April 06, 2023
Welcome to Week 3 of the Game & Fish Regional Strut Update, with expert field reports from every region of the country. April means the kickoff to the season in many places, and our team of gobbler-getters shares pertinent info on recent activity, what to do when a tom comes into range and how to close the deal. This week’s report includes:
- In the East, it's just about time, reports Doug Howlett, with the coming of season openers and warming temps. Snow still covers the ground in parts of the northern reaches of the region, however.
- In the South, turkey hunting is in full swing in most locations, reports Josh Honeycutt, with warming weather drawing more activity from gobblers.
- In the Midwest, turkey breeding "is certainly underway," reports Brandon Butler, with gobblers sticking tight to hens. Turkey season opens in many states in the region this weekend.
- In the West, Andrew McKean reports that wintry weather still lingers in the region, "especially in the hot spots known for early gobbling activity." For many Western hunters, May might be more productive than April, McKean says.
First Seasons Open this Weekend
- It's go time in Virginia and Delaware; Northern hunters scout in the snow.
While turkey hunters across the Deep South have been hitting the woods with bow or gun in hand for a couple weeks now, hunters who call Game & Fish's East Region home have been making the scouting rounds or casually driving the backroads and scanning fields in anticipation of when it is finally "our turn." Indeed, it feels almost like taunting as we scan social media and spy our camo-clad brethren in the South posing with the first gobblers of spring. But, finally, it is getting to be our chance, with hunters in Virginia and Delaware set to enjoy the first opening days of spring turkey season in the East this Saturday, April 8.
Both states allowed youth hunters to take to the field last weekend, with Delaware hosting a one-day youth turkey hunt on April 1 and Virginia opening the entire weekend up for youth hunters. The weather wasn’t very cooperative on Saturday, with some rain and plenty of wind, but Sunday mellowed with sunshine and warming temperatures, and the hunters who persisted with their adult mentors found decent success.
One young Virginia hunter I spoke to, Graydon Ambrose, heard ample gobbling at first light. Then, true to early-season form, the birds went tight-lipped upon fly-down. I witnessed the same on the few mornings when I went out and listened last week, and other hunters I spoke with related similar stories. Still, in a day and a half of hunting, the youth saw at least nine gobblers. Of course, now he's going to have to compete with the adults to fill his tag.
Virginia hunters Rennie Elder and Mark Malbon have been scouting hard, and both report that hunters should expect good action if they hunt land with decent populations of birds. Temperatures in the past week hit near 80 in some parts of the state, which usually bodes well for fired-up toms, but opening weekend will be met with some possible rain in parts of the state and cooler temps in the 50s before warming back up later next week. While the woods are already budding up in the Southern tier of the state, the redbuds and dogwoods are starting to pop in Northern Virginia and parts of the Shenandoah, too, which the old-timers say means the turkeys will be gobbling, too.
West Virginia hunter and former game warden Larry Case reports decent gobbling taking place in the Western region of Virginia and Eastern and Southern parts of West Virginia, though Mountain State hunters will have to wait nine days longer than their Old Dominion counterparts to take to the woods.
In Delaware, the Division of Fish and Wildlife says that while last year’s harvest was down from the previous year by 45 birds, overall numbers remain historically high year to year and 2023 should keep with the trend of 500 to 600 birds harvested. The highest total ever recorded was in 2016, when 706 birds were tagged. Last year, 567 were taken. While private lands account for the majority of harvests (where do they not?), the top four public lands for taking a longbeard were Redden State Forest, Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Area, Midlands Wildlife Area and Blackston Wildlife Area. Might be worth a little recon and hunt time on one or more of those tracts.
SLOW START TO SPRING
Meanwhile, farther north, in Pennsylvania, New York and the New England states, it seems the landscape and weather failed to get the memo that it’s spring. Forests are still wide open and leafless, and temps are dropping below freezing on many nights. Parts of New England experienced premature warm weather in late February, only to have a winter storm move through a few weeks ago and unceremoniously dump feet of snow, much of it still lingering on the ground. Reports out of Vermont state that birds are hanging in any open fields during the day and roosting right beside them, though the snow is starting to melt.
Massachusetts hunter and veteran outdoor magazine editor Gerry Bethge filed this report: "Birds were budding on the roost for a few days or else picking through cow poop for easy meals when all the snow was on the ground. Now, although there is still snow in the woods, fields are clear. Birds are still flocked up, but it surely won't be long until the spring break-up takes place. As spring temperatures are predicted to moderate this week, it won't be long until each field, forest opening and clearing will host one or more strutters. Great hatches for two years in a row indicate that bird numbers are on the rise, and that it will be a great spring hunt."
The bottom line is that it's time to get the gear together, make sure you start practicing those calls and pattern that gun for confidence. It's just about game time. — Doug Howlett
Virginia Youth Hunter Bags First Tom
Show us your longbeards! Send us your best photos for a chance to be featured in this report. Use the hashtag #gafstrutreport, or message us directly on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Turkey Activity Rounding into Form
- After a slow start to the season, warming weather is producing more responsiveness from gobblers.
While some Southern states have yet to begin their turkey seasons, several are open and in full swing. Two weeks ago, cooler weather hampered gobbling and strutting. Last week, a wave of warmer weather began heating up the action. This week, that trend should continue.
Turkey hunters are now afield in at least parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas. Of course, some of these states are are currently open only to youth hunters or are permit hunting only in certain areas.
We've got good news for those in western Alabama, courtesy of professional turkey caller Hunter Walli, who reports that birds there are readily responding to calling and decoys. Kyle Barefield of All Things Hunting’s was in Alabama recently, and although his in-the-field report is slightly less optimistic than Wallis', he says Alabama’s turkeys are working well.
"They are gobbling in the morning when the weather is right, but not gobbling much in the afternoon," Barefield reports. "I've seen some hens that look like they are already on the nest."
Champion turkey caller Scott Ellis is hunting down in Florida. He says turkeys are gobbling decently, but not great. Furthermore, toms are henned-up badly, and it is nearly impossible to break them free.
Also in Florida, Backwoods Life co-host Kevin Knighton is in the north-central part of the state, and he concurs with Ellis. Over the entirety of last weekend, he heard two gobbles. Furthermore, toms aren’t gobbling much on the roost, either. His trail cameras show birds just hanging out with hens and not responding to calling or decoying.
Michael Lee, also of Backwoods Life, is in Georgia, where the season just started. He reports the turkeys are broken up now, with some hens nesting. Lee reports that there is a bit of active gobbling and strutting.
Since leaving Alabama, Barefield has moved on to Louisiana. Some of his friends have been scouting birds there, and they report great gobbling on the limb and on the ground.
"During youth season, my cousin and his daughter killed one that was roosted by himself about 150 yards down a pipeline. He came running as soon as he flew down—just like it was scripted," Barefield says.
While action has kicked off in several states, others have yet to begin. Regular seasons that haven't opened yet include those in Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Tennessee's Brenda Valentine reports turkeys aren't really firing off just yet.
"I've not seen much actual breeding or hen separation, but the boys have high hopes," she says. "Groups of four to five gobblers are still buddies, which is surprising."
I'll be hunting Tennessee once it opens, but this past weekend, I helped my cousin during the Kentucky youth weekend. The Bluegrass State technically falls within Game & Fish's Midwest region, but I live very close to the Kentucky/Tennessee state line, and I will be hunting in both states this spring.
Our hunt Saturday morning saw us setting up between three groups of roosted turkeys. Knowing the gobblers were still henned-up, we set up a ground blind, set out five decoys (one strutter, one 1/4-strut jake, one lying hen, one feeding hen and one alert hen). I called twice just to let birds know we were there.
Each group seemed to have one or two gobblers and at least a few hens. There wasn’t much gobbling on the roost or after fly-down. However, about an hour after sunrise, one group entered an open field across a county road from us.
They were about 350 yards away, but that was close enough. The big tom saw our decoy spread, left his five hens and strut-marched all the way to us. He crossed two fences, one county road, a drainage ditch and a lot of open space to reach us.
We watched the bird for several minutes as it meandered around the decoys. I snapped a few photos of it as it worked around the spread before my cousin filled his tag. It was a great hunt, and the turkey action should only get better from here on out. — Josh Honeycutt
Smoked Wild Turkey Nuggets Recipe
What could be better than a deep-fried nugget? One that's smoked first. Click here for the recipe
High-Quality Compact Binos to Close in on Ol' Tom
Most turkey hunters have a vest full of "stuff" carefully arranged not to clank loudly while they’re on the move. For many, the bulk of a full-sized binocular is a pain to deal with. Here are three compacts that will lighten your load.
- BUSHNELL LEGEND ULTRA HD 10x42: Perhaps the best compact hunting binocular under $250, the camouflaged and waterproof Legend has an anti-reflective lens coating that helps keeps images clear and crisp. This binocular offers 10-power magnification with an excellent 340-foot field of view and a lockable diopter system. ($239; bushnell.com)
- LEUPOLD BX-4 PRO GUIDE HD 8X32: The design of this center-bridge bino allows for one-handed focusing (handy if you are holding a shotgun in the other hand). The lenses provide top color separation and bright, crisp imaging. The BX-4 packs big-bino quality in a compact unit. (from $579; leupold.com)
- SWAROVSKI 8X25 CL: Compact to begin with, these Swarovskis fold up to fit neatly into a pocket. While all small binos must make compromises, Swarovski's high-quality glass and construction minimize the downsides, providing a clear, sharp image under a variety of conditions. Hunters who wear glasses will find the generous eye relief to be a huge advantage. (from $924; swarovskioptik.com)
Birds Fall in Missouri; Gobblers Fire Up in Plains and Prairies
- The Show-Me State's youth hunters get it done, despite rough conditions. Meanwhile, hunters in Iowa and South Dakota can't wait to get after active birds.
With winds gusting over 40 mph in central Missouri last Saturday, it took extra effort to keep our blind from blowing away on opening morning of youth turkey season. The gobblers may have been gobbling, but we couldn't hear them. The high winds and cold temperatures made for rough conditions on day one, but over the course of the weekend, the youth came in strong with a collective harvest of 2,550 birds. That's just a bit shy of the 2,881 taken during youth season last year.
Reports were consistent that gobblers were sticking tight to hens. Breeding is certainly underway.
"The cool, windy weather on Saturday made for challenging turkey hunting conditions," says Missouri Department of Conservation turkey biologist Nicholas Oakley. "Fortunately, hunters stuck with it and Sunday’s weather was more conducive to harvesting a turkey."
Iowa's turkey season is about to kick off, and conditions look good for the youth season, which runs April 7 to 9. The state's first of four regular seasons immediately follows it (April 10 to 13).
Only residents only can hunt with a bow in all four seasons; nonresident gun/bow licenses and resident gun/bow licenses are restricted to a certain season (and zone, in the case of nonresidents). You can hunt all day, from a half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
Ryan Smith is the executive director of the Iowa Wildlife Federation. He lives on the outskirts of Des Moines but commutes most days into the city. He says there are flocks of turkeys out in fields, with gobblers in full display. Some of them, he adds, look like they are stuck in strut.
Brian Bashore is busy fishing for walleyes up in South Dakota, but he’s also making plans for the spring Prairie Turkey opener on April 8. He reports turkeys in his neck of the woods near Sioux Falls are fired up and ready to go. He’s been on the water quite a bit at daybreak lately and says gobblers are making it clear that the time is right for the season to begin.
With apologies to Iowa, South Dakota really likes to complicate turkey permits. The state has Prairie Turkey and Black Hills Turkey (which opens April 22); hunters must apply for Prairie Turkey units. South Dakota is broken up into many units and even offers preference points for turkeys. Navigating this maze of regulations is worth it, though, when you are out there in the great wide-open listening to a gobble roll across the hills.
This year, I invested in two more hard-body decoys to join my one-legged alert hen hard-body that I call Svetlana, after the one-legged character from The Sopranos. I've yet to name the new feeding hen and jake, but I am excited to see them in action. Once they've had some interactions with real birds, I’m sure names will materialize.
Using more decoys has been something I’ve wanted to try for a while. With some new hunters to take out this spring, I figure I’m going to be hunting from a blind quite a bit, so a three-bird set out in front might be more enticing to gobbler than a lone hen. We’ll see. — By Brandon Butler
Conditions Could Affect Opening-Week Success
- With deep snowpack in many areas, early-season turkey hunters could face a challenge.
If you're a Western turkey hunter looking ahead to the best time to take off work this season, May is likely to be much more productive than April.
That’s a broad generalization, sure, but it’s supported by lingering snow and cold temperatures across the core of the West's turkey country, especially in the hot spots known for early gobbling activity. The upshot, says turkey guide Jody Smith (jodysmithguideservice.com) in southern Oregon, is turkeys might still be flocked up on low-elevation private land when mid-April openers roll around.
Low-elevation habitat along the Umpqua, Rogue and Klamath rivers typically has large flocks of Rio Grande gobblers, but access will be the biggest issue through April. Oregon's season opens April 15; however birds in the Roseburg, Medford and Grants Pass areas won't be widely available on public land until the first week of May.
Seasonal weather conditions can make Easter weekend look more like Christmas from the Wasatch to the Sierra Nevada, and from the Black Hills to the central Cascades. For early-season turkey hunters, that means not only dealing with cold, wet weather, but also securing private-land access. And even where you find both turkeys and permission, hunting can be difficult. Gobblers are more preoccupied with food than with breeding at this time of year.
"I have a handful of ranches that allow hunting that first week of the season, but this year they're not letting anybody on because turkeys are still down in the haystacks with their cattle," says Shane Lipton, a Casper, Wyo., guide (trophyridgeoutfitters.com) who hunts with several outfitters in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana.
If you're a traveling hunter, there are a couple of spots across the West that have good populations of turkeys on public land and that had escaped much of the late snows when this report was compiled. Look to northeast Washington's Population Management Unit 10, which includes Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties north and west of Spokane. This zone accounts for nearly two-thirds of Washington’s spring gobbler harvest and has large parcels of public land. Washington’s general season opens April 15. This corner of the state has mostly Merriam’s turkeys, with a few Rio Grande birds in the mix.
California hosts the earliest spring opener in the West (March 25 for most general-tag units), and because the season ends April 30, Golden State hunters might feel some pressure to get out when conditions are still sketchy. Generally, consider hunting the Coast Range. Reports from California's Central Coast indicate good gobbling activity and seasonal weather conditions, according to guides at Camp Five Outfitters (camp5outfitters.com). — Andrew McKean
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