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Regional Strut Update: How to Tag a Tom Before the End of the Season

Spring turkey hunting is down to the final days of the 2023 season. Here's what to do to fill remaining tags.

Regional Strut Update: How to Tag a Tom Before the End of the Season

A Connecticut strutter approaches a decoy. (Photo courtesy of Matt Wettish)

This is the ninth installment of the Game & Fish Regional Strut Update, featuring weekly expert turkey-hunting field reports throughout the season from every region of the country. This week's report includes:

  • In the East, Doug Howlett says time is dwindling for hunters to tag a tom before seasons end across the region. Howlett offers two quick tactics for success if you're still holding a tag.
  • In the Midwest, Brandon Butler says with seasons open until the end of the month mainly in states to the North, there's still some for hunters still looking to tag a tom. "Late-season turkey hunting is a tough game, but you can't win if you don't play," he says.
  • In the West, Andrew McKean reports hens are preoccupied with nesting and gobblers are becoming silent, so patience is the key to successfully call in a gobbler. "Look for toms across the West in shady, cool areas," McKean says. And watch out for ticks.
  • In the South, seasons have closed virtually everywhere except for Tennessee (May 28), where the season was delayed two weeks this year in a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency effort to improve reproduction and nesting success.

TERRIFIC TOMS

Final-Day Virginia Gobbler

Buzz Hayes with tagged wild turkey
Outdoors photographer Buzz Hayes stands with the gobbler he killed on the final day of the season in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Buzz Hayes)

Read More: Gobbler Getters—Big Turkeys from the 2023 Season

EAST REPORT

Desperate Times

  • The clock is ticking for hunters in the few states where seasons remain open.

It's officially crunch time for turkey hunters with tags left unfilled in Massachusetts, West Virginia, Rhode Island and Maryland, where seasons will close within days of the posting of this report. Hunters in Massachusetts, who have had to battle flocked-up birds and toms that refuse to gobble once on the ground, will be the first among that group to finish when their season closes on Saturday, May 20. West Virginia and Rhode Island both close May 21, while Maryland's season ends on May 23.

My final day in the Virginia woods was a perfect snapshot of how the entire season played out. Outdoor photographer Patrick "Buzz" Hayes and I hit two of my properties with my teenage daughter, Zenna, in tow. We didn't hear a gobble on the first of my properties or any of the neighboring ones, so we made a short drive over to another property I have. We hadn't walked 150 yards from the truck when a few yelps from a Woodhaven diaphragm call sparked a resonating gobble from roughly 100 yards back in some pines. We quickly set up—Buzz in front, Zenna and I about 25 yards behind him—and a few more mouth yelps, plus some purrs and clucks from a slate, brought the longbeard running. The whole hunt lasted less than 10 minutes. It was a nice way to end a season that saw more days of frustration than not.

father and daughter turkey hunters
Regional Strut Update contributor Doug Howlett and his daughter Zenna are pictured with the gobbler Howlett called in for outdoors photographer Buzz Hayes during a hunt last week in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Buzz Hayes)

That's been the echo from hunters I've spoken with throughout the Northeast. Our man in Mass, Gerry Bethge, filed the following report:

"It was probably 10 or so years ago when I decided to see when I could hear my last spring turkey gobble. It was on July 4. I'm guessing that this will be that sort of year. The weather here in the Northeast has taken a decided swing toward spring, but an abundance of hens has tested even the most patient among us. The typical scenario has been solid roost gobbling and then silence. Striking birds midday has been a hit-or-miss ordeal, with most of those responsive toms heading off to follow hens. It's the toughest time of the season … until it breaks."

Playing Catch-Up

Others I've spoken to feel the warm bouts of weather back in February and early March that gave way to more snow and freezing temps throughout late March and much of April really threw the birds off.

"Gobbling is slow," says Connecticut hunter Matt Wettish. "Even areas where you know birds are, some are not even gobbling on the roost. Naturally, pressure is high on public land, which is a part of it, but I do believe the unusually warm and early spring sparked early breeding, even though it should be the length of daylight hours that mostly influence that."

He and his fellow hunters are finding moderate success in the late-morning hours when more of the hens have headed off to nest and they can strike the occasional gobbler by himself.

Three hunters with tagged turkey
Left to right: Nitro Rallycross driver Conner Martell, Matt Wettish and Jake Austin celebrate a successful Connecticut hunt in which Austin served as the triggerman. (Photo courtesy of Matt Wettish)

In New York, Tiffany Jade has struggled as many Empire State hunters have, but she and her boyfriend recently enjoyed back-to-back days of success.

It's been the same across the state line in Vermont. Triple B Outfitters' David Sichik reports his hunters have encountered birds still in large flocks, with gobblers shutting up as soon as they fly down. There's been little gobbling as the sun climbs the sky.

BUZZER-BEATER TACTICS

That exactly how sources in the southern states of the East Region reported it playing out a couple weeks ago. If the southern tier serves as a blueprint for the North, northern hunters may very well experience their best hunting in their seasons' waning days. If you are still holding a tag, here are two tactics that could serve you well now:

Recommended


  • 1. Stick to the cover of the leafed-out woods, walking slowly and hitting a call every 100 to 150 yards. If a bird gobbles back, be ready to drop next to the nearest tree because he's likely coming in quick—especially if he gobbles more than once. This is where a lot of hunters dawdle and get busted without realizing the hunt has ended before they sit down.
  • 2. Hunt them like deer. Stake a jake and a hen decoy just off a field, preferably in rolling terrain so they're not visible from too far away (if birds can see the dekes from too far off, they'll likely hang up). Get comfortable within 25 yards of the decoys, toss out a call about every 20 or 30 minutes and sit tight for at least a couple of hours in hopes a gobbler making his rounds comes to check you out. —Doug Howlett
successful turkey hunter
Outdoors photographer Buzz Hayes, who hunted with Regional Strut Update contributor Doug Howlett, totes a tagged tom over his shoulder after a successful Virginia hunt. (Photo by Doug Howlett)

VIDEO

Turkey-Hunting Brothers Part 1: Texas Comes to Minnesota

  • Thomas Allen and longtime hunting friends Jeremy King and Derek Spitzer score gobblers in this classic roost hunt in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. See more videos from Game & Fish

GOBBLER GEAR

Go-To Turkey Calls

turkey calls
Primos Crow locator call (left), Woodhaven Cherry Real Hen box call (top right) and Bone Collector Sweet April glass pot call.

Coaxing a gobbler into shooting range requires a thorough understanding of its daily routine. Here are some go- to calls from correspondent Zack Vucurevich. Read more of his article, "Turkey Talk: Say the Right Thing at the Right Time."

  • Box Call: The Woodhaven Cherry Real Hen Box Call ($94.99; woodhavencustomcalls.com) is my go-to when covering ground during brunchtime. It can hit those softer yelps in a pinch, but give it a little oomph and you can project your calls clear acrossthe holler.
  • Locator Call: My favorite locator call is the raspy Primos Crow Call ($8.99; primos.com). It is affordable, easy to use and, most importantly, exceptionally loud.
  • Pot Call: I don’t enter the turkey woods without my Bone Collector Sweet April glass pot call ($79.99; bonecollector.com). Turkey hunting and rainy, humid conditions go hand-in-hand, so having a friction call that works in these elements can save your hunt. If the Sweet April’s calling surface gets wet, I simply wipe it off and continue calling (unlike with slate calls). Consider purchasing a second striker for changing tones from time to time, and simply to have a backup.

MIDWEST REPORT

Fill Your Tag Now

  • Make a last-ditch push for local birds, or plan a road trip up north, where seasons remain open until the end of the month … and even into June.

Turkey time is rapidly nearing its end for the 2023 season. The states with seasons still open are mostly up north, where the spring breeding cycle is slightly behind the southern tier of the Midwest region. Many of you reading this have likely tagged a turkey or two this spring. A tip of the cap to you. If you're still out there after them, well, a tip of the cap to you, too. Late-season turkey hunting is a tough game, but you can't win if you don't play.

Strike a Late-Gobbling Kansas Tom

Kansas opens early and closes late, with turkey season lasting until the end of the month, though Heath Hazen reports that gobbling has declined precipitously in western Kansas during the last week.

"We are still hearing birds gobble on the roost, but not nearly as much, and they go silent pretty quick when they hit the ground," he says. "What we are hoping to run into is a bird that gobbles late in the morning. That bird is willing to move and can be worked. If you can make one gobble late in the morning this time of year, you have a good chance of killing that bird."

Kansas has a robust walk-in program, and there could still be some fresh birds on overlooked walk-in properties. Do a little research beforehand to find some properties other turkey hunters might've passed over, like small acreages and heavier agriculture lands.

Hunt Minnesota's Big-Wood Birds

Now that walleye season is open, turkey hunters have likely thinned out up in Minnesota. With a lot of hunters already tagged out, and with many other competing outdoor pursuits in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the turkey woods are less crowded. Make the most of it.

The Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest contains more than a million acres of prime southeastern Minnesota land. Use a bike or a horse to navigate the trail system through the forest and go way back into spots other hunters likely haven't hit. Call, observe, move and repeat until you find a gobbler to hunt. Turkey season ends May 31.

"Most hens are tending nests, and gobblers should be more receptive to calls," says Scott Mackenthun, who works with the Minnesota DNR and is an avid hunter and outdoor writer based in the southeastern part of the state. "Toms are roaming and it's a great time to capitalize on curiosity. Vegetation in the upper Midwest is finally catching up from the cold spring, so it's a bit easier for hunters to freelance and stay on the move."

Walk Logging Roads for Wolverine Gobblers

Michigan wins for the longest season in the Midwest, with some units remaining open until June 7. In a state with millions of acres of public land, Michiganders are flush with turkey-hunting opportunities. Some areas stand out, though, and none more than the Pigeon River Country State Forest. The 109,000-acre forest known as the "Big Wild," in reference to something Ernest Hemingway once said of the area, is home to a healthy turkey population.

The forest features logging roads, which turkeys often walk. You should, too, as you can cover a lot of ground quickly and quietly. Do as much scanning ahead of you as you do calling. Turkeys often cross the roads. If you see one, settle in and try calling them to you. If you try to move toward them, chances are you'll be spotted and the flock will spook.

"Ernest Hemingway used to hang out in the Pigeon River Country," says Paul Beachnau, the executive director of the Gaylord Convention and Tourism Bureau. "I think that helps put into perspective how incredible this area is for hunting and fishing. We have excellent turkey hunting. Just ask the golfers how many turkeys they see on our local courses. They're everywhere."

To celebrate the success of a taking a turkey, or to commemorate the end of another season with or without filling your tag, make a stop at the Big Buck Brewery in Gaylord. I can't think of a more fitting place to end the season with a cold beer and some tasty walleyes. A trip to Jay's Sporting Goods is another must when visiting Gaylord. —Brandon Butler

WEST REPORT

Quiet But Active

  • Gobblers are cruising midday, but often coming in silently.

This is an interesting week in the lives of Western wild turkeys, as hens are preoccupied most daylight hours with their growing egg collections, and gobblers are becoming less vocal and more wary.

It can be a wonderful time to strike up a conversation with a vocal tom, but it won't be as easy or as consistent as it was last week, when gobblers roamed widely and called to just about any sharp, shrill noise. Those hot toms are dead, and because the breeding season is winding down, the survivors are becoming less vocal and more wary by the week.

"In most of Oregon, turkeys have settled into their breeding behaviors statewide, and most hens should be in full incubation mode or revisiting toms to fertilize eggs after a failed nesting attempt," says Mikal Cline, upland game bird coordinator for Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Toms will start to get lonely this week, and the persistent hunter should be able to find success. But as the days get longer and hotter, the window of gobbling activity starts to shorten, making it more difficult to locate birds."

"Hit the woods very early for locating birds," Cline says. "When the day gets warm, explore shady aspects to find quiet birds. Patience is key now as wiser toms may come in silently, not wanting to arouse the interest of aggressive flocks of jakes."

Prime Time in Washington

The best weeks of the season in the best areas of Washington are producing good numbers of mature toms for hunters, says Dale Denney at Bear Paw Outfitters in Colville. "I haven't seen much sign that we lost many birds due to the late winter," Denney says. "Our wet hatching season was tough on poults last summer, so there's not as many jakes as usual, but there is a good supply of mature toms."

By mid-May throughout northeastern Washington, Denney says, "Hens seem to be breaking away to lay, leaving toms out looking for more hens, which means they are very susceptible to calling."

Look for toms across the West in shady, cool areas, like seeps and springs on the north slopes of mountains, in riparian corridors along secondary streams and along irrigated river valleys. Unfortunately, anywhere you have greenery and moisture, along with the associated heat of May, you're going to find ticks.

Cline recommends hunters head to mid-elevation landscapes that have only recently cleared of snow, where spring has been delayed by several weeks. There you can find a good combination of low tick loads and widespread moisture, and gobblers that haven't gotten the memo that the season is nearly over in most states.

"This is the time of year I recommend people head to the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and the Umpqua drainages of the Cascades that have just become accessible," says Cline. "Frankly, there are fewer ticks in those areas." —Andrew McKean




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