Somewhere down in the bottom, along a creek bed out of sight in the duskiness of dawn, there’s a gobbler sitting on a limb answering your calls with thunderous gobbles.
You can only guess which tree, but you know he’s there — and you have his full attention.
Without pushing the issue, you use only enough soft tree yelps to keep his interest until the sun takes over the day.
The bird is really vocal, and with each gobble it becomes impossible to not envision the perfect outcome: the gobbler flying down toward you, and coming straight in gobbling and strutting to his death.
Then, following one last boisterous gobble, he hits the ground and is suddenly within 75 yards. He gobbles again, and you get ready, raising the gun slowly to your knee as you peer through the forest for a glimpse of him.
He gobbles again, seemingly shaking the tree at your back, but it’s just your nerves reacting. The sheer volume of the gobble indicates he’s facing you and he’s closer. It appears it’s just you and him now.
“Perfect,” you think to yourself.
Then you hear a yelp, then a gobble, then another yelp.
The gobbler goes silent, as do the woods, except for the chirps of a few smaller birds.
The gobbler shuts up, and your calls go unanswered.
Hijacked by hens; he’s gone.
“Happens a lot in March,” said Mossy Oak’s Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland, one of the country’s most recognizable turkey hunters. “You get a hot gobbler responding to you from a limb at sunrise, and he stays on your calls after fly-down. Then he seems to lose interest and shuts up.
“At least 99.99 percent of the time, hens have gotten to him and pulled him off you.”
It’s one of several reasons why Strickland believes the biggest attribute a turkey hunter can have heading into the season is “relentless patience.”
It is mandatory, especially in March’s early weeks.
“When the season starts, hunters are so excited, and you can’t blame them: I’m that way, too,” Strickland said. “We’ve been waiting all year and chomping at the bit to get at it.
“All I can tell you is to slow down. Be patient — relentlessly patient.”
It is a trait required of turkey hunters for many reasons, and the best way to illustrate it is to finish the day’s hunt, and look to find another hot gobbler and a better conclusion.
With that gobbler gone, at least for the time being, it’s time to make a move to either find another gobbler or try to locate the original gobbler and his harem of hens.
Whichever you choose, Strickland advised stealth.
“In March, the woods are still open,” he said. “Turkeys can see forever. Don’t press it. Don’t press the hunt. You bump the gobbler and he’ll be on to you from that point on. You could mess him up for weeks, if not for the whole season. Make a commitment to slow down, and that includes scouting in the weeks preceding the season through the opening weeks.
“There’s no foliage, and that works for you and against you. It is easier to hear them, but it is also much easier for them to spot you. Go slow.”
Hattiesburg native Preston Pittman, the call-maker who has won too many calling titles to list, likes to stay on the same bird, if possible, even if it takes all day.
“I hear a lot of hunters talk about losing a gobbler to hens, and they give up on him and leave to find another,” Pittman said. “That’s not always wise. Wait him out, especially if he’s answered your calls.
“I had a wise old hunter tell me a long time ago that if a gobbler at any time cuts your call, then some time during the day — after he’s finished with his hens and if you haven’t spooked him — he’ll come back and look for that receptive hen.”
That advice has paid off for the accomplished hunter.
“I once had a hunt where I started on a bird at sunrise and had him working, answering me, only to have him get henned up,” Pittman said. “I stayed put, and at 4:30 that afternoon, I got him when he came back.”
In March, the mating season is in its early stages, so it is inevitable that hunters will encounter gobblers with harems of hens too large to beat, Strickland warned.
“Honestly, I think they stay henned up the whole time,” he said. “In most spring seasons, they are covered up with hens at least midway into the season.”
So, what do you do?
“Goes back to being relentlessly patient,” Strickland said. “You can try to call the hens to you, but what I usually do is step back and move to see if I can find another gobbler, or just wait out that first gobbler. Just don’t press it.
“Don’t mess the gobbler up.”
Making the wrong decision can make for a long season.
“For example, on my little place I hunt, if I bump the turkeys — hens, gobblers or both — it’s over for me for a least a week and usually longer,” Strickland said. “Try instead to hear which way they went. You won’t always hear a gobble; it could just be the rustling of leaves and a few hen sounds.”
Rely on scouting
As the search continues, a hunter can rely on his scouting.
“If you are in a big club or hunting public lands, the first thing you’ve got to do is find the turkeys,” Strickland said. “They’re moving, constantly on the move, and you need to find where they are and where they are going between fly-down and fly-up times.”
But you have to use recent information.
“There’s a pretty major transition that takes place from winter to spring. For that reason, you can’t always go by what you saw in deer season,” Strickland said. “What happens to most people (is) they go out there opening day, and go to where they saw the turkeys in deer season.
“Guess what? They’re not there. That puts the hunter behind schedule and having to do then what he should have been doing in February and the first week of March — scouting.”
Strickland urged hunters to scout during the preseason, but to stay away from the birds as much as possible.
And don’t call to them.
“Use your energy in scouting to find signs of where turkeys are traveling,” he said. “Look for scratching. Look for other signs (scat, tracks, etc.). You don’t necessarily need to see the birds to find them and where they are traveling. Also, listen for hens yelping or making other sounds. You don’t have to hear the booming sound of a gobbler to find him.
“Above all, be patient, slow down and make sure they don’t see you. I can’t stress that enough.”
Pay attention to hens
As you search for a gobbler, it’s important to remember that toms are often quiet. They don’t always gobble, especially if they spoke a lot on the roost that morning.
Listen just as closely for the quite sounds of hens, whether it is soft purrs, yelps or just the constant scratching in the leaves or pine needles.
Strickland clearly understands who’s in control of turkey behavior, and often controls the hunting scenario, especially in the early weeks of the season in March.
“The hens make all the decisions,” he said, adding that if you find an area with hens, you will also find the gobblers.
Brandon’s Thomas Hill, who at 72 has hunted turkeys in Mississippi for six decades, emphasized hens when scouting.
“The boss hen, she’s the dominant bird in the flock and dictates the whole show,” Hill said. “She’ll be the one leading the entourage through the woods and making the decision of whether to be in the woods or out in the fields.
“You will see the gobbler, or gobblers, always trailing behind the hen flock she’s leading. You find her, and you’ll find him, until she goes to nest.”
That’s been his secret for years.
“I’ve found more gobblers by finding the flocks of hens than I have listening for gobbles alone, and, I’ve killed a lot of gobblers by calling to the hen to get her mad enough to come see what hen is invading her territory,” Hill explained. “I get her to bring him to me.”
To do that, he antagonizes the boss hen.
“Cut her off enough — like if she starts a cutting series, you jump right in on her, cutting loudly right back at her — and she’ll get mad,” Hill said. “I like to use multiple calls, like a mouth, a box and a slate, to make it sound like there’s more hens with me.
“If I can get her to come pick a fight, any gobbler within hearing distance will come. They won’t want to miss that.”
Peak time: Late morning
After two hours of searching for the lost gobbler or another one altogether, it can be easy to end the hunt, go eat breakfast and head either home or — “ouch” — to the office.
Resist that temptation and be patient.
The best time to hunt is still ahead.
“Back when I started filming and hunting for Primos over 30 years ago, I kept a diary of that first season,” Strickland said. “I wrote down what happened on every hunt. I tracked conditions, everything. Out of 14 successful hunts, all but two kills happened midday — about 10 a.m. to noon, and even later.
“I’ll never forget what (the late) Bob Dixon of Mossy Oak told me one year, when he was asked about when he preferred to hunt. ‘Given a choice of the two,’ he said, ‘I’d take noon to dusk over dawn to noon.’ The more I’ve hunted over the past 30 to 40 years, the more I’ve come to agree with his philosophy.
“We all read and hear about the fly-down hunting scenarios where the gobbler comes to you off the roost; well, that just doesn’t happen often. And, it is even more rare early in the season, except for the young 2-year-old gobbler who’s too young and stupid for his own good.”
Pittman agreed whole-heartedly, once claiming “if I can get a turkey to gobble at me after noon, I’m going to kill him — or at least get him to come and provide me that opportunity.”
Calling philosophies differ from hunter to hunter when trying to locate a gobbler during the day. Strickland often goes to an extreme, using a tube call so loud that its sharp cuts and yelps border on obnoxious.
“I think it’s the pitch and volume that gets a shock gobble,” he said. “I think that most gobblers, especially early in the season, are around hens all day and hear subtle yelps constantly. They also hear crows, woodpeckers, etc., and do, indeed, gobble at these.
“But that tight-mouthed, stubborn, hard-headed evil one sometimes can’t resist a loud four-note cut from a few hundred yards away.”
Brad Farris, a former head of Primos Hunting’s TV and video division who can still be seen on Primos’ productions, prefers a box call to the tube.
“The problem with a turkey call as a locator call is that if you get an answer, that means it’s very likely he’s coming and you have to get settled quickly,” Farris said. “With a different locator, like an owl or a woodpecker call, you can take your time and move through the woods to get a good set up.
“With a hen call, there’s a pretty good chance he will be already headed your way.”
Gobble, gobble: It’s on
As you continue to run and gun — moving from spot to spot trying to shock a tom into gobbling — you finally locate one that answers your call.
The next decision you make is critical.
The woods are open and you have to be stealthy.
“Granted, a lot of times, a hunter finds himself in a situation where being picky is not an option, like when a gobbler responds to a locator call mid-morning right out of the blue and you’re unsure of the distance or you know he’s right on top of you,” Hill said. “In that case, you find the nearest big tree or stump or brush pile and conceal yourself as best you can as quickly and as silently as possible, and hope for the best.
“But, given time, I always look for a setup that puts something thick between me and him, like a ridge or a thicket or some heavy brush, so that the first time I see him and he’s in a position to see me, he’s in gun range, and I can slap the trigger and put him down.”
Strickland agreed, to a point.
“I know a lot of people are more concerned about what is in front of them, and I get that, but I think having a good background immediately behind me is just as important, if not more important,” he said. “When you are calling a gobbler and he is coming, he is expecting to find a hen. If he can see 100 yards beyond me and can’t see the hen he’s responding to, he’s out of there.
“But if I am backed up to a thicket or a ridge, where he can’t see more than a few yards behind me, he is more likely to come on in thinking the hen is a little farther just behind the thicket or over the ridge. If I’m covered in total camo, head-to-toe Mossy Oak, of course, I’m not as interested in what’s in front of me as I am what’s behind me.”
Decoys can allow a hunter the opportunity to enjoy a show, and they are legal in Mississippi.
“I just don’t like to carry them,” Strickland said. “They can be real good for getting the attention off of you, and that’s good when we’ve got our camera crews or youngsters who can’t always be still.
“But, using decoys is an all-or-nothing type thing. Gobblers either charge right in to them, or they don’t like them and they won’t come near.
“Besides I like to travel light, and I get a better feeling when I beat a gobbler fair and square — just me against him. I am not opposed to their use, don’t get me wrong. They’re OK, I just prefer not using them.”
Closing the deal
You’re set up, and your newly located gobbler is approaching. Since he’s spent the morning with a harem of lovers, he’s searching to find another and he’s willing to check out a new hen.
You are fortunate that the woods provided you a small opening, a tiny food plot left over from deer season. You are two trees back from the edge, settled against a wide oak with a thicket behind you.
The gobbler is in the woods on the other side, and you finally spot its white head bobbing and weaving through the timber.
He stops only to gobble when you call.
As he approaches the opening, he slows down to look, leading you to think the worst.
“Oh no, is he going to hang up, and stay just out of gun range?”
Switching to a soft yelp and a purr, you do your best to sound adoring.
It works. He’s moving again, walking into the opening and immediately breaking into a strut, which you view down the barrel of a shotgun, bead squarely on his waddles.
You throw him a quick putt with your lips, and his head goes up like a periscope on a submarine.
The target is clear; your finger is ready.