Talking Turkey

By Matt Winter
The Post and Courier

Scott Hammond, 31, has been calling and hunting wild turkeys since he was 8. He’s bagged about 75 gobblers so far, and tagged out — shot the maximum five birds allotted per hunter per year — each of the past 11 years.

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Scott Hammond

Impressive stuff, considering most Lowcountry hunters would be proud to score just one mature bird each year.

Turkey hunting season cranks up March 15 on private lands in Game Zone 6 (April 1 on public land and private lands in other game zones), and Hammond plans to be out there at first light. Having just wrapped up preseason scouting and blind prep on his hunting properties, Hammond took a few minutes last week to share some tips.Gobbler tactics

When does he go?

As often as possible.

Hammond hunts every day he’s off work during turkey season, and also takes a week off in early April to travel and hunt turkeys with his father, Don Hammond.

He’ll go rain or shine, windy or calm, hot or cold.

“I don’t have the luxury of planning my days based on weather,” Hammond said. “If it’s raining and blowing 25 (mph), I’m hunting. If it’s beautiful, I’m hunting … I honestly think that’s what’s lead me to learn as much as I have. More times than not, I’m not hunting ideal conditions.”

Where does he go?

Hammond hunts on private properties all over the state, including small and large tracts in Orangeburg, Berkeley and Richland counties. Habitats range from agricultural fields and planted pine to hardwood bottoms.

He uses game cameras and extensive time in the field to pattern his birds, and advises hunters to do the same if they can.

“I do use my trail cameras quite a bit. I’m running eight right now on 430 acres, and I can watch my birds progress right through my property: Between 8 and 9 he’s here, from 10 to 2 he’s hanging out at this field.

“Technology can definitely be a friend.”

When hunting an unfamiliar piece of property, he uses Google Earth to plan the hunt and look for key features.

“If you’ve got a hardbottom swamp that’s got a creek running through it or some wet-weather ponds, that is an ideal situation, especially if it’s got an open understory.

“If you’re hunting in one of those open swamps and it has a ridge line that runs through it, by mid-morning, when the hens go to nest, that gobbler gets on that ridge line and does his strutting back and forth, trying to entice those hens.”

When does he start?

Hammond wants to be in the woods, ready to go, 30 minutes before daylight, whether he’s in a blind or standing on a road listening for gobbles.

“You don’t want to be traveling through your property as day is breaking, because those birds are already awake and looking around, and you’re liable to bump them off the roost. If you bump them off the roost, you’re in a bad position to start with. You completely changed everything.”

If Hammond doesn’t bag one early, he’ll often hunt all day.

“Leaving the woods by 9 a.m. is a major mistake. I’ve killed as many birds at 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning and 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon as I have any other time of day.

“The action’s not quite as fast and furious and not quite as exciting, but … once it gets past 9 or 10 in the morning, most other hunters have left the woods, the hens are sitting on their nests, and that gobbler’s lonely. He’s much more apt to come to calling.”

What gear does he use?

Hammond wears full camo, of course, including face mask and gloves, and prefers the Mossy Oak Obsession pattern because “it’s got a lot light green incorporated into it, so it’s a good spring camo.”

He sports a pair of no-frills, drab-green Lacrosse Grange rubber boots.

Hammond doesn’t use pop-up turkey blinds, relying instead on natural blinds built in advance or on the fly with palmetto fronds and other vegetation. That’s why “the most important tool in my turkey vest is a $6 pair of garden pruners,” he said.

He uses a turkey vest with a seat cushion attached, and carries a compact pair of binoculars and a collection of “shock” calls and turkey calls.

Hammond hunts with glass and slate friction calls, a Lynch’s box call, and also carries a half-dozen varieties of mouth diaphragm calls.

“About 80 percent of all my calling is done on a mouth diaphragm.”

He uses a box call on windy days or to reach out to a gobbler hundreds of yards away. He uses slate and mouth calls for soft, subtle purrs and yelps when he’s working a nearby gobbler.

On occasion, he’ll also use decoys. “I use the Pretty Boy (strutting gobbler) and a squatting hen. If you do use Pretty Boy, put a real (turkey) fan in.”

What’s he shooting?

Hammond has outfitted his  Browning Gold Hunter 12-gauge with a neoprene sling, 4x-power Leupold scope and an extra-full turkey choke tube.

“The tighter the choke tube, the easier it is to miss at close range,” Hammond warned. “You get a turkey inside 15 yards with the tube I’ve got, and you’re basically shooting a slug.”

He’s switching to new loads this year, the HEVI-Shot Magnum Blend.

These new, higher-tech loads deliver a mix of 5, 6 and 7-shot pellets in tight, deadly groups downrange.

The downside?

“They’re $35 for a box of five shells.”

Turkey hunting tactics

Turkeys prefer to roost in mature timber, especially over water. If Hammond doesn’t already know where birds are roosting, he’ll run-and-gun after it gets light to locate a gobbler.

Though many hunters use turkey calls to trigger gobbles in the early morning, Hammond relies mostly on “shock calls” to locate a bird.

“I rarely actually use a turkey call. I’m owl-hooting with my voice, or once the crows get cranked up I’m using a crow call.”

Hammond avoids using turkey calls as locators because gobblers will sometimes come running in before he even gets a chance to set up. It’s far better, he said, to locate a bird without him becoming too interested in you at the start.

If Hammond’s been shock-calling in an area and hasn’t heard a response in 10-15 minutes, he’ll move on.

Once he does entice a gobble off in the distance, Hammond moves quickly and quietly toward the bird, stopping to set up 100 to 175 yards away.

Then he starts working the bird.

“If I’ve got a bird still roosted in his tree and he’s gobbling, the first series of calls I’m going to give him be a fly-down cackle. Then I’m going to follow that up with a lot of clucks, then go into my yelping series.”

If the gobbler flies down and begins moving toward him, Hammond often shuts down his calling.

“Once a bird’s inside 100 yards and he’s answered me one, two, three times, I ain’t saying another word for at least 15 minutes. He knows where I am. If he’s committed and wants to come, he’ll come.”

Overcalling can backfire on a hunter, Hammond warns.

“You’ve got to remember that the hen is designed to go to the gobbler, the gobbler’s not designed to go to the hen. So shutting up is sometimes a good thing.

“If it was 30 minutes since you last called, that gobbler’s wandering around wondering ‘where did she go?’ He’s covering a little more territory and might end up coming right in front of your barrel.”

What if the turkey stops gobbling and disappears in the brush?

“I won’t move a muscle for a bare minimum of 45 minutes,” Hammond said. Often, the turkey will creep in on a hunter, fan out and start strutting without ever making another sound.

If the gobbler’s appears within 40 or so yards, he shoots.

If, on the other hand, Hammond hasn’t started working a bird by 9 or 10 in the morning, he’ll switch to “set-up mode” and hunker down in a natural blind in a good-looking or pre-scouted area.

“I’m going to spend two hours there, making a series of calls every 10 or 15 minutes. After two hours, I’m going to move to another area.”

‘Henned-up’ gobblers

When a gobbler’s surrounded by hens, a hunter has little chance of calling him away from that group.

Hammond’s strategy in this scenario? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

“I want to try to mimic every single sound and challenge the boss hen, so to speak. … Every time I hear the hen make a noise, I’ll make the same noise, times two. Ultimately, you can get that hen upset enough that she’s going to come investigate this strange hen, and the gobbler’s going to go wherever she goes.”

What if he hangs up?

Sometimes a hunter can’t get a lone gobbler to move into shooting range, no matter how good the calling.

“If a bird is gobbling out there at 100 yards, and he’s been hammering back at you for 45 minutes and hasn’t budged, then he’s strutting in a field or on a ridge line,” Hammond said. “You can’t get to him without being seen.”

In that case, hunters should belly-crawl out of site, head 75 yards in the opposite direction, set up and start calling again.

Many gobblers, Hammond said, simply can’t stand the idea that a hen might have left in favor of another suitor.

They’ll come running.

Ever creep up on birds?

Hammond prefers to call in turkeys, rather than stalk in on them. It’s a tough thing to do, and birds often bust hunter trying to ninja their way into shooting range.

“I prefer not to, but I have killed my fair share by belly-crawling through a ditch,” Hammond said. “Late in the season, if I’ve still got a tag to fill, then all kinds of tricks come out of the bag.”

Hunting in the rain

Believe it or not, hunting turkeys in the rain works. When it’s really coming down, Hammond often will leave the woods and head to an agricultural field. “When the woods get wet, turkeys can’t hear a predator coming toward them, and when it’s raining they can’t see as far. They get in the middle of that field, they’ve got 150 yards in any direction to see a predator coming at them, and they’ve got time to get the heck out of dodge.”

As the season progresses

Hunters should become more and more passive as the season goes on, he said. “The first week or two, I’m pretty aggressive with my calling.” But as the season winds down, Hammond’s calling softens and the hunts shift toward “woodsmanship and knowing some of these birds’ travel patterns.”

More advice

“I cannot encourage people enough to take the time, take your gun to a range and pattern it,” he said. “I’d dare say 90 percent of our turkey hunters never do that, and that’s a critical error. “I know exactly what my gun will do.”

Above all, Hammond said, hunters must be willing to put in the time. After the early-morning rush of finding roosted birds, hunters should be slow it down and sit in a promising area for two or three hours, lightly calling every few minutes. “Patience,” he said, “will kill you more birds than any other skill.”

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