Hunting & Fishing
The tips, gear, and hunting strategies you need to have your most successful and wildest turkey season ever
On the cutting edge of turkey hunting, the most obsessed gobbler fanatics are pushing the boundaries to be more successful and have more fun. Today's trendsetters are toting crossbows and .410s, pressing their own mouth calls, tackling tough public birds by choice, busting birds on purpose, and generally doing whatever they can to make the madness of spring last a little longer. If you want in, these are the hot tactics, tricks, and gear you need to try.
Game Changer: Carry a .410
Yes, carrying a .410 to the turkey woods is now a thing. Guys do it to prove they’re good, and the successful ones can teach you a thing or two about getting super-close to gobblers.
Even with quality loads, a .410 shotgun forces you to get pretty tight to a tom. But a couple of springs ago, Realtree’s Phillip Culpepper took the small-bore trend to the extreme and set the online turkey crowd abuzz when he killed an Osceola longbeard on camera with a Taurus Judge .410 revolver. “Shooting at a pie plate, the pattern started getting sketchy at seven steps,” he says. “So I knew I’d have to get close.” For that, he used a specialized reaping tactic. All the usual open-field safety rules apply.
Culpepper uses a Flextone Thunder Chicken, which is a compact reaper-style decoy. In addition to a real fan, he zip-ties dried turkey wings to the fake. They provide extra concealment—but they also allow Culpepper to employ another trick.
“Michael Waddell showed me this,” he says. “If you’re crawling in close but the gobbler’s not breaking, you can pop the decoy stake hard against the ground. It makes those wings beat against the decoy, and it sounds just like turkeys flogging in a fight. Do that while making a fighting purr, and it’ll drive him nuts.”
When the bird does break, Culpepper stakes the deke in front of him, sits back, and pokes the barrel through the tail fan or eases it over the top of a wing. “When a tom is locked in, he won’t notice that movement.”
Culpepper killed his Osceola at two steps. “I love to see how close I can get to them,” he says. That’s the whole appeal of the small-bore trend. “Still, I think I’ll leave the Judge home and go with a shotgun from now on.”
Trending: Breeder Hens
Decoy companies have been making “breeding pairs” for some 20 years. After all, if a jake decoy just standing there upsets old gob, then the sight of one on top of his girlfriend should really create issues. Problem is, those decoys have historically looked so fake that I doubt some manufacturers have ever witnessed a real round of turkey coitus.
Today’s top makers must be more voyeuristic because they are now making highly realistic breeder-hen decoys that can be used with or without a jake. Late in the season, I leave the jake home and add a breeder to several feeding and alert hen dekes. I position the breeder for my best shot. The other decoys help draw gobblers in from a distance, and when they finally spot that hen on her belly, they’ll strut right in to do God knows what. Be ready to shoot—or cover your eyes.
Game Changer: Go Public (On Purpose)
Believe it or not, some top gobbler killers hunt public land because it’s harder. On some pressured Tennessee public land that I hunt, the seasoned locals swear that all the gobblers wired to go to hen calls have been culled out of the flock. I’m not sure I believe that, but I know these toms are tough. Here’s how I’ve managed to bag a few.
Fools Rush In
Most public-land hunters hear a gobbler and rush to sit down, eager to make the first yelps and “claim” the bird for themselves. But pressured birds learn that a hen calling from one spot means trouble. Instead, I call occasionally while sneaking ever closer. You’ll bump some turkeys, but you’ll kill some too, if you still-hunt along at the speed of fungus. Use your binoculars to glass constantly for a fan. Don’t be afraid to make him gobble with aggressive yelps and cutts, but keep them infrequent. Be safe, of course. And never utter so much as a cluck without a setup tree and shooting lane in mind. know when to Shut Up
Once the turkey gobbles at you inside 50 or 60 yards, sit down and be quiet. Don’t bother with a decoy, and put your call in your pocket. The bird assumes that he’s about to see a hen walking to him, and when he doesn’t, he’ll get anxious. Don’t scratch in the leaves. Don’t cluck. Make him think his hen is gone. Keep watch with your gun on your shoulder, and if he quits gobbling, don’t move for a full 30 minutes. Odds are, he’ll sneak in silently before then.
Trending: D.I.Y. Mouth Calls
“A serious flyfisherman doesn’t want to buy flies at Walmart. He wants to fool a trout with a fly he tied himself,” says Tennessee turkey nut Kerry B. Wix, who’s been pressing his own diaphragm calls for the past five seasons. Wix says the first yelper he ever made sounded awful. But the learning process has paid off.
Virtually all mouth calls consist of just an aluminum frame, latex reeds, and tape. “The big differences in sound come from the call’s side and back tension, layering, and reed cuts,” Wix says. “Increasing side tension by a ten-thousandth of an inch can completely change the sound. Everyone blows a call a little differently, so finding your perfect combination of reed cut and stretch off the shelf is random. But when you’re making your own, you can tweak the numbers to get them just right, and then build your perfect call over and over again.”
Wix says that his calling improved dramatically once he learned to build his own calls. “I enjoy making them for myself and my hunting buddies,” he says. “When they choose my call to kill a gobbler—well, there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”
Game Changer: Carry a Cross
If you’re one of the many hunters who’s jumped on the crossbow train recently, take it turkey hunting. A crossbow provides the point-blank thrill of bowhunting with the run-and-gun capability of shotgun hunting. And in some states with archery-only seasons, like Nebraska and Kansas, it’ll get you extra time in the woods too. I’ve killed a slew of gobblers with a crossbow. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Set a Ruse
To kill a turkey with an arrow, you want the bird standing still inside 25 yards. Good decoys are the name of the game. I place a DSD 3/4 Strut Jake or Avian-X 1/2 Strut Jake 15 yards out and quartering to me. Then I stake a hen deke at 18 yards. Aggressive gobblers will walk past the hen and square off with the jake head-on, giving you a 12-yard shot. Passive birds that strut just beyond the hen are still easy pickings for a crossbow.
When you fidget, the wide limbs of a crossbow will move enough to spook any turkey. A rest, like the Primos Trigger Stick Monopod, is essential for keeping comfortable and still while working a bird, and for 10-ringing a turkey’s small vital area.
I’ve killed a bunch of birds with fixed-blade broadheads, but I’ve come to prefer hybrid heads with a fixed bleeder blade and two big mechanical blades, like the Bloodsport Gravedigger or Muzzy Trocar HB. Even the slowest crossbows have the oomph to push those heads through a gobbler, and they open devastating holes.
Wild Tactic: Bust a Move
There are days, often late in the season, when we promise to spend the rest of the year becoming a better person if only we can get a shot at a turkey. A jake with a beard just long enough for the game warden to see would work fine. Problem is, jakes and even 2-year-old gobblers tend to bunch up late and can be surprisingly difficult to kill. Unless you bust them up first.
The key is to actually scatter them, not just spook them. You need individuals to fly away in multiple directions. I’ve had my best luck by getting within 100 yards of a flock and then running at them head-on. Yelling and cussing, a lot, seems to help.
Next, sit as close to the break site as you can and stake out a single jake decoy. Give the woods 10 minutes to settle down, and then make long, loud strings of jake yelps, kee-kee runs, and gobbles. And when that turkey is finally flopping at your feet, remember your promise about the rest of the year.
Written by Will Brantley for Field & Stream.