The aspen-choked creek bottom was alive with the sounds of springtime; grouse drumming, bees pollinating, flickers drilling into trees. After three days of rain, the mountain was in full bloom. The only sound missing was that of the enigmatic thunder chicken.
I’d set up before sunrise near the tree where the few turkeys in the area had roosted two nights before. Turns out they didn’t stay there last night. After calling into the abyss for two hours, I needed to stretch my legs and explore. So, I started creeping slowly and silently down through that north-central Washington aspen patch, facemask up, calling occasionally—just like I’d do for elk in the same kind of country.
Two hours later I reached the bottom of the grove where a meadow spread out between two steep, pine-covered hills. Perfect spot to post up and set out the decoy, I thought. Then I took two more cautious steps and froze. Shit! Someone’s already set up here! I recoiled into the shadows. Peeking back around the corner, I realized the deke I thought I saw wasn’t a deke at all.
The hen pecked her way out into the clearing, unaware of my presence. Then a big, tall, red-headed gobbler sauntered out behind her. Seventy yards. No shot. Diaphragm call in, I softly clucked at the pair. They registered the sound but continued on their path up into the pines. I ramped up into a series of yelps and cuts. Still nothing. So, as they disappeared into the trees, I dropped my pack and took off at a dead sprint.
Big Game Tactics for Big Birds
Conventional wisdom might suggest that turkeys’ vision is so damn good that you can’t get the drop on them and you can’t sneak up on them. The guy who introduced me to turkey hunting told me exactly that. Don’t even try.
Well, I’ve done most of my gobbler chasing in the mountains of Washington, Montana, and Colorado—where population densities are usually low, the landscapes are relatively open, and the birds are often less talkative than elsewhere. Turkeys are still expanding into available habitat across much of the West. What few toms there are get hunted hard, and can seem to go from being flocked-up early season to henned-up late season without missing a beat. When calling fails, as it often does, I’ve killed birds by employing big game tactics such as still-hunting, spot-and-stalk, and ambush.
But I’ll admit it: I’m not great at calling turkeys. Maybe the Latvian Eagle or another fluent turkey talker could have made hay in these tricky situations. I make no bones about being very distracted by dry fly fishing and bear hunting in the spring. Sure, I’ve called in and killed my share of gobblers, as well as elk and waterfowl. But sometimes conditions are such that the turks won’t respond to calls no matter how good you are. It would be a mistake to give up at these moments.
During my first turkey hunting experience, I was explicitly told that you cannot get the drop on a turkey. Numerous experiences since then have thoroughly refuted that assertion.
Yes, turkeys have incredible eyesight. It’s nearly 360. But humans have pretty good eyes too, and an experienced hunter can pick up any movement and freeze. It’s like still-hunting big woods whitetails without worrying about wind. Hunt alone if you can handle it. Move very, very slowly. Don’t step on sticks. Use your binoculars to look ahead. Stay in the shadows and along cover to conceal your profile. Avoid sky-lining yourself. If you place each step deliberately, you’re always ready to freeze.
I killed my first turkey, a jake, in my freshman year of college. I’d moved across Washington to Spokane and was excited to draw a fall bird tag just south of there along with my dad. Our second day out, we were set up on an abandoned logging road corridor for a few hours before a huge mob of turkeys crossed the road a quarter mile down. They continued up the mountain, completely ignoring every call we threw at them (as fall turkeys often do, I later learned).
So, just like we would have with mule deer, Dad and I circled around and got in front of the flock. We reached the saddle where they were likely headed and spread out on either side. Barely a minute later, birds started bobbing our way through the evergreens. At 20 yards, two, taller red heads rose above the others. I picked one and fired, dumping one jake. The flock fled towards my dad, who dropped the other.
Just like with any big game, it’s never a bad idea to hustle up and get in front of a group of traveling turkeys. Or, if you are able to pattern a group of birds, set up in their path of travel. It can be very frustrating if they’re not responding to your calls, but you can always bring the fight to them.
In the rolling wheat country of southeast Washington’s Palouse region or the scablands of Eastern Montana, a spotting scope can be a relevant and valuable turkey hunting tool. Binos on a tripod work great too. There may only be a bird or two per square mile on average, but if you get up high and let your eyes do the walking, there’s no reason you can’t figure out where that one flock is living.
Think of this like open country archery mule deer. In fact, it’s a damn good way to scout for exactly that. Get to your glassing tit before dawn and scour the landscape with your optics. When you find birds, slowly and methodically close the distance, taking time to reacquire the target when you can.
It’s true: turkeys are extremely difficult to sneak up on. You would be too if almost every other animal in the woods was trying to eat you. Blind stalks will be your best bet. Get down in a creek channel to approach a flock in the cottonwood bottom. Come up on the other side of the ridge to get in shotgun range of a tom pecking through the pines at midday. If they can’t see you they won’t flush, and you have the advantage of not having to worry about the wind. It’s a great hunting challenge and a productive way to still fill a tag when they don’t immediately come running to your box call.
About Last Season…
That hen and gobbler left my aspen meadow together, headed uphill into the pines at a good clip. Knowing I had to move fast, I shucked my pack and sprinted back down my trail then up a crease in the hill to the top. Before the intersection of my gully and theirs, I slowed my run to a creep. At the top I crouched low, taking a slow, short step every 30 seconds or so. At the hill’s climax I slowed down even further, and not a minute later a bright red snood appeared above the tall grass.
After a very long minute, the full head of the 20-pound bird popped up and swiveled above the tall grass. Twenty-five-yard chip shot. Our crew’s three-day skunk was erased in a cloud of pellets with only an hour left to hunt.
The gobbler was by far the biggest turkey of my life at the time, and it completely ignored every call I made. Turkey hunting with big game tactics may land lower on the purity score than leaning against a tree with a pot call and hen decoy, but I’ll take fresh schnitzel over Mountain House any day.
Feature image via Captured Creative.