Most turkey hunters love the start of the season. Getting the first shot at birds when they should be highly callable is a doddle, and there are plenty of April Toms in the freezers to prove that’s the case. But there is also plenty of time left in many states where the possibility of filling out a label is real.
It will not be the same as those earlier birds. That turkey hunting, with nesting chickens, abundant food sources, and weeks of pressure, just changes the game. Understand how to compensate for this change and you’ll be on your way to killing longbeards while your competition is busy targeting walleyes or maybe playing a few rounds of golf.
Cruisers and Strutters
During the early season, males chase flocks of hens all day. In May, many of these ladies will feed for a few hours at first light and then wander off to lie down in their nest. This leaves Toms on the hunt for new girlfriends, which makes them vulnerable.
Some birds seem to want to cover ground, which could put them on their spread at any time. Others take a more traditional route and head to their favorite strutting grounds to see if they can flex hard enough to attract a hen or three. Hunters like outdoor writer Darron McDougal love these birds because they are highly visible and usually predictable.
“I want eyes on a strut,” McDougal said. “If he’s alone in the middle of the day strutting around, I mark exactly where I see him. The next day I’ll go back there with a blind setup on top of your spot if I’m bowhunting, or as close as possible to stay hidden if I’m shotgun hunting.”
End of season lures
When McDougal slips into a swagger zone, he’s already where the bird is likely to go, so he reduces his lure spread.
“At the end of the season, I often leave my decoy jake at home. Usually a couple of chicken decoys are enough for him to commit because he already hopes to attract chickens to that spot.”
This is an important lesson at the end of the season, so pay attention. While full strut dekes or quarter strut jakes are all the rage early in the season, the days of turkey-on-turkey violence are long gone. Now, they are silly, angry birds who will fight all year long, but the pecking orders were established long ago. Most May birds seem to be more lovers than fighters as the season winds down.
Like McDougal, I usually start the season with a jake decoy and four or five hens, but by mid-May I might be down to a decoy hen or two. It often seems that the choice of lure is important, but not as important as the way of calling. This really is the secret sauce for consistently killing late season toms.
Call like you mean it
When I was 15, I put my back on a tree at the edge of a plowed cornfield during Minnesota’s last season. The plan was to call softly and infrequently as it was almost summer and the birds were already experiencing five weeks of hunting pressure.
When a lone strut hit the edge of the far field, that’s exactly what I did. He could see my lures, hear my soft howls, and he didn’t care at all. He almost strutted out of sight before he had a turkey related panic attack and I gave him all I could with my simple button call. Even from 300 yards away, I saw him lift his head and then start running. By the time he crossed the neighbors fence and walked over to my decoys, I was battling a really bad case of turkey fever, which led me to shoot him square in the chest.
Not only did I turn a 10-inch beard into a 2-inch beard, I stunned him enough to put another one on. I learned many lessons that morning, but the most important was to sing like a bird that wants company. McDougal does this too, as he relies heavily on diaphragm calls to say what he needs to say.
“Late-season toms are really susceptible to calls, especially if you’re close to them. I do not follow the strategy of less is more, but I call loud and often. This works on private land, but it also works on birds on public land, probably because I sound different than most other hunters.”
You’re still in time to fill out your label. In fact, during a year in which spring has inched into a frigid spot in many states, the best is probably yet to come. Just remember to keep your eyes open for strutting, reduce your lure spread, and call like you mean it.
Featured image via Matt Hansen.