More turkeys are killed during the first hour of daylight than any other one-hour period during turkey season. This was true last season and it will hold true as this season plays out. It’ll be true again next year and the one after that, too.
This isn’t coincidence. Rather, the first legal hour of hunting light is simply when hunters can use the most factors to their advantage. However, killing a sunrise gobbler is far from a slam dunk. Here are a few simple tips to help you get it done.
Put Him to Bed
Putting a bird to bed, or roosting, is finding where a turkey flies up to roost in a tree for the evening. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll kill him, but knowing where a tom sleeps can give you the drop on him come morning.
Roost locations vary widely depending on terrain and habitat, but they can often be found along an “edge” of some type. Edges are marked by a change in habitat, such as a crop field, pasture or meadow surrounded by trees, or a distinct change in terrain, such as bluffs, ravine edges, and stream banks with trees along them. Turkeys prefer edge-type roosting locations as a safety measure. If a predator approaches, they have a ready-made escape route that enables them to sail far away from danger.
Sometimes hunters must roost birds visually, actually watching them fly up for the evening. More often than not, however, roosting is an auditory affair, simply hearing a tom gobble off in the distance at dusk.
Hen yelping or excited cutting can sometimes get a good-night gobble from an unseen bird. At the same time, locator calls—owl, crow, hawk scream, and even coyote calls—work just as well and, at times, they work even better to pull reflex-induced shock gobbles from hormone-overloaded toms. Plus, locator calls like these are much easier for beginning hunters to use than actual turkey calls.
You can use these calls from just about anywhere, whether you’re walking a trail or driving through the countryside at dusk. All you do is hit the call, listen, and if a bird responds, mark its location. If you get a good mark, put the calls away. If you’re met with silence, try again a time or two, then keep moving until a gobbler answers.
For any morning hunt, whether you have a bird roosted or not, make sure you go in early—I’m talking way early. If I’m setting up on a roosted bird, I want to be to my spot with decoys placed an hour before shooting light. That allows everything, including me, time to settle down long before turkey activity increases with the approaching dawn. Overdoing it? Probably. But I’d rather go in under cover of darkness to conceal my movement rather than trying to cheat and slip in at gray light.
The closer you can get to a roosted gobbler, the better, but setting up within 100 yards of his bedroom gives you a fighting chance. I tend to be overly cautious, though, as I don’t want to accidentally bump a bird off its roost. My tendency is to give the turk some breathing room instead of expecting him to fall off the limb into my lap.
If you were lucky enough to watch where a gobbler flew up for the night, set up based on where his feet last touched the ground. Chances are he’ll fly down in that same general direction in the morning. If you don’t have any idea of which way he’ll go in the morning, take your best guess based on terrain, habitat, and food sources, and then set up accordingly.
Set the Scene
Today’s ultra-realistic decoys can add a degree of realism to any setup, but there are a few basic tips hunters should remember. For starters, I prefer setting up decoys in the same direction I think the birds will be going. There are many theories about this, but I’ve had the best luck with this type of “going with the flow” setup on prairie birds in open country.
Also, I never place decoys so they’re looking at where I’ll be sitting. Distance-wise, I typically place them 15-20 yards away from where I plan to hide. This way approaching birds that hang up at 40 yards are within ethical shotgun range, and the dekes are close enough, but not too close, to where I’ll be calling to maintain realism.
Decoys come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s hard to beat jake-and-hen combos for all-season use. More specifically, I like to use a jake decoy in a half- or quarter-strut posture, as it presents a challenge to a dominant gobbler. Any type of hen decoy in a breeding posture is a visual cue that matches the yelps, clucks, or cuts you use to pull that gobbler closer.
Call Carefully and Sparingly
Speaking of calls, it’s best to tread lightly during early morning setups. Hammering away at the first hint of gray light with a loud, ringing box call 75 yards from a roosted longbeard isn’t a good plan. You can have a gobbler absolutely pegged with a perfect setup, but calling too aggressively right off the bat will blow him straight into the next township.
Less calling is more while birds are still roosted, but many hunters are so excited to talk to a tom that they just can’t help themselves. Remember, a longbeard is used to hens coming to him when he gobbles. Calling too often and too loud will only make him suspicious, especially if he’s still on the limb and able to survey his surroundings as daylight increases.
During morning hunts it’s rare that I make the first move. I won’t call until I hear a bird gobble—and if they’re there, they’ll gobble, alright—or until I can make out some other kind of turkey call, whether nearby or distant. Either way, once the turkey talk starts, I know it’s safe to ease into the conversation with a tree yelp or two, and then I gradually pick up the tempo.
Also, don’t be discouraged if a tom doesn’t gobble at your tree yelps or other calls. As long as he doesn’t pitch down and sprint the other way, you’re still in the game.
Live to Hunt Another Day
It’s rare for a tom, especially a mature 3- or 4-year-old gobbler, to fly down and sprint toward a setup. It can happen, sure, but usually a bird pitches down and cautiously approaches a setup before ever coming into range. This could take 10 minutes or it could take hours, even when everything goes right. Sometimes it never happens at all, and a tom walks away leaving the hunter scratching his or her head.
However, a failed hunt is an opportunity to learn and prepare for the next hunt, whether it’s later that day, the next morning, later in the season, or even the following year. Observe how the birds acted on the roost and on the ground and jot down detailed notes about bird activity, terrain, habitat, and anything else you can think of that will help your future setups.
If a hunt doesn’t pan out the way you want, don’t blow the birds out of the area by making a hasty retreat. I refuse to leave an area until I’m confident the birds are out of sight, and even then I leave just as carefully as I entered, calling from the shadows as I go in case a satellite gobbler happens to be in the area. They may roost in the same place again if they think it’s still safe.
In other words, I do everything in my power to live to hunt another day, when I can use what I learned from failed hunts and hopefully walk out of the woods about 20 pounds heavier.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.