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Tackling Troublesome Toms

Adaptability is key to turkey-hunting success when conditions are less than ideal.

Tackling Troublesome Toms

(John Pennoyer photo)

When I think about turkeys and all I’ve learned over the last 23 years hunting them, one word comes to my mind: troubleshooting! In order to be good at bowhunting turkeys, one must be able to dissect, figure out and fix the many reasons why a turkey hunt isn’t going your way! During the spring of 2023, I punched three turkey tags in three states — all with my bow. Each state presented a different problem I had to learn and fix. Let’s break these hunts down and see how I overcame each obstacle.

Kansas: Predator Pressure

Kansas is one of my favorite states to turkey hunt with a bow and has been for quite some time. My good buddy Ryan Bertsch and I start off our spring every year by bowhunting Kansas and have had great success over the last 10 years. But, like everything in the world, change is constant and the amount of predator pressure in the Sunflower State has surely changed the game.

On day one of our hunt, we decided to focus on five properties we knew quite well. We found turkey sign and saw a few birds, but we quickly realized we were seeing predators and predator sign way more than turkeys and turkey sign. Coyote and bobcat tracks littered the properties, and when we split up to listen for gobbles that evening, we both heard and saw more coyotes than gobbling toms. We knew that with the added pressure from predators, this would drastically change how these turkeys would react.

Day two started off with a few birds gobbling off the roost before daybreak. We headed towards a known strutting zone on an oak flat about 200 yards off a cut cornfield. In years past, this was a proven place to catch a tom right off the rip, after the flock started to fly down.

About 20 minutes later we heard turkeys tree yelping and knew they would be flying down any minute, or so we thought. Instead, it was almost 45 minutes after sunrise before they started pitching down. And, unfortunately, they did not read our script of where to pitch.

Casper using onX Hunt app
After determining high predator numbers had made the birds at his Kansas hunting spots extremely wary, author Clint Casper used onX Hunt to identify potential roosting trees.

Ryan and I looked at each other in amazement as we watched the whole flock, one by one, pitch down a few hundred yards and into the field. Immediately, we both knew exactly why this had happened. Predator pressure!

This flock was roosting in the big oak trees inside the woods, but the birds were close enough to the cut cornfield to see if it was safe. Once it was light enough to scan out to the field and check it, they would eventually pitch down. This is why they waited longer than usual to fly down — they needed the extra light to scan the field a few hundred yards away and check for danger.

After observing this flock for the next four hours, it was clear as day what these birds wanted to do. Our theory was that due to all predators, this flock didn’t want to spend much time in the timber. Watching them from a distance taught us they did not act like a normal flock would. There was only one gobble during those four hours, even though we watched toms and jakes chase hens around all morning. We figured that they weren’t gobbling because it would draw attention from predators. Instead, they were silently participating in their turkey rut.

We also noticed that once they entered the field after fly-down, they headed towards the middle, which provided them the most safety. We knew our only chance to kill one of the toms would be to hunt that field and the surrounding edges right at dawn, before they headed towards the center.

That evening, I decided to go back to the oak flat to watch and listen for this flock in hopes of them giving away their position so I knew where to start in the morning. Thankfully, right before dark I heard two different birds gobble right off the opposite corner of the cornfield. I quickly checked my onX map to confirm there were some good roosting trees right off the inside corner and, in my mind, I now had a great starting point for the morning.

The next morning, under the cover of darkness, I sneaked down into the creek bottom and walked it towards the opposite field corner, where I had heard the roosted gobblers the previous night. As daylight broke, I could see a few turkey outlines in the trees behind me and they were close. Because I moved in during complete darkness, I was able to get in super tight to these birds undetected. As it began to get light, I realized one of the toms was roosted right above me. He only gobbled one time, but it was so close I could feel the thundering vibrations coming from his gobble.

Casper, Kansas hero turkey photo
Casper took a terrific tom (right) shortly after fly-down, without calling or decoys.

About 30 minutes later, I watched the tom pitch down right into my lap. One well-placed arrow, at about 12 yards, sealed the deal and I’d punched my first turkey tag of the season.

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By paying close attention to the predator presence and how it was affecting the local turkey flocks, I was able to think outside the box and use some non-traditional tactics to kill this bird. No calling and no decoys!

Nebraska: Few Birds and Unexpected Obstacles

With Nebraska offering non-residents over-the-counter tags, it’s probably no surprise that when I hunt Kansas each spring, I always head a few hours north to hunt the Cornhusker State as well. Nebraska has quickly become a favorite state to bowhunt turkeys, as there are usually solid turkey populations and a lot of public-land opportunities for a bowhunter. This past year, Ryan and I decided that after we hunted Kansas, we would spend a few days trying our luck in Nebraska.

The area of Nebraska that we hunt is made up of big farm country and smaller pieces of timber. Creek bottoms and oak ridges are usually loaded with turkeys during the mornings and evenings, as the birds spend most of their days in the agricultural fields.

We decided to start our hunt off by slipping into a creek bottom loaded with oaks and cedars. Unfortunately, we did not hear a single turkey that morning, so we decided to do some midday scouting. While scouting, we quickly learned that there was drastically less turkey sign than in previous years, and this was quite alarming. We decided to go check three more public-land pieces that day and were again shocked at how little turkey sign we found.

Two of the three pieces had controlled burns going on, and the last piece had a ton of land-management work being done. None of that was good news for us, but at least it helped partly explain why we were not seeing or hearing many birds.

We now had to redirect our tactics and try something new. Our plan was to cover more country with our eyes and the truck, in hopes of finding where all the local birds had gone. The problem was that there wasn’t a ton of other public land in this area. So, we had to be very particular in how we scouted/hunted. We didn’t want to add a bunch of pressure to an area already lightly populated with turkeys. For the next few days, we glassed and scouted every available piece of public ground, but we came up short on every one.

Ryan and I decided to head an hour northeast of where we had been hunting in hopes of finding a more plentiful turkey population. Using onX Hunt, we noticed a few small pieces of public property in a certain area that was surrounded by a bunch of big, private properties that were mostly agricultural fields with no timber. Our hope was that these small public properties would be overlooked and that we could glass the private fields from the roads and get a good game plan together on where these birds were roosting.

As luck would have it, we found a small flock of birds that first afternoon as they worked back towards one of the small pieces of public. Knowing they were headed in the direction of some roost trees on this piece of public property — a theory I confirmed by checking onX — I quickly got my gear ready and had Ryan drop me off.

My plan was to cut the flock off in hopes that the birds would enter this piece of public through a small saddle off the edge of the big agricultural fields. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what they did and I was waiting on them as a tom passed by at less than 20 yards. By changing up our scouting tactics, moving to a new area and using our ability to quickly make an aggressive play, I was able to tag a beautiful Nebraska bird.

Ohio: Henned-Up Toms

In spring 2023, I wanted to solely focus my local turkey bowhunting efforts on a farm my family owns, and for good reason. There were two beautiful toms that I had been getting on camera quite frequently, and my hopes were high that sooner or later I would catch up to one of them. My biggest problem on this farm was the high number of hens that lived there.

Casper, Ohio trail cam turkey photo
Trail-cam images provided Casper with the intel he needed to develop a game plan for tackling henned-up toms at his family farm in Ohio.

Day in and day out, I battled these hens off the roost. I decided to stop hunting the early mornings, when the toms were the most henned up, and focus my efforts on the afternoons and evenings. In Ohio, a hunter may hunt all day during the second half of the season instead of having to stop at noon. I had deployed some scouting cameras in hopes of catching these two birds on the move to help my understanding of how to kill them.

My cameras painted a very vivid picture that showed the birds henned up for most of the day. However, toward afternoon and evening they were always feeding alone for a few hours before they got back together with the hens.

I decided to start hunting these birds from 11 a.m. on, with the hope that I could catch a break in their rutting action and fire one up with my calling while they were alone. Unfortunately, after a few days of bowhunting I quickly realized this tactic was not working well. I needed to figure out how to hunt these toms off the roost, because that was the only consistent pattern they were giving me.

My new plan was to be super aggressive with my calling, hopefully firing up one of the boss hens in an effort to make her come looking for a fight. Sure enough, the next morning I found myself about 45 yards from this flock’s roost trees.

Casper, Ohio hero turkey photo
His efforts eventually led to his taking this Eastern gobbler (right) by getting extremely aggressive with his calling tactics.

I started tree yelping before daybreak and immediately got a hen to cut me off. I could tell she did not like me being there, and I knew this aggressive tactic would be feast or famine. She would either pitch down looking for a fight, or pitch down and take her flock the other way. Luckily, once her feet touched the ground, she was on her way towards my location and the tom was right behind her.

Yelping and cutting the whole way, she marched right past me at 14 yards, with the tom right behind her. I zipped a SEVR broadhead through his side and the rest is history. Being aggressive with my calling right out of the gate proved to be a deadly tactic that morning.

My 2023 turkey season was full of highs and lows, but one thing is for certain; troubleshooting was once again the main theme with all of these bowhunts, and it was the main reason I finally found success in all three states!




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