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Regional Strut Update: Gobbler Activity Up, but Hunter Patience Required

New this week: Defrosted toms strutting and gobbling; expert turkey reports from every region.

Regional Strut Update: Gobbler Activity Up, but Hunter Patience Required

Regional Strut Update contributor Josh Honeycutt photographed this Eastern longbeard on Monday, April 17. He then swapped his camera for his shotgun and filled his second Kentucky tag. (Photo by Josh Honeycutt)

This is the fifth 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 the key to turkey hunting throughout much of the region is patience, whether or not the season has opened. Gobblers are henned-up in the southern part of the region, but active to the north.
  • In the South, the strut is on, says Josh Honeycutt, who reports that turkey activity continues to increase. In general, hunting is good, but patience is needed on henned-up mature gobblers.
  • In the Midwest, Brandon Butler says strutting and gobbling are on the rise as defrosted birds are displaying breeding behavior across the region, particularly in Minnesota and Michigan.
  • In the West, Andrew McKean says the cold weather and excessive snow seem to be easing in most areas, with warm temps provoking toms into strutting and gobbling, but reluctant to leave hens. Gobblers might respond to your call, but are difficult to draw into range.

TERRIFIC TOMS

One in a Million: Hunter Takes Rare Albino Gobbler

A rare albino Merriam's turkey
Turkey hunter Greg Cherne tagged this rare albino Merriam's turkey—nicknamed 'Ghost'—on a recent guided hunt in South Dakota. The once-in-a-lifetime turkey was tagged late on the final day of his hunt. Read more about the hunt for  'Ghost.' (Photos courtesy of Greg Cherne/Tethrd Nation)

EAST REPORT

Gobblers Testing Hunters' Patience

  • Birds are henned-up in the South, yet active in the North where seasons have yet to open.

Word among turkey hunters up and down the East Coast is that whether your season is in or you are still anxiously awaiting opening day, you need to be patient. In Virginia, the opening week of the season saw a lot of birds go silent after fly-down and many others pulled away from hunters by single hens once on the ground. Even gobbling on the roost wasn't as active as some of us expected. On four different mornings last week, I had no fewer than four gobblers playing nicely into my hands on close-to-roost setups, only to have a soft yelp or two pull each gobbler in another direction.

After one blown hunt, I brought in reinforcements the following day: my 15-year-old son, Cade, and good friend Bryan Windley. We set up close to the roosted bird just prior to sunrise; the two of them spread out while I sat back a ways and waited for the bird to pitch to the ground. Once we heard him fly down, and worried he was going the wrong way, I used a few soft purrs and clucks with a Pennsylvania-made Pat Strawser Custom Calls glass pot paired with a Toxic Calls striker and a Woodhaven Custom Calls Red Wasp diaphragm to coax him back—this time without a hen. Cade squeezed off a round of Winchester Longbeard XR and dropped the gobbler in its tracks. The bird tipped the scales at 21 1/2 pounds and rocked an 11 3/4-inch beard despite sporting just 3/4-inch spurs.

Outdoor writer and Virginia hunter Ken Perrotte, farther up the Northern Neck in the Old Dominion, says despite a successful first week of the season in which the veteran turkey chaser tagged out, the action was still slow.

"What I saw is that hens are well-dispersed," says Perrotte. "Gobblers were roosting alone or with bros. Not a lot of roost gobbling. Once on the ground, they took their sweet time. Patience was essential. Keeping my butt in one place was key."

Chris Barham, a Virginia hunter and Drake Waterfowl and Ol' Tom field ambassador, shared similar observations. He predicts the coming week should blow open as more hens make the transition to nesting, and lonely gobblers come running to the call in hopes of scoring company.

Across the mountains in West Virginia, Larry Case shares a familiar report. "One morning there is some good gobbling on the roost, and the next morning there is nothing. Like, not even a peep," he says. "It tells me we are still a little early in the cycle. Gobblers are still with a lot of hens, but the season may hit just right for gobbler activity and responding to a call."

Farther north, snow continues to melt, translating into more active birds. NWTF New England District Biologist Matt DiBona says the outlook for New England and New York is generally positive, and notes that winter flocks are breaking up.

"There was significant snowfall in late March in northern New England and New York, which may have interrupted and delayed the breakup," he says. "Mast availability was mixed in fall 2022. However, birds should be in fairly good condition due to a relatively mild winter. Brood production has been good the last two seasons, so hunters should anticipate good numbers of jakes and two-year-old birds."




DiBona suggests hunters still waiting for their seasons to open in the next week or two to start preseason scouting if they haven't already. Spend some time driving around looking for birds and determining roosting areas.

Connecticut hunter Matt Wettish is less enthusiastic after spending the recent youth hunt with a young hunter and failing to pull a gobble or see any turkeys on five different tracts where he has enjoyed great success in years past. He has concerns that increased bag limits and all-day hunting in recent years may not be having the desired effect on hunter success that some hunters had hoped.

Meanwhile, NWTF Director of Conservation Operations Doug Little took his son out for the same Nutmeg State youth opener and hunted public land, where they "heard some birds on the limb, though they did not gobble much, and all of the gobbling shut down after fly-down time."

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Just across the state line in Massachusetts, Gerry Bethge reports more optimistic observations.

"The 'magic morning' has happened," he says. "Strutters were seen in almost every field and forest opening. The weather has gone from dead-of-winter to dog days of summer in just a week. There has been lots of gobbling on the roost, but silence after fly-down. Henned-up gobblers will likely be the case early on. Patience will be the only way to go. Late season should be on fire, though. Two excellent hatches in a row means that there should be an abundance of two-year-olds roaming around."

Meanwhile, Pat Rayta of Ammonoosuc River Outfitters in Vermont says the snow is melting and birds have been seen strutting in open areas in both Vermont and New Hampshire. —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 from April 16 to May 20 in conjunction with the Game & Fish Regional Strut Update. During the week of April 16, 10 submissions will receive a Jackpot pot call from Primos Hunting, and may be selected to be featured in the Regional Strut Update, as well as on Game & Fish social-media platforms. Use the hashtag #gafstrutreport, or message us directly on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or email photos and details of your hunt to keith.marlor@outdoorsg.com and scott.bernarde@outdoorsg.com.

Cade Howlett with tagged turkey
Cade Howlett's Virginia gobbler sported an incredible 11 3/4-inch beard, despite wearing just 3/4-inch spurs. (Photo by Doug Howlett)

SOUTH REPORT

The Strut Is On!

  • Longbeards are strutting in the South while gobbling in moderation.

Turkey season continues to ramp up throughout the South by the day. In general, hunting is good, but a dose of patience is required as most mature gobblers are now henned-up. Turkey seasons are open from Florida to Tennessee and Texas to the Carolinas. If you've not gotten out yet, it's time to strap on those boots, grab your calls and head for the woods.

In Central Texas, HuntStand's Will Cooper reports the turkeys are fired up. "Toms seem to be finally breaking off from groups and seeking more. The gobbling has been strong, and the weather has cooperated—it hasn't gotten too hot yet to make things a sweaty slog. All in all, it's been an awesome start to the 2023 turkey season," reports Cooper.

Down in the Sunshine State, Hunt Quest's Scott Ellis says that while gobblers are relatively plentiful, they remain henned-up for the most part. Ellis says he is a bit surprised they haven't started breaking up yet, and this is making it tough for hunters to get their birds.

In Alabama, Eddie Salter reports that recent cold weather put a chill on gobbling and strutting. He says that it also put a damper on the turkey hunting the last few days. However, a warming trend is pushing through the state, and Salter is confident the weather should defrost the turkeys a bit, coaxing gobblers back into the mood.

In the Volunteer State, turkey hunter extraordinaire Brenda Valentine reports the birds are acting a bit odd. "Hens are like lice on a hog's back; running here and yonder with no specific plan in mind," Valentine says. "Gobblers have gone stone deaf and stand around humped up like they are constipated. The most normal thing I'm seeing are the jakes. They are traveling in packs like school bullies and trying to out-gobble each other."

Also in Tennessee, outdoor writer Brodie Swisher says he's seeing some great signs. "Birds are broken up and looking for love," he reports. Swisher says it is go time and compared the turkey hunting to deer season. "Right now, here in Tennessee, turkey hunting is primed, it's the equivalent of mid-November now for the deer hunter."

Josh Honeycutt with Kentucky wild turkey
After photographing this gobbler for awhile, the author went ahead and filled his second and final 2023 Kentucky turkey tag. (Photo by Josh Honeycutt)

Realtree United Country land agent Slade Priest just returned from a hunt in Mississippi, where he reports the gobblers are active and gobbling well in the mornings. He says the early season in Mississippi has been great, but he has noticed the action is slowing a bit. However, hunters are still getting their birds.

Road warrior Phillip Vanderpool of The Virtue has been hunting in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and several Midwestern states. Overall, he reports that turkeys are responding well to calling in most areas that he has visited and feels things should get progressively better.

I plan to hunt Tennessee soon. In the meantime, I've been hunting in Kentucky and recently filled my tags last Saturday morning (opening day) and Monday morning. Both were action-filled outings with the gobblers strutting heavily, making for some exciting hunting. However, other than the first hour of daylight, gobbling has been minimal.

Overall, turkey activity continues to improve in most areas around the South. It is apparent that hunters must stay engaged and have a good handle on what stage of the breeding cycle they are in. This knowledge will help them make the right decisions on hunting and calling strategies. —Josh Honeycutt

VIDEO

Double Gobblers for Father-Son in Iowa

MIDWEST REPORT

Gobbling, Strutting and More

  • Birds are displaying breeding behavior across the region; scout hard and search for overlooked access options.

Minnesota is Indiana-native David Ray's adopted home. "Little Dave" grew up hunting some of the wariest toms in the Midwest on his family's farm in southern Indiana, which contained some 400 acres of Hoosier hardwoods. Up in Minnesota, he says, "turkeys just don't seem as smart."

No disrespect to northern hunters, but I concur with the young man. In my opinion, the Midwest's southernmost gobblers are among the hardest to kill. Birds in the Missouri Ozarks, eastern Kentucky, the hills of southern Indiana and Appalachian Ohio seem far more wary to me than their northern kin.

"Every day when I drive to work right now, I see gobblers strutting in fields with groups of hens," Ray says of Gopher State birds. "I'll pull over and watch them. They spend a lot of their time running off subordinate gobblers and jakes. So, to me, that means those birds should easily break off and respond to calls, even if the boss gobbler won't. There is so much public land in Minnesota. If you'll put in the time to scout, even if you just drive some backroads, you'll find turkeys you can hunt."

Oddball Access in the Ozarks

Ray Eye is a turkey-hunting icon. He came up through the early days of calling contests, call making and videoing hunts, and he was there for the birth of modern turkey hunting. He's hunted turkeys in Mexico, Hawaii, Florida, Texas and just about anywhere else turkeys live, but the Ozarks are his home. He makes his hay hunting these tough Show-Me birds.

I checked in with "Uncle Ray" this week to get his take on the magic window of spring turkey season we're in right now.

"I've had over 60 turkey seasons, and each one I get from here on out is going to be my favorite," Eye says. "Across the Midwest right now, turkey hunters are waking up two hours before sunrise to go sit by a tree in hopes of tricking a bird with a brain the size of pea into range. And most will fail. There's nothing else like it."

When asked for actual turkey-hunting advice, Eye delivered. "Look, I say calling is everything," he says. "It used to be, 'cluck three times and yelp once, then stay quiet for 15 minutes.' Is that how turkeys sound? Have you ever listened to a flock of hens? Do they sound quiet to you? You're up against the real thing. Thankfully, a lot of calls today sound better than real turkeys, so you have an advantage. Use it. Call. And then call some more. Be aggressive."

I asked Eye if he had any advice for a hunter looking for a place to hunt. He says scouting is the most important part of turkey hunting, but if you haven't done it by now, you're late to the game. Get yourself some maps for properties around water.

"Anywhere you can find public land that is accessible by water but hard to reach by road, you have a potential honey hole," he says. "Most hunters are not going to walk two or more miles in the dark through woods without a road or a trail to follow. There are a lot of really remote stands of timber with no roads in or out, but you can pull a boat right up on shore."

These places aren't common, but they're out there. If you can locate one, and have the means to access it, you just might paddle home 20 pounds heavier.

Walk to Wolverine State Birds

Michigan has one of the later openers in the Midwest, and it also has some of the latest-running seasons, with a few going into June. When the first seasons open on April 22, hunters should expect a good season. The Michigan DNR is saying Michiganders should continue their streak of turkey success. In the 2020 spring hunting season (the most recent for which the Michigan DNR has a spring survey report), 105,650 turkey tags were purchased and 41,772 turkeys were killed. That means 48 percent of hunters harvested a turkey statewide. That's an outstanding success rate.

Kevin Morlock is a Baldwin-area fishing outfitter who owns and operates Indigo Guide Service on the Pere Marquette River. He says that while he doesn't hunt wild turkeys himself, he floats through their habitat daily, and much of it is public land.

Morlock reports that early-morning gobbling has been intense this past week. He says this time of year it's apparent when he has a turkey hunter in the boat. They light up each time a bird sounds off and have a hard time paying attention to fishing.

Between the Manistee National Forest and surrounding state forest lands, much of Lake County is open to turkey hunting. Find a parking lot or pull off and strike out on a walk. A logging road makes for easy going.

Stop every 200 yards and call. Give it a minute and move on. Eventually, you should strike a bird. Keep your eyes peeled and you'll likely find some morel mushrooms in this area, as well. —Brandon Butler

TURKEY BOOTS

Footwear for Chasing Gobblers on Public Land

Three boots for turkey hunting
Hunting boots perfect for turkey hunting (from left): Muck Boots' Wetland, Lowa's Renegade II N GTX Hi TF and Dryshod's ViperStop.

From snakes to water to the need to cover some distance in warm weather, public-land hunters face unique footwear challenges. These boots are designed to help you hunt in all-day comfort.

  • Dryshod offers the ViperStop ($214; dryshodusa.com) boot, which is waterproof, snakeproof and surprisingly comfortable on warm days. The excellent tread provides great grip when the going gets slick.
  • The Lowa Renegade II N GTX Hi TF ($295; lowaboots.com) is designed specifically for long walks over rough terrain. This boot has a Vibram sole and Gore-Tex waterproofing, and it fits true. Another nice thing is the boot will pull double-duty during upland bird and deer seasons.
  • Muck Boots have made a name for themselves with farmers who make their living in tough working conditions. The brand's Wetland boot ($185; muckbootcompany.com) is waterproof and exceptionally comfortable. The calf-height boot (17 inches) has a stretch-to-fit design, maximizing its ability to stay put when walking in sloppy conditions. —David Johnson

Read More: These Boots Are Made For Turkey Hunting

WEST REPORT

Thaw Has Birds Fired Up

  • Gobblers are callable, but you’ll have to break them away from possessive hens.

This is the best worst week of the spring turkey season. Bursts of warm weather are provoking toms into fits of strutting and gobbling, but they're reluctant to leave flocks of hens. So, while gobblers might respond to your calls, they're very difficult to call into killing range just now.

Thankfully, the grip of cold weather and excessive snow is starting to ease in most areas of the West. In Oregon, where the season opened last weekend, low-elevation birds are hot and hens are already sorting out their nests, says Mikal Cline, turkey lead for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"Our [early-season] youth hunters had a great weekend," Cline says. "Birds were hot, particularly in the lower elevations of western Oregon valleys where hens are already exhibiting nesting behavior. Toms will continue to be busy tending to lower-ranking hens that aren't as far along in nesting, so hunters should be patient if they can't pull [gobblers] away first thing. There are lots of inexperienced two-year-old birds out there that will keep hunting interesting."

In Oregon's John Day Valley, birds have departed for the uplands, "a sure indicator that breeding season is off and running in the Blue Mountains," says Cline, who notes there's quite a bit of snow that will complicate vehicle access at middle and high elevations both in the northeast corner and central highlands.

Another hotspot of Western turkey hunting, the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming, is similarly affected by lingering snow, says Joe Sandrini, wildlife biologist for Wyoming Game & Fish in Newcastle.

"Right now, most birds are still pretty much in their barnyard flocks, but we should be starting to get into mating behavior any day now," says Sandrini. "I'm starting to see some smaller flocks getting split off the main flocks, and every warm morning I'm hearing more and more gobblers sounding off."

The Wyoming portion of the Black Hills received more snow and extended cold than normal, which Sandrini says is delaying seasonal turkey activity. Winter conditions are worse in the Casper area and the Bighorn Basin, where Sandrini expects vastly delayed spring turkey activity.

In Wyoming's Black Hills, most turkeys winter around farm and ranch compounds, says Sandrini. "A few old toms make a living on pine nuts, but I'd say the vast majority of turkeys spend their winters around [hay] stacks."

"In the Hills, we should see pretty good gobbling and breeding activity by our opener, which is April 20," he says. Overall, turkey numbers are climbing back from their lows in 2013 to 2014.

"Over the last four to five years, we've had average to above-average poult production," he says. "About 85 to 90 percent of spring birds harvested are two-year-old toms. Things are looking good this year. We have a pretty good [number] of two-year-old toms. We're not at a population high but we're probably double where we were seven or eight years ago."

How would Sandrini characterize northeast Wyoming's spring turkey hunting season?

"I would guess hunting will be somewhere between, 'Oh, man, this is incredible,' and 'It’s tough, but it doesn’t suck.'"

For hunters who stick out the late spring, and who can adjust to local conditions, hunting should be good.

"Typically, we run about 70-percent success on nonresident hunters, but both the number of nonresidents and their intensity, measured by days spent hunting, has gone up since 2019," says Sandrini. This spring season hunters should find abundant birds and good hunting access. A key will be to find ways to get away from the crowds at popular trailheads and access points.

"It can be a numbers game here—as in, lots of hunters—but it should be a good year for cooperative toms," says Sandrini. —Andrew McKean

PLAN YOUR NEXT HUNT

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male wild turkey
Our free interactive solunar calendar offers the best turkey hunting times based on your exact location. Click below to access the calendar. (Shutterstock image)

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