Turkey Hunting's Tough Calls

 New heavier-than-lead loads like TSS put more pellets in a 10" circle at 40 yards than any lead I've ever tested.  Knowing your effective range by patterning and pellet-counting helps settle one of the toughest calls as a turkey hunter you'll ever have to make.    Photo Credit -  Matt Addington Photography

New heavier-than-lead loads like TSS put more pellets in a 10" circle at 40 yards than any lead I've ever tested.  Knowing your effective range by patterning and pellet-counting helps settle one of the toughest calls as a turkey hunter you'll ever have to make.  

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

In the course of even a single season, turkeys will challenge your skills and make the most confident hunter into a wuthering pile of loathing and self-doubt.  Each day presents new scenarios, culminating into a number of “tipping-points” that we inevitably look back on with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight.  Here’s a number of those very situations, along with some advice on how I’ve learned to best handle them throughout the years. 

To Call or Not to Call? – You’ve just made a string of yelps and everything in the woods is white hot with excitement.  It’s one of those rare days where you can simply do no wrong, and they’re picking up every call you’re putting down.  Then the other boot drops and silence abounds for 10 minutes or more.  Do you call again?  If no, then how long to wait?  Well my experience has been that sudden pauses in calling are either really good, or really bad.  Birds have heard what they needed and are on a straight-line march to your location, soon to appear at any time.  Or, they’ve been spooked by another hunter or coyote, they’ve flown down and left the audible area with hens, or any other act of tom-foolery.  Birds that are still gobbling occasionally give you clues and cues to go off, and there are no general facts for when and when not to call.  That said, the closest thing to any hard or fast rule that I have is not to call to any bird that is closing the distance to your location.  If he’s coming, don’t call and screw it up!   

Should I Stay or Should I Go? – So often we’re presented with the choice to give chase to birds that are leaving the vicinity, or hold off and wait.  To answer that question, I’ll first think to what other options I have should I pursue and spook.  If you only have 40 acres of access for the season, it’s best not to get too aggressive.  I’ll also think to what other birds I heard in the roost, doing my best to identify how many potential toms heard my calling.  I try my best to wait out any play for 30 minutes after last call if I really got agressive, especially if birds are responding from out deep.  There’s a few exceptions to that rule, but for the most part, I’ll get to the point of almost standing up, then give it another 5 minutes. 

Edge of Range – Just writing it makes my skin crawl.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of birds that have skirted the edge of my weapon’s effective range over the years.  I can very precisely tell you the handful of times I’ve been tempted to push the limits, and let’s just say that it works only occasionally.  You can’t tempt the limit till you define one, so your early season patterning is more than just a fun time at the range, it’s crucial to drawing that line in the sand.  If I can’t put 100 pellets consistently into a 10” circle, then that range draws a distinct line for me to shoot within.  If that distance is 50 yards, 51 yards is flirting with disaster accounting for wind, brush, sore arms, and any number of variables that don’t play out in the field like they do on a lead-sled.  These birds deserve more than “occasionally” so I use a rangefinder where legal, and able, to demarcate a zone that I simply won’t shoot past.

When to Shoot? – The bird has finally crossed into the death zone, and you’re just waiting patiently for the best possible  - can’t mess it up – shot to present itself.  Don’t wait too long, or really at all.  My best advice has always been to take your first, best shot as soon as the bird is in range.  Of course a bird in the wide open with his head down slowly walking your way poses little threat of escape.  Add cover, other birds, partial views, and a tom that’s already nervous, and you’ll find how remarkably possible it is for a tom to sashay into range and out of it before you ever get to pull the trigger.  That’s why I’ve killed so many birds between 35-45 yards.  It’s not because I like pushing the limits of my equipment, but it’s because far too many toms have wandered into “sure thing” setups, only to find a wide tree, hen, or blocking fence-line to walk straight away and in line from, thus preventing any shot.  Fall back on your patterning, and take the very first, best-looking shot you’ve got while the bird is in range.

Brush Birds – See above, then take your best shot even if it involves a few twigs.  With a caveat.  Know that I’d never promote someone taking an unsafe shot (not being sure of target or what’s behind it) or a shot that would potentially maim a turkey (too much brush), but a swarm of pellets especially well inside of your effective range does wonders for peeling back a few sprigs of spring.  On the other hand, if you’re looking at a bird in the brush for which you cannot identify the beard or exact location of his head/neck area, then it’s far too thick to try.  My rule of thumb is to clearly identify the outline of the head and neck area and make sure you can see beard, then squeeze off a quality shot.  If you’re shooting at the outline of a turkey itself or at the edge of your effective range, you don’t have a prayer. 

Fishing Rod Selection - Technique Specific Applications

In the last article, we defined the terms “power” and “action” while discussing the benefits of specific types of each.  It is difficult to walk into a sporting goods store and select the perfect rod for the job, and even tougher to take non-specific, anecdotal advice on a brand in the effort to finding your perfect stick.  That is why I will offer a few popular lengths, powers, and actions along with typical applications so you can have the right tool for the job.  No matter what your price point, we’ll focus on finding the right fishing rod characteristics to handle the task at hand.

It is surprising how many people select rods based on species alone, as if there were separate rods to use for bass or walleye or pike.  Instead, the focus should be placed heavily on technique and the interplay between length, power, and action.  Fishing rods perform best when fished with lure-types, and most importantly, lure weights, that fit the build and design of the particular rod in-hand.  This places an emphasis on situation-specific rods that place an emphasis on handling a certain scenario in the fishing world.  Again, you can use a screwdriver to knock out bolts, but a hammer and punch are far more effective.

Still, there are species-specific considerations, often based on tradition, that creep into rod design.  Take the split-grip phenomenon for example and how prevalent it is in bass rods.  Walleye anglers on the other hand, tend to lean more towards full cork handles that have typically been more commonplace.  Spinning vs. casting does also offer a few changes to the mix, as each of them fish differently for different fish species, with spinning being far more common for walleye, trout, panfish, etc., and casting rods getting the nod for bass, pike, musky, salmon, and catfish. 

There are far too many ways to fish for a list of all technique-specific recommendations, however, here is a few common ones that I feel will offer you a distinct advantage on the water, and get you thinking of the interplay between length, power, and action:

Pitching/Casting Jigs – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML, M, Action – XF, Length 6’ 6” – 7’ - If there were ever a case where the best of the best makes a big difference, jig-fishing is where.  Better blanks have lighter, faster actions that translate to more hooks in more fish.  Pair common jig sizes fished to the range of weights that rod handles as listed on the blank.

Vertical Jigging – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML or M, Action – XF, Length 6’ – 6’6” – Most anglers prefer the rod tip a bit closer to them when jigging over the side of the boat.  Line watching and overall management is far easier, while still having enough length to keeping big fish buttoned up.

Rigging – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML or M, Action – Fast or XF, Length 7’ – 8’6” – Live bait rigging involves feeling a fish before it feels you, making Fast and Extra Fast (XF) actions perfect for the task at hand.  Riggers also have to manage the length of a snell boat-side as they net fish.  Longer rods do a great job of keeping the fish hooked up with a bouncing sinker and long leader lengths, though sometimes at the expense of feel in a big wind.  Choose accordingly.

Casting Crankbaits – Material – Carbon Fiber/Glass Blend or all Glass - Power – M - MH, Action – Moderate, Length 6’6” – 7’6” – Casting crankbaits happens for a variety of species, but the highlight of any good crankbait rod is some give in the middle section, hence the moderate action.  Crankbaits notoriously pull out of fish’s mouths if the rod (or line) doesn’t have enough give to let the fish engulf it in the first place.  The next key is pairing common bait sizes to the range of weights that each rod handles as listed on the blank. 

Trolling Crankbaits – Material – Carbon Fiber/Glass Blend or all Glass - Power – M - MH, Action – Moderate, Length 5’ – 10’ – Again, the key component of a good crankbait trolling rod is the moderate action and give that it offers.  You’ll see a very large range in lengths, and that’s because most trollers are trying to pair multiple rods at various lengths to cover the most water without tangles.  For example, many trollers pair 8’-10’ rods with a set of 6’ rods to be able to troll 4 lines un-tangled.

Finesse Jigging/Drop-Shot – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power –  L - ML, Action – Fast/XF, Length 6’6” – 8’6” – Fishing small baits for panfish, bass, or walleye, requires a blank matched to the weight of that specific jig.  Longer rods make for further casts of small baits, so consider going as long as your rod locker has storage for and you’re comfortable with.

These recommendations are only basic guidelines, as there needs to be some wiggle-room for hard-earned experience and personal preference to inform the process.  One last piece of advice is to buy the best rod you can in terms of price point, while adhering to the basic rules of length, power, and action.  Especially for light-biting fish, you get what you pay for in that higher price-point rods are typically lighter, more sensitive, and help you experience a technique in the best way possible.  With today’s materials and craftsmanship, you can get a good rod at a great price, but it’s not a sales pitch in saying that the net result of higher quality is more bites and more fish.

Fishing Rod Selection - Power and Action

Fishing Rod Selection – Power and Action

The art of selecting a quality fishing rod is a time-honored tradition that takes place across the country every spring.  Anglers flock to sporting goods stores, weary of winter’s woes, dreaming of the first cast of the season.  They pull a rod from the display and perform their tests of choice.  A shake, a bend on the ground, or a dreaded “grab the tip and pull down” are what most folks use as criteria for determining their stick of choice. 

Most never give a thought to how they’ll use it or for what.  Instead, they’re motivated by feel, price, marketing materials and large numbers after the letters “I-M” that would seem to indicate sensitivity and/or quality.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Here’s the first of a two part series on rod selection that’ll put the right tool in your hand for the job at hand, no matter what price point you’re looking to spend to.

Any good story starts at the beginning, and for fishing rods, that discussion gets off the ground with the terms “power” and “action.”  Contrary to popular belief, the terms are not interchangeable, and mean drastically different things.  Before you think we’re getting bogged down into an engineering debate, know that “power” relates to the amount of pressure it takes to impart a bend in the rod, and “action” is the part of the blank that actually deflects.  That’s a big distinction, as I’ve heard pro after pro relate to rods as a heavy or medium action, knowing full-well that they mean “power” here, as I’ve made the same mistake myself. 

While power is an easy concept to grasp, as we’re used to purchasing the appropriate power for the species we like to target, “action” is a more abstract notion.  That is, until you look at a rod chart and see that actions start at moderate, bending closer to the mid-section, and progress all the way to fast, then extra-fast actions that bend far closer to the tip of the rod.  

It’s important to realize that you’ll need to understand both terms, as two medium power rods can have completely divergent actions which will benefit drastically different styles of angling.  It’ll also help to know a bit about a few other variables as you decipher which rod to buy, namely rod length, materials, components, and a bit about the manufacturer you’re purchasing from.  Did I mention that not all rod companies mention the action, and there are few universal standards by which the entire industry grades their powers and actions?  We’ll make it simpler, I promise.

Start with the power, knowing that your ability to impart extra leverage on larger fish will hinge on it.  Powers range from Ultra-Light, to Light, Medium Light, Medium, Medium Heavy, and Heavy.  Choose wisely based both on the species you’re targeting, but also the lure weight you’ll be using to target these species.  If you’re angling for a good number of species, Medium Light and Medium powers handle the largest swath of lure designs and fish species. 

While you’re thinking of lure types, know that the fastest of all actions like Extra Fast (XF) will excel when you need to move the rod minimally to set the hook fastest.  Baits like jigs that rely on extreme sensitivity and feel find huge benefit with these XF actions, as you get to the backbone of the rod that much more quickly on a hookset.  XF actions are so often paired with the highest end carbon fiber rods at the peak of sensitivity and price.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ve got moderate actions, which most of the cheaper rods already exhibit and truly excel for things such as crankbait fishing where you want some give to account for the bend that the diving crankbait’s bill will impart on the rod.  A crankbait rod without the proper “give” sees you missing far more fish on account of hooks pulling out of the mouth of the fish.

Rod length can be a function of personal preference, height of your casting platform, or any number of customized factors, so be sure to choose what you like here while observing a few generalities.  The trend has been towards longer rods in the 7 foot region and longer for a number of reasons.  Longer rods offer a number of advantages from casting distance to leverage and coverage, and as rod storage in boats gets more accommodating while rod manufacturers build increasingly lighter rods, I don’t see this reversing itself.  For that reason, I’m a big fan of shorter rods primarily for vertical jigging, and longer rods moving longer for most applications outside of this. 

Materials are harder to decipher, as all companies offer different marketing strategies to endear their version to you.  Most rods however are made in the same factories, offering the same technologies branded differently for different importers.  Very few rods are vertically manufactured, offering the customer a product that was custom made from scratch to solve a specific fishing problem.  Know that more technology, better components, and lighter materials make for more expensive rods.  It can also make them more brittle and prone to breakage as engineers push the limits of the goods at hand, making a solid warranty a necessity when purchasing a high end rod.

In the second part of this series, I’ll offer some personal suggestions for common species and techniques, as well as a few shopping pointers to make sure you get the best rod for the money.       

When to Shut Up

The subject of calling at a wild turkey has been discussed extensively, and because it can be the most thrilling part of the hunt at times, I’m just as much a sucker for a different take on turkey calling as the next guy.  We obsess over different vocalizations, learning how to do everything from kee-kees to fly-down-cackles, while searching endlessly for a new sound or call that will make a tom turn on his heel and come running.  Through articles, TV, and video, we’ve been suckered into believing that the upcoming part of a conversation made between you, a fake hen, and him, a real tom, is more important than what you’ve said or haven’t said previously.  Forget about the crackling yelps or brash clucks you previously butchered, the thought is always, “Well what if I hit him next with a round of glorious cutting?”

The truth, I’ve learned the hard way over the years, is that calling in a turkey can be as much about what you don’t say, and when you don’t say it than any kind of fancy forlorn calling sequences.  Most close calls and successful hunts have a turning point; the part of the conversation where a bird comes near, but is still too far.  At that point, critical decisions are made that more often break the hunt than make it, and so often the offending party is your calling decisions.  Often they’re made too hastily, as a frantic last ditch effort that never had to be uttered. 

Ever hunted with a buddy as they’re questioning your calling?  “Hit him again” or “get on that box call” or “he’s walking away” are statements uttered as a matter of nervousness on the hunter’s part, more than they are as direct observations of what the turkey’s behavior is telling us. 

With a bird that’s out of sight, we rely primarily on our sense of hearing to inform us, making the waiting game that much more challenging.  Keep in mind that the bird often can’t see you either, and with each call he’s tightening your noose as a shrinking circle of certainty with which he has you pinned down.  When he knows exactly where you are audibly, he doesn’t need to confirm that fact visually, further strengthening my own personal rule of not calling to a bird that’s actively closing the distance.  So often, birds that “hang-up” are “hung-up” by hunters who call to a bird that’s walking right at them. 

For birds in field or other open situations, it gets even more difficult.  A traced path of any tom’s death march to the end of a gun barrel is full of jagged edges and zig-zags, especially if they’re strutting.  As they pirouette, gobble, and walk, toms rarely head straight to you, even with decoys clearly visible.  It gets almost too tempting to call at them when they’re spinning away from you, side-stepping, or otherwise not directly gobbling into your blind.  The trick here is to enjoy the show, and through time and some experience, learn to read key clues on when they’re actually coming or going. 

The double wing flip, observed as any turkey folds one wing back, and shortly thereafter another means one thing for certain, the bird will be taking a few steps.  Hasty double wing flips, followed by a sharp angle away from you is a harsh reaction to something, while that same body language in any direction quartering or directly at you is a really good thing.  Let the scene play-out, and realize that these birds may need some time to get comfortable with the thought of approaching.

If the best time to shut-up is when a bird is approaching, the next best time is when your calls continue to fall on deaf ears.  Birds that gobble actively, just not at you, are telling you something without saying a word.  They’re not liking something about your calling, whether it be cadence, tone, or frequency, or at the very least they don’t like the direction or area it’s coming from.  Try changing up your calls, your calling, or your location to see if you can’t elicit a better response.

Another great time to bite your mouth call, is when feeding birds are marching across an expanse with cool and calculated determination.  So often they’re heading to a hole in a fence or following a topographical feature like a natural drainage path.  This is valuable information too, and if you can sneak around and out of sight to the area they’re heading, you’ll be ahead of the game.  Even if you don’t get to their exact destination, the easiest turkey to call in is the one that already wants to be where you are.  You’ll be amazed at how much more receptive they can be when you’re nearby or just past their area of interest.

Of course, I don’t mean to take away the fun of calling, as it really is one of the joys of turkey hunting.  Learning to use it judiciously, and most importantly knowing when not to utter a sound, could be the best call you’ve got.     

 Photo Credit - Ben Brettingen

Photo Credit - Ben Brettingen

Thoughts On a Ten

Scour any sporting-goods retail space for a 10-gauge shotgun, and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with even a trace of an old ten.  Say you did find a used Browning or an old SP-10 goose-getter, good luck finding ammo.  Special order options exist, but for a very short list of manufacturers, both in the case of shotshells and the shotguns themselves, but is the 10-gauge turkey gun a thing of the past?  Is it just a piece of nostalgia from turkey hunts gone by?  I hope not.

My introduction to 10-gauge shotguns was in a primitive turkey video by today’s standards.  Back then, pioneers of the sport like Will Primos, Harold Knight and David Hale, and Ben Lee were some of the first to film their hunts and bring it to a greater audience.  Several of them sported some mean looking scatterguns, as there were no other options that put as many pellets or as much powder into a turkey load.  Then, the 10-gauge was the true equalizer, in an era where hardened, buffered lead shot were the major ballistic innovations of that day and age.  Back in time decades further, the 10-gauge enjoyed widespread popularity and a wide array of load options for all kinds of hunting. 

The first one I’d ever seen in person is still owned today by a good friend and turkey mentor who has harvested literally hundreds of birds with his, a 1970’s New Richland Arms double-barreled version.  That gun was hand-painted in grey tree-bark, mostly worn now from carrying, and perpetually stained by the blood and mud of its last hunt.  That gun has seen better days, and has even been known to fire both barrels on occasion, though in seeing its successes over the many years there’s no doubt that this firearm has stoked my fascination for 10 gauges in general. 

Over the years, I’ve owned several dedicated turkey shotguns, nearly all of them 12-gauges.  I remember the introduction of the 12-gauge 3.5” round, and the 835 Ulti-mag that left a bruising (and lasting) impression.  From there I went to a semi-auto gas-operated gun, also in 12-gauge that handles 3.5” loads, and it has been the best patterning gun I’ve ever tested.  It’s lighter than any 10, carries shorter, punches less, and hits birds just as hard.  From a spec-sheet perspective, it wins in all categories.

Over time, hevi-type loads that were denser than lead brought forth a revolution in turkey patterning.  Smaller, denser shot that carried just as lethal a payload downrange was able to do it with many more pellets.  These were pellets that did not deform with all of the pressures and heat of a gun discharge, such that they didn’t “frisbee” to the sides and negatively affect pattern density.  More pellets that pattern better, with no penalty in terms of energy, simply means more lethality in the kill-zone.  As Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) rolls onto the scene this year, promising to deliver the same advances that hevi-loads did in their time, people are increasingly turning to 20’s and even .410 shotguns. 

Not this guy.  Not full-time anyway, though I really am a huge fan of the smaller bores, hevi-loads, and what TSS will bring in terms of efficiency for a whole new era of turkey nuts.  Call me old-timey or just plain out-of-touch, but I’ve put every rig imaginable up against an old break-action 10 gauge, and seen them at-best simply match the performance.  TSS is a new beast altogether, and I’ve seen the handloads, viewed the patterns.  We’re talking a whole new league of shot.  There’s no doubt TSS will be incredible, but so is the performance of the “has-been” 10.  I’ve seen too many birds, year after year, fall to all kinds of 10-gauge guns from the several friends that carry them.    

I now own one myself, a similar Richland Arms double, which I can’t seem to pattern worth a darn.  Pellet counts are a fraction of what my other guns can achieve, and at first it shot a few feet, yes feet, low at 40 yards.  I fixed that with an aftermarket sight, but I can’t find the ammo I’d like to shoot in a 10-gauge round, and there’s no modern choke tube system to tighten patterns of the less-than-preferable stuff that I can find.  Instead I get one full-choke barrel, the other modified.  It took some serious tweaking to have the confidence needed just to carry it in the woods. 

When I did hike it around last spring, I’ll admit, it was mostly for novelty’s sake.  Until the hunt unfolded.  I was tight on a roost group that sported a few toms and more hens than I’d like.  The toms flew down early within 100 yards and really gobbled hard as the hens awoke all around them.  When the hens did fly down, I had a hard time convincing them that I was good for the group, and they cut across the face of my position, further than I’d prefer to shoot a gun that didn’t throw the fiercest pattern.  When the last of 3 toms made his way at 47 yards, I repositioned that wagon-tongue of a gun, and squeezed the first of its two triggers.  It was still relatively un-lit under the dense maple canopy, so that gun threw sparks and tried jumping out of my hands on account of how I was braced shoulder-to-the-tree.  That tom didn’t flop for the first few minutes, and the load had really done its job.

I walked up to the old bird, a true limb-hanger that sported some serious spurs, and as I took a knee beside him, I was satisfied.  I thought about all the toms that gun’s brethren had taken over the last 50 years and beyond, with staying power and consistency we’ve not seen in many technologies we hunt with today.  It’s not an indictment against new arms and ammo, or even a preference for the 10 overall, but it’s somewhat comforting to know how well an old dog can still work.

Demand, or lack thereof, may continue to push it towards obsolescence, and I’ll probably carry it only rarely, as I understand the benefits of faster, smaller, and lighter.  Still, rather than push it aside for the latest and greatest, I’ll continue to celebrate it alongside our more modern advancements. 

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