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Maine’s 2008 spring turkey-hunting season is about to begin, and that means a lot of early wake-up calls for hunters interested in calling a love-sick tom into range. If you thought spring fishing meant short nights, wait till you try fooling a flock of wild turkeys.
In most cases, “early” means 3:30 or 4 a.m. The reason is simple enough. Unless your bedroom window is under a flock of roosted birds, you are going to have to get up, get breakfast, get dressed, get going and get there before the turkeys start to leave their roosting site, which is generally in the faint, early light of day that occurs long before sunup. If you’re not on site, set up and ready to start calling, odds are the birds are going to fly off and spend their day on the other side of the ridge, which means you are not going to see them again (at best) for several hours.
Fortunately, killing a turkey is not rocket science. Most states have special youth hunts (including Maine) and that means thousands of kids under age 16 manage to shoot a turkey each spring. If you can emulate the calls of a lonesome hen turkey (and you don’t have to be a virtuoso at this) and you can sit still for 10 minutes at a time, you can kill a turkey.
The standard procedure is simple and direct. Ideally, you should locate roosted turkeys the evening before your morning hunt. Find a high spot of ground somewhere away from the bluster and noise of civilization and blow a crow call a couple of times just before sunset. Listen intently for the telltale gobble of a roosted turkey. The birds usually spend the night in hardwood trees on high ground, so any gobbles you hear should be clear and obvious. You may need to try several spots before you find a flock, but be persistent and listen hard – sometimes the wind and topography work against you.
A serious gobbler is usually loud and clear. It’s fun to listen to them, but be sensible – pinpoint the birds’ location, consider your options for morning and then leave the place alone. Go home, get your gear ready and get a good night’s sleep. Remember, you need to be back in the woods, set up and ready to call, at least an hour before sunrise!
Because you’ll arrive in the dark, be sure you have a safe route picked out. It’s no fun to trip over barbed wire or fall in a stream at 4 a.m.! Take your time and move quietly (the bird don’t really “sleep,” they just rest and are always looking and listening for danger). Find a spot above the birds and enroute to their favorite feeding area (usually open fields). Don’t get any closer than 100 yards from the roosted birds. Any closer and you risk being spotted.
Sit down with your back to a large tree, wear your camouflage gloves and face mask, and just sit tight for a while. When things have settled down around you, give a few clucks on your slate or box call just to see if the birds are listening. In most cases, you’ll hear a reply from a hen or, even better, a gobbler. Don’t overdo it and keep calling endlessly. You’ve found your birds and they are nearby, so just sit tight and wait for them to start their day. It won’t be long!
About one-half hour before sunrise, the hens will sound off with a variety of clucks, purrs and yelps interspersed with gobbles from nearby toms. Answer them with your own calls, and keep it up till the hens fly down and begin to feed. The gobbler is likely to follow existing hens and may or may not leave them to investigate your setup, so be patient.
If your calling is good the birds will fly down and walk right into you, gobblers included. Knowing this, you must be in a comfortable position, fully camouflaged and ready to shoot. Some toms will come in at full strut and gobbling lustily, while others will sneak in unannounced. Expect anything to happen and be ready, but whatever you do, don’t move when birds are in sight! No game creature in the Maine woods is as sharp as a wild turkey – they do not miss a trick and they do not forgive mistakes. One false move and they are gone – period!
In a textbook situation, the birds will feed past you as the toms gobble and strut. All you have to do is sight tight, aim straight and make a good shot when the time comes. In general, you should wait for the birds to get to within 30 yards and then aim for the point where the gobbler’s neck meets feathers. This allows the top part of your shot pattern to envelop the head and neck. If you aim directly at the head, more than half of your pattern will sail off over his head, doing you no good at all.
It’s always best to wait for the bird to stop moving, stretch out its neck and stare at you – there’s a window of perhaps three seconds when you’ll have a good, clear shot at a standing target. If you move, miss or otherwise spook the bird, consider the game over – the entire flock will run or fly away and that will be that for at least a few hours (smart as they are, turkeys seem to forget real fast, too!).
I have shot turkeys as early as 5:45 a.m. (in places where the sun came up at 6 a.m.), so “ideal conditions” do exist, and over the years you’ll experience some of these “gimme” situations.
Take advantage of the easy shots because the odds are you are going to suffer through many more “what happened?” events, and that’s what we’ll talk about next week!
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