September 24, 2010
There's an ebb and flow in turkey hunting, and the quicker you recognize those events for what they are, the sooner you'll be on your way to finding your gobbler at just the right moment.
Photo by Mark Kayser
What is perfect timing? The obvious answer, with regard to spring turkey hunting anyway, is that which occurs when you find yourself in the right place at the right time due to luck or skill or a combination of both.
The next question, then, is: Can you adjust to circumstances as they occur during a typical spring season in the West? And finally: Will your efforts actually improve your chances for being in the woods when at least a few gobblers are ready to respond positively to your rendition of basic hen turkey calls?
The short answer to the above questions is, of course, yes. However, there's more to the subject of perfect timing than some hunters might realize. To put yourself in those special moments of success normally takes a measure of understanding of what affects turkey behavior under a variety of circumstances. And that, generally, is something that comes with experience.
One thing that affects turkey behavior in the spring is variable weather, which can change from day to day. Generally, tom turkeys vocalize most when the weather is fair, at least before they leave their roosts at dawn. What they do once they're on the ground is sometimes another matter altogether, but if you've hunted turkeys a few times you already know that. However, the point is, not everyday is perfect. Some days are blow on your hands cold, others are far better for kite flying than hunting and still others are washed with rain.
As for hunting in the rain, there are conflicting viewpoints. I prefer fair weather but I've been known to make an occasional exception. Some hunters rarely mention the words turkey and rain in the same breath. I remember a cool, drippy April morning not so long ago when my friend Tom Stone, a retired wildlife biologist with decades of turkey hunting experience, called to take a rain check on a planned hunt.
I was already up and dressed when the phone rang at 3 a.m. On the other end of the line was Stone who was due to leave home and pick me up. The conversation went like this.
"It's raining, Higley, and you know my rule: Rain is for duck hunting, clear weather is for turkey hunting. I think we should wait for a nicer day before getting serious about our little expedition."
"Wait a minute," I said. "What makes you think that the gobblers won't turn on sooner than that? After all, the weather guys predict clearing tomorrow."
"They might," Stone replied, "but often it's windy for a time while a front is moving out so tomorrow is questionable. But, by the day after tomorrow it will probably be clear, cool and calm, and the gobblers should really be active at that time."
In other words, hunt during unsettled weather if you must, but expect your odds for success to improve noticeably on the first calm morning after a storm.
CHECK THE BAROMETER
I wish things were always that cut and dried but part of the fun of turkey hunting is that they rarely are. Stone makes a valid point but what about days when a storm is just arriving or when a rising barometer indicates gradual clearing? Like Stone, I've long believed that turkeys hunker down during a substantial storm. More than once, during a downpour, I've seen toms still clinging to their roosts at 9 a.m. I've also seen them on the ground going about their soggy business without making a sound or showing any interest at all in my sweetest turkey calling.
Over the years I've come to believe that rising or falling barometric pressure has a lot to do with the way turkeys behave on a particular day. Of course, I can't prove it scientifically, but nevertheless my observations suggest that gobbling activity slows as a storm approaches and the turkeys go into survival mode, which means filling their crops with food. Then, as the barometer rises, whether the rain has stopped completely or not, your chances of hearing a hot tom sound off grow better by the minute.
When I was younger, with a lot less free time and a lot more energy, I'd drive to my turkey hunting spot in the dark even if it was raining. Once there, I'd sit in the cab of my truck eating doughnuts and drinking coffee until daybreak. At that time, if the storm were waning, I'd go hunting. If it didn't let up I'd head back home.
On one memorable morning, after steady rain gave way to intermittent showers, I hiked slowly along a skid trail, stopping now and then to make turkey calls into the basin below. I called and listened for several minutes at each spot, but heard no turkey sounds until 8 a.m. Then, in response to my box call yelps, a distant gobble rang out from a hollow, as always a pleasant surprise.
I knew the country well and figured the turkey was following a lower dirt road that roughly paralleled the skid I was on. As luck would have it, a finger ridge just ahead spilled downhill to the road. By hiking down the backside of the ridge I could stay out of sight and, I hoped, get into a good calling position just above the two track.
A few minutes later I found a comfortable spot and sat down with my back against an old pine tree. Once settled, I yelped with a box call and the turkey gobbled back from just around a bend. I yelped again, and within two minutes (it seemed much longer) the round-tailed tom stepped into view. I aimed my 12-gauge pump shotgun and sent a 3-inch magnum load of No. 5 shot at his head and neck. The gobbler fell 18 steps away, and even though his feathers were still damp, he looked just fine to me!
I believe improving weather turned that wet tom on. Of course, I never would have heard him had I not been willing to face the uncertain conditions in the first place.
HUNTING IN SPORADIC RAIN
It was interesting to watch another gobbler's reactions to my calls during sporadic rainfall a few years ago. As it happened, I knew where the tom was roosting and I set up well before dawn in what I thought was an ideal spot. It had rained during the night but for the moment the precipitation was on hold.
Right on cue at first light, the turkey started gobbling on the roost. He sounded off a few times on his own, getting my hopes up, but when he flew down he became quiet as a canned clam. I was still wondering where he went when I noticed movement from the corner of my eye. The tom and two hens were walking into a wet meadow about 100 yards to my left.
Because the gobbler was henned up, as they say down South, it was not a good situation for
calling, but I decided to give it a try anyway. The tom's immediate reaction was exciting. He gobbled back repeatedly, sure he was going to be joined momentarily by a third hen.
It was fun to watch and listen to him. Several times he even walked a few yards in my direction but he couldn't bring himself to leave the real hens behind. Meanwhile, the unimpressed ladies went about the business of filling their crops while paying no attention at all to the gobbler. Then, it started raining buckets again and everything changed.
The water was falling off the oak leaves and down the back of my neck when I saw the hens trot deliberately away from the tom and disappear in thick woods. When I called again the gobbler, now suddenly alone, turned his attention to my bogus siren. He marched right to me and I dropped him less than 25 yards away. Interestingly, a couple of hours later the sun was shining and a light breeze was blowing. Evidently, the barometer had been rising all morning long.
From the above examples, you might deduce that picking the perfect time to go turkey hunting during unsettled weather is about like tossing darts at a calendar. Actually, while there are no guarantees, it's not all that uncertain. For instance, it seems to me that it's far better to be in the turkey woods when a storm is tapering off than when it's just arriving on the scene. True, I've been lucky on days when it was still raining lightly but each time I thought to check it out the barometer was rising or stable.
Actually, if I had a choice, which is not always the case, I'd be tempted to follow Tom Stone's lead and wait for just the right morning after a storm to get out there among them.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Of course, the concept of perfect timing does not apply only to weather conditions. It also includes other situations that, when recognized for what they are, can lead to the type of wild turkey encounter from which lasting memories are made.
For example, a few years ago my son Mark and I were hunting on a sizable chunk of timber company land where we occasionally found turkeys in residence. And that fine April day was no exception. At the first hint of daylight, we heard a tom sound off from his roost and later we saw him on the ground with a bevy of comely hens.
Given the circumstances, it's not surprising that our calls had little affect on the turkeys. The tom gave out an occasional, "Here I am," gobble but he wasn't about to jilt the hens, which were slowly leading him away. Finally, Mark and I decided to try to circle around the birds and head them off, but when we made our move something happened that changed the attitude of the whole hunt.
We were hurrying along a low ridge out of sight of the turkeys when we jumped four deer from their beds. The animals barreled downhill right past the flock and scattered the birds in all directions.
Ordinarily, when you accidentally bump turkeys in the spring, that's it for the day. However, the incident in question was significantly different. Deer and turkeys live side by side so, even though the birds scattered when the deer ran past, Mark and I figured they would soon come back together. Rather than throwing in the towel, we moved to the last place where we saw the group and sat there awaiting further developments. In less than 30 minutes we heard a gobble. Five minutes later Mark called the tom into shotgun range.
It was a perfect time to call that gobbler, obviously, and it's a very good thing that we recognized the opportunity as it unfolded and were able to take advantage of it.
Other examples of perfect timing, in response to some situation encountered in the turkey woods, include making the most of such things as the spring breakup. That event takes place when large winter flocks of turkeys separate into smaller groups in advance of the annual breeding ritual. During the separation process, which may only take a day or two, there are pecking order fights between gobblers and also among hens. It's during this time that the toms, vying for position on the social ladder, are apt to come running to any loose hen they hear and that, of course, is where you come in.
The increasing hours of daylight and the prevailing weather pattern drives the breakup. Cold weather may delay the process while a period of warm weather can accelerate it by days or even weeks. By observing weather conditions you can make a pretty good guess as to whether the break up has already happened or is about to begin. Be there when the breakup starts and you'll be in the short line to enjoy another round of perfect timing.
Another thing that you might experience early in the season is an encounter with an aggressive hen. You'll recognize the signs right away. The hen will answer your calls in a threatening manner and if you persist she just might come in looking for a fight. This is a hen in the process of asserting her dominance over other hens in the vicinity. To her you're an outsider that needs to be put in your place.
The trick is to take advantage of an aggressive hen when you encounter one because if she is running with a gobbler or two she may very well be your best friend. While toms with hens are extremely difficult to call, a hen still asserting her dominance is not. If she comes to you, her companions usually won't be very far behind. The idea here is to act on the situation as soon as possible. It only takes a few days to sort the pecking order out and for things to calm down.
One morning, while trying to locate some turkeys, I heard a loud round of hen talk and several gobbles in response to some box call yelps I had made. Surprised by the intensity of the response, I immediately plopped down by a tree, stuck a diaphragm call in my mouth, and did my best to duplicate every sound that hen made. After scolding me from afar for several minutes, she hiked up the ridge almost to my feet, looking for what she thought was a cheeky competitor. Unfortunately, the hen got nervous when no rival appeared and she walked away before her companions arrived.
Taking that incident as a clue, I was back the next day deliberately looking for that feisty hen. Amazingly, I found her, but this time I was better prepared. As soon as she yakked back at my calls, I placed a hen decoy in plain view and got set up in the shade a few yards away. We traded insults briefly and then she started coming my way. When the defiant hen stepped into view and saw the decoy, she immediately went to it, spoiling for a fight.
I would have liked to watch but at the moment I was engrossed in a parade. Another hen and two longbeard toms were right in front of me and the lead gobbler was about to be reduced to possession. Another case of perfect timing? You bet, but only because I took advantage of the hen's mood while she was still aggressive.
Perfect timing. The act of being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes it's a matter of dumb luck but most often perfect timing is the reward for dealing thoughtfully with the variables encountered daily in the real world of spring turkey hunting. Spring turkey season is upon us. In addition to
the above examples, there are plenty of other scenarios that can result in perfect timing and your ultimate turkey hunting success.