Turkey Biology and Hunting Tactics
During the last 30-plus years, I have hunted in four states and have harvested one or two turkeys each year (I struck out one year). Having spent my professional career as a biologist, I’ve always combined my hunting experience with biology. Most of my hunts have been for the Rio Grande subspecies in river bottom habitat, but I also have hunted the Merriam’s subspecies in three states.
There are key turkey biological periods during a typical spring hunting season, and hunting tactics need to match these specific periods. Learning to recognize these distinct periods can be the secret to harvesting the long beards in any area.
Toms are fighting intensely and many mature toms have not yet locked onto specific hens. There is much gobbling and the toms are very responsive to aggressive calling all day long. Unfortunately, most or all of this phase occurs before the hunting season begins. But, occasionally with a late, cold spring you can get in on a few days of this. If you are lucky enough to hit it, you do not need any advice — everything works.
Dominant Toms Attached to Hens
This is the period where dominant toms have attached to the hens that will be nesting, but egg laying has not commenced. There is still a lot of gobbling and extra toms hanging around the dominant tom/ hen groups. The key is that the dominant toms generally stay with the hens all day. I have seen toms leave the hens for a brief time during the heat of the day when the hens are loafing in the shade, but this does not happen often. The big clue to this stage is when you see mature toms with hens in very late morning and mid-day and there is a lot of gobbling activity.
This is an exciting time since there is major gobbling at dawn on the roosts and toms will aggressively answer your calls once on the ground. Ultimately, however, most dominant toms will stay with their hens. The best option for luring in one of them is with a mature tom/hen decoy setup. If you hunt on public lands, you must use extreme caution in the transport and the placement of the decoy. Any decoy can create a potential danger for you from other hunters, but a tom decoy is of particular concern. Be sure you have a solid backstop behind you that is broader than you and be alert for other hunters.
Do not be bashful with your calling. In fact, try using more than one call. This may or may not work, but it is your best strategy. Sometimes you also get lucky and call the hens to you with the toms bringing up the rear of the procession. Additionally, you sometimes can call toms that are not associated with hen groups. However, some of these unattached toms may have already been whipped by more dominant toms and will shy away from a tom decoy.
Another tactic is simply to try to intercept their movements by determining their daily patterns. I call this the “old ambush approach,” and I know some hunters who are very good at it. However, early in my turkey chasing career, I had an experience that caused me to usually abandon this strategy.
Namely, I drove five hours to hunt in northwest Nebraska. This was a heavily hunted area and after three days I headed home empty-handed. Not one to give up easily, I returned the following weekend for another three-day stint. None of my calls and waiting had worked for me, but on the last afternoon, I spotted a group of four jakes. Even they ignored my calls. So I figured out where they were heading and was able to harvest the lead bird. Much to my surprise, when I dressed the jake, I realized that it could not weigh more than about five pounds. I deduced that it must have been afflicted with some disease, since even a late, late hatchling would not be this small. So, I concluded that the turkey gods were sending me a message. Do not try to ambush them, and think twice even about harvesting a jake. I admit that I have not been able to honor the last part of this throughout the years, since sometimes any tom is a good tom to harvest — especially on the last day.
A word of caution if you do choose the ambush approach. It is very tempting to get close to a known traditional roost when nothing else is working. Traditional roosts are ones that are used frequently year round and/or for many years. Merriam’s are particularly prone to using these traditional/historical roosts, but Rio Grandes also have them in some situations. These are in contrast to roosts where a lone tom or hen or a small group merely flies up into suitable trees for the night. However, if you end up spooking turkeys very near their traditional roost, especially late in the day, it can totally change their daily pattern in an area. This can really upset your future hunting or that of your partner, since you lose much of whatever predictability was present. Additionally, I view these traditional roosts as almost sacred ground in that they represent a key element of turkey biology and survival over a long period of time. They are not randomly selected. Therefore, I try to leave these traditional roosts undisturbed and it has served both the turkeys and me well through the years.
This is where during about a two week period, the hens will lay, on average, one egg per day (they miss some days). This phase actually has two periods. In the first period, which is generally at least a week or more, a dominant tom will come off the roost with his hens. There usually will still be a reasonable amount of gobbling. They do some displaying and soon move to a feeding area. If water is available they will then go for a drink when finished feeding. About mid-morning the hens then leave the toms to go lay their eggs. Before the hens leave the toms, it is very difficult to call the toms away from them.
How many times have we rolled out of bed at 3:30 a.m. and been in the woods in the pitch dark? Then, we go into full alert as toms begin gobbling from the roosts. We answer with some tree yelps, but when the turkeys hit the ground, we watch them move off in another direction. Many seasoned hunters know that it is just as good to stay in bed during this early morning period and start hunting about 9 a.m. However, even though I agree with these hunters on paper, I cannot bring myself to miss that magic time of the morning when darkness gives rise to that faint hint of pink light and the woods begin to come alive, including the sudden gobbles that shock the stillness and cause a flush of warmth to course through my system.
As the tom/hen groups begin moving around, if you call to them when you can see them, you can be assured that the toms know, and will remember, your exact location. When the hens leave them, the mature toms will come back to check the location where they heard the hen (you) calling. This will generally happen between mid-morning and mid-afternoon. To illustrate, one time I was trying to call a huge tom for a friend. The tom passed by out of range with his hen group and “ignored” my calling. I decided to move to another location, but nothing happened there. So, I decided to take my own advice and return to where I knew the big tom had heard me earlier. Seemingly waiting for me was the big tom, standing on top of the substantial blind we had built — with no way to approach him.
This early part of the egg-laying phase is the ideal time to harvest mature toms and most will be taken from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. To me, this is turkey hunting heaven. It is the time I strive to hit every year. So, STAY IN THE WOODS ALL DAY. In fact, stay where you know a big tom heard you in the earlier part of the day. Periodically, give a few yelps or clucks. I do so about every 10 minutes. If nothing happens by 4 or 5 in the afternoon, you can then move.
I must issue a warning at this point. It takes patience to stay in the woods and alert all day. If you lose the edge and start moving and fidgeting, that will be the time a tom appears. It is some type of turkey rule. You will catch his movement as he is running away. So, it is critical that you have a comfortable station to sit for a prolonged period. A good backrest is essential. I cannot count the times that I sat down in a spot early and talked myself into the ‘this is not great, but ok,’ only to regret the decision later in the morning.
I feel obliged to share one other secret about all-day hunts. Going from 3:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. for several days causes a strong desire for a nap in early afternoon. The good news is you are not moving during this hunting lapse. However, I have been told by several hunting partners, who would be eager witnesses if needed, that I snore very loudly. But, I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been jolted from my nap by a sudden series of loud gobbling– usually very near. In fact, I am convinced that snoring is just as good, if not better during midday, than any other locator call on the market. The challenge is to figure out how to go from a deep sleep to wide awake with gobbling on top of you without making a sudden movement. I will let you know if I figure that one out.
As egg-laying progresses, there is a second period. This is a point where all the dominance issues among the gobblers have been resolved and the tom/hen associations are firm. Thus, there is very little gobbling. However, the same pattern exists where the toms are left alone and available during the day. They will respond to your calls, but will sneak in quietly. So, this requires you to be patient with minimal movement in your calling location. I like to only give a couple clucks about every 15 minutes. Frankly, this is tough hunting and many hunters do not have the patience for it, but I have taken some huge toms in these situations.
Hens on Nests
Once the hens begin incubating their eggs, things can stay really quiet in terms of gobbling. However, some hens start losing their nests to predators and are available for renesting. Therefore, gobbling starts to increase again as lone toms wander around looking for these hens. It is a good time to move around — calling periodically in search of a responsive tom. However, you sometimes encounter a single tom, or a small group of toms, that totally ignore your calls. I suspect these are toms that have been whipped too many times and have given up for the remainder of the mating season.
When out in the field with turkey tag in hand, think in terms of these basic biological periods and the tactics that go with them. Additionally, you need to remain flexible since for every rule there is an exception. If you do this, it should increase your odds of harvesting a long beard. Good luck and have fun!
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Walt Graul is a former biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. This article is copyrighted by the author. This article previously appeared in the print version of Colorado Outdoors magazine.