It's the opening day of the season and the pressure is on. The exploding popularity of turkey hunting has resulted in an increasing amount of pressure on birds not sheltered by posted property. Specifically, public land turkeys quickly earn masters degrees in hunter avoidance.
With the odds already stacked against you there may be times when you consider the warmth of your bed a tempting alternative. But if you are like me, sleep is the last thing on your mind when turkeys are gobbling. Therefore, you learn to adjust and develop techniques that allow you to crack the pressure. As a prostaff member for Primos Hunting Calls I am often asked at shows and seminars how I deal with highly pressured gobblers. This happens to be one of my favorite topics. Over ninety-five percent of my turkey hunting takes place on public lands, so based on years of public land experience what follows are some tips that have enabled me to manage the pressure.
Effective Scouting Never will effective scouting be more important than when hunting highly pressured turkeys. While hunting the opening day of the West Virginia spring turkey season a few years back I found myself surrounded by gobbling turkeys at first light. This good fortune resulted from knowledge gained through countless hours of hunting and scouting this area. Over the years I had learned the favored roosting location of birds in this particular area, so the night before my hunt I focused my attention on that area while attempting to roost a bird. My efforts paid off as I heard one gobble just as the sun went down for the night.
An hour before daylight the next morning I was climbing the mountain where the bird was roosted. Knowing the area allowed me to navigate successfully in the dark and I snuggled down next to a medium sized oak tree long before first light. I felt confident I was situated one hundred yards above the gobbler I had tucked away the night before. As the sky turned a pale gray I was jolted from my seat by a gobble less than seventy-five yards to my left. Seconds later another bird gobbled thirty yards to my right. Over the next twenty minutes at least ten different gobblers were sounding off in this valley, five within one hundred yards of my position. Talk about excitement! Hens, jakes, and longbeards were everywhere, and I had sat down right in the middle. As the birds began to fly down I clucked once on my Primos True Double mouth call as a huge longbeard landed forty-five yards to my left. I quickly shifted my gun, and waited until he closed the distance to thirty-five yards, then introduced him to a 2 oz. load of number fives! The sun wasn't even up yet as I tied my tag to the leg of that twenty-three pound gobbler. His 1 1/4" spurs identified him as an older public land bird, and I was elated at my opening day success. While walking back to my truck I passed many hunters on their way into this area for their morning hunt. The valley, just minutes earlier alive with gobbling, was now silent due to my shot, and I'm sure many of these hunters went home empty handed that day. Knowledge of the birds and their habits in this area had paid BIG dividends.
Avoid the crowd Its been said many times by many people...getting away from the crowds is a very effective way of dealing with pressured turkeys. The hunt I just shared is a prime example. On that hunt I was set up and ready to rumble with any willing gobbler long before the first hint of daylight, despite the fact that I was almost two miles away from my truck. I had actually parked my truck nearly two hours before first light and then began my long trek into the backcountry. There is no doubt in my mind that this extra effort played a major part in my success. Over the years I have learned that most hunting pressure, public and private, takes place closer to parking areas, especially early in the morning. Therefore when appropriate I try to get back a mile or two into an area before first light. This gives me time to work backcountry gobblers for a period of time before other hunters come onto the scene.
However, avoiding the crowds doesn't always mean hiking for miles. I personally hunt a few public land spots overlooked by almost every turkey hunter in the area. Some of these areas are extremely thick, while others are extremely rocky. Because of these less than desirable land characteristics most hunters drive right by the area and never stop because they assume no turkey would be dumb enough to live there. Simply put, turkeys will live anywhere they please! I have killed some really nice birds within hearing distance of public land access roads without ever experiencing any hunting pressure from other hunters simply because the other hunters in the area had overlooked the spot for one reason or another. Many hunters will not hunt near a road simply because of past negative experiences, or because of the perceived notion of hunting pressure. As a result, if they are not back in two miles they feel they are wasting their time. My theory on hunting pressured turkeys is to do everything possible to put myself in an area where I will have the best chance of avoiding other hunters. Sometimes that is two or three miles away from a parking area, while other times it is only 100 yards. Through pre-season scouting, and by paying close attention to other hunters in my area, I am often able to identify those areas that see the least amount of hunting pressure. When you find overlooked areas as I have described they often are gold mines for public land birds. Limited hunting pressure means limited pressured turkeys.
Break the Mold Turkeys become increasingly wary through daily human pressure both before and during the hunting season. A few years back I had an eye opening experience that is worth sharing. While hunting a tract of very popular public hunting land in the mountains of central Pennsylvania I was pleasantly surprised to arrive at my parking area and find no other hunters. After quickly gathering my gear I hiked up a nearby ridge to listen for the first gobbles of the day. In front of me was a big hollow through which a gravel access road wound its way for miles. After reaching the top of the ridge I stood quietly listening for gobblers. Within a few minutes a gobbler let loose from across the hollow about 400 yards away. The bird had started gobbling on his own and was gobbling quite well. Just as I was about to start across the hollow towards the bird I heard a car coming down the gravel road about 300 yards away. As the car got closer the gobbler stopped gobbling. The hunter drove down the road and stopped at the parking lot where I had parked, turned the vehicle off, and began to hoot like a barred owl. I was positive the gobbler would hammer back at the owl call, however much to my surprise there was not a peep from the gobbler. The hunter then hooted again, and again the gobbler did not respond. Next the hunter blew a crow call and received no response. Finally the hunter yelped aggressively on both a mouth call and a friction call. Just as before he got no response to these sounds. Thinking there were no gobbling birds in the area the hunter got back in the car, slammed the door, started the engine and began to drive further down the hollow. What I am about to tell you is the absolute truth...before the sound of the hunter driving away had faded in the distance that gobbler opened up again on his own and gobbled non-stop until I killed him 15 minutes later. Had I driven down the same road and tried to locate a bird using locator or turkey calls I am sure I would have gotten the same results as the other hunter. That bird had heard calls day after day from that location, and learned that responding to sounds from that spot often meant trouble. Makes you wonder how many times gobblers have heard your best calls without responding. In high-pressure areas this is probably not a rare occurrence.
But don't fret, the solution is actually somewhat obvious and easy...do not conform to the normal hunter activity in the area, instead be different! If you hear countless hunters blowing owl, crow, woodpecker, and every other type of locator call you can think of then when you hunt that area don't use a locator call...instead give him a chance to start gobbling on his own. If most hunters approach a gobbling bird from the same direction (on a straight line from a parking area; via an old logging road; etc.) then come at the gobbler from a different direction. If you hear other hunters using mouth calls then use friction. I could go on and on but I think you get the point. On that previous hunt I never used any type of locator call. As a result that bird felt safe and let loose on his own. Personally I don't care if he gobbles to my locator calls or on his own as long as he gobbles. I'm convinced my silence in the pre-dawn was the key to my success on that hunt.
Realism Something I preach continuously in my seminars is realism in your calling. "Realism" means calling as a real hen would under the same circumstances. When hunting highly pressured birds hunters often forget that the hens in the area are pressured too. True, you are not hunting them, but I'll promise you they hear your calling, often respond, and are often spooked with or without your knowledge more often than we'd like to believe. As a result they do not run around cutting, cackling, and aggressive yelping all day long. Pressured birds, be they gobblers or hens, exercise extreme caution at all times, including when they call. Therefore, to achieve realism in your calling when hunting high-pressured turkeys stick to soft calling. I prefer calls that allow me to yelp, cluck, and purr very softly.
I also try to utilize calls with a unique and realistic sound. Over the past few years Primos has introduced two new calls that in my opinion redefine authenticity within turkey calling. The Diamond Yelper is a two-reed mouth call that is by far the most realistic sounding mouth call I have ever heard. This call has a scratchy high-pitched yelp that allows you to fully accomplish the two-note high-low yelp of a wild hen, while incorporating that scratchy sassy rasp. This is one of the only mouth calls that I have ever heard that has a boat paddle box call sound, and man does it sound real! Likewise, the Heartbreaker box call is probably one of the finest production made box calls on the market today. A purple heart lid combined with a mahogany base produces some of the most realistic turkey sounds I have ever heard. This call has the quality sound of a custom box, with high-pitched raspy yelps that seem irresistible to an old gobbler. These calls are new to the market, so by utilizing these calls in high-pressure areas I often have my own unique sound and therefore have an edge over other hunters. I have seen my success soar as a result of these calls in recent years.
Patience My final comment is that patience is your best friend when hunting pressured birds. You cannot expect a gobbler to run to you when hunting high-pressure areas. It often takes two to three hours to coax a gobbler within gun range. One of my most memorable hunts took place in Pennsylvania years ago in an area known for it's extreme hunting pressure. I had been sitting and calling in one location for almost two hours and had not heard a gobble. I was hunting the area because I knew it held an old gobbler. This bird had been hunted for three weeks straight by many hunters, therefore I did nothing but cluck and purr lightly on a slate call. Never once did I yelp. Finally, after approximately two hours I heard footsteps approaching. Unfortunately I was not able to get my gun into position before the bird's head appeared above the ridgeline. He quickly popped his head up three times over the ridgeline looking for the hen he had heard, but I was not able to get a shot. Each time he'd stick his head up it would be in a different spot and it would be up and gone in a fraction of a second. When he didn't see the hen he became suspicious and left immediately, which is a common characteristic of a pressured gobbler. No I didn't harvest that bird, but as far as I know I am the only person that actually called that gobbler in all season. I credit that one to patience.
Conclusion Today's turkey hunter is frequently faced with what we call "pressured gobblers". With record numbers of turkey comes record numbers of hunters, translating into record amounts of hunting pressure. To remain successful at this sport you must adapt and play the game right. With a little extra effort on your part you can still find yourself tying a tag to an old gobbler every now and again.
Eric Baker is an active Prostaff member for Primos Hunting Calls, on the State Board for the PA Chapter of the NWTF, an official Advantage Camouflage team member, and a staff shooter for PSE Archery. His specialty is deer and turkey hunting, and in particular hunting highly pressured deer and turkeys on public hunting lands.