When most of us think of turkey hunting, we picture green fields and forest edges alive with songbirds and new leaves. This, after all, is where we generally set up our ambushes. It's where the classic game is played.
But there are times when turkeys don't want to play the classic game - at least not out in the open. You might encounter them while running and gunning through the woods to get to another field. You might have set up in the timber intentionally to ambush a tom as he passes through when retreating from a field. Regardless of the scenario, the fundamentals of turkey hunting -- the calling, hiding, and shot set up -- remain the same. But in the woods you also need to be aware of a few subtle nuances that can spell the difference between trophy and regret.
The Right Terrain
For one thing, not all woods are created equal. As a rule, wild turkeys seem to prefer foraging in the open woods. One avian biologist I know theorizes that they can take advantage of their phenomenal eyesight far better in the open woods than they might in tighter cover. He also suggest that there's also a better chance of eluding predators there, either by running or taking flight - something not so easily accomplished by a big bird in tighter tangles and thickets.
The open woods also allow more sunlight in, which promotes a wealth of ground cover. This translates into a veritable buffet for any wild turkey that's passing through. Studies have shown that these adaptable birds will chow down on an impressive variety of foods. In fact, I was recently e-mailed a 10-page list of turkey foods compiled by the National Wild Turkey Federation. In the woods, these foods might include herbaceous plants, seeds, leaves, and buds, as well as tubers, insects, and even snails and salamanders.
It's also important to note that the birds you see in the timber will most often be passing through; traveling along their daily circuit that takes them from their roost to their fields and strutting grounds, and back to the roost again. That's why any woods in close proximity to a field that turkeys use is a good bet, especially if you've watched them emerge or retreat into the tree line of the woods in question.
Another thing to consider is that, like most animals, wild turkeys will use the path of least resistance if at all possible. They'll often use deer trails, old logging roads, creek bottoms and open ridge tops as travel corridors. They'll also filter down through wide-open hardwoods. Each type of topography can provide good locations for ambush if gobblers are in the area.
A few seasons ago, I set up in the middle of the hardwoods to get closer to a very vocal tom cruising a field on the other side. As soon as my back was planted to a tree facing his direction, I began a calling sequence that immediately captured his interest. He initially hung up, but then he rushed in, and stepped atop a small knoll to strut for the hen he thought I was. Instead of true love, however, he met with a swarm of copper-plated number fives.
After the excitement, I realized that this old boy was familiar with that spot and chose to strut there for a reason. From atop that slightly elevated knob, which was illuminated by the sunlight, his display was far more visible than it might have been had he strutted on the less prominent surroundings. Moreover, he had a better vantage point from which to search for the object of his affection.
Since then, I've witnessed this on numerous occasions. With that in mind, these days when I set up in the woods, if there is a bit of higher or more plainly visible ground nearby, I'll try to park my butt within easy gun range of it. My theory is, if I can draw a gobbler in, the odds are fair that he'll strut there so that he can see and be seen better. Last spring, that thinking paid off too, when a gobbler decided that he needed to step up on slightly higher ground to display to my decoy. As soon as he crested that rise, I was waiting on the other side.
This is not a one-sided lesson, however. We hunters also need to be careful about our own vantage points; a lesson I learned the hard way last spring. I was running and gunning through the hardwoods when I got a response from a big gobbler. He was closing the gap quickly, so I ducked right up against the uprooted base of an old downed tree.
In seconds, I was well hidden. So well hidden, in fact, that I never got to see that bird's approach, even though he came through relatively open woods. Nor did I get a shot at it, though the big old tom approached within 20 yards. The tight quarters of that position had limited my movement, vision, and arc of fire - something the turkey took full advantage of.
The lesson is an easy one. A hunter needs to remain hidden but still be capable of reacting effectively. You rarely get a chance to clear shooting lanes on a turkey hunt in the woods, so you need to set up so that you take advantage of any natural lanes out there. At the same time, don't bury yourself so deep within cover that you can't see or move quietly enough to swing your shotgun. You're far better off with your back against a tree and a few shrubs or saplings screening your outline. If you've got good camouflage, including gloves and a facemask, and don't make any sudden moves, that's generally sufficient.
Range estimation in the woods can be challenging, especially if you are only used to seeing birds in fields. I almost didn't take the shot at the first turkey I ever killed in the hardwoods because I swore it was at least 40 yards away. Later, as I was collecting the bird, I paced off the distance and found it to be a very comfortable 30 yards. The tunnel-like illusion provided by the canopy and lush spring ground cover simply made it seem farther away than it was.
These days, I carry a laser rangefinder and use it briefly as soon as I set up. I won't range everything, just a few key markers to help me figure out when a bird steps within gun range. If you don't have one of these, however, don't despair. Once you sit, estimate a few ranges by mentally breaking down the distance. That oak is 10 yards ahead; that deadfall another 10; that moss-covered rock 15 yards beyond, etc. With a little practice you'll be surprised how accurate your range estimation in the woods will become.
If you use decoys, set them up where they are most visible and then pace the distance back to where you are going to sit. With that reference, range estimation is much simpler. Speaking of decoys, in most cases it's best to set them up closer than usual, that way a displaying bird will have fewer trees between it and you.
The Noise Factor
Sound carries differently in the springtime woods too, especially as green-up progresses. When a gobbler sounds off it sometimes seems further away than it actually is, especially in rolling wooded terrain.
I was reminded of this last spring when I was cruising through hardwoods that stood somewhere between the roost and a field that our local flock was exceedingly fond of. When I got to where I thought I should be, I stopped, got my box call out, and yelped once or twice. The response was immediate. Another round prompted a similar response, but this time a little closer. Still, that bird seemed at least a quarter-mile away.
Thinking that I had a bit of time, I turned and looked for a tree to place my back against. That's when the telltale steps of a turkey sounded through the woods behind me. I turned, only to see a nice gobbler that had literally caught me flat-footed, hot-stepping it away.
I guess what I'm saying is the minute you make contact in the woods, get ready, that bird is probably closer than you think.
Your calling will not carry as far either, so box calls, especially on windy days, sometimes reach out a little more.
A last thing to remember is that the footfalls of a turkey coming through the woods sounds a lot like a man. A friend of mine once heard a gobbler approaching and actually stood up because he thought it was another hunter walking through his hunt. Needless to say, that bird lived to feed another day.
We all know that in turkey hunting, the action is often very close in and exciting. And that's no more evident than when hunting forested areas. Trees, leafy ground cover, and terrain, all give a wily tom cover enough to close that gap. Quite often, you only see heads and necks sticking above the shrubs.
On the positive side, that means there are plenty of opportunities to shoulder your shotgun. As soon as that old gobbler's head goes behind a tree, down behind some ground cover, or a on the other side of a blown down log, bring the gun up quickly and silently.
Because the shots in this type of cover are often closer, you might also consider a different point of aim too. In most turkey hunting situations, I place my bead where the turkey's neck meets his head. But a friend of mine has made a fairly convincing case for aiming where the neck meets the chest, at least on shots that are ultra-close. His thinking is that this juncture on the turkey's body won't move nearly as much as the bobbing head at the end of that long neck. I think he's onto something since, if the pattern has not even begun to open, a quick move of the birds head is all that required to create a clean miss.
Turkey hunting, in any terrain, is exciting. But there is something particularly exhilarating about a lusty gobble as it echoes through the newly emerged leaves, especially when a louder one follows a few seconds later.
Though a wily gobbler in the timber provides a different sort of challenge, it's not one that's insurmountable. In fact, the cover often works in our favor. So this spring, when hunting in the fields gets old or difficult, give the timber a try. But just so you know; as soon as you breathe air flavored by new growth; as soon as you notice the wildflowers and warblers; as soon as you see that first tom in your sights; you'll never look at the woods the same way again.
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.