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It’s turkey season in Maine now, and for the next month or so it will seem like November to some folks, with heavy early-morning traffic, boisterous, camo-clad hunters in every diner and some strange noises echoing through the valleys at dawn and dusk.
None of this is life-threatening, of course, unless you are a tom turkey with a beard long enough to qualify. For all their energy and ambition, most hunters leave only footprints and the echoes of their turkey calls behind at the end of the day. But, they have a great time doing it!
Because turkey hunting must end at noon, most of the activity takes place in the hours before sunrise. This is because turkeys remain on their nighttime roosts until the sun comes up and then (normally, at least) leave their tree-top havens to begin the day’s activities, which pretty much include breeding and feeding, not necessarily in that order!
In textbook cases, the birds leave the roost just as soon as it’s light enough to see, the gobblers following the hens attentively in hopes that one or more females will be interested in breeding. The gobblers generally spend their day following hens or, if none are available, either looking for them or gobbling and strutting in places where passing hens may see them and take an interest.
Hunters use this knowledge to coax the gobblers into shotgun range by emulating the sounds of hens – lots of clucking, yelping, purring and even gobbling in an attempt to lure a tom turkey into range using lust, jealousy or rage – whatever works, as the saying goes.
In textbook (meaning rare!) cases, the hunter sets up within 100 yards or so of the roosted birds, waits for them to fly down, calls in the boss gobbler and heads for the truck with his trophy before the sun even clears the horizon. Sometimes it is just that easy – but only sometimes!
Things can go wrong right from the outset. The hunter could show up five minutes late, the turkeys could stay on the roost till noon, they could fly off in the opposite direction or well past the waiting hunter, or they could simply ignore the plaintive calling of the hunter and go about their day without once knowing how close they were to the oven.
The bad news for hunters is that once the birds initially get past him, the game turns to desperation – hoping to call a lone gobbler into range or setting up along a feeding lane or field edge to wait for the flock to wander past.
Books have been written about the many twists and turns involved in turkey hunting, with tips ranging from wearing the right clothes to using the right calls . . . it all works at one time or another. Some situations call for drastic measures while others require fast action and quick thinking, but it’s all in fun. Not everyone manages to tag a turkey each spring, but there’s no end to the fun in trying.
Oddly enough, one of the best ways to get a gobbler after the morning fly-down fails to produce is to sit tight and do . . . nothing! Yelp and cluck once or twice every 30 minutes or so, but don’t move any more than that. Be patient and stay alert because sometime later in the morning (around 10 a.m. if I have to call it) the gobbler who ignored you that morning is going to come back looking for that hen he’d heard before dawn, and (believe it or not) will come walking in (often without gobbling) to within mere feet of your position! It may seem remarkable that such a “stupid” bird could have such a memory, but it’s the truth. I have worked with some professional guides while making videos and many times we’ve just sat there, calling occasionally and making jokes under our face masks, only to have a big tom come walking in silently just a few yards away.
One time we set up a bunch of trail cameras near our lone hen decoy and just walked away.
When we came back the next day, the trail cams were loaded with photos of a gobbler that came in strutting just a few feet away at just a few minutes after 10 a.m. We set up the same way the next day, listened as the gobbler walked away with the hens at dawn, but stayed put and got him a few hours later when he came back to investigate.
If you don’t have the patience to sit still for three or four hours after a gobbler wanders away, go ahead and hunt elsewhere for a couple of hours, but plan to come back to the same spot later in the morning. Call a few times to get the gobbler to sound off, or utter a few gobbles of your own to generate some competition. Sometimes a tom will come in silently on his own, but if he’s challenged, or thinks there’s another gobbler nearby, he’ll crank up the music and come in on the run.
The real key to successful turkey hunting is patience. Time goes by very slowly after an opportunity is missed, and if you are hearing gobbles all over the hillside it can be a real test of your nerves. You can target different birds as circumstances dictate or if gobblers are plentiful, but in most cases it’s best to just sit tight, wait for your bird to come back and make the most of a sure thing.
It is great fun to run around in the woods calling to gobbling birds all morning, but it’s not always a productive way to hunt. I spent most of last May chasing “gobblers” that turned out to be jakes (first-year males with very short beards), sometimes two or three traveling together, and while it was enlightening and entertaining, I wasn’t about to shoot a young bird and so spent morning after morning doing little more than practicing on birds that were too young to shoot. Of course, this year those same birds will be two years old and plenty big enough to tag. Want to bet how many of them will make the same mistakes this season? We both know the answer to that one!
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