By Paul Rackley
Associate Online Shooting Editor, NRA E-Media
You'd think it would be easy to do battle with a critter that's got a brain the size of a legume...
The first time a wild turkey gobbler answered one of my calls, I was hooked. I was in my mid-20s, hunting in northeast Mississippi wearing a mixture of Mossy Oak and Army BDU camouflage, carrying a Remington 1100 with a 2¾-inch chamber, modified choke and three Primos turkey calls: a True Double, a Diamond Cutter and a Box Cutter.
I was a long way from understanding turkey hunting, or perhaps I should say from beginning to understand turkey hunting, since I still don't really get them—but it was a real thrill when that bird responded to my calls. I didn't get that bird. In fact, I was still a few years from taking my first turkey.
Since those blessedly ignorant years, I have taken turkeys in five states, am currently halfway to a Grand Slam and have acquired a great deal of knowledge about America's largest game bird. And while this knowledge has answered many questions about turkey habits and instincts, it has also introduced a larger question that I just can't seem to answer. Who's the bigger bird brain? Is it the birds with a brain the size of a pea, or the guys who chase them? Let's take a look and find out.
Get the Gang Together
Doubling or even tripling up can be good when chasing a tough old bird, especially on public land. Putting a caller or two 30 to 50 yards behind the shooter or having multiple groups coming from different sides can be quite effective.
After putting in seven days on a single bird in Sumter National Forest and realizing this gobbler wasn't going to go without a fight, I decided to put together an experienced team.
My team consisted of Joe Mole, former World Champion turkey caller and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) videographer; Brian Chatham, former NWTF Junior Champion turkey caller; P.J. Perea, NWTF senior editor; J.J. Reight, freelance outdoor writer; and myself.
The plan sent Joe and J.J. to set up in the dark where we had roosted the bird the night before, while P.J. and Brian set up on the opposite side. I slipped around to cover the escape route that the old boy had used on me previously in the week. The plan worked. Shortly after daybreak, that three-year-old bird stuck its head up in front of J.J.'s gun at 30 yards.
Lesson Learned: You can't always do it yourself, and if you ask for help, ask for good help.
Patience is a Virtue
I've always been a run-and-gun turkey hunter. I love putting boots to ground to locate a bird, firing it up and shifting positions before finally putting a load of pellets into it. There is just something about hard-charging through the woods that makes you feel like you deserve that bird. How-ever, sometimes it's better to slow down. Way down.
On one particular morning, NWTF senior editor P.J. Perea and I spent the first few hours after dawn trying to find a bird to call in, but ended up with a big zero. Since it was four days into the season, we were both tired from consecutive early mornings and decided to set up in an opening with our own version of a decoy harem (nine hens with a single jake). After a while, the sun and early mornings put us both into that zone where you're not fully conscious, but not really asleep. Every now and then, one of us would break the doze long enough to hit a call just to see if something was near. When a bird sounded off to my box call, neither of us was even sure of what we had heard. I hit my call again, and a bird cut me off from about 60 yards to our left. We had just enough time to get our eyes open before it strutted into the clearing on P.J.'s side 50 yards away. P.J. had to wait a few minutes for a small sapling to get out of his way before putting a 3-inch load of Hevi-Shot No. 6 toward the bird from a Remington 870.
Lesson Learned: High-pressured birds can often be coaxed in later in the day with decoys and very little calling. But you have to be patient…or take a nap.
Change it Up
While patience is not one of my virtues, persistence always has been. More than once, I've become fixated on a bird or groups of birds that I found before the season, came close to taking on opening day and took it really personally when they won our encounter. As far as I was concerned, that wasn't supposed to happen. I felt I had put in the time and the effort and deserved those birds.
Of course, deserving doesn't mean much in the turkey woods. Not only have I lost many battles, I have also lost numerous wars with these supposedly stupid birds, often because of persistence—another word for stubbornness. One season, I spent 10 mornings chasing the same four birds up the same creek bottom. All they did was shift about a half mile every day. The trick that brought them in was shifting to the afternoon the 10th day. These birds were very wary in the morning, but practically ran straight in that afternoon.
Lesson Learned: Don't get into a rut on tactics. If something is not working, try something else: a different approach, call or time of day. You should always change it up.
And Going, and Going
You can't be successful if you're not in the woods, but if you wear yourself out on the first day, you're going to have a hard time going back the second and the third and so on.
Photo courtesy of The National Wild Turkey Federation
A few years ago, I was hunting in low-country South Carolina with a guy and his two sons on some awesome-looking farmland. There was turkey sign everywhere and expectations were high. However, on the first day, the wind blew hard and the birds had lockjaw. We spent the entire day setting up in likely locations hoping to have a bird come in quiet. I kept thinking we needed to head to the cabin and take a break, but they wanted to keep going.
The next morning, they just couldn't get out of bed to go hunting. They were just too tired. Of course that morning the birds are up, active and sounding off like they're supposed to, and I had one on the ground shortly after sunrise.
Lesson Learned: While you do have to be in the woods to be successful, you also need to get some rest. Going full bore for a day or two might work, but in the long run it's better to get out there every day. Weather, other hunters or even predators can mess birds up for a day. If things aren't going well, go back, take a nap and hit it later—even if that means the next day.
I have been chasing wild turkeys for 10 years now, and while my wife would probably say I've wasted an entire decade on a dumb bird, I would say that I've been learning what it takes to be successful in the turkey woods. The sad part is that the main thing that I've learned is that a "dumb" bird is often smarter than I am.