May 25, 2023
This is the 10th and final installment of the Game & Fish Regional Strut Update, which featured weekly expert turkey-hunting field reports throughout the season from every region of the country. This week's report includes updates from the East and West. Turkey season is closed in most states in the South and Midwest.
Hunting the Hold-Outs
- Down-to-the-wire insight for those still pounding the ground.
Most of the last turkey hunters in the country still chasing gobblers have just under a week to join The Show. Word from those on the ground is if you're among the camo-clad still running-and-gunning to punch a tag, you're going to have to earn it. To say it's been a tough season this spring throughout the East is an understatement. Several highly accomplished turkey hunters dedicated to hunting their home turf finished the season without a bird to their credit, though many were at least a part of successful hunts with other hunters. And, of course, despite the challenges, some of us finished with enough memories to whet our appetite for next year. But few are bragging about how easy it was for them.
"Late might be great, but time has run out on my southern New England turkey season," says Massachusetts hunter Gerry Bethge. "I managed two birds this week, but it was a pre-dawn-to-noon slog. Birds were typically vocal on the roost and shut-mouthed after fly-down. In fact, one of our kills was taken deer-hunting-style. We patterned a three-year-old longbeard for days and he came in with four hens—never gobbling at all."
He notes that while most New England hunters have called it a season, those still out there pretty much will have the woods to themselves, adding, "It'll take patience to get the job done."
Triple B Outfitters' David Sichik is done in Vermont and heading down to New Jersey to finish the season with clients. They managed some success for their Vermont hunters and were seeing plenty of birds, but says it was baffling. Most of the birds they saw in the fields were either bands consisting of one or two longbeards typically accompanied by multiple jakes, or mixed flocks of hens, jakes and a couple of gobblers—something not common this late in the season.
"We'd hear plenty of gobbling off the roost, but when they hit the ground, they'd either shut up or gobble just a few times then shut up," he says. "They weren't interested in coming to a call."
NWTF District Biologist Matt DiBona has some theories why the hunting was so tough this season, with an abundance of jakes front and center.
"Gobbling activity is a little hit-or-miss in some areas," he says. "I think there is probably a couple reasons for this, number one being there are a lot of jakes running around this season, which bodes well for next year. I think it may be negatively influencing calling activity by toms. Certainly, it has been observed in many areas where there are a lot of jakes that toms are usually reluctant to gobble much, because even though they may be the dominant birds, groups of jakes will gang up on the toms and beat them up."
Despite the tough conditions, Doug Little, NWTF director of conservation operations for the East, remains optimistic about the chances for success for those still hunting the final days.
"I noticed gobbling activity picked up a good bit in my area of the Catskills over the last four to five days," he says. "Gobblers seem to have made some moves recently, too. I am seeing groups of gobblers that were not in the areas I hunted in the first half of the season or during pre-season scouting.
"I always enjoy the last part of the season in New York," Little continues. "Gobbling activity seems to pick up. Sometimes you have to get in their bubble to make them talk, but when you get a response, it can get fun real fast. Memorial Day weekend has been my favorite turkey-hunting weekend in New York for a while, so I am looking forward to it all the way until the last day."
Time of a Change-Up
DiBona suggests hunters try changing up their calls, as the birds that have been called to quite a bit have heard all the usual sounds hunters typically make.
"I think birds are starting to get a little particular in what calls they respond to this late in the season, so now is the time to break out your more unusual calls," he says. "For instance, I was speaking with our regional director, Carter Heath, who has been hunting hard in New Hampshire. He says a lot of birds are not responding as readily to mouth or pot calls right now. As soon as he switched to a wingbone call, though, he was able to get multiple gobblers to talk back."
So, changing up the calls and being patient will be keys in these final days of the season, which ends Friday in New Jersey; Saturday, May 27, in Connecticut; Tuesday, May 30, in Pennsylvania, and next Wednesday, May 31, in New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. Hunters in Maine will run the clock out next Saturday, June 3.
What can we expect for next year? With lots of jakes running around in most places throughout the East, next season promises to be a good one, provided those birds all make it through next winter to become eager 2-year-olds. As for this year’s hatch? "I have yet to see any poults, but it should be soon now," says Bethge. "With the dry weather, the hatch should be great!"
Spring may not be eternal, but a turkey hunter’s hope certainly is. —Doug Howlett
Gobbler Goes Down in Georgia
Read More: Gobbler Getters—Big Turkeys from the 2023 Season
Turkey Brothers Part 2: Minnesota Spring Gobblers with Friends
"We loved every minute of it." Thomas Allen concludes an awesome hunt in Minnesota with longtime friends Jeremy King and Derek Spitzer. Watch more Regional Strut Update turkey videos by Thomas Allen:
Hail Mary Week
- Look for remaining gobblers near water; expect them to come in silently.
Spring turkey season has ended in many states, but in those Western states where it runs through the end of May, this is do-or-die time for hunters with unfilled tags.
Unlike earlier in May, when you could get away with aggressive calling and sloppy setups, surviving gobblers have heard it all by this late date, and they are increasingly wary—especially on heavily hunted public ground. Plus, their testosterone levels are dropping, so they're not as fired up by every hen yelp they hear or jake decoy they see.
In southwestern Oregon's Rio-rich habitats along the Rogue, Umpqua, Elk and Chetco rivers, hens are nesting in higher elevations but gobblers are remaining in river-bottom fields and timbered benches above the rivers, says legendary Oregon guide Jody Smith. Oregon's season closes May 31.
"Everything's down low, except those hens that have moved high to nest," says Smith. "The toms are very vocal in the mornings and evenings, but otherwise silent. They're not coming to calls or decoys very well right now. For the rest of the reason, I recommend very, very little calling."
Gobblers may seem to ignore your calls, but Smith says they’re playing a different game in this late season. "They will come check on you after a fashion," he says. "But it definitely takes patience to be successful. Call sparingly, but don't move. Watch your blind side for a silent gobbler slipping in to see what you are."
Smith's advice carries across most of the West to the season’s end. States with seasons that remain open into late May include Idaho (ends May 25) and Colorado, Montana, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, which all close May 31.
While gobblers are generally more widespread now than at any time of the season, there are a few habitat types worth extra attention. As the uplands dry down and the days heat up, look to moist glades—those shady seeps, springs and other microhabitats that you'll find on any sizeable property in the West. Turkeys can handle heat, but they don't seek it out. Instead, they prefer edges between sunny strutting areas (which are also full of insects right now) and shady loafing areas where they'll spend the balance of the day.
Food and Water
"Earlier in May there was abundant moisture on the landscape," says Wyoming outfitter Shawn Fricke at Skyline Outfitters north of Gillette. "But lately I'm seeing more turkeys coming into reservoirs and ponds—places where there's more consistent water." And they're remaining in those areas where there's both insects and tender vegetation like flower buds and emerging grasses and shrubs.
Given that this is the Hail Mary week of the season, it's useful to think about destination hunting, driving like heck to the parts of the West where you have the best chance of filling tags. We've talked about these honey holes in previous reports, but here are four spots worth hitting if you're a procrastinating gobbler-getter:
- Northeast Washington: This is the Evergreen State’s Merriam’s spot, and public land around Colville, Kettle Falls and Chewelah will produce birds.
- Idaho’s Panhandle: Really an extension of the Washington abundance, both Merriam’s and a few pockets of Eastern gobblers are still active in the Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry and Harrison areas, both around Priest and Coeur d’Alene lakes and the Clark Fork, Priest and Kootenay rivers.
- Southwest Colorado: The native range of Merriam’s turkeys, Durango and Montrose are both good jumping-off spots for public-land turkeys.
- Southeast Montana: With abundant BLM and Custer National Forest land, and a decent population of Merriam’s, this is a good spot, though any highly accessible area will have been pounded over the course of Montana’s 6-week season. Hunt around water sources. —Andrew McKean
- Add these items to your toolbox to maximize success during an afternoon sit.
While you don't need anything more than the turkey gear you already possess to hunt birds after lunch, a few items certainly help. Consider these products if you plan on packing in, setting up and sitting still for extended periods of time.
- OPTICS: A quality binocular is always great, even if you’re just birdwatching or killing time between bouts of action. Cabela’s Intensity HD ($150-$300; cabelas.com), housed in an Alaska Classic Max pouch from Alaska Guide Creations ($120; alaskaguidecreations.com), always has a home on my chest.
- SEATING: A comfortable seat is essential for staying put for as long as necessary. Whether sitting in a ground blind or using a quick-set portable, there are some options. For popups, the Alps Outdoorz Stealth Hunter ($200; alpsoutdoorz.com) is the Barcalounger of blind chairs. With a stake-out blind, my go-to is the Millennium Field Pro Turkey Seat ($105; millennium-outdoors.com), which doubles as a fantastic outdoor amphitheater chair
during the off-season.
- PORTABLE BLIND: For a portable turkey blind, I want something light and compact that fits inside my turkey vest, is quick to set up and has enough room for me, a chair and a good book. Ameristep’s Throwdown ($40; ameristep.com) delivers on all accounts, as will the Allen Vanish ($29; byallen.com) stake-out blind.
- SHOOTING STICKS: I don’t like using shooting sticks when running and gunning. However, I love the support afforded by sticks when I’m sitting for a spell. A monopod, like the Primos Trigger Stick GEN3 ($58–$80; primos.com) is great, as is my personal choice—for spring gobblers as well as big game—the Primos Pole Cat Short Bipod ($51).
- DECOYS: I like using two, maybe three decoys. I’ll usually run two hens: an Avian-X LCD Breeder Hen ($100; avian-x.com) and the LCD Feeder Hen ($100). If I’m very familiar with the birds on a property and know they won’t be put off by a strutter, I’ll add an LCD Half-Strut Jake ($140) to the mix. The Avian-X decoys are collapsible and incredibly realistic with lifelike motion. I truly believe they keep birds more relaxed and in front of the gun longer than other decoys do.
- AMMUNITION: If you’ve accepted the ".410 Challenge," you can't beat HEVI-Shot's HEVI-18 Turkey TSS in No. 9 ($46; hevishot.com). Otherwise, the company's Magnum Blend ($39-$61)—a mix of No. 5, 6 and 7 tungsten shot—works wonders, particularly on those squirrelly gobblers that decide to hang up at 50 yards. —M.D. Johnson