Sporting a long coat, a docked tail and keen senses, this breed is often talked of in hunting circles as the top breed for flushing pheasants.
Its sturdy 40-lb. frame and speed combine to give the dog a knack for quickly flushing a bird into the air, and its ability to work well both on land and in the water make this breed’s versatility tough to beat.
Exceptionally talented at hunting pheasant, grouse, and woodcocks, this lightweight breed (they average a slight 20-25 pounds) is noteworthy for their ability to work areas of heavy cover impenetrable to bigger dogs.
The owners of long coats and docked tails, these dogs are great hunters, especially the English variety.
A relatively unknown breed of spaniels, these compact dogs are skilled at flushing and retrieving both waterfowl and upland birds.
Slightly heavier than the cocker spaniels (Boykins average about 30-5 pounds) and wearing a long, curly coat, these docked-tail dogs are rather friendly and make good house pets.
Almost as versatile as the Boykin and the springer, these spaniels are among the strongest hunters of both upland birds and waterfowl.
Topping out at over 60 pounds, these are the heaviest of the spaniels and the owners of a thick, curly coat.
Known for its ability to hunt waterfowl, the Lab is also very talented at hunting upland birds.
With their short coats, their solid, stocky physique (they weigh in at an average of 60-65 pounds) and the ease with which they are trained, it’s no wonder this is the most popular type of retriever.
The owners of rough, thick coats, this breed is best known for its unparalleled waterfowl-hunting ability, able to retrieve game even in the most inhospitable of conditions.
An extremely rugged dog – they tip the scales at a strong 75 pounds – these are also competent at hunting upland game.
Almost as easy to train as the Labrador, this breed is a wonderful hunter of upland birds such as grouse, pheasant, and woodcock (just like the cocker spaniel), and is equally adept at hunting waterfowl.
Averaging over 65 pounds and sporting a long coat of wavy hair, these dogs also have an extremely friendly temperament.
This dog is said to be legendary in the toughest of water and weather conditions. A very intense hunter of upland birds and is the quintessential cold-water duck and goose-retrieving specialist.
The Chessie becomes firmly attached to his owner and family.
Long time Chessie owners have said that starting at puppyhood, a fair but firmer hand is needed in training and discipline to earn the respect of this noble dog.
Trainers of Chessies say that an owner should expect them to challenge their authority. There are large variations in color, such as tan, light red, deep reddish chestnut, a light straw color termed “deadgrass,” brown, etc.
This dog needs plenty of exercises to prevent misbehavior. They are not aggressive but will not be bullied. Females: 55-70 lbs; males 66-84 lbs.
An excellent retriever of game from the water and a popular retriever in Australia and New Zealand, this dog excels at hunting in marshy terrain.
The Curly-Coat seems to enjoy inclement weather in which to hunt and is therefore not a good house dog.
They are action dogs that live to swim and are not deterred by ice, snow or dark and threatening skies. In fact, some have said this animal enjoys these conditions.
A Curly-Coat is devoted to its family but aloof to strangers. Highly intelligent, so it must be challenged early and thoroughly or else its intelligence will be used to further its own goals.
The breed has a will of its own but is highly sensitive; therefore obedience training should be consistent, not rough. They weigh 62-77 pounds, and are black or liver in color. The coat consists of very tight curls that are water and dirt resistant.
This dog was known as the favorite of the British gamekeeper since they excelled at the basic hunting tasks of flushing game, working any sort of cover, locating cripples, and retrieving from land and water.
The Flat-Coat is known to have an excellent nose. They stand approximately 24 inches tall and weigh approximately 60-70 pounds. The traditional color is black, however, liver is also seen.
Their personalities are enthusiastic, responsive and versatile and they are noted to be a devoted companion.
Intelligent and quick to learn, however, the Flat-Coat cannot be drilled repetitively on the same routine. They do not respond well to mechanical training methods.
Almost as easy to train as the Labrador retriever, this breed is a wonderful hunter of upland birds such as grouse, pheasant, and woodcock.
This dog is dually adept at hunting waterfowl. It is a good choice for the hunter who wants a versatile dog adept at upland hunting and waterfowl retrieving.
It has been said that the golden is not as rugged of a retriever as the Labrador or Chesapeake. Very trainable and has a somewhat softer nature than the Labrador.
An extremely friendly and affectionate dog, they average over 65 pounds, 20-24 inches in height at the shoulders, and has a long wavy coat.
Color ranges from light blonde to dark red, with the darker colors being more prevalent in field lines.
Avid hunters need to ensure that the pedigree of their puppy comes from strong field lines as the bench/show lines may not be as strong in the field as a hunter may desire. This dog loves all people and is therefore not a good watchdog.
This spaniel was developed in Ireland as a retriever. They are allowed to compete in field trials due to their size and ability to fetch ducks, geese and upland game.
They have a curly liver-colored coat that water drains off like a poodle due to its tight curls, with a wooly underlayer that provides warmth to the dog allowing it to stay in the cold water for long periods of time.
The hair is short on the face and the end of the tail. The coat requires removal of burs when doing upland work.
This dog is obedient if given early and consistent training.
This breed should have a knowledgeable dog person as an owner to assert authority over it and develop its clownish personality.
A good foundation as a puppy will lead to a dog that shows intense devotion to the family and will curb its natural distrust of people.
The Irish Water Spaniel may be slow to mature leading to slower training. However, once a task is learned, they require little brushing up on the skill.
Its natural ability for pranks can either provide frustration or laughter for its trainer. The dog is a medium size for a retriever breed, standing about 20-23 inches tall and weighing about 65-75 pounds.
This dog has been the most popular dog in America for greater than the last decade. They are popular since this dog learns quickly and is easily trained. It can fetch from land or water and can be taught to work before the gun, flushing and retrieving game.
There is also a society for pointing Labrador enthusiasts. Typically the Labrador Retriever has a calm and cooperative nature that makes it a fine companion.
This dog is solidly built with a water-repellent coat, short ears, and a thick otter-like tail.
The Lab typically weighs 55-75 pounds standing 20-24 inches at the shoulder. Colors are black, yellow (ranging from “white” to fox-red) and chocolate.
Avid hunters need to ensure that the pedigree of their puppy comes from strong field lines as the bench/show lines may not be as strong in the field as a hunter may desire.
Also, strong field trial lines may produce a pup that is too intense or high-strung, making the dog more than the average hunter wants to train or handle. This dog may not make a good watchdog, as typically there is no distrust in a Labrador’s generous heart.
The toller became the 150th recognized breed of the American Kennel Club on July 1, 2003. This dog is said to have originated during the early 19th century. It is known for its unique ability to toll or lure and retrieve waterfowl. It’s playful antics draw the waterfowl into the range of the hunter by piquing the ducks’ curiosity.
It is found, however, that most individuals’ use the dog to retrieve instead of actually tolling. The toller is noted to be good in cold water and will retrieve repetitively without boredom.
The toller typically has a burnished medium length red coat, often with a white-tipped tail. They are the smallest of the North American retriever breeds, weighing approximately 40-50 pounds.
They are seemingly docile dogs, extremely intelligent and devoted to their owners. The toller is suspicious of strangers and makes an excellent watchdog.
The secret to training a toller is to establish and maintain a rapport with the dog. Harsh training methods without praise will only bring out the stubbornness of this dog.
Pattern-testing is extremely important because it will reveal many things about a shotgun that can prove to be invaluable in the field.
Steel patterning plates work quite well with lead shot and soft nontoxic shot such as Bismuth and Tungsten-Matrix, but they should not be used when testing loads containing steel shot or other equally hard nontoxics such as Hevi-Shot and Tungsten-Iron. Pellets from these could bounce back and hit the shooter.
You can make your own patterning board by attaching heavy cardboard to a couple of eight-foot, wooden 2x4s with their ends buried about 18 inches into the ground.
You will also need plain paper measuring 36 to 40 inches wide. A roll can be purchased at most paper supply houses, or you might check with your local newspaper publisher to see if unused scrap paper of that width is available.
Use a heavy-duty staple gun to attach a sheet of paper to the backboard, and you are ready to shoot your first pattern. The soft backboard used on a rig of this type makes it suitable for testing all types shot.
I do a lot of pattern testing and find the Targomatic system from Baker Engineering (www.targomatic.com) well worth the $99 price tag.
I prefer to pattern-test while sitting at a benchrest with my elbows resting atop something soft. In a pinch, a coat or duffel bag will do. It is important that the gun be held steady as its trigger is squeezed. If you find it too tiring to support the shotgun with your arms, try resting the back of the hand that holds its fore-end atop a soft support.
Testing heavy shotshell loads from the bench can become uncomfortable, so don’t be bashful about placing a sausage-shaped “sissy bag” from Brownells (661/623-4000, www.brownells.com) or Sinclair International (219/493-1858, www.sinclairintl.com) between the stock and your shoulder.
Shotgun and shotshell manufacturers test their products by shooting a pattern at 40 yards and then drawing a 30-inch circle around the highest concentration of holes in the paper (the .410 is tested at 25 yards). They then count the pellet holes in the circle and compare it with the number of pellets in the load to determine a shotgun’s choke or a load’s performance.
Since patterns fired with the same gun/choke/load combo can vary from one to the next, the manufacturers usually fire a minimum of 10 patterns and average them for the final result.
What you have just read is quite useful for those who desire to compare the performance of their shotguns and loads to the industry standards, but for those of us who take most game birds closer to the muzzles of our guns, shooting at closer ranges reveals more useful information. Since most of the bobwhite quail I bag hit the ground 15 to 25 yards from the toes of my boots, I am more interested in how a gun/load combination performs at those ranges.
A shotgun used for wingshooting should place the center of its shot pattern either dead on the shooter’s hold point or slightly high. If you find that your gun is shooting too high or too low, it can be cured by changing the amount of drop at the comb of its stock.
Lowering the comb with a wood rasp (or having it done by a gunsmith) will lower your eye in relation to the muzzle of the gun and cause the gun to shoot lower. Increasing comb height by the application of layers of adhesive-backed moleskin will cause it to shoot higher.
Applying layers of the same material to the left side of the comb will cause the gun to shoot farther to the left (for a right-handed shooter) while removing wood from that side of the stock will cause it to shoot farther to the right.
Some guns may require more drastic measures. A practical option for a pump or autoloader with no rib on its barrel is to have a gunsmith adjust pattern point of impact by carefully bending the barrel in the proper direction. A barrel with a rib can also be bent, but since a portion of the rib will likely have to be broken loose and then resoldered back in place, it can be expensive.
Another option is to install an optical sight on a shotgun and then zero the gun like a rifle. This option is popular among turkey hunters, but I doubt if wingshooters will ever accept it in great numbers.
The best fix for any type of gun that doesn’t shoot where you are looking is to have an eccentric screw-in choke fitted to its barrel by Briley Manufacturing (800/331-5718,www.briley.com).
When this type of choke is installed, its bore and the bore of the barrel are intentionally misaligned by the precise amount needed to shift pattern point of impact by the desired amount and in the desired direction. It doesn’t affect pattern quality.
Spending some time at the pattern board can also reveal a gun’s preference in loads and shot sizes. Just as deer rifles often shoot more accurately with some loads than with others, so it goes with shotguns–except in the case of scatterguns we often see differences in pattern quality.
Last but certainly not least in importance, testing a shotgun will reveal how the effective diameters of the patterns it shoots are affected by changes in choke constriction, shot sizes and load quality at the various ranges at which game birds are usually taken. For example, if most of your shots are inside 25 yards and the effective pattern diameter delivered by your gun/choke/ammo combination measures smaller than 25 inches at that distance, you should seriously consider switching to a choke with less constriction.
Moving to the opposite extreme, if the effective pattern diameter of your long-range load measures much greater than 40 inches at 40 yards, you might need to tighten up the choke in order to deliver adequate shot density at that range.
Hunters have a range of choices when it comes to choosing a place to practice shotgun patterning.
However, there are legal and safety issues to observe before one decides to go for shooting practice.
I would recommend you seek guidance from your local shooting range.
Practicing at a local shooting range has a lot of benefits. For example, ranges always observe local, state, and federal laws that govern shooting ranges.
Apart from expertise skills acquired in a shooting range, you get top-range safety equipment for shotgun patterning. I am at talking about hearing and eyesight protection. Shotgunners know that a scope and a rangefinder are invaluable in patterning tests.
While some ranges are open to public shooting, others only allow private members.
You can choose either place depending on where you feel you can get the best shooting techniques.
It is advisable to observe the rules and commands when practicing in a shooting range.
It is important to learn what the range officer means by the commands “cease-fire” and “range is active.”
I’ve been chasing turkeys since I began hunting at age 12, and while I get a big thrill out of working a boss gobbler in the spring, the fall season is perhaps my favorite.
For one thing, you can hunt all day–unlike in the spring, when, at least in the East, you have to quit around lunchtime.
The opportunity to hunt from sunup to sundown allows for a more relaxing and enjoyable hunt. Or, depending on how badly you have turkey fever, it gives you more time to scour the woods like a madman in an attempt to kill a bird.
Fall hunting also permits a wider range of hunting options, from running and gunning for flocks to still-hunting along a ridge for a chance at both flocks and lone birds–maybe even an old gobbler.
During the fall, turkeys are gathered into flocks–typically made up of several hens and their broods from the current year’s hatch.
These mixed-family flocks can number from a dozen birds to several dozen, and flocks of 100 turkeys aren’t unheard of in good habitat.
Hunters may also encounter small bachelor flocks of gobblers, usually consisting of birds from the same year class.
It’s also possible to locate what may be perhaps the most challenging game animal of all: lone, boss gobblers that shun company altogether.
Food is the turkey’s primary motivator in the fall. To find birds, it’s imperative to locate the right food sources.
Because poults depend heavily on insects throughout the summer and into fall–and adult birds dine on them, too, for their high protein–grassy fields are one of the most reliable places to locate flocks up until the first hard frosts kill off grasshoppers, crickets and the like.
Driving back roads and glassing fields with binoculars will give you a good head start on finding birds.
Of course, other people will have seen these turkeys, too, so a better bet may be to hike into remote forest openings, right-of-way strips created by power transmission lines and gas pipelines, and old, grown-over logging roads that no longer see vehicle traffic. Wild turkeys will use all these in their search for insects.
Mature birds and the growing young of the year also feed heavily on hard mast (acorns, beechnuts) and soft mast (wild grapes, blackberries, cherries).
Turkeys scratch constantly in leaf litter to uncover food, creating bowl-shaped depressions on the forest floor.
At the back of each of these is a pile of leaves that appears almost rolled into place. It’s possible to determine a turkey’s direction of travel from scratchings by looking at where the leaves are piled; turkeys push the leaves behind them as they scratch.
It’s fairly easy to discern fresh scratchings by a lack of leaves on the exposed ground and the moist appearance of the soil. During windy periods or heavy leaf drop, scratchings disappear quickly as leaves cover them.
That’s both a blessing and a curse because visible scratchings will likely be quite fresh, but it will be difficult to determine areas that turkeys that have been using during previous days or weeks.
Turkeys prefer to roost in large trees with thick limbs, and they like to stay out of the wind at night. So look for roost sites in protected hollows rather than on the tops of ridges.
Preferred roost sites will reveal themselves by the concentrations of droppings on the leaves below. In inclement weather or extreme cold, head for stands of conifers such as hemlocks and pines, which provide protection from the elements.
Obviously, the best turkey hotspots will feature a mix of these ingredients in relative proximity. In other words, if you can find mast-producing trees in an area that features a reliable water source, some grassy openings, and large trees for roosts, you can bet the turkeys will be there.
Once your scouting has produced turkey sightings or sign, the next order of business is to bump into a flock. The goal is to get close enough to scatter the flock to the four winds. Then you situate yourself at the break-up point and call to the reassembling birds.
One of the best times to locate turkeys is right at daybreak. When a flock of turkeys–especially one that hasn’t seen much pressure–wakes up in the morning, it makes a hell of a racket.
The jennies whistle and whine, the jakes yelp and try to gobble, the older hens yelp loudly. It’s a sound you won’t soon forget, and it’s one you can hear for a fairly long distance.
If you can reach such a flock before it gets too light, you can flush the turkeys from the trees. In the poor light of pre-dawn, you can get birds flying off separately to all points of the compass.
That creates a good break and a solid chance to call one back and shoot it. Of course, you can also wait until the turkeys fly down and gather on the ground–then rush in and break them up.
Evening is also an excellent time to locate fall birds. Turkeys don’t like to roost by themselves, and birds that have been separated from their group are often desperate to find company right before fly-up time.
Now, if you split up a flock right before dark, don’t expect them to come charging right back. It can happen, but it’s more likely that they’ll try to reassemble in the morning. However, evenings are a great time to call turkeys that were split up earlier in the day.
I learned this firsthand one opening week in Virginia when I’d hunted all day in vain for a flock that I knew was on the mountain. It was nearing dark, and I was still a couple of miles from the truck.
I began a forced march, calling loudly and incessantly as I worked back along the ridge.
About halfway out, I got a loud, shrieking answer. I dashed to the nearest large tree while still calling and got into position. The bird originally sounded as if it was at least 150 yards away in a hollow below me; minutes later, though, the jake–calling nonstop–popped into view.
He was running full bore, yelping and kee-keeing desperately, straight toward me. When he got to within 25 yards, I fired–and missed.
The point is, that bird had been separated from its brethren and, with night approaching, he wanted to get together with another turkey–and fast.
There are two approaches to the rest of the day. One–running and gunning–is a good method to use in unfamiliar territory that you haven’t had a chance to scout; where mast crops are heavy and widespread; and in areas that get lots of hunting pressure.
In this strategy, you cover a lot of ground until you find fresh scratchings, then follow them in hopes of catching up with a flock and effecting a scatter.
Make sure you stop frequently to listen.
While you won’t always hear the sound of turkeys calling, scratching turkeys make a ton of noise when the forest is dry.
Heavy mast years are a boon to turkeys and other wildlife, but they can be tough for turkey hunters. With food readily available over large tracts of land, there’s nothing to concentrate the birds or to hold them to a pattern.
In such a case, your best bet is to log a lot of miles. Pay attention to where you’re finding turkey sign and try to determine what type of food is drawing them at that point in time.
For instance, wild grapes–a soft mast that doesn’t persist for long–will often draw turkeys. If you note that birds have been working the grapevines, and you know the location of other grapevines, hit them in succession.
Likewise, if the woods are full of a variety of mast sources but you continually discover scratchings in beech groves, concentrate on beeches to find birds.
Don’t neglect agricultural areas and old fields, either. You may find that even though turkey sign is scattered throughout the forest, the presence of insects–or waste grain in recently harvested fields–may attract turkeys on a more regular basis.
In places where turkeys are hunted regularly in the fall, the run-and-gun is a good way to find lone turkeys looking to reassemble. Hunters flood the woods on opening morning, and sooner or later someone is going to run into a flock and break it up. Other hunters subsequently encounter smaller subgroups and scatter them.
Each time this happens, the hunter or hunters who split a flock will sit down to call them–but not all the birds are going to be able to reassemble. Some will invariably be bumped by other hunters, pushing them farther from the reassembly point. These singles, doubles and trios will wander the woods and are often ripe for the hunter who’s covering ground and calling a lot.
The run-and-gun is a great strategy, but I also like to still-hunt through an area that I know holds turkeys–moving 50 to 100 yards at a time and then setting up to call for five to 10 minutes. When still-hunting for turkeys, I don’t sneak but rather walk in a series of quick steps, two or three or four at a time with a short pause between series. I’ve found that this pattern, or lack thereof, tends to spook wildlife less than creeping quietly or walking steadily. The pauses also allow me to listen for the sound of calling or scratching turkeys.
Depending on wind strength or the amount of turkey sign I’m seeing, I’ll move in this manner for 50 or 100 yards and find a good tree to set up against. After sitting quietly for a bit, listening, I make a single, loud cluck on a box call. If the cluck doesn’t bring results, I begin yelping–increasing the volume a little with each series. The response, if any, isn’t always a call; sometimes, the only indication that the turkeys heard you will be the sound of them marching your way. If nothing happens after 10 to 15 minutes, get up and move another 50 to 100 yards.
Still-hunting for turkeys requires an intimate knowledge of the hunting area and a good idea of where the turkeys are–otherwise you can spend a lot of unproductive time calling in places where there are no turkeys. When the tactic works, though, it gives you a shot at big flocks, small groups and singles, and occasionally–when fortune smiles–a boss gobbler.
Fall gobblers are tough, largely because they aren’t terribly social and don’t have sex on their minds. You’ll sometimes find them in small bachelor groups–pairs or trios–and these represent your best shot. If you can locate such a group and split it up, it’s possible to call the toms back. Be aware, though, that old gobblers will take their sweet time reassembling. They may wait a day or more before returning to the break-up point.
Solo gobblers are even tougher. The closest I ever came to killing a lone tom was during a still-hunt in late fall. I’d stopped to call, and moments after my first cluck, a gobbler with a thick, 10-inch beard walked down off the ridge and stood 50 yards away. He scratched, fed and looked around for a few minutes, then drifted off–and I couldn’t entice him back.
It was one of most exciting moments I’ve ever had in turkey hunting–an unexpected bonus so close and yet so far. And it’s the kind of action that draws me back to the fall woods year after year.
Choose the right load and lead shot is just as effective on coyotes as the nontoxic heavyweights and less expensive to boot.
In my experience, BB (.18 caliber) is the smallest size to use, but larger shot sizes such as BBB (.19 caliber), T (.20 caliber) and No. 4 Buck (.24 caliber), with their higher energy levels, are better so long as pellet count and therefore pattern density is high enough to deliver multiple strikes to the relatively small vital area of a coyote out to forty yards or so.
Getting a coyote into forty yards, well, that’s a whole other story.
Like other predators, the coyote can be brought into shooting range by imitating the distress calls of various small animals, and for obvious reasons, you will have to coax them a bit closer when using a shotgun than when you’re using a rifle.
I’ve used a C-3 Long Range Fox Call from Burnham Brothers for the past forty years, and it pulls coyotes in like a magnet by imitating the scream of a cottontail rabbit as it is being torn to pieces.
During the past few months, I’ve also been using with great success the new CompuCaller II, a digital call from the same company. I find my old mouth call to be just as effective at bringing in the yodel dogs, but I’ll have to admit the electronic caller does have its advantages.
Pushing a button on a battery-powered remote controller is not as tiring as blowing a call for hours on end, and there’s the tactical edge as well.
Like a turkey gobbler, a coyote is quite good at pinpointing the precise location of a call, and having the sound originate some distance away from the shooter is a definite advantage.
Gary Roberson, the owner of Burnham Brothers, recommends setting the caller fifty yards away when hunting with a rifle, and I find half that to be about ideal when using a shotgun.
His unit has the best sound of any electronic caller I’ve ever used, and I’m sure the dozens of coyotes that have come to mine would agree if they were still around.
You can see first-hand how effective it is by ordering the DVD “Eyes Front III.”
Setting up to shotgun a coyote is a lot like setting up to call in a turkey gobbler, with one exception.
Whereas a gobbler depends mostly on its excellent eyesight to keep it out of the roasting pan, the coyote has that plus a very sensitive nose that can sniff you out long before it’s within range.
So, Rule No. 1 is to set up with the wind or breeze cooling your face as you look in the direction from which you expect a coyote to approach.
Turkeys and coyotes are about even when it comes to detecting movement, but the eyes of a coyote are much more capable of separating the form of a hunter from his surroundings, even when that hunter is sitting absolutely motionless.
This is why a camo pattern that makes you appear to be a natural part of the coyote’s home turf is so important.
The wind had been howling across the prairie for two days, bringing intermittent sleet and more than six inches of snow. The weather was fit for neither man nor beast.
On the afternoon of the third day, the wind subsided and the sun broke through the clouds to reveal a beautiful snow-covered landscape. I already had a touch of cabin fever, so I dropped my office work and grabbed my .22-250.
I had three hours of daylight left, and I was going to make the most of it. In no more than a half-hour I was backed into a cedar tree with the rifle across my lap and a predator call in my lips.
The awful sound can set a human’s nerves on edge, but to a hungry coyote it is the melodic invitation to a warm rabbit dinner. Little did they know that hot lead was the fare.
Shortly, a coyote loped across a distant flat toward the call and my secluded spot on the ridge. There’s something about the stark contrast of a coyote on new snow that makes him appear more vivid than life.
In less than a minute he was 50 yards out and still coming hard directly toward the sound when the crosshairs quartered his chest.
The long hair of a winter coat makes a coyote appear bigger than he is, and I was careful not to hold too low. I took slack from the trigger, and all the energy of the Speer’s hollowpoint was dispensed in the coyote, slamming him to the ground. It was decisive and clean without excessive destruction on the outside, a satisfying climax.
I threw the coyote on the Bronco’s rack and was again driving along the four-wheel-drive trail in semi-open country, looking for coyote tracks in the fresh snow. Soon, I spotted where a pair of coyotes had crossed, and it was clear where they were headed–a wide, brush-choked draw far below.
I drove to within a half-mile of the draw, coasted to the bottom and quietly got out and headed for a low knoll. Taking note of the wind–a slight breeze drifting from the brushy draw to the knoll–and, being careful not to skyline myself, I crawled to the crest of the knoll and rapidly got into position with a low bush at my back. This time, I blew softly on the call, and in seconds two coyotes were coming to dinner. To make a long story short, I repeated this performance until by dark I had six coyotes on the Bronco’s rack.
Coyote populations have exploded in recent years because pelt prices are low. The fact is that coyotes cannot be over-hunted. They have few natural enemies except disease (and good coyote hunters), and they’re prolific breeders. A female coyote mates at the age of one year and produces an average litter of more than five pups, according to one study. Individual litters have been known to contain 15 or more pups.
There are liberal hunting seasons and no bag limits, for the most part, and many landowners are only too happy to let coyote hunters on their properties. Song dogs are a challenge to hunt and have senses that put whitetail deer in the shade. These facts, combined with increasingly limited hunting opportunities for other game species, put coyote hunting at the top of the list for serious action throughout the year.
I’ve hunted coyotes nearly every year for more than 40 years, and the thrill of bagging one of these wary critters never wanes. Calling for coyotes is one of the most exciting sports you’ll find, and it is neither difficult nor expensive. All you need are a rifle, a call and some means to get into country where coyotes are.
It doesn’t really matter whether you use a mouth-blown call or an electronic call, and it doesn’t seem to matter how you call–particularly when you’re imitating the sound of a prey species such as a rabbit in distress. The call itself is not critical because distressed rabbits make different sounds. Some rabbits call shrilly, others are low-pitched. Some almost growl slowly, and some shriek in repeated, high-pitched and short-duration bursts.
However you call, you should begin by calling rather quietly. If there is a coyote close by, loud calls at the beginning can spook him. Spend at least 10 minutes at each setup–20 is even better. The most important factors in coyote calling success are the areas you hunt, the specific spot from which you call and how you get to the calling site. In new snow you can seek out fresh tracks. If you don’t have snow, you can find coyotes by locating droppings in the road or tracks around water holes. If it’s dry, coyotes are often concentrated around water.
Once you know the general area where coyotes are, focus on picking the calling site. Keep in mind that you want to select a spot that puts the sun at your back. The best camouflage is to sit in the shade. Never sit in bright sunlight while calling because you stand out like a beacon.
Sometimes coyotes will run right by a vehicle and ignore it; other times the sight of a car will stop them in their tracks or send them running. Try not to drive through areas you want to call. In ridge country, stop the vehicle before you top out on a ridge. In flatter terrain, park in a low spot or in a brushy area where approaching animals won’t spot your truck.
Always keep the wind right; nothing spooks a coyote faster than human scent. This includes your scent trail–the one you left when you walked to the calling site. Take this into consideration as you move into calling position.
It’s extremely important not to advertise your presence. Avoid slamming the car door, working a rifle bolt noisily or making any loud, metallic sound. If you’re calling with a buddy, don’t talk after you leave the vehicle. Communicate with hand signals. Walk in draws or through brushy areas so you’re as invisible as possible. If you’re calling with a buddy, it’s a good idea to have him sit downwind from the calling site, particularly if there is country downwind that can’t be seen by the caller. Coyotes nearly always circle downwind on their approach approach, and if there’s heavy cover in that direction, the animal may come in silently and see you before you see him–then leave as quietly as he came. A buddy can pick off these animals.
Calling coyotes doesn’t have to be much more complicated than this. The more you learn the habits of the animal, and the better you know the country where you’re calling, the greater the chance of success.
While I’ve talked about using a car or truck to access coyote country, any type of transportation will work: quiet four-wheelers, horses, feet. Snowshoes or cross country skis also offer a great means to get into country that otherwise might be inaccessible. I’ve had some dynamite coyote calling by snowshoeing across the countryside. It works well if you have a buddy. He drops you off and drives to another location while you begin your cross-country hunt. He then hunts to still another destination. When you get to the vehicle, you drive around to pick him up. It’s a great way to cover a lot of country in detail without backtracking.
Imitating the sound of a prey species in distress is not the only way to take coyotes. You can imitate the sound of coyotes themselves. This requires a certain amount of knowledge of what various coyote sounds mean and possessing the skill to imitate them. The method is often referred to as howling, though not all the sounds are howls. You can acquire the necessary knowledge by listening to recordings of experienced callers. With this ability in your repertoire, you can increase your calling success.
Some coyotes get educated to one type of sound or another, particularly in areas where a certain type of electronic sound is favored. The more types of calling sounds you are capable of producing, the better your odds. Coyote calling can be like fishing: If they aren’t taking a particular lure, try another.
Night hunting for predators is allowed in some states, and while this can offer an advantage to bobcat and fox hunters, I am not sure the night holds much advantage for coyote hunting. Coyotes respond well to daytime calling. If conditions are right, midday is just as good a time to call as any, and you get the added excitement of clearly seeing the predator work it way in–sometimes from great distances.
Calling is not the only method of hunting coyotes. Sometimes you can glass them up and make a stalk on them, particularly during midday when they’re typically bedded. It takes a good eye to spot a coyote that’s bedded . Sometimes they are bedded in groups, and you can get lucky when a single coyote that’s moving around gives away the whole group.
A single coyote may also just mill around in a small area without moving much. If you spot one of these loners, you can plan a stalk to get within shooting range. If the coyote is slowly moving cross country, as they often do, you can plan an intercept route. If you find a winter-killed deer or cow where coyotes have been feeding, make note of it and plan to come back later that day or the next morning. Don’t wait too long because coyotes can make quick work of a carcass. Plan an approach where you can get within shooting range without being seen, scented or heard.
Where legal, you can bait coyotes by placing frozen meat scraps at strategic locations. You can freeze meat scraps in water to make blocks of ice and then set them in the shade where they may draw coyotes for several days as the blocks thaw.
Few game animals offer the hunting opportunity that coyotes do, and winter is prime time for hunting them. They’re working hard for food this time of year and will in early January (in much of the country) become quite vocal as mating season approaches. This time of year, their coats will be luxuriously heavy in much of their range, making them a handsome as well as challenging trophy.
|GUNS AND CALIBERS|
|For riflemen who want to match a cartridge with the game, the larger .22 centerfires are the best choice for hunting coyotes. The .222 Rem., .223 Rem., .22-250 Rem. and .220 Swift are top-notch candidates. These calibers do the job nicely without over-kill, and they’re easy to shoot well.The.222 Rem. is an excellent choice for calling because of the mild report. A second or third coyote is likely to show up–even after you’ve shot one coyote–at the same site. If you frequently take coyotes at long range, the two largest .22s, the .22-250 and the Swift, are capable of taking coyotes at any distance you’re likely to shoot.
If you are hot on long-range shooting and aren’t worried about pelts but are worried about getting a bullet through woody vegetation, the .243 Win., 6mm Rem. and .25-06 Rem. are better choices.
For calling, a standard-weight rifle in a medium to short barrel length is easiest to get into and out of a vehicle repeatedly and handiest to carry to a calling stand. Keep the variable scope turned down to the lowest magnification. A power of 2X to 4X is about right. Field of view will be more of a problem than lack of magnification in most calling situations.
Coyotes are often spotted in open country where shooting distances are unlimited. If you’re into taking coyotes at really long range, a super-accurate heavy-barreled rig with a high-magnification scope (8X to 24X) and bipod make a great combination.
If you are more interested in killing coyotes than being a skilled rifleman, a shotgun is mighty effective, particularly in brushy country. A 12 gauge loaded with buffered and copper plated BBs is my first choice. (Comparable steel shot loads also work well.) If shot size gets much larger than that, pattern density suffer–much smaller and you lose penetration.
Since called-in coyotes usually offer shots on the near side of the 50-yard mark, it can make for great handgunning, too. If you’re calling in heavy cover, you can hone your quick-shooting skills using a .45 Auto stuffed with easy-expanding hollowpoint bullets. I’ve used the 185-grain Sierra and 200-grain Speer bullets with good success. My scoped Thompson/Center Contender chambered in .257 JDJ has also accounted for a good many of the wary predators.–RJ
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a handgun shooter who has never hunted, a hunter who has never handgunned or a novice who has done neither–there is no better introduction to handgun hunting than the pursuit of small game such as squirrels and rabbits.
So what do you need to know, and what do you need to have, to start out?
Most people would jump right to guns and loads, but before you consider equipment, you need to be straight on the fundamentals.
The most important things to understand about handgun hunting are to know the quarry and how to approach it to within killing range.
If you have already hunted small game with rifle or shotgun, you’ll find no need to hunt them any differently with a handgun. You’ll stalk and approach them just the same, and you don’t need to get any closer to make a shot.
The next step is to consider the question of marksmanship. How good a shot do you need to be to hunt responsibly with a handgun?
There seems to be a feeling among non-handgunners that there are special skills or a special level of marksmanship needed to use a handgun.
I don’t believe this is true.
The squirrel peeking around a hickory tree branch 25 yards away doesn’t shrink in size just because you are carrying a pistol instead of a rifle. A two-inch target is a two-inch target.
Of course, I freely admit that most people find it easier to hit that two-inch target with a shotgun that throws out a two-foot cloud of pellets at 25 yards or with a shoulder-stocked .22 rifle that can be braced and held against the mass of the body.
But if you are thinking about getting started in handgun hunting, this is more likely an attraction than an obstacle.
It is more of a challenge to hit a soda-can-size target at 25 yards with a pistol than with a rifle or shotgun, and that’s precisely why more and more hunters are changing from long guns to short guns.
For these folks, hunting squirrels or rabbits with a shotgun or scoped rimfire rifle is just too easy to be fun.
Now let’s consider guns and loads.
Small game handgun hunting is primarily a rimfire task.
I know guys who take pride in making head shots on squirrels and rabbits using nothing but full-metal-jacket .45 ACP or 9mm ammo from centerfire, service-grade autoloaders, but for all-round capability, the .22 rimfire is by far the best choice for a hunting beginner. But which .22 rimfire?
Choosing a cartridge comes before selecting a gun.
For the vast majority of handgun shooters, .22 rimfire automatically means .22 Long Rifle. But for handgun hunters, there is another .22 rimfire that provides a serious alternative: the .22 Win. Mag. Rimfire, commonly known as the .22 Mag.
The .22 WMR was primarily intended to be a rifle cartridge when Winchester introduced it in 1959. It achieves more than 2,000 fps velocity out of 24-inch barrels, which is about 55 percent more than a high-speed .22 LR cartridge delivers.
That’s in rifles.
In handguns with barrels in the four- to six-inch range, the story is interestingly different.
In general, a 6 1/2-inch .22 revolver like a Ruger Single-Six will send a 40-grain high-velocity .22 LR bullet downrange at about 1,100 fps; a four-inch revolver such as a Smith & Wesson Model 34 Kit Gun will produce about 1,025 fps. That same .22 LR load from a 24-inch rifle clock 1,255 fps.
On the other hand, a 40-grain .22 Mag., which hits 1,910 fps in a 24-inch rifle, produces about 1,325 fps from a 6 1/2-inch Ruger Single-Six and about 1,250 fps from a four-inch S&W; Model 48 .22 WMR revolver.
You can pull out a calculator and figure the percentage ranges if you want, but the overall point is obvious.
When you fire .22 Mag. rimfire ammo in handguns with medium-length barrels, you get essentially the same ballistic performance with bullets of the same weight as when you fire .22 LR ammunition in full-length rifle barrels.
Hunting with a six-inch .22 WMR revolver is the same as hunting with a 24-inch .22 LR rifle–actually a bit better–as far as ammunition performance is concerned.
This is one of the reasons that one of my favorite rimfire hunting handguns is a single-action Ruger Single-Six revolver, which comes with interchangeable .22 LR and .22 WMR cylinders.
I can shoot any type of .22 rimfire ammunition from .22 Shorts or BB Caps to the full magnums in this same gun, which makes considerable economic sense.
There are a variety of .22 WMR/.22 LR convertible revolvers on the market, as well as the versatile Thompson/Center Contender.
Choice of specific load, in .22 LR or .22 WMR, is another point to ponder.
There are literally scores of makes and types of .22 LR ammo on the market, as well as about a dozen different available .22 WMR loads. Test as many as you can get your hands on, searching for the load or loads that are reliably accurate in your gun.
For small game handgunning, the main choice is between hollowpoints or solid bullets.
When hunting squirrels or rabbits for skillet or stewpot, a poorly placed hollowpoint can ruin meat, so many hunters prefer solid-bullet loads. But it is also true that squirrels and rabbits display remarkable tenacity and can escape after taking hits from solid bullets.
Over the years I’ve finally decided that I would rather have a quickly dead animal with some loss of meat than to wound and not recover an animal. So I use conventional high-speed hollowpoints for all my small game hunting, and I work to get a headshot whenever possible.
In recent years this dichotomy has been softened a bit by the appearance of various “semi-hollowpoint” .22 LR “game bullet” loads from several manufacturers; these are designed specifically for small game hunting.
Powered to more moderate velocities, such loads provide a more limited degree of expansion than typical high-velocity hollowpoints and are less destructive of tissue.
Unfortunately, most of these loads have not enjoyed great market success, and because they were designed specifically for optimum performance from full-length rifle barrels, they behave more like solids when fired from a handgun.
On the other hand, high-speed hollowpoints in handguns perform like these game bullets in rifles, so the handgunner’s solution is obvious: Use hollowpoints.
And now guns.
What type, make and model should you select?
Virtually any sport-grade .22 handgun in existence, any type of action and any length of barrel will serve you just fine as a small game hunting tool.
The versatility of an interchangeable .22LR/WMR revolver like the Ruger Single-Six cannot be surpassed, and it can handle any type of small game hunting task. But all single-action revolvers have a long trigger pull compared to a cocked-action trigger of a double-action gun.
Among double-action rimfire revolvers, Smith & Wesson’s small-frame four-inch stainless Model 63 .22 LR Kit Gun is a super lightweight and compact hunting tool for the hiker and backpacker, and I’ve filled more than a few camp kettles with my two-inch, snub-nosed version of this little gem.
For no-frills performance and reliability, any of Taurus’s recent double-action .22 revolvers are good choices. I especially like the new midsize Tracker models.
Many seasoned small game hunters like autoloaders. I appreciate autoloader the most when, for example, a running cottontail breaks from cover and makes a mad dash. I’ve been known to need more than one shot in a hurry in those situations.
Top choices include any of Ruger’s extensive Mark II line or any of Browning many version of the BuckMark pistol–some of which come straight from the factory set up for hunting with long barrels and Weaver-type scope mount bases.
My favorite .22 auto pistol for hunting is the Smith & Wesson Model 22 series–not because it has a superior trigger pull or better accuracy than other .22 autos but because of its quick-change barrel feature.
To switch, you just lock the slide back, press the locking button at the front of the frame and lift off the barrel. The sights are entirely barrel mounted, so if you take off the iron-sight barrel to replace it with a scope-sighted barrel, you are still zeroed when you switch back. I occasionally use the metallic sights for cottontails and switch to a scoped barrel for squirrels.
Finally, there is the Thompson/ Center Contender single-shot, which is really a whole family of handguns in one gun.
The interchangeable-barreled Contender is the most popular and most versatile hunting handgun on the planet. It is one of the few handguns ever designed specifically for hunting and was designed in particular for small game hunting by a man whose greatest passion was shooting rats in New England’s small-town dumps.
With a 10-inch .22 LR barrel, the Contender will give you over 1,200 fps velocity from an ordinary high-velocity cartridge, which is close to what rifles of the 181⁄2- to 22-inch barrel length can provide. Put a 10-inch .22 WMR barrel on, and you get more than 1,700 fps velocity from a 40-grain hollowpoint, which actually moves the gun up from the “small game only” category into the 100-yard woodchuck class. And, of course, T/C offers 14- and 16-inch barrel options.
Perhaps the best thing of all about the Contender as an introductory gun for a handgun hunter is that it requires you to pick your shots, call your shots and think carefully about marksmanship. Plus, with a Contender you remain familiar with it as you move from rimfires and small game to centerfire rounds and big game or long-range varminting. All you have to do is change barrels.
Handgunning small game is a rewarding outdoor pastime, and for most of us it’s waiting not many miles from our backyards. By the way, have I ever told you about how much fun it is to stick a .45/.410 shotshell barrel on a Contender frame and go out for quail? Now that’s really handgun hunting.
Snows rode the stiff, unseasonably warm March wind north, skein after skein streaming overhead–each containing hundreds, sometimes thousands of geese.
At times, the line of flocks stretched from one horizon to the next. Flat on our backs in a southwest Iowa stubble field, we greeted the grand passage of white geese with flags and the raucous barking of two electronic callers.
Behind us sprawled a collection of 1,000 decoys, rags, silhouettes, and shells. Situated in a cornfield with the Nishnabotna River on one side, a duck club impoundment on the other, our best turkey decoys occupied a tempting spot where tired, hungry birds could find both food and a roost.
The flocks spilled air as they passed over us, dropping, flipping sideways to plummet for an instant, then righting themselves and wheeling around into the wind, coming in low with a thousand eyes peeled to examine our spread.
Every flock, it seemed, followed an invisible trail in the air left by the birds that had preceded them; 40 or 50 yards out they’d start a cautious slide to the left, skirting the edge of the spread instead of committing.
That’s when we’d call the shot, plucking a few birds from the edge of the flock as the main body flared out of range.
Occasionally a single would parachute straight down into the spread, and we’d add it to the pile of geese hidden under the shells.
Merely being underneath the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of snows and blues following their ancient urge to fly north fills your inner bird watcher with awe.
It’s reason enough to be in the field in late winter in the Midwest as the lesser snows journey back to their tundra breeding grounds.
With them come ducks, in the full glory of their spring plumage, and bald eagles looking for a straggler to make into a meal.
Yet, the waterfowler in you hungers for more than the sights and sounds of the spring migration–punctuated by scratch shots at flocks that come close but don’t quite commit and a few suicide singles. You want to see 1,000 geese throw caution to the winds and pile into the landing zone.
A huge spread pulls snows in for a look, but it takes more than numbers to lure wary flocks the last few yards that make the difference between shooting a few on the swing and raining geese into the decoys.
Successful spring snow goose hunting requires skill, finesse, hard work and attention to detail. John Vaca of Liberty, Missouri, is one hunter who’s become serious about the art and science of fooling spring snows.
Vaca lives and hunts in the neck of the funnel along the Missouri River where birds travel on their way north in late February and early March.
Like me and my friends, he’s hunted late winter/spring snow geese since the special season and the conservation order designed to reduce overpopulated mid-continent snows began in 1996. A dedicated waterfowler and Pradco pro staffer, Vaca has made a study of hunting northbound snows, and he’s seen his success rate rise with each passing year.
“Some days we run out of shells. We’ve had 100 birds on the ground by 9 a.m.,” he says. “Then there are days when we’re lucky to shoot 25 in a long morning. I still have days when we bag one or two and are lucky to get them.
If it was easy every day, I wouldn’t like it so much. I have a lot respect for snow geese. They’re cagey, and the big flocks have so many eyes you have to be twice as well hidden and twice as convincing.”
By and large, Vaca believes hunting northbound birds is slightly easier than fooling them during the fall. “The geese are in bigger flocks and seem to decoy well because they aren’t as pressured as they are in the fall,” he says. “There aren’t as many people out, so the birds feel comfortable resting and feeding in an area until they’re ready to go north again.”
Nevertheless, Vaca says there’s more to hunting spring snows than simply putting a lot of white decoys on the ground.
“You have to keep ahead of the geese,” he says.
“I see more people every year out lengthening their waterfowl season, doing what they like best. Some of them are learning how to be successful; others keep right on doing it wrong, blaring their electronic callers. They may scratch out three or four out of a flock and educate the other 2,000.”
As with any goose hunting, spring snow hunting begins with what Vaca calls “windshield time”: driving the back roads to find concentrations of feeding birds.
Like most serious goose hunters, Vaca leaves birds alone on the water and hunts them in the fields; given a safe refuge on the roost, geese will stay in an area longer.
Some days birds fly only a short distance to feed. Other days they may travel for miles before setting down.
The only answer is patience, a full tank of gas and good binoculars; finding a field where birds are actually feeding is a key to success.
Usually, birds will leave the roost and fly upwind so they’ll have the wind under their tails on the return flight, but there are no set rules in goose scouting except one: Put in your time.
“I have gone out on a flyway, set up a spread and short-stopped birds on their way somewhere else, but it’s always better to be where the geese want to land,” says Vaca.
If Vaca finds birds feeding in a field in the afternoon, he’ll plan to return in the morning. Merely finding the right field, however, isn’t enough.
Vaca will study the lay of the land carefully, trying to mark the exact location where the birds are feeding and picking out landmarks he’ll be able to use to find his way to the X in the dark the next day.
Finally, he looks at the birds themselves. “I don’t believe in setting out decoys in J’s or W’s or fish-hook patterns,” he says. “I want to mimic the geese in the field as exactly as I can.”
Next morning, Vaca will return to the field, often with eight or nine friends in tow to help set out decoys under the glow of the headlights.
“We put out 1,500 to 3,000 rags and silhouettes, about 90 percent white decoys and 10 percent blues,” he says. “If you have a lot of people, you can actually get set up in an hour or so.”
He’s careful to make several landing holes in the spread; like any other waterfowl, snows don’t want to land on top of birds on the ground but look for an opening in the flock.
He positions his blinds near the landing holes. While snow goose hunters traditionally wear white smocks and become decoys themselves, Vaca prefers to have his hunters wear camo and cover-up in low-profile ground blinds–especially hay-bale types.
“The geese see hay bales all the time and don’t associate them with danger,” says Vaca. “It doesn’t seem to matter whether there are bales in the field already or not. The nice thing about the hay-bale blinds is that you can sit up inside them comfortably and stand up to shoot.”
Once the decoys are out and the blinds are situated near the landing holes, Vaca is always ready to rearrange the setup if conditions warrant. If the geese seem to prefer one landing hole over the others, he’ll rotate shooters into the hot corner or move all the blinds into range of the part of the spread the birds want to use. If geese are landing short of the spread or in an unanticipated spot, he’ll move some of the decoys into that area as blockers, forcing the birds to land elsewhere.
Finally, on those days geese don’t want to finish, he may take all the blinds and move them 60 to 100 yards downwind of the decoys. “Snow geese will work sometimes but not finish,” he explains. “They’ll come in, look at the decoys, then slide around the spread. We move the blinds so we’re right underneath them. Then we get easy shots when they’re low and looking at the spread. The decoys always attract geese, but you don’t always kill geese in the decoys.”
While sheer numbers of decoys matter a great deal in snow goose hunting, Vaca also believes motion in the spread is critical to success. Texas rags, tied as windsocks, waddle like feeding geese in the breeze. T-flags help create lifelike motion as well.
Last season, Vaca began using CarryLite’s new Extra Motion Lander with his rotating-wing decoys. The Lander consists of an arm attached to a string controlled from the blind. Pulling on the cord raises the bird up and activates a mercury switch that turns the decoy on. It creates the illusion of a goose landing or getting up and swapping places in the field.
Finally, although electronic callers–now legal in special late seasons–have boosted success, Vaca says there’s more to using them than simply switching the caller on a top volume. “We’ve had a lot of success with electronic callers, but you have to learn how to use them,” he says. “I like two–one on the right side of the decoys and one on the left. On real windy days you may need to leave them on at full blast until the birds land, but most of the time I like to feather the volume down as the geese approach for a more natural sound.”
Vaca often shuts off the caller altogether as geese come within 200 yards and switches to a traditional reed-style mouth caller. “The key is to get everyone in the group calling. It doesn’t sound right if there are 3,000 decoys on the ground and only one goose calling. The more, the merrier.”
Whether hunting can eventually stem the white tide overwhelming the tundra breeding grounds remains to be seen. Liberalized regulations, electronic callers and unplugged shotguns give us the tools we need to increase harvests, but the average snow goose is
11 years old and has seen it all several times over. We need to hunt smarter to fool them.
If you didn’t know it already, turkey decoys work. They pull gobblers closer, they lure call-shy birds out into the open, and they take a tom’s attention away from a hunter’s hen yelps.
Simply put, they can make the often difficult task of luring a wary gobbler into shotgun range a whole lot easier.
Although modern turkey decoys have been around for two decades or more, many hunters are just now realizing how effective these tools can be.
They don’t always work, but decoys can give even the most skilled spring gobbler hunter an added edge that might mean the difference between a long, frustrating season and bragging rights back at the office.
“I never hunt without at least three decoys, and I’ll even use as many as five or six if I think the hunting will be tough and the gobblers aren’t interested in coming into a pair of hens and a jake. Some guys laugh when I tell them how many decoys I use sometimes, but the results speak for themselves,” says Chuck Tiranno, a turkey hunting guide and member of the Knight & Hale Ultimate Hunting Team.
Nothing is ever foolproof, he admits, especially when it comes to spring gobbler hunting, and a decoy won’t take the place of basic woodsmanship, good calling and a little common sense. Tiranno knows that something can–and often does–go wrong in the spring turkey woods. He also knows that decoys don’t always work, even when things go as they are supposed to.
The 54-year-old Shelby, New York, resident was guiding a friend on New York’s opening day under nearly perfect weather conditions. He was using a small flock of decoys, including four hens and two jakes.
“The gobblers were henned up real good on opening day that year,” Tiranno says. “We had this group of hens and one big gobbler come near, but he just stood there 70 yards away and gobbled his head off without coming in. He wanted our hens to come to him.”
Centralia, Missouri guide and fellow Knight & Hale pro staffer Chris Parrish has been using turkey decoys for about 20 years. He’s used them on hunts for the four major North American subspecies and in 16 different states.
“They work on turkeys everywhere,” says Parrish. “I’d say they work best on Merriam’s–mostly because those birds tend to get the least hunting pressure. The only time I won’t use decoys is if I’ve been hunting the same bird and he’s already busted me when I had a decoy spread out and he saw them.”
THE EARLY DAYS
During the early days of modern turkey decoys, hunters typically used one replica, a hen, and that was often enough to fool even the wisest old tom. The first decoys were made either from bulky Styrofoam or clunky hard plastic. Both styles were difficult to tote through the woods, noisy to set up and not necessarily the most realistic-looking creatures in the forest. Still, they worked.
Decoy manufacturers soon caught up with the rapidly changing world of spring gobbler hunting, and now hunters have a world of choices that simply weren’t available 10 years ago. Lifelike decoys in both hen and gobbler configurations–along with bodies that are collapsible or inflatable and thus easy to carry–give hunters every reason to tote a few of these every time they plunge into the spring woods. And the key is just that: a few decoys, not just one.
Expert hunters such as Tiranno and Parrish have had enough experience to know that the best setup is a spread, and both hunters typically use three fakes. With a single hen decoy, Tirrano says, a gobbler that spots it on the way in may hang up and wait for her to come to him. With a spread, though–two hens and a jake, typically–a gobbler can be forced into action.
“The idea is to make that gobbler angry. When he comes in and sees a jake standing next to a couple of hens, the first thing he wants to do is go over and kick that young bird out of his territory and away from those hens so he can be the one to breed them,” says Tiranno. “When I’m guiding, I tell my hunters to focus their attention on that jake decoy. That’s where the gobbler is going to go every time.”
He places his decoys in such a manner that the jake is slightly closer to the shooter than the hens. In many cases, he’ll actually set the young male decoy in the opposite direction of the gobbler he wants to call in. That way, the gobbler will have to walk past the shooter, offering a closer shot.
“I’ll put the two hens about 25 yards out and the jake maybe four or five yards closer. I want that gobbler right on top of the guy who is going to be shooting,” says Tiranno. “It’s also important to set up the jake in such a way that the gobbler will be looking at the jake and not the hunter. You don’t want the jake to be in line with the shooter as the gobbler comes in. Even if he is focused on the decoy, he might be able to see you sitting behind the decoy spread.”
Parrish also uses a set of three decoys, but early in the season, when the hens haven’t committed to the gobblers, he’ll often stick with a duo of hens.
“It’s kind of like when the deer rut is just getting started and the does aren’t ready to breed. The buck will see the does and come over to check if they are the least bit interested. Gobblers will do the same,” he says. “They may not stick around if the hens aren’t receptive, but at least they’ll come in and check.”
Later in the season, Parrish takes his decoy strategy to the next level, and he’ll even piggy-back a jake on top of a hen to create the appearance of a younger bird breeding a hen. The Carry-Lite decoys he uses allow him to push a single stake through two birds. The pairing, he says, can incite a gobbler into walking straight in without the least amount of hesitation. Most of the time, however, he’ll place a jake right next to a hen with a second hen close by.
“It’s really a guessing game. For as long as I’ve been hunting these birds, one thing I’ve learned is that there is no perfect scenario or no ideal way to set the decoys. Really, I think many hunters give turkeys way too much credit, and I tell people to try different things and see what works and what doesn’t,” says Parrish.
“You really can’t go wrong if you use two or three decoys. There is no perfect way to place them because live turkeys are always moving around,” he continues. “If you want to carry only a single hen decoy, face her away from where you expect the gobbler to approach. That way, it will look like the hen is walking away, which might make him feel a little more panicked about the hen leaving. He might come closer.”
Both men like to set their decoys in an area where the approaching gobbler can see them–but not in such a wide-open setting that any incoming tom can will have too good a look.
“If you stick them out in the middle of an open field, the gobbler can study them as he approaches. If the decoys are motionless, the gobbler might get nervous. I’ve seen that happen on plenty of occasions. Turkeys are always moving. Even if they are standing still, their heads are always moving,” explains Parrish.
Instead of placing his decoys in the open, Parrish prefers to set up his fake birds along the edge of the field so they have a background behind them. He might even place one of the hens just inside the woods if the edge of the field isn’t so thick that it would prevent an approaching tom from spotting it.
Tiranno likes to place his decoys along old logging roads, field edges and openings within thick woods, and he agrees with Parrish that it’s not a good idea to place the decoys in the middle of a wide-open field.
“If that’s your only choice, then try to add some movement. Use a decoy that swings in the breeze or tie a piece of string to it and give it some movement. That’s usually all it takes to put a nervous gobbler’s mind at ease,” says Tiranno.
Parrish employs a length of 30-pound clear fishing line and attaches it to one of his decoys. If a gobbler hangs up and refuses to close the distance, Parrish will give the line a few tugs. That’s often enough to convince the tom to take those last few critical steps.
Nothing is foolproof when it comes to any kind of hunting, not even a set of turkey decoys combined with the sweetest yelps and clucks you can offer. But since the odds are in the gobbler’s favor, why wouldn’t you carry a few decoys every time you slip through the woods?
None of us will ever know how many of the turkeys that showed up at our decoys would have come within 40 yards had we not used decoys at all, but that question doesn’t consume us for very long.
We know full well that when we skillfully perform all other functions and deploy decoys as part of an overall plan, we not only boost our chances for success but expand the range of good things that might happen.
As I look back over the past half-dozen seasons, I find it hardly coincidental that the use of decoys contributed much to the highlights.
On one momentous morning a few seasons back, a partner and I were huddled on the downslope of a west-facing ridge. We’d called to what sounded like a ton of birds roosted in the ravine below us, and for a good half-hour we listened to their loud, purposeful gobbles echo down into the valley.
Once the birds pitched down, they went silent and so did we. We had three decoys–two hens and a jake–set up 15 to 20 yards in front of the juniper that concealed us in the middle of a meadow, and here came the birds.
At first, they were obscured by ground cover, but we spotted them coming uphill. They were on a path that quartered away from us, but once they reached an opening that afforded a look at our decoys, the entire flock changed course and bore down on us.
We’d hoped the decoys might pull a few of the birds off the main body, but in no time we found ourselves seated in the eye of a swarm.
Gobblers were lit up, jakes were excited, hens were angry and I whispered “Holy cow!” My partner and I picked out two toms, made good shots on each, then had confused survivors flying up into our faces as we rushed the fallen.
More recently, a friend from the East Coast and I spent an opening morning in an enviable situation. We had a gobbler in our decoys, and after we watched him display for about a half-hour, we had to beg the bird to come out of strut and present a shot.
We’d set up in thick cover along a creek and faced across a pasture into a tall and steep, oak- and pine-covered ridgeline we’d heard gobbles come off of.
It took patience, but eventually, a hen burst from the high ground and gently sailed down into our dekes. She fidgeted for awhile not 20 yards in front of us, and we sensed her growing resentment of present company.
She started pecking and grappling two faux hens in a spread that also included a jake and, as we suppressed our laughter, we hoped a gobbler might hear the commotion and choose to get involved.
Sure enough, one did.
About 20 minutes later, we saw a gobbler emerge onto the multi-hundred-yard path between our meadow and the ridge, and we witnessed his entire approach.
The gobbler’s arrival calmed the hen, then the tom went into the strut and stayed there. We watched the tom display for about a half-hour before my partner got the feeling it was time to end the hunt.
My partner whistled, but the gobbler stayed inattentive and puffed up. My partner whistled again, and the turkey’s continued unresponsiveness tripped his patience. “Hey, turkey!” he barked at a volume and suddenness that startled even me. The tom snapped to as if doused with Gatorade, and the rest was easy.
Such experiences are shared by turkey hunters across the country each spring, and I think I can speak for the vast majority of them when I say that it’s the ability of our decoys to expand the possibility of what might happen that makes us not want to wander out there without them.
Veteran turkey hunters recognize that using decoys is part of a process rather than a singular solution. It would be convenient as heck if we could set out a deke at the comfiest location and hang back waiting for action, but effective decoying requires a certain degree of effort and woodsmanship.
Specifically, no matter how diligently you choose and lay out your decoys, you can’t fully benefit from them unless you put yourself in the right place and possess some skill in calling.
Veteran turkey hunters emphasize that calling and decoying work side by side in their game plans, but by no means do you have to be any kind of master caller to generate the kind of action you’re seeking.
Even if you’re minimally secure in your calling ability, you can get by just fine as long as you don’t exceed your limitations. Trust your decoys and concentrate on calling just enough to bring a gobbler within sight of them.
If a gobbler appears and you don’t feel you can make the soft, specialized sounds often associated with close-range turkey work, don’t worry about it. Stay silent and let your decoys do the rest of the job for you.
Even callers who can reproduce all the sounds in a turkey’s vocabulary appreciate the fact that using decoys takes some of the pressure of a hunt.
The chance to shut up and watch good things happen excites them as much as it does the rest of us, and it’s an opportunity that could never happen too frequently.
Next time you tote decoys into the woods, remember that there are really only three things you want to focus on: 1) You want to set up in a spot a gobbler would come to; 2)
You want your call to capture a gobbler’s attention or at least peak his curiosity; and, 3) You want to let your decoys close the deal.
Laying out your dekes is the simplest step in the entire decoying process, but you still have to put some thought into your choice of decoys and how you set them up.
Hens, jakes and mature toms are the decoy types you have to work with, and in choosing your arrangement you’ll be attempting to incite a gobbler through either of two urges that make him vulnerable at this time of year.
Hen decoys, obviously, target a gobbler’s breeding urge while jakes and mature toms tempt his need to exert dominance. For this reason, a spread that mixes jakes and/or mature toms with hens has a two-pronged effect.
Few hunters ever deploy more than three decoys at a time, and a typical three-deke spread consists of two hens and a jake.
Early in the season when birds are still in mixed flocks, there might be situations in which it’s advantageous to add more hens or jakes to the spread so that it gives off kind of a “the more the merrier” effect, but it’s often a hindrance if not complete waste of time to set out more decoys than truly needed.
Well, they’re kind of the niche members of the lot. When they work, they work very well, but if pressed into a wrong set of circumstances they can do the exact opposite of what you want them to.
It’s not uncommon for phony toms to bring real ones charging into a spread, but there’s the risk that the gobbler you’re working might feel inferior to the fake one you’re deploying, and if that happens your real gobbler probably can’t be coaxed into coming in close enough to get his fanny whupped.
My friend Brad Harris–a representative of Lohman Game Calls, Feather Flex Decoys, and other brands within the realm of Outland Sports–is infinitely more experienced than I am with decoys. It’s always interesting to hear him recount just how far the practice has evolved over the past decade or so.
“I started out using just a hen decoy,” he recalls, “because that was all that was available. We used to have them mounted in fall, then use them in spring. We had great success, but there were times a gobbler would come in to see that hen, then hang up.
I spent hours watching gobblers not come closer than 50 yards of that hen decoy. Then someone told me to put a gobbler decoy out there so that a real gobbler could come in and display his dominant side. I’ve had success using a mature gobbler, but I’ve had even more success using jake only with my hens.”
Depending on what decoy alignment you want to go with, there are a few considerations that should determine what you put where.
On occasions when I’ve set up a single hen, I’ve done just fine by putting her within 20 yards of where I’m sitting.
When I use a pair of hens, I either set them up at the same distance away from me or stagger them with one five yards closer to me than the other.
When I add a jake to comprise a three-decoy spread, I go with the traditional V-pattern that’s so commonly practiced by decoyers everywhere.
In any V-pattern that involves the use of a male decoy–whether a jake or mature tom–it’s important that you set it up closest to you in the bend of the alignment. More often than not, an approaching gobbler will walk right past any hens you put out there to take a shot at his rival, and you want to enable him to provide the cleanest, closest shot possible.
“I’m pretty sure that 90 to 95 percent of the time a gobbler comes in, he’ll come straight to my jake,” says Harris. “At times, especially while bowhunting, I’ll position the jake so he is facing my position; many times, gobblers will come in and strut around to face the jake and turn his back to me.
That gives me a little better opportunity to use good judgment while preparing for the shot.”
Another trick Harris borrows from his experience as a bowhunter is to use his decoys as yardage markers. “I like to know how far away from me the decoys are, and use that to adjust my aim when a shot’s there,” he says.
From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t take an exact replica to draw the desired response. Nevertheless, in recent years decoy manufacturers have continued a pronounced move toward making their products appear more lifelike.
They’ve been using better materials, applying better artwork and sizing the decoys to more closely approximate live birds. Still, I’m as confident in the first set of decoys I ever bought as I am in the most recent, spruced up version I acquired.
For the most part, three types of decoys get the most play from turkey hunters today. The collapsible foam or rubber types are the ones that probably come to mind first, but I’ve had a lot of fun with silhouettes and the inflatable types that have emerged during the past few seasons.
Foam or rubber collapsible shell-type decoys remain the most popular, and their overall quality has really been enhanced since I started using them. Their inherent advantage is in their textured characteristics, and in recent years advancements applied to their artwork and form has given them a much more detailed, lifelike look. Additionally, more rugged materials used in their construction have increased their durability.
In the past couple years, inflatable rubber decoys have appeared on the market, and I had excellent results in using them for the first time last spring. Like collapsible foam or rubber shells, they offer 3D capability but can’t quite measure up in terms of detailed artwork.
Nevertheless, while inflatable decoys don’t possess the realistic look of other decoy types, I’ve found them to be highly effective on the birds I’ve hunted, and I’ll probably turn to them first this year. They are not only the easiest of all decoys to carry, but they’re the quickest to set up or take down, and such conveniences go a long way whenever you have to be mobile to get your bird.
The inflatables I’m using can be rolled up and carried in a cargo pocket, then blown up or deflated in less than 10 seconds. Inflating them to full size is simply a matter of blowing four or five breaths into their stem, then closing the same type of valve that’s used in beach balls. Particularly if you’re the type of hunter who likes to run and gun to hit a number of spots during the course of a day, you might want to use an inflatable on the ground that you hunt. At first, they might look like something you’d play with in a swimming pool, but you’ll come to respect what they can do.
If viewed from the right angle, silhouette decoys might be the most natural-looking decoys out there. The set I ordered features photo realism, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spotted them out of the corner of my eye and for just a second thought, Turkeys!
The challenge in using silhouettes is to make them visible to any gobblers that come take a look. Because the decoys are only about 1/8-inch thick, if they’re not standing broadside when a tom takes a peak, they might not get seen at all.
Along with that potential drawback, silhouettes are the least convenient decoys to tote, and as a result I’ve resigned myself to using them only on a fixed location where I know which directions the birds are coming from.
Whatever your choice in decoys, there’s no doubt that if you use them smartly and in support of your other skills, they can bump your turkey hunting experiences up to a level you might never have dreamed was achievable.
“They buy you time to witness a tremendous ritual,” notes Harris. “They buy you quality time–and also time to make rational decisions.”
In other words, well-deployed decoys let you see things in the turkey world that you would otherwise be exposed to only by watching the Saturday morning huntin’ shows on cable, and trust me, the events are better seen live.
Successful turkey hunting is all about building a gobbler’s confidence and keeping your presence a secret. The advice discussed in this article can help you do that, and if you put it into practice on every hunt, you’ll discover that tricking a gobbler into shotgun range doesn’t always have to be supremely difficult.
Turkey hunting tests your wits as they’re rarely tested in modern life. It takes an understanding of the turkey itself – the only upland game you flirt with, not flush.
Wild turkeys are as wary and high-strung as whitetail deer. Their eyesight and hearing are acute.
Stalking a mature tom close enough for a shot is all but impossible and can be very dangerous if other hunters are in the area. Instead, select a strategic spot and talk him into range – mimicking the calls of an unmated hen, or sometimes the gobbling of a rival tom.
In springtime, the main hunting season for gobblers, turkeys are intent on courtship. The birds’ urge to breed is triggered by increasing daylight hours, which stimulate the sex hormones of the toms.
A mature tom, or gobbler, assembles a harem of two or more hens. His gobbling and strutting attract them, which also serve to intimidate lesser toms.
A year-old male, or jake, may strut or gobble but usually doesn’t mate. Dominant toms hook up with the first mature, receptive hens and perform most of the initial breeding.
Early in the spring, a gobbler expects the hens to come to him. This is the hen-gathering time, which may last several days or a week, and is the first of two “gobbling peaks”.
Once the toms are encircled with harems of hens, gobbling activity decreases.
At daybreak, gobblers will sound off only a few times from their roost, if at all. During this time, when the mature toms fly down to mate with their multitudes of female partners they will clam up and may only gobble a few times.
Toms are referred to by many, while acting in this manner, as being “henned up”.
In a short while, a week or so, the impregnated hens will begin visiting nests to lay one egg each day. This will generally happen in the late-morning hours and will take nearly two weeks for a hen to lay a full clutch of ten to twelve speckled eggs.
The incubation period then kicks in for the hens and they desert the toms for tending to their eggs. Gobblers tend to still be lovesick and will scout the woods for new mating opportunities.
At this time, the gobbler is more willing to pursue any hen he hears at a distance and will gobble long and hard once again. This is the second “gobbling peak” and it may last from a few days to a week. Any of these days where the old boss gobbler is searching for new hens is a prime time to hunt!
A tom and his harem roost close to each other at night, occasionally in a secluded ravine or over a creek or swamp. At first light, they fly to the ground and then the toms get down to the business of mating. He attends first to the harem and afterwards, he will be more likely to respond to your overtures.
This period after daybreak is the most productive for hunting. After toms fly down and mate with all of the available hens, he will be most vulnerable – be patient and you may have a chance to score!
As the day wears on, the turkeys move around to feed. At dusk they roost again, returning in many cases to the same vicinity or even to the same tree.
I can’t begin to tell you how many tom turkeys I’ve taught a thing or two during the past 15 years. Consider one gobbling bird my wife and I went after last spring.
Just a little closer, I thought, as we carefully inched forward to find a suitable place to set up. Then I spotted the perfect tree only 30 yards ahead.
We never got there.
Instead, we heard the dreaded “flap-flap-flap” sound of a turkey beating a hasty retreat. Not only had the turkey spotted us trying to make that last move, but we’d also “educated” him in the process.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe a gobbler is capable of reason. However, he has strong survival instincts, and an incident such as the one I just described will keep him on an even sharper edge than usual for days, which often makes him a lot harder to work than he normally might be.
We probably do more things to tip off gobblers to our presence than we could possibly imagine, but I’ve come up with five pieces of advice to help you avoid the most common mistakes hunters make–errors that complicate the already difficult task of calling in a mature spring tom.
Bumping birds-as my wife and I did–typically occurs when a hunter gets in a hurry and feels he needs to get just a little closer.
Proximity certainly counts when calling a gobbler: The closer you are to him, the less distance he has to travel to get to you. The less distance he has to travel, the more you build his confidence and the better the chance that something won’t go wrong before he walks into gun range.
Unfortunately, all too often we cross the line between not close enough and too close.
Consider a turkey that has heard your calls. He answers enthusiastically. He’s curious and staring intently in your direction, but you’re moving in and he busts you. There’s a tom you won’t be able to work for a while.
Although it’s possible to bump a bird at any time of the day, it probably occurs most often at dawn when toms are on the roost.
When moving toward a roosted gobbler, always remember that a bird in a tree can see much better than can one on the ground. He’s also anxiously awaiting the arrival of a hen, which is precisely why he carefully scans the forest floor below him.
Foliage is another factor.
If spring arrives late, and the woods haven’t greened up, you can’t get as close to a gobbler as you might be able to otherwise. Note, too, that when there is no foliage, a bird will usually sound closer–whereas heavy foliage makes a turkey sound farther away.
Never assume that you should always set up 100 or 150 yards away just because it’s some rule of thumb.
It’s better to start from one place–and move closer once you know you can–than to move forward when the situation is risky. You always have a chance of calling up a bird from a considerable distance, but you don’t have a chance of luring in a bird that has spotted you.
I’ve always believed that the best setup is the one you have at hand.
We’ve been taught that we should find a tree wider than our shoulders where we can see anything approaching from a safe distance–and you should definitely do so whenever possible because it reduces the chances that another hunter will shoot you in mistake for game.
However, if I insisted on always setting up in these places, I would have killed far fewer turkeys. Staying on the move to look for a perfect setup after you’ve raised a gobbler often leads to spooking the bird. If a bird gobbles, and he’s close, you have to choose a location close at hand or back up to find something better.
That’s why it’s important to think before you call.
A gobbler doesn’t expect a hen to be in places where he wouldn’t go. For example, you’d be well-hidden if you set up in the middle of a huge logjam, but a gobbler knows a hen probably wouldn’t be there if she’s searching for a mate.
Granted, I’ve shot many turkeys in thick spots, and sometimes I’ve had to make a gobbler hunt for me, but I prefer setups where I can see about 40 to 50 yards so the gobbler will have to come in that close to see the hen–and it means he will be in or nearly in gun range once he gets there.
If he can see for 60 yards or more, he may hang up. If it’s so thick that he has to get within 20 yards to see the source of the hen calls, he’ll likely ignore you.
In field situations, it’s best to avoid setting up in cover situated in the middle of a field. A gobbler will often move close enough to scan an open area for a quick view, and if he doesn’t see anything, he leaves.
So how can you make sure your first setup will be a good one?
Avoid random calling; call only when you’re in an area that lends itself to killing a gobbler. If you’re in thick brush or other undesirable place but still want to check if there are any toms within earshot, use a locator instead of a turkey call.
That way the turkey might give away his location and not be interested in where you are, giving you the chance to find a good setup from which to start him.
When you’re hunting through an area where you think you could work a bird successfully but haven’t heard anything yet, choose a tree or other solid backdrop, call and wait a few minutes before moving on.
Many gobblers have been educated when they sneaked in quietly and caught a hunter moving–or when they were so close and came in so quickly that the hunter never had a chance.
I don’t believe a gobbler can be educated by hunters’ turkey calls. Sure, you must sound something like a turkey, but hens make all sorts of sounds, and they have individual voices as well.
On the other hand, I do believe that you can screw things up if you call at the wrong time.
Most of us like to call a turkey every time he answers; I know I do. When a bird answers, I’m anxious to send him another sweet yelp or two. But when a bird is coming–and he often is once he begins answering calls–over-calling can cause him to put on the brakes.
The key is to recognize when a gobbler is on his way.
Once you know he’s moving toward you, I prefer to stop calling.
I remember a few years ago when I was hunting in Oklahoma with Realtree hunter Joe Drake. I jumped on an eager-sounding bird late in the morning with one call after another. The bird gobbled furiously at first and then went silent.
Fortunately, after hanging up for a while, he sneaked in. After I shot the gobbler, Drake explained that my continuous calling nearly stopped the bird from getting to us. I knew that he was right and that I was lucky.
Pay close attention to how quickly a gobbler answers your call. A delayed response may mean you’re not giving him the sound he wants to hear.
I know of several birds that responded late–or not at all–to common yelps. These same turkeys, though, gobbled without hesitation when they heard clucks, purrs or an aggressive cutt.
Yelps are the most popular hen calls used, and rightfully so, but they can raise suspicion in a gobbler–particularly late in the season.
I don’t believe a gobbler is capable of deciphering turkey calls; he can’t determine if the call is coming from a real hen or hunter. In fact, many turkey hunters sound better than real hens.
However, as the season progresses, some gobblers may come to associate a flat, mechanical-sounding “yelp-yelp-yelp” with danger because it’s the sound he has heard whenever something went wrong.
Always be prepared to give a turkey a call other than the common yelp. It might be okay to start with a yelp, but never believe that it will be the only call you need to get him into gun range.
A cluck, purr or another sound may be what it takes to build his confidence.
If there’s one sure way of putting a gobbler you’re working on high alert, it’s by remaining in the same location. Earlier I discussed moving too much and bumping birds. True, you have to use common sense when moving on a gobbler and when setting up to keep from being spotted, but don’t plan to remain in that location too long.
It’s a turkey hunter’s nature to stay put and let it all happen. After all, you found the right place, and the gobbler doesn’t know there’s anything else around except your turkey talk. If you stay put, you know you won’t spook the turkey. Why take the chance on moving and risk finding another setup as good as this one?
Any gobbler that hears turkey talk coming from the same location for a long period is probably not going to show up. He might gobble furiously and make you think he will, but odds are he’s standing back there and waiting for you to come to him.
In a case such as this, you may have to move. Granted, you should give a turkey a chance to show up where you first called to him. However, I can honestly say that I’ve killed few gobblers from my initial calling location. Sometimes it was the second spot, sometimes the third, and there have been times that I couldn’t tell you how often I got up and moved.
I sincerely believe that changing positions has helped me to coax gobblers into gun range. Just how far you need to move depends on the location of the gobbler. If the bird is close, consider short moves of 20 yards or so. It doesn’t have to be toward the bird, either. He will know you moved, even it’s just a small, lateral move.
A gobbler knows that a turkey is going to move. It might stay in the same proximity but not in one precise spot. I typically give a bird 20 minutes or so to make a move toward me before changing setups. If the bird isn’t coming, I call to get a response to learn his precise whereabouts. Then, if the coast is clear, I move a short distance and call again. This tactic really fires up most gobblers.
For a sport that carries such a woodsy texture, so much of turkey hunting occurs on the open ground. Depending on where you live, you’re likely to encounter food plots, meadows, clearcuts, pastures or even entire valleys that will in some way impact your pursuit of a gobbler.
Granted, there might be one or two occasions during a lifetime of turkey hunting that you’ll spot a bird out in the open, sit down, and have it walk straight to you, but for the most part, you’re going to earn any bird that’s standing in plain view.
On many occasions, empty terrain will hinder you in one way or another. You’ve just got to accept that when a gobbler is out there in the open, it’s using two primary strengths–its senses of sight and hearing–to its advantage.
Any direct approach on a gobbler that has a hundred yards or so of flat, uncovered ground around it will be futile, and you’re left with really only two viable schemes:
In either scenario, you’ll find that dealing with an open-country gobbler is an entirely different discipline than working a bird in the woods. In a lot of ways, it’s more deliberate than intense, but it’s every bit as discriminate.
Brad Harris, who’s as respected for his prowess as a turkey hunter as for his association with Lohman Game Calls, has hunted much of the same country I have, and he stresses the need to slow things down when you’re on a bird that you’ve spotted out in the open.
“In the big woods, you cover a lot of ground, and are always moving, and calling, and setting up,” he says. “In the open, you’re doing the same things, but you have to slow down ’cause you get busted more often.”
When you consider that a turkey whose eyes and ears are unobstructed by any form of cover is going to entertain a certain sense of security, you don’t want to upset that by letting it know you’re there.
Be patient to the extent that you remain totally concealed. And remember that when you’re up against an open-country gobbler, time might be measured in days, not hours.
Once you’ve located a gobbler on a vacant patch of land, gather a quick read of what information is immediately available.
Is the gobbler with a hen? Are there other birds nearby?
Then whip out the binoculars and start getting patient. Study the gobbler’s tendencies, and pay particular attention to when and where he enters and exits the field.
At the same time, you need to learn all you can about the terrain.
Since staying concealed outranks any other requirement in your approach, determine what route you’re going to have to use to get to your chosen set-up spot.
Even if staying hidden means going miles out of your way, be willing to go the extra distance.
Missourian Ray Eye, who’s as impressive a turkey hunter as I’ve shared camp with, relies heavily on what he refers to as “turkey tunnels.”
His homeland features entire systems of eroded creek bottoms, and they often provide all the concealment he needs to slither into position.
When he locates a gobbler, he starts thinking in terms of what tunnels he must follow to get as close as he can to the bird.
And even if things don’t go exactly as hope on the first day, don’t consider it time wasted.
As Harris notes: “Even if you don’t kill a bird, you can learn his patterns by watching him. That will help you make precise setups on day two or three.”
Those of us who are without an abundance of creek bottoms or ditches to crawl around in have to use whatever cover we have at our disposal: berms, ridges, tree lines or even knee-high brush. Spotting a bird before it spots us offers such an advantage, but only when we can use it to full effect.
Again, when you to call to a gobbler that’s enjoying the comfort of a secure location, the last thing you want to do is make him nervous.
Often, the easiest way to do that is to lack believability–call from where a hen wouldn’t be, or in any other way come across as fake.
Sometimes you can turn him off by being too aggressive, other times by being too timid. Eye tends to lean more heavily on the aggressive side, and it’s fun to watch him work a bird. When he locates a strutting gobbler out in the open, he’ll pick his path to it, and call hard up to within 100 yards of the gobbler.
“I want that gobbler to know I’m coming in after him,” Eye says.
“Then I’ll come right up under him.”
Eye remains just as aggressive when he attempts to steal a gobbler away from a live hen by calling loud, hard and often. His theory is based on the premise that if he can sound like a hen that’s more amorous than the one the gobbler’s currently with, something positive might happen.
Harris, also a world-class caller, suggests experimenting with the various makes of calls. Volume is often going to be an issue in open country, since such terrain is so susceptible to sound-dampening wind.
The safest way to play it is to start out easy at first, then get progressively more aggressive until you start drawing the proper response. If you can spend enough time with the same batch of birds, you’ll figure out how best to call to them.
Both Harris and Eye agree that a hunter’s chances of calling in a bird are greatly increased when he has the opportunity to set up decoys. When you’re calling to a gobbler in a field, you’re so much more credible when he looks your way and sees, particularly, an arrangement of jake(s) and hens.
“Open-country birds rely more on eyesight, so if they look out and don’t see what they want to see, they won’t respond as well,” Harris says.
Additionally, by exploiting a gobbler’s breeding and territorial instincts, you don’t have to be quite as concerned about the quality of your setup. When he has the opportunity to place decoys, Harris won’t hesitate to position himself at the bend of a creek, along with a fenceline or at some other such place he would never feel comfortable in if it weren’t for the dekes.
“You can always get good setups in open country when you have the decoys out,” he says.
But no matter what tricks you pull on a gobbler, give him time to work. There’ll be occasions when the best efforts fail, but most of the time what should happen will. And there’ll always be those rare occasions when you just get lucky.
Stop and consider for just a moment why many turkey hunters hate seeing the arrival of the late season. The turkey hunting gets downright tough; many birds turn and walk away from even the sweetest hen yelps.
You can thank “educated” gobblers for the late-season blues.
To beat them, you may have to change your methods. Keep in mind that as the season wears on, turkey behavior is changing. The ardor that characterized the early part of spring may be cooling; in some areas, the reverse is true–the end of hunting season can coincide with intense gobbling.
Okay, so I’m prone to look at the glass half empty. Still, there was no denying the fact that what my cohort was proposing was going to be flat-out tough–literally. “I’m not sure,” I told my gunning partner, Dave Fountain, “how exactly we’re going to hide on that.”
“That” was a cut soybean field, a 100-acre expanse with just a touch more cover available than the top of a pool table. But a hundred or so Canadas had been hitting the field religiously for the past two mornings.
“I hate to let ’em go unmolested,” said Fountain, leering out the passenger window at the birds. “Maybe those fancy new blinds of yours can get us out there?” I shook my head, uncertain.
An hour and a half before sunrise the next morning found us on what we agreed would be the X. All around, scores of grayish-white feathers pointed toward an avian nirvana–if, that was, we could get hidden.
After placing our eight full-body decoys, Fountain and I readied the low-profile blinds we’d packed in.
Though the blinds had been muddied prior to the season, we began rubbing them liberally with handfuls of Iowa farm ground.
Next, using what little bean chaff was available, we filled every other stubble strap, trying to soften any unnatural edges. Done, I stepped back to survey our handiwork.
“They look like a couple of anthills on a dirty parking lot,” I said, “but it’s the only thing we’ve got.”
Fountain, I thought, was annoyed by my pessimism.
Fifteen minutes into shooting time, the first black line of birds appeared over the river to the east. Beside me, Fountain wrist-jigged a T-Flag once, then again, until he was sure that the line had wavered and the birds’ attention was his. By the time the flock had hit Highway 1, my calling had backed down to quiet clucks and moans.
Any minute now, those birds are gonna slide, I thought. Closer they came–150 yards, then 100, then 75.
With the birds at 30 yards, Fountain, lead man for the morning, broke the morning calm with a hearty, “Get ’em!”
Instantly, drop-leg Canadas began to frantically backpedal, strong pinions whistling as they ripped into the cold November air.
My first load of high-velocity BBs crumpled a huge bird on the far left edge of the flock, but who knows where round two went. Flustered, I punched the trigger as the barrel passed by a tail-end Charlie, and I smiled as I watched him fold.
“Let’s pick up. I’m done.” Fountain, a tremendous wingshooter, had gone through his two-bird limit in as many rounds. “And you said we couldn’t hide out here in the middle of nowhere,” he gently chided as he closed the doors on his blind and started out toward the first of his limit. “Nothing like lying flat on your back in the middle of nowhere and disappearing.”
As far as I’m concerned, low-profile blinds–or layout blinds, as they’re often called–got their start the minute the first waterfowler laid himself down in a muddy field and covered up with whatever was at hand.
It was a technique that worked, but it didn’t take long before hunters grew tired of lying on their backs in the mud.
There had to be a way, many thought, to retain this low-profile characteristic while staying–heaven forbid–comfortable and dry.
Ron Latschaw was one of the many. An Oregon native, Latschaw was accustomed to spending his time carving holes out of the soggy soil of the Pacific Northwest and then lying in them.
Yes, he and his partners killed geese, but he’ll be the first to tell you all that digging and filling got old in a hurry. And then there were the fields that were full of geese that the landowner was more than happy to give Latschaw and his crew permission to hunt, with one major stipulation: no digging.
Fence lines and above-ground box blinds worked for a while, but the geese soon grew wary of these.
Not willing to give up, Latschaw created the Adam and Eve of the low-profile blind revolution. At first, these prototypes, though effective, were big and heavy.
Plywood construction contributed to the weight, and all the unnatural straight edges and corners made the blinds stand out too much in the field.
Over time, plywood gave way to rugged Cordura nylon and a lightweight frame of tubular steel, and then aluminum. In 1993, the modern low-profile layout blind was finally born and Latschaw’s flagship creation–the Eliminator by Final Approach–was introduced to the waterfowling community. Today, Latschaw’s blinds and others like them have become mainstays among the nation’s duck and goose hunters.
For insight, I asked three-time Tennessee state duck calling champ Bill Cooksey, who is also the public relations frontman for Memphis-based Avery Outdoors. Cooksey spends a lot of time hunkered down in modern low-profile blinds from September through January. As a result, he’s come to know what makes these blinds so productive.
In certain circles, it’s said that waterfowl, though having extraordinary vision, possess little or no depth perception. The result is that, to a goose, the hump on the ground that is the low-profile blind appears as a two-dimensional spot of nothingness. True, or false?
“I’m not sure I buy into the argument that geese have no depth perception,” says Cooksey. “This depth perception may not be the same depth perception that we have, but then again, I’ve tripped over camouflaged ground blinds in the field. If they’re built right and don’t have a boxy look to them, your eyes don’t pick them up as easily, even from ground level.”
All low-profile blinds angle toward the ground, especially in the front, which is the direction you’ll typically have birds approaching from.
From the rear, blinds often have a boxy shape to them due to their square backs. This shape is a dead giveaway to birds that the spot they see on the ground is not natural. But the slope built in the front of the blind helps it blend into the surrounding area.
One thing that can nullify this natural camouflaging effect is the presence of shadows.
“There can’t be any shadows,” says Cooksey. “Shadows are the main enemy of the ground blind. If you have a ground blind that’s throwing a bad shadow out front, you’re going to have problems.”
Today, waterfowlers have many different brands of blinds to choose from, and Cooksey lays out the four most important factors to consider when selecting one.
Of course, there’s more to using these blinds than just pulling them out of the box and plopping them in a field.
For starters, Cooksey says hunters shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to set up the blind for the first time on the morning of the hunt.
Most layout blinds are easy to assemble and set up, but, “if the first time you’re trying to do this, it’s in the dark and 18 degrees, it’s going to take a while,” he says.
A better plan is to get in some practice with your blind in the off-season–even if it’s just sitting in your living room with an unloaded gun. Taking your blind outside and shooting clays from it is even better.
Preparing the blind for the field is important, too. Today, camouflage has progressed to the point where many hunters no longer lay their shotguns down afield for fear of losing them. And while the same could be said about today’s layout blinds–all of which feature the latest in photo-realistic camouflage–there is a little bit more to the invisibility process than simply heaving the blind into the stubble.
“After you’ve practiced setting up your blind, it’s very important that you mud the blind,” says Cooksey. “Take a bucket and get some dirt that’s indigenous to the area. It doesn’t have to match perfectly, but you need to get some dirt, mix it up with water, and just slather it all over the blind. Let it dry, and then just brush it off with a stiff broom.”
Doing this will take away any unnatural sheen produced by the blind’s fabric.
Over the past five or so waterfowl seasons, I’ve begun to discover that there is indeed a science to using these low-profile blinds effectively. How the blinds are set up when gunning with multiple shooters, how to position the blinds in relationship to decoys, and how to use additional camouflage in the field can all make or break a hunting day, depending on the weather and other factors. Hunters such as Latschaw and Ohio calling legend Fred Zink have discovered many of these techniques through trial and error.
For instance, on those mornings when there’s little or no wind, Zink has a special strategy for positioning his low-profile blinds and decoys. Such days are notoriously tough and often downright frustrating, says Zink, as geese can approach a spread from any direction.
“Under these conditions, the first thing I try to do is find a field that has a little more ground cover than normal,” he says. “I set my layout blinds close together, and do a very, very good job of camouflaging them. I call to the birds at a distance, but as they approach, I get quiet.”
“As for decoy numbers,” he continues, “I use the least I think I can get away with, depending on the subspecies of Canada I’m hunting.”
This means using fewer decoys for big Canadas and more for the smaller subspecies such as cacklers, Hutchinson’s and lesser Canadas. Zink sets these decoys 10 to 15 yards in front of the blinds, sometimes a little to one side or the other, depending on the birds’ most likely angle of approach.
“When the birds get close enough to the spread to tell that the calling isn’t coming from the spread, I shut up,” says Zink. “We call it ‘nobody’s home.’ We allow the geese to come on their own and light just shy of the decoys.”
Key to Zink’s technique is to do a very good job of camouflaging his blinds. Unfortunately, some folks take this to mean covering their blind so as to create something about the size and shape of a 1,000-pound round bale. This defeats the purpose of the low-profile blind.
“I put maybe half the cover on the blinds that most people do when I’m out in the middle of a field,” says Latschaw. “I’m just trying to break the blind up. Most guys cover it up and try to make it look like a pile of hay, and that’s the first thing a bird sees. The blinds are supposed to hide the hunter. You’re not supposed to hide the blind.”
With very few exceptions, layout blinds used in situations with multiple hunters are generally arranged in a line, facing downwind, and are located in the lower third of the decoy spread. But here, too, there are factors to consider.
“Usually, I’m going to set the blinds about three feet apart,” says Cooksey. “This gives me more than enough room to put decoys between the blinds. If you get decoys in between the blinds, they help to break up the visual aspect of the line. But you want your blinds close enough so you can talk. A big part of waterfowling is the social aspect. That, and I want to be close enough so I can say ‘Get down, guys’ without having to scream.”
And nobody, Cooksey adds, wants to be screaming when the honkers are bowed up at 150 yards and the guy to your right is asleep, snoring loud enough to wake the proverbial dead.
Which, points out perhaps the biggest challenge to being flat on your back in a layout blind: It can get just a little too comfortable.