3 Western Turkey Lessons for Bowhunters

Take this three pack of bowhunting tactics on your next gobbler-chasing adventure out West.

3 Western Turkey Lessons for Bowhunters

It had been a turkey-less morning. As I walked along the rocky ridge toward my truck contemplating my next move, a thunderous gobble from the other side of the draw nearly shook me out of my boots. The bird was obviously close — less than 200 yards, I gathered — but from the direction it came, I knew it was off limits. I had asked the landowner more than once for an opportunity to chase toms on his chuck of turkey paradise, which was adjacent to the BLM spread I was hunting, but it was clear from his response both times that it wouldn’t happen in this lifetime. Although the public dirt I was hunting had never disappointed me, it’s always nice to have a piece of private ground to yourself.

The other issue was the wide and rough creek-bottom that was sandwiched by oak brush and juniper that snaked between us. Even hot gobblers are often hesitant to breach such obstacles at times, regardless of how sweet the hens sound. Although I had deflated a few toms in similar situations in the past, I was sure this tom had been serenaded with an overload of lovesick yelps from every turkey hunter in the country, and was feeling the pressure. I figured getting him within bow range would be a tall task, but with nothing to lose, I quickly made a plan.

A ground blind was out of the question. Too much noise setting it up would surely put him on high alert. Camouflaged from head to toe, I nestled into a cluster of trees and thick brush and began to put the calls to work.

For over an hour, we went back and forth. I bet I must have sent him at least a hundred call sequences, and as if on cue, he responded every time with his distinct, bellowing gobble. Although I had never seen him to this point, it was obvious he was interested. As the minutes ticked, he came closer, but it seemed the deep drainage was too much of an obstacle.

It was now midday, and while contemplating the stalemate, I decided to make a move. Although I couldn’t get any closer, I knew the creek’s edge made a tight bend next to the public ground about 200 yards away. Seeing my lone hen decoy on the other side, coupled with some soft purrs, might encourage him to seek their company. Crawling from my position, I eased to where the creek’s hairpin turn touched the edge of the public dirt. I set up.

I couldn’t get through my first call sequence of cutts and yelps before his rattling gobble echoed my direction. It was obvious that the move caused him to think twice about his initial trepidation. Before I could send him a second cadence, he bellowed out a second and third set of gobbles, while heading in my direction. Not wanting to ruin the moment, I kept quiet, softly ruffling the leaves around me. His urgent gobbles continued until I saw his fanning frame silhouetted on the other side of the creek. When his neck stretched up to confirm the fake was indeed a hen, I sent him some encouraging purrs. Before I could attach my release, he winged across the creek and landed less than 20 feet from the decoy. Facing away from me, the tom began strutting. I made the final move in this spring chess match, coming to full draw, quickly!

Dealing With Tough Toms

Every turkey hunter will experience the near-impossible tom at one point or another. Whether it’s a tom that won’t give your call an ounce of attention; one that won’t fully commit to coming into range; or the familiar henned-up gobbler that has already found love, chasing the king of spring, the endeavor can be both frustrating and rewarding, especially on heavily hunted public dirt. Although many tough birds have given me the slip, just as many have ended up in the icebox, which is perhaps the most cherished victory in the turkey woods. When it seems the hefty longbeard you’re after has the upper hand, consider these three tactics to improve your bow hunting success this season.

1. Mix It Up and Move to Take Lockjaw Toms

Calling is an essential part of turkey hunting. In fact, other than the fried turkey strips I often enjoy at the end of a successful hunt, making music with the calls is the real reason we head to the woods in the first place. Nothing is more thrilling than when a plan comes together, and the tom you’ve set your sights on is gobbling in your lap. On the other hand, nothing can be more discouraging when your lovesick tones don’t raise a peep. This may have to do with weather, hunting pressure, breeding cycle, geographic location or you’re simply hunting a tom that likes to keep his mouth shut and prefers girls that do as well.

The first rule of thumb in these situations is to keep it soft and subtle. Tone the yelps down considerably and try to sound like a content hen or group of hens, enjoying the daily grind. Use calls like clucks and purrs, with long periods of silence in between. Softer calls simply assure the interested tom that everything is normal. Also, try using non-vocal sounds like flapping wings or rustling leaves. Hens make quite a bit of non-verbal racket, so mimicking that adds realism to the setup and may perk his interest.

If the tom still refuses to come to you, push the envelope and move to him. If that’s not an option because of terrain or sparse cover, loop to his opposite side. While moving closer, send aggressive cutts and yelps his direction, letting him know you’re headed his way. Be sure to stop short of his location. The key is to get as close as you can without being seen, all while sounding like an interested hen. Remember, hens going to the tom is how the Creator intended the process to be in the first place, so mimicking this can reassure the hung-up tom.

It’s nearly impossible to run and gun out West and carry a pop-up ground blind. Instead, invest in quiet high-quality camo, and learn to hide in the shadows. Crawling is a must, too. Many western bowhunters rely on ghillie suits to help break up their outline.
It’s nearly impossible to run and gun out West and carry a pop-up ground blind. Instead, invest in quiet high-quality camo, and learn to hide in the shadows. Crawling is a must, too. Many western bowhunters rely on ghillie suits to help break up their outline.

2. Become a Runner

There’s no doubt that a pile of turkeys have been killed by bowhunters from a ground blind, but I’ve had too many sits in the blind when I’m more of a spectator than a hunter. Although it’s risky and you will blow your share of opportunities with this approach, sometimes it’s necessary when hunting out West. Plus, hauling a 20-pound hub-style blind around isn’t a lot of fun anyway. Furthermore, while blinds no doubt have their place, they are cumbersome to carry, take time to set up, are noisy and limit opportunity in my opinion.

A runner requires head to toe camouflage, as well as setting up in real estate that will allow an undetected draw. Set up in places that forces a tom to walk behind brush and trees to block his line of sight from you. For field edge setups, that means putting the decoy no more than 10 yards from the field’s edge and tucking yourself 5 to 10 yards into the brush. I will even set up my decoy on the opposite side of my setup where I think the tom will come from. This forces the tom to pass my hidden location and gives me a shot right up his tailpipe, after he struts past me.

With this hunting style, you obviously will need to have your hands free; learning to use diaphragm calls is necessary, and highly effective. Bow-mounted decoys are especially useful in these situations, but can be more of a health risk when hunting on public ground. Be extremely aware of other hunters around you when employing this tactic.

3. Be Patient — and Positive

A dictionary definition of patience is “The capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble or suffering without getting angry or upset.” Trust me when I say it won’t take too many turkey seasons under your belt to realize how patience plays a role in your overall success. Tough birds typically don’t do what they are supposed to do — I guess they forget to read the turkey manual — and it requires a huge heaping of mental endurance and patience to eventually wrap your tag around them. Long setups without a gobble, missed opportunities and mistakes, or simply bad luck, are what breeds mental failure in the turkey woods. It’s the ones who overcome such difficulties and remain positive that will find consistent success.

Images by Brian Strickland
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