Wherever turkeys live, their first order of business in the spring is procreation. It’s the reason for the raucous gobbling at daybreak, and why you can call in a gobbler when everything goes just right. Then again, turkey habitat varies widely. An Alabama hunter might be wading through a mosquito-infested swamp at the same time a Michigan turkey fanatic makes tracks in fresh snow, so to be successful you must adjust your strategies to the conditions that exist where you hunt. Here’s how three experienced turkey hunters from different parts of the country consistently put themselves and others in gun range of gobblers.
“Our birds get lots of pressure, so they’re always tough to deal with,” Prudhomme says.
The next morning, they fly down from the roost to slightly higher dry ground in the swamps. Early in the hunting season, the birds make their way out of the swamps and enter fields by mid-morning. Prudhomme and his clients usually score then by setting up on the edges of swamps and calling the gobblers out. However, this tactic soon falls apart.
Prudhomme explains that once the turkeys get wise to hunters, they tend to stay in the swamps all day and refuse to be lured out by hen yelps. The only option is to go into the swamps after the birds. The swamps are mostly water, but there are gentle knolls and ridges within them where turkeys walk on dry ground. Locating these high spots is the key to killing the gobblers.
Prudhomme dons knee-high rubber boots for his swamp scouting missions and usually returns with water sloshing in them. If he has found dry ground in the swamp that’s ripped apart with fresh scratchings, you’ll see a smile on his face as he wrings out his socks.
At this point, Prudhomme’s strategy becomes: get in before daylight and get close. Prudhomme sneaks into the swamp long before dawn and sets up 75 to 100 yards from a roost. Ideally, he puts himself where the turkeys are most likely to head once they hit the ground. He tries to determine this while scouting.
“You have to get close because so many things can mess you up in a swamp,” says Prudhomme. “If a gobbler flies down and there’s water or thick vegetation between you and the bird, you’re probably out of luck.”
Since Prudhomme normally has turkeys all around him when day breaks, soft yelps usually do the job. However, he won’t hesitate to get aggressive with his calling if that’s what it takes to get a gobbler riled enough to come hither.
He knows where most of the dry ground is located in the swamps because he has hunted the same areas for years. But a few seasons back, a pair of gobblers kept giving him the slip in a swamp that he believed to be completely covered by water. After a week of being duped, he finally scouted the swamp and found a 50-yard area of dry ground covered with cypress trees.
Rex keeps on the move, and he makes excited yelps and cutts with a mouth call until a gobbler answers. However, if a gobbler won’t respond at least two times, Rex doesn’t bother hunting it. He calls this, “the two-gobble rule.” And he says, “I’ve wasted a lifetime trying to call in birds that would only gobble one time.”
The reason Rex can be so selective is that he has permission to hunt some 5,000 acres of private lands that range from 15 to a few hundred acres in size. He also has several thousand more acres of public hunting lands at his disposal. “Turkey hunting areas are like money,” Rex says, “you can never have too much.”
To keep track of his hunting areas, Rex color-codes a plat map. One color highlights properties on which he has exclusive hunting permission, another color shows lands where he has shared hunting permission, and a third color highlights public hunting lands.
Rex heads out before daylight behind the wheel of his pickup truck with the plat map by his side. He pulls off the road at his first stop, and he and his hunting partner for that day hike in 100 yards or more. Ideally, Rex stops at the top of a ridge in this forested, Appalachian country where distant Toms can better hear his yelps and cutts.
If no gobbler answers, Rex backtracks to his truck and drives to the next stop marked on his plat map. He usually gets a hot tom to answer within the first four or five stops, but he has made 15 or more stops in a morning.
Once a gobbler answers two or more times, Rex closes the distance while using a crow call to keep track of the bird. He doesn’t use hen talk when moving in, because if he does the tom will think the hen is coming and stay put. Once Rex gets within 150 to 200 yards of the gobbler, depending on the terrain and the cover, he sets up and resumes talking turkey.
Rex’s run-and-gun strategy often pays off with two or more gobblers before noon, as it did four years ago when he took his sons hunting. Ryan, the eldest, was 12 then, and he was first up to bat that morning. Corey, age 10, stayed home to cop a few more hours of sleep. Ryan had already become proficient with a slate call, and he proved it when he and his dad soon set up 150 yards from a bird that was gobbling on the roost. Rex watched with pride as Ryan patiently worked the tom with his slate call, making soft yelps, clucks and purrs. It took only 20 minutes for Ryan to bring in two gobblers at full strut. Gobbler one was down.
Rex then stopped by the house to pick up Corey, and all three of them went looking for another gobbler. Rex got one to answer on the fourth stop at about 9 a.m. Then he and his sons slipped within 200 yards of the bird. This time, Ryan did the calling for Corey. It turned out to be a long-winded debate. The gobbler would alternate between being hot and vocal and going quiet. Ryan parried with every trick he knew, from soft clucks to hard cutting. The game went on for hours, and the boys, despite their youth, never gave up. Their persistence was rewarded when a pair of gobblers came strutting down an old logging road at 11 a.m. Corey popped the biggest of the two at 20 steps. It weighed 22 pounds.
Turkey season in the Upper Peninsula usually opens on the third Monday in April and runs through May 31. The weather this far north stays cold well into May, which is why the best hunting happens during the last two weeks of the season. Earlier in the season, the gobblers are still running in groups, and there might be deep snow on the ground. This presents a unique challenge.