May 04, 2023
This is the seventh 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 reports every state season is open, weather is improving and tags are being filled: "Whether your season is in its infancy or winding down, stay positive and look for warm, clear, calm days to hit the woods."
- In the South, Josh Honeycutt says the challenging conditions of the late season have arrived with stubborn toms, decreased activity and hit-or-miss success: "Even as the action slows in most areas, you’ve got to be out there to get one."
- In the Midwest, Brandon Butler says says while some states' seasons are winding down, gobblers are either desperate for love, behind schedule or going quiet, depending on where you hunt: "We've now reached the point in the season where if you have any turkey tags left in your pocket, they should be burning a hole."
- In the West, Andrew McKean says the weather continues to warm and gobblers have become more responsive to calls: "Finally, this spring's turkey season isn't all about the hens."
Big Gobbler in Florida
Read More: Gobbler Getters—Big Turkeys from the 2023 Season
Everyone's a Player
- With seasons finally open in every state, hunters are taking advantage of improving weather.
It is finally "game on" for the entire East region, with the last seasons in the country opening May 1. On Monday, hunters from Maine to New York were finally allowed to take to the woods, shotgun or bow in hand. Many hunters wasted no time filling tags, though hunts where the action is new have not been without their challenges.
Ken Fecteau Jr., who has kept his fellow New Hampshire hunters apprised of the gobbler activity he's seen in previous East updates, scored a longbeard shortly after flydown on the second day of the Granite State's season. In Maine, some members of guide Chris Cobbett's family, as well as some clients, experienced early success. In Connecticut, Matt Wettish started his season with public-land success, nabbing a huge strutter that challenged him at every step.
Tough Start Up North
Many far-north hunters are experiencing exactly what the more southerly hunters in the region experienced a couple of weeks ago—henned-up birds rendered partially mute by not needing to gobble and silenced perhaps even more by waves of cool weather rolling into the region.
"A lot of birds are still in big groups, but they're breaking off more and more by the day," reports Vermont's Mike Wheeler.
Bad weather marred the state's opening day for many, with temps in the low 40s and winds gusting to 20 mph. The net effect was birds that flew down late and hung out in the middle of fields where they could see danger coming from farther than a shotgun can reach.
Youth hunters there found success the weekend prior to May 1, largely by roosting gobblers the night before and setting out decoys and staying quiet until a bird flew down and walked into the setup. That takes scouting and knowing where a longbeard wants to go to pull off, so hopefully you've done your homework and can do the same if necessary.
Wheeler notes that by throwing some calls out while scouting the week before, he was getting more toms willing to respond with a gobble or two.
"Most of the big toms I've seen are still with three to six hens," he says. "By next week they should be broken up more and easier to kill."
With the weather that jacked up the opener hanging in the area until Wednesday, he predicts that "Thursday, Friday and Saturday are going to be really good, and everything is going to be much more active."
In Massachusetts, hunters started a week earlier, but observations were much the same: lots of strutters with hens, making them difficult to hunt.
"Opening week of turkey season turned out precisely as anticipated. Thirty-degree mornings kept the black flies at bay, but birds remained somewhat vocal for the most part," Gerry Bethge reports. "We had 20-plus adults located prior to the opener—all of which wound up being one-and-dones, walk-aways or nine-mile gobblers once the opening bell rang. It was frustration squared for sure. One day, we were able to set up on nine different adults and whiffed on all of them. The gameplan from here on out is to simply stick and move. As the hens get serious about nesting, the gobblers will get serious about coming to a call. Late will be great."
Winding Down in the South
That's certainly been the pattern farther south, where yours truly finally scored on a pair of Virginia gobblers on two different hunts five days apart, dropping both within 100 yards of each other. Other hunters I've talked to are hearing fewer gobblers, largely because some have been removed from the gene pool. The ones that remain are gobbling more throughout the morning and working better to the call. As is the case as the season wears on, if it gobbles, you can kill it.
Again, cold weather, along with hunter pressure, now seem to be the biggest obstacles to work around.
Larry Case, in West Virginia, who also strays across the state's southern border into western Virginia, says the cool weather led to a big shutdown in gobbling in the area. In fact, gobbling overall has died out a little, he reports, and with tags still to fill, he and other hunters are now also racing time. Virginians only have another week to get it done, while the West Virginia hunters have another week after that. In Delaware, the season wraps up this weekend.
If you're having challenges filling your tags, whether your season is in its infancy or winding down, stay positive and look for warm, clear, calm days to hit the woods. Some of the best days of the season are still ahead for many hunters in the East. —Doug Howlett
The Rook 2.0 Wins Out
- A spring turkey hunt in Minnesota with Thomas Allen and his brother-in-law Ben Molstre led to the tagging of this hefty gobbler. All the action was shot with a cell-phone camera.
- As seasons near their end across the South, hunters still holding tags are encountering challenging conditions.
And just like that, we are entering the late turkey season—a time when the hunting begins improving in some ways while degrading in others. It seems some days the turkeys are on fire, while on others they are stone cold.
Travis Sumner, the state director for the South Carolina Wildlife Partnership (SCWP), reports turkeys were fired up there in the beginning of April. Now, gobbler activity has slowed to a trickle. Sumner reports some areas are still seeing some good gobbling and strutting, while other areas are flat.
"We're in the last of the season and we're seeing plenty of hens and sparse gobbling in most areas," says Sumner. "However, our Low Country seems to have more gobbling birds than upstate areas. Reports are gobblers are now mostly coming in silent. This behavior reflects all the hunting pressure they've experienced."
In the Thick of It
In east-central Alabama, Great Days Outdoors' Joe Baya is just back from a hunt. "The spring green-up has occurred, and our woods have gotten thick. Your best bet is to find areas where the vegetation is not as dense to maximize your chances of seeing birds," he says. "We're seeing a bit less activity in food plots and more action in the closed-canopy forests where the gobbling is still good."
Baya continues, "I heard four different birds this past Saturday, but the gobbling shut down soon after the birds came off the limb. I was intercepted by a hen and bumped two hens off nests. It appears they are now in the incubating stage, not laying."
In Arkansas, The Virtue's Phillip Vanderpool reports the turkey population is diminished greatly. "Turkeys in Arkansas are virtually nonexistent," he says. "I'm not hearing any and seeing next to none. In fact, I haven't heard a single turkey in my neck of the woods."
I've hunted with Vanderpool previously in these areas, and there was an abundance of turkeys there in recent years. However, this year the birds just aren't there.
Stubborn Sooner Birds
In Oklahoma, All Things Hunting's Kyle Barefield reports the toms are fired up, but getting them to commit to decoys and calling positions is next to impossible.
"The gobblers stay out at a distance, strutting and unwilling to commit. Most are still in groups, and a lot of our gobblers have moved on someplace else," says Barefield. "I don't know if they are searching for more hens to breed or what. It's odd. Hens are nesting most of the day after about 10 a.m., with gobblers seemingly not willing to work much after that."
Backwoods Life's Michael Lee just returned from a hunt in Texas. He and a buddy both tagged out in three days. He reports that toms are still gobbling consistently and are very receptive to calling in the Lone Star State.
In general, the entire region is shifting into the final phases of turkey season. Wildlife biologist and hunter Dr. Grant Woods says most hens are nesting now, and toms have begun grouping back up. Woods recommends hunters try gobbler clucks and yelps if hen vocalizations are falling flat.
Even as the action slows in most areas, you’ve got to be out there to get one. So slip on that vest, gather your calls and head out. Time is running out quickly on this year's season. —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, which runs bi-weekly through May 20 in conjunction with the Game & Fish Regional Strut Update. Each round, 10 user-submitted photos are selected to receive a turkey call from Primos. Winners received a Primos Jackpot pot call. See the 10 winners here. In the next round (ending May 6), participants could receive a Primos Limb Hanger mouth call. 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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Depending on where in the Midwest you hunt, gobblers are either desperate to breed, behind schedule or going quiet.
We've now reached the point in the season where if you have any turkey tags left in your pocket, they should be burning a hole. Across much of the Midwest, the clock is ticking as we inch toward the end of another spring turkey season.
The turkey populations have been thinned a bit in every state, but this also means there are fewer hunters in the woods. A tip of the cap to those who filled tags early, leaving the rest of us extra room in the woods to enjoy more days in pursuit of a longbeard. There'll be fewer trucks parked on public lots near your favorite spot, and you'll have more space to spread out. The latter part of the season really does hold advantages.
Buckeye Birds Becoming Receptive
In Ohio, longtime turkey hunter Rick Story says gobblers are getting desperate.
"A lot of the hens have been bred by now, so the boys are having to range farther in search of a receptive hen," he says. "This makes hunting more interesting because you have fewer gobblers locked down by a flock of hens. They're more receptive to calling and decoys."
Story, who is from Columbus, suggests staying close to fields now where you may have seen hens earlier in the season.
"The gobblers stay on the move, checking field after field for hens," he says. "If you have the advantage of doing the same, do it. If not, don't be afraid to call aggressively. If a gobbler hears you from a mile away, it's not a stretch to have him come all the way to you."
The Appalachian foothills of the Wayne National Forest is far different, topographically, from the agricultural lands of northern and western Ohio. The 250,000-plus acres of national forest lands in southeastern Ohio present a challenge for hunters looking to test themselves against wily public-land gobblers.
2-Year-Old Time in Iowa
Shawn Jenkins, a former NWTF employee, says cold weather in Iowa has the birds acting wonky.
"It's like they're a week or more behind," he says. "We are still seeing some larger flocks that you would have thought would be broken up by now."
This means a lot of the older gobblers are still locked down with a group of hens. That leaves a lot of 2-year-olds on the move looking for opportunities to breed a hen.
"A lot of times, the old boss gobbler will have to fight off subordinate birds," Jenkins says. "The younger birds can be aggressive. That also makes them susceptible to being fooled by a good decoy. If you're hunting an open area, I think a decoy is very valuable. I like to use a jake and a hen. A gobbler can't stand to see a jake making off with a hen."
Placing decoys in an open field can draw birds in from a long distance. This is a good place to use a blind, too, as you may encounter a flock of turkeys in front of you. That's a lot of highly capable eyeballs. The concealment of a blind should allow you to remain hidden in such situations.
Be Patient for Silent Bluegrass Birds
In eastern Kentucky, where huge expanses of forest blanket much of the landscape, veteran turkey hunter and outdoor photographer Bill Konway reports birds have started to slow down on the gobbling. He says they are still gobbling pretty good on the roost but go quiet soon after fly-down.
"Right now, what I'm doing is slowly hunting my way along ridges," Konway says. "I move a couple of hundred yards and set up and call. A lot of gobblers will come in silent this time of year, so I like to set up where I can watch up and down the ridge, and each time I call, I'll stay put for 15 minutes. After that, I move a couple hundred more yards and do it again."
Kentucky is flush with public land. The Daniel Boone National Forest is spread across 21 counties of eastern Kentucky and encompasses more than 708,000 acres, with most of it being good turkey-hunting ground. This is the sort of destination where you'll need to be in pretty good shape to run the mountains. —Brandon Butler
Panel Blinds for Spring Turkey Hunting
- Run-and-gun turkey hunters need a good panel blind that is portable, lightweight and effective in keeping you hidden from a tom's sharp eye. These panel blinds are tailor-made for on-the-go hunting in the turkey woods.
Read More: Run-and-Gun Hunting Blinds for Spring Turkeys
Getting on Schedule
- Warm weather finally sparks responsive gobblers.
Finally, this spring's turkey season isn't all about the hens. For the first weeks of this abnormally cool and snowy season, hens held all the cards. Report after report confirmed the trend of unbred hens pulling gobblers away from hunters' seductive yelps and clucks. I've had my own experience with this dynamic during three days of exciting but unproductive hunting in northeast Wyoming's portion of the Black Hills.
"We're running a good two weeks behind normal," says Shawn Fricke, owner of Skyline Outfitters north of Gillette, Wyo. "My best advice is to locate birds on the roost. Gobblers are sounding off on the limb, then to get in [position] and shut up."
I managed to gum up that good advice by calling, only to have approaching gobblers get turned around and marched away by jealous hens. (In my defense, I can't easily sit in one unproductive spot for hours without trying to make my own luck.)
Ramping Up in Idaho
The Gem State is turning on, says Micah Ellstrom, Panhandle Regional Wildlife Manager for Idaho Fish and Game.
"Hunters are finding the highest concentrations of turkeys in the lower-elevation units 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5," says Ellstrom. "Hunters may want to look toward the lower Priest River and lower Coeur d'Alene River drainages, as well as the lower elevations adjacent to the Kootenai River for higher densities of turkeys."
In these areas, and in the mid-elevation habitats from Durango, Colo., to Miles City, Mont., warm weather has accelerated breeding activity. That means that while hens and gobblers will be flocked up in the early morning, by midday the hens will be off to lay eggs and sit on their nests. That, in turn, leaves gobblers to their own devices on warm early-May afternoons.
The best strategy for this mid- to late-season dynamic is to walk ridges on extensive blocks of public land, calling every 300 to 400 yards. If you spark a responsive gobble, get ready. These hot-to-trot afternoon toms often come in at double-quick speed.
A hen-and-jake decoy combination will be especially effective over the next couple weeks. Dominant gobblers that see a jake decoy "tending" a hen decoy often abandon their normally maddening vigilance and come steaming into the set, expecting to beat the rival jake away from a prospective mate.
Snowbound Arizona Merriam's
Farther south, Dustin Darveau, senior terrestrial wildlife specialist with Arizona Game and Fish Department, is worried about Merriam's populations north of the mid-state Mogollon Rim. Fourteen feet of snow between Payson and Flagstaff has stranded flocks of birds and left a lot of uncertainty about over-winter mortality.
"We've contacted spring turkey permittees, asking them to please return their hunting-season data cards to us," says Darveau. "That may be one of the only ways we're going to get a handle on mortality and survival. We have a handful of turkeys wearing backpack GPS transmitters, so we're getting some information that birds have survived by finding warm-water springs and thermal features, but we don't have a good feel for what's happening from the Rim to Flagstaff."
Darveau notes that the high elevations north of Payson have experienced 67 days with 10 inches or more of snow cover. Recent literature suggests that turkeys start to experience mortality after just 5 inches of snow for more than 10 days.
"Deer and elk can move out of landscapes that experience deep, prolonged snow conditions," says Darveau. "Turkeys don't have that luxury, so we're hoping to get help from hunters about what they're seeing out there in our core Merriam's habitats." —Andrew McKean