An April snowstorm erased the South Dakota spring like spilled Wite-Out over a page, but the sky emptied of dark clouds before dawn leaving us with a crisp, clear morning. Despite the beauty of the snow-white prairie in the twilight, I kept wondering what a turkey fan—a real gobbler’s tail feathers—was doing jutting from the back of Ken Byers’ turkey vest. The feathers bounced as he walked and made me think of a cock pheasant’s tail that a proud hunter purposely lets dangle from the back of his upland vest.
Ken stopped on a bluff, huffing silver plumes of breath into still air. I whispered, “Those feathers your good-luck charm?”
He smiled and replied, “Sort of. Out here we fan in gobblers. You’ll see.”
Early that afternoon we spotted two gobblers 300 yards away thumb-wrestling with their necks. The fighting toms had their necks wrapped together and were pirouetting like twirling flamenco dancers as they tried to spur each other with their heels—nature certainly has a firm grasp of the ridiculous. Their distraction was an opportunity for predators like us, but there wasn’t anything between us but gently swaying prairie grass. Then we noticed a strutting tom and six hens about 100 yards closer behind a copse of budding trees.
We slipped down a gentle slope to a finger of cottonwoods that led to the strutting tom and moved in closer. When we had to be within 60 yards I began wondering why Ken wasn’t stopping. We couldn’t see the birds through brush separating the trees from the open prairie, but I knew they had to be close. I grew up hunting the Eastern subspecies. My experience told me to slip back a little before finding a place where I could see out into the open prairie. At that point I’d carefully crawl out and set up a jake and/or hen decoy, then sit down and call. When you’re within 100 yards, a gobbler will often step over for a look. Even when they don’t, their hens likely will and the gobbler will come in tow.
Ken just kept going. He carefully poked his head out the end of the ditch. The hens scattered. He was hoping they wouldn’t see him, but didn’t seem to care. He signaled for me to follow, pulled the turkey tail fan from his vest and crawled to the edge of the open prairie with the fan leading the way. I crawled alongside him and noticed he was peeking through the feathers at the two toms that had been fighting. The gobblers had seen the other turkeys spook, but weren’t sure what to do.
Ken showed the gobblers the tail fan by slowly turning it, letting its feathers catch the light. One of the gobblers jumped in the air and beat its wings right for us. Within seconds the gobbler landed a dozen feet in front of us. Suddenly I was lying prone while trying to shoot up at a running gobbler from point-blank range. Yeah, I missed.
Ken started to laugh.
I was confused. I’ve hunted turkeys all over the United States, but I’d never seen a turkey fly to a tail fan. When Ken finally stopped laughing I made him explain. He grew up hunting the Eastern subspecies, but he had to change his tactics when he started hunting Merriam’s in South Dakota. He said, “Once a Merriam’s gobbler flies down from the roost he isn’t likely to gobble much. Out here they learn to rely on their vision, not their ears.”
Ken learned to use a binocular to find the turkeys on the prairie and then to move in with another hunter. The tactic is to sneak as close as topography will allow before one guy raises a real turkey tail fan. The hunter with the gun or bow stays behind and slightly to one side, hidden by brush and the fan. Turkeys have pecking orders, a hierarchy they fight to establish. This makes them likely to respond to a new tom. If they can, they want to take the new gobbler’s hens.
Closing for the Kill
This happened to me the last morning of my hunt. A dozen turkeys were roosted in a big cottonwood in a green bottom between steep grassy bluffs. We set up above the turkeys, but they pitched from the tree and stayed in the bottom out of a fierce wind. There was no chance of calling them closer. This was another opportunity for the fan.
We used a pond embankment to get close, figuring they were directly on the other side. Normally, crawling toward a tom from atop an open embankment would be futile, but not with the fan.
Ken and I crawled together with the fan open in front. Soon we could see them; not 15 yards away there was a group of hens and four strutting toms. They could see us right above them, but they didn’t notice the shotgun barrel sticking out from behind the fan. I dropped a gobbler and the rest scattered, maybe never to look at a strutting tom the same way again.
After hunting with Byers, I pulled a turkey’s tail fan from my closet, one I’d used a taxidermy kit to preserve years ago that didn’t come out that well—my wife said, “Nice feather duster, dear.” I used it twice in the hardwoods in New York’s Catskills when toms locked up in places where they thought they should already be able to see the hen. One gobbler came running, the other—a subdominant bird that didn’t want to fight—stopped gobbling and began pecking.
At present there isn’t a commercially made unit designed for fanning in toms. The best is Montana Decoy’s Mrs. T. Strutter, a photo-realistic, two-dimensional decoy you can easily carry in your vest. The fan on the Flambeau Flocked King Strut Turkey decoy has potential, as does the one on Carry-Lite’s Pretty Boy. However, none of the tail fans on the market right now have the natural sheen and movement of the real thing. My hope is manufacturers will either make more realistic fans or, better yet, invent a device that allows hunters to use real tail feathers. I just hope Will Primos or David Hale get a move on, as I’m beginning to wonder what I could do with duct tape.