Run and Gun Gobblers
By Nick Johnson
There have been encounters in my life that make me question what God was thinking when he made one organism in particular. Never in my life have I had a creature bring such frustration and reward upon me in a single day. To be clear, I am talking about turkeys…..
There is just something about fooling a gobbler, living through the frustrations and basking in the reward that makes turkey hunting an amazingly fun challenge. There are days when birds are super cooperative, almost foolhardy and it seems too easy. Then there are days when birds are super responsive to calling, yet hang up at 100 yards and fail to commit. Furthermore there are days when virtually nothing goes as planned and turkey hunting seems like a huge waste of time. This is turkey hunting and hunters may experience all three scenarios in a given season.
I’ve been told by a few different hunters that “turkeys are so dumb they are smart”. While this doesn’t make much sense as it reads, there is actually some truth to that if you break it in half and read it separately. Turkeys can seem dumb, more specifically blinded by that special time of year, maybe confused as to how to get past a fence, or attempt to breed a decoy. Either way they all do goofy things just as we do. Turkeys can also seem smart, mostly because they are ultra weary and have incredible eyesight. Believe it or not I actually had a hen turkey spot the moving iris inside my video camera lens one time as I zoomed in on her. They also do things seemingly unpredictable which is what the core of this article is focused on. These situations can be very difficult to reap success on but there are things that hunters can do to stack the odds in their favor.
The term “run and gun” refers to a mobile style of hunting where the hunter spends more time seeking and studying his or her game versus making the game seek them out. I find it to be a very exciting style of hunting and for those of us that can be somewhat impatient, like myself, there is more action to keep interest focused. The biggest benefit however is hunting birds whose pattern is either unknown or not fully understood. In essence you are bringing the action to them.
One of the biggest mistakes a run and gun hunter can make is to bring an arsenal of gear into the woods. Too much gear can be noisy while traversing the landscape and brings an unnecessary burden on the hunter. Pack the necessities into a backpack or vest and leave the bulky gear behind such as a blind.
Aside from the essential camo worn I typically bring my gun (or bow if you choose), a decoy, slate and/or box call, diaphragm call, crow call, binoculars and occasionally a fold-up turkey chair. It can be really beneficial to hunt with a buddy in this situation to help carry an extra decoy and be an extra set of eyes and ears as you move along.
When I say use ridges I don’t necessarily mean to walk ridge tops. What I mean is getting some elevation above the surrounding ground to broadcast calling. I often hang just a few yards downhill from the crest of a ridge so as not to silhouette myself. Avoid the open areas and exposed woodlines as much as possible.
When you call in this manner you are effectively calling to birds on the other side you cannot see just as much as a potential bird on your side. I like the upper sides of ridges for glassing around too. They are good vantage points and even allow you to hunker down quickly should you be surprised by a responsive tom.
Walk, Call, Repeat
This heading speaks for itself and is one that can be really effective for covering a lot of ground to search out a gobbler. The trap some hunters fall into however is not pausing long enough between the call and repeat step. Work diligently and give 5-10 minutes at each stopping point to call a little, listen, call a little louder and listen some more before moving onto the next position.
Some hunters also move too far between spots and neglect little tucked away areas like small ravines and smaller stands of mature oak trees. I can’t even tell you how many times I have busted a bird because I was overlooking niche areas and seeking out the next “high percentage” spot too quickly. Have you ever had a buddy call from 40-50 yards away? It can sound pretty quiet right? Sometimes it pays to work in smaller increments and really pick apart the property.
If you are fortunate enough to know the roost or general patterns of turkeys on a given property then you already have a leg up on things. Turkeys are fairly habitual and will often follow unique seasonal travel patterns year after year. Of course this isn’t gospel but I’m sure many of you reading this know it to be true. Having this knowledge can really cut out a lot of trial an error time. A good practice that a lot of hunters do is to set up on birds at first light and then if nothing happens, move onto the run and gun approach.
Think back to times when you have had success or failures and what influenced them. How did the land affect where the birds went? Where do they go to feed? Where have you seen them strutting? Is there a certain time of day when they are generally more responsive? What time of year has generally been the most productive? What direction do they usually head once they fly down from the roost? These are all questions to ask with answers that can pay big time if you have the experience.
Crow and Peacock
The shock gobble is a tom’s Achilles heel. Being able to pinpoint a bird’s direction, trajectory and distance is extremely useful and one way to do that is to make them gobble. Toms will gobble to a variety of sounds including car horns, cows, and gun shots just to name a few that I have encountered. These sounds do not elicit a breeding response from a tom but rather play on his monkey see monkey do instinct. Some non-turkey calls that can be very effective are crow and peacock calls. Both are loud and travel a long distance outwards.
The benefit of using non-turkey calls in some cases is that you may be somewhat close to a tom before calling. You let out a few yelps, the bird responds and immediately starts to close in on your position before you can fully prepare for the situation. Crow and peacock calls are great locators and definitely save you some sweat and let you prepare a little better once that bird sounds off.
The Mid-Day Advantage
There is nothing that beats first light when the birds are hammering and the anticipation of them leaving the roost has your heart racing. The sun rises, gets higher in the sky and the gobbling has long since subsided. You look at your watch and its 9:30 am, time for a new game plan. Does this sound familiar? It’s a very common occurrence especially later into the season. The toms get henned up early and are completely uncooperative.
One trick is to get back out and hunt them during mid-day periods. When the hens start to lay they will feed early and then retreat to their nests leaving the gobblers alone. What’s a tom to do but stroll his domain and look for the next contestant? This can be a really effective way to hunt stubborn morning gobblers and you will often find these toms out in fields or along the edges of woodlots where they feed, as well as search for other hens. This is where binoculars really come into play to help you scan for the metallic black plumage on those mid-day longbeards.
Know When to Slow Down
Sometimes the excitement or anticipation is enough to make a hunter work too quickly. We all want the reward with as little effort as possible but we must focus and train our minds to be patient and observant. Knowing when to slow things down can be a little tricky though. Areas where the land elevation changes frequently can hide a lot of movement and with that comes surprises if you are moving too fast.
If you have a bird that is responding well but simply will not close the distance it is usually a poor choice to try and advance on it. There are a few scenarios where this would work but generally it is best to either wait it out or back out and try to reposition on the tom from a different direction. Slowing down doesn’t always mean movement either. Occasionally slowing down on the calling to something a little less aggressive can pull a weary bird in closer.
Run and gun hunting for turkeys brings out a level of stealth and alertness that I believe helps train you to become a better hunter. It’s a very rewarding experience to work hard for a bird and be able to put a tag on its leg when everything is all said and done. This style of hunting is not a guarantee for success but can up the odds when bird cooperativeness is less than favorable. Have a safe turkey season and good luck!