As turkey hunters, many variables impact our success. Weather largely dictates how, when, where, and even if, we hunt. The gear we use routinely controls how we hunt, and our shooting ability and navigation skills impact whether or not we fill tags.
While all of these factors have influenced my turkey hunting throughout the West over the past 25 years, a major contributor to my success has come down to reading and interpreting sign. When it comes to filling tags — be it turkey or any big game — one of the most important factors is being able to recognize and understand sign. Here are five things to look for this spring, and how they can help you find a turkey for your table.
1. FOUND FEATHERS
A turkey carries between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers. The iridescent feathers of mature toms are one of the most stunning sights in nature. The way their red, green, bronze, gold and copper colorations reflect in the natural light is something that leaves the most experienced turkey hunter speechless every time a downed bird is approached. The purpose of these brightly colored feathers is an advantage when attracting a hen, as the bigger, brighter and older the tom, the more likely he is to gain breeding rights.
When you find a breast feather of a turkey on the ground, look closely at it. The breast feathers of tom turkeys are edged in black, while the hen’s breast feathers are edged in tan or white. This is a good identifying mark for hunters to know when looking for birds. If multiple tom feathers are strewn in an area, you’re likely close to a mature tom’s strutting ground, meaning hunting efforts should be concentrated close by.
If hen feathers are found, but no feathers, droppings or tracks from a tom are seen, chances are the hens are moving through an area or are tending a nearby nest. When this happens, mature toms may not stick around long, so hunting efforts should be focused elsewhere.
2. WING DRAGS AND TRACKS
Tracks and wing drag marks are identifiers hunters will want to pay attention to. If the tracks are surrounded by obvious drag marks left by the wings of a strutting tom, then it’s clear you’re in his mating territory.
Generally, a mature tom’s track will measure up to 5 inches from the back toe to the tip of the longest, middle toe. A hen’s track will be about 4 inches. But not always is the dimple of the back toe visible in a track. When measuring a track from heel to toe, with no visible back toe, subtract about a half-inch of the overall length.
Hen tracks are more slender than a jake’s or tom’s. As toms grow older, their foot becomes bigger and thicker. The tracks of old toms often reveal swollen knuckles and thicker parts throughout. Find tracks like this and you know you’re hunting in the right area.
If tom tracks are only occasionally seen, appear to be traveling in a straight line, and have no accompanying wing drag marks, you’re likely looking at a tom that was passing through. This is a good indicator that a tom was feeding through and area or searching for a hen. When you find this type of sign, keep moving.
Droppings are another clue that can differentiate toms from hens. The droppings of toms are usually in the shape of a J and often have one elongated end. A hen’s droppings are usually coil shaped. A hen’s droppings may also contain more white coloration. This rule isn’t set in stone, though.
Of course, diet and digestion play a part in the actual formation and appearance of droppings. When in the field, deciphering what type of droppings you’re seeing — tom’s or hen’s — can offer valued clues to help fill a tag.
As with tracks and feathers, if a collection of tom droppings are seen in an area, you’re likely near his strutting zone. If you’re seeing only hen droppings, again, she could be feeding through the area or tending a nest.
4. DUST BATHS
All upland birds take dust baths, turkeys included. They do this to delouse their feathered bodies, and also to cool off. When you come across a series of depressions in the ground, usually under trees, amid shaded areas, look closely at the site.
Turkeys often use the same area day after day when taking dust baths in the spring. They will also routinely take these dust baths during hot times of the day, to cool off. Fresh, cool, dirt and dust from rotten logs and stumps make ideal dust bathing sites.
Since dust bath locations are not frequented long during the course of a visit, try setting up a trail camera to pinpoint what time the birds are coming in. Set up on adjacent trails leading to or from the dust bath area, and offer calm hen calls. These are great places to hunt between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when many hunters head in because birds aren’t very active.
5. THE EGG
Throughout many Western states, the average peak of the turkey’s breeding season runs from mid-March to mid-April. In higher elevations, the breeding season can be delayed a week or two, even more, depending on the amount of snow, cold temperatures and a lack of food. For hunters, keying in on nesting times and knowing the cycle of a nesting hen is important when searching for toms.
It’s the hens that wander away from their nest that can give hunters fits, as toms usually latch on to these hens and make it tough for hunters to lure them away early in the season. This is where it pays to closely watch the hen. If she’s on a mission to feed, not slowing down for the courting tom, chances are she’ll feed, water and soon return to her nest. If it’s raining, snowing or cold, she’ll return to her nest quicker than usual. Once she returns to sit, that’s the time to get after the tom.
When a hen’s body says it’s time to start laying, she will build a nest and lay one egg every 24 to 32 hours. The average size of a clutch is 11 to 12 eggs. The hen waits until the final egg is laid prior to incubating the eggs. Some 28 days after incubation began, the eggs hatch. Once a hen starts sitting on her eggs, that’s the time for hunters to move in and try calling in that tom that had been sticking with her so tightly for the past couple weeks.
While on the topic of turkey eggs, have you ever stumbled upon a lone turkey egg while afield? If so, have you ever stopped to think how it got there? This is usually where a newly expectant hen didn’t understand what her biological clock was telling her and she failed to make it to the nest before her body expelled the egg. The act of dropping an egg outside the nest is not uncommon among 1-year-old hens. What this tells you is there is a hen or hens in the area, and since it’s a young, inexperienced mother, she’s wandering around more than a mature hen would. When hens are active, toms can stick very near them early in the spring, making these good places to focus hunting efforts.
This spring, look for signs left by turkeys and study them closely. By paying attention to details, you’ll be amazed at what can be learned. As your time in the woods accrues, seasons and even decades of seasons, will enlighten you in ways you may have never considered.
Turkey hunting is more than blowing a call, waiting for a tom to reply then starting the hunt. Out West, studying the sign, noting the ever-changing conditions and deciphering minute details in nature is what takes turkey hunting to the next level.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s popular book “Western Turkey Hunting: Strategies For All Levels,” send a check for $20.00 (free S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489, or visit www.scotthaugen.com. The 208-page book contains over 270 color photos and is the most comprehensive title of it’s kind.