Six weeks is a long time in Minnesota, especially during spring.
From mid-April to late May, our woods and fields go from bare and brown to leafy and lush. Sometimes there’s snow on the ground for April’s turkey hunting opener, but by the time the last season hits, the alfalfa fields are knee-high. On average, air temperatures rise from nighttime lows well below freezing and highs in the 40s, to lows in the 40s or 50s and highs in the 70s or more.
But weather isn’t the only thing changing. Turkeys are changing too — living the natural cycle of their spring breeding season. To notch a tag on a gobbler, you have to hit the turkey woods with a game plan that matches what the birds are doing at the time.
EARLY SEASON ABUNDANCE: HUNT PERIODS A, B & C
This far north in the wild turkey’s range, periods A, B and to some extent C, comprise the early season. Gobblers show intense interest in hens, but hens don’t always return the attention. The birds often haven’t broken out of their big winter gangs yet, though by the end of the second week they might be starting to break up into smaller satellite groups.
Gobbling can be great on the roost now, as toms young and old are feeling their oats and raring to go. But the gobbling seems to stop when the birds hit the ground and the toms dutifully follow the hens. As period A trends into period B and then C, more hens become receptive to breeding, and the gobblers keep busy.
This isn’t to say you can’t call in and kill a gobbler now. In fact, hunter success rates in periods A and B run at about a 35 percent clip statewide, as high as it gets for any three-period grouping. But that means almost two-thirds or more of the tags still go unused. There’s room for more hunter success.
Early seasons are great because no gobblers have yet been shot at, thus there are more turkeys available to hunt. And because the birds haven’t been pressured yet, the gobblers should be relatively unsuspicious of and susceptible to good calling, and they haven’t been shot at either. Plus, last year’s jakes have grown up to become this year’s 2-year-old birds, the bread-and-butter of any spring gobbler harvest. These relatively inexperienced birds are the ones you have the best chance of working successfully.
The weather can be brutal — cold, snow, sleet, frigid rain or some combination thereof — and those kinds of conditions can shut the birds down as well as make hunting challenging or even miserable. Leafless woods mean you have little flexibility to make a move when needed; it’s easy to get busted. Big bunches of birds are hard to hunt, with all those eyes and ears watching out for danger, and big groups tend to ignore your calling.
Scout hard. Cruise the back roads and scout with binoculars from a distance the week before your hunting period starts. In the early seasons, it is critical to know the local birds’ travel patterns. Set up along a route from roosting areas to feeding/strutting fields, or other well-traveled paths. You’re going to call in more birds if you’re where they want to be, or along their route to that place.
Stay put. Early in the season is not run-and-gun time. Bare woods mean that vegetative cover ranges from nonexistent to barely emerging at best so your maneuvers are sure to be spotted by sharp turkey eyes. Have your best spots picked out from your scouting trips, then put in your time and wait. Pay special attention to complete camouflage, and minimize movement. Use a blind if you can.
Hit ’em hard. If you like to call aggressively, early in the season is the time to try it. Yelp and cutt to your heart’s content. Gobbler groups are notoriously difficult to call, but sometimes you can peel off an eager 2-year-old or two to come over and see what’s up with that horny hen making all the racket. The birds haven’t heard any calling yet and might listen to your overtures. It only takes one curious tom to make your season.
MIDSEASON CHALLENGE: PERIODS D, E AND F
By the time seasons D, E and F arrive, the wild turkey’s mating season progresses into full swing. But full swing may be too much of a good thing. Hunter success rates for both these hunt periods drop to the 30 percent range.
Now wild turkey flocks are conducting their spring break-up in earnest. This is good for hunters. With smaller and then smaller groups of birds roaming the countryside, it becomes easier — that’s used as a relative term — to find a cooperative or lonely gobbler.
But because breeding has started in earnest, the gobblers are now hooking up with attentive, receptive hens. So this can be classic “henned-up” time. Gobblers belt out a few calls in the morning, the hens rush over for servicing, and that’s that. The toms strut and waddle after them, sometimes all day, because the hens aren’t sitting on nests yet. What all-American gobbler is going to leave a real, live hen for a sketchy promise calling from somewhere over there?
Some good things do go on in midseason. The big groups of turkeys are breaking up now, as mentioned. And by the time late morning rolls around, all the action is usually over for love-minded gobblers. They may go trolling for new hens. Hear a gobble now and you could be in business. Also, with some leaf-out occurring as late April merges into early May, you can make some moves on hesitant or hung-up birds without getting busted.
Hens are a problem, especially early in the day. Gobbling might be good on the roost, but it ceases quickly once birds hit the ground and the hens come a-running. Breeding has begun in earnest. The turkeys have been hunted some, and that can make gobblers leery of the overly ambitious calling that has culled out the more love-addled birds.
Don’t give up too early. Don’t count the day as a loss just because you don’t shoot a bird before the sun clears the horizon. That rarely happens anyway, and it’s even less likely when you’re competing with real hens off the roost. If you got a few answers to your calls and you’re in a good spot, stay put and wait. The gobbler or one of his buddies may come back later.
Alternatively, go to a good strut zone and set up to wait. Don’t go to town for breakfast. Instead, hunt, hunt, hunt — especially those late-morning hours from 9 a.m. to noon.
Try subtle calling. By now the gobblers have been called to and hunted some. Real hens don’t call much now because they are actively seeking out toms. So midseason is the time to go subtle with your calling — clucks and gentle purrs, and only soft yelping if any at all. Play hard to get.
Mix in some movement. With some decent cover emerging in the woods, don’t be afraid to switch your setup position to try and intercept or head off a gobbler that might not quite be cooperating. Utilize that cover to set out and do a little late morning or midday moving and calling, trying to strike a lonely gobbler whose hens have left him.
LATE SEASON OPPORTUNITY: PERIODS G AND H
Hunting periods G and H represent Minnesota’s late turkey seasons. By now, wild turkeys have been gobbling, carrying on and breeding for quite some time. But the action isn’t over. Hens may not be actively pursuing gobblers, and that can be a real positive.
Hens start laying their eggs now, one a day into their hidden nests, and by the time the season’s last two weeks roll around, some females are already incubating a complete clutch. Though the gobblers have been breeding hard, they still want action, and they are starting to get a little frustrated with the recent lack of female attention.
The birds surely have seen some hunting pressure by now, so most aren’t susceptible to the same old tactics and typical calling. Yet it’s surprising how good hunting can be in the late seasons, with success rates running above 20 percent. Clearly, there are gobblers — and good hunting — to be had.
Gobblers are lonely because hens may have had enough breeding, and are busy laying eggs and possibly even incubating. Hunting pressure lightens up because many sportsmen and women are fishing instead, and the oh-dark-thirty wake-up calls come mighty early now. Yet, turkeys do begin forgetting about some of the hunting pressure they had a few weeks before. And the Minnesota woods are fully leafed out so you really can put the move on birds.
Some gobblers have been shot. There are plenty of others around, but they’ve heard it all and may be skittish of calling. Some females (young hens) might be beginning to try and breed, so it’s still possible to run into henned-up toms, and that can frustrate your efforts. The weather can start getting very warm, which can cause birds to hole up for much of the day. Mosquitoes can be a bother by the end of May.
Pinpoint birds. Invest serious time in roosting a bird the evening before any hunt. Don’t rely on luck to find yourself a gobbling bird in the morning. Use the leafy cover to sneak in tight the next morning; you need to minimize the amount of time and effort it takes that bird to get to you. Call sparingly with a few light tree yelps, then a couple of clucks after the tom hits the ground. Subtlety works off the roost now, because real hens aren’t raucous and bossy any more.
Call smart. Loud, aggressive calling tends to send gobblers running in the other direction now. Sweet clucks, soft purrs and whines, delicate little yelps — and not too much of any of them — usually are the ticket. Don’t go nuts with loud and aggressive calling until you’ve exhausted your options with the soft approach. But there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes hard cutting and talkative banter will turn birds’ heads and get them excited now. Flexibility is the key.
Afternoon delight. Late-season afternoons and evenings are great. About 3 p.m. on a sunny day, the gobblers head out to the fields and meadows to strut for hens that are coming off their nests for a feeding session. Field hunting isn’t easy, but if you’ve scouted well and stationed yourself along a good travel route, you can find success.
Go trolling. Don’t be afraid to do a little trolling in the late seasons, trying to find a gobbling and active bird. With plenty of cover on the landscape now, you can sneak about and call (always with safety in mind), trying to strike a cooperative bird.
As a Minnesota spring passes and wild turkeys conduct their annual breeding rituals, you must adjust your hunting approach to match what the birds are doing during your particular hunting period. A gobbler in period A and a gobbler in period G are two very different birds, and a one-strategy-fits-all approach isn’t likely to succeed on either one. Timing spring turkeys is the key to killing a gobbler no matter which letter of the alphabet your tag bears.