Well before shooting light, my son and I were right where we wanted to be. The night prior we’d roosted a pair of toms, and were now set up within 200 yards of their tree. They gobbled at every sound we made, but when they flew down, they never even thought of leaving the hen that was with them.
Deflated, I put the diaphragm call away and plucked a box call from my vest. No sooner had a series of loud, raspy sounds echoed through the canyon below when a faint gobble came back, followed by another. My 9-year-old son whose youth-mentor tag we were trying to fill, shot me a smile I’ll never forget; that was the first double-gobble he’d ever heard.
Thing is, the tom was so far away, we couldn’t even see him with our naked eye. We were situated on the crest of a ridge line, smack in the middle of a logged unit. For the bird to reach us, he’d have to leave the lush, grassy field in which he strutted, tromp through a quarter-mile stand of 40-year-old Douglas firs, cross a creek that was nearly big enough to raft down, push through another couple hundred yards of big timber, then climb 200 yards straight uphill through fallen trees and tangled brush that made up the logged unit in which we sat.
I gave it about a one-in-a-thousand chance of working, but we had to at least try.
I kept on the box call, and the bird answered every sound I made. It didn’t take long to determine he was moving in our direction, but how long he’d stick with it was the question.
As the tom moved through the big stand of firs, I kept aggressively calling for fear of losing his attention. He continued double, even triple gobbling at every yelp he heard. Once he hopped a fence and crossed the creek, I knew we had a real chance of getting this bird, for he was now less than a half-mile from where we sat.
Then he went silent. In desperation I picked up a slate call and gave My Son the box call to keep working on. After a few minutes of hard calling, he answered back.
Nearly 45 minutes elapsed, but finally we caught a glimpse of the red, white and blue head as the tom began moving up the hill, right through the logged unit. Toning it down, I grabbed the box call and gave some seductive purrs and soft yelps. Once he crested the ridge and spotted our hen decoy, it was all over.
My son made good on the 42-yard shot, ending what was the longest-range turkey encounter I’d ever had. Overall, the bird traveled just under a mile, and gobbled more times than we could keep track of. Not only was the hunt a good lesson to never give up, but also it allowed my son to see and hear how hunters can communicate with wildlife and effectively bring them into shooting range.
Living in Oregon and having hunted turkeys throughout many Western states, one thing I’ve learned is hunters can be more aggressive than they often think. While this isn’t always the case, I can honestly say that over the past decade, I’ve put more birds on the ground by being aggressive than I ever would have by being timid.
Aggressive turkey hunting comes down to knowing the land you hunt, the behavior and flock dynamics of the birds you’re after and having confidence in using a variety of calls. It also hinges on knowing when to make a move, and what that move should be.
The first time I ever hosted some turkey hunting buddies from back east, they were in shock at how aggressively I moved and called. Mind you, these hard-core turkey guys have forgotten more about hunting these cagey birds than I’ll ever know. But they were on my turf now, hunting amid big canyons and brushy draws where we were as likely to run into elk as we were turkeys.
Turkey hunting where I grew up in Oregon is a fairly new endeavor compared with hunting other animals, as is the case in many parts of the West. How I hunt turkeys today is based on what I learned in the early years, and what I continue learning through personal trial and error. It didn’t take long for my buddies to realize the turkey-hunting land out West is far different from what they’re used to on the eastern side of the country.
Not only did my calling pique their curiosity, but also so did the distance we walked over rugged terrain to find birds. Never had they worked so hard, or covered so much ground to find a turkey. I had to remind them, this was the West, a place far different from what they’d been used to hunting out West, public-land opportunities abound for turkey hunters. Because you might go an entire season without encountering another hunter, you can afford to be aggressive. Many of these birds never get hunted, and if the tom-to-hen ratio is high, aggressive hunting techniques can pay big dividends.
At the same time, aggressive isn’t always better. On those pressured public or private lands, toning down the calling approach is the only way to fool a boss tom. The same could hold true as the season progresses, for wise toms will only fall for the call so many times.
On a hunt in the big woods of Idaho, I was with another group of Eastern-based turkey fanatics. They, too, received an education on how aggressive calling really can work.
We’d located some toms, and we almost lost them with timid, shy calling. When we turned the sounds up a notch, though they gobbled at every sound we made, they wouldn’t budge. We were on public land in the middle of May. My hunting buddy, an Idaho resident, encouraged a friend and me to walk into the woods about 50 yards and set up.
Once we were in position, he began aggressively calling with a box call. The birds responded but didn’t move. Then he switched to a different box call, then another. After nearly 30 minutes of working the birds, they finally began nudging our way.
Behind us, we could see our caller running through the woods, imitating birds on the move. Then he’d settle in to one place and call so aggressively, there was virtually no pause between sounds.
Eventually, the flock of toms strutted into range and I filled my tag; my partner fired a dud. When we caught up with our caller, he was sweating and breathing hard. He’d arranged a little collection of box calls all around him – five in all. “Splinters” is what my Eastern friends nicknamed him, for they were certain wood chips were flying off those box calls.
Not only can multiple makes, models, shapes and sizes of box calls be the ticket to getting toms to respond, but such is the case for other calls, too. One of Oregon’s top turkey guides, a man I’ve hunted turkeys with more than anyone, is a firm believer in having multiple calls in your turkey vest. “Last spring, I carried a dozen strikers, and used all of them,” noted the guide. “More times than not the birds don’t respond to the first striker I use, so I go through them until I find a sound they like. The key is finding what the birds like, not what you like.”
I was on a hunt with him last season, and we had a tom henned-up 250 yards in front of us. After resorting to his 11th striker, the tom finally answered. He never let up, and the tom eventually came right in. It took over 20 minutes, but the aggressive, persistent calling worked.
Not only are multiple styles and sizes of strikers important, but also so are the pots themselves. I like to have at least a slate, glass and aluminum slate call with me at all times, as each produces a unique sound.
It’s also a good idea to carry a half-dozen or so diaphragm calls. If you’re reluctant to use a diaphragm call, don’t be; if I can work them, anyone can.
I don’t know how many situations I’ve been in over the years where the toms wouldn’t acknowledge the sounds coming from my slate or box calls, but when I hit them with a diaphragm call, they lit up like they were invited to their first dance. Get and use a variety of diaphragm calls in single, double and triple reeds, in order to emulate a wide range of hen sounds.
Toting a gobbler call is also wise.
I’ve had several situations, especially on Merriam’s birds, where it took aggressive gobbling sounds to pull toms my way. In this case, they were looking for a fight, or were curious to see what the commotion was all about, rather than seeking out a love-hungry hen.
Remember, the broken, densely wooded, sometimes damp springtime turkey woods of the West often require loud sounds to carry within the birds’ earshot. Many times, if you’re not calling aggressively enough, the birds won’t hear you, let alone acknowledge your efforts by coming to the call.
When birds can’t hear you, or are responding but not moving any closer, it may be necessary to make a move. Sometimes, a simple change in location is all that’s needed to get a tom shifting your way. Sometimes, no matter what you try, the tom won’t budge. It’s hunting, and no one move works 100 percent of the time; that’s what makes it so challenging. How a tom responds depends on many factors, including what breeding stage the hen is in, how many toms are competing for her and how seductive your sounds are.
In broken terrain, it’s often easy to use the undulating land to sneak closer to birds, especially ones that aren’t budging from a specific, known location. Starting up your calling from this closer position is often very effective in convincing a tom to come take a look.
If a tom is caught in a wide-open meadow and he’s not moving and there’s no way of getting closer, try skirting the edges and calling as you go.
Thank goodness, turkeys don’t have a good sense of smell or at least don’t spook at the scent of humans, so don’t worry about the wind. Instead, try moving as near the hung-up bird as you can, and then call.
Last spring, the guide and I worked a big tom that was hung up in an open meadow. The hunter was 20 yards in front of the guide, on timber’s edge, while I was 40 yards behind the guide, working my diaphragm and slate calls in the timber. The guide hit his box calls hard, and we never let up. It took nearly an hour, but the bird finally pulled out of his strut and ever so slowly walked toward our sounds. At 30 yards, the shot should have been a slam-dunk, but the hunter forgot to put a shell in the barrel. The bird stacked his wings and took off at the sound of the click.
On many occasions throughout the West, I’ve had toms respond at the head of a draw, from the top of a ridge. Rather than work up the same ridge the birds were on, I stayed a ridge over, walked up to the head of it and started calling. Many times I’ve had birds cross the head-ends of these draws to come to the call. In this scenario, making the aggressive move to higher ground is often better than trying to pull toms to lower elevations.
Where I spend a lot of time hunting in western Oregon, rain is almost synonymous with early turkey season. Winds and rain won’t keep me from hunting, and this is where I’ll often rely on optics – both binoculars and a spotting scope – to locate birds and then move close to them before calling. Sometimes this move catches toms by surprise, and they come right into the calls on the rainiest of days, almost out of reaction.
In areas where bird numbers are exploding and mature tom densities high, threatening decoys may be the ticket. An aggressive tom decoy poised in full strut will often get other mature toms to come right in, especially if he’s standing over a submissive hen decoy.
The Pretty Boy and Pretty Girl decoy system have worked wonders for me in areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, where mature Merriam’s toms abound. I’ve not had very consistent success where Rio Grand tom numbers are low, or on public land I’ve tried them on, but that could just be me or the situations I was in.
One of the best decoys I’ve seen draw in mature toms in a wide variety of situations is a mounted hen. Though this isn’t an aggressive decoy, placing it in the right spot can be an aggressive move.
On toms that are hung up, it’s often necessary to move the hen decoy to where they can see it. This means stealth is crucial when perching that hen on top of a knoll in sight of the tom. The key is moving when he can’t see you, like when his head’s behind a tree, some brush or his fully fanned tail.
Of course, no one method works every time you enter the turkey woods. In fact, with the finicky attitudes mature toms are notorious for exhibiting, applying all the tricks you know may be necessary to bring a boss tom into shooting range.
As with any hunting, learn from your mistakes and stay positive. What doesn’t work on one turkey may perform wonders on the next. That’s the joy, frustration and rewards of Western turkey hunting; you never know what will happen unless you try.