By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
When Joel Nelson talks turkey, the birds have no choice but to listen. Nelson speaks with a 12-gauge shotgun and 3 1/2 inch shells or the sharp tips on his arrow points.
Nelson’s methods to stalk the wary birds during spring and fall seasons produce results far better than enjoyed by most hunters. Nelson recently led both Ted and his daughter, Kristi, to turkeys on a hunt in southeastern Minnesota.
Nelson makes no attempt to hide his enthusiasm for his prey. “The things they do are so different than any other bird. When you see those white heads coming through an opening in the woods, my God, it’s beautiful,” he said.
Age 30 now and on the pro staff for Quaker Boy Game Calls, In-Depth Outdoors, Gamehide Clothing, and Schaffer Performance Hunting, Nelson traces his first hunts to age 12 or 13. If mistakes are teaching tools, Nelson learned a lot those first three years. He never got a bird. Then he ran into Guy Cunningham, an Illinois native who guided turkey hunters in the Black Hills before he moved into Nelson’s area.
“He made it seem easy,” said Nelson, who is president of the Sunrise Gobblers Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
It’s Nelson who makes turkey hunting seem easy now. His success is built on doing the basics and paying attention to details.
Unlike many hunters, Nelson’s preparations start months before the season opens. Even now, he’s taking action that might not seem to have a thing to do with dropping a tom during the upcoming fall season. Nelson is catching and cleaning walleye to trade with farmers for a chance to stalk turkeys on their land. He’ll trade deer jerky and morels. He’s been known to help bring in hay and other farm chores, too.
But he doesn’t stop getting one piece of land. He knows as many as 25 to 50 birds may group early in the season but they disperse into small groups which range over large areas. He tracked one flock range over two square miles in one day. Knowing that leads him to start with one piece and then contact adjacent landowners to all sides asking for permission to hunt.
As a result, he puts together large parcels of huntable land so he can go to the birds rather than waiting for the birds to move off land he can’t hunt to a small parcel he can.
Scouting is the next step. “I really spend a lot of time scouting,” he says. “My main goal is to have three to four different groups of birds. I’m not too proud to hunt one that’s young and dumb.”
He’ll use locator calls to help pinpoint birds. A crow sound is the least worrisome to turkeys. Early in the morning or later in the evening, he’ll use an owl call. He’ll also use a coyote call. He’s not worried about making them skittish. “It’s better to know where they are than not,” he said.
The best scouting is done in the handful of days just before your hunt. By then, he knows where birds are roosting and their general habits through the day. “I constantly watch the birds. That helps. I’m a real big fan that the freshest information is best. Two weeks, I don’t get excited. One to three days before the season? That gets good.”
Nelson uses two general techniques. Both can be effective depending on the mood of the birds. One is the traditional approach of setting up on a spot and calling birds to him. The other is more aggressive – he uses locator calls to find active birds and moves toward them.
Nelson stays in one position when he’s hunting with novices or if he needs to film sequences for the website.
Turkeys are extremely wary. They know when something just isn’t right. That trait makes them an exciting bird to hunt. It also makes them hard to kill. Blending in with the background is critical if a hunter chooses to sit out against a tree. Camouflage choice is simple. “Late season, wear something with green. Early season, no green, but unless it’s wet I don’t wear the dark heavy patterns,” he said. Wear black from the waist up while hunting in ground blinds.
Decoys are used only when he needs to draw birds within bow range. He has seen toms lock up and display outside gun range if they get too intimidated by plastic competition. He’d rather depend on calling to fire birds up and bring them in. Even then, he uses a light hand. He tries to fire them up first thing, then he plays hard to get. Overcalling makes a tom believe the hen is hot and he will expect her to come to him. Calling just enough to get his interest and then quitting can drive him crazy.
Nelson remembers a classic example of calling and hearing toms answer from far away. Twenty minutes later he thought they might have given up. A less experienced hunter might choose that time to move. But 30 minutes later, the toms popped out of cover just 30 yards away. That’s plenty close enough for his Browning 12-gauge Gold Hunter that takes 3 1/2 inch shells. He alternates between a Winchester with number 6 shot and a Hevi-Shot Magnum that’s a mix of number 5s, 6s and 7s.
He made a modification to his shotgun sights by replacing the standard post with fiber optic rifle sights. The standard post is so large that a bird can be covered up at 50 yards. Smaller rifle sights allow the accuracy needed to hit the bird’s head and/or neck easier.
Ted’s Spring Hunts
Nelson knew two flocks were working in an area where he was able to set up a ground blind at a bottleneck between two hay fields adjacent to the woods. This position allowed a 40-yard shot to either side and 20 yards to the bottleneck.
Nelson knew birds were roosting to either side. After Nelson called, both groups fired up right away. The most vocal group to the right kept coming to about 150 yards. They would not come out of the woods.
Nelson “played it cool.” Hard-to-get calling apparently was the right tactic. Competition for a hen was a strong motivator. Three toms from the left group suddenly stepped out from cover. Ted let go as soon as one bird separated from the others so he was sure he wouldn’t injure a second tom.
One nice tom with a 10 inch beard went down. Nelson stepped off the distance at 43 yards.
Kristi hunted without a blind. They saw several turkeys driving to the spot where her dad hunted three days earlier. It was afternoon when Nelson made a crow call. He and Kristi thought they heard birds in the field, but the grass was high and the terrain was rolling. Using a slope to hide their movements, they got closer before Nelson positioned her with her back against a tree. He called again. This time there was no response, but as they waited, they soon saw four white heads looking over the top of the ridge. This group of jakes moved within 40 yards and stopped. Kristi had to wait until they moved again to raise her gun, then wait to get a clear shot.
Once she did, it was all over. Forty-one yards from where she fired, a jake with a 5 1/2-inch beard was down.
“She pasted that bird,” Nelson said. “There’s nothing more exciting than to watch your daughter shoot her first turkey,” said Ted.
Turkeys are a perfect match for hunters who thrive on challenge and excitement. Give them a shot.
Reproduced with permission:
Mark Strand Outdoors
3077 Meadow Brook Drive
Woodbury, MN 55125