April 15, 2015
With many seasons already open, the annual malady of longbeard fever is sweeping the land. Take North Texas and southern Oklahoma for instance, where seasons have been open for more than a week.
True to form, the birds in those regions have put winter into the rearview mirror as they break up and get about the business of spring breeding.
So says J.J. Kent, a guide in the region who is gearing up for campaigns on both sides of the Red River.
"The flocked up groups of hens, they have broken up significantly in the last few weeks," said Kent (www.kentoutdoors.com; 903-271-5524). "The places I've scouted, they're covered up with birds right now and the toms are starting to gobble pretty well."
Kent's observations aren't the exception to the rule either since observers in other states are reporting the same thing.
But note that none of that means that the hunting will necessarily be red-hot in the first weeks of April since the biological reality right now is that many gobblers will often be "henned-up" around Tax Day.
"The trick early on is to realize that birds are typically going to roost close to each other, the gobblers and the hens," said Kent, who serves as the North Texas pro-staff manager for Mossy Oak Camo.
"When they come down in the morning, the hens will go to feed and the gobblers will go with them to do their courtship routine."
Meaning that you might kill a bird off the roost if the group comes your way. Or you might not if they don't.
"Any diehard turkey hunter is going to be out there whenever he can be," said Kent. "A full-fledged turkey hunter – and that's what I am – will be out there at dawn listening to the birds sound off on their roosts at o'dark thirty. That's part of the fun, part of the experience."
But if a gobbler hasn't cooperated by midmorning on an April day, that doesn't mean that all hope is lost.
In fact, Kent maintains that on many days, the game has really only just begun.
"Typically in the late morning, the gobblers will start to break off from the hens and go do their own thing," said Kent, also a national pro-staffer for Avian-X Decoys and Zink Calls. "From then until 2 or 3 o'clock in the afternoon, hunters that are out in the field can catch a lot of gobblers by themselves. Either one mature bird or two or three subordinate birds that will mosey off together."
Over the last few years, Kent has seen this scenario play itself out numerous times.
"There have been plenty of times when we've sat (out there) all morning and there has been not much of anything happening," he said. "But come late morning to midday, you'll start hearing birds sound off and a good number of times, you're pulling the trigger on one around lunchtime or the early afternoon hours."
In fact, the Dallas native and Texas Tech graduate says that early season turkey hunters can keep bankers hours in his part of the world, working a half day, grabbing a bite to eat on the way to their turkey hunting spot and still have plenty of opportunity to kill a bird in the second half of the day.
When you're hunting such late morning to early afternoon birds that may or may not be betraying their presence with gobbles, having laid down some boot leather is a key consideration.
"I think it's extremely important to know your property," said Kent. "The more that you know where the birds like to roost, where they like to feed, the places that they dust and how they like to travel through a creek bottom, across a ridge top or cutting across a pasture, the better off your odds are.
"By knowing your property, you can devise a plan of attack and have a better chance to outsmart these wary birds."
The key, of course, to killing a middle-of-the-day tom is getting the bird to sound off, something best accomplished by using a call to elicit a shock gobble.
While the owl hooter calls used before dawn can occasionally still work with the sun high in the sky, better choices at midday are crow calls, pileated woodpecker calls, peacock calls and even a coyote howler call.
Such calls will at times trip the gobbling trigger of an unseen longbeard to betray his location, while still giving a hunter time to set-up shop before using a turkey call to try and entice the big boy into shooting range.
For early season hunts in the middle of the day, Kent has a specific decoy strategy that he employs.
"What I plan to do is to put out an Avian-X Rio Grande combo of a jake decoy and a breeder or lookout hen decoy," he said. "I'll set them up roughly 15 yards in front of where we're going to be sitting, about two or three yards apart.
"That does a couple of things. First, if a wary tom hangs up about 30 yards out from the decoys, he's still on the edge of effective range. And second, by separating the decoys a few steps, that gives an aggressive boss gobbler a chance to come in, walk around and try to cut off the jake by getting between it and the hen decoy."
But if that doesn't work and the bird hangs up anyway, Kent is still able to find success at times through his shotgun, shotshell and choke combination.
Using a Browning shotgun, Kent says that his paper testing of HEVI-Shot Magnum Blend (a mixture of #5, #6 and #7 shot) along with a PatternMaster turkey choke has shown great results out to as far as 70 yards on the range.
"That combination has proven to be deadly for me," he said. "On one of my own hunts last spring, I killed a tom at 67 yards. When I shot, I just rolled it. Unless you know what your gun, shotshell and choke combination will do through pre-season patterning, I'm not saying I recommend taking a shot like that. But it can be done. The key is to know what your gun does on paper beforehand."
How about calling strategies for early season midday birds?
"You can get away with a lot more early on in the season," said Kent. "As the season progresses, I'll begin to back off a bit with the calling. But early in the season, play with the gobblers, call to them, get them to sound off, have fun with them."
For the upcoming season, Kent plans on utilizing the combination of a Zink Thunder Ridge series slate call and a Zink Lost Lady double-reed mouth diaphragm call.
"The Lost Lady, it's a good one that makes really good yelps but it also does really good kee-kee calls of young birds," said Kent. "That really seems to get some old gobblers really fired up.
"And if I've got a customer with me, getting a big old bird to sound off, to gobble, to spit, to drum and to strut and put on a good show, that's what I'm after. And if we can get the bird to come in and beat up my decoys, that's even better and adds to the whole experience of tagging a bird."
All of which, when done properly, is the best reality show in the world, especially if you've got a front row seat in the springtime woods.
"That interaction between the bird and the caller, that's what spring turkey hunting is all about," said Kent.
No matter what time of the day the action occurs.