Perfect your Success: Bag that Opening Day Turkey

By Ryan Graden

As with any night before opening season, I was restless. I sat there looking over my gear and mentally going through a checklist of things that I might need. Calls…check…gun…check…choke tube…check…camo…check and the list went on. I’m sure it took more time than it needed to, but finally, I was at peace and was sure that everything was ready to go.

I had been doing my homework and I knew that if I could get out to the timber about ½ hour prior to sunrise, I would be in good shape. The weather forecast predicted clear and sunny conditions with a light 3-5 mile per hour breeze. The temperature would be a cool 40 degrees and I knew those toms would be sounding off at daybreak. I restlessly went to sleep hoping that morning would come sooner than I realized and in no time I would be heading out to the Iowa timbers to chase those giant black birds of the Midwest hardwoods.

My alarm soon went off and I was on my way. My gear in tow, I was mentally prepared to play the game once again. I had my spot picked out. The base of a giant 200 year old white oak that, if it could talk, I’m sure it would share stories of its years and the countless generations that have chased the wild game beneath its branches. It seemed to have a “pocket” just for me created by the beginning of its roots and the base of its trunk. I placed my decoy, one simple hen, 10 yards out, settled it, and made the first move. I had seen their tracks, heard them scratching, and knew they were in this area.

About 15 minutes prior to the sunrise, I quietly let out a few simple, quiet calls. Making three to five yelps and then letting the quiet set in for about 30 seconds. I did that sequence about three times and then I heard it! The loud bellow of an anxious Tom turkey sitting on his roost. I called again in the same manner, and he answered back much quicker this time. Then I let it be silent! No calls! He knew where I was and I’m sure his interest had been peaked.

Right as sunrise hour began, I heard him fly down from his roost with a crashing of wings and snapping of twigs. I could have sworn the branch had fallen with him, but that’s often what these “tanks” of the timber sound like. He began to call to which I would call back. He was on the march and because of the homework I had done and the preparations before the season, I knew that this bird would be mine in a matter of minutes.

On Your Feet
Over the years I have chased turkeys in Iowa, I have learned a few things. Some of these “tid bits” have come from mentors of mine, some have come from time in the woods, and the rest, I can honestly say, come from blunders and mistakes that I have made and have vowed to learn from! But one thing is for sure, you can’t hunt turkeys where there are no turkeys! Makes sense doesn’t it? Well, you’d be surprised how many don’t follow this easy thought and set themselves up for failure.

My mind works in a strange way. You see, I rarely seem to stop thinking about hunting. I don’t let it consume my thoughts or my time, but I am always noticing things around me especially when I am in the woods.

For example, the Iowa deer season ends on January 10th of every year. And usually, during those last days I am out chasing some tags during the late muzzleloader season. But while I’m looking for deer, I’m also noticing other things in the timber. Knowing that turkey season is just a short three months away, (although it seems much longer!) I am paying attention to any turkey sign that I can see during the beginning of January.

Tracks are an obvious sign that turkeys are in the area. But, how many are you seeing? For me, I like to key in on areas where I am seeing at least three to four sets of tracks traveling together. That means there is a residential flock in the area and there is a good chance they will still be there come April. If you’re seeing more than that, great! Any less than that, I would say that you are just seeing a “loner” turkey out exploring and chances are he is not consistently in that area.

Scratching! This is one of the best signs to look for. Typically, I see scratching on the top third portion of ravines in the area that I hunt. It doesn’t take long for a flock to “shred” an area of leaves in the timber. Most of the time they are looking for acorns, nuts, grubs, bugs, and anything else that can sustain them for the remaining winter months. Scratching is also one of the loudest activities that turkeys will do. If you’re out in the timber and you hear it, don’t investigate! Just remember the area. You don’t want to spook a flock out of its normal routine.

A little harder to find, but still valuable to know is droppings! Just like any roosting bird, they continue to poop while they are resting through the night. It’s been my experience that a turkey’s favorite roosting branches are those of oaks and hickories. Look for the long branches that are paralleling the ground. And when you find those, take a glance at the ground. You might be surprised to discover where they are routinely sleeping. Now, they don’t always roost in the same area every night, but they will frequent spots more than once.

Control Your Predators
One of the important ingredients to a good turkey flock and thus a good turkey hunt is keeping your predator count down! What better time to do it than those months between deer season and turkey season. Shoot, it sure gives you a reason to continue your adventures in the woods! (At least that’s what I tell my wife!)

I will never forget a hunt towards the end of April about five years ago. I had been out all morning trying to pull a Tom from a flock of hens to no avail. But during that time I heard a Canada goose honking its crazy head off near the middle of a nearby field.

Now, in this field there was a small marsh that was only about two feet deep. Once I had tried all my tricks with these turkeys I gave up the hunt and ventured to the edge of the field to see what this goose was “yelling” about. To my surprise, this gander was protecting his mate from FOUR coyotes that had surrounded the marsh on every edge. They were relentless and were not letting this goose go!

Now I know that these were geese, but it quickly told me that there were too many coyotes in the area and if I desired to continue to pursue these turkeys, we had to protect that population from the predators that would key in on the young hatchlings that would be showing up in the next month.

I would encourage you to do your part! Like any quarry, it takes a little bit of teaching and learning to be a successful predator hunter. But, if you get the hang of it and have some success, you will see visible results within the same year! I promise you that.

Keep an Eye Open
Typically, this is something that I spend time noticing during those months of late January, February, and March. As I drive from place to place I’m always frequenting my spring hunting grounds in hopes of catching a flock out on the edge of a field, or cruising through the timber scratching up the leaves. There is value in noting the time of day, direction of travel, and length of time that they are out feeding. Keep in mind, the feeding cycle won’t change a whole lot during April and May. The only difference is Toms will be more interested in breeding and chasing off those Jakes.

It might be wise, if you have the equipment, to set up a trail camera. Like I suggested in the previous section, do your scouting towards the end of deer season while the snow is still on the ground. When you have pin pointed these areas, set up a camera. See how often that flock is coming by. How many are in the flock? What’s the count? Are there any mature Toms? There are a lot of things that a camera can tell you that will only increase your chances of success early on in the season.

Gather Your Supplies
This is an area that I have always adjusted every year. To be honest, in my early years of turkey hunting, I used to load my vest with the latest “necessities” the Outdoor Channel told me I needed to have. I had the latest box call, slate call, diaphragm call, decoys, face masks, etc. But it didn’t take me long to learn I didn’t like lugging all that weight around.

As I continue to hunt and have success, I discovered a few simple tools that I have consistently had luck in using. They are a call, a gun, and camo! Yep, not a lot, but really, that’s all that you need! I have all that other stuff and occasionally there is a need for it. But your luck does not depend on the latest merchandise out there. It depends on how you’ve prepared and how effective you are at using what you have.

Personally, I use diaphragm calls, but I’ve met guys out there (heard them in the woods) and believe me, they are better off with a slate or a box call! I always use a “turkey” choke in my shotgun allowing me to pattern out to about 50 yards. And I try to use my camouflage correctly. Browns in the early spring, and greens in the late spring. All in all, figure out what you need and streamline your packing. You’ll appreciate it on day long trips and your wallet will thank you for it too!

The Rest of the Story
As I continued to hear him calling I knew that he was making his way up the side of the ravine to the flat that I was sitting on. I could pin point the place where I knew he would crest the ridge and, with hope, fall in love with my hen decoy.

Low and behold, I saw the top of a bright white head that continued to reveal the blues and reds of his neck as he crested the edge of the ravine. I heard the bellow of his internal drum as he promptly filled out his figure with his feathers as he spread his tail fan. It was beautiful! I watched him begin the dance as he changed directions from side to side displaying his glory to this hen that had transfixed him.

I knew there was no rush. He was hooked and frankly I was enjoying the show that God was putting on in front of me. I watched for a period of five minutes or so as he eventually got close enough to brush against my decoy. I slowly moved my gun up aligning my eyes with my sights. With the squeeze of my trigger I collected my opening morning trophy that I had carefully calculated for.

In Ending
As most of you might agree, it’s not always about the hunt. Success is great, but the work and determination is still part of the fun. Do your homework! Prepare where you can and when you can. And with any luck, you might have some success during your first morning out this spring. Good luck!