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Spring is Turkey Time

By on March 1, 2017
Retired Yankees slugger Babe Ruth warms up with three bats before stepping to the plate at New York's Yankee Stadium, August 21, 1942, as he prepared for a hitting exhibition at the stadium two days later against retired pitching great Walter Johnson.  The pair faced off between games of a doubleheader between the Yankees and the Washington Senators for the benefit of Army and Navy Relief Funds.  (AP Photo/Tom Sande)

Make the Most of Your Opportunities

BY: JOE BUCHER, EAGLE RIVER, WISCONSIN

March, April, and May are turkey months throughout the hills and valleys across most of rural America. The popularity of turkey hunting is growing substantially from year to year. Huge flocks of females (hens), common throughout the winter season, begin to break up into smaller subgroups of two to five birds as the month of March arrives with its increased amount of daylight. By April, older dominant breeder hens are apt to split off and be completely on their own as the urge to breed becomes a primary focus. But more commonly, pairs or even triplets of hens often meet in the middle of a field at first light, fly-down to feed, and then split up to nest after sunrise.

Male turkeys, commonly called “gobblers,” live in bachelor groups throughout the winter season, but also break up as the spring breeding season cranks up. While adolescent males, commonly called “jakes” might still stick together in groups of two to five birds, mature toms are more apt to be traveling alone. Occasionally, a pair of 2-year-old toms will still travel together. Usually one male will be more dominant than the rest and will prove so time and time again by fanning his tail and strutting his wares. Displays of male dominance like this will become more and more constant throughout the entire spring. Incidentally, by age three, most gobblers become loners during the breeding season.

When populations of males are at a very high level, yearling triplets might actually still travel together the entire spring. These birds are usually 2-year-old brothers; all sporting their first full beards and full tail fans. They gobble together, strut together, travel together, and even try to breed together. They fight constantly while trying to establish a hierarchy of sorts, but quite often, they all end up in the same game of spring breeding.

Gobblers that travel in tandems or triplets are among the most fun toms to hunt, because they are so competitive. They can be easily called into gun range due to their own shortsighted competitiveness. While trying to out-do each other, they often get into a foot race to your decoy. Obviously, this is a dream come true when such a hunt unfolds.

Setting Up for Success

Hunting for a big spring gobbler is certainly what turkey hunting is all about, and the quest is often full of surprises, as well as challenges. However, the whole logic behind how to hunt spring turkeys is actually quite simple. Spring gobblers generally always want to be where a breeding opportunity is likely to occur. In a nutshell, wherever a hen goes, a gobbler is sure to follow or eventually end up. Picking set-ups that are frequented by feeding and nesting hens is an excellent strategy at anytime throughout the spring.

Scanning the surroundings for visual turkey sighting is something most spring hunters become good at in short order. The trick is to make good use of binoculars and scan fields from long range whenever possible. The term long range is worth noting. A turkey’s eyesight is its best weapon against predators, including man. Turkeys can spot subtle movements much more so than deer or most other critters. This is why it is best to spot them at long range whenever possible and plan your hunt accordingly.

Another tactic experienced turkey hunters employ is using their ears to pick up subtle, almost imperceptible calls made by cruising hens hidden in nearby wooded areas. The telltale yelp of a feeding hen in a nearby wood lot could be a tip-off to pay dirt. Always treat a hen yelp with high regard since any cruising female is likely to attract a trailing tom. At the very least, her raspy voice is music to all lusty gobblers, and it is a sure bet that males will pick up on it and close in to investigate.

Making the Right Call

One of my absolute favorite and most productive spring turkey hunting strategies is what I commonly call “copy cattin’” a hen. Essentially, I attempt to mimic any hen I hear while on a spring hunt. Calling technique is paramount here, but definitely not difficult to master. The key is to copy her yelps in every way. If she yelps twice, you yelp twice. If she cuts and then yelps, you do the same. If her yelps get louder, you call louder, and vice versa. Try to replicate her vocal language as much as you can. Quite often, this aggravates a bossy hen. Sometimes she’ll actually get so annoyed by the whole process that she will be drawn right into your calling location in an effort to locate this pesky copycat.

As you continue this chatter with a nearby hen, your calling techniques automatically get better and you begin to understand how to manipulate your turkey call in order to achieve these tones. At the same time, all this gossip between you and the hen is sure to excite any gobbler cruising by, and will likely trigger strong vocal responses from him commonly referred to as gobbles. In other words, a vocal hen is likely to call in the gobbler for you! All you need to do is talk to the hen.

I can’t even begin to count how many times this tactic has worked for me over the years. In fact, I can honestly say I probably called as many toms into gun range with this method versus any other tactic employed. Getting a hen to talk back to your calling technique is absolutely deadly. Admittedly, there have even been times when I’ve gotten hens so fired up with this copy cattin’ trick that they’d end up hanging around my dekes (decoys) and yelping non-stop for an entire morning. Whenever this happens, I put my calls down and let the real thing do all the work. Gobblers are sure to find a vocal group of hens feeding around your decoys almost impossible to resist.

Speaking of decoys, my favorite setup for this style of hunting is usually a pair of hen dekes—and I prefer both to be in a feeding pose. While I’ve killed plenty of toms over upright, alertly postured hen dekes, I do think they tend to spook some birds. An upright posture on a turkey decoy occasionally puts an approaching gobbler on alert. However, feeding posture hen decoys nearly always relay a calming, safe scenario to a wary bird.

The most reliable indicator that your decoy(s) is non-threatening and acceptable is to watch the way other critters react to your setup. If crows, cranes, and small birds fly down and hang around your dekes, you’re definitely golden.

Hunting in Comfort

Finally, while today’s camo clothing enables you to blend in quite well with most surroundings, nothing beats a portable pop-up blind for spring turkey hunts. Of course, placement of the blind is critical, but once your blind is set up in a high traffic turkey area, you can sit in comfort and get away with movements such as glassing, munching on snacks, or sipping a cup of coffee without fear of spooking nearby game of any kind. Typically, I set up several blinds in key locations before a hunt and then store my decoys as well as a good folding chair or two inside, so I can prepare for a hunt quickly and quietly. These portable pop-up blinds are a blessing when weather turns foul too. They’ve made hunting during inclement weather possible and enable you to stay warm, dry and ready for action.

Interest in spring turkey hunting has grown by leaps and bounds all throughout North America. It is also one of the very best ways to hunt with family and friends. While many other forms of hunting require a solo approach, tag-team hunting for spring turkeys has many benefits. For one, an experienced caller can sit alongside a novice on the gun and teach him or her the ropes while coaxing a lusty tom into shot range. Secondly, the conversation and fellowship that is developed on any typical tag-team hunt can be rewarding in itself.

Don’t miss out on an opportunity to hunt spring turkeys. All you need is a shotgun, a call, and a decoy. Add a portable pop-up blind to your arsenal, and you can hunt almost anywhere, any time. For RoadKing readers, consider that most states allow you to purchase a license right over the counter, and many good public land options exist when it comes to turkeys. Stop by a local sport shop and hook up with a local on private land who knows the ropes, and your odds improve immensely. Once you experience success on a spring turkey hunt, you’re likely to become addicted. That’s exactly what happened to me more than two decades ago.

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