Michigan is blessed with some of the best trophy wild turkey hunting in the Midwest. Scoring on a 10-inch bearded tom is rather simple, provided you follow a few simple hunting rules and spend your time in the field during the warm weather days of May. Here’s why.
Straight up I’ll tell you that I love chasing gobblers. Not just average birds or eager jakes. I like to hunt the big birds, monster toms with beards that drag on the ground and spurs that are long and sharp as king salmon teeth. I love the sound of a raspy voiced boss gobbler at sunrise and the sight of a 25-pound plus black feathered huge bird gets my heart pounding. There is something powerfully addictive about passing on shooting lesser toms and holding out until a monster gobbler is in range.
Just the sight of that long beard waving side-to-side as the gobbler runs to your call is worth the wait. My goal each spring is to locate a monster gobbler, fine tune my hunt to specific locations that hold large multi-bearded birds or extra-long single beards well over 10-inches long. This brand of hunting requires patients, skill and endless willingness to let those 8-9-inch big toms walk.
Back in the day when I first learned how to hunt turkeys I rushed to get the early hunt. But I ate plenty of disappointment pie and ended up not filling tags because of cold weather, rain, wind or lack of cover to conceal me from wary adult birds. However, I’d have plenty of encounters during May when hunting with telephoto camera. That’s when I made the switch to May hunting. This hunt is almost a month long and you can have plenty of action on weekends. May is a warm month and the weather is always much more pleasant than April. May is when the foliage develops and the green leaves, tall grass and fast growing plants provide needed cover to hide from wary gobblers. This is also a time period when the days are very long, sunset is before 6 a.m. and sunset is around 9 p.m. You can hunt early morning, fish during the day or do yard work or plant garden and still have plenty of time to hunt in the afternoon.
Rookie turkey hunters think turkey breeding lasts for a short period. Not true. The actual breeding period lasts the entire month of May and into June if rain washes out nests and birds start new broods. The great thing about the May breeding period is if birds are not active in your local spot you can move to another or find a new location where birds are out dancing and prancing.
Love sick gobblers often vacate thick cover in May and move to open agricultural fields during broad daylight. Some days they fly down on fields, others move into the open when the sun gets high, but usually mornings and afternoon hunts are the most productive. May is a time when big old mature birds move into open areas and display for receptive hens. Often the same bird will have a strutting zone and if you scout, find the hotspot and setup in the exact area, you are guaranteed fast-paced hunting action.
If your goal is to tag a huge gobbler sporting a long beard then the first step to success is to scout turkeys and find an adult bird. This task is simple especially if you concentrate efforts in southern Michigan where turkey populations are booming because of mild winter weather, availability of food, ideal habitat and fewer predators. Draw a line from Bay City to Ludington and you can bet south of the line that chances of finding good numbers of gobblers is very high. Sure, there are some birds in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, but nothing like the number and size birds found in the DNR designated area ZZ.
If I had to choose one season it would be May, not April and my choice is hunt #234 the Guaranteed Hunt Period, season dates are from May 7-May 31, 2012. Hunt 234 is a statewide hunting license valid for all open areas, except public lands in Unit ZZ (southern Lower Peninsula). This license is valid to hunt Fort Custer military lands with permission. Michigan residents can purchase a license for hunt #234 from Jan. 1-May 1 for $15…there is still time to buy a license now!
Scouting can be done by driving country roads with binoculars and knocking on doors for permission. Unlike deer hunting, most land owners will grant hunting permission for those seeking turkeys. Long walks and stealthy stalks can put you on birds that can be patterned for future hunts.
The trick is to not spook birds and set up in hot spots without being detected. Scoring on a trophy gobbler is not a simple task and you can count on making several hunting trips before the opportunity arrives. Sometimes a gobbler will waddle into range at lightning speed, other times it takes countless hours on the ground just to get a glimpse of your target bird.
Savvy trophy gobbler hunters are experts at finding huge gobblers. They only get on the ground when they are certain a big dog is in the area. They are crafty about how they approach each hunting location, making certain to not spook birds. They enter, execute and exit locations without disturbing wildlife. Keep in mind that if an adult bird knows you are hunting he will pack his bags and switch locations and it might take him a week or longer to return. Hunting trophy gobblers is a lot like chasing trophy whitetails. Hunters need to be woods wise, crafty and always give wildlife the ultimate respect.
I recall a May hunt in Jackson County when a 13-inch gobbler wiggled within eyesight of my decoys. I located the monster on a dairy farm. Got permission and entered his struttin’ zone before daylight. Come dawn birds were gobbling in three directions and within twenty minutes I had a pair of 9-inch bearded toms surrounding my hen decoy. I passed a shot and come noon a group of jakes attacked the same hen decoy, I passed again. I was prepared to sit tight all day but after several hours on the ground my hips got sore. So I closed my eyes and took a brief nap in the cool green grass. Perhaps the most appealing virtue of May hunting is taking a nap in the outdoors with wild birds serenading you to sleep. The tall green grass swayed to a balmy spring breeze as I lay in mid-day sun and dreamed about long beards. That’s when I decided to check my decoys and spotted the monster gobbler. He was 50 yards to my right, standing tip toed, eyeballing the decoys. My heart jumped a beat at the sight of his paintbrush-shaped massive beard.
I readied my crossbow for a shot. But the big bird turned, gave me his back and slowly wiggled through the tall grass going straight away. My heart sunk at the sight of the huge bird slithering the opposite direction with colossal beard swaying from side to side. I tried calling, he stopped and looked back, then lowered his head and scampered out of sight as if to say ” Hey nimrod, I know your call is fake, so are your decoys and I’m out of here pronto!”. Late evening brought more gobblers but not the big boy and when the sun set I headed for the truck tired, sore and depressed about the encounter with the wary gobbler.
Next morning I was set up in the same zone but closer to where I saw Mr. Big. That day I did not see him, period. So I let the area rest and came back at sunset a week later and found the big brute in the middle of the pasture at full fan with a hot hen. I parked, ran across the rolling hills until I was within 100 yards of the pair. A couple calls brought an immediate response gobble from the big bird but he immediately turned and slithered in the opposite direction.
WOW!! Is he call shy! I told myself. That’s when it dawned on me that when I was set up he came close only when I was not calling. The next morning I set up a lone submissive hen decoy on the edge of the pasture. At first light I gave plenty of wake up calls, mixed with some loud yelps and followed by submissive purrs that sounded like a hen breeding. Gobblers were sounding off to every call I made but I went silent, tucked into a tall grass fence line and waited.
The first turkeys to appear were hens followed by fast-moving jakes. I sat motionless as a pair of bigger gobblers approached but neither met my hunting criteria. That’s when I noticed the big bird to my right standing in tall green grass with head high. The bird was motionless for several minutes and eventually he slowly slinked into the open. I could see his beard was exceptional, thick, dark black, long enough to drag on the ground. When he slipped into range I waited until he lowered his head, turned his back and brought the crossbow to my knee.
He must have caught some movement as I flicked the safety off and the huge bird stood erect, head up watching me as I slammed the Spitfire Gobbler Getter into his back. Knocked him flat and as I approached the big bird I noticed the beard was a bit over 11-inches. Shucks! I managed to take a monster turkey but he was not the 13-inch monster I was hunting.
Oh well, I was still happy. And after all, sometimes the real challenges of hunting are the lessons we learn, the surprise Mother Nature serves up and the realization that fantastic hunts don’t happen overnight, we have to learn how to be seasoned outdoorsmen. Maybe I’ll get that bigger bird next year. But I learned that this particular bird was call shy. He stayed in the same region, even when he knew I was hunting him but refused to answer calls, would not approach decoys unless I went silent. Every turkey is different, some are relatively easy to fool others are crafty, wary and impossible to hunt.
May is for me when it comes to hunting turkeys especially if I’m out to score on a monster. Countless hours in the field have taught me many hunting lessons, outlined turkey habits and outdoor secrets. I’ve learned if a thunderstorm is approaching the turkeys go bonkers. Get the lightning booming and every gobbler in the county will gobble at the storm. When the wind howls and rain pelts the leaves turkeys will vacate the thick forest and head for open fields as if they know that branches will be falling and the forest is unsafe. In thick fog, cold mornings and pouring rain turkeys sit tight, will not move, refuse to answer a call and will remain motionless until the weather changes. Bright warm weather fires them up.
Gobblers become active during warm sunny weather but when the day gets hot, humid and downright steamy you can expect turkeys to head for the shade. It is a common practice for adult gobblers to limit movement to early morning and late afternoon if weather is hot.
Monster gobblers are often very old birds. They are large and all love to take naps; sort of like old hunters. But turkeys will lay in the shade, close their eyes and sleep during the dog days of May. Oh, if you really want to get turkeys moving just fly over the tree tops with an air balloon and frequently hit the gas. This causes turkey and deer to simply go bonkers and run like crazy.
May is an ideal time to outwit love sick gobblers. It is a month of exciting hunting opportunities when the weather is ideal and hunting pressure is non-existent. After the craziness of hunters chasing birds in April it often takes the adult monster birds a few weeks to settle down and become huntable during May. What about you, got your green camo, turkey shells and license ready?