In most areas of Maine the spring wild turkey season remains open through June 3, which gives hunters another week to put a couple of big gobblers in the freezer. Hunters are advised to check the current regulations for when and where it is legal to hunt turkeys at the tail end of the season. Only wildlife management units 7 through 29 are open to hunting during the final week. This includes all but northern Maine, but it’s still a good idea to check specific towns and townships where WMU boundaries exist.
I am not so much recommending that hunters utilize this final week of the season to fill their tags as I am encouraging anyone have to say that the most compelling reason I get up at 4 a.m. and head into the woods before sunrise is not just to hear the call of the wild turkey. Instead, I have been amazed, even astounded, this year at the variety of songbirds I’ve been hearing in that dusky hour just before the sun rises. It’s an incredible performance that occurs only during those few minutes of twilight and is not heard again till the same time next morning.
The show starts out slowly in the pre-dawn with a few plaintive chirps from white-throated sparrows and low-pitched, raspy growls from sleepy wrens. Soon the thrashers, robins, chickadees and many others join in, and then there’s literally a cacophony of calls, tweets and twitters from birds that are rarely heard at any other time of day.
The noise is so loud that I can pick it up on my old-school flip phone’s recording application. For about 30 minutes, sitting there in the dark backed up against a comfortable maple or oak, the sound of all those birds singing at once is deafening. Before the show ends and the sun rises there will be owls, crows, blue jays, cuckoos, ravens, ducks, geese and other birds large and small announcing the start of the new day. By sunrise all is quiet again. A few feathered callers remain active throughout the day but if you want to hear the complete orchestra you’ll have to get into the woods an hour before sunrise, sit still and listen. It really is quite a show – and it’s free!
Just before sunrise the hen turkeys begin their soft clucks and yelps and the toms respond with their lusty gobbles. At that point the smaller birds tone it down and it’s time to get busy. The game of turkey hunting is simple enough: lure the toms into shotgun range using a variety of calls that are more seductive than those of the real females. This is accomplished by using a wide spectrum of calls ranging from diaphragm mouth calls to box calls, push-pin calls, slate calls and other wood, slate and plastic devices designed to garner the attention of the biggest, most mature male turkeys in the flock.
The best efforts of even the most accomplished human callers are easily and often thwarted by the appearance of a live, real hen turkey, so the game becomes one of first come, first served. On an average morning a hunter may “work” two, three or four tom turkeys, sometimes for several hours, only to have a live hen show up and steal the longbeard away.
On the best of days the love-struck tom will fly down from its roost and come straight in to the hunter’s pleadings, but that is the exception rather than the rule, especially during this last week of the season. At this point most of the hens have been bred and are busy with their nesting chores, so fewer toms are likely to respond to a hunter’s calls and the last of the hens will be desperate to meet and greet a gobbler, making successful calling a real challenge.
Another aspect to consider is that as the season winds down the toms are less vociferous, even early in the morning. Many of them will fly down from the roost in come in silently, which makes it difficult for the hunter to assess the situation. The best strategy is to stay put and continue to call till at least 9 a.m. just in case a reluctant gobbler decides to sneak in for a look around without strutting, gobbling or responding in any of the normal ways. “Silent toms” are the bane of any turkey hunt but these are the birds the test the hunter’s patience and experience.
One must, at times, have faith in the natural process. Turkeys are flock birds; they constantly seek each other’s company and often gather in small groups or flocks with little more than soft chirps, clucks and yelps to announce their presence. The hunter’s best approach when the birds go silent is to sit quietly without moving except to utter a few low-key yelps or clucks every 20 minute or so. One needn’t sit there calling loudly and repeatedly for hours – real turkeys don’t do that and in fact are not attracted to such performances. Instead, they “speak” quietly to each other in barely audible tones. Humans may not be able to hear them but other turkeys definitely can. Intermittent soft calling is far more effective than loud, aggressive calling, particularly at the tail end of the season.
In the end each turkey presents its own challenges, so go with whatever works. I have killed turkeys that responded when I dropped my call on the ground (not exactly the textbook approach!) and I’ve also had to spend long hours yelping and clucking, even shock gobbling, to bring them in. Success may require that you move in on or even away from a stubborn gobbler, or you may have to get higher (or lower) to bring him in. There is no single, guaranteed method for fooling Maine’s spring turkeys but it is certain that you won’t get one if you aren’t in the woods with them. It’s worth getting up in the middle of the night just to hear the symphony of song birds at 5 a.m. – at least that’s what I keep telling myself!