Hunting High-Pressured Longbeards
The first rays of the morning sun had just cleared the trees and began to cast a glow on the field of native warm-season grass as we quickly set up on our second turkey of the morning. Our first attempt had been foiled when our decoys were out-competed by a group of eight hens and a jake, keeping the gobbler just out of gun range. Now, just 20 minutes later, we were repositioned along the edge of the same field trying feverishly to spot the source of intense gobbling. With every series of yelps and clucks, the old tom would quickly remind us that he was patiently awaiting our arrival. All it took was a small dose of the silent treatment to make his patience give way to love and he was headed our way.
I watched through the video camera as the unmistakable red, white and blue head of an excited gobbler parted its way through the sea of prairie grass. As he reached the mowed section of the field, just 50 yards from our trio of decoys, he immediately went into full strut and made a beeline towards the jake decoy with fire in his eyes. Just as he eased his way to the front of the ole jake to look him eye to eye, Rocco squeezed the trigger on his Mossberg 500 and the three-inch, #5 Federals quickly found their mark. Not only had Rocco just killed his first spring gobbler, but to make that accomplishment even more special, he had done so on one of Kentucky's most heavily hunted Wildlife Management Areas.
The popularity of turkey hunting has exploded over the last twenty years due in great part to the increase in turkey populations across much of the country. While it is great to see so many folks getting involved in this great sport, the increase in hunter numbers has resulted in higher hunting pressure on many public and private lands and subsequently more educated birds in the woods. While this certainly can make filling those spring turkey tags more of a challenge, it doesn't have to result in a bowl of turkey tag soup. With a little scouting, a lot of persistence, and some alternative hunting techniques, it is still possible to get away from the crowds and have a safe and successful turkey hunt on high-pressured birds.
The author's good friend and hunting companion took this nice longbeard
on the last day of the season after playing cat and mouse with the bird for a week.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
For a bird with a brain the size of a peanut, turkeys never cease to amaze me. Their ability to survive from year to year in areas that get stomped around on as much as some of the public lands that I hunt is a true testament to their ability to adapt and survive under extreme conditions. In fact, I am thoroughly convinced that these birds can actually "pattern" the public land hunters and change their routines accordingly.
I have watched numerous public land gobblers brazenly strut right out in the middle of open fields that were overrun with hunters just hours earlier. My first gobbler of the 2003 season was just such a bird. I spotted him and another tom strutting out in a field on the WMA where I worked while I was on my way to lunch. Upon seeing the birds, I eased my truck into the next pull-off and quickly slipped back into my camouflage from the morning hunt. Because my time was limited, I decided to keep things simple by leaving the video camera and decoys behind and limiting myself to my shotgun and my favorite Primo's diaphragm call. After getting my gear together, I made a large, sweeping circle to the backside of the field, propping up against a small clump of cedars right along the edge of the warm season grass. A soft series of yelps revealed the birds' location just over the rise in front of me about 70 yards out. Once again, a series of soft yelps and clucks followed by a dose of silent treatment was more than the one ole Tom could stand. As the gobbler's head appeared over the rise at 25 yards, I squeezed the trigger of my Mossberg and rolled the 2 year-old bird in his tracks.
Some light calling on a slate call from a strategically placed blind
and a little patience was all it took to pull in this high-pressured longbeard.
The key to success in the above hunt was being in the right place at the right time, and when you're hunting high-pressured turkeys, timing can be everything. Setting up on a roosting gobbler and trying to work him into your setup is probably the most exciting and ideal way to kill a spring turkey, but on a heavily hunted property circumstances are rarely ideal and persistence and patience are often the difference between failure and success. There's nothing wrong with getting out there before daylight and trying to bag one in a traditional fashion, but when things don't work out by mid-morning, don't pack up your gear and head for the house just yet. Once those pesky hens have gone off to nest for the day, there is often a short resurgence of gobbling and the birds can often be found back in their favorite strutting areas looking for love. If you have done your preseason scouting and have located some of these strutting areas, it is just a matter of getting set up and waiting them out.
Setting up in a comfortable location with plenty of concealment
is imperative to keeping still and staying when that gobbler gets hung up.
One final word on timing, and I am probably stating the obvious here. If you are truly concerned with hunting pressure, then weekdays will provide you a better opportunity at solitude than weekends, when the pressure is the greatest. Also, the further into the season it gets, the less company you will generally have, which is good, because often the best hunting comes near the end of the season when the hens are sitting on the nest.
There may be some circumstances while hunting high-pressured birds where even a good location and plenty of patience isn't enough to put a bird in the game bag. You have already heard me use the term "alternative techniques" a couple of times by now, and have probably wondered just exactly what I mean. Keep in mind that by the third day of the season most public land birds have already seen and heard it all. They have quickly figured out that owls that hoot in the middle of the day can only lead to trouble. You have to think outside of the box a little and give these educated birds something different.
My first word of advice would be to leave the crow and owl calls in the truck. I know how entertaining it can be to drive that tom into a gobbling frenzy with owl hoots and crow caws, but most of these birds have learned to associate those sounds with danger. That's not to say that they won't still gobble and give away their location, but chances are that they will be doing so as they head off in the opposite direction. If you are determined to use a locator call, or find yourself in a position where you need to pinpoint a bird to keep from bumping into him, then try some of the alternative calls. If they are common to your area, then the call of a goose, pileated woodpecker or a red-tail hawk may elicite a gobble and should not cause too much concern among a wary longbeard. Coyote calls can also be effective, but I have a problem with imitating the sound of one of the turkey's most prolific predators in order to locate a gobbler.
Secondly, I would advise high-pressured, public land turkey hunters to resist the urge to overcall, especially to birds on the roost. In fact, if the season is over three to four days old, I think you are better off not calling at all to a roosting tom. Even though I should know better by now, I still occasionally give in to the urge to "just let the bird know I'm there". And time and time again, I have listened as the bird flies down off the roost and heads off in the opposite direction, gobbling as he goes. Your best bet is to slip in as close to the bird as possible, get set up between him and the thickest, nastiest cover around, and wait him out. If he does head off in the wrong direction after flydown, then try to cut him off by making a sweeping circle around him and setting up in the path that you expect him to travel. Keep in mind that it is a lot easier to call a bird into a location that he wants to be, than it is to call one away from that location. Keep your calling soft and call sparingly. A good rule of thumb is to space out your calling sequences to one every five to ten minutes. Remain patient and be ready for anything. Chances are good that the pressured bird will slip in silent and slowly. I have been reminded of this numerous times by the all-to-familiar sound of an alarm putt when I decided that it was time to get up and move.
All the same techniques hold true when setting up on a potential strut zone as mentioned earlier. Keep the calling to a minimum and focus on soft yelps, clucks and purrs of contented hens. Again, you should call sparingly. This is an ideal situation if you own one of the many portable blinds out on the market today. Get set up, bring yourself a good book or hunting magazine, a snack or two, and wait them out.
All in all, public land turkey hunting can make for some of the most challenging of any of the outdoor pursuits. That doesn't mean, however, that it has to be a lesson in frustration. With some preseason scouting, a lot of patience and persistence, and some alternative hunting techniques, you can beat the odds and bring home a high pressured longbeard this season.
The author's good friend and hunting companion, Joe Halbleib,
traveled all the way from Illinois to harvest this great Kentucky longbeard.
Brian Grossman is a wildlife biologist, freelance writer and avid outdoorsman from Mt. Washington, Kentucky. You can visit his web site at www.PoorBoysOutdoors.com.