Turkey Hunting - Up Close and PersonalBy Eric Baker
As a prostaff member for Primos Hunting Calls I spend a lot of time conducting seminars, and working booths at local and regional outdoor shows. During these activities one of the most common questions I hear is "How close should I get to a turkey before calling?"
For years we have been taught to be conservative when approaching a gobbling bird, and never get closer than 150 yards of a bird's position. I disagree! In my opinion there is no exact answer to this question, however I do believe the closer you get the better. Every gobbler has what I call a "comfort zone", which is nothing more than the 75-yard area immediately surrounding his current location. I've learned over the years that getting into the outer fringes of this comfort zone can prove deadly.
Most hunters dream of working a hot bird straight off the roost so lets discuss this scenario first. When I hear a roosted bird gobbling my ultimate goal is to get as close as possible to his roost before choosing a setup location. This distance can be anywhere from 50 to 200 yards depending on terrain and foliage. The most important thing is that you get as close as possible without being able to see the bird in the tree. Keep in mind, if you can see him he can see you! If you call to a bird on the roost that is within sight of your setup location you're in trouble because he will expect to see the hen. If he cannot see her chances are good he will never commit to your setup, so it is important to remain just out of sight when choosing your calling location. Let me share two quick hunts to emphasize this point.
It was the first week of the Pennsylvania season and I had been hunting the same longbeard for three days without any success. Throughout these three days I discovered that the bird roosted in the same spot each night, and after flying down worked his way along the same ridge in the same direction each day. On day four I arrived at the area an hour earlier than the previous three days and circled the bird's roost in the dark to get to a setup location along his daily travel route. As it started to get light gobbler droppings began falling from a tree just 20 yards to my right. I looked up in horror as I realized the bird had changed roost locations on day four and was now sitting above me in his new roost tree. As the sky turned gray the bird started to gobble, and for the next 45 minutes I had a ringside seat to a spectacular show of gobbling and strutting on the roost. Finally, about fly down time I decided to cluck one time on my mouth call to entice the bird down. When the gobbler heard the cluck he immediately turned on his limb, gobbled hard and resumed his courtship dance. However, it didn't take long to notice the bird becoming somewhat nervous. Being fully camouflaged and well hidden I was positive the bird had no idea I was there. Finally, 10 minutes after my cluck the bird turned on the limb and pitched down into the hillside 50 yards above me. When he hit the ground he continued another 25 yards before stopping to strut and gobble for the next 30 minutes. I never did coax that bird back for a shot, and there is no doubt in my mind that calling with the bird in view on the roost caused my failure. When he heard the call he knew he should have seen the hen from his roost, and when he didn't he got suspicious and reacted accordingly.
On another hunt in the George Washington National Forest of Virginia I located a good gobbling bird on the roost. It was the last week of the Virginia season, the foliage was out in full force, and the birds in this area had been hunted hard for the previous four weeks. I knew I needed to get close before setting up so I quickly closed to within 75 yards of his roost using numerous finger ridges and the heavy green foliage for cover. After choosing a setup location I used a slate call to throw some light clucks his way, and then after a few minutes used a turkey wing to simulate turkeys flying down. Using the wing has become one of the most deadly tactics in my bag of tricks over the last decade. Primos recently introduced a product called The Real Wing, which is made of real turkey feathers and perfectly reproduces the sounds of a bird flying down from the roost. The gobbler's instant triple gobble told me I was in business. Seconds later I heard his heavy wingbeats as he pitched from his roost, and within one minute I introduced him to a load of #4s. There is no doubt in my mind that my success resulted from getting very close, and then making the right calls.
But suppose you don't hear any birds off the roost, or your early morning attempts fail. Don't get discouraged. Many birds have taken a trip in the bed of my truck as a result of late morning hunts. The secret to late morning success is to strike a hot bird, and then get into the proper position to harvest him. Nothing will improve your success more on late morning hunts than slipping into a gobbler's comfort zone. Think about this for a second. You hear a bird gobbling in the distance, most likely in response to your calls. Due to his excellent ability to pinpoint sound he knows where the initial yelps came from, and now you start to move toward him, most likely calling as you go. Suddenly you're 150 yards away from the gobbling bird and he likes the fact you have closed the distance. Most people would stop and setup right here. As soon as the gobbler realizes you have stopped the first thing he asks himself is what happened? Why did she stop? In nature the hen goes to the gobbler, but suddenly this hen is going against the grain and the situation starts to appear unnatural to the bird. Lucky for us some gobblers throw caution to the wind at this point and cover those last few yards for the shot. However, frequently a gobbler will not make the last move and you become stuck in a stalemate. Now, if you had continued to move toward him carefully using the terrain and foliage while keeping safety in mind you might have been pleasantly surprised at how much closer you could get. Again it depends on the terrain, but I'll get as close as I can without seeing him. Doing this makes the gobbler feel secure, and adds realism to your strategy because now you have come almost the entire way to the bird. I have found that once I break the 75-yard mark it is rare that a gobbler will not come the remaining distance for the shot.
Let me use another hunt to illustrate this point. A few years back while hunting a late spring morning in the mountains of West Virginia I was not having much luck locating a vocal gobbler so I started prospecting throughout the area. After walking many miles I finally struck a bird around 10:30am. He gobbled hard at my aggressive yelps and I immediately cut the distance to 150 yards, but hesitated to go further due to the open hardwoods in the area. Over the next hour the bird never moved in my direction, but continued to gobble frequently in response to my calls. Finally I could stand it no longer and I decided a move was necessary. Instead of following tradition and circling the bird, I decided to tempt fate and go straight to the gobbler. His gobbles told me he was approximately 50 yards below the crest of a ridge directly in front of my current location so I carefully made my way toward the ridgeline. When I reached a point 10 yards from the ridge I sat down and started to cluck and purr on my Primos True Double mouth call imitating the sounds of a feeding hen. The gobbler sounded off immediately and it wasn't long before I could see the top of his fan parading back and forth along the ridgeline. A few tense minutes later I was tying my tag to the old monarch. A 10" beard and 1 1/4" spurs made the victory sweet. I am convinced the only reason I killed this bird was because I entered his comfort zone. He had heard me calling from 150 yards away for over an hour, and then suddenly there I was at 60 yards. It was just too much to resist.
The last point I want to make is that getting close does not always mean approaching a gobbling bird. One of the most effective tactics for harvesting pressured turkeys is to pattern a gobbler. Archery hunters will be very familiar with this tactic. Basically this nothing more than doing your homework to unravel where a gobbler likes to travel at different times of the day. Not all gobblers can be patterned, but many can. By identifying a gobbler's strut zones, which obviously are also comfort zones, a wise hunter can put this information to good use during his or her hunt. Once I have identified a strut zone I get into position long before a gobbler arrives at the location. I then use multiple calls to simulate contented hens feeding in the area while they wait for big daddy to show. Soft calling such as clucks, purrs, and soft yelps from this area sound natural to the gobbler, and are therefore reassuring. You can bet your gun that he would not be spending time there if he did not routinely attract hens in that location. By entering his comfort zone before he arrives you have already put yourself in the perfect position to come out the winner.
In closing, by penetrating a gobbler's comfort zone you create a realistic situation in which the gobbler thinks a real hen is close by. This realism not only comforts him, but also gives him the confidence to walk the few remaining yards to meet the sweet hen he is hearing. Try it and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the results. Be safe and good hunting to you.
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.