Spring turkey seasons can prove tricky in the Mountain West. Long seasons assure plenty of time afield, but arriving on the wrong weekend can result in more frustration than action. Early in the season you’ll most often find gobblers “henned up,” and while they might prove quite vocal, completely willing and able, luring them away from a large bevy of hens — despite your best calling efforts — can prove a futile exercise. Arrive too late and gobblers can act as if breeding is the farthest thing from their minds; exhausted, or more likely too shell-shocked to respond favorably to careful hen yelps. It’s most often those times somewhere in the middle that result in the those magic days when gobbles sound from every quarter and trophy longbeards arrive suicidally to even lackluster calling.
Also, every season is different. Early snows can postpone breeding for weeks, while hot weather may get them started well before the season opener. A sudden influx of hunting pressure in your favorite hotspot may ruin a piece of public land you’ve always had all to yourself and counted on for success. The man who proclaims a certain date on the calendar is the only week to hunt — putting all his eggs in one basket — is always risking finding himself facing a quickly-dwindling season without anything to show for his efforts.
Not to despair; there are still gobblers to be had. You just might have to change your approach to fill that tag before time runs out. Here’s how.
I’ve been in this catch-up phase many times (due mostly to my archery-hunting habit), but the times I remember best are hunting in Arizona’s White Mountains (the state’s top turkey hunting destination). Arizona’s Southwestern Merriam’s habitat (especially that of the White Mountain Apache Tribe) is fairly typical of the region and species: abrupt ridges and points of requisite Ponderosa pine, areas of Gamble’s oak, flanked by open meadows of quickly-greening grass (in other states greening hay pasture or grain fields replace natural meadows). By mid-May, when spring turkey season is winding down quickly, boss toms have mostly ceased gobbling, hens are off somewhere sitting on nests and suddenly disinterested in them, with hunting becoming challenging indeed. The lucky hunter might stumble across one last bird willing to attend to a call, but you really can’t count on it.
I approach this problem by investing in plenty of hiking, concentrating efforts on those plentiful meadows I’ve hinted at, as well as areas covered in loose pine straw or oak leaves. Of course, I’m not just mindlessly walking, but seeking sign — turkey sign and lots of it. The most obvious includes fresh droppings (hens producing clumped leavings, gobblers small “question marks”), dusting areas or scratched areas in oak leaves or pine straw where turkeys actively feed. Eventually I’ll come across that one meadow, a prime ridge, where turkey sign’s particularly abundant. The hunt then turns into a waiting game.
Because I’m a bow hunter, this means portable pop-up blind concealment, though the shotgun hunter might make do with hastily-assembled ground blinds. Place blinds within sure range of concentrated sign, stab a single hen decoy no more than 10 yards from your hide and settle in for the long wait. I tote a good paperback to occupy myself, catching occasional catnaps following early wakeups. You never know when a gobbler will arrive — though the modern trail camera’s an effective tool in these ploys. I deploy a multitude of them during spring turkey seasons, just as I do during fall whitetail dates, to get a better handle on what’s happening in my hunting area and when.
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