Maine’s 2016 spring turkey hunting season opens just one week from today. These big birds have been making the rounds of open fields and pastures for several weeks, the males strutting and gobbling for all they are worth as the hens ignore them with equal vigor – or so it seems. The wild turkey’s spring breeding ritual is a long, slow process but anyone with some spare time and a Thermos of coffee can observe the event and see that there actually is some rhyme and reason to the spectacle.
Male turkeys (the ones with the blue-white heads and a tuft of brittle feathers sticking out of their chests) will puff up their feathers, drag their wings and do a subtle soft-shoe dance for the hens that most often seem to be avoiding the amorous advances of the displaying males. The hens generally continue feeding, dusting and going about the day’s business without regard to the puffery of their male counterparts, who will do just about anything to get the attention of a receptive female.
The males will gobble incessantly, especially at dawn, strut and pose, fight amongst themselves occasionally, chase each other away and sometimes even engage in some serious kick-fighting that often sends the feathers flying. All of this, of course, is supposed to show the hens who’s the boss among the toms, who continue to strut, gobble and display their turkeyhood all day long – even when the hens have left the field and there’s no one left to impress but the other males.
All of this activity plays into the hands of spring turkey hunters, whose strategy is to call as seductively as any hen in order to lure the lusty toms into shotgun or bow range. On a good day the gobblers come running to the caller, while on a slow day it make take a curious tom several hours to close the gap. Either way the hunter must sit still and wait for the big bird to side-step close enough for a shot, a process that can take all day in some cases.
The basic routine used by most hunters begins the evening before, when the turkeys are about to fly up to their nighttime roosts. During this process, which takes place just before and after sunset, the tom turkeys will continue to gobble in response to a crow call or owl hoot, effectively giving their position away. Most hunters “roost” several flocks just in case there is competition from other sports.
Next morning well before dawn the hunter sneaks in to within 100 yards of the roosted birds, gets set up to sit quietly with a decoy or two for distraction, and then calls very quietly just to let the flock know there is a lonely hen down below. Near dawn the gobblers will start bellowing, and the hunter continues yelping softly just to keep the tom’s attention.
Shortly before sunrise the flock will leave the roost and, hopefully, the gobbler (or gobblers) will head for the “hen” that’s been bugging them for the last hour. Ideally, the tom comes in, spies the decoys and comes toward them in full strut to meet his end.
Alas, it’s not always so easy!
In most cases even the dumbest strutting tom is easily lured away by live hens who often get very upset that there is an interloper in their midst. There is a pecking order among turkeys that starts with the oldest hen and continues downward in authority to the youngest hen – the males are generally ignored because they are usually gobbling, strutting and vogueing and are likely to miss any signs of danger.
The best tactic at this point is to sit tight and wait for the gobbler to return, which may be several hours later. He won’t forget where that seductive hen was at dawn but he had other work to do. It may be 11 a.m. or later but he will return to woo the errant female. As they say, good things come to those who wait.
Another option is to let the flock move into the distance, and then pick up and run a wide circle around them, hoping to get ahead of the flock and set up a new ambush. It’s always best to seek the high ground but in flat country there’s no need to worry. Get ahead of the birds, set up and sit down – and then wait. Again, it may be several hours before the feeding (and breeding) flock makes it way to the decoys but if you are patient, call sparingly and stay alert they will show up.
Yet another option is to listen to the gobbling sequences that go on just as the sun is coming up. While some gobblers will already be with hens there will be several others who are single and on their own, wandering the woods gobbling and yelping in hopes of finding a receptive hen. Listen to all the gobbling that’s going on and take note of the ones that seem to be moving fastest and gobbling most frequently. It’s often possible to call one of these lust-crazed toms into range early in the morning before they’ve had a chance to hook up with another hen. Move 50 yards closer to the target tom each time he gobbles and then give him a few yelps or clucks in response. Sooner or later you can close the gap and the big boy will come close enough for a shot. This process may take minutes or hours so be prepared to wait.
There are all sorts of calls available that turkey hunters can use to advantage including diaphragm calls, slate calls, box calls, push-button calls, even wing bone calls. A simple push-button call will do the trick but most hunters enjoy toying with other calls and trying to get a response out of a distant gobbler. I prefer a box call to get their attention and then a slate call to tease them up close, but every hunter has his own preference.
“Talk” to your bird but don’t overdo it. Turkeys don’t yelp and cluck all day and neither should you!