Spring Greening

With each passing day of spring turkey season, weather and vegetation change, in turn changing turkey behavior -- and that should spur hunters to change their tactics. (March 2007)

When the spring woods green up, turkey hunters who adjust their approach to mesh with the changing vegetation are the ones who go home successful.
Photo by Michael Skinner

Spring turkey season is a time of change -- which in part explains the difficulty of the game that is turkey hunting. If things would stay the same from beginning to end, maybe more hunters could get a better handle on it.

But things don't stay the same. Typically, turkey seasons open when the woods -- and often the temperatures -- seem more wintry than springlike; just as typically, conditions by the end of the season often resemble those of summer, with foliage dense and green and the days sultry and humid.

The turkeys themselves go through shifts every bit as dramatic. Emerging from winter segregated into uniform flocks of hens, jakes or longbeards --groupings often still intact when the season opens -- the birds quickly pass through several predictable phases: spring break-up, complete with fighting and resetting of the pecking order; the first peak of gobbling, when gobblers are ready but hens aren't; the prime mating period, when hens and gobblers see eye to eye and gobbling almost ceases; the lingering lull after most of the mating is accomplished, when the gobblers still follow the hens around and will gobble at you but will rarely leave the hens; the nesting period, when the hens start slipping away to their nests and the gobblers become more vulnerable in the middle reaches of the day; the second peak of gobbling, when the hens are incubating and the lonely gobblers are trying to locate some more female companionship; and finally, the wind-down period, when a combination of increasing day length, increasing temperatures and discouragement results in a gradual cessation of gobbling as the toms begin to reestablish bachelor groups.

That long, very complicated sentence describes a long, very complicated vernal ritual. Unfortunately, the ritual's predictability doesn't make it any easier to deal with. Hunters must continually revise their thinking and their game plans -- even, in some instances, their camo patterns -- just to stay in this game.

EARLY-SEASON STRATEGIES

Some states begin their turkey seasons too early. As a result (unless spring comes ahead of schedule), opening-day hunters find themselves taking to the woods before the birds are ready. If you're a turkey hunter, you want to be there on opening day whether the turkeys are ready or not, because at least some gobbling will be heard, and sometimes a lot. But the gobblers will still be still hanging out together, and won't be very receptive to hen calling.

Dealing with these early birds is more a matter of being where they want to be, and getting there before they do. It's basically a deer hunter's game plan: scout, anticipate, ambush. Calling is often useful for locating gobblers, because they'll gobble at hen calls even when they're still in bachelor groups. But only rarely will one come to hen calling in the way that we'd like for him to do.

Imitating gobblers by means of more-subtle clucks and coarse, short yelps is usually better for closing the deal on one of these late-winter/early-spring turkeys (assuming, of course, that you've followed the advice in the preceding paragraph and are calling from a likely place). "There are only two places you can call a turkey to," an old turkey hunter told me one time when I was a struggling newcomer. "You can call him to where he's already going, or you can call him to a place he doesn't mind being."

Now that I'm an old man myself, and have graduated to the status of struggling veteran, I realize that the advice offered by that sage old-timer was sound and insightful. Accordingly, my early-spring hunts now see me devote more time to making the effort to get into the best possible calling location than to actually trying to call in a gobbler.

Just being in the right spot isn't enough, though. Open, bare woods work against the turkey hunter in most cases, as a turkey's vision is as acute as its hearing, and both work better before greenup. At that time it can see and hear farther and better, and can more easily detect the subtle sounds and movements that the hunter must invariably make to get the gun on the bird.

Setting up so that the approaching turkey is out of sight behind a ridge or under a hill until it's in gun range is one way of dealing with the long-range vision problem, but even in hunting areas featuring a lot of roll in the landscape, not every place such as the old-timer described -- which a turkey either is headed to anyway or would be OK with checking out -- gives you that option. And before greenup starts in the typical Southern river swamp or pineywoods forest, a gobbler may have the advantage of a largely unobstructed line of sight extending 300 yards or more.

A portable blind can help prevent you from being seen or heard by your quarry, but it can't make a turkey see something that isn't there -- namely, another of its kind. It's another way in which the high degree of visibility in the pre-green woods works against the hunter: An approaching gobbler expects to be able to see the bird doing the calling, so it's likely to come the rest of the way into range if it doesn't get that confirmation.

Decoying is the obvious answer, but almost all commercial models are either hens or jakes, and considering that the turkeys are still largely in sex-segregated flocks, this isn't good. I've had many early-season gobblers balk at hen and/or jake decoys, and I'm convinced that the counterfeit turkeys' lack of resemblance to adult gobblers is the reason. I've had some success with affixing a longer beard to a jake decoy, but sometimes the gobbler I'm working seems intimidated when he spots the other longbeard.

One last tactic for pre-greenup hunting: the exercise of extreme patience. Run-and-gun tactics are worthless -- partly because the turkeys aren't yet ready for aggressive tactics, partly because your chances of getting busted by a sharp-eyed bird are much greater in late winter's wide-open woods. Scout and find several places that the turkeys are using heavily, and then spend your time in those places. Make yourself comfortable and wait 'em out.

GREENING UP AND GEARING UP

In most areas, spring greenup and the break-up of the winter flocks happen pretty much simultaneously.

"When the white oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear, it's time to go kill a turkey": another tip from another old hunter. Pretty unscientific, I guess -- but in a lifetime of hunti

ng turkeys, I've never heard a wildlife biologist say it any better.

Even though the vegetation's seasonal progress lags behind the turkeys' change in mood in most cases, things get a lot more exciting at this second stage of the game. The gobblers have split up, and although finding two or more gobblers still hanging together is becoming increasingly common as turkey populations rise, the males become receptive to hen calls and will not only answer, but will come -- sometimes.

It's at this stage of the spring cycle that it's easiest to work a gobbler right off the roost. The key still lies in positioning and proper calling. Getting close to a roosted turkey is important, but given the sparse greenery of spring, a hunter doesn't want to get too close. In most Eastern forest situations, a range of 100 to 200 yards is reasonable.

Set up where you've got a good view and a gobbler has a stage on which to show off its finery. Experienced hunters have little trouble recognizing promising strutting areas, but as it's hard to see such sites in the dark, proper familiarity with your hunting territory is helpful here. Food plots, edges of fields, old log decks (or other such openings in heavy forest), open woods roads on ridges, east-facing ends of ridges or points, pipeline or power line rights of way -- all these make for advantageous setups during this first gobbling peak.

Decoys are sometimes helpful during this phase, but just as at other times, sometimes they cause problems. Subdominant gobblers -- or wise, hook-spurred veterans -- sometimes shy away from decoys and refuse to commit. If possible, set out the decoys so that the gobbler must move past your position within shotgun range in order to close on the bogus birds.

Many hunters overcall to gobblers on the roost. It's hard to resist calling to a hot-gobbling bird, but this is generally a mistake while it's still in the tree. Too much calling will often hang it up on the limb, and the longer he stays, the more likely a real hen will show up. A soft tree call or two to get him thinking about what may be up in your direction will usually be all you want until he's on the ground; then, ratchet up the intensity of your calling to match the gobbler's mood.

The strategy for the period after fly-down is much the same. Gobblers respond well to crow, hawk and other locator calls at this stage of greenup, and once you get your turkey located, follow the guidelines above to approach as close as you think safe and pick out a likely strutting area for your setup.

THE DREADED MID-SEASON LULL

Enjoy the first flush of gobbling while you can, because with the further advance of greenup comes the inevitable falloff in gobbling activity. When the hens become receptive, the gobblers have all the female company they can handle, and during these quiet days of the season, you'll sometimes swear that not a turkey's left in the world.

Now's the time to revert to the wait-'em-out strategy. At this time, the most sensible techniques are low-key and low-pressure: spending lots of time in favored strut zones, calling quietly, staying alert at all times for the sounds of footsteps in the leaves, soft clucks, or drumming. Still moving through their territories behind their hens, gobblers have little incentive for gobbling. If there's a part of the spring turkey season you have to miss, this would be it.

THE SECOND PEAK

Fortunately, the lull runs its course, usually in 10 to 14 days, and as the hens begin to slip away from the gobblers to lay eggs and then leave them altogether to incubate, the gobblers become vocal again. Waking up alone makes a gobbler anxious, and it'll start gobbling again in an attempt to correct the situation. This widespread tendency marks the second peak of gobbling, the post-breeding time of year that some hunters refer to as the "second season."

It's a fine time to hunt: The gobblers are workable, and the pressure is less than was the case early in the season, the less-than-serious having quit and the successful having tagged out. True, fewer gobblers are to be had during this phase than on opening day, but when you find a bird, you're more likely to have it to yourself, and it's more apt to be a hook-spurred trophy, the inexperienced 2-year-olds that gobble and respond best having gotten shot in the first week.

On the other hand, those hook-spurred survivors whose hens have left and who are still out there during the second season are nobody's pushovers. Remember: They've survived not only the first half of the current season, but two or more past seasons as well, and while they may do a lot of gobbling, they're still not likely to throw caution to the wind to come running to your calls. This is the second season, and it calls for second-season tactics.

Conditions in the woods during the second season differ considerably from those met with in the first. The gobblers may have quit talking, but the leaves didn't suspend their growth, and all through the lull things will have been getting greener and greener and thicker and thicker. This dictates a change of camouflage palette from the predominantly gray or brown tones appropriate early on to greener patterns that'll enable you to blend better with the greening woods.

But camo's a minor consideration easily dealt with; not so easy to cope with are the sound-muffling properties of the dense new growth. First, a hunter's thinking about distances needs adjusting. A gobbler in a tree sounds much the same early or late in the season, but once it's on the ground in the latter phase, the sound of its gobbling will be much more muffled because it has to penetrate all that foliage. It's very easy to overestimate the distance to a late-season turkey, such that most hunters overrun a gobbler or two before learning to compensate.

Caution is still necessary, and maybe more so than in the early season. Late spring's thick foliage makes many hunters overconfident, so they crowd turkeys too much and get busted. Don't let the thick greenery lull you into becoming too bold when you approach a late-season bird.

However, you don't want to be too timid, either. Even though most hens will have left to begin laying and/or incubating, a few receptive ladies are always going to be around during the second season, some merely running behind schedule, others -- having lost their nests to predation -- attempting to breed again before renesting. Dawdle in your approach and stay too far for too long from a gobbling turkey, and you risk its being lured away by a real hen.

Patterning birds during the second peak can be more difficult, too. You might be able to pull it off in a small woodlot, but in the big woods that so many of us hunt, getting a handle on a late-season gobbler's habits can be impossible. A second-season gobbler whose hens have all vanished is likely to abandon its favored early-season strutting zones and take to the road like a traveling salesman with a quota to fill. It's looking for girls, and with girls in short supply, it's likely to travel several miles in a day. You might run into one of these travelers at any stage of the spring mating season, but they're more common late in

the cycle.

WIND-DOWN TIME

The second peak of gobbling comes on fast and ends fast. The few birds that continue to gobble and respond to hen calls on into early summer are for the most part precocious jakes that until now were intimidated by mature birds. When the big boys give it up for the year, the jakes sometimes kick in for a while.

Mostly, though, the game of hunting mature gobblers trends conservative again, and the calls that get results mimic other gobblers -- hoarse clucks and yelps, and not many of them. The gobblers are forming their bachelor flocks, and will come to the calling of another gobbler.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Success in the turkey woods largely depends on your ability to identify the current stages of both the spring greenup and the spring breeding cycle and, then, to adjust accordingly.

(Editor's Note: For more information on dealing with the various successional stages of spring turkey hunting, get a copy of Jim Spencer's 336-page book, Turkey Hunting Digest. Send $24.95 plus $4 shipping to the author at P.O. Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519.)

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