By Joel Nelson
Photo credit – Matt Addington Photography
In the course of even a single season, turkeys will challenge your skills and make the most confident hunter into a wuthering pile of loathing and self-doubt. Each day presents new scenarios, culminating into a number of “tipping-points” that we inevitably look back on with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight. Here’s a number of those very situations, along with some advice on how I’ve learned to best handle them throughout the years.
To Call or Not to Call? – You’ve just made a string of yelps and everything in the woods is white hot with excitement. It’s one of those rare days where you can simply do no wrong, and they’re picking up every call you’re putting down. Then the other boot drops, and silence abounds for 10 minutes or more. Do you call again? If no, then how long to wait? Well my experience has been that sudden pauses in calling are either really good, or really bad. Birds have heard what they needed and are on a straight-line march to your location, soon to appear at any time. Or, they’ve been spooked by another hunter or coyote, they’ve flown down and left the audible area with hens, or any other act of tom-foolery. Birds that are still gobbling occasionally give you clues and cues to go off, and there are no general facts for when and when not to call. That said, the closest thing to any hard or fast rule that I have is not to call to any bird that is closing the distance to your location. If he’s coming, don’t call and screw it up!
Should I Stay or Should I Go? – So often we’re presented with the choice to give chase to birds that are leaving the vicinity, or hold off and wait. To answer that question, I’ll first think to what other options I have should I pursue and spook. If you only have 40 acres of access for the season, it’s best not to get too aggressive. I’ll also think to what other birds I heard in the roost, doing my best to identify how many potential toms heard my calling. I try my best to wait out any play for 30 minutes after last call if I really got aggressive, especially if birds are responding from out deep. There’s a few exceptions to that rule, but for the most part, I’ll get to the point of almost standing up, then give it another 5 minutes.
Edge of Range – Just writing it makes my skin crawl. I can’t begin to tell you the number of birds that have skirted the edge of my weapon’s effective range over the years. I can very precisely tell you the handful of times I’ve been tempted to push the limits, and let’s just say that it works only occasionally. You can’t tempt the limit till you define one, so your early season patterning is more than just a fun time at the range, it’s crucial to drawing that line in the sand. If I can’t put 100 pellets consistently into a 10” circle, then that range draws a distinct line for me to shoot within. If that distance is 50 yards, 51 yards is flirting with disaster accounting for wind, brush, sore arms, and any number of variables that don’t play out in the field like they do on a lead-sled. These birds deserve more than “occasionally” so I use a rangefinder where legal, and able, to demarcate a zone that I simply won’t shoot past.
When to Shoot? – The bird has finally crossed into the death zone, and you’re just waiting patiently for the best possible – can’t mess it up – shot to present itself. Don’t wait too long, or really at all. My best advice has always been to take your first, best shot as soon as the bird is in range. Of course, a bird in the wide open with his head down slowly walking your way poses little threat of escape. Add cover, other birds, partial views, and a tom that’s already nervous, and you’ll find how remarkably possible it is for a tom to sashay into range and out of it before you ever get to pull the trigger. That’s why I’ve killed so many birds between 35-45 yards. It’s not because I like pushing the limits of my equipment, but it’s because far too many toms have wandered into “sure thing” setups, only to find a wide tree, hen, or blocking fence-line to walk straight away and in line from, thus preventing any shot. Fall back on your patterning, and take the very first, best-looking shot you’ve got while the bird is in range.
Brush Birds – See above, then take your best shot even if it involves a few twigs. With a caveat. Know that I’d never promote someone taking an unsafe shot (not being sure of target or what’s behind it) or a shot that would potentially maim a turkey (too much brush), but a swarm of pellets especially well inside of your effective range does wonders for peeling back a few sprigs of spring. On the other hand, if you’re looking at a bird in the brush for which you cannot identify the beard or exact location of his head/neck area, then it’s far too thick to try. My rule of thumb is to clearly identify the outline of the head and neck area and make sure you can see beard, then squeeze off a quality shot. If you’re shooting at the outline of a turkey itself or at the edge of your effective range, you don’t have a prayer.