Eleventh Hour Toms
Turkey hunters seem to have a love affair with being first – first to buy their license, first to try out the latest gee-whiz call or decoy, first one in the woods, and the biggest first of all – first crack at those “uneducated” gobblers each spring. I suppose there is a certain amount of personal interest in that last one. When the Wisconsin DNR opened up turkey hunting in my area of the state some 15+ years ago, I usually applied for the first available season in our 6 season lottery each spring. It just made sense – the most birds, the fewest previous encounters with other hunters – what’s not to love?
I did kill some early season birds in those first experiences, but that also included having to dust the snow off the decoys and deal with henned up gobblers that preferred the real thing to my futile impersonations. I also got aced out in the lottery a couple times. Sitting at home while everyone else has all the fun is, well, no fun. After reading the season summary reports for how many tags were open in each management unit and how many people had applied for each time period it became clear that the numbers were much more in my favor if I applied for the later hunts. It was a lesson I haven’t forgotten.
Nowadays the bird numbers have flourished, tags are much easier to come by, and there are even leftover tags available in my home state (always for the later seasons) that can be bought over the counter or on the internet. What all of that means is that I have more choices and opportunities to hunt than ever before. It also means I can go play in the late season with high expectations of seeing and working a gobbler.
Most people familiar with the turkey’s spring breeding ritual understand the basic stages they go through every spring, regardless of weather or latitude: The gobblers make a lot of racket prior to the hens being receptive. It’s a hormone thing, a pecking order thing, maybe even a howling-at-the-moon thing. It’s rare that there’s an open hunting season, so you just have to sit back and watch and listen. Eventually a few hens allow gobblers to tag along. That shuts the big boys up big time. They’ll happily gobble from the roost, but once they’re on the ground and in the presence of hens, there’s no need to be vocal anymore. Now it’s all about strutting and drumming. Hunters hate this period for 2 reasons – they’re competing with real hens in the calling contest, and with no reason to gobble on the ground, toms are hard to locate and keep track of. Finally, after a few weeks of relative midday silence in the turkey world, the hens have been bred and may be sitting on their nests. This is when the fun begins.
Gobblers have poor scheduling skills. They don’t understand why the hens aren’t hanging out with them. They only know that their hormones are still telling them to try to attract and breed hens. It’s economics 101 – supply and demand. There’s a shortage of interested hens so demand goes up. You, the hunter, can take advantage by filling that void.
Pattern gobbler’s preferred roost areas and stick close by. These last birds of the season may be call-wary because of their training by earlier hunters. Tone down your approach and tactics. Those long strings of lonely yelps are a thing of the past. Very often gobblers will sound off mid-morning and go “trolling” by gobbling every few minutes as they search for hens. Last week I followed one of the biggest gobblers I’ve ever seen on the hoof. He left the woods and walked halfway across a newly planted cornfield. I put my binocs on him and let out a modest sequence of yelps from 100 yards away. He took one quick look in my direction and proceeded to rubber neck his way to the opposite side of the field, disappearing into the tree line. A much more appropriate call would’ve been a simple cluck or two, maybe some scratching in the leaves to simulate a hen feeding.
I learned from that mistake and was prepared to do just that a couple days later when I stood at the base of the big guy’s preferred roosting ridge and listened to his pre-dawn gobbling. There was only one problem – the finger ridge that was my usual path to the top was blocked by 2 other gobblers that were sounding off nearby. With 2 tags in my pocket and only 2 days left of the WI turkey season this was no time to be a trophy hunting snob. I decided to ignore the big bird’s calling and concentrate on what was right in my lap.
I heard the flydown followed by several minutes of silence, but the 2 birds started gobbling again from a saddle on that finger ridge that I knew was a good strutting zone. I quietly snuck up the hill a short distance, using the late season foliage as cover, positioned myself at the base of a large oak, rested my feet on the Turkey Dave Footrest I always carry, and laid my gun across my knee. The entire calling sequence consisted of 4 clucks on an aluminum pot and peg call, followed by a few scratchings in the dry leaves. I wasn’t’ really trying to call the birds in, just make them aware of my presence. It was up to them to figure out the rest of the equation and I wasn’t disappointed. I could easily hear the low frequency drumming as they marched down that saddle and started up the hill to my little mesa. When they came around a tree at 25 yards I put my sight on the lead bird and pulled the trigger. I got lucky and ended up getting a clean kill on both birds with one shot (legal in WI). One of the birds even sported a huge double beard. I’m convinced that the subtle calling technique in late season is what did the trick. Keep it low key and simple next spring when you’re faced with lonely late season birds and you might have the same luck I did.
Turkeys can see you coming from a long, long distance away, they also have incredibly sharp hearing, combine this with their natural instincts to be a bit cautious and you have a very formidable adversary. I have heard many hunters claim that if the wild turkey had the sense of smell of a deer, nobody would ever harvest one. Having said this, turkey hunting is one of the most enjoyable challenges, and is actually fairly simple if you merely understand how a turkey thinks or acts, and why.
It seems like whenever you are driving along a country road looking into the fields and pastures there is never a shortage of wild turkeys mulling about, picking up pieces of grain and insects, yet walk around in the woods with your shotgun, and you would think that you are hunting on the moon. In order to successfully harvest the elusive wild turkey you must first locate potential wild turkey habitat. I have on many occasions merely driven around in the early evening with my binoculars, and began by glassing various areas, or spent an hour or so on the edge of a forest just listening for the unmistakable sound of Wild Turkeys flying up to roost, or the tell tale gobble of a bird responding to an owl or some other locator call. This practice is called “Roosting” a bird or “putting a bird to bed”. If you see a gobbler feeding in a field or parading around in the late afternoon and evening hours before your intended Wild Turkey hunt, you have a great indication that the bird will be somewhere in that general vicinity come first light, as these birds tend to feed in the evening near where they will be roosting.
After roosting a bird the night before, you will need to return to this general area before dawn (this means in the dark!) and situate yourself, well hidden at the base of a tree or other type of blind. Hopefully, the previous night you have already marked the location you wish to hunt and set up a bit of a blind. It is imperative to make no noise when returning in the dark, so marking a trail you can find is a good idea. If using decoys, it is also important to move slowly and silently so as not to give away your location. Pace off the number of yards, to your decoys to give a good indication of incoming birds and your comfortable shooting range, you may also place a stick in the ground a bit further out so you know your maximum distance as well.
If you chose the right location these birds could fly down right in front of you, as Wild Turkeys prefer to fly down into open areas, making it a very short, but rewarding morning. If you have not heard the birds as darkness gives way to dawn, you might attempt to simulate a few tree yelps in the hope that a gobbler will reply, thus giving away his location. If you are not proficient with calling, “don’t”, as many novices tend to overcall or call badly, which can push birds further away.
It’s also important to remember that gobblers are hesitant to walk downhill to calls, so you want to try and be either slightly uphill of the birds or on level ground. I was once hunting in Coulee country in Southern Wisconsin for spring Turkey and had snuck in about 30 yards above a strutting gobbler and had several Jakes walk in from my side to within several yards before I even noticed them. If you had no luck on the morning fly down you can try to identify a gobbler’s strutting zones as they tend to prefer the same areas again and again to display for the hens. Don’t get too impatient if a gobbler responds to your calls but refuses to move in closer. Just remind him with subtle calls every now and then that you, or in better words…a hen is still in the area.
If the early morning hours are not productive, at some point it may be time to try other strategies and get on the move to locate the birds. This technique is known as the run and gun method, and may work with seasoned turkey hunters and older birds. Moving to new areas and trying to locate birds, then employing a sit, wait and call method can sometimes lure in some Jakes and younger Toms. Either way, enjoying the great outdoors in pursuit of the Wild Turkey is an excellent way to spend a beautiful spring morning.
The National Wild Turkey Federation was started as a group to promote the sport of turkey hunting as a traditional sport but also to work towards wildlife conservation and the preservation of natural wildlife habitats.
The National Wild Turkey Federation works with government agencies as well as private groups and landowners to promote hunting but also to promote responsible hunting ideals and to be advocates for wild turkey.
The National Wild Turkey Federation also works to pass laws that will promote hunting as a sport and protect the wild turkey. Because the NWTF has such a large membership it has become a force to be reckoned with when lawmakers are writing and lobbying for the passage of laws that deal with hunting and wildlife.
The NWTF is dedicated to preserving the dignity and tradition of the sport of hunting. It holds national banquets that celebrate hunting and the accomplishments of hunters every year. The banquets are also fund raisers that have raised millions of dollars for all the projects that the NWTF is involved with.
In addition to doing advocacy and conservation work the NWTF also offers lots of resources to hunters like articles about hunting, gear guides, guides to the best hunting locations for both fall hunting and spring hunting, and more.
Within hunting circles the National Wild Turkey Federation is regarded as the expert in all things relating to wild turkeys and turkey hunting. If you want to be a serious turkey hunter it would be a very good idea for you to join the National Wild Turkey Federation and take advantage of all the wonderful tools that they offer to hunters.
In addition to the information that they offer for hunters the NWTF is one of the largest groups in the country working for conservation and the preservation of national wildlife habitats. With more and more wetlands, forests, and other game habitats disappearing everyday the NWTF’s focus on responsible hunting and preservation is very important.
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