The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. This also pertains to our hunting adventures. It’s easy to just try what we have done in the past, and if it doesn’t work just say it must just be bad luck and accept tag soup.
Here in the Dakotas, we have the opportunity of harvesting 3 of the 4 species of turkeys in a grand slam. We have the Merriam, Rio Grande, and Eastern species. Usually, Merriam’s are found west of the Missouri River and Eastern turkeys are found east of the river. Rio Grande turkeys are found in the southeast part and northeast corner of the state around Waubay Refuge along the James River. These 3 breeds of turkeys have also been reported to have cross-bred with each other to create even more subspecies.
South Dakota has tons of opportunities to hunt turkeys throughout the state. From the Black Hills, to the prairies of the Badlands, the bluffs of the Missouri river, to the croplands on the eastern side of the state. It is possible to just walk in the woods, set up a couple of decoys, sound off a couple of calls, and be successful. However, taking the time to do your homework can greatly increase your chances of filling your turkey tag this season.
Let’s say you have put in the time to find the perfect turkey hunting spot. You have a blind brushed into its surroundings. You have a quarter strut tom and a hen decoy out in front of your blind. Your calling skills are decent; however, the turkeys are showing little to no interest. What do we do if the traditional turkey set up that we are so accustomed to using doesn’t work? Do we look for an excuse to blame our unsuccessful hunt on, or do we think outside the norm? The choice is yours. In the last couple of years, I have seen more and more hunters thinking outside the box in order to get their tag wrapped around the leg of a gobbler.
Thinking outside the box is a great way to hunt on public or on heavily pressured hunting land. I remember hunting public land a couple of years back. The birds were well educated to the traditional setup. The tom would respond and appear to act interested but every time, he would hang up just outside of range. I repeatedly changed my decoy placement thinking I could fool him, but it always ended the same way. I killed that bird, but it wasn’t until I changed things up. I pulled my mature looking tom decoy and replaced it with a wimpy looking decoy called the funky chicken. This sort of decoy makes a gobbler mad and gives it the confidence to know it can beat it up.
Last year I had another tough year chasing the weary gobbler. I was doing my best to hold out for a mature gobbler. I was regretting not shooting one of the several nice ones I had the chance to earlier in the season. I did not give up and was hunting in the rain one afternoon when once again thinking outside the box paid off. I had always heard that hens fight. I did my best to reenact a hen fight. I used a mouth call and a slate call at the same time to sound like two hens fighting. Within 5 minutes, I watched the gobbler I had been trying to fool for 3 weeks come on a dead run from 150 yards out to 6.5 yards where I sealed the deal. I now know they make a call called the fighting hen call.
One of the other mistakes I see a lot of hunters make is picking a spot and not moving. Don’t be scared to be mobile. A lot of times in the spring, the turkeys don’t have a set route. One day they go north, the next day they go south. A great way to start your day is to set up off the roost to act like a lost hen and hope the tom comes looking for you. However, if that doesn’t work, don’t be so quick to call it a morning. You have two different options to try. First, you can reposition yourself in front of them to cut them off. The second thing you can do is hang tight after the hens wander off to their nests. The gobblers will circle back to look for that hen.
Another mistake I see a lot of hunters make is only hunting early in the morning and in the evening. Some of the best turkey hunting I have experienced has been in the middle of the day. During the breeding season, the hens sneak off to their nests. The tom’s go into search mode. This is where setting up a lone hen decoy could be very rewarding. A wimpy Jake decoy could also work well.
Taking the time to observe the turkeys you’re about to hunt can help you greatly understand these crafty birds. One way is to start looking for roosting areas. Here in the Dakotas, a good place to start looking for roosting sites is to look for a concentration of elm, oak, cottonwood and ash trees. Turkeys like to perch at least 20 foot off the ground to feel safe from predators. For the most part, turkeys like to find roosting sites that have an opening, such as a meadow, that is adjacent to feeding areas.
During the winter months, the gobblers are in groups called bachelor groups and the juveniles and hens are in flocks called family groups. When winter begins to draw to an end and the days begin to become longer, the gobblers begin to fight to establish a pecking order. Believe it or not, hens also fight and have their own pecking order.
One of the challenges of springtime turkey hunting is unstable weather. The 2018 spring turkey season was a prime example. We had a big snow storm the second week of the season. I watched the bachelor groups mingle with the family groups. They pulled back out with the storm and came running back out of the bluffs of the Missouri River in a matter of days. Usually, around the middle of March, bachelor groups start combining with family groups and breeding rituals begin. This is when you will hear elevated gobbling, strutting and fanning as the gobblers do their best to impress the hens. The challenge of the spring turkey season is understanding what phase the turkeys are in. This is dictated by weather and time of year. Just because the turkeys are acting or going through their motions, doesn’t mean it will be what they are doing the following day.
Finishing the deal! I’ve seen a lot of hunters get a gobbler’s attention, have him working in and then stop doing what’s working. They don’t get the deal sealed! If they are talking, talk back. If you have ever had the opportunity to watch turkeys go about their day; they make all sorts of purrs, putts, soft clucks and all scratch the ground while feeding. So, if you want to stack the odds in your favor this turkey season, make sure to take the extra time to incorporate some of these tips into your arsenal. You may find yourself smiling behind a fanned-out gobbler posing for a picture.