A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: Spring wild turkey season tips and strategies for a successful hunt

Kentucky’s 23-day spring wild turkey general season opens tomorrow and continues through Sunday, May 5.

At our farm, the afternoon before the opening morning is filled with ritual — listening for gobbling at dusk, as birds fly up to roost, a celebratory meal, and then getting gear organized.

Turkey hunters have a lot of gear to keep track of, so make sure everything you need is in one place.

This includes camouflage clothes, hat, gloves, face mask, vest, boots, calls, decoys, cushion (to keep your behinds dry) and handkerchief (for sneeze suppression).

Once I get all the gear together that is needed for the hunt, I put it in a large plastic storage tote. Everything is in one place, and a tote makes it fast and worry-free to transport of gear if I’m driving off the farm to hunt. Just put the tote in the truck and go.

Older Gobblers Make for Challenging Hunting

Harvesting an older gobbler, one of nature’s wariest creatures, is quite an accomplishment. (Photo by National Wild Turkey Federation.)

It’s going to be a challenging season.

Poor reproduction in 2017 means there will be fewer 2-year-old gobblers this spring, and they do the most gobbling, and are easier to call into gun range.

“The 1.3 poult per hen ratio in 2017 was the lowest on record, and 41 percent below the 10-year average (2009-2017),” said Zak Danks, wild turkey program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Widlife Resources.

The optimal statewide poult per hen ratio is about 2.0.

What’s encouraging is the poult per hen average rebounded substantially in 2018, up 54 percent.

Last weekend, youth hunters bagged 1,530 turkeys — 1,241 adults and 274 juvenile gobblers (jakes) — which calculates out to 22 percent jakes in the harvest.

That’s a vast improvement over the 12.2 percent jakes in the total spring harvest last spring.

The increase in the percentage of jakes in the harvest bodes well for an increased number of 2-year-old gobblers next spring.

Older Gobbler Tactics

They are educated, wary and sport the bling that hunters covet — thick, paintbrush beards and curved, limb hanger spurs.

Older, adult gobblers ascend to that position in the flock by surviving two, maybe three spring hunting seasons.

They’re not the eager 2-year gobblers that come to call as if they were on a string.

Older gobblers often hesitate and take their time to investigate calling. They have an infuriating habit of hanging up out of gun range, may move off in the opposite direction as soon as the calling starts, or the most insulting of all behaviors – they simply shut up and seem to disappear into thin air.

Older gobblers are educated, wary and sport the bling that hunters covet — thick, paintbrush beards and curved, limb hanger spurs. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

They are likely to have had several run-ins with hunters before. They may have been in a group of birds that were called to a hunter’s gun. They may have investigated “hen” calls and been spooked by a hunter. Or they may have even been shot at before. Whatever the reason, older gobblers are very wary.

They are usually with hens, and that further complicates the hunt. Where the hen goes, the gobbler is not far behind. Hunters refer to this behavior as being “henned up.”

If you are able to find an older bird by himself, and you get him fired up, it may be just a matter of time before the hens show up and take him away. When a mature tom on the ground starts gobbling it’s like a race against time. Can this gobbler be called into gun range before the game is over?

That’s why hunters need to reach into their bags of tricks for different strategies when pursuing older turkeys. Be prepared to move a lot, change calling positions and try to sound like several different turkeys.

• Older birds do the unexpected as if they have a power of perception seemingly independent of the senses. They may do the opposite of what the hunter expects or has observed during scouting. As the season progresses you may be able to discern a daily pattern that can ultimately put you in gun range of the dominant gobbler.

• It’s risky, especially before the leaves are out, but if you know where the gobbler flies up to roost in the evening, and where his hens are, you may be able to move in close.

Under the cover of darkness the next morning, try to get between the gobbler and his hens. When he flies down of his roost, he won’t have to move far to be in gun range.

• Investigating the calls of that “new” hen takes gobblers out of their comfort zone, the area where they feel safe and secure. Find out where your gobbler spends the most time. It may be up in the day, but sometimes you have to go to where you think the gobbler wants to be, and wait for him to show up.

Gobblers in what’s commonly called a “strut zone,” may walk back and forth on a ridgetop, or strut and spin in circles in the middle of a big, open field. They are holding their ground and slow to respond.

• Buddy hunting is a tried and true method of getting an older turkey into gun range.

Position one hunter out in front of the caller, as far as 25 to 35 yards, depending on the terrain. Even if the gobbler hangs up, the hunter out front is likely to get a shot.

• When calling older gobblers, too much and too loud, is often a recipe for failure.

Try soft clucks and purrs, calls that reassure older birds. Friction calls are easy to master, sound realistic, and are the best choice for this type of subtle, quiet calling.

Don’t call too much after you have the gobbler’s attention. The gobbler’s first reaction is to strut and hold his ground. In nature, hens go to the gobbler. Test his patience, make him come to you.

If a hot gobbler (one that is gobbling continuously) suddenly shuts up, get your gun up and be ready to shoot. Older birds often come in silently, and fast, if they decide to commit.

Buddy hunting is a tried and true way of method hunting older turkey. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

• Be prepared to change your calling position to gain the advantage of terrain.

Try to set up at a higher elevation, or on the same contour, as a gobbling turkey. It’s much harder to call a turkey downhill, and a whole lot easier to avoid detection, when the hunter has an advantage in elevation.

Don’t try to call a gobbler through thick cover. Older gobblers, especially, avoid thickets and prefer open, mature woodlands. Anticipate the most likely approach a gobbler will take when coming to your calling, and set up accordingly. Gobblers typically circle around thick brush.

• One trick that works on gobblers that seem uninterested, or hang up, is to aggressively yelp or cutt on a call, as you walk away.

This imitates a hen that is actively searching for company and leaving the area. Often times this will trigger a gobble from even the most closed-mouth bird. This tactic is especially effective when buddy hunting. The shooter stays put as the caller walks away.

• Act like a turkey. Scratch in the leaves, to imitate a feeding turkey, but only if your movement will be hidden from an approaching gobbler.

It’s hard to resist the temptation, but sometimes it’s best to not call at all, after you’ve got the gobbler’s attention.

Don’t move. If you have to swing your gun barrel, do so only when the gobbler’s head is behind a tree trunk. Turkeys can pick up the slightest movement and will spook.

Harvesting an older gobbler is quite an accomplishment. You’re matching wits with one of nature’s wariest creatures, worthy of the utmost respect and admiration.

Stay Hydrated, Bug-Free

Turkey hunters are on the move, doing lots of walking up and down hills while wearing cotton pants or overalls, long sleeve shirts, vests and hats in warm weather. It’s sweaty hunting and easy to get dehydrated. Drink as much water as you can before heading out and keep a full water bottle in your turkey vest.

As the season progresses, ticks become a problem.

Sitting on the ground and crawling around in the woods when getting in position on a gobbling tom, puts hunters at risk for encountering creepy crawlies. Ticks are no laughing matter. Their bites can transmit serious diseases.

One of the best insect repellents is Permethrin, marketed by the Sawyer Products, Inc., of Safety Harbor, Florida.

For use on clothing only, and not to be sprayed on the skin, Permethrin repels and kills ticks, mosquitoes, and chiggers on contact. The active ingredient in Permethrin is a synthetic molecule similar to pyrethrum which is taken from the chrysanthemum flower.

Permethrin is sprayed on clothes hanging outside and allowed to air dry. Permethrin is odorless after drying and will not stain or damage clothing. A single application will last the entire season. For more information visit their website at sawyer.com

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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