August 31, 2011
Here's some good advice for taking Texas' spring gobblers when they cooperate -- and when they don't!
By Will Leschper
I've had the distinct pleasure of chasing after a variety of turkey subspecies, not only in every region of Texas but in other states as well. The toughest aspect of hunting any of these birds is attempting to expect the unexpected and "trying" to plan accordingly.
Putting in your homework is about the most important thing you can do before going afield in an attempt at filling even one turkey tag, much less seeking multiple successes. Perhaps the single most vital thing you can do to improve your odds is putting in scouting time prior to a hunt.
The most important things to consider are these: Deciphering roost locations and food and water sources, locating setup areas that allow for good concealment and multiple lines of long sight and finding travel routes that intersect or parallel those locations.
If there's one thing I've learned from all my hunting failures and miscues and those of others while chasing after turkeys, it's that they simply are creatures of habit. Until they are pressured from hunters, predators or other outside influences, they typically will react the same way and do the same things. That means good things for you if you're able to find where they are and where they would like to go, and if you can do it without spooking them.
As with any scouting, hunters should learn as much about the quarry they're chasing as possible. After studying up on various reports from biologists and wildlife experts, and seeing the same things in the field, it leads to the conclusion that turkey behavior, while sometimes seemingly strange, has a distinct biological component to it. Knowing why turkeys do some of the things they do is another way to scout out possible locations and examine a number of scenarios before you head out to hunt.
With that in mind, here's a glimpse at the three seasons within a single turkey season, and why gobbling picks up in two of them -- a great thing for hunters eagerly looking to fill their Texas turkey tags!
The beginning of the spring turkey season, regardless of whether it's in the eastern Panhandle, the Hill Country or deep South Texas, is much like fall bass fishing: It's a big transition time. Around the middle to end of March and even into the middle of April in northern locales, turkeys will begin to break up from their larger winter flocks. Gobbling activity will spike, and birds will move away from areas where they spent a lot of time in previous months. The dominating activity is that of seeking out breeding areas. That typically occurs in the same locations where the birds have built nests, which can play into your favor, if you kept track of where you bagged birds the previous year.
During the early season, I've seen and heard amazing amounts of activity from both toms and hens, including fighting and general cutting up. And it's not unusual to hear hens being more vocal during that time frame, too. The reason for that behavior has been linked by biologists to being a result of the uncertainty and very nature of birds that have broken off from flocks where they had previously spent lots of time.
If there's one thing I've learned from hunting turkeys across the state, it's that familiarity makes turkeys feel the most safe, and when they don't have the security of other birds, for whatever reason, they often will go silent, which means tougher hunting.
The dynamic for the season usually is set early; dominant gobblers looking to breed will cut out hens, leaving subordinates ripe for the plucking, especially younger toms and jakes that usually will come running to your hen imitations. It's not unusual to see large groups of jakes and subordinate toms hanging around the boss gobblers and their hens, which makes locating birds easier in the early season, especially if you can find roost sites. That is where safety in groups plays the largest role, and before birds begin to break off into even smaller flocks as the season progresses is one of the best times to bring home a handsome bird.
During the middle to the end of April in much of Texas -- and even earlier in South Texas -- a gradual change begins to take hold of the turkey world. Gobbling and loud behavior that had been present even the week before slowly tails off. Biologically, the birds have established their dominance, or lack thereof, and the challenging nature of birds in the early season gives way to less aggressive tendencies, especially as the pecking order pretty much has been laid out.
Gobblers typically stay close to hens all day and also roost near them at night. Birds that are that henned-up are almost impossible to lure away from their harems. The toughest aspect about this part of the season is that toms will respond to calls a good majority of the time, but they simply won't break free from the hens they've already found. Even if you try to tempt them with sweet hen calls or challenge them with raucous gobbles, they often end up following their harems in whatever direction they feel like going. Usually it's the other direction!
The one way you can swing things in your favor is to consider another aspect of turkey biology that involves hens. As the middle of the season wears on, hens typically begin to visit their nests during late morning to lay an egg a day after breaking apart from toms at daybreak. This precisely is why changing up your tactics and hunting later in the morning and into the afternoon can mean the difference between bagging a bird and coming back empty-handed.
This portion of the turkey framework sees another peak in gobbling activity, and as with many other hunters, this is one of my favorite times to hunt the wily gobblers. The biological aspect to consider during this time of year is the fact that the late-season hunting period sees most hens on their nests incubating their clutches of eggs, while gobblers are left to roam in search of other hens to breed.
This is the magic time, though there are some things to think about that could still make things tough. The first is â€¦ there simply will be fewer gobblers, and the ones that are left will have heard a myriad of calls, especially if you're hunting public lands.
Those birds also may have totally ended their breeding activity before the season is even over, meaning your calling will fall on deaf ears. In that case, targeting food sources and setting up an ambush likely is your only play, especially as hungry toms that have eaten little during breeding season seek to replenish themselves.
Here are four things you can do to sway things in your favor, regardless of which Texas turkey hotspot you're hunting in.
SLEEP IN, HUNT LATER
The mystique of getting in early, under cover of darkness, to find roosting turkeys is one of the most amazing sights in nature. However, for all the times I've been a part of an excursion that started with that scenario and ended with an anchored tom, I've also been a part of just as many that were unsuccessful.
In the early season, before turkeys have been pressured and heard a variety of fake birds making noise, the easiest thing to do is find a roost tree, set up a couple of hen decoys nearby, get concealed and cut out some sweet hen talk. Typically, any old boss tom will come straight to your setup and give you an easy shot.
That being said, once they figure out the deal, you may as well get a couple of hours more sleep and roll out for a mid-morning or early afternoon hunt. During breeding season, toms will be seeking out hens, but since most of those females will be more apt to be sitting on or near nests as the day progresses, your odds of being able to call in a lonely tom increase considerably.
One of the most memorable hunts I've been on took place in the early afternoon in the eastern Panhandle and ended with a rolled bird. My father, Lee Leschper, and I set up in a large, thick oak motte and didn't even plop out decoys. We had seen groups of birds that morning but were unable to call any of the toms away from their hens. However, we began calling as soon as we set up later that day. Within 10 minutes we had a bellowing response not far away. It took another 15 minutes of delicate calling, nothing really loud, to bring the bird in, but when it did appear it came right up a rolling hill to our location. I was able to snap off a shot at 25 yards.
It's likely the bird traveled hundreds of yards and pinpointed our exact location, even though we weren't calling that loud, which still amazes me about turkeys.
BREAK OUT MORE DECOYS
Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. It's all a matter of tailoring your decoy setup to the situation that arises. I've killed birds with and without them so there's no hard-and-fast rule about their use. However, turkeys are social creatures and more often than not you can't go wrong setting out as many decoys as you are able, especially when birds are more aggressive.
Turkeys always feel safe in numbers and while the sight of decoys sometimes will scare off call-shy birds, at other times more will bring them right in to your setup.
On a spring hunt a few years ago, we broke out four decoys -- a tom, a jake and two hens -- to try something different during the middle of the season. That was because the birds had been very quiet and seemingly would not come in to any kind of call. For whatever reason, the change in setup coupled with slight calling, not much at all, brought in a pair of toms and ended with a filled tag.
The birds did little talking at all, but strutted and showed aggression toward one another as well as toward the fake birds, which again proves that turkeys act funny sometimes. But if you stay flexible and are willing to try new tactics, you sometimes will find success.
TAKE A BUDDY
It's tough enough trying to kill a turkey without calling, but when you're focusing on luring in a bird and then squeezing the trigger, it can sometimes be impossible. A lot of folks enjoy going solo, but setting up with one man doing the calling and another focusing on shooting is the easiest way to hunt these birds.
The key to the whole two-man play is setting up so that the caller is far enough away from the shooter so that bringing birds in will create easier shots. If you set up right together, you may not be as successful as if the caller were 20 yards or so behind the shooter, especially if birds are somewhat call-shy and may be spooked a little and inclined to stay farther out from you and your setup.
The biggest thing to consider in this scenario is line of sight. You want to be able to see through a variety of lanes and angles, and more important, be able to shoot through them with little effort while maintaining your concealment. You also want to consider setting up so that birds that come in without talking won't spot you as easily, something I've learned after multiple miscues, especially during the middle of the season.
FOCUS ON FOOD
In dry years it's easier to pinpoint when and where turkeys will be after coming off the roost, especially if breeding activity has started to wind down. Male turkeys, much like white-tailed deer, pack on the weight ahead of the breeding season and then don't eat much as they focus on one thing. After they've bred, which could be early or later in the spring, they look to re-charge, which means heading for any variety of vegetation or crops.
Turkeys are equal-opportunity eaters and will gobble up just about anything they can find late in the season, even corn from a feeder. While that isn't the way I prefer to hunt turkeys, it is one option. But there are other, perhaps better, ways to focus on food when hunting at that time of year. If range conditions are dry, look for any water sources, including streams and even windmill tanks to draw in birds, too.
Spring turkey hunting is real hunting -- plain and simple. You earn every bird you harvest, which makes filling even one tag a real success and the bird a real trophy. Hunting the first weekend or first week of the season is one of the prime times for bagging a bird, but don't overlook times later in the season, especially if you've done your scouting, studied up on your turkey biology and learned from past mistakes. There's no doubt the hunting is tougher, especially since everyone else has offered their takes on turkey talk and there also are fewer birds due to some successes by other hunters.
However, you can't beat the opportunities we've got in our state whether you're hunting the Rolling Plains, the Hill Country or South Texas. And if you play your cards right and stack the deck in your favor whenever you can, you'll find your calling as a turkey hunter.
Sometimes you've just got to think outside the box call!