When spring buds begin to appear, amorous old gobblers also show up in the Magnolia State woodlands. Let's look at some areas offering the chance to rendezvous with such a tom this year.
Beneath the roost tree, which was a few hundred yards down at a break between two fields, a pile of fresh gobbler droppings was the tipoff that mature birds favored the site. Three patriarchs, which we dubbed the Triple Toms, were often seen out strutting in the nearby openings when we glassed from the road. Hens and other subordinate birds came and went, but the longbeards were as sure as sunrise.
After four frustrating days of conventional hunting around Rolling Fork, none of us had gotten within 200 yards of those gobblers. Delta National Forest was proving to be a much more difficult spot to hunt than we had expected. It’s an unfortunate reality that public-land birds don’t grow to have 10-plus-inch beards and saber-like spurs without developing caution to a high degree.
We had found that the Triple Toms of the Delta NF would answer calls at first light and gobble their heads off. Unfortunately, no combination of putts, kee-kees and yelps would induce them to venture closer than a quarter-mile. They had what amounted to Ph.D.s in surviving spring turkey season.
It was time to try an entirely different approach — something that involved stealthy “black-ops” tactics rather than a simple call-’em-in sort of proposition. We planned it the night before with military precision, working up hand-drawn maps of the adjoining plots covered with circles, arrows and bullet paths. The idea was that, long before first light, three of us would sneak in to locations close to where the gobblers liked to perform but out of anyone else’s line of fire. Setting up in the thickets that bordered the openings, we’d silently wait the birds out.
Each of us had packed snacks, water and ways to keep ourselves occupied during what would probably be long hours of tedium. I brought a book, and Biff had a piece of wood he’d been whittling into a set of napkin rings for his wife; the other guy was just a good sitter. Our fourth, Jim, who was the most accomplished and most versatile caller, would set up close to the road and pull out his full arsenal of turkey hen sounds so that the gobblers wouldn’t change their normal patterns.
Jim dropped us off at 3:30 in the morning, a full hour before sunrise, and then went back to the motel to sleep for another hour. The rest of us spread out and began long, quiet commando sneaks. When I got to my position I hollowed out a spot behind some honeysuckle vines. The blind gave me plenty of cover and a nearly unobstructed view of the field. Then it was just a matter of staying awake and waiting to see if the gobblers would detect our presence and head off in a different direction.
As false dawn began to reveal the terrain, I could see Biff cattycorner to my location as he finished building his blind with cane and branches. In another half-hour it would be legal light, and the game would begin.
Soon the Triple Toms began cranking up from their branches. They were looking for company and telling the world that they were the bosses of all they surveyed.
Half an hour later, hens flew down just about in front of me; minutes later the gobblers appeared at the other end of the opening and began their morning routine of gobbling and strutting for each other, any watching hens — and any hunters that might be passing on the road. The hen flock began picking their way toward the gobblers; my hopes cellared.
Then Jim began calling from a point close to the road. For some reason, this moved the three boss birds out of their safe corner and started them heading towards the hen flock. Shortly this would bring them into my firing corridor. Maybe today luck would be with me, and I’d earn bragging rights after taking one of these magnificent toms.
Soon the three big ones were within 100 yards; binoculars revealed the spurs to look even better than we’d thought. One sharp-pointed pair could be 2 inches. Another bird had broken off the left spur, but his right was still a dangerous weapon of defense. The third bird’s had a definite hook. They were getting close enough that I needed to quit sightseeing and get the gun up and ready to shoot.
The three were within 70 yards and closing. In minutes one or all of them would be arching, gobbling and fanning within reach of my 12 gauge.
I got the gun on my knee in shooting position and waited for it. As the lead gobbler passed in review in front of my blind, he stretched out to gobble, and I fired. The shot flipped him dramatically. He flopped once or twice, and the other two commenced to kick and peck at him, The hens headed for the shelter of the woods.
After the excitement quieted and the other turkeys left, I picked up my prize and headed for the road. It had been an awesome morning. The gobbler I took weighed only 20 pounds, but his spurs were 1 3/4 inches and his beard was 11 1/2 inches. Other than being lean from the stress of breeding season, he appeared to be in fine health.
This unique, successful hunt left me with the memory of an impressively cooperative effort that will stick with me forever.
All across Mississippi, turkey hunters have the chance to take gobblers on public and private land. Those who hunt on the state’s wildlife management areas and national forests have to be flexible, and to use ingenuity to get a bird close enough to shoot. Unfortunately, the gobblers surviving the first few days of the season probably won’t be fooled by standard setup and calling routines.
HOW IS OUR TURKEY FLOCK?
The last two years have been difficult for ground-nesting birds across the state. Many of the nests had to be remade by hens after the first clutch of eggs was flooded during hard early-season rains. Additional rain and cold weather weakened or killed some of the surviving chicks when they were very young. This pattern seen in the last two seasons — early rains followed by cold weather — means that fewer jakes and uneducated 2-year-old birds are haunting the woods.
“Summer of 2003 was probably the lowest hatch in eight or nine years,” said James Austin, turkey program leader for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “Jakes may be hard to find next season. In 2006 turkey hunters will feel the impacts much more than this year.”
That’s the bad news. The good news is that this year should have another near-record harvest of mature gobblers. Also, if the spring comes in relatively dry and warm, the hatch should make up for these last two years of fewer surviving poults.
“Overall, Mississippi has a healthy turkey population,” said Austin. “The late ’80s to the late ’90s were great years for turkey hunting here, but last year was probably a record for number of birds taken. It was surprising, since the number of birds has been declining throughout the new millennium.”
Even with the number of turkeys going down, the quality and size of birds is still going up. The state record for largest turkey was broken last year. The new record bird weighed 25.4 ounces. Only 3 years old, he was taken in Neshoba County.
THE OAK SEEDLING PROJECT
Turkey survival through the winter depends on the quality and quantity of the mast crop in the north part of Mississippi once the bugs are gone. Our state has been working with Georgia Forestry Commission, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Mississippi Forestry Commission, Mississippi State University and a variety of others to grow “super trees” that mature quickly and start producing acorns within 10 years.
“Experimentation has shown that with the proper treatment just about any species of red or white oak acorn can be used for growing the trees,” Austin explained. “We collect Mississippi acorns from various locations, send them over to Georgia to be grown to seedling size then they are brought back and planted in WMAs around the state. This year for the first time we had enough to distribute some to landowners who want to provide better cover and mast crops for their wildlife.”
Because these trees aren’t products of genetic engineering, or hybrids created from out-of-state nursery stock, the turkey team leader is particularly pleased with them. Using different varieties of oak offers the additional advantage of assuring that the trees don’t all drop their acorns at the same time.
BEST PUBLIC TURKEY LANDS?
The southwest corner of the state has long been regarded as one of the best areas for turkeys, although hunters without either a lease or friends with land may find it hard to get permission to hunt there. The habitat, a robust mixture of hardwoods, open pastures and agricultural plots, gives turkeys a lot of choices as to where they stay and what they eat. And public hunting is an option there.
Adams, Wilkinson, Franklin and Amite counties all harbor huntable concentrations of birds. Homochitto NF has several promising areas in these counties in which turkeys are commonly seen and taken.
Also worth investigation in the region is the land between the levee and the Mississippi River — prime habitat that’s home to large old birds. If you can get permission to hunt the land in the large plantations, the rewards can be considerable.
Northwest Delta counties may represent a sleeper area with better-than-average birds this year, reports the MDWFP’s Austin. Despite the statewide downtrend in numbers, hunters and farmers up and down the river have reported a pretty good hatch in each of the last two years. After several slow years of turkey hunting, this may be the year to head to Tunica, Coahoma and Bolivar counties.
Unfortunately, this is another area whose public land options are almost nonexistent. Again, the area that is between the levee and the Mississippi is the place to start looking for birds. A reasonable second choice: open woodlands close to corn or soybean fields or near feeder cattle operations.
The south-central part of the state is another area that should produce some big gobblers this year. Drew Turner, co-owner of Turner Brothers Taxidermy, says that many of the birds brought in for him to mount come from the area around Camp Shelby and the Leaf River. For a change, public-land hunting is actually available here.
De Soto National Forest has huntable areas south of state Route 42 in the Chickasawhay WMA and off Highway 29 in Perry County and the Leaf River WMA.
The sections of De Soto NF in Wayne and Jones counties also have areas hosting nice birds. Check with the district MDWFP or national forest offices to get information about the easiest access points.
“The secret to getting older birds in the national forest is to go into the woods at 9 a.m. or 10 instead of starting at daybreak,” Turner offered. “This gives the idiots who come in whistling and riding four-wheelers at dawn a chance to clear out.”
The most promising places in which to find turkeys in the middle of the day, especially when it’s warm, are in the creek bottoms, as these cool areas provide shade. The best ones afford the birds access to open areas appropriate for an afternoon strut and gobble.
“Walk the logging roads and call,” Turner said. “When a turkey answers always be ready to set up quickly. Often these birds are afraid of getting beat up by the boss, so they come in running.”
Many of these afternoon birds are big gobblers that have always been subordinate to the boss tom. While the bronze baron is resting, these other toms try to make a sneak on any hens that may have wandered into the territory looking for love.
Northeast Mississippi was the last area of the state into which turkeys were restocked. For that reason, the flock is a bit behind the rest of the state. Holly Springs NF has a growing turkey population, and some hunters haven gotten creditable birds in the area around Gravestown or hunting out of Hurricane. State Routes 4, 5 and 349 are all likely roads to use when scouting for turkeys. Pay special attention to pastures that border on the national forest property.
Consider using an off-road bicycle to scout logging roads and trails in areas where a motor vehicle would spook wary birds. Remember to ride carefully, to stay alert and to be quiet, since dominant gobblers like to use these paths for strutting when fields and food plots are not available.
It’s possible to ride these bicycles with a backpack and a gun strapped on your back. If you use a bike, remember to respect the hunting space of those who got in before you did.
This year may sound like a mixed opportunity for turkey hunters, but if it were easy chasing gobblers would not be nearly as much fun. Use your imagination and try new ways of getting to the birds and attracting their attention. A group hunt involving bicycles or canoes may seem like a strange way to go after turkeys, but if it’s legal in your chosen hunting spot, and it’ll get y
ou away from the crowds, it’s well worth trying.