Tackling Tough Late-Season Gobblers

Tackling Tough Late-Season Gobblers

Late in the season, the toms left in the Mississippi woods can be quite wary -- but they're also starved for female company! Here's how you can exploit that situation.

By Jill J. Easton

The world was shades of gray as I dug out my box call and got ready to make the last hen yelps of the last day of last year's turkey season. Red Creek Wildlife Management Area seemed almost too quiet, chalk against wood sounding like a band saw in the dawn stillness.

Then, from the west, came the unmistakable sound of a fly-down cackle; suddenly hens were calling from all points of the compass. A thin, hesitant gobble that quickly trailed off was the only answer to the cries of seven or eight lonely hens made by various slates, mouth calls and boxes.

What the heck. Even though the odds were definitely not in my favor, I joined in the cacophony. After about a half-hour of calling with no response, I packed it up and moved on. The competition was just too fierce.

By 9:30 I was set up on a small narrow section of public land covering about 40 acres jammed between a farm and the beginnings of a subdivision. In the distance two dogs occasionally woofed, but there was no knockdown, no-holds-barred battle of the cedar hens such as was taking place at the much larger walk-in area.

At my first yelp, three gobbles called back from different points of the compass. I quickly set up under a tree at the edge of a recent cutover. At the second run of yelps, two lusty gobbles rang out, much closer now. Suddenly the approach stopped; then there were the squeaks, squawks and wingflaps of a full-throttle gobbler battle ripping the midmorning calm.

Hen decoys can trick subordinate gobblers into range toward the end of the season. Photo by Jim Spencer

After what seemed like hours (actually probably less than five minutes), the winning bird paced into the clearing, stopped, shook his feathers into order and went into full parade strut. He came within range, no doubt eyeing the decoys, and my 12 gauge made short work of his victory.

By the end of the season, popular hunting lands are often stripped bare of killable birds. The surviving gobblers have been educated or have moved to safer areas. If they've quit gobbling and sneak in, they do it with no warning, and often come in from behind to have a look-see for the hens before showing themselves.

To be successful during the late season, it's necessary to hunt smarter, not necessarily harder. The main trick is to avoid doing what's been done all season long. There are a number of ways to do this. Some just take a little thinking; others require additional equipment like maps, boats or bicycles.

Months before the season, you should have gotten maps of the land you're considering hunting on. Jim Spencer, a longtime turkey hunter and author of The Turkey Hunting Digest, starts with a pile of maps from every source he can locate. At the absolute minimum (usually) he'll have a U.S. Forest Service map, a Highway Department road map and any maps of the area put out by Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, which are available through their Web site, www.mdwfp.com.

"The Forest Service map is usually a good place to combine all the information," Spencer explained. "These maps are less detailed, so it's easy to add your notes and mark areas of interest. I start with a fistful of colored markers. The borders of my hunting area are in orange, roads are marked in brown, waterways are blue and in-holdings are usually pink or purple. If there are special-use areas I mark those borders in green."

Then, a month or more before the season, it's time for road-running. Expect the worst of your map. Forest Service maps aren't necessarily redrawn or updated on a regular basis, and often they haven't been changed in decades, so make sure that those dirt roads still exist and that new timber-cutting accesses haven't been added. Make sure that sections bordered by private in-holdings are still public, as these smaller plots are often sold or traded by the Forest Service to consolidate their boundaries. While scouting, look for nearby farms, clearcuts, fired areas and new food plots - all factors that shape a gobbler's territory and influence his movement.

Pick the brains of rural mail carriers and United Parcel Service drivers in the area - ask them if they've seen or heard turkeys. Most drive the same routes at about the same time every day, so they can tell you not only where but also the time of day at which they've seen birds.

Next, find the old hunters' table at the local café and buy each of these guys a cup of coffee. Heck, if you spring for a dozen doughnuts, there's no telling what you'll hear. Most of these folks know the places turkeys are found in year after year, and many are no longer able to do much hunting anymore. With a bit of encouragement, they may even tell about some of their personal hotspots, or invite you to hunt their property.

Add marks on your map for all the locations that are recommended. Even if you hunt the areas late in the season, many of these places may still be relatively undisturbed.

No time for days of riding the rural routes? Live too far away for scouting? The maps can still provide information that most hunters aren't going to bother with. They can be your key to avoiding those spots jammed with shotguns and instead finding backcountry areas or small tracts squeezed between private lands.

Remember that boat we talked about earlier? If it's small, like a canoe or johnboat that can travel narrow waterways, use it to get past the areas that walk-in hunters use to gain access. If you have several days, pack a tent and float miles into roadless areas. When a spot looks promising, set up camp, take some GPS readings (so that you can find your temporary home again) and commence hunting.

"In late season when I get off the beaten paths, I sometimes find workable gobblers who've probably never herd a mechanical call," Spencer explained. "Often these are big boys have bred all the hens in their range and get incredibly excited about a new conquest. I've had these remote late-season gobblers call 200 times within a half-hour."

Spencer uses either a canoe or a small motorized boat to get him into places that few other hunters will venture to enter. The canoe works best in shallow streams and backwaters in which lifting the boat over snags or dragging it through dry patches may be necessary. The motorized johnboat facilitates transport in waters too big to get around on with paddle-power.

"On bigger lakes an

d waterways like the Tenn-Tom, the Mississippi and big (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers reservoirs in the north of the state, we leave the boat launch well before dawn and find a cove or other area that looks like it has everything turkeys need," Spencer said. "Then we float and drink coffee until the birds start tree-gobbling. When we find one that seems workable, it only takes a few minutes to anchor the boat, sneak as close as possible, set up, and call. I've taken a lot of turkeys at the end of season in a boat."

For this method of hunting, Spencer prefers going with a partner. It increases the odds for success, because these underused areas generally have room enough for two hunters to work birds without interfering with each other. One may take the boat and move down shore if only one gobbler is struck in a stretch of shoreline, the hunters agreeing to meet back at a specified time and place, unless one has a gobbler working in close.

Off-road bicycles are becoming more popular for hunting areas closed to motorized vehicles; it's not difficult to wear a turkey vest and carry your gun while pedaling. If you ride in the dark, be really careful about avoiding overhanging branches, however, as a low oak or maple limb can deliver a knockout punch, and if you've ridden any distance, it could be days before another hunter finds you.

"I've used a bicycle to get to very distant birds that may not have been heavily hunted because of their remote haunts," said Otha Barham of Meridian, a turkey-hunting veteran and outdoor page editor of the Meridian Star.

Think about the gobbler's point of view for a minute. The lord of the limb glides to the ground, struts around and puts out lots of noise and fluff, hoping that hens in the area will think he's sexy. If he gets lucky, he may breed four or five times between first light and mid-morning, but by 9:30 or 10 a.m. his pressing business is finished. The hens are heading to feed, or to their nests to lay eggs. The monarch is left strutting without an audience. Our old boy with the 12-inch beard and 1 3/4-inch spurs will probably head out on the prowl looking for a new conquest.

Just about the time most hunters are packing up and thinking about breakfast, many gobblers are getting their second wind and going hunting themselves. This may sound radical - but in the late season, your chances for calling a gobbler in at 11:00 a.m. are better than they will be first light, when the competition from real hens is highest.

"I hunt more from late morning until sunset during late season," Barham offered. "I believe toms that have been hunted hard are wary of hunters calling at daylight. They have heard fewer late-day yelps, cutts and purrs, and I think they are hoping to hear a late-day call from a hen that has 'lingering libido.'"

Two types of turkey will be attracted by this strategy: the one, the educated, surviving dominant bird; the other, the subordinate male that may hang out with the boss in morning. When the dominant gobbler heads out to search for unbred hens, 2-year-olds, birds whipped into second-tier status and jakes often sneak around to find the occasional overlooked hen. As the old expression goes, while the cat's away ...

Since these birds haven't spent much time fighting or chasing, they're often in much better shape than is the boss bird, which is continually being challenged to maintain his dominance.

Because they don't want to get beaten up, these birds come in silently and strut silently; they also seem to travel alone. It's unusual to find several gobblers together by midmorning, although they frequently link back up close to fly-up time in the evening. Each of these wary birds will also be a master of circling behind hunters and using any bits of available cover to hide strutting at least until he's sure that he's the only male in the area. But a hen decoy - or better yet, two or three decoys - will often seal the deal, as having the company of several interested hens is more of a lure than the average young bird can resist.

Waynesboro's Tony Bishop has been Mississippi's turkey calling champion on three different occasions, and has regularly placed in the top five at nationals. He calls in turkeys for dozens of hunters each season in the area around his hometown.

"In late season I use quiet tactics and switch to soft calling," he said. "The turkeys have heard lots of loud calling during the season, and they've gotten suspicious. The quiet tactics just seem to work better."

Bishop also switches from early-morning hunting to afternoons, since gobblers are generally hammered or henned most in the morning. "I set up in the shade near a creek or branch that's close to a strutting area in the afternoon," he explained. "Those old gobblers spend their mornings out where they can be seen, and they get mighty hot. When the hens go off on their own, the big guys want to cool off while still searching for those unbred hens."

So shade, a cool drink and a new girlfriend are what a tom wants during the last breeding days of spring.

Bishop also likes hunting in the rain. "The birds head toward the open areas and fields during a shower," he noted. "They can't hear well in the woods with rain dripping from the trees onto leaves, so they head out into the open. Rain also seems to stir up bugs in the fields."

Although rain often raises the birds' wariness levels, it doesn't seem to slow up a gobbler's sex drive, so call to them from the edge of that pasture.

When all else fails to fool the boss gobbler that you've been gunning for all season, there's a last-ditch tactic that may work: Try using a gobble call. By all logic this shouldn't work, but experienced hunters know it does.

"A bird I had hunted for three years came in to a gobble readily on a late season afternoon," Barham recounted. "A younger, stronger gobbler had gained enough courage to begin entering the old dominant tom's territory and challenging him. The old gobbler was afraid of being replaced by a younger one. The gobble tells the old bird that a young one that he has previously dominated is making another try."

At least that's what Barham thinks is the reason - but with turkeys who can say if there ever really is a reason? Just accept that it may work. But also be aware that if you're working amid crowded woods, you may attract other hunters as well.

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