While some memorable longbeards have left me in awe of their ability to survive, it’s easy to give that old tom more credit for thinking better than his pea-sized brain deserves. In hindsight, most of my missed opportunities occurred because I misjudged the myopic approach that was driving their behavior in the breeding season. A turkey has only one thing on his mind in the spring, and his success at marking a tag involves thinking like the object of his affection.
Unfortunately, the entire spring season begins and ends with the chicken. If your goal is to rest your account on the bright red and white head of hers, you should lock yourself in those drab forest divas. Investing in a fundamental understanding of their language, hours and menu will increase your chances of tagging a eater who has already discovered them.
walk the talk
Book chapters have been written on the details of turkey vocalizations. Clucks, purrs and giggles have meaning and context, but many spring chasers attract a tom without full fluency in their love language. Singing success is more about mimicking the natural cues chickens provide than delivering that bearded guy with a sincere, grammatically flawless sonnet. A mediocre caller who can read the room will mark more birds than a sweet-talking turkey who talks professionally out of character.
If a particular hen is acting territorial or upset by your call, deal with her by channeling your inner Jolene. Most early-season devourers slip into gun range to simply check out the perceived catfight for their attention. The wild turkey’s social hierarchy is well established but is also constantly at risk of disruption. Early in the season, the presence of another, potentially more dominant hen that appears to be approaching the flock does not sit well with the leader. Mocking her complaints on a note-by-note basis, even if he’s not sure exactly what threats he’s throwing at her, he’ll persuade her and her tom to get closer to her to restore the pecking order.
Similarly, moderation and restraint are warranted when woods reflect that tone. While the burst of a late-morning booth call can lead to distant gobbling, real hens rarely communicate that way. Most of the natural song of turkeys is soft and infrequent, and by mid-season most chickens no longer light up the woods every morning. Fewer still have to beg for a longbeard’s attention. He will be expecting the same from you.
If the herd is noisy, get louder. Identify which sounds from the ladies bring out the gobbling of a tom and see if it can increase your libido. Keeping a gobbler away from his chickens presents a serious challenge, but I’ve had success seducing fiery toms by keeping his mojo flowing while the ladies with him lose interest. Last season, I convinced a chief tom to abandon his flock of 20 or so hens about an hour after the flight by keeping it on with heavy cuts on the mouth call. A thousand gobblers later, his girlfriends have turned their backs on him and he’s walking the shooting range looking for a Plan B. Even if he stays with his chickens, the commotion may attract another distant gobbler who wants to size up the party. .
Toms quickly learns where the ladies gather in the spring. You should too if you want to narrow down their patterns. Advanced degrees in wildlife ecology or botany are not required, but natural curiosity and recognition of your basic needs will serve you well. Their demands are no different from ours. Food, shelter, and companionship keep herds healthy and growing. Eastern hunters survey the hardwoods for last fall’s mast harvest, while most of us in Rio or Merriams take aim at the verdant hillsides, the new growth, and the protein-rich resources they provide. Exploring before and after each season is a worthwhile investment, as the needs of birds and Mother Nature’s offerings change considerably over the course of spring.
Toms love to roam open areas surrounded by thick protective belts in search of a hen that requires their services. The cover provides the hens with quality nesting habitat and a place to flee from your persistent harassment for some privacy in handling your brood. One of my most productive hunting spots involves a lush stream traced along a logging road. The adjacent hillside also offers a mix of open fields and stands of wood for shade and rest. From a chicken’s perspective, this place is the complete package.
The toms cut trails on the logging road each spring as they make the rounds with the herd. As the morning wears on, the ladies drift away to nest along the creek, allowing loneliness and testosterone-inspired behavior to supplant their risk-averse tendencies. Over the years, several generations of gobblers have fallen for the same subterfuge less than 100 meters from that spot.
Phrases like “chess match” and “cat and mouse” have been used to describe this annual battle in the woods, and often for good reason. Gaining the upper hand over an experienced spring longbeard relies on a chicken-centered strategy sprinkled with a bit of good luck. Even when the cards are stacked in their favor, experienced turkey hunters know that gobbler behavior remains routinely unpredictable and baffling. No other beast in the forest shares his ability to go off script during what probably started out as a perfectly choreographed dance between predator and prey.
Featured image via Matt Hansen.