Run And Gun Turkey Hunting

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When turkeys are scarce hunters can try running and gunning

Being from Alberta, I haven’t hunted turkeys a lot but I’ve been fortunate enough to hunt with some of North America’s best and I’ve been a pretty quick study. Add to that the fact that I’ve hunted turkeys under some of the most challenging conditions imaginable, in three countries and on two continents, and I’ve received an express degree in killing turkeys quickly and effectively. While hunting networks and DVDs are rife with shows where it’s a simple matter of setting up near the turkeys’ roosting area and calling them in the morning, most of Canada does not possess these high numbers of turkeys, nor the vast tracts of private land with exclusive access. Much of our western Canadian turkey hunting is done on public land, with low turkey numbers and high hunter pressure. Taking a big old long beard under these conditions is a real accomplishment and requires some specialized techniques. Without question, running and gunning is one of those techniques.

Take an Alberta hunt Vanessa and I went on recently. She was a first-time turkey hunter and I was just along as the cameraman, but we had a secret weapon: turkey master Jim Clarke. While I enjoy hunting turkeys, Jim lives and breathes turkeys and an invite is the only excuse he needs to head afield with turkey calls in hand. I admire people with this passion, but I’m also like a sponge around them, gleaning every bit of information I can.

While we had secured permission on a ranch with good turkey numbers, a last-minute change of heart by the landowner left us scrambling for a place to hunt. Thankfully, there were some large tracts of public land nearby that offered a good opportunity for those willing to wear out a little boot leather. As we walked along the pine and aspen-covered ridge, Jim would stop to call every 200 or 300 yards. Straining our ears, we’d listen for the tell-tale answer of the dominant male, trying to out advertise any possible rivals. It was a technique we’d used a couple years previous in Montana where we scored on two big gobblers.

The first day was fairly uneventful, but we got the lay of the land and knew exactly where the following morning would find us. We were several miles from the truck when the sun began to peek over the eastern horizon the next day. Jim had called a couple times as we walked, but there was no response. But, as we neared a pipeline and Jim worked his magic on the box call, we herd a faint gobble in the distance. A big smile enveloped Jim’s face and he wasted no time setting up a couple hen decoys as Vanessa readied a makeshift blind.

For the next 15 minutes, Jim continued to call and each time the turkey answered. We could tell he was getting closer. There was a deep creek bottom on the opposite side of the pipeline and he had undoubtedly been roosting in the large cottonwoods along the creek. The tom sounded close and it was Jim that first caught a flash of red in the thick aspens. It was a big, mature bird and it was like Jim had him on a string – bringing the bird closer with every call. In the morning sun, the gobbler, in full strut, looked magnificent. He totally ignored the two decoys. His attention was focused solely on Jim’s calls. The bird never let his tail feathers rest.

Finally, the tom stopped at about 30 yards and a low purr by Jim was all it took for the bird to bring his head to full attention. Seizing the opportunity, Vanessa dropped the hammer on the shotgun, sending an ounce-and-a-half of lead in his direction. Vanessa had her first turkey and it was a massive bird. Had we not been willing to put the miles on, there is no way she would have taken such a fine trophy.

 

Calling as you go

Obviously, the best way to locate turkeys is to wait for them to roost in the evening and then return to that location in the morning. Typically, turkeys will fly up into high trees, to spend the night away from predators. They usually make a fair amount of noise doing this, so locating them isn’t that difficult. Rarely will they leave this tree until it is light enough to see in the morning. By setting up near this location in the morning, with decoys and calling, often you can get your turkey with very little difficulty.

But, in more heavily pressured areas or in areas of low turkey densities, locating roosting turkeys is often not an option. And, if your early-morning plan on roosting birds goes awry, you need a back up plan and that’s when running and gunning can really pay big dividends. The key with this technique is to put yourself in the middle of prime range and be a master with the call.

Narrow, linear strips of cover are ideal for this tactic. In farm and ranch country, river and creek bottoms are prime. Often, the surrounding land has been cleared for agricultural purposes and the turkeys are forced to concentrate in these strips of trees. These strips are even more productive if they contain mature stands of trees, like pine, cottonwood, oak or elm. Certainly you can find turkeys in larger stands of timber, but you will definitely find larger concentrations of birds in these agricultural areas.

If you are hunting larger tracts of forest, look for topographical features that concentrate birds. Turkeys rely heavily on their keen eyesight and will spend their days in areas that offer good visibility. It’s rare to find turkeys in heavy cover. They will look for elevated locations, like ridges that run through stands of timber. These don’t have to be high ridges, but just slightly elevated linear strips that allow them to see approaching danger. One thing to constantly keep an eye out for, when working big timber, are roosting trees. These are easily identified by large amounts of turkey droppings and feathers at their base. These roosting trees will be used by turkeys for many generations. If you locate roosting trees, the chance of turkeys being nearby is pretty high.

While there is little doubt that turkeys will respond to a wide variety of calls and every hunter has their favourites, the box and slate calls are well suited to this run-and-gun type of hunting. They seem to produce a cleaner, crisper sound that can be heard at a greater distance. Remember, the key in the beginning is to just get a tom to answer. Once you know he is in the vicinity, then you can formulate a plan.

A person only needs to call every 200 to 300 hundred yards, unless you are in really heavy cover, then you may wish to call more frequently as the sound will not carry as well. Jim would often stop and call for 20 or 30 minutes in areas with lots of turkey sign. When running and gunning you will undoubtedly go past some birds without receiving an answer, but the system works because you are exposing so many birds to your calls. The key is to locate an active one. By stopping occasionally in areas with heavy turkey sign, you can increase your odds, but you definitely don’t want to spend too long in one spot if you don’t receive an answer to your calls. With active birds, a response usually comes in a matter of seconds. You can cover a lot of miles in day utilizing this method.

Once a turkey answers, you need to evaluate the situation quickly. My buddy Scott, a Montana turkey calling champion, likes to answer right away when he gets a response and see if the tom is moving towards him or if it is staying still. Turkeys can cover a lot of ground in a hurry, especially if there is more than one tom, as the competition to get to the call first is really intense. If it sounds like he is coming your way, you need to set up fast. The key here is to constantly evaluate the surrounding area before you call, so you know exactly where you will set up before you receive an answer.

Look for a large tree where you can sit with your back to it. If you are well camouflaged, you are better off sitting motionless in front of a large tree, rather than trying to hide behind it, where you are forced to peek around. Ideally, there should be a small opening 20 to 30 yards in front of you where you can set up a decoy or two. Mature turkeys, especially those that have been heavily hunted, get suspicious when they can hear a call and can’t see a hen. For this reason, experienced turkey run-and-gunners only call when there is an ideal location to set up nearby.

The real key with this run and gun method is to cover the miles in prime habitat. While some jurisdictions don’t permit afternoon hunting of turkeys, if the one you are hunting does, this is the absolute best technique you can employ. Hens will roost at night even when they have eggs and when they leave the roost in the morning, they will typically feed for a while before heading to their nests. It is in the morning when you will find the toms in their company. By afternoon, however, many of the hens are sitting on their nests and the toms are looking for new hens. On more than one occasion, I’ve been unable to call a tom in the morning, only to have him come in with reckless abandon in the afternoon.

 

Henned-up gobblers

There is nothing prettier than the sound of a bull elk bugling in the Rockies. Well, unless it’s the gobble of a big old tom turkey in the spring. Both species are very willing to respond to a call during the breeding season, even if they have females already. Many hunters feel that these auditory responses are an act of aggression, when, in fact, it is a form of advertising. Bugles and gobbles are not meant to scare possible suitors off, but to out advertise these rivals and to keep the attention of the females.

Just because they answer a call, however, does not mean they will come to it. In fact, if they have hens, they are likely content to remain with them and boast of their superiority by gobbling. When Vanessa and I were in New Zealand last year, we had an opportunity to hunt Merriam’s turkeys and found one particularly big tom that was henned up and just refused to leave his girls. Our only option was to try and sneak in on him. Vanessa managed to do this masterfully and ended up with a very unique trophy for her efforts. While many people believe that turkeys are highly intelligent, I don’t really believe that’s the case. The are extremely wary, however, and the slightest movement can send them scurrying off. Add to this some incredible eye sight, and sneaking up on them becomes extremely challenging.

When I was at the SHOT Show earlier this year, I had an opportunity to speak with turkey-hunting guru Terry Denmon, of Mojo Outdoors, and they just launched a couple new products for just this application. The first is a portable decoy with a large, fanned out tail that you can actually hide behind while sneaking up on birds and the other is a turkey fan that attaches to your shotgun and allows you to hide behind it while crawling up on birds. I must admit that I was a bit sceptical until he showed me some video footage of people using the products and in one case they were able to get so close that the fellow actually touched the big tom with his hand. For those really henned-up gobblers, especially those in more open areas, this could just be the answer. I know I’ll be adding one to my ever-increasing collection of turkey hunting paraphernalia. While sneaking up on turkeys is anything but conventional, and may be downright blasphemous in some circles, it is the only sure means of scoring on henned-up gobblers that I have found.

Once you have the turkey located, it’s time to put the call away. You not only need to sneak in silently, you also need to remain undetected by several sets of eyes. To sneak up on a turkey, you need a ton of patience, and a lot of luck doesn’t hurt either, but hiding behind the fan really seemed to work. Obviously you need to be mindful of other hunters in the area when employing this technique, but when safe to do so it’s definitely worth a try.

There are countless ways to hunt turkeys and it’s critical to have a bag full of tricks when heading afield. You need to evaluate the each situation and employ the best technique for the conditions.

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