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.

Chocolate Labrador Retriever is excellent turkey dogIn 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 aHouse dog & family pet is a wonderful turkey hunting dog in Virginia 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 wilDog for special needs child is the best companion and also the best turkey hunting dog in Virginial 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.

Ben McMurray's fall turkey in VirginiaI 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.

Young hunter with Virginia fall turkeyThe 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
Young hunter's first deer in VirginiaDad's gift to son."This 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
Virginia mountain fall and winter turkey hunting"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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As far as the SKYREST goes, it has been a long road and so much to tell! I will start with a disclaimer... I am one of the inventors. I have been using one for 18 plus years. Actually the same one. Great product that has stood up to 18 years and a lot of hunting! The best gun rest out there for hunting from a treestand hands down in my opinion. Yes I know, I am one of the inventors, so what else would I say but let me explain.

Virginia 10 point whitetail buckThe gun rest was invented out of necessity because I was a terrible shot. I have excuses but either way I was missing deer. I hunted in the mountains near Blacksburg VA with a great friend of mine Marc Eppard (the other inventor). We would wake up when most were going to bed, ride a four wheeler as far as allowed and then hike into the mountains of the National Forest stripped down to our long johns so we did not sweat. We carried in a treestand and any other equipment, clothes, food... we needed for the day. It was basically a 2 hour trek every morning to get to our spot and then we had to put up the treestand (permanent treestands are not allowed in the National Forest).

Well... after that ordeal I was pretty tired and basically shakey as far as holding a gun steady. At least that was my excuse for missing. I don't know how many deer. My buddy got tired of hearing me whine is what it really comes down to! One day he called me and said he had a solution to my missing problem. I was intrigued of course. I met him at a property where we had permission to hunt and there was a field where we could take long shots. He showed up with a block of wood with a hole in it and a wooden Y arm that had a string attached basically.

I think I may have laughed, but either way had my doubts this could solve anyone's yips until I tried it! I was amazed at how steady it held the crosshairs on a target and how accurate I was shooting. Well after that he and I went back and forth with ideas to refine the design. At first it was just something for us to use. Once we got the basic design done (there have been modifications since then and many discussed that I will not go into here) and we were using it on all our hunts, people started to ask us where we got it and if they could get one.

We took it to the next level thinking maybe we have something here. We started building them in his dad's barn in Elkton VA and selling them online. Well, we took it as far as having it produced in China, but family, work and life got in the way and we just couldn't spend the time it needed to make it work on a mass basis. It was just too much for us at the time. Both of us starting families and it was a full time job to get this off the ground, which both Marc and I already had. Marc and I and of course the hundreds we actually sold were out there being used, but there were none in production for a while.

10 pt. whitetail buck in VirginiaThen one Spring, when on a turkey hunt in Iowa with my cousin and his buddies, we all took an afternoon to do some skeet and target shooting. I had given one to my cousin a few years back and he pulled it out. All were amazed at how well it worked. One of the guys there (Todd Buelow from MN) asked what we were doing with the product and I explained what I stated above in this email. He asked if he could run with it, as he had some manufacturing connections. We told him to go for it and so he did. That was a couple years ago and it is just now starting to take hold. I understand that Amazon is sold out of them for the year: SkyRest Tree Stand Shooting Rest

There's a lot more to it than that, as you can imagine, but that is the basic gist. I use it mainly when rifle hunting, but have used it with a shotgun, pistol and crossbow. If you go to the website Todd set up, you will see me in a lot of the pics. He uses a young lady on the website which I feel might deter a lot of serious hunters from thinking it is for anyone, from the most experienced to the beginner, but it truly is. My son grew up shooting off of it. Everyone I have let shoot off of mine wants to buy one... at least that is what they tell me.

I can confidently say this. If you are a beginner or have a hard time holding up a heavy gun for whatever reason it is for you. If you are the most experienced hunter and pride yourself on your accuracy and ethical kill shots it is for you. It is for everyone in between those two as well! I will close with this, to give an idea of how it can help anyone be a better shot. I am right handed. I am in a ladder stand with a rail. A deer shows up quickly on my right hand side, following a hot doe and both are moving in a direction that will take them behind me. There is a small window of opportunity. Even the best shooter out there would have trouble being confident they could get on that deer and make an ethical shot. The rail is not going to help, so it is a free hand shot on your off side.

With the SKYREST, not only does the shot become possible for an experienced hunter, but even for a beginner. I have proof as both my son and daughter had that experience and both dropped their deer. I could tell you so many stories as I am a meat hunter (allergic to beef!) and Fall is when I do my grocery shopping. Between my son and I we shoot between 12 and 15 deer a year on average, to load up the freezer for the year. I have shot quote a few with a muzzleloader as well, using the SkyRest.

My buddy Marc Eppard actually started filming to try and promote the product, to help Todd get it out there. He has YouTube Product Review pages now: PART 1 setup and overview. PART 2 Ben's Nice 10 Pointer. PART 3 A Gun Rest and a Camera Mount. The first film is of me demonstrating how to use it. This was taken one day we were hunting and it was just dead out - no deer movement. I told him let's film a demo. No script, no plan, just got up and talked about it and demoed it. That is how easy it is to use and how comfortable I am with it. Thanks for reading, send me an email if you want to talk more about it. I love it! Tom McMurray, Lorton, VA 12/11/20 https://theskyrest.com/
Macey is now 1.5 years old. The third lab I have trained to turkey hunt. This past Fall was her first season hunting and she did not disappoint. I do not get to hunt very often as I still work but Macey hunted hard when we got to go. The properties we hunt did not have many birds this year at least when we hunted. She busted several singles and we are still working on staying off of deer. She did busy a small flock of adult hens on a mountain hunt that ended up with her first turkey, a bearded hen! Looks like I have my next turkey dog for life!  Tom 2/8/23
Virginia Lab turkey hunting dogHunting turkeys with a Labrador dogVirginia turkey hunting with a LabradorLabradors make great turkey hunting dogs.
Photos © Tom McMurray - All Rights Reserved
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