Sure, I like before-sunrise turkey hunting as much or more than the next guy. Roosting a hot gobbler the night prior and slipping in before daylight, to set a decoy by feel, and nestling into a comfortable seat at the base of a favorite oak to watch the woods come alive is great.
Then, hearing those first booming gobbles, before the inevitable chess match that follows. Win, lose, or draw; it doesn’t matter. At least I’ve had the chance to play the game, and with any luck a long-bearded tom will have an opportunity to ride back to the house.
Some times it works that way. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I sit for that opening hour and listen to a dozen different gobblers sound off time and time and time again. Unfortunately, I know not a one of them is going to make a move in my direction, a conclusion based on the multitudinous hens I’m also hearing. Other mornings, I hear nothing. Oh, I know birds are there. I’ve seen them. I heard them the day before, but today, and for reasons known only to them, my time spent afield is greeted with nothing but silence.
So now it’s 10 o’clock. The roaring gobbles of daybreak are five hours behind me. Time to go home — or is it?
Since I began keeping records in 1994, my wife, Julia Carol, and I have killed 101 spring longbeards. Of those, a full 75 percent have fallen after 9 o’clock, with several of those being tagged after 11 o’clock. Over those same two-plus decades, I’ve watch another 50 gobblers be harvested by folks who were hunting with us, and of those, an estimated 75 percent came well after dawn; well into a period of time I’ll call midmorning. But wait. Isn’t it darn near impossible to kill a bird midmorning, especially birds that have, for whatever reason, fallen silent?
The truth is it’s often less challenging to outfox a longbeard at 10 o’clock than it is at dawn, if you are willing to keep to what I think of as “the schedule.”
The schedule is a good way of tracking your own strategy over the course of a day — changing what you do based on what part of the day the gobblers are moving through. Often it’s helpful and works.
TIME – SUNRISE TO 8 A.M.
Gobblers roosted with hens gobble. Some of them gobble almost non-stop. If tom turkeys assume anything, it would be that if three hens are good, then half a dozen might be even better. As turkey hunters, we listen to these hard-gobbling henned-up toms and think that we’re going to take him home.
But in the case of gobblers who are with hens on the roost, nine times out of 10, we’re wrong. The girls fly down. He flops down. And he follows them — and usually the hens move away from any hen noises you’ve been making.
Certainly, those of you who have set out a full-strut gobbler decoy have watched as a henned-up longbeard has run, leaving all the girls behind, 100 yards in order to (1) beat up a full-strut decoy, and (2) wear a turkey tag seconds later. However, for as many times as I’ve seen that happen, the former scenario – he leaves with the hens – has played out 100 times.
What’s the play?
If another gobbler sounds off and you can determine what he’s doing, then get up, pack your gear, and head in his direction. A fresh bird might mean a notched tag.
However, let’s assume Bird Two doesn’t make himself known. If the property you’re hunting is expansive, a little run-and-gun might be in order. Walk that logging road and call every 100 yards. Hit the ridges, moving slowly and quietly, and give out a series of mid-volume yelps every now and again.
If, however, you are hunting a smaller piece of land, then your best bet might be to practice the cardinal virtue of expert turkey hunters: Patience. Once that break-of-day longbeard and his hens have wandered off, make yourself comfortable. Eat a snack and fluff up your seat cushion. Prop up a feeder hen decoy and a non-aggressive jake at 20 yards, and settle in for at least a two-hour wait. While you wait, you should be listening. Listen for hens, for gobbles, for gunshots, other hunters calling — that will help you decide what to do later in the morning.
As for calling, do little now. Chances are the hens, like the gobblers, have gone quiet. If the real turkeys are quiet, sometimes it’s a good idea to imitate them, especially if they’ve been hunted before.
Periodically, give some soft, short yelps, clucks, and purrs — nothing aggressive, and nothing very loud. Sometimes a roaming gobbler who likes what he hears will come in — typically silently — but more often than not, this is a quiet time.
TIME – 8 TO 10 A.M.
Eight to 10 o’clock gobblers are often roamers. They’re 2-year-old birds, often travelling in pairs or threesomes. These are subdominant birds who have gotten their tail feathers kicked a time or two by the Big Boss Tom in the neighborhood. Because of this, they’re a little tentative, gobbling a time or two at long distance and then coming in silent, slicked down and on high alert. They are hoping to find an unattended hen, but they’re silent because if there is an older gobbler there, these young toms don’t want to let him know they are coming.
But they’ll come, only strutting once they’ve gotten in close to your hen or pair of hens decoys. These are the birds that catch you off-guard. One minute, nothing; the next, and they’re standing there at 30 yards, one strutting and the other head up and looking for anything suspicious.
Now’s the time to target these wandering suitors. A funnel between two grass fields. A logging road atop a hardwood ridge. A known strut zone. A hidden pasture corner at the foot of a timbered incline.
Find cover or set up a portable blind, sit back, get cozy, and call every 15 to 20 minutes. If subtle yelps don’t do the trick, I’m prone now to some ultra-aggressive cutt/yelp mixtures; loud, sharp-edged, and high-pitched, but short in duration. Here, a favorite crystal-faced friction call gets the nod.
Success during the 8 to 10 a.m. period depends on three things. One, that you have some idea of where areas of high midmorning turkey traffic are. These are funnels that turkeys use to travel from roosting and breeding grounds to feeding. The second is your ability to sit, and sit still, long enough to give these nomadic birds a chance to find you. And third, that you are ready for the tom or toms that show up, as they often do, unannounced. That means the gun in ready position, body positioned to swing left or right if necessary, and that you’re awake. For many hunters 8 to 10 a.m. is a very tempting time for a field nap. Resist the temptation and you’ll kill more birds.
TIME – 10 A.M. TO HIGH NOON
An avid turkey-hunting friend of mine, Kim Hart, is fond of saying this about midmorning toms: “Gobble at 11, you’re going to heaven.”
He’s talking about the turkey, that is. And he’s often right. Unless you’re hunting an area with an overabundance of hens, there’s a high likelihood the gobbler that sounds off on his on, with no prompting by you and your call, at 11 a.m. is very much alone and very eager to enjoy the company of a hen.
If he gobbles a second time in response to you, unless he’s at the very fringe of your hearing, I’d suggest sitting down and getting yourself ready. Call again, and if he responds immediately, and you might want to think seriously about setting that slate call down — he’s on his way.
Midmorning gobblers can be had, even if they’re tight-lipped. The key is for you to have the patience, the persistence, and the self-discipline to position yourself in a high traffic area, and then sit, listen, and watch, calling only when necessary and in accordance with Mother Nature’s guidance. And should he gobble at 11 a.m., you might soon get a chance to use your turkey fryer.