Folks are likely to notice a bit more activity at the edge of the woods this month as Maine’s wild turkey hunting season gets underway today. Many hunters will go with the “Get ‘em off the roost” approach, which means the day will begin at 3:30 a.m. Somewhere between the shrill tones of the alarm clock and sunrise hunters will need to get out of bed, get dressed, get fed and get going because they know turkeys will begin leaving the safety of their roosting sites well before the sun clears the horizon. Add in a bit of driving and walking time, plus a few minutes of “shock calling” in order to establish the exact location of the flock and it’s easy to see that turkey hunting can be more challenging than deer hunting. Waterfowl hunters are the only other group that needs to deal with such logistics just to get their day started. Worst yet is that even after all this preparation there’s an even chance that the day will end just as it began, with no bird in hand.
Last week we covered the basics of spring turkey hunting which will likely suffice for the majority of hunters this week, but if the birds fail to cooperate, ignore calls and decoys or, as often happens, seem to have disappeared, the game really gets interesting. Deer hunters know too well how frustrating it can be to sit in the woods all day and not see or hear a thing, but when your quarry is known for its loquacious nature and still fails to communicate, you know you are in for a long day.
Vocal or silent, a turkey’s day is pretty much the same. Fly down from the roost, begin digging and poking through the leaves and grass for food and then, near sunset, fly back into the trees. In spring this basic routine is punctuated by the birds’ mating ritual, but even then the hens continue to feed between annoying dalliances with the strutting toms.
For this reason it’s a good idea for hunters faced with silent turkeys to bank on the birds’ daily routine. Turkeys will wander for miles after leaving the roost as they search for food, investigating every open field, logging road and hardwood ridge as they peck and scratch their way through the day. Each adult turkey will eat about 1 pound of food per day, and if you’ve ever tried to gather a pound of dry nuts, buds, insects and assorted other natural goodies you know that it will take just about all day to fill a turkey’s crop. All of this means that even if the birds are not “talking” all day they are definitely on the move, and therein lies the hunter’s best strategy: Pick a spot where turkeys have been known to feed (your pre-season scouting should have revealed plenty of option), sit down, call sparingly and wait. This last element is the one that stymies most hunts because it’s the rare human who can sit still for hours on end, maintaining focus and enthusiasm when there is absolutely no sign of game and nothing to suggest that anything will change by sunset. The battle, then, is not with the turkeys but with the hunter himself, and too often impatience wins out over determination.
The concept is simple enough: Sit still and call every 15 minutes or so (just a few soft clucks or yelps). Look around, listen and pay attention. An incoming turkey may shuffle a few leaves or utter the occasional yelp or purr but in most cases they simply show up, standing tall, wondering what in the world you are looking at. A bird may come from behind, to the left or right, even straight in front, but there’s no telling when or where a silent turkey will make its entrance. You know there are turkeys in the area. You’ve scouted their feeding zones and you know where they roost, so there’s little doubt that you will eventually lay eyes on a curious tom. The question is will you be ready when he shows up?
Hunters who are easily bored, fidgety or otherwise unable to concentrate on doing nothing for long periods of time will not do well when the birds go silent. I am fortunate in that I am able to spend long hours simply gazing into the distance, a quality that comes in very handy when it comes to hunting or fishing. I simply sit back, let my mind wander and pay attention to the sights and sounds around me, often rehashing previous hunts in my mind or merely listening to the voices in my head . . . it’s all very entertaining and keeps me from losing my focus on the job at hand. Before I realize it hours have passed and then there’s the sudden crush or leaves or plaintive cluck or yelp that tells me a turkey is nearby. If the bird is nearby I’ll continue to wait for a sighting, but if the tom seems to be over the next rise I’ll risk offering him a yelp or cluck in reply.
It doesn’t take much to bring a curious, lusty tom turkey into range. On a dry, clear day I’ll give him a few seductive purrs on my trusty Cody slate call (slate calls are not as effective in wet weather), which invariably cracks the suspicious bird’s defense mechanism and brings him right into my lap.
The last thing the hunter needs to do is slowly and carefully raise his shotgun or bow into position, giving the bird plenty of time to tiptoe into range. This may take another 30 minutes or more but you don’t want to blow it now. Sit, wait, watch and make any minor adjustments while your quarry is hidden behind brush, a fallen log or large tree trunk. The instant he steps into view the party is over and all those long hours of patient waiting will pay off.
At least that’s how it is supposed to work!