By Josh Lantz with Eddie Salter
United States -(Ammoland.com)- Evergreen, Alabama’s Eddie “The Turkey Man” Salter is one of the world’s most experienced turkey hunters.
Over nearly 50 years of observation, Salter has refined his skill set through trial and error to learn what works in the turkey woods and why.
Most of the time.
“Old Tom Turkey plays by his own rules,” says the Plano-Synergy pro, who may hunt a dozen different states each spring. “Just because I can puff out my chest after fooling one doesn’t mean the next one’s going to come the same way,” he continues.
Yes, the Turkey Man is quick to admit that no single strategy works 100% of the time. It’s what keeps him coming back to the field spring after spring, searching for the next unique experience or observation that will make him an even better hunter the next time out.
Humility is an important trait in any hunter, and Salter maintains his through ample lessons from the birds he loves, as well as a sincere appreciation for the opportunity he’s been given to hunt turkeys for a living and to share his knowledge with others.
I had the opportunity to shadow Salter and his cameraman, Mike Miller, on a challenging hunt in the hills of central Kentucky during filming for Salter’s popular Turkey Man television series last spring. Two things quickly became apparent over the course of our two-day hunt. First, Salter never gives up. If there’s a tom in the neighborhood, he’ll work that bird ten different ways until he either puts it down or pushes it into the next county. Second, Salter – a two-time world champion – is the finest turkey caller I’ve heard. His ability to effectively vocalize all manner of turkey sounds – with or without an actual call – is truly remarkable. Miller is an incredible caller as well, and the team worked in tandem to light up every bird within earshot.
“Calling is an important skill a turkey hunter needs to have,” says Salter, “but it’s more important to know when to make those sounds. Anyone can learn to call, but if you want to kill turkeys with regularity, you’ve got to listen to those hens and jakes and toms in the field and watch how they interact together,” he adds. “There’s no substitute for experience.”
While every turkey-hunting situation is different, the Turkey Man has strong views on how hunters can, and should, adjust their strategies throughout the spring season.
Most turkey hunters believe the opening days of the spring turkey-hunting season offer the best chances at taking a bird. This is probably true in most cases. Turkeys that haven’t been hunted in months can up the odds for success, but an abundance of weather-related variables can easily turn what should be prime turkey killing days into disappointing outings that often leave less-experienced hunters scratching their heads.
If opening day arrives on the heels of typical spring weather, hunters can expect toms to be fired up for breeding yet frustrated by hens that aren’t quite ready. These are great conditions for the turkey hunter, as toms will be close to the hens and establishing dominance. These are birds that can be expected to respond favorably to effective calling – especially the less-dominant toms.
“You’re mostly hunting satellite toms in the early season,” says Salter, who often hunts from a portable ground blind during this period. “You’ve got a lot less cover at the start of the season, and a blind is a key tool,” he continues. Turkeys are often less vocal now, too. “Silent birds can be on top of you before you know it during the early season,” he says. “A good blind set up is going to conceal your movement when repositioning your gun towards the old tom that seemed to pop out of the ground right next to you like a mushroom,” he concludes.
Of course, a ground blind also provides welcomed comfort and protection from early spring’s unpredictable weather.
Most seasoned hunters agree that weather is the single largest variable in early season turkey hunting.
“So many times in a cold early season, the birds don’t crank up when you want,” says Salter, who recently experienced this very challenge during the opening days of Alabama’s 2015 spring turkey season. “Go to areas with a lot of sign that you know birds are using and try to deer hunt them a bit,” he says. “Use a couple decoys and try a little calling, but don’t be surprised or concerned if they don’t gobble,” he advises. “Have patience and move on to a different location after an hour or so. Pack a lunch and hunt all day if your state allows it. You’ll probably stumble up on one,” concludes Salter.
When it comes to early season decoy strategies, Salter prefers a single Avian-X Breeder or Feeder Hen and a single Flextone Thunder Chicken Jake. “I don’t like big, fluffed up decoys or a lot of them,” says Salter, who appreciates the relaxed posture of the Avian-X hen’s head, and the feather-like fan that moves in the wind on the Thunder Chicken Jake.
“Those small details help put birds at ease and can make a big difference whenever you hunt,” he says.
Deciding how much or how little to call can only be learned through experience, and is a critical consideration during the early season.
“When toms are sorting out their pecking order during the pre-breeding period, you can have great success with aggressive calling,” says Salter. But it’s important not to overdo it right out of the gate. “Guys have a tendency to keep hammering away, especially when turkeys aren’t gobbling, but that isn’t always what the birds want to hear,” adds Salter.
Instead, Salter suggests starting with three or four little notes and building up gradually.
“Wait a minute after those soft initial purrs or yelps, then apply a little more pressure,” he says. Salter will repeat this process a couple more times, getting louder and extending his sequence each time. “By the fourth time, I’m screaming 10 to 12 notes at them… feeding calls and throwing some cuts in, too,” says Salter, who often rustles leaves with his hand or a branch between calling sequences to simulate scratching and add realism. “Mix it up, and wait different periods of time between calling. Hens have a lot of personality, so put feeling into your own calling,” he suggests.
Salter’s point about each hen being – and sounding – different, was proven on our Kentucky hunt last spring.
We were set up on a ridge of oaks attempting to call in a stubborn tom from the next ridge over. Salter and Miller were each working slate and mouth calls simultaneously, playing off of each other and the live birds in the area with the precision and artistry of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts jamming the bridge to Jessica in 1972. During a brief pause, the world’s worst turkey caller started yelping down slope from us and out of view.
Out of cadence and more grunt than yelp, the calls sounded like someone working very hard to sound like a hen turkey, but failing miserably. The three of us, moderately amused, looked at each other with stunned faces. Thirty seconds later, a live hen turkey – completely normal by all other accounts – cleared the ridge and proceeded to continue with her unconventional and entertaining yelping. She busted us and ran away when someone began laughing.
Conditions change in the late season, and hunters should adapt their set-ups and calling strategies accordingly.
Breeding is winding down at this time, and many dominant hens will be nesting. But while these older gals are laying and sitting, a number of younger hens will still be out and about broadcasting their availability to suitors. Those are the birds hunters need to observe and mimic. The toms are listening. Are you?
Salter says it’s usually a good idea to tone down your calling during the late season, but recognizes that hunters should continue to let the birds tell them what they want.
“If they aren’t doing a lot of calling, I’ll stick with those softer purrs, clicks and yelps,” says Salter, who carries and uses a pack full of calls during this period. “I like to try a bunch of different calls later in the season… just for variety… to try and find that one he’ll key in on,” he adds. “If I can get a tom to answer, then I’ll stick with that one call he likes, but won’t be too aggressive.”
Gobbler calls can also become effective hunting tools during the late season. Such a call can be used for shock gobbling birds on the roost, but also excels when used in conjunction with a mating yelp. It’s a deadly combination that can bring a jealous old tom running in to look for a fight. But gobbler calls can serve another purpose in the late season as well.
“Gobblers will switch gears at some point late in the season and look to buddy up again,” says Salter. “A call like Flextone’s Thunder Gobble is underutilized, especially late in the game when toms become more interested in each other’s company again,” he says.
The physical hunting environment also changes throughout the season. An increasing amount of foliage on the ground and on the trees makes visibility – for both turkeys and hunters – more challenging as the season progresses. But the heavier vegetation can also be an asset.
“We often need to cover more ground in the late season, and the increased cover makes mobility and concealment easier,” says Salter, who recommends leaving the ground blinds at home at this time of year.
“I’ll work paths, trails and clearings where I can see more, but tuck into available cover using my turkey pack,” says Salter, referring to his Tenzing TP 14 Turkey Pack, which has a fold-down padded seat and unique spring-loaded legs to create a comfy backrest. “I can set-up anywhere with that pack in seconds and don’t need a tree or a log to lean against… It’s been a real game-changer, for me and a lot of other turkey hunters,” he continues.
The late season provides another key advantage for the turkey hunter, the importance of which cannot be overlooked. There’s simply less competition from real hens.
“If you find a tom that isn’t henned-up, he’ll likely be sucker for the proper calling and set-up,” says Salter, who tends to stick with his hen and jake decoy set-up throughout the late season. “Toms seem to make more mistakes during the late season,” he says, “and seeing that single jake with a hen is just something he’s not going to be able to brush off. He’s coming in; so let him make the mistake, not you. Watch what he likes, then keep doing it and you’ll get your bird.”
The most successful turkey hunters avoid mistakes by watching, listening and adapting their strategies accordingly – throughout the course of a single hunt and over the changing conditions and circumstances of an entire season. Still, everyone makes mistakes. The key is racking up enough experience to realize errors right away and make immediate adjustments.
Spend enough time in the woods and the birds will show you what they want.