March 24, 2021
Editor's Note: This timely article is featured in the East edition of the April issue of Game & Fish Magazine, currently on sale at newsstands across the country. Learn more about the April issue. Interested in a subscription ($8 annual)? Click here.
You set up in the dark near a known roosting area. The sun starts to peak over the horizon and a chorus of gobbles thunders from above. You muster forth a few plaintive yelps just to let that ol’ boss know where you’re at and then you wait. The sound of wingbeats tells you the show is about to begin. You offer a few more yelps, but with increased volume and urgency. More gobbles echo through the woods, this time from ground-level and with a certain rattle that lets you know he’s coming. The safety clicks off. You spot a flash of red and blue just before the gobbler emerges into the opening at 25 paces. Boom.
That’s how it works on TV, anyway. Here in the real world? Yeah, not so much.
Look, I love that off-the-roost hunt as much as anyone. I also know that while there will likely be plenty of gobbling during dawn’s early light, my odds of filling a tag just might be a bit better later in the day. In fact, save for about a week or so of the spring, I’d wager more turkeys are shot long after flydown than are killed right off the roost—and by a large margin. All of this, of course, is relative. Factors such as hunting pressure play a role, but far and away, the most important aspect is timing. When I hunt turkeys, I hunt them all day long. Here’s why and how.
In states where seasons open in mid-April, a roost hunt can be spectacular as long as things are just starting to crank up. Some of this will be weather-dependent; a late-blooming spring can delay peak breeding. At this point in the season, I’ll spend far more time near a roost area than I will in a few weeks, and I fully expect my best opportunity to fill a tag to occur in the first 90 minutes or so of daylight. The reason is simple: That’s where the gobblers will be and that’s when they’re most responsive.
It’s not uncommon to find roost areas that hold multiple gobblers along with groups of hens now. The winter flock is likely still somewhat intact, and the birds that comprise it will roost in close proximity. There will be plenty of gobbling, lots of yelping and minimal breeding. That’s a good thing because those longbeards are ready to go even if the hens aren’t. By hunting tight to a roost area, you’re in prime position to call in a longbeard that’s not yet tied up with a willing hen.
As morning moves to midday, the action slows a bit, and I’ve never quite understood why. Logic would dictate that without hens willing to breed, a longbeard should be more receptive to midday calling. In reality, that’s not been my experience. I’ve definitely called in and killed a bunch of midday and afternoon gobblers during the early breeding period, but it’s never as productive as it will be in a week or two after breeding has begun in earnest.
FIRST DAYS OF BREEDING
Across much of the East, this is when most turkey openers fall. Winter flocks have busted up. There is some breeding taking place and it’s ramping up with every passing day. If you’re a deer hunter, think of this as the last week of October, when bucks are raring to go and there are just enough does in heat to make things really interesting. During this stage I’ll hunt the roost every morning I can, but I’ll hunt just as hard from 9 a.m. to noon—and I’ll expect to have my best success during that timeframe.
With many hens ready to breed, it’s likely that gobblers will find them right after flydown. Pulling those birds away from willing hens is an exercise in futility. The roost hunts are still good, however, because there will be some less dominant longbeards that have not yet found a receptive hen. You’ll know that bird immediately. It’ll gobble its head off on the roost at every sound you make. It’ll fly down long before any other gobbler and it’ll likely run you over as it races into your calling setup.
Those are gift birds from the turkey gods, but they get killed off pretty quickly in areas of heavy hunting pressure, so cherish every one you get. Late-morning hunting is so good now because it may take several setups before you find one of those lonely longbeards (if you didn’t happen to set up near one on the roost).
Again, as the day wears on, the birds seem to gather back into a flock, and calling a longbeard away from hens isn’t easy. Until it is…
Depending on your location and the weather, this can occur any time from the last week or so of April through the first week or so of May. This is when my all-day assault really comes into play.
Roost hunts can still be effective, but success rates are nowhere near what they were earlier in the spring. There are a bunch of willing hens around, and the gobblers are going to roost near them. They’ll fly down together, hook up quickly and ignore your calls. There’s no reason to leave a willing hen to find a willing hen.
Mid-morning hunts continue to play a bit but, again, there are many more hens ready to breed now and you’ll have plenty of competition. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that while there are gobs of hens breeding, few of them are laying eggs and nesting just yet, which means the gobblers have those hens to themselves almost all day long.
Afternoon or even evening hunts (where permitted) carry more importance now. It’s still not yet a red-hot tactic, but I have had more success hunting afternoons during peak breeding than mornings. Part of this is the increased amount of foliage in the woods. Even though I’m likely dealing with henned-up gobblers throughout the day, the increase in ground cover means I’m able to maneuver ahead of the birds and beat them to an area they want to hang out in.
If you can do that and get right in a gobbler’s face prior to calling, your odds of “steering” that group of birds or even challenging the gobbler enough to stray just a bit from his hen are much greater. The key here is to hunt every available minute that the law allows. This is a game of perseverance. You’ll need to locate the gobblers with their hens, figure out where they’re going and be in their path of travel. Yes, you will use calls to keep track of the birds’ location and to encourage them to move to an area of your choosing, but you can almost forget about calling a lone gobbler in right now.
We’re now heading into the latter stages of spring. Mid- to late May is prime time for hunts after the first couple hours of daylight. Roost hunts are extremely tough this time of year. Gobblers will almost certainly be roosting with or very near hens, and there is still plenty of breeding taking place, but the biggest difference is that the hens won’t stick around long. They’ve got nests full of eggs to look after, and they’ll be heading for them before noon. That leaves some lonely longbeards behind, and that’s exactly why late-morning and afternoon outings shine right now.
Some will say you can sleep in and skip the roost hunt entirely. You certainly could, and likely would have just as much success, but then you’d miss out on a few spectacular sunrises and a bunch of roost-top gobbles. Turkey hunting isn’t just about filling tags; it’s about enjoying the awesome experience that is spring in turkey country. That said, the odds of killing a longbeard are much greater after the birds have flown down and done their morning ritual and the hens have headed for their nests.
This is the time to cover a lot of ground and be aggressive with the calls. During this period of the season, if I can make a longbeard gobble twice, I fully expect to kill him. It’s one thing to pull a lone shock gobble from a henned-up bird, but a second gobble usually means the game is on, especially if the bird gobbled in one spot the first time and is very clearly in a different location the second time. That’s when you’d best set up quickly and get ready. That bird is coming, and likely in a hurry.
I’m not a huge fan of hunting a roost area late in the day. Most of the areas I hunt are either publicly accessible or are very small parcels of private ground. In either instance, as long as I have an active roost area, I know I have birds to hunt and I really don’t want to do anything to mess it up. But, with the season winding down, it might be worth the risk. I’ve called in several gobblers by heading to a roost area about 90 minutes prior to the end of legal shooting time and calling aggressively. The gobblers are already planning to be in that area when it comes time to fly up, so they likely aren’t too far away. They know hens will roost there, too, so calling can be very effective. Just don’t blow it when that gobbler shows up. This is typically a one-and-done type of affair.
New Season, New Gear
Three things to spend that tax return on
DELICIOUS DECOY: Ultra-realistic turkey decoys make me smile. I’ve used a bunch of different dekes over the years, and while those collapsible foam models are easy to tote around, I often wonder just how blind a bird needs to be to think it’s the real deal.
There are no such concerns with Dave Smith Decoys. These things are works of art that look just like a live turkey. I love to use the Posturing Jake ($199.95; davesmithdecoys.com) simply because I find it amusing to watch a gobbler come waddling in with the sole intent of putting a whupping on that youngster.
THE RINGER: I love, love, love pot-style calls and use them almost exclusively anymore. The best are high-pitched with a raspy finish, and that’s precisely what Woodhaven’s Mahogany Crystal ($99.99; woodhavencustomcalls.com) delivers. It’s not cheap, but it’s about $30 less than the other crystal-topped calls in Woodhaven’s lineup. I personally think it sounds better, too.
SWEET SEAT: Because of my friction call addiction, I carry just a couple of calls and strikers these days and don’t have much use for a big, bulky turkey vest. Instead, I’m using Millenium’s new TU0200 Run N’ Gun Turkey Seat ($79.99; millennium-outdoors.com). It’s much more comfortable than any plain-Jane butt pad.