Morning jumps to life in the spring, that special time when the morning music of the breaking dawn begins, when a turkey hunter can sit very still and realize he is witnessing the way the nature awakens when he is not there.
And it can be a wonderful experience, perhaps beginning when an inquisitive wren lights on the end of the shotgun barrel as if it were just another limb, sizes up the situation and flits away to nearby red cedar in search of an insect breakfast.
The mild temperatures require just a comfortable long-sleeve shirt under a turkey vest, but it also has a downside. Young mosquitoes will surely test lightweight gloves and facemasks. That is forgotten, though, when the soundtrack begins to build to a slow crescendo, with wren and cardinal songs.
It signals the time for turkey hunters to join the music.
With stealthily motion the hunter reaches for a call and soon his careful circles and arcs of the striker on slate add to the early morning cacophony. No sooner have the yelps of his call settled over the scene than the star of the show lends his thunderous voice to the operetta. A tom turkey gobbles and the hunt is on.
Yelps, whines, cackles and purrs of the cast soon fill the stage as the gobbler, in his regalia, struts into range. An ear shattering blast from the hunter’s gun silences the stage, with the main character dead in a heap of iridescent feathers.
So much for dreams!
The reality is gobblers are more likely to hen-up right off the roost, and calling them away is an exercise in futility. Or, just when you think the time has come to move, a loud putt comes from just over there, followed by the sound of massive wings beating. Or, a deer scents you and decides to add its voice to the chorus and shuts down the turkeys in the area as they respect the deer’s alarm.
So many variables exist in turkey hunting that killing a trophy gobbler on a single outing rates right up there with winning the lottery. However, some hunters are successful year-in and year-out and they often are at their best late in the season. What are their secrets to a successful late-season hunt?
Read on, and find out!
Just common sense
“The absolutes of turkey hunting come down to two factors, luck and skill,” said Jim Smith of Brandon, former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice and avid hunter. “Luck is being that on any given day, things will go your way; and skills, being that you have eliminated every possible variable for failure.
“Mastering the art of calling, the ability to blend in with the surroundings, moving about in a stealthy manner and learning everything you can about the flock you are hunting, are all parts of the skill set. No one thing will be an adequate substitute if the others are lacking. Use some common sense, a turkey doesn’t have a schedule, it doesn’t have to be out of the woods at a certain time, it can be very patient and wait for the hen to come to him.”
Smith believes skill comes with experience, which can come only one way.
“Nothing a hunter can read from a book or glean from a television show can serve as a substitute for getting in the woods at every opportunity and listening to what the birds are doing,” he said. “Allow the hens to teach you the volume and cadence of a kee-kee run, or a fly-down cackle, or the pause between a string of yelps.
“As a whole, I believe too many hunters call too much and too loud. After a few seasons in the woods a hunter who is listening will learn this. Real turkeys just don’t do that!”
Late in the season, middle of the day
With great stealth, J. H. “Scooter” Whatley made his way through a patch of woods to the edge of an abandoned hay meadow. The sun had passed the midday point, but was far from casting the long shadows of the late afternoon.
Young pines, gums and briars had a strong foothold on the land where cows had grazed just a year before. Still, there were great patches of grass where turkeys might feed. Whatley eased into a sitting position, arranged everything before him that he would need, and called with a soft yelp. Mentally, he was ready for a long sit. That would not be the case.
Without a warning, a gobbler strode onto the scene and blew into a full strut. During a brief moment when its head was behind its fan, the hunter was able to get the gun up. The bird continued to pirouette for the unseen hen, but met a load of No. 6s instead.
The entire scenario played out in less than three minutes, the way afternoon hunts often do.
“This was a satellite bird,” said Whatley. “He had a good beard and I believe he was a 2-year-old. But, for some reason he didn’t want to gobble — he just wanted to find that hen and find her fast. I was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.”
Whatley, a videographer for Mississippi Outdoors television, has hunted for turkeys with camera or gun for over 25 years, so he has great experience working with some of the finest turkey hunters in the state. He credits those associations for the soft yelp, followed with a soft purr, that he uses late in the season.
“I was trying to sound like a hen that was not nesting or had not been bred and was interested in a suitor,” said Whatley. “When hens start setting, there are a number of younger hens that are left to feed when the bred girls are busy with procreation. On the same token, there are gobblers that are always looking for a willing hen away from the dominant gobbler.”
April afternoons are often overlooked by hunters who have, for one reason or another, abandoned the day after the mornings flurry of activity. Whatley said it is a quieter time, when hens that are not on the nest are feeding or looking for a mate.
“Every turkey hunter should know that turkeys are never quiet when they are on the ground, they are constantly communicating with each other with a series of whines, purrs, clicks and yelps,” Whatley said. “A savvy hunter will try to imitate these calls.”
Biology behind a midday hunt
Dave Godwin, Turkey Program Leader for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, knows turkey biology can help a late season hunter to score on a gobbler.
“A single breeding can fertilize all eggs in a clutch,” said Godwin. “In fact, the initial fertilization may even last through a re-nesting attempt as folds in the wall of the upper oviduct serve as sperm reservoirs, and sperm can remain viable for up to 56 days in the hen’s oviduct. Still, it is not uncommon for a hen to be bred repeatedly during the laying period.”
Biology supports the argument for hunting at midday or early afternoon, according to Godwin.
“Laying a full clutch of eggs (generally around 12) takes about two weeks,” the biologist said. “Laying behavior varies but hens generally lay about one egg per day, normally at midday.”
And, Godwin said the later in the season it gets, the better the afternoon hunting, again thanks to normal turkey biology and behavior.
“Once the hen has laid her full clutch, she then begins to incubate the nest,” he said. “She will sit on the nest for 28 days, night and day. The timing of peak nest incubation can vary somewhat from year-to-year as well as regionally.
“The period during late season when most hens are nesting tends to be a successful time for hunters since there is less competition from real hens. In fact, many states with shorter, conservative, seasons try to set their seasons to coincide with this period.”
Being an avid turkey hunter and researcher, Godwin offered these pros and cons to the late season argument.
Pro — “Hunting pressure tends to be lower during the late season, so you might run into less competition from other hunters on public lands.”
Con — “Lots of birds are taken during the early season, and dead turkeys don’t gobble. Therefore, there are going to be fewer birds left gobbling in most areas during late season.
Pro — “If you do get on a (gobbling) bird your chances for success are often higher than they would be earlier in the year when the birds are henned-up.”
Con — “One of the frustrating things about hunting late season birds is that once the woods green up, it can be more difficult to hear birds gobble. Leaves from trees and shrubs, as well as herbaceous understory cover serves to muffle gobbles and other sounds. In many cases, you might only be able to hear a bird a third of the distance that you could hear during the early season prior to green up.”
The late season has hens nesting, taking them away from the gobblers, both in the morning and during the day. Gobbling activity may be less but gobblers that do gobble — and some that don’t — are more likely to respond to your calls.
All are good reasons to be in the woods to hear the morning music of the breaking dawn.
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