Wise Old Gobblers Can Be Like Trophy Bucks…
Michigan turkey hunters are blessed with some of the best gobbler action in the nation. Our population is on the upswing, in some counties hunters report seeing more turkey during November hunts than whitetail deer. Come spring when gobblers are actively chasing hens and are eager to respond to calls, it is not uncommon for hunters to pass on jakes and wait until a 10-inch plus trophy tom struts into shotgun range. But the key to success often hinges on how well you scout and get permission on turkey hot spots. My suggestion for easy hunting in spring is to begin scouting now.
“We have at least 100 wild turkeys. Most are drawn to the spread cow manure in my fields during the day and roost come dark along the creek. You’re welcome to hunt them.” The answer was direct and welcome from a dairy farmer in Isabella County with skin as wrinkled as a gobbler’s head.
The seasoned farmer pointed to the rolling hills and said,” That’s their roosting site and when the weather gets nasty they hole up in the valley that offers cover from the howling winds.” He outlined the daily routine of wintering gobblers, and a plan quickly came together for a spring hunt.
The April sun touched the horizon as I worked a slate with a few wake up calls mixed with purrs. A tom roared back with a loud gobble from the nearby tall trees and soon I heard the sound of wings flopping against branches and a solid thud when a big turkey hit the ground. I readied my 12 Ga. Benelli and soon could hear the rustle of leaves as a fired-up gobbler came struttin’ directly at my decoy. His body was black as coal, head bright red and his beard dragged in the leaves as he slipped into easy shotgun range.
With the roar of the shotgun my season came to an abrupt halt. Wow! I hunted about 15 minutes and my tag was filled. My luck was the direct result of a scouting program that makes turkey hunting a breeze. Try winter scouting and your chances for success will soar. Here’s why.
What To Look For
Wild turkeys divide into groups during winter: young poults and hens get together and another group is comprised of gobblers. Gobblers often subdivide into jake groups and adult mature toms with log beards. This is not a hard and fast rule because groups often join together at feeding locations or when severe weather forces a variety of birds to share habitat. During winter bird converge upon food sources and it is not uncommon for 50-100 birds to ban together.
Winter 2011 has been interesting, New Year’s Day was highlighted by melting snow, warm southern breezes and the warmest temperatures in over 50 years. During the thaw turkeys spread out, expanded their range and were overjoyed to fill their craw with grasses, corn, seeds and other food sources made available by the warm weather. Soon winter returned and freezing temperatures pushed birds back to traditional feeding patterns. But it looks like Michigan’s turkey population will make through winter in excellent condition and more longbeards will be available to hunters come spring than in recent history.
Once turkeys set up winter camp, particularly near farms, they rarely move. They usually gather in food rich areas and southern Michigan is a haven for wild turkeys because of the abundance of grain fields, thick woodlots and ideal habitat. If you locate their strongholds during winter and identify the surrounding habitat, you can expect to see gobblers at lightning fast speed come hunting season.
Begin your search with quality binoculars, a detailed map and patience. Good binocs are a must for any kind of scouting and I like to use 10×50 Nikon binocs that draw enough light for low light scouting and have enough magnification to see the exact beard length of gobblers at long distances. Some folks like to use a spotting scope which is best suited to stationary scouting and midday clear skies. For most scouting trips binocs are easy to carry, fast to bring to the eye and can be quickly focused to easily identify moving game.
Your goal is to locate lounging flocks in fields, identify big toms and gain hunting permission. A plat map is useful to identify property lines and locate land owners. Some hunters like to use topography maps to locate ridges, swamps, ravines, rivers and help identify where gobblers may retreat after ice melt. Most turkeys do not venture far from winter haunts, any nearby turkey habitat should be first to visit if no big boys show at the winter address.
Winter is the best time to contact landowners. Don’t wait until opening day. Winter months are not as work intensive as spring when farmers are busy planting or preparing fields for crops and do not wish to be bothered. Also, when farmers see a wintering flock on their land they are much more likely to give permission when inundated with wild birds. After spring break up when birds disperse, they may not welcome a scattergun toting stranger.
Just because you have one hot spot and hunting permission, do not stop scouting. Things can happen that ruin hunts like coyote visiting the area, other hunters leasing the land, family members decide to suddenly hunt or birds are over-hunted and vacate the region. Sometimes the farmer is in the field with equipment and birds are on edge. The trick is to have an easy hunt, one that is undisturbed where birds are eager to respond to calls. This is best accomplished by having several backup hunting locations.
My deadliest spring turkey tactic is to scout hunting spots the day before the hunt and find the hottest birds. Once I set up and hunt a particular farm, I make every effort to not spook wary old birds and I move to another location to give birds a rest. If it is raining, windy or cold I road hunt my hot spots, locate gobblers with extra-long beards and stalk them. Some hunts are short and sweet, others require a lot of work and trips to several farms before my tag is filled. It always pays big dividends to have several options when hunting wary gobblers.
Wise old gobblers can be like trophy bucks and often they hang tight to a particular piece of real estate. It is uncanny how often the extra-long bearded gobblers have a small safe haven that is not hunted here they like to hang out. Birds frequently gather in small locations every year and it can be difficult to coax them away from their safe haven. One trick is to get hunting permission on the location. But if landowners are protecting the birds try to get permission on adjoining property.
Scout frequently and you will catch trophy toms wandering in search of hens far from their safety zone. Just like mega-bucks when the female of the species waves her tail in front of an all American male, the chase is on. Spring storms can also send turkeys scrambling across the countryside. Thunderstorms highlighted by frequent bolts of lightning can scatter birds and morning hunts after a storm can bring new players to the table.
One of my deadliest tactics for monster gobblers hinges on scouting. First, I find toms with long beards over 10-inches. Then I zero in on their habitat and identify travel routes and nail down a particular gobbler’s core area. The trick is to learn the habits of a particular trophy bird and eventually intercept the brute on his home turf. Just like big bucks, if the prey discovers they are hunted they often melt into the Michigan countryside and disappear.
The strategy relies on scouting and ambush tactics. Most hunters make the mistake of over-calling birds because they are eager to take a trophy. Sometimes calling only announces your presence to wary toms and they will slip away, going the opposite direction. Remember that an adult gobbler has heard every turkey sound in the woods. Most can quickly identify the difference between wild birds calling and humans making sounds on plastic, wood or slate. Enticing a wise old gobbler into shotgun range requires precise calling strategies with no room for error.
Some big gobblers cannot be called. That’s when I rely on stalk hunting tactics and slip within sniping distance of call-shy monster toms. Stalking is also an ideal hunting technique when conditions make it difficult to call. High wind, rain, fog and thunder are allies of the savvy stalker who uses the weather to camouflage his stealthy approach.
After watching birds and acquiring hunting permission, it is time to put your strategy to work. Opening day is a fantastic time to test your winter intelligence. After you have some gobblers patterned, return to the same area in spring with shotgun in hand.
Michigan turkeys tend to break up from huge winter flocks when March brings rain, warm weather and melts snow. Some birds move over 5 miles while some tend to stay close to their winter turf. Often wise old gobblers tend to stake out the winter zone and patrol the area on a regular basis. Still other gobblers vacate winter spots and take up residency in a new location, only to return to winter spots in search of receptive hens. Anyway the square ball skids, finding a hot spot and setting up where turkeys have congregated all winter is a deadly strategy.
I assisted a friend of mine on an early hunt and a scouting tour confirmed four big gobblers were still residing at a winter home. On opener we slipped through the early morning darkness within calling distance of a roost site along the Chippewa River and at sunrise several birds sailed from the trees directly toward us.
We were giggling about all the exciting action as a large flock formed close by and my friend had trouble sorting out a target with birds running helter-skelter in the predawn light. Suddenly we both spotted the same huge tom walking our direction. The bird was 100 yards away and I gave him some yelps and he put it in high gear and trotted our way.
The gobbler stopped to fan for a pair of hens. Five minutes later he resumed his trot into the clearing next to our set up. I heard my friend’s safety click and the loud roar from his shotgun confirmed that scouting turkeys during winter and finding their hideouts can lead to impressive results and heart pounding hunting action come spring.
What about you….are you on some birds?