The Eastern wild turkey is either the dumbest bird on the planet, or the smartest.
Every spring, this majestic and elusive bird falls to the simplest of attempts to harvest him.
At other times he takes the most eloquently laid out plans and laughs at them, leaving the would-be harvester to sit all alone in the woods, scratching his head.
Walter Mitchell of Calhoun County believes in both views of the elusive Thunder Chicken. According to the Mississippi Turkey Records Program, Mitchell holds the No. 1 turkey in overall rankings taken from Calhoun County and No. 18 in the state for a bird that he killed in 1995.
“I found some turkeys in an area that I hunt, and I killed my limit of birds (3), while I was sitting under the very same tree on three different mornings” said Mitchell. “The last one I killed out of the tree made No. 2 in the state of Mississippi back in ’95. It was the only turkey I heard gobble. After the first one, I didn’t know there were any more than that, but I said ‘I’m going to go back and just listen from there.’ I went back in that same area the second morning and another one jumped me. I sat down right under the same tree and I killed another turkey. Then I said ‘the Good Lord has done blessed me with two birds, but I’m going to go back there the third morning.’
“The third morning, that turkey gobbled and I couldn’t believe it because each time I went I had killed a turkey. I called him up and killed him. That bird had five beards and some long spurs and weighed almost 19 pounds,” he said. “All three of those gobblers were in the same area, but I only heard one turkey ever gobble.”
To this day, Mitchell won’t admit that he’s an expert turkey hunter, but he does admit he has learned some things — some might call them secrets — that only seem like common sense to him that have helped him kill a limit of turkey almost every year he has hunted.
“If you’re new at it, one thing is get with somebody that understands how turkey behave,” he said. “Go with them and learn how and when to use a call. I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on calling. I think location is a lot more important. Get down to learning the terrain, the area the turkey is using, and then figure out how to get him to come to you.”
Mitchell said he sees a lot of turkey hunters gravitate to open areas like fields, pastures, and big food plots when hunting turkey. That was never his style. His preference was to make things a little more personal.
“I’d rather hunt wood birds than I had in the field anytime,” said Mitchell. “I could always get a bird to work better in the timber than I could in the open field. Most of the time in an open field, he’s going to fly out right in the middle of that open area with 15 or 20 hens and that’s where he’s staying.”
Mitchell’s favorite and most productive tactic has been to roost a bird in the timber the night before. He will admit that’s not a secret to 100 percent success, if there is such a thing in turkey hunting, but it’s one that has brought success.
“I’m pretty bad about putting a big gobbler to bed the night before,” said Mitchell. “I’ll get out there and do a good bit of scouting. Lots of times they will roost in the very same tree over and over. That’s the fun part I’ve always found about turkeys. They liable do one thing today, something else tomorrow. You think you got them figured out, you go back in there and they’ve done moved five miles. But most times, when they’ve got plenty of feed they’ll stay in the area unless something or someone scares them and moves them out.”
Mitchell said he believes much of his success stems from being both patient and confident. He’s patient if he knows he’s in the right area and he gets that patience from knowing the lay of the land and knowing that birds are in the area. He’s never been one to chase down a bird he knows nothing about. He’d rather set up somewhere and make that bird come to him.
“I never was run and gun; I do my scouting and I’m confident I know where they’re at,” he said. “I’ll go and get in the area and see what happens. Gobblers always seem to want to come up hill for some reason especially in the woods. My favorite set up is to roost a bird and get uphill from him, especially if there’s an old logging road involved. Old turkeys love to walk them old logging roads.”
Pittman: Stay with it
Another “old bird” who would agree with Mitchell’s tactics is Mississippi turkey hunting icon Preston Pittman. Pittman grew up hunting in South Mississippi and said too many inexperienced hunters never learned how to work a bird.
“If the hunter is fortunate enough to get a gobbler to respond just once, he needs to settle in and work that bird, even if he never makes another sound,” he said.
He said most hunters might be tempted to give up and go look for another bird. If a gobbler goes the other way and you know his territory and what terrain features will influence his direction of travel, getting in front of him and using a different call, even a different kind of call, can get that bird to respond. Even if he doesn’t respond, don’t give up on him.
“Having knowledge of the terrain will help you outsmart a bird that always runs the other way when he’s called to,” said Pittman. “Figure out where he’s going. Change calls and get around in front of that bird.”
Pittman stresses that hunters not make the mistake of thinking a gobbler is ignoring his calls. He may respond to your call while he has hens with him and then come back to investigate your call after they have left him. It’s for this reason that Pittman often has better success later in the day.
The adage that a bird has his agenda set for the morning is usually correct. The key is for the hunter to arrange a lunch meeting with that old gobbler who doesn’t have plans after mid-morning. That’s the time of day that he’s not so confident and starts to have second thoughts that he’s in charge.
“I kill my best birds between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” he said. “That’s the time when an old gobbler is at his weakest. The hens leave him to go nest and he gets lonely.”
According to Pittman, few old gobblers, the kind you want to kill, are going to respond well to a pushy hen that chases him through the woods calling her head off. He said it’s better to intercept that old bird and make it a happenstance meeting — done by changing the tone, pitch and frequency of the call that’s coming from in front of the bird.
“Birds that cut to your call, unless they get screwed up by something else, another hunter, coyote or other predator, will come to your location sometime before the sun sets that day,” said Pittman. “Then the rest is up to you.”