By Jason Herbert
The powerful gobble shattered the otherwise silent spring woods; it echoed down through the valley below. Good, I thought to myself. He sees me. I replied softly with a few tree yelps, hoping to continue to keep the tom’s interest. Fighting every urge I had to continue to call, I waited patiently. About 20 minutes later, as the first rays of sun peeked over the ridge opposite the valley below me, he let another thundering gobble rip. Squinting through the blinding sun, I could see the bird re-adjusting himself on his perch in a giant oak tree about 150 yards away. He is ticked off, I thought to myself. Once again, I returned the conversation with some tree yelps; but this time, I used a little more aggressive tone. He immediately responded, “Gobbblleeee!!!! Gobbblleeee!” Nothing in the woods was still asleep. The old tom was fighting mad. Sounding as if someone just shot a cannonball through the forest canopy, the tom pitched down from his perch, breaking twigs and slapping limbs, on his way to me.
It is on now, I thought to myself, as I raised my gun and rested it on my knee. The tom’s red and blue head was ducked behind some brush. Looking like an overfed black bear lumbering along through the woods, he made his way toward me. Never once did he stop to strut or gobble. I quietly clicked off my safety. The boom of my shotgun momentarily drowned the songbirds’ early morning serenade, but after a few moments, everything was quietly back to normal.
Herbert displays, what he calls, “dagger spurs.” They are sharp, long, hooked and measured 1 3/8”. In fact, these spurs were so long that this particular bird was a true limb-hanger.
I put my safety back on, grabbed my spent shell casing and quietly walked over to put my hands on the tom. Thanking God for a wonderful experience in his creation, I sat there for a moment admiring this mature bird. It wasn’t even 7 a.m. yet and I was back in my truck with a sore back from the hike out of the woods with this fat tom hung over my shoulder. With a long beard and sharp, dagger-like spurs, I knew this was the boss. Once I got him home, I put him on the scale and had to do a double take. I called my dad over to be sure I wasn’t seeing things. This tom weighed more than 26 pounds and is the heaviest of my hunting career. I felt a bittersweet range of emotion — happy to put my tag on this bird but sad that our chess match was over so quickly. It dawned on me that I would have to wait another year for another encounter with a bird. To be honest, calling it a “chess match” is a bit of a stretch — I only hunted this bird one time, and the entire hunt took me about 45 minutes. I did, however, put a lot of time and thought into preparing for the hunt.
When I first started turkey hunting 20 years ago, I would have been proud of any legal tom. My first bird was an 15-pound jake, and it took me years to put my tag on an official long-beard. I’ll never forget either hunt, and both beards and fans still have a place on my wall at home. As I’ve learned more about turkey hunting and had greater success, I’m starting to hunt them like I do white-tailed bucks: I focus on the biggest, baddest, most dominant tom in the woods.
Before ever stepping foot in the turkey woods, it’s important that hunters understand a bit of the natural tendencies of a turkey. Let’s face it, game animals are all the same when it comes to priorities; they want to eat, breed and stay alive. During the spring breeding season, a tom’s strut and gobble, show off its stuff. Wanting to ensure the health of their offspring, the hens try to find the most dominant tom to mate with, and the girls chase the boys just like you’ll see on an elementary school playground. There is certainly a pecking order among wild turkey communities, and it becomes sort of like the “quarterback and cheerleader” theory from high school — the most dominant tom will, naturally, be paired up with the most healthy hen. By having the alphas mate with each other, Mother Nature does her best to make sure that there will be healthy turkeys around to hunt next year.
Naturally, the first step in my plan is to find the most dominant tom. Much of locating a big tom is based on geography. Just like some areas seem to hold a big buck each fall, certain spring turkey hunting spots will also seem to produce big birds each year. For a tom to get old, there needs to be ample food and room to roam, lots of cover, some water and plenty of female company. Mature toms tend to not gobble much. I have a few theories as to why they are so tight-lipped. First, I think that loudmouth birds draw a lot of attention to themselves, either from natural predators or hunters, resulting in more of them getting killed at a young age. Also, I think a dominant tom tends to be the “strong, silent” type, whereas his actions show how tough he is, not his mouth. Big toms tend to strut a lot and start strutting early.
Herbert displays his best bird to date: A 26-pound mature tom that he harvested near his home in Michigan. Herbert has this bird, as well as the first male turkey (a jake) that he harvested, mounted in his home.
They generally travel alone. They tend to be pretty lazy, only covering ground when they have to. Just like a bedded buck, a mature tom needs to feel safe when he roosts. Turkeys, in general, like to fly down off the trees away from the sun. They also like to fly down into the wind. By landing into the wind, with the sun at their back, they have the best chance of a well-controlled landing in an area they choose (which is free of danger) because the sunlight helps them see it well.
My favorite hunting spot is a rolling hardwood saddle where three ridges connect. These types of locations provide visibility from hundreds of yards in all directions. They are a perfect strut zone because the sunlight is able to sneak through the canopy. Easily seen from all directions, the strutting tom knows that this is a great place to show off his stuff. Tom turkeys have a beautiful iridescent coat of feathers when the sunlight hits them just right, and by strutting in an open area, they are able to show off what they have in hopes of attracting a mate. Naturally, a strut zone needs to be in an area where the sunlight can reach. This area also needs to come with a lot of visibility for that tom to be seen from great distances. Weeks before the season starts, I sneak into the spot and set up a trail camera. I also bring a hard rake with me and clear the area of leaves and debris. Every week or so, I’ll return to check the camera, and it never fails, that a dominant tom will be strutting in front of my camera. I also bring back the rake every time I come back. I look for big tracks in the dirt. A tom’s track will also look like a cross, with his side toes close to perpendicular to the middle and back toe. Along with tracks, I’m looking for wingtip marks from a strutting bird and potential sign from a beard dragging on the ground. If I do find wingtip marks, I like to gauge how far apart they are, giving me an idea how fat the bird is. A dragging beard line will, of course, indicate a big tom. The trail camera pictures help me confirm what I’m dealing with, possibly giving me a look at his spurs or a double beard, while showing me which direction he’s coming from. Also, by looking at trail camera pictures, I can see if there’s one bird strutting all by himself or a group of two or three younger ones strutting together. Generally, the solo bird by himself is the dominant gobbler. I’ve seen dominant tom’s chase away other strutters as often as I’ve seen them run off competition for food.
When it is time to hunt, I sneak in the perfect setup: I bring two decoys, a strutting jake and a submissive hen. I put the hen on the ground like she’s ready to be bred, and I’ll put the jake directly behind her about 10 yards. For the most part, the shots will happen between the jake and the hen because a dominant tom will try to get in between the two to head off my jake decoy. I always face decoys towards me so that when a tom tries to cut off the strutting decoy, I have a perfect shot at the back of his head. This allows me any sort of movement necessary. Usually, I’m shooting the birds when they’re 25 to 30 yards out, but sometimes they sneak into my decoy set. I’ve actually missed birds at 10 yards because they were t0o close. Another trick I’ve adopted over the years is to take an old, red sock and cut out the end of it. I then slide it over the neck of my strutting tom decoy, making him stick out like a sore thumb. I really think that bright red sock over my decoy’s neck is what makes the dominant tom who is roosted nearby angry.
As far as calling to these birds, I usually don’t have to make much noise. As I described before, I’ll get the dominant bird’s attention and let him know that I’m there. Then, I’ll start to ramp it up a little bit more because I want my hen decoy to appear like she is also a dominant hen. Generally speaking, that tom is flying out of the roost and coming into my setup and the hunt is over in a few minutes. Sometimes, though, he’ll fly down and be surrounded by his own harem of hens that he collected the night before, but that does not mean the hunt is over. Once this happens, I start calling to the hens.
Calling to hens is an entire science within itself. I first listen to the hens to see what they are doing. Generally, they are purring or doing some soft yelps. Because hens are also worried about dominance and pecking order, I have a strategy that works pretty well with a henned-up tom. I start by mimicking the lead hen’s calls but in a softer tone. If she is yelping, I’ll yelp back, but softer. If she’s purring, I’ll do my best to purr back softer. I’m hoping to catch her attention and her curiosity. Sometimes, the lead hen will bring the flock over to my decoy set in hopes of welcoming the other hen (which is really me and my decoy) to their flock. If that doesn’t work, I will mimic the hen’s calls at the exact cadence and tone, hoping to match her note-for-note. Once again, I want her to be curious and wander over towards me. Lastly, if nothing else works, I mimic the hen but at a much louder, more aggressive tone in hopes of challenging her dominance. Generally, that works and she will come running with the mature tom hot on her tail.