As I crossed my friends’ hay field in the dim morning light, a distant flash of lightning started my internal timer. “If only I could
find a way to put thunder in a can”, I thought to myself, “I’d be a millionaire”. Sure, manufactured crow calls, owl calls, coyote howlers and
the like all have their place in shocking a gobbler into giving up his location, but nothing beats a booming assist from Mother Nature. “Eighteen
Mississippi, nineteen Mississippi…” At 20 seconds I finally heard the low rumble of thunder. Even before the simple calculation of 4 miles
distance to the lightning came to mind, the gobbler sounded off. He was kitty corner across a county road, on private property I couldn’t hunt. I tried my
best to ignore him, but a second lightning and thunder combo, this one a bit closer, generated another throaty gobble. It reminded me that I should probably
not stray too far from my vehicle with a possible thunderstorm brewing. It also reminded me that late season gobblers that sound off with gusto can be some of
the most fun and most reliable birds to hunt.
My home state of Wisconsin has a fairly brief but rich tradition of turkey hunting. Restocking of wild
birds beginning in the early 70′s has turned into a quantity and quality of harvest that game managers could only dream of. When hunting turkeys was first
allowed there were quite conservative quotas and seasons put in place. Those restrictions have been gradually liberalized over the years, based on solid
harvest data and research that followed the upward swing in bird numbers statewide. In the just-completed 2012 season the previous scheme of 6
individual turkey seasons consisting of 5 days on, 2 days off, was changed to allow hunting all 7 days. Those extra 2 days, Monday and Tuesday, make even
more hunting opportunities for hunters still holding tags. Despite the extra opportunities, it’s still human nature to want the first crack at the birds
each season and that’s why the first couple seasons are the most heavily subscribed in the lottery drawing. I’ve gotten those early tags enough times to
know that the birds are plentiful, gobbling activity is usually pretty good, and the loud-mouthed 2 year olds fill many a hunter’s game bag. I also know
that the weather can be nasty, foliage cover for moving on the birds can be nonexistent, and competition from other hunters is at its peak.
Enter the late season.
Mid May takes on a whole new flavor from mid April. The leaves are fully out, especially after the recent mild winter. Hens are busy
with nesting duties, so the remaining gobblers still interested in some company are less likely to get it. This is the time of year when you might catch the nearly constant calling of a “troller” – a gobbler that does a lot of
talking while also doing a lot of walking. Sometimes he’ll frustrate you to no end, answering all your calls but still not turning back to check out the “hen” that’s pursuing him. But there are other times when things work
out in your favor. That’s what I was hoping as I quietly closed the tailgate of my truck and slipped off through the woods to try to intercept the thunder bird I’d heard 10 minutes earlier. With only 3 days left ’til the end of the season,
it was game on.
He was on the ground now, gobbling on his own without any prompting from the thunder, which had since vanished. By the time I got settled
in and ready to call to him I realized he’d already crossed the county road and was now on my side. While that was good news for me, unfortunately he was still well to my south on unhuntable private land. As he continued east I called to
him sparingly with my diaphragm. He answered, but each gobble was further and further away. He was paralleling me so I picked up the pace and jogged through
the woods along the old barbed wire fence separating the properties. I knew from aerial photos that there was a large grass field on the neighbor’s land
and that’s where the gobbling stabilized to a single location. Since I couldn’t see that far through the thick greenery, I could only imagine that bird
strutting and gobbling out in that field, trying to coax me out of the woods from the north.
I knew the woods well – setting up against a big oak just 50 yards downhill from a favorite tree stand that had yielded several deer in past
years. My calling was very low-key, interspersed with a lot of scratching in the leaves to simulate a feeding hen. No need for the long strings of yelps from the earlier seasons. Single or double clucks kept him interested, and it
was clear that his gobbling was getting closer and more insistent. Finally, I saw that black form slinking through the woods that all turkey hunters long to see. He set up shop in an opening between some mature oaks that gave him a sight line to his expected hen. Trouble was, he managed to put a wind fallen dead pine tree right between us. From under my facemask I was chirping clucks
out the side of my mouth to try to get him moving to my right and away from the tree, but he liked his spot and let me know it by alternately fanning and gobbling, but without moving his feet. After a few tense minutes of enjoying
what I like to call “The Greatest Show on Earth”, I straightened my back against the tree and gained just enough height to manage a shot between the branches of the downed pine. At 35 yards the Hevi-shot 6′s caused massive
head and neck damage, anchoring the bird in place. I rushed over and steadied his wings so he wouldn’t break any feathers when he thrashed. The tom was my first 5 year old – with inch and a half spurs, an 11.5 inch beard, and weighing 22.6 lbs. As I stood over this beautiful bird and gave thanks, I thought about the friendly location, the 2 hours of elapsed time from when lightning-caused thunder gave way to shotgun-caused thunder, and the quarter mile this talkative old bird walked before turning to my calling. It all convinced me in an instant
that he’d be mounted in full strut to preserve the memories of a very satisfying late season hunt.
Can you smell it? All across the country hunters are patterning their shotguns, checking their decoys and are driving the wife and kids crazy by constantly listening to their audio cd’s while practicing to get the tones and cadence of their favorite calls. Spring Turkey season is in full swing! Bad calling technique and decoys that couldn’t fool Wyle E. Coyote can do more harm than good on a hunt so you better get started now to have it all down pat before that first gobble is heard just before dawn on opening day. The Wild Turkey’s proclivity to let you know where he is gives the shrewd hunter an occasional advantage, but only if he or she knows what to do next.
Calling a Turkey to bring him closer to you, or coaxing him to give away his position is probably the most enjoyable method of Turkey hunting, and since this incredible bird is gifted with incredible eyesight, calling the Turkey is probably the best way to get into position for a shot. Combine this with proper decoy management and you have a great chance of harvesting a nice Tom. Remember, it only takes one bird to let you know what direction he is, and then you will have to judge the distance for yourself. When the birds are silent it can seem as if you are all alone in the woods as they can go completely quiet when alarmed.
Turkey’s breed primarily in the spring months of April and May, during this period they can become extremely vocal and learning the differences in each sound can tell whether your quarry is a Tom, Jake or possibly even a hen. One of the first things I was taught when using my calls was what type of sound to imitate to elicit the desired effect. Sitting in the dark an hour or so before dawn during Turkey season is very exciting and when the sound of a mature Tom breaks though the darkness it will be something you won’t ever forget!
Turkey’s can be located using a variety of calls; you can imitate a hen, or the unmistakable call of a big Gobbler or even those sounds such as crow and owls. The sounds of thunder have also been known to cause a Wild Turkey to give away his position. These locator calls are a hit and miss situation and usually work best in areas that you know Turkeys have been seen in sufficient numbers. Locator calls are used to identify position not to bring birds in.
With so many calls on the market, its hard to figure out what might work best for you, but the bottom line is know how to properly use the call before taking it into the field. I prefer the box call as it is easy for me to use since my attempts to use a mouth or diaphragm Turkey call have similar results to Roseanne Barr singing the national anthem. However, the diaphragm calls give the hunter who can properly use them, are great bit of versatility. The problem with a box call is that there is motion involved and the hunter will need to put down the call in order to lift his shotgun.
Turkeys make a number of different sounds depending on what they are doing at the time; it can range from a series of purrs, clucks, yelps or a combination of sounds. Remember on windy days your sound will be limiting in the distance it projects and trying to hard to increase volume might through off the proper sound. Cadence is also of great importance and it’s usually a good practice for novice hunters to merely try to match the sounds of birds they can hear. Combine this with some life-like decoys set out at a know distance such as 20yds and you are just about ready. In some areas, the use of decoys may actually hamper your hunt as the birds have been pressured greatly and are wise to the decoys. But all in all, 1-3 decoys depending on the circumstance should suffice, and by the end of the day you may have an incredible dinner that the whole family will enjoy and a great story to tell around the table.