All South Carolina sportsmen and women look forward to spring each year. Whether it is trolling around the fringes of the Gulf Stream for dolphin, working a trout trick along an oyster shell rake in the Wando River for a gator trout, or getting up at 4 a.m. to chase a particularly elusive gobbler, spring in the Lowcountry truly has it all to offer. While many outdoors enthusiasts will have a hard time choosing what to do with their free time this time of year, for me, the answer is always easy: Time to talk some turkey.
With U.S. Forest service lands and plenty of Wildlife Management Areas, South Carolina still boasts quite a bit of public opportunity to hunt wild turkey as well as on private lands. While there is ample hunting opportunity around, you do need to take into account that almost 52,000 hunters were estimated by the DNR to have hunted turkeys last spring, meaning hunting pressure can be high and leads to some extremely skittish gobblers.
The 2017 spring turkey season here in the Lowcountry should shape out to be a B+ if we were going to give it a preseason letter grade. Two years of fair to good hatches in the lower part of the state should mean a good number of 2-year-old gobblers going in to 2017, with 2-year-old gobblers typically accounting for a large portion of the annual harvest. The Midlands and Upstate would likely receive a B- preseason grade, as in general these areas of the state have not fared quite as well as some areas of the lower part of the state as far as the past couple of hatches are concerned.
However, never be discouraged too much by a preseason report, as every small geographic area can hold a different survival and recruitment rate of poults each year. Bottom line: Those willing to put in the effort will likely still taste success in 2017. Every hunt is different, but here are some tactics and turkey hunting tips that may just help you end up on the winning side of an early morning chess match with an old gobbler.
Less is more
When turkey hunters gather around one another, you can guarantee that there is plenty of trash talk back and forth about whom is the best caller and who sounds like a dying flamingo trying to call a gobbler. I tell people all the time that some of the worst sounding turkey calling I have ever heard has come from live turkeys, and it’s true. While we all strive to sound “purr-fect” with our turkey calling, the reality is that knowing when to call and the cadence of the call means far more than the actual pitch of the call.
Learning a simple “yelp” cadence and call can kill a turkey in almost every state, but overdoing it can also very quickly turn that old gobbler into a shy old guy that goes the other direction, especially if he has played the game before. Once a gobbler has answered you and is within a couple hundred yards, you can all but guarantee that he knows exactly where you were calling from. Continuing to blast your calls out from that same location will quickly begin to set off the warning flags with that gobbler as he knows that hen should be coming his direction at that point rather than standing in one spot constantly calling.
If a gobbler has answered your calling and has closed the distance between the two of you, it’s time to hush! That gobbler knows where he heard the calling, and even if the gobbler goes silent for a period of time, continue to sit in a ready position not calling or just scratching in the leaves with your hand. Often times 20-30 minutes may elapse before you all of a sudden see him at 30 yards in full strut, when he simply just had to see where that hen he heard went off to. Checkmate.
Talk to the ladies
Any turkey hunter that has spent some time in the spring woods has certainly run across those gobblers with hens all around them. Well, it is no secret that a gobbler would rather hang out with 10 to 12 girlfriends in front of him rather than break off after a lone hen calling from a place he cannot see.
Most hunters will say these gobblers are “henned-up” bad at the time and not worth your time trying to hunt them right then, and often they are right. However, adjusting your calling tactics can lead to success. Rather than sending out yelps to that strutting gobbler among all those hens, try directing your calls at the hens themselves, especially the more dominant hens.
Often known as a call used during fall hunting seasons for turkey, the “Kee-Kee” mimics a younger bird in search of older hens and has also proven deadly for spring birds, as well. Try utilizing the “Kee-Kee” or some aggressive “cuts” in an effort to call that lead hen your way. If the lead hen calls back to you, mimic her every call as best you can. This often will get her curious or mad enough to come and investigate your calling. Wherever that lead hen goes, the entire flock goes, including that big gobbler. This is especially applicable during the early season before hens begin nesting.
Stick and stay, make it play
Inevitably, there are going to be those days when the birds simply just are not talking much, and maybe not even talking at all. Welcome to turkey hunting in South Carolina. However, just because you are not hearing the birds, does not mean that they are not there, and it certainly does not mean that you cannot have a successful hunt.
If you are in an area where you have frequently seen birds or where there is plenty of tracks and scratching in the leaves, you can bet there are turkeys coming through at some point during the day. How do you know what time they are frequenting an area? You hunt. It is commonplace for me to set up in a known travel area for two, three and sometimes four hours in an effort to tag a big gobbler.
While I do typically call in this scenario, I call very sparingly and very softly. I also take full advantage of leaf litter on the ground, mimicking the sound of a feeding turkey by raking the leaves with my hand. It only makes sense that if the birds are not being talkative, neither should you. Some subtle purrs and a few yelps every 15 to 30 mins is more than plenty for this type of set-up. If you are hunting an area that is not too heavily pressured and the birds are not wise to them, the use of turkey decoys can really pay off in this scenario. While it is said that 75 percent of turkeys are harvested during the morning hours, afternoon hunts can also be very productive for those willing to be patient and wait out the afternoon movement patterns of a wise old tom.
Slip out the back door
There he is, by himself, in full strut 80 yards out. Fast forward to over one hour later and there he is, by himself, and still 80 yards out in front of you and well outside of any lethal killing range. Despite your every cluck, yelp, purr, and prayer, he still just flat out will not budge another inch toward you. Likely he has played this game before, and likely he knows that the hen is supposed to come to the gobbler in nature.
Whatever the reason, he is surely not going take a ride home in the bed of your truck without doing something different than what you are currently doing. This is a time where I will go completely silent for a bit and then slowly belly-crawl the opposite direction of the bird. Once covering about 100 yards away from the gobbler, I will then softly call to the gobbler again and follow it up with a gobble call myself.
The idea here is that you are giving that gobbler the impression his date is leaving him for another tom while he struts in the same place. There are times I have had birds literally break strut and run to me after doing so; other times I have gone home empty-handed. Regardless, at this point your butt is surely hurting from sitting for so long and your leg is asleep, so the idea of getting to move will begin to sound like a dream option, no matter the final outcome.
Author: Scott Hammond , Manager of Haddrell’s Point Tackle West Ashley, 843-573-3474