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Old Habits in the Turkey Woods: The Good and Bad

Donald Devereaux Jarrett, Mossy Oak Prostaff

My son, Devereaux, and I made our way along the old, worn trail through the morning darkness towards our listening spot. I knew where two birds likely were and I also knew we would be nowhere near them to start the morning. I had hoped there might be other birds closer to where we would listen from, but if not, I felt like we were still in good shape and that we were right where we needed to be.

I figured the two birds that I knew of were roosted high on a hardwood hill above a swampy creek bottom. I had thought about walking to the hilltop that morning and setting up closer to them, but I didn't care for the set-up potential there. I knew if the birds pitched down low on the edge of the swamp, they would get past us, and I didn't want to chase them. It was a 50/50 shot up there on the hill, but if we sat up in the worn road in the field where I had seen them the day before, I felt like our chances were better.

The day before my girlfriend, fellow Mossy Oak Prostaffer Donna Price, and I had worked the two birds in the mid-morning after we had heard them gobble from the hilltop. We caught up with them down near the old field and at one point had them close, but they eventually folded off in the opposite direction, following two hens. We then got up and followed the old, undulated field road and, at one point, we were able to see them 100 yards away, so I called to them from the cover of some overhanging limbs along the field edge. The two gobblers turned and faced us and strutted briefly before turning around and continuing along their way with the hens they still had in sight. As the birds disappeared around a corner of a fence line, I told Donna that our chances were slim. We tried though and after setting up near the corner for an hour and a half without a response, we hunted our way back along the two-mile hike to the truck. "We can kill those birds in the morning", I said as we got to the truck. 

So why did I believe we could kill those birds the next day? Because my gut told me what those birds did to us that morning is something they had done more than once. That route, I believed, was familiar to them and I imagined they used it routinely judging by the amount of gobbler tracks in the muddy creek crossing in the field road.


Photography by Levi Glines

Turkeys and their Habits

Turkeys can be quite habitual and, at times, even predictable. It is worth the risk to play a hunch based on a turkey habit that you might discover. It is quite a rewarding victory when it plays out just like you thought it would.

So, What's a Habit? Webster's Dictionary defines the word Habit as: "A usual way of behaving". That sounds simple enough, but when you throw a wild turkey into the mix, it can get pretty complicated. Turkeys do what they want to do, when they want to do it. Any turkey hunter that knows me has likely heard me say that the words, "Always and Never" don't apply to turkeys or turkey hunting. So, how do we recognize a "turkey habit? I have long believed if I see a turkey do something twice, I've got a chance. If I see him do it three times, he's in a lot of trouble. But I don't always wait for him to do the same thing two or three times before I check to see if what he's doing is a habit. And I don't always have to see them do it. If it's not a habit, the odds are still in favor of the turkey. If it is a habit, it just might cost him.

When I look for what I believe might be a turkey habit, I look for travel routes, strut zones or feeding areas that he might frequent on a regular basis. Think about it. How many times have you heard someone say something like, "That old gobbler has a habit of roosting in that big pine on the edge of the swamp" or "There's a gobbler that shows up in the corner of my pasture every afternoon around 3:30" or similar things? Those are things that all fall into the "Turkey Habit" category.  Getting into the habit of doing something isn't something a turkey does because he has no other option, it's something he does because he prefers to do it that way. There are also things that you should pay attention to. They are all worth investigating too and they can pay huge dividends. If you have access to any place where you think a turkey has a habitat of doing something, go after him. That habit he has might just put him in the back of your truck.

Turkey Hunters and their Habits

turkey hunter

Hunter Habits: Habits in the turkey woods can be formed by hunters and hunted alike. Turkeys can learn a lot from the turkey hunters they encounter too. I don't mean they learn things in the sense that we do, but they survive on instincts and those instincts get sharpened over time, often by the habits of turkey hunters. If a turkey gets bumped by a moving blob of camo in the middle of a logging road every time he walks down it, pretty soon, he will probably avoid that logging road. If he hears the same call from the same spot for days on end and a hen never shows up, he might just get a little more cautious. He becomes conditioned.

 I used to know an old bird that I approached the same way every single time I hunted him. The first call in the morning was always from the same spot and so it was in the evening when I entered his neck of the woods. I never killed him, but I learned more about turkey hunting from that old bird than I ever have from any other bird since. I believe if I had broken some old habits of my own, I would have had a better chance of taking that particular gobbler. Man, I sure helped that bird live a lot longer!!

It's important to mix it up in the turkey woods. Changes in your approach to roosted birds, choosing different set ups, changing calling styles, among others are good ways to avoid falling into bad habits.

All habits aren't bad. Turkeys have habits that allow them to die from something besides hunters and hunters have habits that enable them to kill more turkeys. If you can keep the good ones separated from the bad ones, you'll stay on the better side of the odds. I believe the best way to avoid bad habits in the turkey woods is to get in the habit of doing things the best way you can. Trust your instinct like a turkey trusts his. If your gut tells you not to do something, you should probably listen to it.

How to Recognize a "Force of Habit"

Force of Habit: Some turkey habits aren't necessarily something turkeys develop because they prefer it over another option. For example, a turkey might roost in an area he likes, but he might only have one place to fly up and down. In a case like that, a bird might meet his demise, because his habit of roosting in such an area got him into trouble because you homed in on the area he flew up and down in when he roosted there. The habit, in this case, was the tree he roosted in, not the spot you killed him in.

A turkey might enter and leave field in one area. He might have other options, but he is in the habit of using a particular entrance and exit. But, if he only has one place available to enter and exit that field, it doesn't really make it a habit. He just wants to get in the field.

Habits are generally routines or patterns that a turkey follows. When you can get to the root of the habit, you can kill him. Which brings me back to my hunt with Devereaux.

Back to the Hunt in Question

Donald and his son

Donald Jarrett, the author, and his son Devereaux.

As darkness retreated, we waited for a close gobbler to pop off. After a ten-minute wait and no gobble, I threw a full eight-note rendition of a barred owl down the length of the bottom field. I got nothing for my trouble, but assured Devereaux that it was still early. I still fully expected to hear a bird anywhere on the ridgeline across the creek along the bottom of the long narrow field and I was still confident that we would hear a bird way up on the hill deeper into the woods. Another ten minutes passed when I owled again. "I heard him", Devereaux whispered excitedly. "Where was he?", I asked. He pointed in the direction of the hill, exactly where I believed the two gobblers Donna and I had seen the day before would be. 

They were a good five hundred-plus yards away, but I wasn't worried about the distance. I motioned for Devereaux to come with me, and we moved down the old roadbed in the field. I had a spot in mind to set up another hundred yards or so ahead.

The field was grown up with golden rod and weeds. There were scattered briar thickets throughout and a creek ran the full length of the two-mile bottom. On one side, woods of large, mature pines followed the field's edge and several intermittent hardwood draws dumped into it as well. On the other side of the field and the creek that traced its edge, was mostly hardwood. The worn old roadbed in the field where we were was the easiest travel route for a turkey that wanted to walk that section of it. The Field was at its most narrow point here.

Our setup would be in a thicket of Sumac over head high and it would hold shade until midday. It was also good cover since it was fully leafed out.

We dug in and I sent a loud series of yelps up the distant hillside in the direction of the gobble Devereaux had heard a few minutes earlier. Two birds gobbled and I knew these were the boys from yesterday. They became non-vocal soon after only a few gobbles. It wasn't unexpected, as I didn't think they would gobble all the way in. I did expect them to work our way though and I fully expected them to fire off again before they got to us. An hour or so later, I called again, and they did just that. This time they were closer, still a couple of hundred yards out but I believed they were following the edge of the swamp on a faint logging road I had walked the day before. I believed they were coming.  

Thirty more minutes passed when I saw the first turkey slip out of the woods and under the fence, some 150 yards distant. I knew it was a gobbler. He stood like a statue staring at length toward our set up. Soon other birds began easing out of the woods and into the field. There were 5 hens and two gobblers: my buddies from the day before. When the second gobbler entered the field, the "statue" resorted to a more "lifelike" turkey and focused his attention on the flock. I called softly on my old scratch box and watched as both gobblers scanned the field in our direction in search of the "hen" they couldn't see. The real hens scurried about, chasing some breakfast insects as the two gobblers began trying to impress them while constantly strutting about. 

Slowly, the hens began easing toward us with the gobblers holding their ground from a steeper section of the field, not far from where they had stepped into it. All we could do now was wait.

I cut my eyes toward Devereaux who was already down on the gun, waiting for the moment when he would push the safety to the hot side of the gun. I thought about how fortunate I was to share this time with him, in the grandest time to be in the woods, with my son, who I had hoped would find his way back here again. It was the first time I ever put the turkey behind anything else on the level of importance, during a hunt. Those two gobblers became secondary for a few minutes.

Soon the hens approached the small creek that drained from the swamp and crossed the field. Then they dropped into the two-foot ditch that contained it. When they disappeared into the ditch, the gobblers appeared to get antsy and finally strutted down the hill toward them. Then they did what turkeys do less often than we like. They read the script. They weaved wide of the hens and stayed in the roadbed where it crossed the creek. We watched as they strutted through the muddy crossing, leaving more tracks behind to fade with the tracks they had left before. They soon had the five hens in their rear view and were closing in on our set up. The ten minutes it took from this point to get in range seemed longer than it was, but when they reached it, I whispered to Devereaux, "Whenever you're ready, pick one out. They're twins". He didn't waste any time dropping one. I finally relaxed and leaned back a little further. The second bird was now posturing up aggressively around the one Devereaux had dropped. I knew the temptation was starting to get the best of him when he said, "I can get that other one too!!"  "No, you can't" I said. One was plenty and we were sharing the property with other people, so shooting another one wasn't something we needed to do. "Let him go have all those hens to himself", I said.

When the birds headed back into the woods and had disappeared, he got up and walked to his bird. It was a special moment that will always be a favorite turkey hunting memory for me. The outcome was just a bonus. That bird died because of a very bad habit he had of walking that old trail in the bottom field one time too many.

A turkey gobbler, one that has a bad habit, is my favorite kind of turkey, and I sure do love to help him break it. 

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