Turkeys have incredible eyesight, which makes it imperative for hunters to be heard but not seen.
The story begins way back in my early turkey hunting years. I was turkey hunting before turkey hunting, like country music, was cool. Come to think of it, is listening to country music, if real country music exists anymore, now uncool?
Seriously, when I first started hunting turkeys back in the early 1970s, the public, even other hunters, looked upon you as kind of weird. We were regarded sort of like fly fishermen up until a decade or so ago when that sport became highly popular.
We were considered eccentric pipe smokers, basically loners, and members of a quasi-cult that shared some strange spiritual relationship with the huge bird that was sometimes talked about but very seldom heard and seen even less.
There were lots of South Louisiana deer, waterfowl, squirrel and rabbit hunters, but there weren’t a whole lot of turkey hunters.
And to others we were a peculiar bunch. We hunted in the springtime, so there weren’t any crowds in the woods. In fact, you very seldom saw anyone else in the woods except maybe another weirdo turkey hunter.
I can’t tell you how many critics asked, “Aren’t wild turkeys extinct?” or “I heard it’s impossible to kill a wild turkey.”
Just to hear a gobble or find a turkey footprint was an accomplishment. To see a bird was phenomenal, and to go out in the woods and come back with a turkey over your shoulder, now that was the mark of great hunter. (I think it still is).
The story of a turkey kill would spread across towns and parishes like wildfire, and your name would be forever revered as a “real” woodsman.
But because turkeys were so scarce and many more days were spent hunting than shooting, we still were thought of as psychiatric fodder.
It’s hard for younger hunters to imagine, but turkey hunting wasn’t always the sport and industry it is today. There was no National Wild Turkey Federation until 1973 (much later before chapters formed in Louisiana), and it took many years to achieve the significant presence in the hunting and conservation arena the NWTF enjoys today.
There were only a handful of outdoor television programs, none glorifying turkey hunting. No one risked the time it would take to tape the fragile and rare act of calling a bird into gun range.
Modern technology and the proliferation of birds have certainly changed that. Nationally, we’ve gone from 100,000 birds to over 5 million. In Louisiana we’re hunting turkeys in places, including public WMAs, that never had huntable populations before. Even though we’re currently seeing a downward trend in state turkey populations that has shortened both hunting seasons and bag limits, hunters still have a much better shot at a turkey than they did 30 years ago.
Turkey hunting then was not the same experience it is today. First off, there was no such thing as a “specialized” turkey gun. We simply used the biggest gauge, tightest-choked, single shot, double barrel, bolt action (yes, there were bolt action shotguns) or pump gun you had. Automatics were around, but those who could afford them ordinarily weren’t goofy enough to be turkey hunters.
Those ultra-mag, super-tight, mega-load, maxi-motha turkey chokes that can clip a gobbler’s head at 50 yards were still years away. Your “turkey gun” was the one that performed best at the local turkey shoot. Try finding one of those shoots today.
Maybe the biggest difference in turkey hunting today lies in two improvements — more turkeys to hunt and better calls.
Often the first step to joining the bizarre brotherhood of turkey hunters was to construct your own personal mouth turkey call. To do this, you had to secure the basic materials — a small metal snuff can, a rubber band and a condom. Yep, a condom. Is there any doubt why we were thought of as 10 cards short of a deck?
Snuff cans were hard to find, but when camera film was packaged in little metal canisters, those were much easier to secure. Stretching the latex condom tightly over the open end of the can and securing it with the rubber band was how the call was built. Next, you cut a small slit in it as well as the can lid that fit over the top.
Pretty fair yelps, clucks and purrs came from those predecessors of modern diaphragm mouth calls. There were no instructional tapes or calling seminars, and most of us learned to mimic the various calls and when to use them from our mentors around a campfire.
The only camouflage available (most hunters just wore a green or brown flannel shirt and blue jeans) was that old standard brown, green and tan splotchy pattern that you only see today on closeout clothing and in old photographs. Camo is so good today if you stand perfectly still, squirrels and birds practically try to nest on you.
And that’s a good thing. Even though guns, calls and camo are hi-tech today, the turkey’s highly developed senses of sight and hearing are as sharp as ever, and the ability for a hunter to be “heard and not seen,” is as important as it ever was to bag a gobbler.
No one knows that better than Primos Hunting Team Pro Staffer Troy Ruiz. Not only does Ruiz hunt turkeys, he has to capture it all on videotape for “Truth About Hunting,” a nationally syndicated TV show, which makes it doubly more difficult.
“Camo is more important to turkey hunters than any others, and lots of hunters fail to realize how important it is to match your surroundings,” Ruiz said. “What works for deer hunters up in a tree isn’t natural for turkey hunting, which is done on the ground.
“I’m a big fan of Mossy Oak’s Break-Up pattern when I’m hunting hardwood bottoms or in river-delta woods. I also use it in piney woods because a lot of times the bottom of those trees will be dark from previous burnings.
“If I’m on field edges, which is a totally different background, I wear the Brush pattern, which blends in with dead grass or broom sedge. Later in the season when things green up or if I’m hunting in thick palmettos, I’ll switch to Obsession, a pattern that has some green shades mixed in.
“Gloves and face masks are a must. I prefer the Ninja-style half face mask that I can pull up and down quickly if I need to instead of a full head net.”
While the right camo for the right terrain is a big plus, movement from fidgety hunters has saved the lives of more turkeys than anything else. Turkeys don’t wear watches, and if they live long enough, they learn not to gobble and often while quietly slipping in undetected and using their zoom vision to locate a hen, will bust a hunter moving anything except eyeballs.
That’s when knowing the tricks of hiding pay off. While portable blinds are a godsend for hunters who have a problem staying still for hours and crucial for bow hunters who have to move to draw, they can be cumbersome and limit peripheral vision.
“I’m not big on blinds because of the time constraints in set up and take down, but there are times like in open fields and hiding a cameraman when they’re necessary,” Ruiz said. “But in sparse cover I’ll cut a couple pieces of cane or leafy branches to break up my form; palmettos make especially good cover.
“The mistake a lot of hunters make with natural cover is overdoing it and putting it too close in front of them. You should put it 6-10 yards ahead of you. It’ll break up your shape but not get in the way of pointing your barrel.”
Sometimes a gobbler will fly down and head straight to your call and/or decoy. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but sadly, it doesn’t happen frequently enough.
More often than not, turkeys go the other way with hens in tow. Then it becomes necessary to move and set up at another location — another excellent opportunity for the turkey to bust a hunter.
“In hilly country, don’t be afraid to move,” says Ruiz. “If the bird’s down in a bottom across a ridge, use the protection of the ridge to hide.”
Ruiz says occasionally hiding from turkeys means getting a little creative.
“If there’s no trees to sit against for cover like on an open logging road, take off your vest, put it on the ground, lie flat on your belly and extend your gun in front. There’s no rule that says you can’t call and shoot a turkey standing up. While a low profile is preferred, if the set up calls for it you can stand behind a tree instead sitting against its base,” he said.
Just knowing the bird’s location can help you stay hidden while relocating.
“I try to make the bird gobble using a locator call like a crow or a hawk as I’m moving,” he said. “That way I know where he is as I move in to set up, but won’t draw him in close enough where he’ll spot me.”
After all, when it comes to turkey hunting, being heard is O.K., but being seen means better luck next time.