Turkey Hunting: It Begins and Ends with the Roost
By Aaron Stonehocker
Sitting in that crowded blind during the opening hours of my first turkey season is a memory that far from escapes my mind when I think about a successful hunt. It was just chilly enough for a double sweatshirt and to watch the steam coming from the caller’s coffee cup less than a foot from my face. Just as the sun began to creep through the tree tops, subtle purrs took flight from a slate call into the morning air. After carefully caressing the slate for a few minutes, the caller switched tunes to some very soft clucks. Without hesitation the woods behind the CRP buffer strip our blind was folded into exploded with gobbles. In less than thirty minutes, I had pulled the trigger on my dad’s Mossberg 500 and sealed the fate of a beautiful, twenty four pound, Iowa gobbler.
At the time I could all but assume that I could recreate the successful conclusion of that hunt by replicating the scene and call sequence in an area where I knew the birds were hanging out. What I didn’t know is that the caller and landowner knew a heck of a lot more than I did about turkey hunting, and they had set up the blind exactly where it was for more than one reason, the most important of which I will get to a little later on. So when I went out the following fall, I assumed I knew just about all I needed to know about how to kill a bird on my own as I took my bow and tag to a piece of property a family friend had given me permission to hunt.
I packed a couple of decoys in a backpack, my bow, and covered myself in head to toe in camo. I let my dad and his friend, “Shade Tree”, know where I was going, and headed off into Shade Tree’s slice of Iowa wilderness of oak trees, corn stubble, and pasture. All the way day dreaming about the tale I would have to tell them when I returned with a long beard over my shoulder.
As I walked along the tractor path, I chose my location on the edge of a picked cornfield bordered by a creek and timber. On its southern edge, a fallen black walnut tree became my concealment from any suspecting birds that would fall victim to my perfect plan. I found a comfortable limb to sit on that provided me shots to the front and left, and began mimicking the calls I remembered from the spring season hunt, only this time with my mouth. Before too long, 100 yards straight ahead, a young gobbler emerged from behind a hay bale. He peered across the field to my decoys and pecked around the corn as I called to him with nervous excitement. I must have sounded pretty good because he didn’t run off in terror of that horrendous sounding hen across the field, but nonetheless the bird disappeared back behind the hay bale, and headed off into another direction unknown to me…apparently I didn’t sound good enough.
A million things were running through my mind as I walked head down back to the campfire where my dad and Shade Tree were waiting with beer induced grins to hear my story. After I finished with an epic tale of suspense, glory, and defeat, Shade Tree told me that I should have hunted “across the creek”. Apparently that is where he normally sees the turkeys when he hunts. I wasn’t sure why until I earned my first DNR position with the Fisheries Department out of the Cold Springs office.
The first day was promising as I walked into biologist, Brian Hayes’, office to find furs and a full body mounted turkey with spurs and a beard longer than I thought turkeys could grow. I eagerly started up a conversation about turkey hunting and we swapped stories about recent hunts. I told him that I had been told to hunt “across the creek” on the property I had permission to hunt, and he told me he would need a map of the property to see why Shade Tree would have offered that advice. Now Brian may be a fisheries biologist, but he also has an experience based doctorate in the ways of the wild turkey. We pulled up a map of the property and he asked me to show him where I hunted in the field. I showed him and he grinned one of his Brian grins and then immediately pointed to a spot on the map, right across the creek, and said, “This is where I would hunt.” Without another word, he sent me on my first assignment shocking fish with the tech and another seasonal.
Spring season rolled around after my summer position with the DNR was over, back to Shade Tree’s property I went. This time I was armed with expert knowledge of where to go, and I wasted no time getting there. The spot Brian had pointed out was on a high ridge overlooking the creek to the west, and the low woodland bottom to the north and east that led to the creek. The ridge was covered in mature bur and black oaks, with an open floor. I picked a large tree that would more than cover my backside at the base of its trunk and took a seat facing north, just over the crest of the hill.
I had a box call this time and began hitting it with some short clucks and after a couple of calls, a gobbler responded from the adjacent property. I waited a couple of seconds between each time he gobbled before replying and telling him his late valentine awaited him on top of the ridge. His gobble got closer and closer until I could tell he was somewhere just on the other side of the creek. I called again with no response. Then again with the same silent answer. A few minutes went by as my nerves started to subside in defeat before I hit the call softly again. This time the forest exploded with a thunderous gobble right at the base of the hill and my body started shaking with adrenaline. I slid my hand forward on the gun and lined up my face with the stock as I pointed it toward his gobble. I touched the box call again and he immediately reported as he made his way up the hill. I called one last time before watching his fan break the forest floor’s foliage line, so I slowly raised my hand to the rear grip and slid my index finger over the trigger. He looked me in the eye and gave me a glorious strut before he relaxed a little to check out what he thought of his new girlfriend. That was all she wrote for the first bird I called in on my own, and it was all thanks to good advice from a seasoned expert.
I loaded my prize, packed out, and after showing the landowner and his mother who lives on the property, I called Brian. I told him every detail about what happened before I asked him how he knew that spot would be productive. He informed me that that is where he anticipated the birds would be roosting on the property. He said that turkeys like to roost where they feel safe, and with the water at a straight drop off behind the hill, the hill being the highest point in that part of the forest, and the fact that the hill was covered in broad limbed oak species and acorn crops that it was likely the birds would roost there. He said that the key to finding the birds is finding their roost.
Since that phone call I have killed every one of my Iowa turkeys from the very same base of the very same tree. I have only changed up to hunting out of a blind on one occasion because it was very windy and I was filming my hunt with a camcorder and tripod and didn’t want to take any chances. I have sat in my deer stand during the waning hours of the day and watched as the flock moves in to launch into their nightly roost up on the hill. It is quite humorous watching them bully each other for the best spot.
If I hunt that spot early in the morning I simply adjust my position to somewhere on the lowland flats under the hill or on the adjacent hill top so that I am not right under their beaks when they wake up to my soft purrs. Turkeys are like many of the other game species we hunt in that they have a feeding, watering, and bedding or roosting pattern that we as hunters can use to our advantage. Finding a turkey’s roost is the equivalent to finding the rest of their daily pattern because their day begins and ends with the roost. The birds feel comfortable on the roost and this comfortability makes them most vulnerable to be hunted on their way to and from the roost. The fact that it is part of their daily pattern makes it a better bet for finding the birds because we do not have to try and convince them that they need to come to us, instead we put ourselves in their way as they carry on their normal routine.
There is no one tip, call, camo pattern, decoy, or location that will get you batting 1,000 when it comes to hunting the Iowa long beard. These birds are always good for a surprise or two, and have a way of slipping tags into our mouths year after year no matter what we do. Even so, those who have hunted the bird know there is no better feeling than calling a responsive gobbler to your feet and bringing him home to the dinner table. Although the details change year after year on each individual hunt, one thing remains constant: turkey hunting begins and ends at the roost.