadway for 50 yards, peering down into the bowl for the vocal hen. Gambling that it would stay up where it could look down into the bowl, I crawled off the knoll and into a ravine on the backside, out of the gobbler’s sight. Then I hustled up the slope until I could move unseen along the same roadway to a point jutting out into the bowl. I crawled up a slight rise and then assumed a prone shooting position behind a blown-down root wad.
Half-hour later, the gobbler walked around the point, and I dumped it with a load of premium plated No. 5 shot.
There are no set rules to hunting gobblers, and improvisation often is the key to dealing with contrary late-season birds. Even though this one didn’t do what we thought it should, it was mesmerized by Eddie’s calling, and that gave me my chance to freestyle.
Over the years, I’ve encountered countless gobblers that seem to maintain a safety zone around themselves. When a hen doesn’t approach within this zone, the gobbler stays put, eventually losing interest and wandering off. This seeming nonchalance can be maddening, but one method I use successfully for such toms is what I term “the retreating turkey tactic.”
A number of years ago, after hunting Colorado Merriam’s with my daughter the last couple days of the season, I finally located a late-morning gobbling bird on a ridge atop a ponderosa and oakbrush mesa. We eased to within 300 yards or so, set up, and I started calling.
The response was enthusiastic, but after an hour the bird hadn’t moved any closer. I figured it had been pressured plenty during the previous three weeks and probably wasn’t going to respond to a hen it couldn’t see. I moved my daughter to a clump of oakbrush where she would have a shot at any bird moving along the ridge and then I moved back 100 yards and started cutting and yelping again. I kept reducing the volume until I stopped getting a gobbling response. Then I moved back another 50 yards and repeated the process, trying to con the gobbler into thinking I was a hen leaving the area. I’d instructed my daughter to stay on high alert, as there was a very good chance the gobbler would be approaching her silently.
I was 200 yards down the ridge when I heard the shot. She said the gobbler was obviously pursuing the phantom hen when a load of No. 4 dropped it at 20 yards.
A real hen taught me a variation of this trick several years later, while I was hunting with a client the last week of Iowa’s spring season.
We’d been bested by henned-up gobblers for two days when we got on a vocal midday gobbler, situated in a timbered creek bottom. From the sounds of things, I figured it to be just above a tank dam on a well-used strutting ground, so we set up 200 yards downstream of that in the creek bottom.
An hour later, the gobbler was still sounding off but hadn’t moved in spite of my best calling.
I instructed the hunter to sit tight as I moved off to try the retreating turkey con. I’d moved 150 yards or so down the draw, and was on my third calling string, when a real hen started aggressively cutting and yelping in response to my calling. I figured the hen had a nest nearby and was warning me off in no uncertain terms. The hen and I had been engaged in a vocal donnybrook for several minutes when I heard the shot.
According to my hunter, the gobbler hadn’t moved until the real hen entered the picture. But within a minute of the cacophonous confab between the hen and me, the gobbler appeared at a fast trot and approached within 10 yards before the hunter was able to take the shot.
Since then, I’ve called in a number of hung-up gobblers with a calling partner imitating a pair of squabbling hens. The more strident and aggressive the calling, the better. This is one time when overcalling can be more effective than not calling enough.
Supposedly, late morning is the time of day to call in a late-season gobbler, when the real hens have left for the day to tend their nests. The assumption is that gobblers, having been left alone, will be more receptive. However, I’ve found this is not always the case, especially where a dense population of nest scavengers means a correspondingly high rate of late-season nest destruction. One spring in Iowa, we found nine turkey nests holding six to 13 eggs apiece. Before the season was over, all nine had been destroyed by skunks, coyotes, coons and possums.
This nest loss puts the hens back to square one in the breeding and nesting process. They again roost near the gobblers, lollygagging around and replaying the early-season breeding routine. Add this to the fact that most turkeys—hens and gobblers alike—are spookier because of the hunting pressure they have experienced, and you face a distinctly different challenge. The hens are less curious and far less likely to bring a gobbler along to your hen calling. Also, these late-season breeders are generally more aggressive and possessive, wanting to keep the gobblers to themselves.
The gobblers are somewhat satiated after the peak of the breeding cycle and not as interested in hen sounds, especially with eager-to-breed hens already around.
Iowa’s turkey season was down to the last couple of days before my last client tagged out, finally giving me a chance to get out and hunt on my own. The henned-up gobbler situation seemed to be getting worse, though, and after listening to hens lead gobblers away twice that morning, I was contemplating the prospect of a plastic-wrapped Butterball if I wanted to end the season with a turkey in the freezer.
It was mid-morning, and I was cruising slowly down a dirt road that split one of my favorite hunting leases when I spotted a strutting gobbler a quarter-mile away at the edge of a harvested cornfield beside a timbered creek bottom. I parked the truck behind a deep cut in the bank where I could glass the tom without spooking it, and the binoculars revealed a nearby hen nonchalantly scratching in the cornfield for waste grain.
Normally, I’d have moved in and set up as close as possible to try and call the gobbler away from the hen, or maybe to call in both the hen and the gobbler. But due to the lateness of the season, and the lack of response to earlier calling attempts, I opted to wait, hoping to somehow gain an edge.
Over the next half-hour neither of the turkeys moved more than a few yards. Finally, the hen wandered slowly across the 100-yard swath of corn stubble and into the timber on the other side. The gobbler paid little attention to the hen’s leaving, and after a few minutes, started strolling along the edge of the field toward where I was parked. Things were looking better.
The dirt road was in a deep cut with high banks, which would allow me to approach unseen to within maybe 100 yards of where I wanted to set up. I grabbed my muzzleloader shotgun and slipped down the road to a point in the cornfield that was still completely hidden from the gobbler’s keen eyes, still a couple hundred yards away. I set up in front of an uprooted tree, on a brushy tank dam berm overlooking a dry pond choked with dense snakeweed.
If the gobbler continued on the same course, it would either come around the point of the snakeweed patch or cut across on the backside of the berm, where an arm of the pond would force it to pass within 30 yards of me.
I’d been sitting silent for 30 minutes when I caught sight of the gobbler’s red head on the far side of the snakeweed. Typically, the bird wasn’t following the path I’d envisioned but was 30 yards out in the corn stubble, 60 yards away and right at the edge of maximum range for 2 ounces of No. 5 Hevi-Shot ahead of 100 grains of Hodgdon’s Triple Seven loose powder.
I already had call in hand, a unique slate by award-winning carver Steve Stortz that looks like a painted turtle and is one of the best-sounding calls I’ve ever heard.
As the gobbler wandered farther out into the field, I purred and clucked softly with the slate, watching closely for a reaction. The old boy left no doubt, immediately turning and gobbling enthusiastically before starting back toward me. I let the bird close to 30 yards before putting final pressure on the trigger. It was the largest Eastern turkey I’d ever taken, a whopping 28-3/4 pounds with 11-inch beard and spurs that measured a full 1-3/4 inches.
By the late season, such gobblers are usually dancing to their own tune, and willingness to freestyle out-of-the-box moves may be the only way to cut in on that turkey trot.