On Edge for Spring Gobblers
It was hot. The layers of clothes I wore to protect from the morning chill were now damp and clinging. The air was still, and quiet. I knew the area we were hunting was full of turkeys, deer too for that matter, but the woods just felt empty.
It was 10:00 a.m. The time of day when a turkey hunter is tempted back to the cabin for a nap even though he knows he should keep pressing for that one bird still willing to talk. I took a drink of warm water, fought the urge to head back to camp and walked through the forest to the edge of a large hayfield.
My hunting partner and I placed a jake decoy in the corner of the field then found a "comfortable" tree to sit against until legal hunting hours expired for the day. We each pulled a candy bar out of our pocket and began chatting. Neither of us said it, but it was clear we expected a rather uneventful sit until noon.
Moments after sitting down a hen emerged from the woods a couple hundred yards from us and began scratching in the field. The candy bars were swallowed, the chatting ceased and the intensity immediately raised a couple levels.
Ecologically speaking an "edge" is the boundary between two distinct environments. It might be where a hardwood forest meets a hayfield. It could be timberline, where dark timber meets an aspen meadow or where a dense pine forest meets the shore of a lake. As hunters we know from experience that an edge usually means game. But why?
To fully understand why game gravitate to edge environments, one must first understand the ecological phenomenon known as the "edge effect." The extreme case of a mature hardwood forest that borders a cultivated field is a good case study as it most dramatically illustrates edge effect.
The canopy of a mature hardwood forest minimizes the amount of light that reaches the forest floor and as such limits the quantity and type of vegetation that can survive in the understory. Anyone that has hunted a mature hardwood forest knows that you can see a long way - there simply isn't any "brush" to get in the way.
When a mature hardwood forest ends abruptly at the edge of a cultivated field, the characteristics of the forest edge are dramatically different than that of its interior. Wind and sun are able to penetrate the forest edge and as such create a drier environment with more available light - the exact conditions favored by opportunistic species. This allows shade intolerant species to exist beneath the canopy, as they are able to take advantage of the light penetrating from the edge opening.
The edge ecosystem provides a perfect combination of food and cover for both game and non-game species. The open side of the edge provides grasses, grain or legumes; which will vary based on whether or not the field is cultivated. The edge itself will provide abundant browse on the understory species and high levels of hard and soft mast as species at the edge take advantage of available sunlight. When an animal senses danger, it can escape to the protection of the forested side of the edge.
Because of the abundant food and cover available at an edge, many game species will use edge environments for other activities as well. Whitetail deer will often use an edge for a scrape line taking advantage of the open space and overhanging branches. Elk will bugle and court at the edge of dark timber. Sheep will battle for dominance above timberline then escape to the protection of the forest to recover. Admittedly bears are where you find them and do what they want wherever they want; but there are worse places to look than on the open side of a high mountain edge where blueberries can be abundant.
Turkeys will also utilize edge areas for multiple reasons. They will use the open side of an edge for scratching and will take advantage of the inherent protection provided by the edge understory. In the spring toms will strut along an edge and use the edge for breeding. Hens will nest in the thick understory at the edge ensuring food for themselves and protection for their clutch. Roosting will naturally occur along an edge as turkeys frequent the area for other reasons.
During hunting season a turkey utilizing an edge for any reason will immediately see a hunter coming through the field and will likely hear any hunter tromping through the woods. At the slightest sign of danger the bird can escape into the forest ensuring safety for him and frustration for the hunter.
Hunting spring gobblers in an edge environment is an exercise in patience. Admittedly, as a whole this style of hunting is less exciting than a gobble-and-chase hunt. But when the birds choose not to gobble, or choose to gobble but not to cooperate, the edge can offer an opportunity to ambush unsuspecting birds as they go about their daily routine.
The author watches down the barrel as a mature tom approaches a jake decoy on
an edge where a hardwood forest meets a hayfield. Photo by Matt Gantt.
A turkey hunter can begin the day by using the cover of morning darkness to enter a field and pin point the location of a gobbling bird still on the roost. When an active bird is located, the hunter can discretely position at the edge near the gobbler's location. The gobbler will likely come off the roost in to the field to strut first thing in the morning.
Being positioned on the edge near the location of an early morning gobbling bird can present a shot as the bird struts along the edge looking for a challenger or a breeding hen. A hen decoy positioned 20 yards in to the field can help draw a tom toward the hunter as well as divert attention away from any movement the hunter might make. In my experience, calling should be kept to a minimum and the decoy should be depended upon as the primary tool to bring an energetic morning bird into range.
During mid-morning when the hens go to nest the gobblers will often head to an edge area to establish dominance and scratch. Patience is imperative during mid-morning hours. The birds will typically gobble less and unless they are fighting to establish a pecking order are content to scratch in and out of the edge as they mosey with no particular purpose.
A mid-morning bird can appear at any moment so hunters must fight the urge to doze as the morning air warms - it is imperative to stay alert and focused. You'll be able to see a bird immediately as he enters the field?but he can see you just as easily and any movement you make can blow an entire morning. A jake decoy might help pique the interest of an older, dominant bird and lure him into range. The occasional call to bring life to the decoy is fine, but don't over do it.
Late morning hours on an edge can be wonderfully productive for spring gobblers. As the hens come off the nest to stretch their legs and look for a mate, toms will often gobble with the regularity and vigor one would expect at dawn. A hen decoy in the field, possibly supplemented with a jake decoy, will attract the attention of mature tom. Call enough to get the attention of an active bird but again, keep calling to a minimum. Too much calling can make an old tom skeptical. Call just enough to convince the bird the decoys are real.
Careful consideration must be given to set up. Location on the edge, decoy
placement and the camouflage worn by the hunter must all work together to
create a successful outcome. Photo by Matt Gantt.
Decoys are a useful tool when hunting an edge, but they can be dangerous. Think about it - a hunter dresses in full camo sitting next to a lifelike decoy, while making turkey sounds. Effective, you bet; but arguably also insane. Use a fold-up decoy and pack it completely out of view when walking. Set up in a position that provides a view of at least a hundred yards beyond decoy in straight line so that any hunter shooting in your direction is visible. Sit with your back to a tree that is taller than you and wider than your shoulders so any shot from the back is blocked. If you see a hunter, speak out in a loud voice and don't move until you are acknowledged.
I've never been convinced that camouflage actually works to a hunter's advantage in most situations; except of course when archery hunting big whitetail bucks and hunting any turkey with any method of take. Most shots at turkeys in edge areas come on the open side of the edge. You'll see the bird coming from a long way off and the shot will likely be wide open. You will, however, be exposed and must choose a camouflage that matches the environment and season. In the early part of the season, before foliage is heavy, I use a tree bark pattern of some design. As the woods green up, I switch to good old fashioned woodland camo.
Blinds can be a big help when hunting edge, if the hunter is confident a particular area will hold birds during the season. Hunters may need to sit for very long periods of time and blinds add comfort and the ability to move without getting busted. Blinds should be placed at least days, and preferably weeks, in advance, as a blind that pops up over night will undoubtedly make a mature gobbler overly cautious. Don't forget to wear black clothes and face mask if you sit in a blind.
If you hunt turkeys in an area that does not have agriculture or if you don't have permission to hunt a cultivated area, fear not, other edges will work just as well. Any field that is used for grazing livestock and is next to a wooded area is an excellent place to look for spring birds. In addition, power and gas lines are regularly maintained by utility companies, and when these lines run through wooded areas, an edge is created that will undoubtedly draw turkeys.
An old field (fields that are not cultivated or grazed) that is beginning to grow up with shrub and tree species that is next to a wooded area will likely have a "soft edge." A soft edge occurs when the understory species of an edge begin to grow in to the field creating an edge that is more tapered and has shrubs and trees of all size classes. A soft edge carries more food and cover than an abrupt line of dominant trees hanging over the edge of a cultivated or grazed field. As a bonus a soft edge can provide more cover for a hunter to create a less exposed hide.
After a half-hour of watching the hen scratch and peck in the hayfield, we once again began to doubt that a gobbler was in the cards for this day. But just as the cabin was once again looking like the best option, a big blue head peaked out of the forest for a look at what might be in the field. The sight of a lone hen lured the long-beard into view at full strut.
Moments later another mature tom emerged from the forest; also in full strut, also focused on the hen. The two gobblers circled the hen, then each other and at once launched into a raucous battle; beating wings with harmful intentions and wielding angry spurs. The toms jumped, flapped, cackled and slashed until one bird decided he was out classed and ran up the hill out of harms way.
The victor strutted to the hen and was accepted for breeding. Once the gobbler was mounted on the hen my hunting partner gave a few clucks to catch his attention. During the entire breeding session the gobbler never looked away from our jake decoy 200 yards from his position. When he was finished the ritual he shook, resumed his strut and gobbled furiously at the insolent jake whose mere presence insulted his dominance.
He walked, in full strut, the entire 200 yards to our position on the edge. The lack of reaction from our decoy incensed the old tom, that was blind with rage as he approached our rather exposed location. Looking to pick another fight, the gobbler bumped chests with the dim witted jake. As he spun to do it again my fear that the old bird would finally catch on to the scam became more than I could handle. Despite the fact that I didn't want the show to end, I pulled the trigger.
To most people edge effect is a relatively mundane ecological process; to turkey hunters it is a literal natural wonder. Next time you are in the woods looking for a long-beard, do what I do and get on edge for spring gobblers.
Hunting edge areas is an effective tactic that can produce results when gobblers
choose not to come to traditional calling strategies. Photo by Matt Gantt.
Edge areas give hunters a chance to hunt spring gobblers as they go about
their daily routines. Photo by Matt Gantt.
Doug Humphreys lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia with his wife Aundrea, his son Oren and daughter Amelia. Doug hunts as often as he can in as many places as he can get to and enjoys freelancing for hunting publications.