Illinois 2008 Turkey Hunting Forecast

Forty years ago, there were no wild turkeys in Illinois. Thanks to an aggressive restocking program, the once-native birds are found in every county. (March 2008).

Photo by Kenny Darwin.

A lot can happen in 40 years.

Forty years ago, there were virtually no game fish left in Lake Michigan.

Today, thanks to a far-sighted stocking program begun by the state of Michigan and augmented by similar programs in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, the big lake boasts a world-class salmonid fishery, a thriving bass population and a good, albeit troubled, yellow perch fishery.

Forty years ago, folks in Illinois rarely saw wild Canada geese unless they journeyed to the state's three southernmost counties. Today, because of a variety of factors, geese are everywhere and the northern tier of counties holds more resident and migratory birds than the once bountiful southern zone.

Forty years ago, deer hunters were ecstatic if they managed to bag one of these prized animals. Today, guys wearing hunting caps festooned with DNR "deer pins" garner little notice from fellow hunters other than to say, "Oh, you got a deer, too? Who didn't?"

Much was made of the rebirth of the fisheries, the reintroduction of honkers and the rebound of the deer herd, but few noticed the reintroduction of the wild turkey.

Forty years ago, Eastern-strain wild turkeys, once plentiful in Illinois, had nearly been wiped out by hunting and loss of habitat. Today, wild turkeys inhabit all 102 counties and hunting is allowed in 96 counties. Only dense human habitation denies residents of the other six counties the opportunity to hunt the big birds.

But many people in Illinois have no idea the turkeys are here, much less having ever seen one.

The decision to restore wild turkeys was made in 1960 by the-then Illinois Department of Conservation, now the Department of Natural Resources.

Early efforts failed because pen-reared birds were used. The domesticated birds were not capable of surviving in the wild.

In 1967, biologists came to the conclusion that the secret to success was dependent on the introduction of truly wild turkeys. In a trade with three other states, Illinois swapped ruffed grouse and Canada geese for 65 mature wild turkeys.

According to IDNR wildlife program manager Paul Shelton, all wild turkeys here today are descended from that original group of birds.

Originally thought to require vast tracts of forested land, most of the turkeys were released in the Shawnee National Forest in the southern tip of the state. After the turkeys had taken firm hold in the southern counties, it became apparent that they could prosper in varying landscapes if it included mixed woods and agricultural land. At that point, turkeys were introduced in the central and northwestern counties. A population boom followed the stockings and today the turkey is common throughout Illinois, and has become popular among bird watchers.

Every year, reports from citizens filter in about wild turkeys showing up in suburban parks and golf courses, especially those bordering forest preserve properties. Like the coyote, the turkey is rapidly filling every piece of vacant habitat it can find.

In addition to the vast amount of outdoor experiences afforded Illinois' sportsmen, turkey hunting also represents an economic windfall of tens of millions of dollars, according to IDNR acting director Sam Flood. This figure includes not only license sales and fees, but money spent on travel, lodging, clothing, gear, ammo and guns.

The 2007 spring hunt resulted in 14,767 wild toms taken, just short of the 2006 season when a record-setting 16,607 birds were harvested. Actually, the turkey harvest over the past five years has been remarkably consistent.

Biologists think the lower kill rate last season was because of poor weather conditions during the first two weeks of the season. The cold, windy weather kept many hunters out of the field early on and delayed nesting activity, which encouraged the toms to stick close to the real hens.

Also, a smaller-than-usual number of 2-year-old birds, because of a poor hatch in 2005, resulted in a lower turkey population.

Judging solely from my own observations in northern Illinois, the birds enjoyed a very good nesting effort in spring 2007 and that promises much better hunting success this spring. Last fall, every flock I saw numbered between 15 and 20 birds and most of them were young. If that condition prevails statewide, a new record may be in the offing.

Top counties in the northern zone were JoDaviess (542), Pike (528), Adams (456), Macoupin (400) and Fulton (386). Other high-scoring counties included Randolph, Pope, Schuyler, Jefferson, Marion, Brown, Greene and Calhoun that registered more than 300 gobblers each.

If I can shoot a wild turkey, anyone can. Believe me, I do not own the latest in camouflage suits, I will never win a turkey-calling contest, I don't hunt in the hottest turkey county in the state and I don't hunt with a guide who sets up the bird, taps me on the head and says, "Shoot now."

Still, I have connected on a gobbler nine out of the past 12 years and in two of the three times I failed, it was simply hunter error that led to my downfall . . . I missed! My system is very simple, one tailored for hunting the small wood lots most Midwesterners are used to.

I'll explain it to you, for what it is worth.

First, the equipment. I shoot a Remington 1187 auto-loader with a 26-inch barrel. The stock, barrel and receiver are matte finished, so I don't bother trying to camouflage them. I install an extra full choke, but I suspect a normal full-choke tube would do just as well. Automatic, pump, side-by-side even a single shot, it doesn't matter.

I strongly recommend using a sling to make toting the iron around the premises easier and there is the added benefit of freeing your hands to carry equipment. I settled on Federal's 3-inch turkey load, packing 2 ounces of No. 5 copper-plated lead shot. That shell puts them down for good.

I use a diaphragm call, exclusively. It makes all the sounds I need and stays in my cheek all morning ready for instant use. Also, the diaphragm requires no hand movement to use it, a real plus. Not everyone is comfortable using a diaphragm-style call, so use a slate or box call. It will w

ork just fine if you learn to use it properly.

I wear a lightweight camo jump suit -- a Real Tree pattern -- over whatever clothing seems appropriate for the weather. I don't think the camo pattern means a thing, since it's movement that spooks birds, not your choice of apparel. A camo hat and gloves complete my ensemble. If rain seems imminent, I'll incorporate camo rain gear into the plan. Don't worry about camo boots. If a turkey gets close enough to inspect your shoes, just shoot it.

Facemasks are a personal choice, but I don't feel comfortable wearing one. Instead, I use camo grease paint, like bowhunters use. It breaks up the outline of my face and eliminates shine. Best of all, the paint doesn't interfere with my vision or calling, and it is always there just in case one of those crafty gobblers sneaks in on me.

In my fanny pack I carry three extra shells, extra calls, binoculars, a couple of candy bars and pruning shears to nip off twigs and briars that may interfere with my line of sight or field of fire. A thermos of coffee and a sandwich or two come in handy, as does a small spray can of insect repellant. Last, but certainly not least, I tuck two rolled-up, inflatable hen decoys into the pack.

I sit on a camo bucket, being too old to scrunch up on the ground. I get away with this because I usually set up several camo burlap blinds before opening day. In the bucket goes anything I think I may need during the hunt, but not stuff I need to lug around with me each day.

Scouting

The best advice I can give you is, "Hunt where the turkeys are." To do this, you need to get out in the field several days before opening day and listen. Luckily, gobblers are like most hunters, they can't keep their big mouths shut. Especially in the early morning, when the toms will be sounding off on their roosts, eager to befriend some of the winsome young hens hunkered around them. If you sit quietly nearby, you will soon learn where the big boys are spending their nights and, with any luck, see them fly down. Usually, the birds head straight for breakfast giving you a perfect opportunity to ambush them.

After the flock moves on, set up a small brush or burlap blind at the spot they entered the feeding field. Put a bucket in the blind along with a couple of decoys and you are set for opening morning. (I also add two or three cans of lemonade or iced tea to each bucket when I set up the blind.)

But, you will need a backup plan, because turkeys don't always do what you expect them to do. The birds may head to a different field or ignore your pleading calls and seductive decoys, preferring instead to wander away following the real hens. Don't despair, because plenty of big toms are killed later in the morning.

By around 9 o'clock, the gobbling usually slacks off, and the hens leave the toms. Then, the big boys often wander about, looking for any action they can find. That is when your calling will be most effective.

One of the lessons I have learned in my 20 years of turkey hunting is to not leave the field too soon. I have shot more turkeys after 10 a.m. than before, so keep the faith.

To take advantage of lonely toms, you need to find out where they hang out at midday. Try walking along the edges of plowed fields next to woods, where gobblers generally travel. The ground should be soft making tracks easy to spot. With a little practice, you'll discover the trails the birds regularly use. Set a small blind, bucket and decoys along the most heavily trafficked field edge available. Move into it after the roost location has gone dead. I don't recommend hiking aimlessly around in the woods; let the turkeys come to you.

Calling

The main purpose of calling is to let the birds know there are hens around. Real hens don't cluck continuously and neither should you. A few seductive clucks every 10 minutes or so is enough, and once a tom shows up, let the decoys do the work. Usually, the big boy will walk right in, but if he hangs up outside of reasonable shot gun range, a very soft cluck or purr might get him coming again. Yes, you can overdo calling.

The Final Act

When you spot a gobbler headed your way, very slowly get the gun into shooting position. (This is where the little blind really pays off.) Then, freeze. Ideally, you should wait until the bird is within 35 yards, although I have rolled them over at 55.

The aim point is half way down their neck. Don't shoot at a gobbler in strut. Wait until he straightens up and exposes his full neck. If he doesn't want to come out of strut, hit him with a sharp cluck. That usually alerts him enough for an immediate shot.

One Last Tip

One of the lessons I have learned in 20 years of turkey hunting is to not leave the field too soon. Don't unload that gun until shooting time is over. I believe patience has led to the downfall of more turkeys than any other tactic.

This method has worked for me for many years, and I suspect it is pretty much the same method the pros on television use. Locate routes the birds use, set up near one, and wait for a gobbler to come along. It is simple and very effective.

Illinois' wild turkey spring hunt begins in early April in the southern zone and mid-April in the northern counties. The hunt is divided into five segments beginning with a five-day period and ending with a 10-day final segment in early May. Statistics tell us the first and fifth segments are the most productive. That makes sense because IDNR biologist Paul Shelton thinks the best time to hunt a turkey is mid-March when the toms are getting randy and the hens show no interest.

This is when the big boys are most susceptible to calling. During the first week of the season, toms are still ready to come to the call and by the fifth week, all the hens are nested, leaving their former boyfriends to fend for themselves. Apparently, loneliness can do strange things to a gobbler.

All Illinois hunters, with a few exceptions for active or retired military, are required to possess a current state hunting license, a habitat stamp, a valid Firearms Owners ID card and certification of completion of the Illinois Hunter Safety Course if born after Jan. 1, 1980. If you are a first-time hunter or plan to introduce a newcomer to turkey hunting, look into the recently implemented Illinois Apprentice Hunter Program. This option allows first-time-only hunters to purchase a license and hunt with an approved mentor for one season without completing the 10-hour Hunter Safety Course. After that, future licenses may be purchased only after completion of the course.

Turkey hunting is a great sport, and Illinois is great place to enjoy it. If you are a seasoned gobbler hunter, good luck in 2008. If you haven't yet tried turkey hunting, what are you waiting for? If you make 2008 your first year in the turkey woods, I guarantee it won't be your last.

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