It’s great to call to toms on the roost, but finding one later in the day may be your best chance to punch a tag.
The morning music of breaking dawn in the turkey woods is an overture for a hunter’s soul.
Filtering out the extraneous noise is sometimes difficult but can be accomplished with a little practice. Songbirds carry the melody all the way to the thunderous finale as a male eastern wild turkey makes his presence known to all with a hearty gobble. It is what turkey hunters live for. The opus continues every morning as long as season is open and there are ears in the woods to listen.
Contrary to what many hunters believe, in the normal state of things, hens are attracted to gobblers. Starting in March, hens are encouraged by a longer photoperiod to ready themselves for breeding; gobblers are announcing their presence and letting the hens know where they will be waiting. The hens will yelp and purr to get the old boys’ attention so they will get first breeding rights. This explains why so many hunters get frustrated when gobblers “hen up” right off the roost. Don’t be one of them. Your calling is just as good; your stealth isn’t. Hens just cover the ground going to the gobbler more quickly.
The best times
Where hens are not roosted close to a gobbler, or multiple gobblers are in an area, a hunter has a better chance of getting an early morning bird. I’ll bet I’m not the only turkey hunter who has been fooled by birds in the pre-dawn light. But be not despaired; the middle of the day is prime hunting time, especially as the season passes into April. There is no rule that says a gobbler has to be shot in the early morning. Early afternoon is a fine time.
When the gobbling stops, watch for hens, as well as gobblers, to move to feeding areas. Insects are becoming plentiful, and hens are putting on all the extra weight they can for the 28-day nesting set. Flocks will feed and breed for the entire time hens are laying. One breeding session can fertilize an entire clutch of eggs, but breeding can continue up until setting on the nest begins.
Once laying begins, a hen will lay one egg per day until her clutch of 10 to 12 eggs are in the nest. At that point, she will start setting in earnest. She may have set for short periods before, but once she sets for good, she will only leave the nest once a day to feed. During this time, she and her nest are at their greatest threat from predators such as foxes, bobcats, coyotes and dogs. Raccoons, skunks, possums and snakes are fierce egg predators. According to biologist Adam T. Rohnke, 55 percent of nests that are started fail to produce any poults.
While hens are nesting, gobblers will play. At some point in April, more hens will be nesting than breeding. This is when gobblers go on afternoon walks that will end in their demise at the hands of a savvy hunter.
Guessing the actual day and hour that hens will commit to nesting is like predicting the last frost of spring. One thing is certain: hunters have to be in touch with the flocks they are hunting. Seeing a dozen hens feeding in a hay meadow or a pasture in mid-afternoon one day, and seeing half that number a few days later is a dead giveaway. But such observations require boots on the ground, and success is for hunters who practice due diligence.
Flooding may set back nesting dates. Periods of extended cold weather may delay the establishment of a nest. If a hen is not nesting in April, there is a problem; she may be late-maturing, or her first nest was destroyed and she is starting over. Many Mississippi hunters agree that April 15, the day your income taxes are due, is when the most hens will be setting on the next or already hatching eggs.
Mornings in the woods seem to be the time to hunt turkeys, but afternoons are just as productive, if not more so. Gobblers are still in breeding mode and exhibit aggression. These two traits allow hunters to use decoys to the best advantage.
“A decoy set can be used at any time with some success possible,” said hunter Joshua Hawkins of Pearl. “History has taught me that gobblers like to roost close to, but not with, hens. So to decoy a gobbler as he comes off the roost is an iffy proposition. But I believe they will circle around and try to find that hen later in the morning.”
Later in the day, Hawkins looks for birds feeding in nearby pastures. He sets up the decoys 25 to 30 yards into the field. His setup is typically two hens and a jake. After blinding in, he will wait 20 to 30 minutes before calling. The goal is not to get a distant gobbler to sound off, although they often do. The goal is to attract them to the set. I use purrs and light yelps, as if my little group is having a conversation. If a dominate gobbler hears and sees the decoy setup, the game is on. If the approaching bird hangs up, switching to more aggressive calling will often bring him on in on a string.
Hunter Richard Latham of Forest has several turkey grand slams — eastern, Merriam, Rio Grande and Osceola — to his credit. He saves his annual vacation so he can spend the most time chasing turkeys.
“Knowing the flock’s habits is vital; the birds will follow a pretty set pattern unless something major changes it,” Latham said. “Gobbler groups will remain loosely together and respond well to calling and decoys.. In April, 10 a.m. is not too early to start a mid-day hunt.”
Adding confidence decoys has proven to offer advantages for hunters working field-shy birds with hen and jake decoys. Decoys of crows or great blue herons will give a gobbler the feeling that all is right in the world in this field. He is then far more willing to close the distance to the hen decoy and challenge her faux suitor for breeding rights.
A hen decoy will do the trick, two will do it better. Using a jake decoy will make a more-dominate bird aggressive. Such a setup worked well for me a few seasons ago in Jasper County. Gobblers were roosting in an island of taller trees in a cutover. They flew down to one of two ATV trails. My hunting partner took the hen decoy, and I had a jake. We set up some distance apart, but I could clearly hear his calling.
I called more softly and soon noticed a turkey approaching, paralleling the ATV trail. As it got closer, I remembered the words my daddy beat into my head: once a bird commits to your calling, put you call down and wait. The turkey proved to be a hen. She approached my set and purred a little, than squatted for the jake. She was patient, but her desire to get on with business got the best of her. She circled the decoy again and once again squatted, waiting for the jake to take her invitation.
It was all I could do to keep my composure. She yelped out of frustration, and to our surprise, a gobbler seemed to appear from out of nowhere.
The intruder attacked my jake decoy with impressive vigor. The hen walked a little distance away to observe the fracas. The interloper didn’t have the rope beard I wanted, so he bred the hen and lived to see another day. That incident sold me on the value of decoys.
Decoys run the gambit in cost and complexity; one was marketed that actually operated on a track and unfolded and folded so the impression was given that a gobbler as strutting for hens. That’s a lot of gear to set up and take down. More and more decoys are being made of collapsible material, so several can be easily stored in a hunting pack or turkey vest.
Is high-dollar shot really that much better than lead?
There is no doubt that tungsten-alloy shot makes for a denser pattern. The smaller pellets of the alloy material, being 56% more dense than lead, deliver a lethal punch. Without question, it is a godsend for those hunters with recoil-sensitive shoulders.
Younger hunters and hunters with small frames will find it little problem to shoot. More hunters are giving up conventional, big-bore turkey guns for 20-gauge guns or even the diminutive .410.
Mossberg has recently introduced a .410 bore turkey gun based on their super popular and dependable M500. It was designed from the ground up as a turkey gun, designed to use the new generation of super-dense alloy shotshells. In a nutshell, the turkey hunter gets a lot of bang for the buck.
Give the old girl a makeover
Many older, foam-body turkey decoys are still on the market. They lack the portability of the folding and collapsible models, but they are not yet ready for the scrap heap.
Acrylic paints found at hobby shops and big-box stores that sell for under a buck a bottle are the ticket. A few minutes with a brush are all it takes to touch up the head and neck. A spray from a can of high-gloss clear coat will return the decoy to its original luster.