Fall Turkey Hunting with a Labrador by Tom McMurray
With some pictures to show Maggie is just a regular family dog. Click on pictures to enlarge.
This story started back here.
"I have been hunting Fall wild turkey in the mountains of Virginia since 1985. I learned the most effective way to be successful was the art of the bust and call back. In 1992 my whole style of hunting the Fall wild turkey changed when I got my first ever Labrador retriever and took the time to train him to hunt with me (or maybe he trained me). He became my hunting partner and dedicated companion.
In February of 2016 I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the NWTF Convention in Nashville TN. One of the main reasons I wanted to go was because there was a seminar scheduled specifically to discuss Turkey Doggin. This is not a subject that many know about or have been willing to share in the past. The presenters, Steve Hickoff, Marlin Watkins, Scott Basehore and JT Byrne were all names I had either read about or actually read something they had written regarding the sport of Fall turkey hunting (with or without a dog). They are the “experts” when it comes to this great sport and I was anxious to hear their insight on the subject. They did not disappoint as I learned more than I can share in this short article.
If I was to share one thing from this seminar with both veteran and rookie Turkey Doggin hunters, it would be that there is no one way or one type of dog that is the best for Fall Turkey hunting. There might be a way or dog that you prefer but many breeds and mixed breeds will work. This of course is my humble opinion again based on hunting for turkey with Labrador Retrievers since 1992 and listening to the stories the experts told at the seminar.
The classic Turkey Dog is the far ranging setter type dog that barks like crazy when they reach a flock to alert the hunter of a bust. The hunter then gathers the dog/dogs back and builds a blind where the hunter and dog can wait/sleep/rest until the action begins. The action might take 15 minutes or it could be 6 hours later or longer. Remember we are talking turkey here and they have their own agenda. The bottom line is eventually they will want to get back together and if you are there when the time is right, you will experience turkey hunting like no other. J.T. Byrne has perfected this type of dog and has developed a specific breed for just this type of hunting. His line of dogs are a proven turkey hunting breed and are in demand by the most serious of Fall turkey hunters.
When I started hunting turkey with a dog back in 1992, to say I was on a budget would be an understatement. There was no way I would have been able to convince my bride to pay for a dog specifically so I could spend more time in the woods –without her! Now a cute cuddly Lab puppy was a different story. Once I put that puppy in her arms the deal was sealed. Now I just needed to get the dog to hunt turkey. How hard could that be.
To be honest I would not describe it as hard at all, more fun than anything. Of course I love dogs so that helps. I can say the dog probably taught me as much as how to hunt the Fall turkey as I taught the dog. The key was patience and flexibility. I will not go into the training techniques I came up with, modified from what I learned from dogs I had grown up with, or straight up got out of a dog training book. I will save that for another article. What I will tell you about training is that I believe any dog with hunting instinct can probably be trained to hunt the Fall turkey. Maybe not in the “classic” style like a J.T Byrne dog but in a way that fits the dog you own. One key would be to start when they are a puppy.
For this article, I will describe how any Lab I have trained hunts and differs from the “classic” turkey dog. The dog and I will go for a hike basically. I will follow a straight line while the dog will make circles out from my position maybe out to 150 yards, and in every direction (front, left, right and in back of me). I will not travel too fast, so the dog can work. I will watch the dog and watch for turkey sign. If there is turkey sign, I will slow down to give the dog more time to work the area in case the sign is fresh. The dog will tell you if the sign is fresh. Just watch their tail wag, their demeanor, their excitement… it will be evident. Once the dog hits a hot trail the dog will take off in a straight line and then I watch and listen for the tell-tale sign of the birds breaking up – wing beats, putts, cackles, birds flying … Now it would be ideal if the dog barked to let me know, but I have never been able to get my Labs to bark at the bust. I am sure a better trainer could do it but instead I adapted my hunting style to that trait, or non-trait in the case of a “classic” Fall turkey dog. Now my Lab would still keep coming back to the bust site, get on the scent of any turkey that ran off and then seek out those birds that have not taken to flight and going at them until they fly. Thus getting a great scatter the same as any “classic” Fall turkey dog is trained to do.
I will admit that there have been times when the dog obviously had busted a flock of turkey (based on how he/she reacted and how low to the ground their tongue hung out of their mouth!) and I did not hear or see anything. This does not happen often as my dogs have never ranged big, but if I am on one side of a ridge and the dog and turkey are on the other, they easily could scatter to where I would not hear or see anything. This is seldom from what I can tell, and even if it does happen, once you know how to read your dog, you still may be in business. Yes, there are advantages to a dog that ranges big and barks at the break, but there are also pluses to dogs that do not. There have been many occasions when my Lab has been off in one direction and I have had turkey either answer me as I blind call while I hike or just happen to be headed to me by chance.
I train my dogs with hand signals, in addition to voice/sound commands, something that became even more important when I was graced with a Special Needs child. In the woods I can give my dog a signal to stay and hide from any distance as long as they can see me – remember my dogs do not range big so I am in voice range or visual contact at all times. This has paid off many times. I can remember times when I had the dog away from me 20 yards “hiding” in plain view of the turkey but stayed motionless and was able to call a bird in for the harvest. I have had the dogs hide out in front of me a ways (again due to the circumstance we found ourselves in) and let the turkey get close before I give the bust command and get tremendous scatters. I have had the dog hide at a distance with a hand signal and wait until the birds were in a position so that when I released the dog (again with a hand signal) that the dog pushed the birds to the gun. I have even had the dog in view (fairly close to me), made a call, received an answer not too far off, and watched the dog look at me and go into the “hide” without the command.
The dog had learned what to do in certain situations just from experience, a true hunting companion. No different when hunting with a human partner when you both know each other’s tendencies and you tag team on a bird in the Spring without saying a thing to each other – you just know! The way that I hunt with the dog varies with the circumstance and anyone who has hunted Fall turkey for any length of time knows every hunt can present a new circumstance that has the potential to be an opportunity for a harvest, or just a hike in the woods. By the way, there is nothing wrong with just a hike in the woods with your dog – it is a win win! I will also note that the majority of the time the dog makes the bust and then she lays in my lap under a camo burlap or in a make shift blind I construct after the bust. Just like one would do with a “classic” turkey hunting dog. Flexibility is the key. Hunt to how your dog hunts. Help teach your dog how you want he/she to hunt and then fine tune and adapt so you become true hunting partners.
Now I will be the first one to tell you that I am a turkey hunter and not a turkey caller. Yes, I can call turkey with many different types of calls. There is no way though that I would win any calling contests. I admit that I have and will continue to take turkey if the opportunity presents itself, however it presents itself, as long as it is legal. There have been birds that I never called to or never called to me. There are birds that I would have never taken without the dog and birds that have spooked because of the dog. I have missed turkey inexplicably and gotten a look from my dog that I could almost hear the words “you have got to be kidding me!” I will also tell you that there is not a greater day in the woods, than with your four legged companion, no matter how they hunt. Take your dog hunting and adapt to their style. You will become a better hunter and have the best of companions." Tom McMurray and Maggie - just a regular guy with a regular dog that love to hunt turkey together. 2/25/16 McMurrayBuilders.com
is Sophia and her first deer. The other one is my son Ben and a present
I made that I hope he'll cherish and add to for years to come. |
To all my fellow turkey doggin and hunting enthusiasts, please, please, hunt with your kids and not for them! I'm not sure who it benefits most (you or your children) but the world will be a better place!" Tom 10/22/16
|"Another great fall for Maggie and I. My biggest Fall bird to date - a big ole Virginia mountain bird with no sponge fat to speak of, but weighing 22+ lbs with 11 3/8" beard and 1-5/16" hooks. Maggie was a terror this Fall on the birds. Late season is now open and I took some guests out Sunday. She busted a flock, but my hunting party missed two! The cold weather made it miserable in such difficult conditions. The flock regrouped and Maggie busted them again, but no one wanted to stay and wait it out in the cold - except Maggie of course - she was none too happy after her hard work - next time!" Tom McMurray 1/16/18|
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Photos © Tom McMurray - All Rights Reserved
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