Bagging a wary old gobbler in April is no easy feat. By this time, he has heard all the calls and seen all the tricks. But these tips should help you outsmart him! (April 2009)
It's been noted that "the early bird gets the worm." There is some truth to that in many endeavors, and one of those might certainly be the spring turkey season. Those hunters who have effectively done their pre-season scouting, located a gobbler, found his roost, and are sitting near it on opening morning have an excellent chance of success.
Hunters who understand the behavior of late-season toms are likely to "invite" one of those birds to dinner! Photo by William J. Bohica.
That doesn't always mean, however, that those who fail to score early must go home hungry.
Thanks to an abundant turkey population, and a season in the Central and North regions that runs into late April, there is ample opportunity for end-of-the-season hunters to score. All they have to do is alter their tactics.
It doesn't take much human pressure during the early part of the season to alter the behavior of turkeys. They quickly pick up on that pressure and respond to it. They won't follow their normal pre- and early-season routines. But they're still turkeys, and once hunters understand how pressure affects their daily behavior, the chances of scoring are still good.
RESPONDING TO PRESSURE
Just how a gobbler responds to hunting pressure depends upon how much of it he has received. If the bird is in an area that has received little, if any pressure, his behavior won't be much different than it would be on opening day. Nothing has happened to alter his normal behavior.
The only real change is that by the latter portion of the season, many of the hens have been bred, and that's good news for hunters. It means that with a lesser number of hens available, the gobbler has to move more to find those hens that are still receptive.
If there is a simple key to the latter part of the season, it is to locate good turkey habitat that has seen as little pressure as possible. That's not always easy to do, but some hunters who have access to private land with may be able to pull it off. They may have to move farther and deeper into the areas that aren't so easy to hunt, but it's worth it if they can find an unpressured bird.
If you're not that fortunate, and particularly if you hunt public land, you likely are dealing with pressured gobblers. There're several ways that they will respond to pressure.
One of the most common is for the bird to simply shut up. An unpressured bird may gobble furiously on the roost in the morning, and then continue when he hits the ground. A pressured bird seldom does. They may gobble a few times on the roost, but go silent after that. Once they hit the ground, they may talk very little at all, and that includes responding to hen calls. That can make them very difficult to locate.
They still are looking for hens, and move in the direction of any hen they hear. But they won't talk back and tell you they're there. It's not at all uncommon during the later season for a caller to be working, and just suddenly have a bird show up unannounced. That usually catches the hunter unaware and exposed. But, as we'll see in a minute, there is a remedy for that.
Another response, although not as common, is for the bird to shift its roost site and actually move to another area. They don't normally move into the thicker cover like a pressured whitetail buck would, but they can vacate one area for another. This is seldom a lengthy move -- not more than a half-mile or so under most circumstances -- but it is something to watch for.
Surprisingly, one place they can often move to is the home territory of a dominant bird that was harvested early in the season. It may not make sense to us to move right into a "firing line," but it can to the gobbler.
When a dominant gobbler stakes out a territory, he does so because there is ample food, good roosting sites and plenty of hens. If that bird is harvested, the only thing that changes is that he's not there anymore. And often, the hunters who were targeting him have left as well. If the habitat and hens are the same, but the pressure has dropped, there's no reason why a bird pressured out of an adjacent area wouldn't move in.
LOCATING PRESSURED BIRDS
Regardless of whether a tom stays in his original home range, or shifts to another, he's likely to be very quiet. That makes it difficult to locate him, or even determine if he is in the area. Traditional locator calls may not work very well, and hen calls are often useless. One call, however, can sometimes work.
Given the success of Florida's turkey restoration program, it is almost unheard of for good habitat to have only one gobbler living in it. There are other gobblers besides the dominant bird. These are often lesser birds in the jake or 2-year-old class. They have learned -- painfully, in some cases -- that opening their mouths is a good way to get a visit from the Big Guy, who will promptly administer a "whupping." After a few such occurrences, they learn to be vocally discreet. This can play into the hunter's hands during the later season.
A dominant bird, regardless of location, is still looking for hens and won't take kindly to a lesser bird intruding upon him. Although he may be very quiet after being pressured, he often responds to a challenge gobble if he thinks a younger bird is courting his hens. When it comes to locating a late-season gobbler, the challenge gobble is one call that may get a response. That at least lets the hunter know a gobbler is in the immediate area.
An interesting twist on the dominance factor can sometimes make it very productive to move into the home area of a dominant bird that has been harvested -- especially if you are certain that it was the dominant bird and it was taken on opening weekend. That may sound counterproductive, but it's not.
There are multiple gobblers in most areas of Florida that have good habitat. In many cases, the dominant gobbler within that group is a 3-year-old bird. That's because he's the fittest at fighting, and that's how dominance is established. The jakes won't challenge him, and the 2-year-olds aren't strong enough to beat him. Any 4-year-old birds in the area are also outclassed when it comes to fisticuffs. They're just too old to punch it out with a younger challenger in his prime, and they're smart enough to know that they can get some hens by just quietly hanging around the sidelines.
If that dominant 3-year-old is harvested, it's a whole new ball game for the other birds. When the Big Guy is no longer there to provide discipline, one of the lesser birds becomes the "new" dominant tom, and he does it in the traditional manner -- by whipping his challengers. If you're the one doing the challenger call, even a 4-year-old bird might come running to accept the challenge. Or, at the very least, one of the birds should respond with a challenge of his own to let you know he's there. Don't discount the challenge gobble call late in the season.
If that doesn't produce a positive result, the best option remaining to determine if a gobbler is indeed in the area is to stopping hunting birds and start hunting their droppings.
The droppings from a gobbler are shaped much differently than those of hens. The latter leave compact ball-shaped scat, while the gobbler will leave a longer J-shaped dropping. Those droppings that are fresh are greenish-brown in color, but as they lay on the ground, for a while after being deposited, they start to turn white at one end and that change continues until the entire dropping is white.
No animal inhabiting a specific area for any length of time can fail to leave droppings. Fresh green droppings, and nothing else, show a gobbler passed through. Add a few that are starting to "white up" and you know he's dallied a bit. Find some full white ones to go with the others and you've found his home.
The above scouting tactic should put you on a bird, regardless of how late in the season it is. That, however, assumes that the hens are still doing what hens do. If hunting pressure has become so severe that the hens have been spooked out of their home territory, the gobbler will follow. He's still looking for hens, and under these circumstances, you are wise to do the same. If there are no hens in the area, there aren't likely to be any gobblers.
Even during the tail end of the season, gobblers still are hunting hens, but the normal breeding cycle reduces the number of receptive hens.
As the breeding season starts, the hens feed and move in flocks. As each hen is bred, she leaves the flock and takes off on her own. These are normally the solo "blue heads" you see feeding early in the morning and then don't see until the evening hours. If a hunter is seeing only these "lonesome hens," and not any gobbler droppings, it's time to move.
On the other hand, if you see even a two- or three-bird flock of hens, success -- and a gobbler -- could be nearby. A flock of hens, no matter how small, spotted during the latter part of the season indicates they have not yet been bred. That's enough to make savvy hunters spend a lot of time in that area, because that's where the gobblers are.
TACTICS TO SCORE
Once you're sure there's a tom in your area, it's an excellent idea to have a wider variety of calls than you might carry during the early season. Birds may have heard a lot of calls, and if they responded to one and had a bad experience, they may not respond to it again. It makes little sense to use the same calls and cadence that he may already have heard.
It's also worth noting that the latter part of the season normally sees more vegetation and more humidity than opening weekend. This factor can tend to muffle many popular calls and restrict their range. Savvy hunters carry a few high-frequency calls that can reach out to a greater distance. If the gobbler can't hear you, he can't respond to you. Long-range calls can often get that initial response that allows the hunter to locate the bird, move to him, and start working him.
Another important change for late-season hunters is to alter your schedule. Many turkey hunters hit it hard in the morning and are gone from the woods by noon. Late-season hunters need more patience.
When the number of receptive hens is reduced, the gobbler has to spend more time on the move to find them. On some public lands, hunters may not be able to hunt after 1 p.m., but there's nothing that says you always have to leave the woods. Putting up the shotgun, staying late and watching can be an excellent way to pattern a bird. On private lands where later hunting is legal, staying longer is an excellent way to harvest one.
When a gobbler comes off the roost in the morning, even when a reduced number of receptive hens are left, he's going to hunt them. It can be tough to call him away if he stumbles onto one of those females. Once those hens go on the nest, though, he's going to go on the hunt for more, and he'll continue right on through the day until it's time for him to go to the roost.
During the latter part of the season, the most productive times to locate and call a gobbler can often be from 11 a.m. into the later portion of the afternoon. Whenever possible, hunters should take advantage of it.
Patience is an asset when it comes to staying in the field, and it is equally important when it comes to calling.
In the extreme northern portion of the state, there are Eastern and Eastern/Osceola hybrids. These strains often respond well to aggressive calling tactics during the early season. Moving south, the Osceola subspecies becomes more dominant and they normally respond best to less aggressive calling early on. During the latter part of the season, both strains are best approached with subtle calling.
A classic example was a bird a hunting partner of mine took two seasons ago. He had gained access to a small plot of private land near Jacksonville and found a good bird during pre-season scouting. Unfortunately, so did another hunter, who was not overly stealthy and managed to spook a lot of the area's turkeys before my buddy could get into the action. Then the first hunter got discouraged and left, and my friend had the place to himself during the last two weeks of the season.
Knowing he was hunting pressured birds, but that the dominant tom was still there, the hunter took things very easy. The first morning, he slipped in and got the bird to gobble at him just once. Then the tom zipped his lip for the rest of the day. The second morning, knowing where the bird was the first day, my friend eased in and made a couple of challenge gobbles, got one response from the bird, and things went quiet.
For the next three hours, the hunter did nothing more than make a half-dozen soft clucks an hour. It wasn't much calling, but it was enough, as my buddy related to me
"That challenge gobble got his attention," my buddy related, "and the few soft hen calls I made convinced him he needed to be there, no matter how spooked he was. He came in without making a sound and the first inkling I had he was there was when I saw his head bob briefly behind a tree about 30 yards away.
"He had me zeroed, and I didn't even know he was there," the hunter continued. "If I hadn't been in a blind, and had just been sitting against a tree, he'd have spotted me and been gone without my knowing he was there."
Hidden within that narrative are two nuggets that can be keys to late-season success once you've found a bird. The first is to call softly and infrequently. The second is to expect a
late-season gobbler to "ghost in" silently. That's where a portable blind can be worth its weight in gold, and one of the easiest ways to avoid getting caught unaware.
It can require a bit more work, extra equipment, and a lot of patience. But there's no reason hunters can't experience late-season success.
Find more about Florida fishing and hunting at: FloridaGameandFish.com