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The 3 Phases of a Turkey Season
By breaking down your turkey-hunting experiences, you'll see that each spring season follows a pattern. Now it's up to you to figure out the timing. This will help.
by John Higley
Almost everyone who sets out to hunt wild turkeys during the spring breeding season knows the basic premise - to locate a willing tom and call him into shotgun or bow range by mimicking the sounds of a lovelorn hen. It's a simple enough concept, especially if you're inexperienced and don't yet fill your mind with images of everything that can, and does, go wrong while dealing with these frustratingly grand game birds.
Spring hunting seasons are set by game departments to take advantage of the turkey's annual breeding cycle. What some hunters don't realize is that there is a natural progression during the season that dictates the attitude of the turkeys you encounter in the field at a particular time. These attitudes themselves vary in timing and scope from place to place, depending on the geographic location, weather, the egg-laying and nesting ritual of hens, and even the amount of hunting pressure in a given area.
You can divide a typical spring season into three segments: beginning, or peak gobbling season; middle, subdued gobbling period; and end, another peak gobbling period. While it's futile to attempt to draw a definite time line around the exact days these periods begin and end, you can learn to recognize the features of each one of them and the variables that might temporarily negate a normal flow of events.
Each fall, family groups of turkeys gather in large flocks made up of several adult hens and usually their female young of the year. Older toms, meanwhile, gather in smaller bachelor groups, while young toms (jakes) form teenage gangs which often hang around the larger family flocks and sometimes mix with them. Mature toms will mix with them as well, but only occasionally. In a winter flock of 100 birds, you will witness some division between these groups, even if they're feeding simultaneously in the same pasture.
Watching a flock of toms in winter is always educational. On a mild winter day, for example, you'll note that some gobblers and even hens feeling their oats will chase other turkeys in their flocks around in a semi-serious display of dominance. As the days grow longer and the spring breeding season approaches, this pecking order game gets serious. If you're lucky, it will still be under way when the season opens.
Then comes opening week of the spring turkey season, which has a typical way things flow.
Because of the unsettled atmosphere surrounding the flocks, there will be a lot of gobbling and carrying on; even the hens will be more vocal than usual. This is the time when you might still hear gobblers fighting with one another, and for that matter, hens will be hassling each other too.
An unattached tom that wants to breed and hasn't yet accepted a subordinate role is ripe for your bogus hen sounds. That goes double for a flock of jakes. Early in the breeding season, these young males are apt to be seen hanging around a boss tom and his hens or running after every odd hen sound they hear. Yes, they will have foolish lust in their hearts. Don't be surprised if four or five of them come in at once.
I remember one opening day a few years ago when I heard it all: gobblers fighting, gobblers gobbling and hens cutting and yelping. It was a pleasant cacophony of sounds.
Listening closely, I realized what it all meant: The turkeys were in the midst of separating into small groups that very morning. I was able to get in fairly close to the action, and when I started yelping like a lost hen, gobblers came to me from two directions at once. I took one of them home.
This is the time when a single gobble at fly-down time tells you that Mr. Tom is already with hens when his feet touch the ground. If he does answer your calls, he will do so while following his harem and getting farther away from you. Yes, it's frustrating.
Toms stay close to the hens all day and roost in close proximity at night. Such henned-up toms are difficult, if not impossible, to call. There are, however, exceptions to that rule.
A boss gobbler, temporarily separated from his hens for one reason or another, may suddenly be vulnerable to calling, but you've got to recognize the situation to take advantage of it.
My son Mark was with me one morning when we encountered a tom with hens that badly wanted for us to come join him. He answered our every call for 30 minutes, but each gobble told us he was getting farther away. We were trying to get in front of the flock when we accidentally spooked three deer. They ran down the slope right to the turkeys.
Not surprisingly, the venison stampede caused the birds to depart at once in different directions, and we didn't hear sound out of them for nearly an hour. When the tom eventually opened up again, he was back at the scene of the breakup looking for his hens. Realizing this, Mark slipped down the hill unseen, set up and called the bird right to him.
On another mid-season spring morning, a friend and I watched three longbeard toms showing off for several hens right below their roost trees. Hoping something good would happen, we both called to the toms and sat fascinated as one of them, evidentially the big boss, proceeded to chase his two rivals out of sight. He returned minutes later, and when we called again he ignored the real hens and came looking for us. It was my turn to shoot - and I did.
As period two wears on, many hens will start visiting nests to lay an egg after joining the toms at daybreak for breeding. If you happen to be in the woods when the hens depart, probably sometime after 9 a.m., and an old boss tom starts to gobble, a few yelps by you may be all it takes to get up close and personal with him.
The theory is valid, but you need to be aware of some potential extenuating circumstances. For one, heavily hunted areas will hold fewer gobblers than they did in Period One. For another, breeding activity may come to an end, even before the hunting season closes.
I once called a tom in and took his photo a full week after the hunt was over, but I've also seen toms on the last weekend that wouldn't even raise their heads to acknowledge my best calls. They simply kept right on feeding as if food, not hens, was the most important thing in the world. Considering that gobblers rarely eat during the breeding season, food may indeed be tops on their list.
Even though most hens are incubating their eggs by the last week of the season, there are always exceptions: Some inexperienced young hens may get off to a late start; some older birds may vacate their nests because of predation, and prolonged nasty weather or some other disturbance may extend the breeding season. These hens often go looking for toms and then allow themselves to be bred again to start a late-season clutch of eggs. That's why it's common to see different sizes and ages of poults during the summer months.
Despite the variables, the tag end of the season is, indeed, an excellent time to hunt turkeys. When things go just right you may wonder what happened to all the "smart" old toms you dealt with a couple weeks before. The answer is: nothing. They're the same old toms, all right, except now there aren't many hens around, making the toms lonely and vulnerable.
I'd just crossed a small creek fed by run-off and had not yet called at all when the welcome sound of a lusty gobble reached my ears. The tom was in a swale just beyond a low rise. He volunteered another gobble, and I felt a shiver along my spine. He was looking for company.
Eagerly, I headed for the top of the hump to find the perfect place to set up. Then I made an amateur's mistake. Sometimes I think the main difference between a turkey hunter with decades of experience and a greenhorn is that the old-timer identifies his blunders faster. In this case, I went a tiny bit too far, and the tom was a teensy bit too close. Before I could sit down I caught a glimpse of him - turning tail and trotting away. "Swell Higley," I thought. "You blew another one."
Then again - maybe not. The tom must not have recognized my movement as that of a predator. Why else would he turn around? Within 10 minutes he was back to gobbling, in effect telling me where he was.
Covering ground as quickly as possible, and using the terrain to hide my approach this time, I scurried up a draw to about the same level as the bird. Looking around quickly, I found a place to sit in the midst of a small stand of oaks with fair visibility, dug out a box call and scraped out a few tentative yelps.
The bird was close, without hens, and eager. I saw him coming through the loose brush 100 yards away, strutting, spitting and drumming. It seemed to take him forever to close the gap but in reality it was only a couple of minutes before he offered me a shot at 18 yards. I didn't refuse.
A fine 20-pound bird, he had all the earmarks of a boss tom, including a 10-inch beard and better than inch-long spurs. The only thing he lacked, in fact, was a compliment of hens.
Such things do happen at various times throughout every spring hunting season, but that particular scenario is far more likely during the final phase when the hens should be on their nests.
Understanding turkeys and how they behave as the breeding season progresses isn't rocket science. But there are always things to observe and learn in the world of turkeys. With each new understanding comes greater success in your hunting endeavors.
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