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You Spooked a Turkey—Now What?

You Spooked a Turkey—Now What?

When David Wells and friend bumped a gobbler off the roost at first light during a hunt in Florida a few years ago, Wells’ partner figured the hunt was over, at least for that bird. The two watched the turkey sail across a sprawling pasture where it landed next to a small oak hammock a quarter-mile away. Two hours later, his friend put the gobbler on the ground.

Wells, an NRA field representative from Victoria, Va., wasn’t surprised.

A lifelong turkey hunter, he’s killed plenty of birds that many hunters would have never pursued because they bumped it off the roost or ran it out of a field. It’s a common mistake. No matter how careful we are, no matter what we do, every hunter who’s been in the woods a few seasons has been busted by a turkey. It usually doesn’t take much to chase a bird off.

Long Gone?
And when they go, they can go a long way, a study in Louisiana confirmed. University of Georgia biologist Dr. Michael Chamberlain fitted adult gobblers with small GPS tracking devices and followed their daily activity before and during hunting season. In order to examine gobbler activity related to hunting pressure, Chamberlain actually told hunters where two birds had been hanging out. Not only did the hunters fail to kill the GPS-fitted birds, they pushed them to an entirely new area. One bird moved a mile and stayed there until it was finally killed by another hunter.

But as Wells saw first-hand, that doesn’t mean every bumped bird is a blown opportunity. It just means you have to take a different approach if you want to tag that bird. Although the gobbler Wells’ friend killed in Florida didn’t travel a mile, it did move a long way before it eventually settled down.

“I think the main reason we were successful is because we had a good idea where it was and we came at it from a different angle,” he said.

Let It Rest
He also thinks the two-hour lag gave the turkey time to settle down. How long you need to wait depends on the bird, of course, but sometimes, it can take as little as an hour or two. It can also take several hours or even a day. As Wells learned with one gobbler, it might take a night. He intentionally bumped a gobbler off the roost late one evening and came back the next morning and killed it. The tom was hanging out with 15 hens and had no interest in coming to a call at first light. In fact, he gobbled just once or twice in the morning and then shut up the rest of the day. Wells waited for the birds to fly up in the evening and then listened for the gobbler to give away his exact location as darkness fell. When he did, Wells walked right under the birds, scattering them in all directions. The next morning, he went in the direction the gobbler flew and set up and started calling.

“He was gobbling his head off when he came in because he was trying to call his hens back to him,” said Wells.

Busted or Just Looking?
That gobbler strutted most of the way to Wells, but many birds appear as if they are ready to turn and bolt as they close the distance, even when they aren’t spooked at all. The moment the bird’s jerky, bobbing head goes upright like a periscope, inexperienced hunters automatically think the jig is up and the bird is about to run. But is it? More often than not, they just want to get a better look, or they want to see the hen they’ve been hearing.

Wells says the most obvious sign the gobbler is getting ready to leave is when the bird pokes his head up, turns his body and takes a step in the opposite direction as it continues to look over its shoulder. That’s a good sign he doesn’t like something he sees. If he gives a warning “putt,” you need to take the shot, as long as the gobbler is in range. If he’s too far, the best move is to offer a soft cluck or yelp.

“I’ve seen them turn back around and relax after I call a little,” said Wells. “I think they get nervous when they don’t see the hen, but that doesn’t mean they are completely spooked.”

Stay After Him
Even if you shoot and miss, there’s a slim chance the gobbler will come back. Wells’ cousin missed a gobbler at 25 yards. The bird gobbled one more time immediately after the shot and then ran. A turkey, however, doesn’t necessarily know the thundering crack of a shotgun is the sound of danger. That’s why gobblers will sometimes ignore a shotgun blast and continue to strut when a companion just got killed. The bird Wells’ cousin missed immediately ran, but his cousin took his diaphragm call from his mouth and put it away and then pulled out a tube call. He waited 30 minutes and then started calling again. The gobbler not only answered, it came back. His cousin didn’t miss the second time.

Switch Calls
“I think the most important thing he did was to switch calls. My cousin sounded like a different hen, so the gobbler was willing to come back and look for the new hen,” said Wells.

That’s why it’s smart to try a completely different call when you work a spooked gobbler, even if that means switching from one diaphragm call to another. The change in tone can sound enough like a different hen that a gobbler that’s been bumped might respond. It’s certainly better than giving up on that bird completely, especially if you don’t have any other options. Busted once doesn’t mean busted for good.

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