By Joel Nelson
Early season turkey hunts usually require fooling more than just the big strutter of the group. Toms are usually glued to their hens this time of year, and those jennies are quite the asset to any longbeard’s hope for a long-life. The first line of defense is always their eyesight, which is sharp enough for a single bird. Take a dozen or more of them in a group, each acting as a sentinel that’s peering with lazer-focus at anything, and I do mean anything, that looks out of place. Add to that the fact that most hens who are attached to their men, don’t rather like another upstart female offering sultry squawks to their boyfriends, and you’ve got a challenging situation.
This challenge is multiplied in a field situation, where we so often hope to sit during the initial parts of any turkey hunting day afield. That legendary eyesight is twice as sharp in the wide open or at distance, especially when bright sunny mornings offer few shadows in which to hide. This makes it rather impossible to move on birds that may spend hours in front of you, but woefully out of range. It’s also why you should choose wisely as to where you make your first stand on any field hunting opportunity. Most times, that location revolves around a fence – a simple barrier that turkeys will cross at will, at least until you need them to.
Growing up in Southeastern Minnesota, most of my hunting experiences consisted of crossing several fencelines per day, just like the turkeys, as you went from woodlots, to pastures, to crop fields. Over time, and through scouting, you came to find places in the fence where it was a helluva lot easier to cross, while torn pants and bruised egos offered proof to the spots where it was difficult. Again, just like the turkeys, I crossed where it was easiest. It’s amazing to me now, that after a few decades in the woods, how so many generations of turkeys have over the years crossed a fence at the exact same location. However, it should come as no surprise as these are logical pinch-points that focus turkey movements across the landscape.
In some of the plains states I’ve hunted, fences can be even more important, as a hunt years ago in Kansas taught me. It took us a few days to catch on to the gig, but those birds offered us two chances to tag out – after fly-down and leaving the general roost area, and once again that same evening as they headed back to it. The remainder of their day was spent in wheat fields larger than you could see across. Birds worked in massive groups that utilized one of two different fenceline crossings, and though we observed the location twice daily, it’s amazing how similar one fence post looks like the other. We found out the hard way that close wasn’t close enough, and we couldn’t call even the satellite toms away from that clan. You had to be within gun range of the exact crossing, which sounds easy until you’re trying to figure this out from binoculars on a 1,000-acre wheat field where everything looks the same.
That story holds true throughout the Midwest, and everywhere else for that matter, as the number one rule of field hunting is to be right on the birds as they spill out onto the open ground. “Fence-post-accuracy” is what you need when selecting a spot, and your scouting needs to be precise. 40-50 yards off is too far in big groups, as you need a clear shot of a tom among many hens, and so often I’ve been close but not close enough as hens shield their toms and they work into the fields further and further away from you. Precision counts here in a very big way. In the past, I’ve even flagged a crossing with nearby brush, a broken limb, or really anything to give you the visual clues you need to be in the right place at the right time come opening morning.
Rule number two is to never make them cross a fenceline if at all possible, which is probably better known from a general turkey hunting sense. Growing up on the family dairy farm taught me that lesson well, with a dad that strung a full 4-strands of barbed wire on every T-post he ever met, usually tight enough to make you afraid the whole thing was going to blow up and send shrapnel flying. Yes, I’ve hung many a bird on the other side of a fence, but even the most formidable fencelines have a weak spot somewhere. Trail cameras make scouting easier these days, but even before them it was pretty easy to see turkey tracks on the leafless areas where birds would scoot under those fences.
If crossing one-fence is bad, two or more is surely worse, but I hunt in a few areas where intersections of fencelines meet, creating an “X” that forces you to choose one of four quadrants from which to expect turkeys. Of course, you can hunt near the intersection of all of them, but usually birds end up coming from the direction you least expect it. At least you’re close to them in this scenario, but even in these kinds of doomsday crossings, birds will often have a method to their madness. Nothing beats scouting for these tougher-than-normal crossings.
As callers, so often we fail at getting birds to cross these areas because they’ve been attracted on a semi-straight line to a barrier at a location they’re not used to crossing. That’s why if I can visually see them and they’re heading even remotely towards my location, I won’t call to them until after they’ve crossed. Let them negotiate a fence on their own time, and they’ll head through a spot they know and like to cross. Excite them with a call, and even if they want to get to you, they somehow lose their ability to cross where they normally do, and you’ll more often hang them up. I’d rather re-position on him and call to a place he wants to be, than force him to travel through a wall he doesn’t want to move through.
Of course, there’s birds that will defy the rules, like a Wisconsin gobbler that fell last spring after crossing two different fences, ready to cross another before we toppled him at 25 steps. I’ve also had birds fly over fences, hop through the middle of them, and scoot underneath as if the obstacle wasn’t even there. Each tom is different, and desperate birds will do crazy things.
Early season isn’t one of those times however, as options for hens abound. Spend some time glassing those fields before you hunt, remembering that if you’re there too late, they’ll already be in the field and you’ll have missed where they cross. Chances are that even if they’re working a particular zone in the field, they may not be later, especially if the hens lead toms away from your calling or decoys. Be where they want to cross, and you may just be punching a tag before the sun tops the trees.