April 27, 2023
This is the sixth 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 that as seasons open in multiple states, flocks are breaking up and lone toms are gobbling and responding to calls. Expect more of the same in the coming week.
- In the South, Josh Honeycutt reports that cool, rainy weather has made turkey hunting challenging so far. Nice weather produces increased gobbler activity, but bad weather makes things much tougher.
- In the Midwest, Brandon Butler says it's a "magical" stretch with gobblers fired up and looking for love. Hunting is in full swing across the region.
- In the West, Andrew McKean reports gobblers are becoming more active in the higher elevations, but are still a week away at mid-elevations. Observations suggest the first week of May will be prime time.
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- Flocks are breaking up and lone toms are responding to calls, just in time for remaining seasons to open in the coming days.
What a difference a week can make. Just as Drake and Ol' Tom field ambassador Chris Barham predicted last week, birds in Virginia have begun acting like we all expect them to in the spring, with lots of gobbling and working to the call. Case in point: Last week I finally encountered a tom that got fired up on the roost and kept gobbling once on the ground. In fact, for the first time this season, I heard multiple toms (mostly on surrounding properties) gobbling steadily an hour or more after flydown.
In my case, the bird responded to a series of yelps, clucks and purrs from a Woodhaven Custom Calls diaphragm, and though he tried to hang tight in his strut zone, he couldn't stand it when I hit him with a barrage of calls and then went silent. He gobbled several times from where he had flown down, responding to every sound I made. When I quit calling, he gobbled once more from his strutting spot. Then, after nearly 15 minutes of silence, he gobbled a mere 35 yards out.
As luck would have it, there was an abundance of leafed-out brush between us, and it wasn't until he began circling to my left and getting nervous about not seeing a hen that I was able to thread a shot between two trees and knock him down with a load of Winchester Longbeard XR. The gobbler sported three beards measuring 11 3/4 inches, 8 inches and 2 inches. The spurs were 1 3/8 inches, indicating this bird was every bit of 3 years old.
Open for Business
We should expect more of the same in the coming week in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, where seasons are in full swing. Massachusetts and New Jersey both opened on Monday, and Connecticut and Rhode Island open this week. Pennsylvania hunters are set to finally hit the turkey woods this Saturday, April 29, while festivities in the northern-tier states of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine will commence on Monday, May 1.
NWTF New England District Biologist Matt DiBona expects the hunting action to be solid this spring, with healthy flocks and what should be plenty of jakes and 2-year-old birds. NWTF has been partnering with state game agencies in the region to help prepare hunters for the spring with turkey hunting seminars in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, so more hunters should have the skills to be successful and, above all, safe.
So, what is being seen around the region and what can we expect in the coming week?
Maryland hunter Tristan Taylor is already tagged out, having finally encountered gobblers without hens and willing to come to the call. He didn't bother with decoys, but over the course of last weekend he called in a handful of birds. Gobblers were still hanging out with other gobblers. Expect this action to continue into the coming week, with hard-hunted areas obviously holding fewer gobbling toms as hunters put their tags on them.
In New York, Quaker Boy Game Calls' Ernie Calandrelli is hearing reports of gobblers being extremely henned-up right now. Those groups should start to break up by the time the season opens next week, but go prepared to call to the whole flock and fire up a boss hen to drag that tom into range. "With a couple of better hatches the last couple of years, I feel the season may be a little better than it has been the last few springs," Calandrelli says.
New York hunter and outdoor writer Andrew Lewand says toms are in full-strut mode in his part of Western New York, while Sue Bookhout, in the central part of the Empire State, says her scouting forays have resulted in hearing some gobbling at sunup and sundown but quiet otherwise. Bookhout makes one observation that other hunters have reported as well: Green-up seems to be ahead of schedule in many areas despite the late dose of winter weather to hit the region. "Our leaves are way ahead of schedule and will be fully out by the first of May, which is a full two weeks ahead of schedule," Bookhout says. "That's likely to hinder the hunting. In my experience, the birds get pretty quiet once the leaves are out."
An early leaf-out definitely means more cover for hunters to slip in more closely to roost trees, but it also means birds sometimes sound farther away than they are, so be careful not to misjudge the distance and bump birds you're working.
New England Ramping Up
In Connecticut, Matt Wettish teamed up with some friend to help a couple hunters to watch a couple of young hunters tag their first birds during the Nutmeg State's weeklong youth season. He reports that birds became much more vocal toward the end of the week.
"The flocks have split up and we are beginning to see satellite, secondary birds lose the few hens they were allowed by the dominant toms in the area. Makes for some easy pickings," he says. Wettish is concerned about overall turkey numbers in the state but says hunters who do their homework can definitely find gobblers to hunt.
In New Hampshire, Ken Fecteau Jr. says the nicer weather finally visiting the region has made all the difference in the dynamics of the flocks there. He still isn't seeing a ton of birds out and about, but the ones he is seeing are good ones. Expect more lone birds, gobbling and working to calls once the season rolls in. Things should be in full effect by the second week of the season.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Gerry Bethge says hunters who have yet to experience opening day need to get out now and scout, even if they hunt relatively smaller properties. "When spring weather takes a turn for the worse, it pays to know precisely where your toms are," he says. "It's also beneficial to understand the stage of the breeding season, which gobblers are with hens and how many hens they're with."
Massachusetts experienced a 30-degree cold front the week before its opener, which "pretty much quieted the gobbling down for a couple of days," says Bethge. As temperatures crept back up, he and his fellow hunters got out and began listening to the improving gobbling. Prior to Monday's opener, they had located more than 20 longbeards.
"Some of those birds had multiple hens, but others had none. The hen-less toms are the first ones we'll chase," he says. "A hard rain the day before the season disrupted some of the usual roosting sites, but we still had a good idea where to start. On opening day, when competing with other hunters on neighboring properties, that can mean the difference between filling a tag and not." —Doug Howlett
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 (April 30 to 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.
More about the Primos Limb Hanger: When it comes to picking a mouth call, turkey hunters can choose from countless combinations of reed numbers, materials and cuts. Sometimes, though, it's best to go back to basics, whether you're just learning how to use a mouth call or are a veteran hunter looking to get the most versatility from a mouth call.
The classic Primos Limb Hanger fills both roles. It's a straight-forward, single-frame call with two thin prophylactic reeds—a design that benefits novice hunters and experts alike, notes Matt Rice from Primos.
"This call gives users the ability to produce notes with less air pressure and a less directed air flow," he explains. "The thin reeds also allow experienced callers to manipulate the pressure they put on the reeds at a more precise level, giving them the ability to do many different things with the call."
Rice points out the thin reeds make the Limb Hanger a sensitive call, meaning it responds to pressure and air flow to produce raspy or clear notes, kee-kees, tree yelps, cutts and purrs. With some practice, hunters can even make the call sound like multiple hens.
- Cool, rainy weather is putting a damper on turkey hunting across the region.
Thus far, turkey season has been a jumbled mix of highs and lows. Action around the region has ranged from periods of greatness to downright terrible. Some days the gobblers are out putting on a show; other days not so much.
Southern Boyz Outdoors' Kinion Bankston is in Louisiana and says things have been tough. "It's been unusually rough here, with an early spring and our season opening April 1," he says. "I didn't get a bird in Louisiana, and I'm not hearing of many birds being harvested this year here." While turkey hunting has been challenging in the Bayou State, things could change quickly if the weather cooperates.
Outdoor Sportsman Group's Lynn Burkhead recently talked with his hunting buddy, Doug Rodgers, who has hunted for many years in northern Texas near Wichita Falls. Rodgers reports the hunting has been tough there for a while due to drought conditions and poor hatches in recent years.
"Rodgers didn't mention gobbling activity specifically, but it is my impression that it's near its peak right now, although the weather has turned cool and rainy the past few days. More rain and storms are in the forecast this week, too, which will dampen the hunting a bit," reports Burkhead. He says Rodgers recently saw more than 15 birds while hunting, but reports the big toms are still tied up with hens. This might make for difficult calling scenarios for the next week or so.
In Central Texas, HuntStand's Will Cooper reports the mature toms are beginning to break off and go their own way. Cooper says the gobbling hasn't been quite as good as it was a week or two ago. He added that if you do get birds fired up there, it's likely they'll quickly quiet back down and slip in silently if they respond to your calling at all.
Moving eastward, the "Realtree Spring Thunder" and "Realtree Road Trips" crews have been hunting in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and a few adjacent states. They report that the gobbling and strutting have been closely linked to the weather. Nice weather days produce decent to great activity; subpar weather days produce negative results.
Small Town Hunting's Cody Kelley has been bouncing around and hunting different Southern states. He, like others recently, reports a common weather-related theme. "The weather has been rough, with cold temps and plenty of strong winds. The birds seem to have been switching on and off. Some, on occasion, are responding well to calling, while at other times they don't. We're now seeing plenty of hens out on their own and headed to nests during the day," says Kelley.
Looking ahead, the latter part of the week will see increased chances of storms, which will naturally hinder the turkey hunting. However, while the hunting can be tough, it is a great time to get out in the field and enjoy the hunt. After all, you can't get one if you're not out there on the chase. —Josh Honeycutt
- Birds are fired up across the region; get out there now if you haven't already.
Turkey hunting is in full swing across the Midwest, and we are in one of those magical stretches of time for outdoor enthusiasts. If you've punched your turkey tag, crappies are biting and mushrooms are popping. Put all three together on a dinner table and you have a meal that's tough to beat.
Illinois is in the center of it all. With three of its five segments down, hunters heading out in segments four and five should find a lot of gobblers on the hunt for hens. As more and more hens head to nest, the gobblers are forced to search far and wide for more mates. This makes them vulnerable to a hunter's call. Dan Stefanich is a guide at Boneyard Outfitters near Whittington. From the looks of their Facebook page, their hunters are having a great spring. When asked what the secret is, Stefanich says, "A lot of preseason scouting, patient hunters and a good number of birds."
Stefanich says that they are starting to see a lot of gobblers on the move later in the day. "Once the hens hit the ground and head off to tend to their nests, and boss gobblers have the rest of them all herded up, that leaves a good number of longbeards and jakes on the move looking for love," he says. "These birds are very huntable."
Promising Start for Hoosier Hunters
Indiana's season opened last week, and reports from the northwest corner of the state indicate perfect timing. "It's a chorus every morning at sunrise," says Doug Green, a property manager with the Indiana DNR. "I drive out on the property each day to see what the turkeys are doing, and they are gobbling in every direction. As soon as they hit the ground, the gobblers start herding up their hens. But later in the day, those groups break up and the gobblers are traveling to find more hens. Hunters should do well during midday if they focus on likely travel routes."
Southern Indiana is home to much more public land than northern Indiana. The Hoosier National Forest offers approximately 200,000 acres, most of it prime turkey habitat. There are numerous large-acreage state forests down south, too. Yellowwood and Greene-Sullivan are two such forests known to offer good turkey hunting. "Northern Indiana only has a sliver of public land compared to the southern half of the state," Green says. "But we manage our properties well up here, and there are a lot of birds often concentrated in smaller areas. Don't overlook Northern Indiana for great turkey hunting."
Indiana is an over-the-counter turkey tag state. A non-resident tag is $175. Hunters can take one bearded or male turkey, and the season runs until May 14.
Fewer Hunters, More Opportunities
Nebraska is large and sparsely populated, but turkey hunters tend to congregate in select areas of the state where the largest contiguous blocks of public land exist, especially in and around the 141,864-acre Nebraska National Forest. But with just 10,000 non-resident tags available this year, there has been less competition for places to hunt and less pressure on the birds.
Justin O'Riley hunts Nebraska as a non-resident each year and was quick on the draw to buy his tag. "I imagine those tags are going to sell out quick in the future because Nebraska has never disappointed," he says. "This year was no exception. I know people say there are fewer birds, but my area had as many as in the past, but there were far fewer hunters around."
O'Riley, who lives in Missouri, shot a nice gobbler in Nebraska on the second leg of a two-state hunt. He killed another gobbler just a couple of days before in Kansas. "These western plains hunts are just hard to beat," O'Riley says. "The scenery is incredible, then you throw a strutting gobbler into the prairie, with the sunlight shining through his tail feathers, and man, there is just nothing like it. If you are lucky enough to be holding a Kansas or Nebraska tag right now, whether you live in the state or not, get out there and hunt right now. The birds are fired up and there's plenty of them." —Brandon Butler
These Products Excel When Hunting River-Bottom Toms
- Shotgun & Load: Go light. You don't need a heavy 12 gauge. I go with Mossberg's 20-gauge 500 Turkey ($584; mossberg.com) and a red-dot sight. With the 500 spitting Federal’s exceptional TSS load with No. 7 and 9 shot ($65/5 rounds; federalpremium.com), I've dumped prairie gobblers out to 45 yards.
- Binocular: While I'll often use 8x32 binoculars for tight cover, on the open prairie I want more magnification. My go-to glass is Maven’s 10x50 C.3 model ($475; mavenbuilt.com). It has plenty of power, and the 50 mm objective lenses deliver lots of light.
- Turkey Vest: This is run-and-gun hunting at its finest, and I don’t want a heavy, over-pocketed vest. Instead, I opt for the ALPS Outdoorz Long Spur ($130; alpsoutdoorz.com). It has just enough pockets for essentials, and a fairly big main pocket for water and snacks, but it's light and nimble. If you want a cushioned seat, opt for the Long Spur Deluxe. —Andrew McKean
Read: Big-Game Tactics for River-Bottom Toms
- Strutting gobblers are on the move to higher elevations.
I call it my crocus index. Historically, I've had my best success hunting spring turkeys when the crocuses are hand-high and at the peak of their blue-and-yellow bloom. From what I can tell, that's still at least a week away in much of the mid-elevation habitat around the West where crocuses—properly called pasque flowers—bloom.
I can confirm the lateness of this particular spring from first-person observation. I spent the better part of last week hunting southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, and many of the lower-elevation reaches of the Custer and Black Hills national forests still had drifts of snow in shady spots and roads that were intermittently unpassable and mud-sloppy. I never struck a hot tom on public land, although I did see several large flocks that were still on livestock feed grounds.
That intel, along with my crocus calculus, suggests that the first week of May will be the prime time for most Western gobbling action. Next week (assuming we have a stretch of warm, dry weather), walking remote roads and occasionally yelping with a box call should get a hot gobbler to respond just about any hour of the day.
Beaver State Blues
This week's gobbler shutdown has defined much of the spring for Jody Smith, owner of Jody Smith Guide Service (jodysmithguideservice.com) on the Umpqua River in southwestern Oregon. "The hens are slowly starting to split off and concentrate on nesting a bit more serious, so in most places we're finding smaller groups with a couple toms in each group," says Smith. "It's been unseasonably wet and cold, so they've been hard to pattern."
Smith notes that jakes have been more mobile and, in some cases, more vocal than mature gobblers. That's a situation I found in my foray through the Black Hills, and it's worth noting that seasons like this can turn a young hunter into a champion caller. If you're happy with filling your tag with a jake, this is the week to do it.
I took my nephew for his first turkey hunt last week in Colorado. We had zero luck decoying gobblers off the roost, and our attempts to pull strutters away from big groups of hens left us feeling inadequate. But we stayed put on a road that connected several lower-elevation fields, calling about every 30 minutes or so just to remind any bird in the vicinity that we were still interested in meeting. Around 9:30 in the morning—about the time the doldrums really set in—Aiden whispered that three birds were coming in from the tree line. I was tucked out of the way in a hole below him and couldn't see what was happening, but his body language seemed to suggest they were shootable. He shot one of the three birds—all jakes—at about 17 yards as it inspected our decoys. The next day, I had a five-pack of jakes come into my setup in the mid-morning. I passed those birds hoping a longbeard might come to play. It didn't, but in midafternoon we were visited by another gaggle of jakes.
If the longbeards are still henned-up and uninterested in your calls, try to employ the strategy Aiden and I used last week. Stay in one spot with plenty of traffic, call periodically and keep on the lookout for these gangs of juvenile males. It's a good way to take a bird in this purgatory before gobblers leave nesting hens and start coming to calls. —Andrew McKean