A Celebration of Spring: Turkey Hunting

Seems like an odd time of year to be taking an oily rag to my old 12 gauge.  After all, the last time I picked it up was in December on a late-season pheasant hunt.  Autumn, for me, is the season of shot-gunning and chasing my Brittany round the grouse covers of Michigan or the corn stubble in states far away.  Fall is the season for hunting, for short, chilly days, fireplace nights, and grouse or pheasants in the crock pot. 

April and May are for laidback encounters on a trout stream or probing the shallow parts of our Great Lakes for walleye with a jig and minnow entre.       

Turkey season is a celebration of spring, of rekindling relationships with our favorite shotguns, and of course, matching wits with a giant bird that has made his living off of dodging predators of all kinds. 

There are two types of turkey hunts: the first is where the hunter sets up in an area where the birds show up at a regular time, day after day.  Not much intrigue in that.  The second hunt is spotting a tom by his lonesome, and calling him into range with a series of yelps, clucks and purrs that mimic a hen turkey that might be receptive to a little tete-a-tete.  Those scenarios are my favorite. 

Oh sure, I’ve had my share of the former.  They’re fun, but they lack the uncertainty that makes turkey hunting so enjoyable.  Not a lot of calling needed in those instances…just sit down and wait them out.    

On the other hand, catching a tom in the open – by himself and on the prowl for female attention – is a turkey hunter’s dream come true.  All that survival instinct wrapped up in twenty pounds of impeccable vision and hearing goes out the window during the spring breeding season. 

For the hunter, it’s a matter of getting fairly close without being spotted by the tom.  Sneaking through the woods in full camo is part of the allure in turkey hunting.  Watching your tom through binoculars adds to the suspense.  And when that first turkey call carries through the joyful, spring breeze towards the tom, his reaction could be the inspiration for Pepe Le Pew cartoons.  His head snaps to attention, as if he is trying to sift the sweet sounds of a hen from the orchestra of other bird songs.  Sometimes the tom gobbles, other times they don’t.  Almost every time they hear a hen the skin on their head turns gushing shades of red or blue. When their tails fan, and they drop their wings, I figure that they like the call.  If they drop their wings, fan their tails, and gobble, I think that I’ve got a really, really good chance that it’ll come all the way in to shotgun range. 

It’s one of the greatest sights in any sportsman’s calendar – when a tom forgets his wariness and marches to his death amongst the spring flowers and budding trees.  And oh, that walk – it’s more like a waltz, with those two giant breasts swaying back and forth – its beard tick-tocking with every step toward oblivion.  And when they slam on the brakes and survey the forest, I swear they can see right through my camouflage veneer.  Before the I squeeze the trigger and end this tremendous spectacle, it’s safe to say that a number of things came together. 

Scouting is as important to turkey hunting as having a fish finder on the boat.  The best way to turkey scout is from behind the windshield of the truck with a pair of binoculars.  Keep notes of where the birds are, what time, and where they’re going.  A lot of times they head in one direction during the morning, and the opposite direction in late afternoon.  Rest assured their roost isn’t far from where they start their day. 

Once the season begins, scouting forays pay huge dividends.  Before dawn, I can ease into woodlots, fencerows, edge of a hayfields and take advantage of the tom’s early season naiveté.   They’ll gobble repeatedly on the roost because – quite frankly – they can.  They’ve had months of relative quiet.   No hassles from people clad in orange clothing.  Their woods are clear of leaves and clutter – offering great visibility for spotting danger.  By the third week of April, a lot of the hens have been bred but that doesn’t mean that the toms in the flock have given up on the idea of courtship.  Hens won’t sit on their nests full-time until May, usually, and with them walking around the forest, toms still vie for their attention.

Every trip to the woods is its own little reconnaissance mission.  Cautiousness and woodsmanship are a premium.  Sneak in.  Sneak out.  Be stealthy and crafty.  Try not to scare the flock, unless of course there’s a tom in range and it’s the main course for dinner.  There’s nothing worse than seeing the birds run off the property you’ve worked so hard to gain access.    

When calling a wild tom turkey, less calling is better than too much.  Soft calls are better than loud.  A turkey’s hearing is exceptional.  Even in windy conditions, a tom can hone in on the sound of a hen as if it was a beacon on a foggy night.  If the hunter calls too often, or too loud, quite often a tom will “hang up” out of range.  This is especially the case if he can see long distances as the case early in the season when there’s hardly any leaves on the trees.  To counteract that asset, find some brush or a hilly area that will help disguise from where the turkey sound is originating.  The idea behind all the deception is to keep the tom guessing where the hen is located.  With that strategy in mind, sooner or later the tom wanders into shotgun range.

If ever there was an activity where the hunt is more fun than the kill, turkey hunting is it.  Even after an unproductive morning hunt, it is still fun to hear the birds gobble and watch the toms strut their stuff.

Really, when it boils down to it, turkey hunting is a celebration of spring.  The strategy, the guns, the birds themselves are just an excuse to get outside. 

One of the best parts about waking up before the April sun is listening to the robins sing their little hearts out in the nearby trees.  And I’m not talking about the tart little warning calls they make when danger lurks close to their nests.  No, I’m referring to robins on a friendly branch, cutting loose with that magnificent warble that sounds like the sun rising after a long Michigan winter.  It’s almost as if the angels themselves have donned rust-colored vests and mastered the sound of springtime in mid-Michigan.

For an hour or two in the morning, and another hour in the evening, the sound of robins promises that summer isn’t far away.  Maybe it’s just me, but they always sing the loudest, the sweetest, the most widespread, when the weather is damp, and I’m on my way to the turkey woods.

Chris Zimmerman has hunted turkeys since 1988.  He is an independent insurance agent and the author of six Michigan-based novels from Mt Pleasant, Michigan.

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