By Nick Johnson
It was a warm May morning in southern Iowa. Gobbles shattered the shrinking darkness as the sun lazily drew closer to the eastern horizon. I was hunting with Patrick McKinney, Publisher of The Iowa Sportsman Magazine, and we had high hopes to fill his tag on film. We were near enough the roost and knew the patterns of the birds well. We knew where the birds would fly down to and where they spent the morning strutting, which happened to be right where our ground blind was set up. A perfect scenario right?
As the light grew I could see many dark silhouettes in the roost trees no more than 70 yards to our right. The hens got noisy and one by one they filtered out of the roost to the field right in front of our blind. I looked at Patrick and formed a grisly smile as we waited for the old Tom to make an appearance. Patrick gave some pleading yelps on his diaphragm call to coax the Tom down but this proved to be a critical mistake.
Instead of responding to the call, the Tom fell silent. The hens could have cared less but the smart old gobbler felt as though something wasn’t right in his domain. Moments later his powerful wingbeats erupted from the tree and he glided through the timber in the opposite direction of our blind. The Tom was not seen or heard from for the remainder of the morning. Was there a hen he wanted to follow in that direction? Did our calling spook this Tom into dreading his normal strut zone? My guess hangs on the latter of the two.
We both looked at each other in disbelief and almost laughed about the situation. Patrick is a good turkey caller and I know that neither our setup nor our movement inside the Double Bull blind spooked the Tom, so what possibly could have gone wrong?
Late season bird attitudes can change the game around completely for those that hunt fourth season in Iowa. We had hunted the birds on Patrick’s property from youth season through second season on a constant basis and the Toms had heard a full regime of calling, not to mention a few of the less educated birds took a dirt nap in the process. The gobblers that remained were wise to our tricks and demanded a different approach to coaxing them in. This Tom that fled the scene on us had likely experienced our calling before and knew that Patrick’s sweet hen talk relates to a much more ominous experience.
8 Ways To Improve Late Season Success
Hunting late season turkeys can be a real challenge; even more so than hunting them in the earlier seasons. Birds become educated, hunters become desperate and a hurried mindset takes over to put a tag on some spurs before the opportunity is over. I can assure you however, hurrying is not the answer. I have devised eight simple tips that turkey hunters can utilize to help harvest a bird when the final hours of spring turkey season are ticking away.
Scout, Scout, Scout
If I stress this once, I stress this a thousand times – scouting is everything. In my mind, the most effective tool a turkey hunter can use is to know the patterns of the birds on the ground they hunt. Scouting will tell you three very important things. Where the birds roost, where they feed and where Toms may like to strut. Scouting will also reveal key periods of the day when the birds are at these various locations. Often times, simply positioning yourself to cross paths with the birds is all it takes to put a tag on a gobbler. Ryan Becker called this scenario “Interception” from the article titled Turkey Nightmare in our previous April issue of The Iowa Sportsman Magazine.
Arguably one of the best tools for a hunter to utilize in the field is patience. While hunting late season turkeys, patience is paramount when it comes to tagging a bird. The whole idea of 30 minutes and out or only hunting the morning should be thrown away. As you may already know, late season birds are a lot more cautious in their attitudes and behaviors. It often takes a lot longer for a Tom to work into your set as he may analyze the situation carefully before committing. There are many properties in Iowa during this time of year that have experienced some type of hunting pressure so dealing the birds a different hand and being patient is a necessity. Sitting longer in each spot, staying in the field longer and giving a bird more time can certainly benefit a hunter.
Toms this time of year may not be as vocal. You may have a Tom that is silently closing in on your set without ever hearing a response from him. Sitting tight for longer than your butt wants to handle will give birds like this ample time to reveal themselves. How many times have you thrown in the towel on a set, stood up, only to see the black streak of a turkey running away that wasn’t yet visible from where you sat? It’s happened to me more times than I like to admit.
Toning down your regime this time of year is a good idea regardless of the call you are using. Less is more and a soft, barely audible call will often perk up the attention of a cautious distant gobbler and bring him in for a closer look. If no Tom responds or shows up for 20-30 minutes, call again with slightly more volume. However, never get aggressive with your calling when a bird is not responding. When a Tom makes his appearance, reduce your calling to a few purrs and soft clucks and use them sparingly. Another trick is to stop calling altogether as a Tom approaches. He may hang up for a while but when he doesn’t hear the hen reacting to his display, often times the longbeard will close the distance as he becomes discouraged and anxious.
Watch Your Back
We all know that turkeys can be unpredictable creatures especially when you encounter them while hunting. Its commonplace for a Tom to arrive unannounced during any given season especially from a direction you may not have thought about. Be vigil during late season as a silent Tom may approach and surprise you. Keep a watchful eye on your six making sure not to create too much movement in doing so.
Not all of you may like to hunt with a partner but sometimes hunting as a team with a fellow hunter can be a great way to get the shooter closer to a cautious bird. In this instance, the caller sits 40-50 yards back from the gunner and calls as needed. If a Tom responds to the calling, he will naturally try to track down the source of the call, putting the shooter much closer to the bird as he approaches. This tactic works especially well when Toms become call shy or prone to hanging up to a call. That extra 40-50 yards could be the difference of having the gunner in range for a shy longbeard.
Fields Are King
Fields have a lot to offer a turkey especially later in the season. Grasses start to grow and bugs become more plentiful giving abundant food resources to hungry turkeys. Fields also offer a Tom a great place to strut his stuff when he is looking for a last minute mate along with giving him a wide view of his surroundings. I especially like fields for mid-day sits when the morning sit didn’t pan out. Often times, gobblers will be on the prowl this time of day and they will keep a sharp eye on fields for hens out feeding or other Toms in their neighborhood.
Some like them, some don’t, but for me decoys are a great tool to utilize during late season. To key in on my topic of calling less, a decoy will dramatically aid in this practice. If you are not calling, a Tom has no reason to come to you unless you are smack dab in the middle of his travel routine. In this case a decoy will give him a visual cue to establish attraction and make him come over for inspection.
I like to keep the spread small this time of year and use the most realistic decoys that I own. Often times a single hen or single Jake decoy may be all that is necessary. A single hen decoy is great because it shows a cautious Tom that he doesn’t need to work hard for attention. This is the option I go with most frequently. A single Jake decoy can be effective when working a flock of birds fresh off the roost. The Tom may feel a threat of competition and come over looking to beat the lungs out of your Jake. Either way, keep things simple with decoys just like calling and let the attitudes of the birds decide what spread sequence to run.
Use Odd Calls
Turkey hunters often use the same calls routinely throughout the seasons and I am as much to blame for this as the next hunter. Most of us have a collection of calls at the bottom of our turkey bag that rarely if ever get used save for showing off at a few pre-season barbeques with friends. Late season is the time to pull them out and give the turkeys something they haven’t heard before. Calls such as tube calls and wingbone calls can be a great choice to get away from the pot, diaphragm and box calls that most of us use on a regular basis. Broadcasting a different tone to the birds may be just what it takes to convince that stubborn Tom that a new lady is in town and available for his affection.
Late season turkey hunting is a game of patience, knowledge and simplified techniques. The hunter must have a determined mindset and the will to conquer challenging circumstances. Late season is also a great time to get in the woods and try new techniques on turkeys to gauge your own success with ideas and fresh tactics. Take some of these simple tips into consideration this May and have a successful fourth season for those of you venturing out!
Don’t Give Up.
You know that old Tom isn’t going to give up in his quest for a mate. It’s your job to be out there in the woods when he comes looking to provide this situation for him.
Overcalling is the biggest blunder in late season turkey hunting. If a bird is totally fired up and fiercely responding to your calls, this is fine but be sure to clam up when he gets close. Keep calling refined otherwise, and remember that less is often more.
We all get uncomfortable especially when sitting for long periods of time on the ground. Be sure to bring an inflatable butt pad or cushion with you and try to keep movement to an absolute minimum.
More Than The Morning
For those that are able, hunting beyond the morning hours through the afternoon is an immensely successful way to catch lonely Toms looking for love. After the hens leave them in the morning to go do their motherly tasks, Toms are often left alone or in wandering bachelor groups and can be very susceptible to calling and decoying.
Obstructing The Tom
Sometimes this cannot be avoided but it’s always wise to plan a Tom’s approach and make sure that he can get to you with as little effort as possible. Try to avoid putting a creek, river, steep ditch or fence between you and the bird.
Wear as much camo as possible making sure that it adequately matches the scenery you are hunting in. Be sure the camo covers places like your face and hands and if hunting from a ground blind, naturally don yourself in black apparel.
Avoid Extreme Shots
If you second guess yourself before a shot, refrain from taking it. The biggest mistake I hear from shooting comes from misjudging the range and taking that “hero” shot on a bird too far out. If you are patient, still and stubborn, that Tom should come in close enough for an ethical shot.