It’s been noted that “the early bird gets the worm.” There is some truth to that in many endeavors, and one of those might certainly be the spring turkey season. Those hunters who have effectively done their pre-season scouting, located a gobbler, found his roost, and are sitting near it on opening morning have an excellent chance of success.
That doesn’t always mean, however, that those who fail to score early must go home hungry.
Thanks to an abundant turkey population, and a season in the Central and North regions that runs into late April, there is ample opportunity for end-of-the-season hunters to score. All they have to do is alter their tactics.
It doesn’t take much human pressure during the early part of the season to alter the behavior of turkeys. They quickly pick up on that pressure and respond to it. They won’t follow their normal pre- and early-season routines. But they’re still turkeys, and once hunters understand how pressure affects their daily behavior, the chances of scoring are still good.
RESPONDING TO PRESSURE
Just how a gobbler responds to hunting pressure depends upon how much of it he has received. If the bird is in an area that has received little, if any pressure, his behavior won’t be much different than it would be on opening day. Nothing has happened to alter his normal behavior.
The only real change is that by the latter portion of the season, many of the hens have been bred, and that’s good news for hunters. It means that with a lesser number of hens available, the gobbler has to move more to find those hens that are still receptive.
If there is a simple key to the latter part of the season, it is to locate good turkey habitat that has seen as little pressure as possible. That’s not always easy to do, but some hunters who have access to private land with may be able to pull it off. They may have to move farther and deeper into the areas that aren’t so easy to hunt, but it’s worth it if they can find an unpressured bird.
If you’re not that fortunate, and particularly if you hunt public land, you likely are dealing with pressured gobblers. There’re several ways that they will respond to pressure.
One of the most common is for the bird to simply shut up. An unpressured bird may gobble furiously on the roost in the morning, and then continue when he hits the ground. A pressured bird seldom does. They may gobble a few times on the roost, but go silent after that. Once they hit the ground, they may talk very little at all, and that includes responding to hen calls. That can make them very difficult to locate.
They still are looking for hens, and move in the direction of any hen they hear. But they won’t talk back and tell you they’re there. It’s not at all uncommon during the later season for a caller to be working, and just suddenly have a bird show up unannounced. That usually catches the hunter unaware and exposed. But, as we’ll see in a minute, there is a remedy for that.
Another response, although not as common, is for the bird to shift its roost site and actually move to another area. They don’t normally move into the thicker cover like a pressured whitetail buck would, but they can vacate one area for another. This is seldom a lengthy move — not more than a half-mile or so under most circumstances — but it is something to watch for.
Surprisingly, one place they can often move to is the home territory of a dominant bird that was harvested early in the season. It may not make sense to us to move right into a “firing line,” but it can to the gobbler.
When a dominant gobbler stakes out a territory, he does so because there is ample food, good roosting sites and plenty of hens. If that bird is harvested, the only thing that changes is that he’s not there anymore. And often, the hunters who were targeting him have left as well. If the habitat and hens are the same, but the pressure has dropped, there’s no reason why a bird pressured out of an adjacent area wouldn’t move in.
LOCATING PRESSURED BIRDS
Regardless of whether a tom stays in his original home range, or shifts to another, he’s likely to be very quiet. That makes it difficult to locate him, or even determine if he is in the area. Traditional locator calls may not work very well, and hen calls are often useless. One call, however, can sometimes work.
Given the success of Florida’s turkey restoration program, it is almost unheard of for good habitat to have only one gobbler living in it. There are other gobblers besides the dominant bird. These are often lesser birds in the jake or 2-year-old class. They have learned — painfully, in some cases — that opening their mouths is a good way to get a visit from the Big Guy, who will promptly administer a “whupping.” After a few such occurrences, they learn to be vocally discreet. This can play into the hunter’s hands during the later season.
A dominant bird, regardless of location, is still looking for hens and won’t take kindly to a lesser bird intruding upon him. Although he may be very quiet after being pressured, he often responds to a challenge gobble if he thinks a younger bird is courting his hens. When it comes to locating a late-season gobbler, the challenge gobble is one call that may get a response. That at least lets the hunter know a gobbler is in the immediate area.
An interesting twist on the dominance factor can sometimes make it very productive to move into the home area of a dominant bird that has been harvested — especially if you are certain that it was the dominant bird and it was taken on opening weekend. That may sound counterproductive, but it’s not.
There are multiple gobblers in most areas of Florida that have good habitat. In many cases, the dominant gobbler within that group is a 3-year-old bird. That’s because he’s the fittest at fighting, and that’s how dominance is established. The jakes won’t challenge him, and the 2-year-olds aren’t strong enough to beat him. Any 4-year-old birds in the area are also outclassed when it comes to fisticuffs. They’re just too old to punch it out with a younger challenger in his prime, and they’re smart enough to know that they can get some hens by just quietly hanging around the sidelines.
If that dominant 3-year-old is harvested, it’s a whole new ball game for the other birds. When the Big Guy is no longer there to provide discipline, one of the lesser birds becomes the “new” dominant tom, and he does it in the traditional manner — by whipping his challengers. If you’re the one doing the challenger call, even a 4-year-old bird might come running to accept the challenge. Or, at the very least, one of the birds should respond with a challenge of his own to let you know he’s there. Don’t discount the challenge gobble call late in the season.
If that doesn’t produce a positive result, the best option remaining to determine if a gobbler is indeed in the area is to stopping hunting birds and start hunting their droppings.
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