Turkey Tales and Turkey Fails: The Ones That Get Away

Anticipating what these tasty game birds will do is one of the most challenging aspects of the hunt.

Turkey hunting can be easy: set up a hen decoy in a clearing, sit with our back against a gnarled old oak tree, make a few hen calls, and then drop the hammer on the big gobbler that comes strutting in. This sort of hunt does happen, but most of the time it’s not that simple.  

Photo Credit: James Smedley

I have enough turkey hunting experience to know that for every bird I shoot there are many more that elude me. With the benefit of hindsight, I can attribute my failings to hunter error. But to be fair, it’s the unpredictability of these large game birds that makes it a lot easier to make a wrong move than a right one when out in the turkey woods.

Photo Credit: James Smedley

Anticipating what these tasty game birds will do is one of the most challenging aspects of the hunt. With new turkey territory open, such as Algoma Country’s St. Joseph Island and unit 36 on the mainland, there are additional opportunities for hunters to experience some of the same success and failure as I have.

Photo Credit: James Smedley

Wrong Direction

My partner and I are set up with our backs against a split rail fence, calling to a group of toms we know are roosting in the hardwoods behind us. A basic tenet of turkey hunting is that we sit still and wait for the bird to come to us. Stalking these wary creatures is next to impossible, so the strategy is to stay motionless and attract a tom with a series of hen calls. It can be surprisingly effective, but it’s crucial to correctly anticipate from which direction a turkey will approach.

With a couple of hen decoys set up in the field in front of us, we are confident the toms will drop from their roost and make for the field. When we sense movement we slowly twist our necks and our peripheral vision detects two red-faced gobblers moving through the woods directly behind us. Eventually, they make their way to the field but are well beyond shotgun range.

On another occasion I’m sitting in a field with my back against an old hay bale, looking towards the woods. This time I hope to see them as they strut out of the hardwood forest toward my decoy in the field. Instead, a group of gobblers crosses the field to silently line up behind me. I sense a birdlike presence behind me and slowly turn to ignite a cacophony of wing beats as three beard-draggers take flight.

Photo Credit: James Smedley

Changing Spots

Patience is a virtue, and when we sit down to call we should be prepared to wait for things to happen. This time I’m sitting at the base of a giant beech tree in a broad strip of woods between agricultural fields. I know the turkey roost here, and I’m pretty confident they use the woods to travel between fields. But after an hour of hen calling does not elicit a single gobble, I begin to second-guess my choice of spots. I decide to move and when I stand, a big tom bolts from a thicket and takes flight. The turkey was less than 50 yards away and, had I been a bit more patient, would have walked into my trap.

Tinkering with Technology

I spot a bird in a distant field, working its way toward me. I put out a hen decoy and get settled at the base of a large tree along the bush line. I let out a few hen calls and figure the tom should take about 15 minutes to reach me if he comes directly across the field, longer if the fowl takes a more circuitous route. After an hour I grow restless and text my partner.

The slight movement from texting elicits a flapping of wings directly behind me. “Busted,” I text my partner. I stay put, hoping the curious bird will return, but after another hour I grow impatient and again text my partner. If I’d looked around before tinkering with my mobile device, I would have seen the large bird sneaking toward my decoy. Instead, I see him at a full run in the opposite direction.

Bad Timing

After hunting since first light, I take a breather where shafts of mid-morning sunlight warm the ground along a creek bottom. I lean my shotgun against a tree, pull out a snack, and peel off a few layers of clothing. That’s when two toms, strutting noisily through the woods, pass within 20 yards of this gloriously unprepared hunter.

There are lessons to learn from every turkey we encounter. I like to think I’m becoming a better hunter, but I know I will continue to be befuddled by these unpredictable birds. While it is tremendously rewarding to bag a gobbler, it’s the birds that continue to throw us a curve that is the most intriguing ingredient of the turkey hunt.

Photo Credit: James Smedley
About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions—more than 400 pieces and close to 1,000 images—to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines, and newspapers have earned him over 40 national and international awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is the travel editor at Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine. James has fly-fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass, and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.


Visit James at www.jamessmedleyoutdoors.com

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