If you find yourself in the ninth inning of turkey season and you haven’t punched your tag, these tips can spell the difference between tag soup and smoked turkey.
There’s nothing like it: A big boss gobbler fires off 50 or more gobbles before daylight on opening morning, flies down into the field 100 yards away at daybreak, then struts toward your decoys. You level the bead and squeeze the trigger. BAM! Your shotgun roars and the bird folds instantly. You run out and step on his neck. You pull back your sleeve and your wristwatch reads 6 a.m.
Snap out of it! Opening-day success is wonderful, but not always the reality. Scores of turkey hunters pack their tag right down to the bitter end, though not many are mentally prepared for it. And then when we’re in the ninth inning, we grasp at straws to try to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Bad plan!
Rather than wait until the end of the season to face the reality of an unfilled tag, what if we begin to prepare for that possibility right now? Yes, you can still have high hopes for opening day, but hunt with the mindset that it could come down to the wire. Do that, and you won’t be blindsided when it’s the last day of the season and you still have a tag in your pocket. You’ll have a plan, and, because of that, tables could turn in your favor at the last minute.
“The bottom line is that if your calling and decoys haven’t put a tom within archery range, pull back for a couple of days and pattern some birds to determine where they want to be.”
Now, I can’t wave a magic wand and put a big bird in your decoys. But I can draw from 19 years of hunting turkeys—killing dozens and dozens with shotguns and archery tackle—to offer you some tips that will at least increase your odds for a last-minute tag punch. Let’s review them now.
Pattern a Tom
Some of my fastest turkey hunts have been during the final week of the season, and that’s because I don’t limit myself to one specific property, especially one that doesn’t have gobblers on it. I waited out such properties earlier in my career, and my success rates were always in the basement.
Today, I’m so successful during the late season because I drive around and look at fields for a morning or two prior to my hunt. I try to find at least two to three different fields with one gobbler or more. Of those spots, I identify what I believe is the greatest prospect, then I contact the landowner. If denied, I have another property or two to fall back on. My success rate with acquiring permission has been at least 75 percent, so that strategy has worked really well for me.
Yes, the strategy I mentioned can work during early season, too, however, early-season birds are liable to split up and go their separate ways on any day. They find out who’s who in the pecking order, and they disperse as spring unfolds and temperatures warm up. Late-season gobblers, on the other hand, tend to advertise for breeding in a common location until a receptive hen appears or he gets spooked. I’m referring to private-land gobblers specifically. Too many variables abound on public land, so scouting public-land gobblers can be futile, as it takes only one enthusiast or another hunter to foil your plans.
Now, whether you drive around and find private pieces with new gobblers or you’re planning to continue hunting gobblers that you’ve been chasing for a couple of weeks, one of the best things you can do to bow-kill a tough late-season gobbler is to know right where he wants to be in the morning, and then be there very early. I’ve had good success using a jake decoy at all points of the season, but when I have a late-season bird pegged, I’ll usually just use a hen or two. Late-season toms are still in full breeding mode, but fewer hens are available, so a realistic hen decoy should do the trick.
If you’ve had birds shy away from your decoys in the past few weeks, consider setting up where birds are strutting every day without decoys. Think of it as “deer hunting for turkeys.” Try to get within a 20-yard circle of where they like to be and set your blind there, even in the wide open. If there is alternative cover, forget the blind.
The bottom line is that if your calling and decoys haven’t put a tom within archery range, pull back for a couple of days and pattern some birds to determine where they want to be. Then, be there before daybreak and set up as quietly as possible so you’re ready.
If you’re focusing on public land, there’s one way to do it. As I mentioned earlier, uncontrollable factors abound, so patterning could be futile. In other words, you might pattern a bird for two days in a row, but then show up and hear crickets because someone else went in there the day before you and stirred everything up.
Knowing that, I like to pop in and out of spots, covering hundreds of acres in a morning. I’ll look at habitat on my onX Hunt app beforehand and identify things that most other hunters won’t. I try to identify overlooked easy access, in particular. Typically, this is where private farm fields adjoin public lands. I’ve killed a few late-season birds less than 100 yards from public parking areas by calling them off private fields onto public spots. Small parcels are another bet; people drive right by them. If a small chunk is surrounded by agriculture and roost trees, it could be a money spot on the right day.
When popping in and out of spots, my QuietKat e-bike helps me cover lots of ground quickly. It’s silent, and I can rip up and down logging roads quickly. I suggest looking into one not only for turkey hunting but also for deer and other big game hunting. Find me on Facebook or Instagram if you want to know more about them. I’d be happy to talk e-bikes with you.
As you cover ground, have an all-or-nothing mindset. Keep moving and calling until you get a bird responding. Midday gobblers during the late season are usually very vocal, so if none are gobbling, it could be that they simply aren’t within earshot. Plus, if they don’t respond, they’re probably not going to come in anyway. Keep moving.
A ground blind will weigh you down for the mobile approach. Be absolutely mobile and set up immediately when a tom responds nearby. Especially in the late morning and early afternoon, they’re known to come in fast.
Decoy the Hens In
Sometimes, you’ll find a gobbler still guarding a bunch of hens late in the season. He won’t budge to your calls because he has what he wants. In this case, I ditch my jake decoy and put out one Dave Smith hen decoy. I find that hens don’t come in as often when I use my jake, but when I have just the hen out, hens usually get ticked off at it and come right in. This is your ticket to also pull the gobbler within range. The key is to set up as close as you can to where they’re going to be, as I mentioned earlier.
Further, be ready to get mouthy with loud hens. Sometimes, they’ll cut and purr excitedly, and I try to mimic their sounds and volume, sometimes even cutting them off mid-sentence. The calling can pull them in, but the lifelike visual of an expensive decoy like a Dave Smith is irresistible.
Use the Deadliest Turkey Call
Turkeys have heard lots of calling by the final week and days of the season. If I’m able to get a tom to respond fairly closely, and he’s gobbling hard at my calls but not coming closer, I pull out the deadliest call ever. Tossing leaves to mimic a turkey scratching for food has helped me claim numerous stubborn birds.
Many hunters want to keep calling loudly when a tom is responding well, but if he isn’t budging, that means he’s waiting for you to come to him. Going silent and then scratching in the leaves often will bring him the rest of the way in. Obviously, this works only in the woods where leaves are present. When other calls aren’t working, this one usually does.
Fill That Tag!
A lot of turkey hunters don’t fill their tags, but by following some or all of the tips I’ve outlined here, you’ll increase your chances tremendously. In the last 19 years, I’ve bagged dozens and dozens of late-season toms by using the strategies I’ve covered here. If you find yourself in the ninth inning, I’m confident that following these tips can get you close to a bird and maybe even help you put one on the ground.
By Darron McDougal