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Regional Strut Update: Clock Ticking on 2024 Spring Season

There's still time to fill your turkey tag, but you need to focus your efforts and refine your strategy.

Regional Strut Update: Clock Ticking on 2024 Spring Season
Spring seasons have wrapped up in the South, but there's still a bit of time left to fill a turkey tag across the other regions. (Shutterstock image)

This is the eighth installment of the Regional Strut Update, our weekly report on turkey activity and hunter success across the country (see last week's report). This week's report includes:

  • In the East, Doug Howlett says your best bet for success now exists in the northernmost states.
  • In the Midwest, Brandon Butler says that good gobblers remain in certain states, but you'll have to work fast.
  • In the West, Andrew McKean says it's time to cover lots of ground, officially making it "run-and-gun" season.
  • In the South, where seasons have mostly ended, many turkey hunters may now start thinking about the Regional Rut Update (whitetail hunting) this fall.

EAST REPORT

Last Call in Southern Portion; Bird Hitting Their Stride Up North
  • It’s a tale of two regions, as some states wind down while birds are firing up in New England.

By Doug Howlett

This is the crazy part of the season in the East region, as some states, such as Pennsylvania, have just opened, while states like Delaware are done and Virginia, West Virginia and Rhode Island are in their final days. A number of other states conclude next week. And the gobblers seem to be all over the map, with everyone trying to figure out exactly where they are in the game.

One line of thought is more hens are going off to nest and leaving toms alone earlier, which should make them eager for company and easier to call in. Right? But on the other hand, in many states the birds have experienced multiple weeks of hunting pressure, so the ones that have survived have also wised up, making them even harder to kill despite their bachelor status.

So, which is it? Just a week ago, where I hunt in Virginia, my son and a friend heard two birds gobbling in a field. They slid to the edge of the field through the woods, and with just a couple calls they had the birds racing each other to the gun. Less than five days later, I was hunting the same area and heard only a single bird gobbling at sunrise. In fact, the last three times out, I only heard that same tom gobbling—and he beat me every time by flying from the roost across a wide creek and onto property I don’t have permission to hunt. I didn’t hear or see another bird short of one hen and one jake. Just three weeks earlier, in that same area, I counted 12 different gobblers going off at first light, and on one day I called in a group of seven longbeards. I know maybe a few are now dead, but what happened to the others?

Hunters in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland can expect a real slowing to the action in these final days. Even with the weather potentially warming up after a chilly last weekend, the breeding (and gobbling) is winding down, which means you’re going to have to sit tight in your best gobbler haunts and be patient for a bird to stroll along.

“This has been one of the toughest seasons I can ever remember,” says former West Virginia game warden and current outdoor writer, Larry Case, of the western stretch of Virginia and southern portions of West Virginia. Some birds have surely fallen, but he notes most hunters he’s talked to have heard some gobbles before fly-down, then nothing once toms hit the ground. And it’s been that way all season.

Meanwhile, farther north, the hunting has been challenging thus far but is about to hit prime time.

“Northeast turkey killing is now a matter of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’” reports Game & Fish East Regional editor Gerry Bethge. He and his buddies hit their Massachusetts hunting grounds hard opening week. “The key to getting your gobbler now is finding toms that don’t have any hens, and this is why pre-season scouting is so important. If a bird doesn’t want to play, he likely has hens. Go to your backup birds and keep trolling through them until you find an adult that will come to your call. We had 20 to 25 adults located just before the season opened, and we just kept sorting through them to find birds that would work.”



Trevor Berwick, one of the hosts of the Outdoor Drive podcast, scored early in Connecticut with his father, Jim, but notes coming into this week, both in Connecticut and Rhode Island, the fields are starting to see more lonely toms in them. If you hit one right and get him fired up, Berwick says he should be very killable.

“There’s still birds out there, but you’re just going to have to work for them,” he says.

Connecticut hunter Matt Wettish says that despite birds being thin on public lands, he agrees with Berwick’s assessment. “I think the birds are in transition now, and later this week and next week they should light up,” he says.

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Outfitter David Sichik says the birds in Vermont have been acting weird, with groups of toms still together—or is it they’re already getting back together? They are reacting to calls and decoys, he says, though he admits the benefits of decoying are waning. Sightings of birds have been down this past week, though no one is sure if it is because of hunter pressure or because birds are simply moving back into the hills now that the snow is melting or gone altogether.

Meanwhile, in Maine, John LaMarca with LaMarca Outfitters says, “The turkeys are good! Hens are finally breaking away, and I’m seeing more single toms. It should be heating up again as the rest of the hens start to break off. They have been henned-up for the most part, but the silver lining is if you do find hens, stick around—their boyfriends shouldn’t be far behind.”

TAGGED OUT

turkey hunter Alisha Sichik
New Jersey hunter Alisha Sichik with her big Vermont turkey. (Photo courtesy of Alisha Sichik)
Garden State Hunter Strikes Green Mountain Gold
  • Hunter: Alisha Sichik
  • Date: May 3
  • Location: Vermont
  • Method: Shotgun
  • Stats: 9-inch beard; 1-inch spurs; 19 pounds 

Alisha Sichik of New Jersey scored on this big Vermont tom with the help of her father, David, calling the strutter into their decoys.

GOBBLER GEAR

Turkey Blinds for 2024 and Beyond
ground blind
The ALPS OutdoorZ Deception is one of 10 new blinds available to turkey hunters this year. (Photo courtesy of ALPS Brands)
  • From run-and-gun turkey hunting options to something a little more substantial, here are 10 blinds to consider this spring and beyond. — Lynn Burkhead

Click to read "Turkey Blinds for 2024 and Beyond"

SHOTSHELLS

Load Up for Turkey, Earn Up to $100 in Rebates
turkey hunter
Winchester is offering rebates up to $100 for purchases of Super-X and Double X turkey shotshells. (Photo courtesy of Winchester)
  • From now until May 31, you can get cash back for buying Winchester turkey ammo.

Click to Learn More

MIDWEST REPORT

The Clock is Ticking; Good Numbers of Gobblers Remain
  • Most states’ seasons are now closed, but hunters with unpunched tags in states still open aren’t out of the game yet.

By Brandon Butler

More than half of the states in the Midwest have seen another turkey season come and go, and what a season it was. Early indications of strong turkey numbers across the region were right on track, as we have seen exceptional harvest numbers coming in from state after state. For those still in the game, there’s no reason to give up yet. Plenty of gobblers remain, and there are now far fewer hunters in the woods.

Michigan wins for being the last state to close its season, with some of the southern zones staying open until June 7. Steve Martinez of STM Outfitters says he’s surprised by how much afternoon gobbling he has heard in the last week. He says the gobblers that remain are scrambling to find any hens that are still receptive.

“I spend a lot of time in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. The turkey hunting was excellent this year. Although it’s now closed in our county, hunting is still open just to the south of us. I’m seeing gobblers still strutting in the middle of roads, and lots of lone hens heading to and from nests. Hunters still holding a Michigan tag in an open zone will likely still have a great shot at success,” Martinez says.

Minnesota’s walleye fishing opener is behind us, so plenty of turkey hunters are now committed to putting marble eyes in a live well instead chasing late-season birds. This just means more public lands without competition for the hunters who remain. Private lands might also be more accessible now, as many hunters with first dibs on those tracts have tagged out. If you’re seeing birds in a field regularly, stopping to politely ask permission never hurts.

Remember, too, that Minnesota’s regulations state: “Firearms hunters who do not tag a turkey in their selected time-period may also hunt the final time-period (F – May 22-31).” The southeast corner of the state is historically the top turkey-producing region. If you’re still after a gobbler, you should head in that direction.

In the wide-open expanses of North Dakota, hunters have until the end of the weekend to chase turkeys. The season closes on May 19. Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with the grasslands of the Medora area, and if you enjoy prairie and endless horizons, you will, too. The Dakota Prairie Grasslands around Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers turkey hunters more public lands than they could roam in a region steeped in conservation history.

“Out in the Grasslands Region, where most of the turkey hunting is done on public land, hunters still after a bird are going to need to go deeper and hunt harder,” North Dakota hunter Brian Burns says. “The easy birds have been killed already. Those birds still out there by now are some smart turkeys. You’ve got to put in the extra effort to get away from the road, but there are still plenty of gobblers out in the ocean of prairie. Just look for the clusters of roost trees, which may be few and far between except in the creek bottoms.”

Longtime Ohio resident and expert turkey hunter Rick Story grew up chasing turkeys in Missouri. He still thinks Ohio birds are easier to kill than the wise old toms haunting the Ozark hills, but his respect for Buckeye turkeys has grown considerably over the years. Hunters in the South Zone only have a few days left, with the season closing May 19. Up north, hunters have until May 26.

“If I were still trying to tag a turkey in Ohio this late in the season, I might be willing to get creative and hunt a bird by boat,” says Story. “We have a number of reservoirs in the state that are surrounded by public lands. Gobblers will spend the morning working up and down peninsulas strutting and gobbling. Many of these areas are far from the nearest parking lot, so these birds have not seen the pressure birds closer to the road have experienced. When you hear a gobble, try to work from the shore into position so the bird has to come your direction if it wants to leave the peninsula. I’ve killed quite a few birds using this tactic, and when I haven’t, I’ve still usually wound up with a cooler full of crappies.”

TAGGED OUT

turkey hunters at camp
Outdoor writer Will Brantley (right) made quick work in tagging this big Nebraska gobbler. (Photo courtesy of Will Brantley)
'Husker Done
  • Hunter: Will Brantley
  • Date: May 6
  • Location: Custer County, Nebraska
  • Method: Shotgun
  • Stats: 9-inch beard; 1-inch spurs; 19 pounds

Outdoor industry veteran Joe Arterburn hosts an annual wall-tent turkey camp in the wilds of Nebraska. An invitation is hard to come by, but being one of the best outdoor writers in the business earned Will Brantley a coveted golden ticket.

“The hunt was short and sweet,” says Brantley. “My guide Logan and I took a little scouting drive the first evening and saw two strutters with a group of hens up on a ridge. We made a wide circle around them, set up under a cedar and did some blind calling. Ten minutes later, the whole flock came in silently, with both gobblers in full strut.”

VIDEO

Wild Turkey Cordon Bleu: A Turkey Hunter’s Take on a Classic Swiss Dish

  • An attractive presentation can turn a good meal into a great one, and this dish is sure to impress guests with both its taste and looks.

WEST REPORT

Run Ridges and Cover Ground; Call Loudly to Strike Roaming Toms
  • It’s run-and-gun season in the West. Just keep an eye out for other hunters along the way.

By Andrew McKean

While spring turkey hunters still have a couple weeks to chase gobblers across most Western states, these latter days are feast and famine. Famine, because there can be a lot of real estate between gobbles. Feast because when you get a longbeard to respond, he’s probably going to come in quickly and without inhibition.

Indeed, this is “ridge-running season,” that time of year when hunters pack a lunch, strap on a minimalist vest or even a bird belt and hike the high country, striking magnum box calls to reach out to birds that could be a half-mile or more away. The West is full of ridges, as well as mid-elevation gobblers that are just about as likely to be encountered at timberline as they are in stream valleys.

This isn’t necessarily a crack-of-dawn enterprise. Some of the best mid-May hunting is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., as gobblers peel away from nesting hens to find those last unbred females. They often gobble generously, and even if they don’t make the first vocalization, they’ll often respond eagerly to a searching call. But finding these hot toms often requires a lot of legwork.

Here are a couple of considerations for any of you who decide to run your own ridges. First, pack plenty of water. These dry ridges are as hot as Hades on May afternoons, and unless you want to walk down to the moist habitats, then back up to the ridge, you’re going to want to pack your own water. Second, the wind is a big determinant of whether a gobbler hears your calls or not. Try to pitch your prospecting yelps so the wind carries them to the best habitat. Lastly, expect to find midday gobblers in shady glens. Maybe that’s a patch of wild plums or mountain hemlock, or maybe it’s the cool, green seep below a natural spring.

“Birds have definitely left the river bottoms and the lower country and could be just about anywhere on the upper slopes,” says biologist Joe Sandrini with Wyoming Game and Fish. “But there’s still strong gobbling activity and a good number of birds.”

A high-pitched yelp is generally all you really need to locate a responsive gobbler, but it pays to have a number of calls in your arsenal. Sometimes soft clucks will save the day. Other times flashing the tail fan of a bird you killed earlier in the season will unlock a hung-up tom. Decoys can certainly work, but they’re not always necessary for a bird with love on his mind. And often these mid-day gobblers come to calls so quickly you don’t have time to set out decoys.

From Wyoming’s Black Hills to Idaho’s Snake River breaks to California’s oak-brush Coast Range, covering plenty of ground is the best and most consistent tool that successful late-season hunters employ.

All that movement across public land increases the likelihood that you’ll encounter fellow turkey hunters. That happened to me earlier this month on a chunk of isolated but accessible BLM land in southeastern Montana. My buddies and I had risen early enough to get to the ridge in question well before daylight, and a coyote howl got two or three different gobblers to respond. We set up on one, but in typical fashion, he pitched down and followed hens away from our calls. But he kept throwing us what I call “charity gobbles,” and my buddies and I followed, throwing out a yelp now and again to confirm that he was working away from us on the ridge.

We were just at a spot where we could drop off the ridge, make double time and get ahead of that gobbler in the hopes that we could set out a decoy and intercept him, when one of my friends spotted a trio of other hunters.

Where had they come from? Maybe the opposite way we did. Each party looked at the other, unsure what to do, but finally we approached them. They told us they had come in after us, seen our pickup and heard us working the vocal tom. Instead of backing out to let us work the bird, as just about any ethical hunter would, they instead told us they intended to forge on ahead.

To say we were surprised is an understatement, but we also didn’t think a gobbler was worth a confrontation, so we backed down. About 15 minutes later we heard a shotgun blast.

The obvious choice these interlopers should have made was to have encouraged us to pursue the bird we were on, and they should have backed out and found another hot tom. Instead, they created a potentially dangerous situation, with two parties pursuing the same gobbler, even though the other crew knew there were hunters in the field. It’s dangerous, selfish and frankly boorish behavior. Don’t be those guys.

Instead, if you encounter other hunters, first make yourself visible to them. I’m a proponent of making contact to find out the other hunters’ plans. Sometimes you can combine your skills and have double success. Other times, an exchange can reveal intel about where to go to avoid further competition.

I hope you cover plenty of ground this week, find a number of hot toms and don’t encounter a single hunter you didn’t plan to see.

TAGGED OUT

turkey hunting boy and mom
Cody Franchini's first turkey made a proud mom out of Chrissy (right). (Photo courtesy of Chrissy Franchini)
Second Chance at a First Bird
  • Hunter: Cody Franchini
  • Date: May 11
  • Location: Napa County, California
  • Method: Shotgun
  • Stats: 11-inch beard; 1 1/4-inch spurs; 19 pounds

Ten-year-old Cody Franchini, along with his mom Chrissy, was blessed with an invitation to hunt private land near Calistoga, Calif., the day before Mother’s Day.

Though the pair heard gobbles all around them at first light, no turkeys committed to their calls until a solo hen brought a couple gobblers to their set-up.

“They were within 20 or 30 yards of us, but we couldn’t see them,” says Chrissy, whom you may recognize from a previous Tagged Out profile. “For some reason the gobblers left after a few minutes, but that hen hung out in our decoys for the next two hours.”

That hen turned out to be the best decoy the Franchinis could have asked for.

“She ended up calling a hen who had two toms on her tail,” says Chrissy. “She clucked a few times and a tom ran across the vineyard and flew over a ditch, coming right toward us.”

Cody missed his first shot at just 8 yards, shooting a little high with his Stevens Model 301 .410 bore. But the young hunter regained his composure, reloaded and “stoned him on his second shot at about 20 yards,” says Chrissy.

It’s the first bird ever for Cody. As for Chrissy, she says, “One proud mom over here for sure. He’s definitely hooked.”

WHEN TO HUNT TURKEYS THIS SPRING

Game & Fish Best Hunt Times
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