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Turkey Time: Why "Late" Can Be Productive

When it comes to the best time of day — or the season — to bag a gobbler, earlier isn't necessarily better.

Turkey Time: Why "Late" Can Be Productive

While most hunters wouldn’t dream of missing sunup in the turkey woods, toms are often more receptive to calling mid-morning once hens have gone to nest. (Author photo)

For the majority of turkey hunters, opening day is the time they focus on most when making plans for the season. That is understandable, of course, since it’s the first day they get a crack at pulling the trigger on a tom. Additionally, the birds have not been pressured yet and are as unaware as they’re going to be all season. And, naturally, no one has killed a bird yet, so the number of gobblers in the woods is the highest it’s going to be.

All of this adds up to a lot of optimism—as it should. But then comes the reality check. While a number of hunters will find success on opening day, most of us will not. We will likely have to work hard and spend ample time in the woods before the stars align. Over nearly 30 opening days, I’d guess I’ve either killed a bird or helped call a bird to a hunting partner’s gun no more than 30 percent of the time.

RETHINKING THE ROUTINE

Ask most turkey hunters to describe their typical turkey hunting day and it nearly always starts with a predawn wake-up, often a lengthy drive to their spot, walking through fields or woods bathed in darkness and then listening for gobbles as the first glimmer of daylight seeps into the sky.

This is all part of the experience, but again, think about how many times you’ve actually killed a bird in that first 30 minutes—even that first hour—of turkey-hunting light. More often than not, things don’t pan out, so we wind up chasing birds around, setting up and then setting up again.

For the tactically minded hunter, it’s important to break out of that rigid mindset and consider that there are alternate times of the day, week or even the season that can prove to be quite productive.

HOW EARLY IS TOO EARLY?

Naturally, there is an advantage to being the first turkey hunter in the woods. You will definitely hear the most gobbles just before flydown, as toms announce their presence to nearby hens.

But while this sound show can be fantastic, first light can also be a more challenging time to hunt. Besides competition with other hunters (some of whom may have to leave soon to go to work or deal with other obligations), you are also typically dealing with hens that have yet to be bred and are what a tom’s most focused on. Gobblers at this time of day are often deceptively harder to hunt.

I’ve ridden along with hunters who’ve nearly wrecked their trucks trying to get to a hunting spot as sunlight was already peaking above the horizon. These excited hunters forget that turkeys are going to be on the ground all day. Turkeys are not like deer, which tend not to move after the first hours of morning. Sometimes, waiting a little later to hit the woods can be to your advantage.

As much as I love hunting, I’m not a fan of waking up super early. And for years, I was the parent responsible for getting my young kids to school, meaning I couldn’t hunt until after 9 a.m., anyway. Despite that, I’ve enjoyed great success when hitting the woods as late as 10 o’clock. Even in those states where the legal shooting time ends at noon, that two-hour window has been as productive for me, if not more productive, than the earliest hours.

Most hens have left the gobblers to sit on a nest, and the woods are less crowded with competing hunters. Even if the hunters are only on neighboring properties, they can impact hunting on your land. The sounds of calls don’t stop at property lines, and a bird can certainly be called across them. Of course, you can call one from the neighbor’s property more easily if they aren’t there to compete for its attention.

You will hear fewer gobbles at midmorning, but when you do hear one or get a gobbler to respond to a call, that turkey is indicating he is infinitely more killable than he was at dawn since he is likely alone and looking for a hen.

A couple of years back on a farm I own with several other guys (only one of whom hunts turkeys), I often left the place to my friend at first light since I had other hunting options. He struck out each morning, but twice I rolled into the property at midmorning and killed gobblers within an hour of showing up. The toms were simply more willing to work to the call at that time of the day.

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Late afternoons an hour or two prior to dusk can also be productive in areas where all-day hunting is allowed. Turkeys will begin to work their way back toward their roosts at this time. If you know where the roost is, you can typically set up an ambush along the return path or call one in that’s eager to roost near what he thinks is a hen.

If it isn’t too hot, turkeys tend to hang out in fields more readily in afternoons, as well. This makes them easier to spot as you use the cover of the surrounding woods to get in position and call them.

WHAT ABOUT WEEKDAYS?

Most of us hunt the weekends because, quite simply, it’s when we can. Of course, you should expect to see other hunters in the woods then, too, particularly on public land.

Doug Howlett, turkey harvest hero photo
The author shot this gobbler on a weekday when the woods were devoid of the weekend hunting crowd. (Author photo)

When I first moved to South Carolina years ago, I spent the first couple seasons there hunting public land around the Edgefield area. After that, I hunted a 2,400-acre lease with at least 8 fellow hunters who also enjoyed pursuing spring turkeys. The woods on weekends could get rather crowded, but on a Tuesday or Wednesday after the second week of the season was over, I pretty much had the property or any public tract to myself.

Thursdays can work, too, though you’ll run into the occasional hunter who’s getting a jump on the weekend. Fridays are even worse, since guys will take that day off from work in order to make it a three-day weekend. For that same reason, I tend to avoid Mondays, in case hunters are stretching their three-day weekend in that direction. Mondays typically aren’t as busy as Fridays, but I like to let the woods settle down a little before I get back out there on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

MID-SEASON MAGIC

If you were to survey hunters who take time off from work to turkey hunt, I’d guess 80 to 90 percent of them take the first week of the season. However, hunting that first week can be challenging. There are more hunters hitting the woods hard and gobblers are typically still ganged up in large, hard-to-call flocks.

Wait a week and your casual turkey hunters are largely done. Wait a couple weeks and the birds should be less flocked up, making it easier to locate lone gobblers willing to come to a call.

I actually prefer taking off the second or third week of the season. Then, I typically have the woods to myself, and in many instances, turkeys will have migrated over from neighboring tracts where hunters have been running ATVs and calling like they’re trying to win a contest.

It takes more patience to hunt later in the season. For me, running and gunning often gives way to easing along, tossing out a sparse call here and there and sitting back once I locate a gobbler and letting him slowly work his way to me.

Plenty of birds get tagged in the days and weeks after the opener. Like many things in life, success can simply be a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Doug Howlett, Rossi Tuffy Turkey
Rossi Tuffy Turkey

BIG PUNCH, SMALL PACKAGE: Rossi’s Tuffy Turkey

Turkey hunters traditionally opt for the most firepower they can muster when it comes to their turkey rig. However, these shotguns can be an unruly and uncomfortable carry.

Rossi’s Tuffy Turkey ($243; rossiusa.com) offers hunters an alternative to clunky, large-gauge guns. The single-shot .410 weighs just over 3 1/2 pounds, has a 26-inch barrel with an extra-full choke tube and is chambered for 3-inch shells (a recessed area in the stock holds spare ammunition). A bead front sight is standard, though the gun is optics-ready and capable of accepting red-dots like the TruGlo Ignite (below). Its cantilevered mount allows for co-witnessing of sights and has 1/2-MOA windage and elevation adjustments.

Doug Howlett, TruGlo Ignite red-dot.
TruGlo Ignite red-dot

With an overall length of 41 inches, the Rossi Tuffy Turkey is an easy, comfortable, compact carry, even for young hunters. Its break-open action and crossbolt safety makes operation simple, convenient and safe in the turkey woods. — Dr. Todd A. Kuhn




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