Use a mobile approach to track down more turkeys and increase your hunting opportunities
As soon the wood striker began scratching the heavily worn slate of the call, a turkey erupted in a roar. The sound manifested as a vibration in my chest. It was on top of us. A downed tree sat just a few yards off the side of the muddy trail and served as the closest cover available. Stealth was important in both sight and sound, so we carefully pulled our face masks down, scared to touch a call or give any hint of where we were located.
The silence settled. We could hear the crunching of leaves as the bird made its way closer. Soon the blue shades of his head were visible through the budding green trees. There was no need to call, just a commitment to patience for the final few yards.
The shotgun shattered the silence and soon the echo faded to the sounds of a bird flopping in the leafy cover. My hunting buddy and I went from seeing no birds for hours to all of a sudden starting and ending a hunt in under five minutes. That is one of the many beautiful things about running and gunning turkeys.
What is running and gunning a turkey?
Running and gunning means actively moving around a property and calling at intervals to find a wandering turkey. Hunters rely on natural cover and last-minute set ups, rather than calculated ground blinds. You simply walk some distance—maybe 20 yards, maybe 100 yards—and call. If a response comes, the hunter then quickly plans where to set up a safe shot at the turkey.
Like the story above, it can happen fast and close; at other times, the answer can come from the distance and allow for more calculated planning of the setup. But both events are part of an extremely exciting and active form of turkey hunting. This method is a great last-minute approach to new public lands or even property you have hunted for years.
Remember that hunting in full camouflage with other hunters requires immense caution. Always know what is down range. Understand when working a turkey that another hunter could end up in the area because they heard the calling. Safety should always be your priority and the running and gunning method should be accompanied by extreme caution.
Gear for the run and gun turkey hunting method
The gear required for this style of turkey hunting is not much different from other styles of turkey hunting. Ground blinds are about the most common item not used in this method, but many hunters will still use fast and easy turkey decoys to set in last-minute scenarios. Unlike ground blind hunts that can call for blackout clothing, this style of hunting requires full camouflage, including a face mask and gloves. Turkeys have excellent eyesight and it’s important to minimize any opportunity for exposure.
The shotgun can be any gun that works for you, but a sling is recommended in order to leave your hands free for calls and comfort on long walks. You should also consider pockets and how your calls are arranged in said pockets. I will admit to losing more calls in the woods than I can remember; it’s a hard lesson to learn and having a backup striker in a safe, zippered pocket can be a day-saver.
Theories of turkey Calls
The calling part of locating a turkey while running and gunning does not have to be complicated. It’s best to use whatever type of call you are most comfortable with, although close-calling action without a blind can be very difficult for pot calls or box calls that require the use of your hands. While that is not a deal-breaker for me, since I only use friction calls, a diaphragm call can give you an advantage for those last few clucks.
When locating birds, there are also advantages to using calls that are louder and carry farther, like a box call or a glass call. Once a bird is located, you can switch to friction and diaphragms to finish the job.
Choosing a place to run and gun
The spread of Eastern wild turkey populations across the United States and the versatility of the bird’s ability to use the land really means that these birds can be anywhere. Other subspecies require a slightly different understanding of their habits, as they can be more of a specialist in the habitat where they operate. One thing I personally look for is property that is less obvious to the next hunter. Many turkey hunters tend to stick to fields, but fields are not the only place where turkeys wander. Mature timber, logging roads, log landings, ridges, and random clearings can all serve as a travel route or even strutting grounds.
As male birds begin wandering for love later in the season, the chances of running into a bird in nontraditional hunting locations increases. Large tracts of land that have fields set apart by great distances can be very fruitful, as well as remote clear cuttings that the average hunter is not willing to hike out to.
Wandering turkeys mean that hunters should revisit properties multiple times a day and continue the run and gun method both into and out of a spot, since moving turkeys can end up in an area that you’d already been in earlier in the day. Many times, you can return to a spot to find a tom strutting in a place that you had called from earlier, most likely a silent bird that followed you as you called your way along the property.
The method of running and gunning
Once on the hunt, the process of running and gunning is relatively simple. I usually start by calling from my truck just to make sure I am not about to be busted by any birds. From there, I pick a path and usually walk 50 to 100 yards before stopping. Once everyone is silent, strike a “yelp” sequence and wait for a reply. I will usually repeat a few times with a minute or so pause in between, waiting to see if anything calls in response.
The method of calling known as a “cutt” is something I often mix in because tight-lipped birds (or maybe hesitant jakes) will often call on impulse alone or “shock gobble.” This can reveal birds that you did not realize were nearby. User beware, though, because this method can often call in hens that become aggressive or territorial. If nothing responds, I walk further and try again.
With luck, eventually a turkey will gobble back. It’s not uncommon in New England to work a half-dozen birds by noon. Even so, not all contacts result in a filled tag. The moment when that turkey calls back is when the most important decisions are made. It’s the moment of truth on calling theory, good setups, and understanding the lay of the land. In fact, I am a firm believer that good woodsmanship kills more birds than calling skills.
The setup for gunning
It’s possible you may have very little time to work these details out. That is one of the most exciting parts of running and gunning. Working quickly, we can make the best of even the least ideal situations. The first thing that should pop into your mind is where the bird is coming from and what makes your best shooting lane. That may be an opening in the trees, a logging road or trail, or maybe an opening in the woods or fields. Turkeys avoid thick cover for the most part, so briar patches and other difficult cover will most likely be avoided by the bird. Think about where you would walk if you were the turkey.
Background camouflage is the next thing that should pop into your mind. Put your back to something if you can: a large tree, a rock wall, a stump, or boulder…anything that prevents your silhouette from standing out against the skyline for a cautious tom. You may have to accept poorer shooting opportunities, but because turkeys see movement very easily, it won’t matter how good your line of sight is if you’re discovered first. I always assume the bird can see where I am before I can see him.
In a perfect world, a hunter may call back and forth with a willing longbeard that eventually steps into shooting range. Many setups will fail, but the excitement and pace far exceed that failure rate.
More advanced thoughts on running and gunning
There are many adapted approaches that can be applied to the running and gunning scenario, things like “cutting the distance” and “the turkey yoyo.” Many of these methods you will discover on your own as you experiment with methodology. They can differ depending on whether you are alone or with friends. It’s important to always ask the “why” and challenge the “how.” That is how innovation happens in hunting tactics. It’s how people begin to find their strengths and play to them. Think about how the shape of the land worked for you or against you. Think about the time of day. I often do not start turkey hunting till an hour or two after light so that toms break away from non-breeding hens and begin wandering for a new prospective mate. Work smarter, not harder.
The point is that there is no fully definable method that blankets all situations. The ability to adapt and learn from your mistakes in practical application is what will make the method of running and gunning a good prospect for your next turkey hunt this spring.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 30 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He started collecting guns on his 18th birthday and eventually found his passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.