Spring turkey seasons can prove tricky in the Mountain West. Long seasons assure plenty of time afield, but arriving on the wrong weekend can result in more frustration than action. Early in the season you’ll most often find gobblers “henned up,” and while they might prove quite vocal, completely willing and able, luring them away from a large bevy of hens — despite your best calling efforts — can prove a futile exercise. Arrive too late and gobblers can act as if breeding is the farthest thing from their minds; exhausted, or more likely too shell-shocked to respond favorably to careful hen yelps. It’s most often those times somewhere in the middle that result in the those magic days when gobbles sound from every quarter and trophy longbeards arrive suicidally to even lackluster calling.
Also, every season is different. Early snows can postpone breeding for weeks, while hot weather may get them started well before the season opener. A sudden influx of hunting pressure in your favorite hotspot may ruin a piece of public land you’ve always had all to yourself and counted on for success. The man who proclaims a certain date on the calendar is the only week to hunt — putting all his eggs in one basket — is always risking finding himself facing a quickly-dwindling season without anything to show for his efforts.
Not to despair; there are still gobblers to be had. You just might have to change your approach to fill that tag before time runs out. Here’s how.
I’ve been in this catch-up phase many times (due mostly to my archery-hunting habit), but the times I remember best are hunting in Arizona’s White Mountains (the state’s top turkey hunting destination). Arizona’s Southwestern Merriam’s habitat (especially that of the White Mountain Apache Tribe) is fairly typical of the region and species: abrupt ridges and points of requisite Ponderosa pine, areas of Gamble’s oak, flanked by open meadows of quickly-greening grass (in other states greening hay pasture or grain fields replace natural meadows). By mid-May, when spring turkey season is winding down quickly, boss toms have mostly ceased gobbling, hens are off somewhere sitting on nests and suddenly disinterested in them, with hunting becoming challenging indeed. The lucky hunter might stumble across one last bird willing to attend to a call, but you really can’t count on it.
I approach this problem by investing in plenty of hiking, concentrating efforts on those plentiful meadows I’ve hinted at, as well as areas covered in loose pine straw or oak leaves. Of course, I’m not just mindlessly walking, but seeking sign — turkey sign and lots of it. The most obvious includes fresh droppings (hens producing clumped leavings, gobblers small “question marks”), dusting areas or scratched areas in oak leaves or pine straw where turkeys actively feed. Eventually I’ll come across that one meadow, a prime ridge, where turkey sign’s particularly abundant. The hunt then turns into a waiting game.
Because I’m a bow hunter, this means portable pop-up blind concealment, though the shotgun hunter might make do with hastily-assembled ground blinds. Place blinds within sure range of concentrated sign, stab a single hen decoy no more than 10 yards from your hide and settle in for the long wait. I tote a good paperback to occupy myself, catching occasional catnaps following early wakeups. You never know when a gobbler will arrive — though the modern trail camera’s an effective tool in these ploys. I deploy a multitude of them during spring turkey seasons, just as I do during fall whitetail dates, to get a better handle on what’s happening in my hunting area and when.
GETTING THE JUMP
It’s a particular thing that gobblers straight off the roost, awakening to a new day, are more likely to respond to a call than those who’ve officially started the day in areas well removed from a nighttime safe-haven. At least this is the way it can be in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains, especially when discussing dates at the tail-end of the season. We’ve all been there; gobblers who sound off enthusiastically from the safety of a roost, providing false hope, but once on the ground clamming up and seemingly disappearing. The Sacramentos have plenty of turkeys, with one of the state’s highest success rates (around 50 percent. However, these birds also receive plenty of hunting pressure. By season’s end they’re understandably wary. But hitting them right off the roost with careful calling (after their feet have touched ground, of course) often works wonders in fooling these savvy birds. Perhaps they’re like my friend who cannot function without a half-hour’s notice and his morning coffee, but many gobblers seem to operate on auto-pilot in these situations, flying down and into your lap with little regard for safety.
Of course, there’s a little more to it than this. Obviously you need to find a gobbler’s or a group of gobblers’ roost — or through intimate knowledge of your hunting area have earmarked a place where birds regularly seek refuge against the night. If you’re lucky enough to have a bird or birds sound off even minimally with sunset (something you can’t always count on late in the season), you’re in business. The smart hunter also uses dead-still evenings to post on a vantage in a likely area listening for birds flying up — where past experience has revealed a roost ridge or bench, or a place you’ve stumbled across while hunting or scouting. The pop-pop-pop of a turkey flying up for the night’s quite distinctive, the sound normally carrying far. An abundance of droppings and feathers beneath welcoming trees is another sign of a current roost.
Once a bird’s roosted solidly, you’ve won half the battle. The program then involves getting into position before good light arrives and setting up in a likely landing zone. This will normally prove an opening — flat bench or open meadow — typically uphill of the roost tree(s). Less often the open landing area will be situated downhill of the roost, but only when an uphill site is unavailable. I like to set up a hen decoy for the gobbler to focus on, but also give him plenty of room, and begin calling softly with the very first morning tree calls — just enough to let a tom know I’m there and no more. The gobbler will typically leave the tree and land within range for shooting, otherwise wandering off and expecting you (the hen) to follow. This might be considered a 50/50 proposition.
Remember, too, this roost business can work in reverse, with the hunter setting up to take advantage of a gobbler returning to a known roosting site after a day of toil. I’ve taken more than one pressured gobbler in this way — including eastern birds tempered by fire.
I’ve yet to determine why stalking turkey is considered by so many a poacher’s trick. Sure, calling in a hot gobbler is certainly the thing what attracts so many to spring turkey seasons at all, but when the chips are down, stalking not only keeps you in the game, but proves just as challenging. Ducking and dodging, crawling and slithering into range of a late-season turkey requires more woods skill than finding a hormone-addled tom and yelping him into range. I guess, like jump-shooting vs. decoying ducks, like worm-fishing trout instead of flicking dry flies, stalking turkeys isn’t considered gentlemanly. So be it; this is the Wild West we’re discussing here and sometimes when the going gets tough you have to cowboy up.
In Northern Idaho where I now live and hunt, we normally enjoy turkey hunting on par with the best anywhere (including hotspots such as Nebraska and North Dakota). We have scads of birds, light hunting pressure and plenty of prime public habitats to work in. The first couple years I lived here I averaged about 30 longbeard call-ins a season. Yet, despite this target-rich environment, the last couple springs have proven capricious — winter weather refusing to release its grip, snowstorms raging well into May — mating action coming and going with warm spells until turkeys seemed so confused they simple gave up altogether. Spring seasons have more closely resembled fall dates, meaning I spent a lot of time on my hands and knees to get my spring birds.
Northern Idaho’s open wheat, oat and barley fields, ringed tightly with thronged alder, willow and fir, make this a surprisingly productive method, the drops and vegetation found at field edges providing viable stalking cover that tips stalking odds in your favor. This isn’t a unique situation, similar circumstances appearing in Montana, Wyoming and parts of Colorado — essentially anywhere turkey habitat overlaps agricultural activities. I even have bowhunting friends who have come to prefer spot-and-stalk approaches, saying it provides a more interactive and exciting alternative to the normal calling approach.
UP & AWAY
In New Mexico’s Gila and New Mexico/Arizona’s Blue Range Wilderness areas, where I hunted turkeys for 25 years, finding yourself with a turkey tag and the season end looming meant hitting the trail in search of paths less traveled. The Gila region includes some 300 million acres of public lands, much of this designated wilderness where only foot or horse/mule travel is permitted. Trekking into wilderness helped us accomplish two important objectives in our quest for late-season gobblers. First, was the obvious factor of leaving crowds well behind to discover birds that might not see a hunter an entire season. Less obvious, but just as importantly at these late dates, accessing wilderness came with a quick gain in altitude, seeking higher elevations where turkeys were just a bit behind their lowland cousins due to colder temperatures and harsher weather. Where the peak might occur during the first or second week of the season in outlaying areas, the Gila’s high country didn’t hit its stride until early to late May, in many cases.
Again, while the Gila (with its 50 percent average success rates) serves as a prime example, the late-season turkey hunter can keep this simple (if more strenuous) option in mind — climbing higher to get away from crowds and find late-mating birds. Wilderness areas throughout the Rocky Mountains are obvious attractions but remember, a single deep canyon or a rearing, nasty ridge can create defacto wilderness simply because others are unwilling to invest the extra effort to reach its seldom-visited reaches.
As the man says, it’s not over till it’s over. You may not be able to adhere to a strict set of aesthetic principals at this late stage of the game but, with a bit of extra effort and persistence, you can still tag your spring gobbler with these off-beat turkey hunting ploys.