The Mid-State's Tough Late Season Toms
September 30, 2010
Once toms have been pressured by hunters, they become harder to find and fool. But with these tips that chore should be a bit easier.
Bagging a tom late in the season is possible, but you need to adjust your tactics to achieve the feat.
Photo by Rod Hunter
It is no secret that getting there "firstest with the mostest" is a pretty good game plan for just about any endeavor, and spring turkey season is no exception. Those who do their pre-season scouting properly, pick the right spot on opening day, and do not commit any flagrant fouls that screw up the proceedings have put the odds significantly in their favor when it comes to bagging a gobbler.
Unfortunately, circumstances can prevent some hunters from participating in the early season. And for those who can make opening day, that legal scholar Mr. Murphy often makes one of his routine appearances, dispensing some of his laws and laying waste to even the best laid plans.
Fortunately, hunters do not have to put all their eggs in the opening-weekend basket. There are still plenty of days left to score during the later portions of the season. While getting in on the action late does not have any advantages, it does not have as many negatives as some might think.
"A lot of turkeys get taken during the last half of the season," said veteran Florida turkey hunter William Sullivan, "and while it is a bit tougher than getting in on the opening days, it's not as hard as many make it out to be. The birds shift their habits in response to pressure, and hunters need to make some changes in their tactics. But if they do, they can be successful."
Those changes in tactics center on three key points: understanding the late season breeding cycle, learning how to deal with pressured birds, and shifting calling tactics to speak the language the birds want to hear. Do those things and you can score on late season toms.
NESTING HENS EQUAL SEARCHING GOBBLERS
Savvy turkey hunters have learned that if you count the hens in a flock you can determine how the breeding cycle is progressing. Unbred hens normally flock together to feed, but as those hens are bred they break off from the main flock and begin nesting singly. If you were watching a flock of eight hens on Saturday, and that same flock only has four birds in it a week later -- and you are now seeing single hens darting out into the fields to feed -- it is a good bet that one or more gobblers has made an appearance and found receptive hens among that flock.
That is a good indication that at least one gobbler is working the area, but it also means that he is going to have to alter his routine soon.
"When the number of unbred hens is reduced, the gobbler is still seeking hens and will continue his search," explained Sullivan, who spends a lot of time studying turkeys in his role as vice president of the Florida Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. "But that also means he has to move more, cover more ground, and stay at it longer. What that means for the hunter is that the midday hours can be very productive during the later part of the season."
For many turkey hunters, 10:00 a.m. is often the time to leave the woods and take it to the house. That may be a good approach during the early season, before the gobblers have "henned up," but it can work against you during the last couple of weeks. As the breeding season progresses, gobblers have found many hens, and they are often with them during those morning hours. Even the most expert caller has trouble calling a gobbler away from hens.
Once those hens leave during the late morning to go to their nests, however, that gobbler is now on his own. He is going to go looking for new companions, and the period from late morning to late afternoon is when he is looking the hardest and traveling the farthest.
"During the late season," Sullivan continued, "I'm going to call in the morning like everybody else does. But I regard my primary hunting time -- and it's often the most productive hunting time -- to be from mid-morning to the latest time I can hunt. That is often when you are going to find a gobbler that is looking hard for a hen and will be most receptive to your calls."
Those hunting public wildlife management areas seldom get to hunt beyond 1:00 p.m. Those on private lands can legally hunt all the way to the end of legal shooting hours at dusk. Staying in the woods to the last legal moment can be one of the biggest keys to late season success.
"The last couple of hours of the day can be the most important for late season birds," Sullivan confirmed. "Gobblers will often be in the feeding fields looking for hens right up until just before it is time to head to the roost. If you are on private land and can find one of those late afternoon birds, you may have found one that will respond.
"Even on public lands," he continued, "staying in the woods from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. can pay off. A lot of birds are taken from WMAs between those hours by hunters who are moving around, checking feeding fields and travel routes, and being patient. That is especially true if you have gotten a response from a gobbler in that general area during the early morning but couldn't get him to come in. He might have been with hens then, but he may not be at midday and might be much more receptive to your calls. If you're not in the woods you're not going to find that bird. A lot of late season hunters just give up too early in the day."
Staying in the woods during midday hours gives you a better shot at finding that gobbler desperately seeking a hen. So, too, will showing him a hen. Decoys can be important anytime during the season, but for midday birds roaming open fields during the late season they can be critical. The gobbler expects to see a hen when he hears a hen call -- and wants to see a hen -- and if you can show him one you have a much better chance of bringing him within range. The only exception to that, according to Sullivan, is if he is hunting a bird that he knows for a fact has been spooked over a decoy by another hunter in the past.
While extending your hunting hours during the late season can boost your odds, that will only happen if you are in an area that has birds. That can sometimes change between the early season and its later stages, which means hunters need to understand how to handle hunting pressure.
During the breeding season, a gobbler is driven to find hens to mate. But if he is a late season bird that has already run into a few hunters, he's not going to be the same bird he was on opening day. Stupid he is not. How much he will change depends largely on how many unsuccessful hunters he has encountered during the last two weeks. That m
ay be relatively few on most private lands, and more than a few on popular WMAs, but some change in his behavior will occur -- and one of the most common changes is that he learns to keep his mouth shut.
"Every bird is different in how he will respond to pressure," Sullivan said, "but the one thing you can pretty much count on is that he will not be as vocal. He won't be gobbling nearly as much as he was before he felt pressure, and that would apply to locator calls, gobbling on the roost, or gobbling on the ground in response to other birds. He's going to get a lot more tight-lipped, and that is especially true on public lands. If you are listening for a gobble, you need to listen hard, because he may only give you a couple of them to let you know he is there."
That requires a lot of concentration; especially since the humid, heavily vegetated Florida environment can muffle the call of a gobbler even as close as 100 yards, and it gets more humid and more vegetated the farther we get towards summer.
Hunters need their ears in peak condition, and some savvy hunters have found that hearing enhancement products are major assets. There are a number on the market and most work. These are, essentially, battery-powered "hearing aids" for hunters that slip easily into or onto the ears (depending upon the model) and magnify ambient sounds while providing a blocking circuit that cuts out loud, sudden noises -- like your shotgun going off after you called in the gobbler you heard. Such hearing enhancement products can work well during the late season, when gobblers talk far less than they do during the early season. Miss one of their few calls and you may not be aware that a huntable bird is in that area.
On the other hand, enhanced hearing products might inform you that there aren't any huntable birds in your spot. Even if you found birds there previously, that may be a sign you need to shift hunting areas. But you may not have to go far to find those birds.
"Gobblers may move their roosting areas in response to hunting pressure, and might even alter their normal daily travel routine," Sullivan stated, "but it is seldom a lengthy move. They are not like whitetail bucks, which will move into the thickest terrain they can find. Turkeys don't even like thick terrain, and don't want to be in it.
"I had one bird last year that took an hour and 20 minutes to bring just 80 yards."
"A bird may shift his home range slightly, but it will be to other suitable turkey habitat," he added. "That could easily be a half-mile away -- maybe even a mile -- but I haven't seen any more drastic movements than that, and even those may not happen under pressure. It is quite possible for even a heavily pressured bird to stay in his home area and just not talk much. But he will still be looking for hens. He's still a gobbler in the breeding season, and he is going to try to breed."
Regardless of when you get started during the season, the objective is still the same. You cannot take gobblers if you cannot see them, so finding where they are is always an important key. Just how you do that during the later season can vary.
"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," Sullivan noted, "and if I had been hunting during the early season and had located birds through tracks, strut marks, droppings and locator calls, that is a spot I would want to check for late season birds. Just look for the same signs and determine if they are fresh."
If that survey turns up zip, you may not need to make radical shifts of terrain to find birds. Often, simply finding suitable habitat adjacent to an area -- maybe less than a half-mile away -- that has not been hunted is enough to reveal where the gobblers have gone.
Another tactic to use to locate late season gobblers is to hunt hens. But you need to be discerning in how you interpret what is found.
"If I see small groups of hens feeding together, which indicates they have not been bred," Sullivan observed, "that's a good area to look for gobbler sign in because those hens should attract one. If I just see hens feeding singly, I may not spend much time there. Regardless, if I don't see gobblers or gobbler sign within a reasonable period of time I'm going to move on."
Once you find a tom, however, you still have to call him into shotgun range. Every bird is different, and there are no real rules in turkey hunting. But when it comes to the calling tactics that are most often successful during the late season, you can sum it up like this -- never get into a shouting match with a gobbler unless he starts the fight!
"My basic philosophy is to talk loud and hard during the early season," Sullivan offered, "and very softly during the late season. In many areas these birds have heard a lot of calling and they can get a little wary. Subtle is normally best, and I would not get aggressive with any bird unless he was really hammering me and coming on hard. But that doesn't happen that often during the late season."
How subtle is subtle? In some cases it may be as soft as a single cluck every 20 minutes. And when you get a response, the game can change even more!
"Late season birds can be very call-shy," Sullivan cautioned. "You really have to judge your bird by how he responds to you. Sometimes, that means less is best, mixed in with a little late season psychology.
"I had one bird last year that took an hour and 20 minutes to bring just 80 yards," he noted.
That bird had been called before and I knew the hunter who called him and how he called. I had hunted that bird for three days after that, and on the first two days he'd gobble once or twice and then shut up and not come in. On the third day, I psyched him. I knew he was the dominant bird, but I also knew that a younger bird was in the area, so I gave him one challenge gobble on my call to let him know the young bird was there, and then just soft clucks every 15 or 20 minutes to let him know that bird was with his hens.
"He finally came in, but it took a lot of coaxing. That was what he was telling me he wanted, and as long as it was working I was more than happy to listen to his advice.
"That's often how it is during the late season," Sullivan concluded. "It takes patience. You find the areas gobblers are using, you stay in the woods as late as the law allows, and when you get a bird to respond you take your time and let him dictate the pace of the conversation. It's not as fast-paced and frantic as the early season can be. But there is no reason why you can't experience success during the late season. You just have to do it a bit differently."
There is no real advantage to being late to the dance. But it's not such a bad thing if you show up late, as long as you change your dance steps to accommodate the rhythm and attract a few partners on the dance floor!