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Maine’s new A Season for wild turkeys opens today (for hunters born in odd-numbered years), and the odds are that those who know a thing or two about a box, slate or diaphragm call will have good luck this spring.
It’s amusing that, just a few weeks ago, anxious hunters were calling me to say that they had not seen any birds, there were no gobblers in evidence and they were worried that there would be nothing to hunt come opening day. As always, the birds make their own plans, and though they were absent without explanation last month, they have wandered back onto the scene like the woodland ghosts that they are.
One of my turkey-hunting friends called just a few days ago to tell me that he had a flock of birds roosted in his front yard. Four of the turkeys were hens but three others were big, mature gobblers that strutted and gobbled in his yard for an hour after sunrise. He said he could have shot the biggest bird of the bunch from his living room sofa!
Most hunters want a little more drama than that, but it’s safe to say that wherever the turkeys were earlier in spring, they are back in town for the annual hunt that begins today.
There are days when you can sit on the back porch and shoot your bird (we’d be glad to hear about it if you did!), but a “real” turkey hunt is often a bit more complicated than that. In fact, most hunters prefer to hunt the “tough” birds over the easy ones – after all, you can’t brag about your calling and shooting skills if you didn’t really use any in the first place!
The important thing to remember is that spring is the breeding season for wild turkeys, and the reason you’ll see gobblers “strutted up” at this time of year is because it’s part of their mating display. The males will also gobble frequently to attract hens, and this is where the hunter makes his move. The simple logic is: sound like a hen and the tom will come running!
Sounds easy, and in some cases that’s exactly what happens. The basic approach is to enter the woods well before daylight, before the birds leave their overnight roosts in (normally) large pine or hardwood trees. When the turkeys hit the ground they almost immediately commence their mating-breeding activities, and bred hens will spend the rest of the day poking around in the forest litter looking for food (primarily acorns, beech nuts, green shoots and insects).
The gobblers, of course, aren’t interested in eating – they’re constantly on the lookout for receptive hens. Enter the hunter, who attempts to tease the gobbler into range using standard hen calls including yelps, clucks and purrs. Some gobblers come running right in with little additional fanfare needed (but not very often!), while others take their time, move slowly and, most often “hang up” out of range as they gobble and strut to entice the oddly reluctant female (in this case the stationary hunter) into coming his way.
The catch, of course, is that the natural process involves the male establishing a strutting site where he puffs up, drags his wings, fans his tail and otherwise does all he can to look bigger and better to the approaching female, who normally selects her mate based on his level of dominance in the flock. All this turkey posturing goes on in relative silence except for the gobbler’s call, which may also include various noises including hissing, “spitting,” humming and drumming . . . all attempts by the male to wow the incoming female. The gobbler struts and drums in place and the female is supposed to come to him from afar. He knows this and she knows this, but some males are over-anxious or competitive and won’t wait for the hen to show. Or, they’ll run off looking for new receptive hens, taking the kind of chances that keep hunters’ freezers full of fresh turkey.
Gobblers have been known to fly off the roost directly into the sights of awaiting hunters. Others follow hen calls blindly into an ambush, while others creep in silently and try to lure the hen away from the dominant male. Most times the male will come in walking slowly, looking for danger at every step, but some gobblers will run in at full speed with reckless abandon. Last spring, for example, I came into a large field to see what was going on and spotted two big toms strutting in the far corner of the field. I immediately dropped to a sitting position on the ground in front of some thin bushes and brought my gun up. A friend who was with me actually dropped his box call on the ground, making a horrible squawking sound unlike anything you’d hear on a “Kill Your Turkey” video. What surprised us was that the birds came across the field to us on the run – no hesitation, no strutting, no formalities. They thought they had an interested hen coming in and wasted no time being coy about it. It was every tom turkey for himself but one shot from my trusty shotgun took the gleam out of one anxious gobbler’s eye!
There’s no telling what to expect when you hit the turkey woods this week. You may get lucky and nail your bird first thing in the morning, you or my have to hunt hard all season to fill your tag. I prefer to hunt hard all season and take a bird close to the last day. This gives me more time to hunt and more stories to tell back in camp. You definitely don’t want to be the first one to bag your bird on opening day – your buddies will soon get tired of hearing your story and they’ll soon overshadow your success with their own daily tales of woodland woe.
Hunt a few days, have some fun chasing turkeys and find out what all the excitement is about this week!
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