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Should you think that the outdoor sports, turkey hunting in particular, are a young man’s sport, consider that my Belfast friend Matt Curry, closing in on 80, still has “the fever,” and can’t wait to get out there again this year.
Though he has noticed a bit of a slowdown in his gait, Matt still hits the woods regularly for deer and bear in fall, rabbits all winter and smelts come spring as well as cast-off antlers and turkeys once the snow goes away.
Matt’s an inspiration to all he knows, but just a few days ago I received a letter from Bob Hedberg, who owns a camp up this way, and he plans on getting out a little this spring “even though it’s not easy to do at age 93!”
I bring all this up now because Maine’s spring turkey season is just a few days away (opening day is May 1 for youths, May 3 through June 5 for most other hunters). Running around in the pre-dawn in hopes of bagging a turkey may seem like a lot of work to some, but consider that Matt, Bob and many other hunters far beyond retirement age will be out there as well. If they can drag their tired old bones out of bed at 4 a.m., I’m thinking we can too!
Turkey hunting must cease at noon, so that gives us about 8 hours to find, call and shoot a gobbler – and in many cases it will take every minute you have available to fill your tag. I have been on many hunts that started out with a bang but then quickly fizzled as the birds wandered off for the morning, but on the days that I stuck with it and kept calling until noon, things would suddenly take a turn for the better.
On one occasion I roosted a bird the evening before (using crow calls and owl hoots to locate a gobbler that was already on the roost for the night). I was back to within 100 yards of him before daylight the next morning, and the setup seemed perfect. I was above him, I had three decoys out, he was gobbling like a lunatic at every yelp I made, and as far as I could tell there were no hens about. There was no way this bird could escape . . . or so I thought.
I actually saw the gobbler fly off his roost and start heading for me, and I got set up to take the shot thinking I’d be at the local diner before 6 a.m. with my bird in hand. If only!
I could see my bird coming slowly up the hill through the hardwoods, his white head glowing in the bright sunlight. I had a bead on him and was just waiting for him to close the distance. Ten more yards would do it.
Any turkey hunter with two days of experience can guess what happened next. Out of the blue and completely unexpected, a group of hens came over the hill from behind me, sashayed down to the gobbler and lured him away like a kid following a Good Humor truck! One of the hens passed to my right no more than three steps away, but by the time the gobbler joined them they were 50 yards out and gaining ground with every step.
I could not believe it! Once again, live hens came in and spoiled a cut-and-dried hunt. Of course, this has happened to me many times over the last 39 years (I shot my first turkey in North Carolina back in 1971). I have seen hunters pick up in disgust and go home, others just sat there laughing and others decided to try the “run-and-gun” approach – usually to no avail.
Truth be told, over the years I’ve found that the best strategy to use when live hens come in to spoil the show is . . . nothing! I have better luck and more success if I just stay put, call every 30 minutes or so and just hold my ground till closing time.
The rationale behind this is simple enough. Dumb as some hunters claim turkeys are, they do seem to have pretty sharp memories. I have lost gobblers at daylight, and even though they did not make another sound for five hours as they courted their live hens, sometime later in the morning the bird would wander right back to my location, coming in to within 20 yards of me even though we hadn’t communicated in all that time!
I’ve experienced this in every state I’ve hunted turkeys in the West, South and East, and the tactic works if you have the patience for it. In fact, I plan on such hunts at least once per season, which is why I pack extra water, a couple of granola bars and sometimes even a paperback to keep me occupied while I wait.
The short story is that the gobbler will spend the morning breeding the interloping hens, but sometime around 10 a.m. or so he’ll finish with them and then come back looking for that hot hen he ignored back when the sun was just coming up.
For this reason, I’ll get serious about things around mid-morning. By “serious,” I mean I’ll give off a few soft clucks or yelps every half hour or so just to let the old boy know that pre-dawn hen is still in the neighborhood.
It’s best not to overdo the calling at this time. Just a few quick yelps will do it. If nothing happens by 11:30 a.m., I will go as far as offering a couple of challenging gobbles just to make the longbeard think he’s got some competition. If he hears that, he’s likely to come running in looking for a fight. That’s his hen and he’s not going to let some slick interloper move in on his territory.
No matter what happens, make it a point to stay put till high noon. I’ve had birds come in gobbling, some clucking softly, some silently, but they do come in. Stay put, be ready and watch for silent incomers. Just remember that last-minute birds are just as satisfying as sunrise gobblers – and they taste just as good!
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