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 turkey 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 turkey 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 turkey 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 turkey 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.
The following video by HuntStand helps you learn how to set up the turkey decoys and bag the birds!
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.
Big game hunting away from home costs money–sometimes lots of money.
On the low end, a hunter can load up his trusty 4×4 and drive a thousand miles to some western state, set up a tent and hunt public land (along with everyone else) for probably $1,000 to $2,000 give or take.
That’s including licenses, tags, food, and gas. The price can be lowered somewhat, depending on how many hunting buddies are willing to cram into the truck.
The beauty of such a hunt is the relatively low price and the chance to pursue game not found in the midwestern, southern and eastern states where most hunters live.
Sportsmen who’ve never hunted farther away from home than the next county will find this type of hunt to be an excellent choice.
On the downside, success can be low and hunting pressure high, and someone will have to spend time to research the intended hunting area, plan the logistics and organize the “safari”–not a big deal if that someone has the time and the desire to do so.
The next lowest-price option is probably a self-guided hunt in Alaska or Quebec. These hunts will cost a touch more, generally in the $2,000 to $3,500 range.
On the positive side, these hunts are legitimate northern wilderness hunts for truly exotic big game, usually Alaska-Yukon moose or caribou, and the chances of tagging an animal or two are usually good.
On the downside, the price usually can’t be lowered much by bringing more hunting buddies along; many of the costs–a flight to Anchorage, say, and the air charter into camp–can’t really be split.
Odds are, the “guide” (yourself) will be inexperienced, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but can cause trouble in a camp where some of the crew might measure success in the number of animals killed.
Then there are fully guided hunts, the ones where the hunter has only to pack the right gear and get to the nearest airport.
Today, more and more hunters are choosing this option. The biggest stumbling block is the price.
On the low end, say for a baited black bear hunt in Saskatchewan, the price can be as low as $2,500, including airfare and tags. On the high end, it can cost as much as $65,000 for desert sheep in Mexico, not including airfare and tags. Ouch.
Please don’t shoot me–I’m just the messenger. Believe me, I understand that, for most of us, just coming up with enough cash to hunt locally hurts, let alone coughing up an amount of money equivalent to what it costs to send a kid to college for a year.
That said, indications are that increasing numbers of hunters are booking the all-inclusive, fully guided trips.
But as we reach deep into our pockets to pay for big hunts, we have to ask, Are we spending the money wisely, relatively speaking?
And once we ask that question, the next logical one is, What hunts offer the best bang for the buck? Here’s my take on it.
In my opinion, the best value in North America right now is a moose hunt. Moose are big, exotic and sport the largest antlers of any of the “deer.”
They live in the forests of North America from coast to coast, and hunting success rates in many areas run quite high. Moose can be aggressive during the rut, and at this time the hunter can be pro-active–calling a bull in for heart-stopping action.
Then there’s the added bonus of the 500 pounds of the best wild game meat ever to grace the inside of a freezer.
Deciding where to go can be tough, but you can narrow it down by focusing on which subspecies you’d prefer to hunt.
The smallest, the Shiras moose (also known as Wyoming moose), lives south of the U.S./Canada border. Unfortunately, Shiras moose tags are difficult to come by and are usually available on a draw-only basis.
The other methods of getting a license (buying a tag at auction, for example) are too expensive.
The Alaska-Yukon moose is the largest of the moose subspecies, and it can be hunted on a self-guided basis–although that can be a difficult proposition for a nonresident. And for a fully guided jaunt, you’ll pay up to up to $12,000 for the most expensive hunts.
That leaves the Canada moose, still big by every measurement except price. Expect to pay in the $6,000 range (including airfare) for a good hunt where the chance to take a big bull is reasonable and the possibility to kill a good, representative bull is excellent.
I’d head to the northern mountains of British Columbia. Book a hunt far enough north, and a bull might be an expensive Alaska-Yukon moose in the summer but an affordable Canada moose once it migrates a few miles south for the winter. The boundary separating the two moose subspecies is a line on a map–not an actual physical boundary.
The best moose hunting will normally require a floatplane trip and some horseback hunting, possibly boat hunting as well, and the best time to hunt will normally be late September when the rut is in full swing.
If you can afford it, save up a few extra dollars to pay trophy fees for “incidental” animals you might bump into during your moose hunt. Grizzly bears and caribou can be common in British Columbia moose country.
Caribou are about as affordable as fully guided hunts get.
Figure $4,000 to $6,000 depending on the quality and quantity of the animals the outfitter has in his territory and the number of caribou you want to kill.
Most hunters look to the Quebec-Labrador caribou, and sportsmen by the thousands flock to the French-speaking section of Canada to participate in all the guided-hunt variations found there.
But in my opinion, this subspecies doesn’t offer the most value in terms of a fully guided hunt. Neither would I choose the smallest in antler and least expensive to hunt (the woodland caribou of Newfoundland) nor the largest-bodied and most expensive to hunt (mountain caribou).
It’s a close call between the remaining two subspecies–the barren ground caribou of Alaska and the central Canada barren ground caribou found in the Northwest Territories.
I choose the latter.
There are hundreds of thousands of central Canada barren ground caribou hanging out around the Arctic Circle, and although they are the fourth-largest in terms of antler size, they arguably have the largest antler size relative to body size of any of the caribou. In other words, they look great.
The outfitting industry servicing the demand for these animals is less than 20 years old, and new opportunities and areas are opening up yearly.
Quebec in its heyday produced many monster caribou, and I feel that the largest central Canada barren ground caribou haven’t been taken yet.
Some outfitter will find a pocket of exceptional animals that will rewrite the record books.
The hunt is certainly an adventure, and the Arctic tundra in autumn is spectacular. Most of the hunting is done from boats or quads these days, and access to the main camps is generally by charter bush plane.
The best advice I can give is to be sure to book with a reputable outfitter who has good references. Some of the new operators are good and cheaper, but not all are entirely professional. Because the industry is so young, the chaff hasn’t yet separated from the wheat.
Sheep hunting is the most expensive proposition in North America. At the high end, a 10-day desert sheep hunt in Mexico will cost the equivalent of a full-blown luxury car, and even a middle-of-the-road hunt for Stone’s sheep or Rocky Mountain bighorn will cost half that.
That leaves Dall’s sheep hunting–the one and only “affordable” sheep hunt (and I use the term loosely). These beautiful white creatures are not only considered by many to be the most attractive of the North American sheep subspecies, but they also live in some of the most remote country left on the continent.
Cheapest or not, a Dall’s sheep hunt will still set the hunter back a pretty penny–$7,500 to more than $12,000. So why do I consider these sheep, expensive as they are, a top-five value?
The reason has more to do with what I see happening in the future of sheep hunting than it does the price. First off, there won’t be more sheep hunting opportunities for nonresidents in the future. The supply will likely diminish, the demand will grow, and prices will skyrocket as a result.
That’s simple: Alaska or bust. The Yukon and the Northwest Territories have big Dall’s, but the prices are climbing quickly. Alaska still has good hunting, prices are decent and outfitters are legion. My advice is to do your homework carefully.
It’s one thing to book with the wrong outfitter when there’s not much money involved, but the investment alone means you should choose carefully when you’re paying for a Dall’s sheep hunt.
Black bear hunting has always been a bargain, no matter how you slice it. They have the widest range of any big game animal in North America and are arguably the second most sought-after big game animal on the continent.
They can be hunted from coast to coast and from Arizona to the Arctic. There are hunts of every flavor available for every taste: over bait, with hounds, and through spot-and-stalk. Best of all, prices are the least expensive of all fully guided big game hunts.
A black bear rug is a wonderful thing, and bear meat, handled properly–meaning fat and bones removed–is excellent (unless the bear is a “dump” bear feeding on human garbage.) For the first-time traveling hunter, a black bear hunt is a good choice.
It’s not too expensive, not high pressure, not time-consuming and, best of all, the added element of danger makes black bear hunting plain old fun. There isn’t anything quite like sneaking up on a huge animal that has been known to eat people.
You get what you pay for; the cheaper the hunt, the lower the odds of bringing back a trophy boar. Right now there are some huge bears being taken in western Canada and Alaska.
Alberta is the cheapest of the best places to hunt really big black bears, and a hunter can take two if so desired, but the hunts are for the most part baited hunts. I have nothing against baiting. I own a baited black bear operation in Saskatchewan, but, in my opinion, sitting doesn’t compare to sneaking.
So that leaves Alaska and British Columbia if you’re looking for trophy bears. Alaska is fine; it has big bears but is fairly expensive to get to–especially when the destination is along the coast, where most of the largest black bears live.
British Columbia, on the other hand, is filled with black bears from top to bottom, and you can take two if you want. Baiting is not allowed, and black bear densities are among the highest in the world.
Oddly, many British Columbia outfitters are so caught up in chasing the glamour species they don’t realize there is a demand for spot-and-stalk black bear hunts and therefore still offer relatively low prices. Expect to pay $3,500 and up for a British Columbia black bear hunt.
These shaggy leftovers from the Ice Age live in one of the most godforsaken, windswept but strangely beautiful places in the world.
For the money, the hunt is hard to beat–not only for the exotic nature of the quarry but also for the sheer adventure. The Inuit culture is fascinating, and without muskox hunting there just wouldn’t be any way for a hunter to interact with these hardy people.
Basically, a muskox hunt is the poor man’s polar bear hunt; it has almost all the adventure at a fraction of the price. Granted, a muskox won’t eat you, but a provoked muskox bull is a formidable and dangerous animal.
Not only that but any time a hunter ventures so far from civilization, there is always the chance of something going haywire. That’s the adventure part–good fear value for the money.
Such a hunt will set a hunter back about $6,000, and the odds of successfully tagging up on a good bull muskox are nearly 100 percent for reputable outfitters.
The “guaranteed to make your friends envious, National Geographic style” photos you’ll take serve to elevate muskox hunting to my personal top five list. Head for Nunavut Territory for the biggest bulls and best hunting.
Scrambling hard and fast, I’d managed to get ahead of the bear, and now he was slowly making his way in my direction. Cover and terrain hid him from me for long seconds, and my palms sweated as I gripped the rifle, waiting.
Then he was there. Not just close enough, but too close. I raised the rifle, saw little more than fur in the scope, and squeezed the trigger . . .
We’re missing some details.
What kind of bear? What was the terrain like? Was it a big bear?
The scenario above has happened to me three or four times. Once it was with a large brown bear in snow-covered alders; several other times this has happened with black bears in areas as diverse as North Carolina and Alaska.
Let’s try again.
The bear was feeding in a little clearing on a brushy hillside. We’d glassed him from afar and had the drop on him, but the brush and terrain were such that a 200-yard shot was the best we could do. I set up my daypack over a handy boulder, laid the rifle across it and took some deep breaths while I waited for the bear to turn. When the shot looked right, I squeezed the trigger.
This second scenario has repeated itself with Alaskan brown bears, mountain grizzlies and quite a number of black bears. For various reasons, a steady, deliberate shot at 200 yards seemed the right thing to do.
There are two important points here. The main one is that, regardless of which bear you are hunting or where you are hunting him, it is difficult to predict exactly what kind of shot you will draw. You need to be ready for anything from a fast shot at bayonet range to a precise, deliberate shot at something beyond 200 yards–or anything in between. The other important thing is that, with minor variations, the two opposite scenarios described above accurately describe circumstances under which I’ve taken two coastal brown bears, two grizzlies and at least eight black bears. In other words, the prospective bear hunter should be prepared for either extreme.
These two scenarios combine genuine incidents with about a dozen different bears, and in all cases I was successful. Not all resulted in one-shot kills, but in no case did we have to chase a wounded bear. I have also taken a lot of bears in the “middle ground” between, say, 50 and 175 yards–and in that middle ground I have screwed up, sometimes badly. But at the two extremes, very close and much farther out, I have been quite successful. This suggests I have used rifles and cartridges that would handle any shot I might encounter, and that’s really what selecting guns and loads for game is all about.
BIG BEAR, BIG BULLET
We tend to dwell on foot-pounds when considering a cartridge’s suitability for game. But bears, like Cape buffalo, don’t understand foot-pounds of energy and aren’t particularly impressed by them. Any bear, is an extremely powerful animal whose vitals are well-shielded by tough hide, corded muscles and heavy bones. The problem multiplies exponentially as bears get bigger, so you must use bullets that are tough and will penetrate without fail. The only way to kill a bear is to place the shot so that it will do extensive and irreparable damage to the heart, lungs, spine or brain.
Because of this, I believe in fairly large bore diameters and heavy-for-caliber bullets. If I were to quantify “bear medicine” in terms of foot-pounds, I would rate black bears about the same as elk: I want a good 2,000 ft.-lbs. of energy. On the largest bears, 3,000 ft.-lbs. is a good number–provided you place your shot and use a proper bullet.
I’m still haunted by the handful of lost-game incidents I’ve experienced in my career, even though a couple of instances go back 30 years or more. I can relate two instances of wounded and lost bears. One was not mine; the rifle was a .270, the bullet a 150-grain conventional softpoint. The presentation was straight broadside, and through the binoculars I saw the impact on the shoulder. From the bear’s reaction, and the trail we followed until it ran out, the only possible conclusion is that the bullet failed to penetrate the heavy shoulder bones.
The second instance was mine. I shot a huge brown bear–supposedly on the shoulder–with a 180-grain X-Bullet from a .300 Win. Mag. The bear instantly lurched into the brush, and we followed an ever-diminishing spoor for eight hours, failing utterly when we tried to pick it up again the next day.
There are lessons here, but don’t take home the wrong ones. In the first case, the .270 will surely kill black bears, and the 150-grain bullet is the right weight–but on bears you’d better make it a premium bullet that will surely penetrate: Fail Safe, Barnes X, Trophy Bonded Bearclaw, Swift A-Frame, Nosler Partition and the like.
In my own debacle, the .300 Win. Mag. was enough gun, and the Barnes X was surely enough bullet. The simple answer is that I flubbed a simple shot. It is almost certain I didn’t hit the bear where I thought I did because he was seen the next season hale and hearty. I will always wonder if a bigger rifle like a .375 might have dealt a heavy enough blow to give me time for a second shot, but the fact remains that a bigger gun won’t help if you miss the mark.
You want plenty of power behind good bullets, and in most situations you also want versatility. The big bears–brown/grizzly and polar bears–are properly considered dangerous game. Black bears are borderline, but far more people are mauled by black bears annually than by all the rest combined. With any bear it is essential that you be able to stop the animal at close range, whether in a chance meeting or a genuine charge. But it is also desirable that you be able to reach out at least 200 yards, preferably 250 yards, because that might be the only opportunity you have.
This business of reach is actually a dual requirement. First, the cartridge should be flat-shooting enough so that you can make a shot at medium range without worrying about holdover. Second, the cartridge must have enough power so you still have all the energy and penetration you need when the bullet gets there.
There are at least two common exceptions to this versatility business: black bears over bait and hunting with hounds. In the former, you can forget about 200-yard shots–most stands for rifle hunting are sited 50 to 100 yards from the bait. Baiting is usually done in timber, so unless the first shot immobilizes the bear, he can vanish before a second shot is remotely possible. Of course, black bears are most likely to come to the bait in the evening, and the biggest bears will usually appear very late, in poor shooting light. All of this points to a rifle that will thump a bear really hard, and this is a perfect place for a powerful “brush rifle” like a Marlin in .45-70 or .450 Marlin, or a Marlin or Winchester 94 in .444 Marlin.
Hunting behind hounds is a different game. The chase will often take you through some of the steepest and nastiest country around, so gun weight and handiness are factors. When the bear is bayed or treed, the shot will almost always be at short range, but it’s essential that the bear be taken as cleanly as possible to prevent injury to the dogs. The classic houndsman’s rifle was the short, light, vicious-kicking Remington M600 in .350 Rem. Mag., discontinued many years ago. Other good choices include lever actions from .35 Rem. upwards, and this would be a good place for Ruger’s slick little .44 Mag. carbines in both lever action and semi-auto.
BLACK BEAR RIFLES
For all-around use on black bears, I still like fairly heavy calibers and heavy bullets, but I want a bit more range. My preference is medium-velocity .35 calibers. The nearly obsolete .358 Win. in a lever-action Winchester 88, Browning BLR or Savage 99 is good; when zeroed correctly, it will do just fine from the muzzle out to 250 yards or so.
However, the .350 Rem. Mag. (also almost obsolete) and the .35 Whelen are superior. Fortunately the Whelen is both popular and available, and I rate it as one of the best black bear cartridges in the world. This year, Weatherby will be producing the first factory rifles in the .338-06, long a popular wildcat, and this will be another excellent black bear cartridge.
There is nothing wrong with using your favorite deer rifle chambered to something between .270 and .30 caliber. I tend to lean toward the .30s, but a .270 or a 7mm will cleanly take bears. When you go lighter in caliber you must be even more careful to choose good, tough, heavy-for-caliber bullets that will penetrate. Round-nosed bullets initiate expansion and transfer energy far more rapidly than spitzers, and at closer ranges their ballistic inferiority isn’t important. If I were using a .270 on black bear I’d choose a tough 150-grain round-nose bullet. In the 7mms, use bullets from 160 grains upwards, and in the .30 calibers consider 180 grains the minimum weight.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with fast .33s from the .338 Win. Mag. upwards. I’ve often used a .375 H&H;, and I’ve never been embarrassed about carrying such a large rifle. In one of the close-encounter scenarios mentioned at the beginning of this story, I was using my 8mm Rem. Mag.; in another I was using a .375 H&H.; Neither instance was exactly a charge or an attack, but in both situations I shot monster black bears right off the end of the rifle barrel–and I was thankful I had plenty of gun in my hands.
THE BIGGEST BEARS
When I talk about cartridges for black bears, I’m always thinking about the kind of bear I hope to encounter: a bear weighing a quarter-ton or more. All bears are tough, but a 500-pounder is in a whole different class from the average bear, which will weigh closer to 200 pounds.
The potential for a really big bear exists wherever black bears are found, and a monster black bear will outweigh the average interior grizzly. Of course, grizzly bears get a whole lot bigger, and salmon-fed coastal brown bears and polar bears are larger still. Few brown bears are ever weighed, but I am absolutely certain that a really big one will go a good 1,500 pounds.
Shot placement remains the most important issue, but I think a .30-caliber firing a good 200-grain bullet is absolutely minimal. I can assure you that I will never again hunt a big bear with a caliber as light as .30. Good choices start with the 8mm Rem. Mag. and work their way through the magnum spectrum to about .416.
I think cartridges such as the .338 Win. Mag., .340 Wby. Mag. and .338 Rem. Ultra Mag are perfect for grizzly bears. Interior grizzlies are smaller than coastal bears, and the terrain often results in longer shots. Further, inland bears are far more thinly distributed than coastal bears, so while long-range shooting is not recommended, you want to be able to take any sensible shot. My last grizzly was killed on the final evening of the hunt, cross-canyon at about 250 yards; a 250-grain Nosler from my .340 Wby. Mag. flattened him.
The fast .33s are also good medicine for brown bears. Another of my close encounters was a Kamchatka brown bear that emerged from snowy alders at less than 60 yards. The same load from the same .340–just one–handled the situation perfectly. Even so, I lean heavily toward the .375 for the very largest of bears. The .375 H&H; is the traditional choice, but it’s hardly the only .375 out there. Faster cartridges such as the new .375 Ultra Mag and Weatherby’s soon-to-be-reintroduced .375 Wby. Mag. offer a bit more versatility without an inordinately high price in recoil.
There is simply no such thing as too much gun when hunting the biggest bears; many Alaskan guides carry .458s (and larger) with no apologies. However, there’s a difference between hunting a bear and preventing the escape of a wounded bear or stopping an attack. My idea of the ideal “big bear rifle” is bolt action, chambered to anything from a fast .33 to a .375, in either synthetic or laminate stock.
The traditional September first dove opener is almost certainly the single biggest opening day in the United States. It’s also one of the single biggest days for shotshell manufacturers, with millions of rounds expended against these speed demons.
A dove’s small size, speed and acrobatic flight all combine to make it one of wingshooting’s most difficult targets.
It’s said that one bird for five shells is a pretty good average. Usually, I can beat that, but add factors like a stiff breeze or birds that have already been shot at and one per five starts to look pretty good!
I just had a refresher course in missing doves in the grainfields of Sonora, Mexico. I was shooting with Alcamp (U.S. agent: Doug Mauldin, Derrydale Press, Lyon, Mississippi) near Hermosillo.
The doves were there in thousands, but so were extenuating circumstances: windy days and doves that had been shot at for months.
These were the most difficult doves I’ve shot at in years–and I won’t divulge my shell-to-bird ratio. But with Mexico’s higher bag limit and abundant birds, I did have a chance to relearn some old lessons.
Here are dove hunting tips for beginners:
Due to their small size, doves are rarely as far as you think. Most shots are between 20 and 30 yards, and 40 yards is very, very far.
In most situations, you’ll drop far more birds with an Improved Cylinder or Skeet choke than with Modified or tighter. If your gun has interchangeable tubes, start with an open choke; you can always tighten up if the birds are flying high.
Generic “dove loads” are usually cheaper due to second-quality shot. Less-uniform shot means poorer patterns, and doves are small enough to be very unforgiving of holes in your patterns.
Buy good shells. Target loads are a good choice; they’ll cost a bit more, but chances are you’ll shoot fewer in filling your limit. Number 8 shot is generally the best choice.
Doves will normally fly along definite terrain features; rarely do they enter or leave fields or go to water in a random fashion.
Treelines, fence lines, drainage ditches, even prominent individual trees, and shrubs are likely spots to take a stand.
Avoid spots surrounded by high vegetation where recovering downed birds would be difficult.
Don’t be too stubborn to move if it looks like birds are flying better down the line. But don’t crowd your neighbor–make certain you know exactly where any other shooters are, and make certain they know where you are.
Doves become wary as soon as the first shots sound. Pick your spot in some taller grass or weeds, so your silhouette is broken.
If there’s enough cover so you can stand, all the better. Alternatively, bring a camp stool so you can sit comfortably and rise quickly if the cover is not enough.
If you have to hunker down on the ground, you won’t be in a comfortable position to shoot and you’ll lose some opportunities because it takes too long to stand up.
Under ideal circumstances, you can see doves coming a long way out. Stay still and let them come.
Pick your bird, then raise the gun, swing, and fire–all while the bird is in range. Raising the gun and tracking the birds too early invites unhittable acrobatics.
It’s almost impossible to watch all directions, so pick the most likely direction for birds to fly and concentrate your attention there, understanding that you might miss out on the odd birds that do the unexpected.
Pay attention, swiveling your eyes back and forth across the horizon.
If more birds are surprising you by coming from behind, you may have missed the flight pattern, so don’t be reluctant to shift your focus.
On incoming birds, your best opportunity is to shoot them as they come in, with the shotgun at no more than a 44-degree angle to the ground.
Optimally, you should wait until the last moment, then raise the gun and fire as quickly as possible.
The ones that surprise you by coming from behind must be taken even more quickly; add in reaction time and such birds are out of range unless you can get on them fast.
I find that my second most common error comes from simply raising the shotgun and firing, without properly seating the gun to my shoulder and getting my head down on the stock–especially on those birds that seem to come out of nowhere.
Concentrate on mounting the gun smoothly and getting your head down on the stock as your eyes and hands begin swinging with the bird.
Everyone is most likely to miss by shooting behind the bird. How much lead depends on distance, wind, and speed of the swing, so there are no absolutes.
But if you’re missing, chances are you’re either stopping your swing or not leading enough. Both mean you’ll shoot behind the bird.
On a windy day in Sonora, I found myself needing fully six feet of lead on crossing shots with the wind–and the birds weren’t all that far away!
The scene of my first-ever dove hunt was one of those crowded fields where you have to root for a bird to get by everyone else so you can shoot it. The slow, the stupid and the unwary fell from the sky long before they got to within 100 yards of the knoll where I sat, partially hidden under the branches of a tree.
The doves I shot at streaked by with their eyes and their throttles wide open. Up to that day, the only birds I had ever seen over a shotgun rib were ringneck pheasants clambering up and away over the cornfields. Nothing in my experience prepared me for the stream of tiny gray bullets zipping overhead.
Experts, of course, brag about shooting a limit of doves “inside a box,” taking 10, 12 or 15 birds with one box of shells or less. So it’s my duty to tell you that on that very first dove hunt, 25 years ago, I easily bagged my limit inside a box.
Unfortunately, it was one of those big boxes that hold 10 smaller 25-round boxes of shells.
There’s no question doves make one of the toughest targets in the sky. Ammo companies estimate hunters shoot five times for each bird they bag. I’ve improved my average a good deal since that first hunt years ago. You can too.
Becoming a better dove shot began, of course, earlier this summer, when you put in your time shooting skeet and sporting clays (you did, didn’t you?). Nevertheless, the transition from clay targets to real birds can be a rocky one come opening day.
It’s not so much that doves are fast; in fact, serious clay target competitors tell me they often shoot in front of live birds after a summer of clay birds. The problem is, clay targets fly straight paths while doves juke all over the sky.
Clay target shooting sharpens your hand/eye coordination and builds solid shooting form, but it can make you a little complacent, too.
After a summer of target shooting, when you look at the dove and judge its line of flight, you assume it’s going to keep going the same direction at the same speed. When the dove changes direction, it leaves your muzzle hanging in space, pointed yards away from where it needs to be.
What’s worse, many hunters treat smoothbores as if they were anti-aircraft weapons, mounting the gun, aiming down the rib and tracking the bird as it comes into range.
The longer you track a dove and the more carefully you measure your lead, the greater the chance you’ll slow or stop your swing or that the bird will dodge out of harm’s way. Instead, think “eyes to the target, hands to the target”–in that order. Lock your eyes onto the dove as it comes to you, but don’t budge the gun until you’re ready to shoot.
Rather than leaping to your feet while the bird’s still a way out, it’s often best to wait until the dove is right on top of you before making a move.
As you mount the gun, your first move should be with the muzzle, sweeping it along the dove’s line of flight and holding slightly below the bird so you don’t obstruct your view of the target.
Raise the butt as the muzzle moves with the target, and shoot the instant the pad hits your shoulder. It’s a short, compact move.
On the close shots, you won’t be aware of leading the bird at all; you’ll be shooting as the barrel passes the beak. If your eyes remain locked firmly on the dove’s head, your hands and the gun will follow to the right place automatically even if the dove pulls a last-second evasive maneuver.
On shots that require short leads, simply flick your eyes ahead of it at the last second, and the gun will follow.
Pretend the bird has a dollar bill in its beak, and make that your target.
Doves crossing in the distance require a slightly different technique. Rather than swinging through the bird, insert the muzzle ahead of it. You still move the barrel along the bird’s flight line as you raise the gun, but your target becomes an invisible, moving spot two or three feet ahead of the dove.
Don’t try to measure the lead; just get the muzzle out in front of it, and good things will probably happen.
Overhead doves present a shot that looks much more difficult than it actually is, and it impresses bystanders when you pluck a bird from what seems to be the stratosphere.
A dove over your head appears much farther away than it actually is, just as the moon looks huge when it’s touching the horizon yet seems smaller and smaller as it climbs into the open night sky.
The overhead shot used to give me fits, until the day I was fortunate enough to find myself crouched behind a levee at the edge of Uruguayan cornfield. Spot-wing pigeons (think “doves on steroids”) flew over me in waves, and I’d hide behind the levee until they were right overhead, then stand to shoot.
From that afternoon on, the overhead shot has been my favorite.
Most of the time, birds that are overhead don’t require much forward allowance at all. Swing the gun fast along its line of flight, and when the bird disappears behind the muzzle, shoot.
Don’t peek around the barrel at it to measure lead. Just blot the bird out, pull the trigger and keep swinging.
Do it right, and you’ll be rewarded with a gasp of awe from the onlookers, and a bird that folds cleanly and takes forever, it seems, to fall to the ground.
Make sure your eyes stay on that bird as it falls and hits the ground. Downed doves can be difficult to find, and there’s no point in shooting birds you can’t recover. Marking fallen birds is a dove hunting skill as essential as hitting them in the first place.
Watch the bird fall, and don’t take your eyes off the spot where you saw it auger in. Your eyes will fix on a particular weed or tall stem. Walk straight to it without ever looking away, and don’t even think of shooting at another bird until you’ve recovered the one you just shot.
Also pay attention to where the birds killed by the shooters to your right and left fall. It’s much easier to find a dead dove if you have two separate fixes on its location and can triangulate.
While retrievers will find birds you cannot, get a good mark on the dove’s fall even if you have your dog along. Dogs don’t last long in the heat, and the rank greenery of late summer presents difficult scenting conditions for the keenest of noses.
The best dove hunt I was ever on took place in a field where the owner had planted scraggly strips of sunflowers spaced widely across bare, disked earth. When you dropped a dove, it fell to the ground with a little puff of dust. I don’t believe I lost a bird in two days of tremendous shooting.
Finally, recovering birds begins before you pull the trigger. If you don’t know where a bird will fall, or if you see that it will drop somewhere it will be difficult to find, don’t shoot. There will be another bird along in a minute.
Dove hunting may be more about shooting than hunting, but if you use a little field-craft to hide from birds, you’ll get easier opportunities. A dove that never knows you’re there is much, much easier to shoot than a bird making a wide detour around you. I would recommend you be attentive to the following bonus dove hunting and tactics.
Don’t silhouette yourself. Sit in the shadow of a tree, or kneel by a fenceline, or use a tall stand of corn or sunflowers to your back to break up your outline. Take a small portable blind or some camo netting to the field. Don’t stand until you’re ready to shoot.
Hide too well, though, and you can’t see the birds coming. On an Ohio dove hunt a few years ago, a friend and I sat in the shadow of a long strip of cut corn with the tall standing stalks at our backs for cover.
We were well hidden from the doves; the problem was when birds came in from behind us low over the tassels, we couldn’t see them until they flashed over our heads. Most of them were gone before we could react.
We left the standing corn, walked out into the middle of the cut strip and laid on the ground in the stubble, facing in opposite directions. The birds scooting in low over the ground never knew we were there until we sat up to shoot.
It was like a field duck hunt in fast motion, with birds coming in at every conceivable angle and flaring wildly if we missed with our first shot. I don’t think I killed my limit inside a box that day, but there was no time to count shells, and I was having way too much fun to care.
Becoming a better dove shot is, of course, a highly commendable goal, but it shouldn’t become an end unto itself. Let the other hunters hoard their ammunition, cherry picks the easy shots and brag about how much fun they had not shooting.
Dove hunting isn’t about bird-to-shell ratios, it’s a 21-gun salute to the promise of another fall. After all, who cares if it takes more than 25 shells to properly ring in the hunter’s New Year?
The right binoculars are an invaluable aid when it comes to hunting most species. However, just having the right brand, power, etc., of binocular isn’t enough. To properly glass for a game such as dove or deer, keep these tips in mind.
How many times have you blown a chance because you walked to the edge of a coulee or draw or canyon, started glassing the far side several hundred yards off and heard the sound of an animal busting out practically right under your feet?
Eyeball the close stuff first, then work out to the farther distances.
See our section on- The 7 Best Rangefinders for Bow Hunting.
If you’re walking to the lip of a canyon, keep your profile out of sight. Crawl if you have to. Ditto for approaching the edge of a flat clearing.
Keep something between you and the clearing, keep low and move slow. And keep the sun in mind. If it’s in your face it can reflect off your glasses and give you away quicker than you can say un-notched tag.
You’ll do better glassing an area section by section than you will just be roaming about with your eyes. Pick out a starting point (a corner, an edge, a stump, something at the edges of the area you’re looking at) and work from there, in small segments.
Try working up or down from there, glassing hard section by section, then moving left or right and repeating the process. Repeat the same pattern and you are assured of covering the area to the best of your ability.
Glass long enough and hard enough and it’s going to feel like your eyeballs are poking out the other end of the binoculars. After you have glassed a section, blink to black, open your eyes and move on to the next section.
Try to avoid rubbing your eyes, or even blinking too hard (really squeezing your eyelids) as this can cause odd light flashes that can obscure your vision.
At home, you can use rubbing alcohol and a cotton ball. This removes water spots and dries quickly and cleanly. In the field, always have a dry, clean handkerchief handy, or purchase one of the several products available for field-expedient optics cleaning.
So, there you have it. Simple tips, but use them all together and you might start seeing game that you might have missed before.
Also Read on the – 7 Best Scopes for AR 15 Coyote Hunting.
Your hunt has ended successfully and you are standing over your quarry, enjoying those nearly indescribable emotions that you experience each and every time: joy, achievement, reverence, all the things that go with being a participant in nature’s grand scheme.
Now the work begins.
Proper field care of any game animal is key to the full enjoyment of ethical hunting. Take care of the game and it will provide you and yours with great-tasting, nutritious sustenance for the months to come.
Before you hit the field, make sure you have a good quality sharp hunting knife, and a sharpening stone. A sharp knife is a key to quick, clean and safe field dressing.
The following are step by step tips for field dressing were written for deer, but will work for most big game species.
Many folks take their wild game to meat processors for “professional” butchering. But butchering your own keeps you in the “field-to-the-table” cycle. Besides, it’s fun and allows you to get everything you possibly can out of your animal.
Start by removing the front shoulders. Simply find the seams between the muscles, and separate the various muscle groups. When cutting steaks, take a section, find the grain, and cut against it: in other words, perpendicular to the natural grain of the meat. The lower front legs need to be trimmed thoroughly, and are best used for canning, grinding or sausage meat.
Next, remove the back straps. These are the muscles that run along the spine. They are very easily removed simply by running a sharp knife along each side of the back bone, then fleshing the straps off the rib cage. Again, cut against the grain. These are among the choicest cuts on any big game animal.
At the hind quarters, make a cut around the leg just above the knee joint. Flesh around the thigh bone, down to the pelvis, and the whole shooting match will come off in one big chunk. Lay it flat, find the seams, and separate, then cut into steaks or leave as roasts. The lower legs, again, are best for sausage, burger or canning.
As you cut steaks, trim the crust at the outer edges, and remove as much fat and sinew as possible. This cuts down on the “wild” flavor.
Inside the rib cage, along the spine, are two smaller strips of meat. This is the tenderloin. These should be removed no more than a day or two after the carcass is hung, as they are small and can dry beyond use quickly. These are probably the most tender tidbits on deer, elk and most of the others.
Once you’ve got your steaks and roasts separated, take a serving size full (which will be different depending on how many you feed at a time) and wrap in plastic wrap tightly, squeezing the air out as you roll. Then take butcher paper, wax side up, and wrap tightly, securing with freezer tape. Write the species and year of kill on the wrapper, and these will stay frozen just fine for a year or more.
The days of tying your big game animal to the fender of your car or the hood of your truck are over, thank goodness. For practical reasons, it is a terrible place to transport your game, as heat from the engine compartment can do some major damage to the meat. For ethical reasons, it’s a horrible idea.
A big game animal sprawled over the hood of your vehicle looks disrespectable, like you’re grandstanding, showing off your victory over nature.
The bed of your pickup, the rear of your SUV, even the trunk of your car, are preferable. It’s a good idea to have a game bag or a large section of cheese cloth on hand to cover the carcass, especially once skinned, to keep bugs and dirt and other icky stuff off the meat.
The key is to keep the carcass cool, dry and in a dignified posture until you get it home.
For wingshooters, where often times regulations require you leave a wing attached or some other form of identification, the temptation to just take the entire bird home and do it all there is constant.
However, you can quickly field dress most birds while leaving most of it intact.
It’s simply, really. For avoidance of doubt, use the following in field dressing upland game birds.
Make a small slit through the thin skin below the breast down to the legs. Reach up and dig it out. Try to be sure to get the craw out as well, as a lot of nasty stuff that could taint the meat tends to hang up in there. The craw is simply the pouch in the upper body where food is mixed with grit to aid in digestion.
Preparing a bird for the table can be a bit more complicated, depending on what you want. For grouse and similar birds, you can simply skin around the breast and legs and remove them. Ditto for anything where you do not need to keep the skin attached.
Once you’ve got the bird skinned or plucked, it’s not a bad idea to soak it overnight in cold salt water. After that, rinse it off, pat it dry, and you’re ready to cook or freeze.
As with upland birds, it’s a good idea to simply make a small cut and scoop them out right in the field, allowing them to cool right off the bat.
Since there are very strict regulations governing the number of mallards, pintails, etc., one may have in a bag limit, this is as far as you want to go in field dressing waterfowl so officials can make identifications easily in the field.
Also see our section- Snow Goose Hunting Tips-How to Hunt Snow Geese Like a Pro
The messy part is plucking. Pluck as many feathers off the carcass as you can. You’re going to be stuck with pinfeathers and down, which can be removed by dipping the birds in a paraffin/water mixture.
Use two cakes of paraffin for four quarts of water, bring to a boil, then dip birds into mixture one at a time. After the birds cool, you can simply use a dull knife to scrape the remaining feathers off the bird. Wipe out the cavity with paper towels, and hang the carcass to allow for air-drying.
Again, it is important, especially with waterfowl but really for all other species, not to pluck the birds before you get them home and are ready for processing. Most states say you have to leave a head or wing attached, but it’s OK to leave them intact save the innards.
Do not pile warm birds on top of each other. When possible, hang them from your belt or blind, separated from one another. Put them on ice as soon as possible. Birds, more so than big game, is very delicate and will spoil quickly if not kept cool.
The whole idea of why you should field dress harvested game is the removal of anything within the animal that might spoil the meat if left too long. The key is doing the very best you can while in the field.
There are times when the situation doesn’t allow you time to do as thorough a job as you would like. At these times, get out the “big chunks,” get the animal out of the field and as quickly as possible complete the process.
This usually includes the wiping down of the animal and completely removing the windpipe and anus.
Properly cared for wild game is among the most nutritious and delicious meat on the planet, made all the sweeter by the fact you took it yourself.