May 11, 2023
This is the eighth installment of the Game & Fish Regional Strut Update, featuring expert turkey-hunting field reports each week throughout the season from every region of the country. This week's report includes:
- In the East, Doug Howlett says gobblers have become less vocal as the breeding season winds down in the southern area of the region, while cold weather has impacted hunting to the north.
- In the South, Josh Honeycutt reports seasons are closed in most states, with a few exceptions. Only Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee are still open, but not for much longer.
- In the Midwest, Brandon Butler says seasons are already closed in a few states. It will be a mad dash to fill tags in states where seasons run into late May.
- In the West, Andrew McKean reports that as the weather improves and hens tend to nests, mid-day gobblers will respond to calls along ridges.
Big Gobbler in Massachusetts
Read More: Gobbler Getters—Big Turkeys from the 2023 Season
A Tale of Two Sub-Regions
- Seasons are on their way out in the South; birds and hunters are recovering from a cold snap in the North.
The struggle is real for those hunting on pressured lands in the Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia, where hunters have been going at it for three weeks or more. Successful hunters have transitioned the "easy" birds to their dinner tables and freezers, the breeding cycle is winding down and turkeys seem to be gobbling less. The good news is if you do catch one gobbling, you will have a decent chance of killing it since most, if not all, hens are now sitting on nests for much of the day.
If all-day hunting is allowed in your state, now is the time to spend as many hours as you can in the woods. Increasingly lonely toms may gobble later and roam more in search of hens throughout the day, so a late-afternoon field hunt can yield big dividends.
Billy Whitman reports overall gobbling activity has slowed in his neck of the woods in southeastern Virginia. In the western part of the state and on into West Virginia, Larry Case reports the recent cool weather and rain that hammered the Northeast shut the birds down temporarily.
"As soon as the weather changed and warmed back up, we began hearing more gobbling," he says. "Not enough for the number of turkeys we know are still out there, but better than the previous week. Virginia is basically done and West Virginia has another week. Will they crank back up for another gobbling peak before the season goes out? I don't honestly know. I don't even think the turkeys know."
Recovering from the Cold
Farther north, where most seasons opened less than two weeks ago or even this past week, that same cold, nasty weather definitely impacted otherwise optimistic hunters trying to fill their tags. The shutdown was visible to hunters I spoke to in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and New England, but the warmpup that rolled in afterward had more hunters finding success. Some still prevailed in the winter remnants.
"Opening day was pouring rain and high winds. I hunted for a few hours while I questioned my sanity," Maine hunter Chris Cobbett says.
As soon as things began to clear, though, Cobbett and his wife Missy enjoyed a textbook hunt, with Missy taking a fine longbeard. He notes that the birds were still pretty flocked-up at the time but should be breaking up more in the coming week.
In fact, the coming week could be one of the best of the season for Northeastern hunters, with some rainy but warmer weather projected. Lone gobblers should become more of the norm, yet hunting pressure and the ending of the breeding cycle are yet to overly hurt odds for success. It's the balancing point of the season.
"A stubborn low-pressure center brought rain, snow and mid-30s temperatures to turkey hunters in the Northeast this past week. Although some saw success, many others were simply frustrated with the silence," Massachusetts hunter Gerry Bethge reports. He's been getting after it every day this season and has a good read on the region.
"High pressure has finally pushed out the low, and the week ahead looks great weather-wise," says Bethge. "Temperatures are finally looking spring-like, which should get the birds more vocal. We've been seeing a pile of single hens roaming around, which suggests that nesting is in full progress, and that is great news."
Bethge expects gobblers to be susceptible to calling now that they are on their own more. He suggests trying hen decoys, which should prove effective as toms are finding fewer real ones around.
Empire State in Full Swing
Doug Little, NWTF director of conservation operations-East, is also optimistic about the coming weeks of hunting in Pennsylvania, New York and northern New England.
"In eastern New York, the early part of the season was tripped up a bit by the cold, wet weather. However, since then conditions have improved," he says.
The NWTF's Northern Catskills Longbeards Chapter in New York hosted a hunt for wounded veterans the latter part of the first week of the season. Despite the tough conditions, 15 participants harvested 10 birds.
"I heard the birds were not very vocal and they had to work hard for them," he says. "There has been significant leaf-out during the first week of the season. While there is more cover available [to conceal hunter movement], it also means gobblers may sound farther than they really are."
It's a textbook situation for bumping birds that may quickly become pressured and call-shy, so swap your run-and-gun tactics for more of a slow walk-and-gun approach, particularly when trying to set up closer on a gobbler's position. —Doug Howlett
Hail Mary Time
- While seasons are closed across much of the region, a few remain open for those looking to tag one more bird.
It seems like just yesterday that turkey seasons were getting under way in the Southern states. Now, they're closed in all but Georgia (ends May 15), Oklahoma (May 16) and Tennessee (May 28). For hunters whose seasons are over, but who are still craving action, it's time to put rubber to road.
My sources in the states with open seasons are sending similar reports. That is, many of the hens are going off to nest. Some are remaining with larger groups, but, by in large, most hens are leaving flocks and going solo by mid-morning. That's a good sign that they are at least laying, and might even be incubating, which means gobblers are spending the majority of their days alone now. In Tennessee, I've been seeing lone toms from mid-morning to late afternoon.
This is creating a good window of opportunity for hunters to call in gobblers that were once difficult to lure away from hens. In some areas, gobblers are beginning to group back up with other male birds. For those that won't commit to hen vocalizations, a great way to capitalize is a series of three-note jake or tom yelps. As far as decoying goes, don't be too aggressive with strutter decoys. It is now late in the season, and most birds aren't likely to be in the mood for a tussle.
All in all, based on what I'm hearing from those still hunting in Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee, there's still time and receptive turkeys out there. While the gobbling isn't as heavy as it was earlier in the season, the birds are still coming to the calls, even if slipping into the setup silently. —Josh Honeycutt
SHOW US YOUR LONGBEARDS!
With turkey season in full swing across most of the country, now is your chance to show off your birds and best hunting moments in the Primos Hunting Giveaway, held in conjunction with the Game & Fish Regional Strut Update. Each round, 10 user-submitted photos are selected to receive a turkey call from Primos. In the final round, which ends May 20, selected winners will receive a Primos Tall Timber Gabriel box call (read more below). Submitted photos may also be featured in the Regional Strut Update, as well as on Game & Fish social-media platforms. To enter, use the hashtag #gafstrutreport, message us directly on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or email photos and details of your hunt to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Primos Tall Timber Gabriel Box Call
In all of turkey hunting, there may be no tool as iconic as the box call. Using two pieces of carefully shaped wood to produce the sounds of a hen and lure a gobbler into shotgun range is as classic as the spring game gets. Thanks to the design of the Primos Tall Timber Gabriel, it's easy to make not only yelps, but also clucks and cutts to mimic a hen's excitement.
Two cutouts in the call's left sideboard provide ideal spots to place the thumb for producing clucks and cutts with the Tall Timber Gabriel. In order to make these calls, the lid of the call must stop abruptly, and the cutouts position the thumb so that it halts movement of the lid. The cutouts are placed to allow both deep-toned clucks and higher-pitched cutts.
"The Tall Timber Gabriel is a great tool to use during the day to locate gobblers when you are running and gunning," says Matt Rice from Primos. "However, its rich tone also makes it a phenomenal call to use as a finisher, especially if you are calling for someone else."
The call's box is made from sapele, while its lid is purpleheart. Primos hand-tunes Tall Timber Gabriel calls to ensure they sound good in the springtime woods. And the name? It comes from a book written in 1971 by Charles Whittington, a good friend of Will Primos, who called gobblers "Tall Timber Gabriels" because they make ponderous announcements much like the angel Gabriel. —Adam Heggenstaller
The Clock is Ticking
- While some Midwest seasons remain open through May, many are closing soon, and hunters will need to work harder and hunt longer to fill their tags.
Spring turkey seasons have closed in a few Midwestern states. Hunters in Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri have hung up their turkey vests for the last time for the 2023 campaign.
Reports from around the region indicate what many expected: Plenty of birds have hit the dirt, but in certain pockets the numbers are noticeably decreased. Any hunter still holding a tag better get busy filling it, because a bunch more states are going to close soon.
Be Aggressive for Hoosier Hard Cases
Indiana hunters have through the weekend to wrap a tag on a bird. I hunted the Indiana opener and never heard a bird gobble. It took a lot of boot leather and some aggressive calling to finally entice the unmistakable spit and drum of a mature tom. The longbeard slipped within about 15 yards without making a peep before I closed the deal.
Dave Miller, who owns the farm where I was hunting in Newton County, assured me the gobbling has picked up. He says the birds have been gobbling good on the roost since the temperatures have warmed up, but they're shutting up quickly after hitting the ground.
"Right now, I would want to be mobile," he says. "If you have an active bird on the roost, go to that bird. You may not have any activity close to you. Later in the day, a bird could start gobbling just about anywhere at any time, so you need to be able to go to that bird. I've seen a number of gobblers moving between different blocks of timber. I think the best advice right now is to just be out there. You never know when one will show up and turn on."
Go Far, Work Hard for South Dakota Birds
In the wide-open expanses of South Dakota, hunters have until the end of May to chase turkeys in most areas. Brian Bashore travels the entire state regularly in his role as the executive director of Second Century Habitat Fund. He suggests that out in the Black Hills, where most of the hunting is done on public land, hunters will need to go deeper and hunt harder.
"The easy birds have been killed already," he says. "Those birds still out there in the Hills are some smart turkeys. You have to put in the extra effort to get away from the road, but there are still plenty of gobblers out there."
Farther east, where much of the hunting takes place on private land, a big key to success now is knowing more than a couple of properties. South Dakota has a robust walk-in program. Hunt your way through a number of them. You'll likely run into a bird or two before long.
Multi-Task Your Way to a Wisco Tom
Wisconsin is wrapping up Period D this week, leaving only Periods E and F to fill a turkey tag. The state regularly finishes in the top five for most turkeys killed, so there are plenty of birds and season left if one wants to finish the spring strong.
David Ray is a landowner just south of Ashland. He says his biggest struggle this time of year has been deciding between turkey hunting or fishing. So, to eliminate the problem, he just combines the two.
"I like to be out on the water in my boat at least an hour before sunrise," he says. "I only fish lakes surrounded by public land. That way I can listen at first light. If I hear a bird gobbling in the forest, I beach my boat and go after him. If I don't, I continue to fish until I do." —Brandon Butler
Early Morning Minnesota Slam Dunk
Hunt Hen-Free Gobblers
- Sleep in and kill midday longbeards by walking ridges.
"Nobody likes to hear it anymore, but boot leather kills turkeys," says Justin Hughes. The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks upland game bird biologist in southeast Montana notes that turkeys in the prairie portion of the state (and Wyoming and Colorado) are highly nomadic.
"They can cover a lot of ground in a day," Hughes says. "Hunters who remain mobile in their hunting tactics to locate birds will be the most successful."
That's doubly true in the latter half of the season, which ends May 31 in Montana. And it's triply true this year, in which the first two weeks of the season were more or less a wipeout due to heavy snow and unresponsive gobblers that are now roaming widely on warm, sunny afternoons.
Winter-kill in Utah
Farther south, Utah's general turkey season is turning in mixed results. Now that snow is receding from mid-elevation public grounds in the central and southern mountains, biologists are finding some winter-kill, especially in the Provo Canyon and Heber City areas, says Heather Talley, upland game coordinator for Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources, who notes the Beehive State hosts between 25,000 and 30,000 wild turkeys, mainly Merriam's.
"Winters with multiple heavy snowstorms that don't freeze over are difficult for turkeys because soft, deep snowdrifts impede movement," says Talley. "We are aware that some winter loss has occurred this year, but we don't yet have the data on how this unprecedented winter has impacted populations. This year, it may be a little more difficult to find turkeys due to that winter-kill and displacement from their usual ranges this time of year. Our populations have been trending slightly upward for several years, but they declined last year and this year, likely due to drought conditions for multiple years, coupled with the severe winter conditions this year."
She says central Utah hunters should focus on Payson Canyon, Spanish Fork Canyon and benchlands around Utah Valley. Maple Canyon is a hot spot in Sanpete County, and both Martin's Fork and Cherry Creek Road are good spots in Tooele County. The Blacksmith Fork Canyon and Richmond Wildlife Management Area get hammered but can produce turkeys for persistent hunters.
Utah's best Rio Grande turkey hunting will continue to be in tributaries of the Colorado and Green rivers, says Talley. San Rafael River, Price River and Range, Huntington, Ferron and Gordon creeks are all decent places to find gobblers, though she notes that private land in the core riverine habitats of these drainages will produce the best hunting.
Back in southeast Montana's Region 7, Hughes notes that turkeys in the southern half of the region were impacted by late snows.
"Hunters must be prepared for extreme travel conditions, including deep snow, deeper mud and potential washouts on minimum-maintenance roads," Hughes stresses. He says that there are few public-land spots that are undiscovered. The Covid bump that has boosted hunting pressure nationwide has definitely poured hunters into previously overlooked portions of southeast Montana.
But, starting this week, hens will detach from gobblers by mid-morning to sit on their nests. That will make gobblers much more responsive to calls, and hunters won't have to compete with real hens for the attention of toms. A killer tactic is to walk higher ridges, making high-frequency yelps into canyons and draws on both sides of the divide. Midday gobblers will often respond, and then come in fast to a well-struck hen call. Decoys aren't especially critical for this portion of the season. —Andrew McKean