If you have ever spent the morning listening to a bird fire off on the roost then turkey fever is probably at its peak. While the anticipation builds there is only so much that reading articles and watching hunting shows can cure. This is the perfect time to make sure you help lean the odds in your favor before you head to the woods on opening day.
Preparation is key when it comes to having success in the turkey woods. And in today’s face-paced life where hunters are often limited to how many days they can hunt it makes all the difference to be ready. Proper scouting, calling strategies and even decoy usage can be critical when it comes to fooling an early season gobbler.
Avid whitetail deer and waterfowl hunters know the importance that putting the time in to scout can play in their success. So why is it that this simple practice continues to be overlooked by many in the turkey world?
The truth is that most people can’t afford the time to drive out to their favorite hunting spot to check in on the flock every day. Of course, if you can physically scout the birds you plan to hunt then more power to you. Nothing is more valuable than seeing first hand just how the birds are reacting and where they are moving to and from.
Over the years trail cameras have made it simple and easy to gather intelligence from the field and have become a pivotal tool for modern hunters. If you fall into the category of hunters that just can’t give up extra time to hit the woods before the season then a trail camera is priceless piece of equipment. The way I look at it is the price you pay for a few trail cameras will easily save you money in the long run of driving to your turkey grounds.
The earlier you can begin to scout, the better. Around the middle of March can be a good time to start scouting open fields that turkeys use as well as hanging trail cameras. Turkeys can be patterned just like a whitetail can and though during this time of the year turkeys are still hanging in their winter groups they do begin to establish a daily routine of sorts.
Make the most of your scouting efforts by placing trail cameras in areas you expect turkeys to be. In areas with lots of corn and bean fields, place cameras near game trails that lead to the field. Turkeys will generally take a path of least resistance to get to their destination. A few strategically placed cameras will help you learn what time the birds are entering and leaving the field as well as the exact spots they travel by.
On the flip side, for more wooded areas try placing a few cameras around potential roost sites, open areas that could be strut zones, food plots (if available) or natural funnels like draws or ridge tops.
Aside from the obvious advantages trail cameras offer they also allow you to keep human pressure off the birds. Human pressure occurs when turkeys are spooked by human behavior whether it is an accident or not. Obviously some areas, like public ground, lend themselves to this more and the birds can become somewhat immune to it. But if you have the ability to keep any sort of pressure off the birds before the season, then do so.
One of the big draws of hunting early in the season is getting a shot at birds that tend to be more receptive to the call.
The first season of the year usually features turkeys that are still in somewhat of a winter flock. Several hens can be seen with a few gobblers and even some jakes. The gobblers and jakes will chase each other around to figure out the pecking order while the hens still aren’t quite interested in breeding and seem content just watching the show. This is why gobblers tend to be more responsive to the seductive call of a willing hen during those first days of the season.
Aggressive calling can be deadly during this time of the year. Toms are eager to mate and sounding like a fired up hen is a great way to bring a longbeard running to your setup. But you must be careful; this tactic can also backfire just as easily as it can work. One of the best things to do in order to determine your calling approach is taking a birds temperature. Simply put, you want the bird to tell you how willing he is to come to your call.
One of the best things to do on opening morning is to listen to the birds as they wake up on their own. Do you hear hens yelping in response to a gobble? Or does the bird simply continue to gobble his lungs out with no response? Those first few minutes of the morning can tell you a lot about what the bird plans on doing that day.
It boils down to two main calling strategies that I use in order to put a bird on the ground. The first is for the bird that may gobble a few times on the roost but gets quiet when he hits the ground. This is generally more common during the middle of the season when the toms are henned up and simply have no reason to gobble – but I have experienced it plenty of times early too. I notice this happens more when the hens remain silent and continue to show almost no interest in the gobblers.
The best way to tackle this situation is to let out a series of soft tree yelps in the morning just before flydown. If the bird responds, great. If not, do a flydown cackle (a series of fast clucks) to let that bird know you have hit the ground. From there, call sparingly with a series of soft yelps, clucks and purrs every 10 minutes or so. This approach shows that you are not overly aggressive, yet still looking for some company. A bird that commits to this will tend to come in silently so be on your toes.
The second approach –my personal favorite – is to sound like you are queen of the woods. This method works wonders when you are dealing with multiple gobblers in the area or when you get one bird that answers anything you throw at him. However, it takes the right bird for it to work and gauging how fired up the bird is becomes necessity.
The theory is simple. Make that bird think you are the most irresistible thing out there. When you hear the first gobble of the morning answer him back with some soft tree yelps. When he gobbles again let out a few more yelps with increasing volume. If he continues to gobble more and more then things are looking great. Do a flydown cackle and listen for a gobble, generally that will force him to pitch off the roost knowing there is a willing hen nearby.
At this point I love to get them as fired up as they will go. Yelping and cutting sequences are what it takes. As he gobbles more and more just keep cutting and yelping to him. If you can cut him off while he gobbles that’s even better. Early in the season like this gobblers are more prone to come investigate the calling than hang up. If the bird eventually goes quite then be ready because most of the time it means he is coming.
Like calling, decoy strategies for early season gobblers can vary dramatically. Anything from an entire flock to a lone hen and anything in between can be the trick. While there is no rulebook for using decoys, there are some helpful hints as to how to use a decoy for this time of the year.
One of the deadliest strategies for gobblers this time of the year can be the use of a quarter-strut Jake or full-strut Tom decoys. This plays off the dominance hierarchy that is trying to be established. The Jake is my favorite because it shows far less dominance and is more likely to provoke a response from any given tom. Settings where there are few jakes around or very few toms fit the bill for using a Jake.
The strutter decoy on the other hand is better suited to situations where you know you are dealing with a dominant bird. When you have a “brother pack” of gobblers that are the same age and hang together then using a strutting tom should be the top choice as they are more likely to feel no fear of getting in a fight.
Adding a hen decoy into this equation only sweetens the deal for a longbeard. The sight of an intruding Jake or tom to his territory that is trying to court a hen drives them wild.
Nothing is a guarantee in the springwoods. A spring gobbler can be as moody as a teenage girl. The only way to up your chances at bagging a bird is being prepared for any situation you will encounter. As you take to the woods keep a few of these tips in mind and you may just have the upper hand on ‘Ol tom.