The secret to success often hinges on understanding gobbler mating rituals
As I focused the telephoto lens I could see the huge gobbler was all fired up. His head was bright red, waddle extended, and feathers puffed up which made him look like a turkey on steroids. His fan was fully extended as he danced in a tight circle around the receptive hen. I eased closer when his huge fanned tail blocked him from seeing my approach. That’s when I could hear him sweet talkin’ his partner. He would spit, purr, drum, rattle his wing feathers and softly entice her closer. I was certain to get photos of the duo mating when the local farmer started is tractor and backed up it made a loud beeping sound that caused a shock gobble from the monster tom. I was within 20 yards of the large bird yelling at the top of his voice and his call was so loud it caused me to jolt. The hot hen spotted my movement, stood tip toed, made an alarm putt and scrambled for the nearby woods like a roadrunner at a track race and the love sick gobbler followed. The photo session abruptly ended and as I watched the pair streak for safety I had to wonder if hunters understand the mating ritual of wild turkeys and how to capitalize on gobblers when they are henned up?
It is not unusual for gobblers to display, fan and strut during spring. Some do it only when hens are around but others are gobbling, fanning and wandering the landscape desperately seeking a mate. Lone birds in need of a partner are the easiest to hunt. They respond to calls, charge decoys and act like they have no fear of hunters. Some gobblers are simply so sex crazed they lower their defensive guard, spend plenty of time displaying in open areas and gobble frequently. Such birds are easy to locate, call and quickly harvest. However, just because a gobbler is fanned or gobbling does not mean they are easy to hunt. Some are constantly on guard, ever wary, almost impossible to approach and very difficult to call or decoy, especially if wild hens are in the area.
Henned up adult gobblers are sometimes impossible to harvest. They tend to ignore calling and often follow hens away from decoys. Smart old birds use hens as front men to clear the approach of toms following them. They are actually smart enough to lag behind hens, allow them to walk through unfamiliar ground first and make certain the coast is clear for suitors. It is common for hens to respond to calls, walk into eye balling range, identify hunters and blow out of dodge with gobblers in tow.
There are a number of ways to outsmart old gobblers that are henned up. First, forget trying to call or decoy birds unless you head them off at the pass. I mean you need to determine the direction they are headed, move and set up in their path. If you get directly in front of them very little calling is required. Sometimes you can ambush the bird of a lifetime by simply being in the correct position. Of course, this requires you are stealthy with your approach and avoid detection by the watchful eyes of wild turkeys.
Want to shoot more and bigger gobblers?
You need to get super serious about camouflage. Years of up close photography has taught me the vital importance of being fully camouflaged. Wild turkeys have excellent eyesight and the main reason they slip away from hunters is because they see them. You need to remain absolutely motionless when birds are coming your way, camouflaged or not, gobblers pick up any motion at extremely long distances. Begin by putting on your hunting clothing, grab your weapon of choice and stand in front of a full length mirror. Scrutinize your profile; look for anything that is not fully camouflaged like: boots, face, hands, neck and most importantly your weapon. I know some readers are shy about camo painting their expensive shotguns but do they actually think a wild turkey cannot see the blued barrel and glossy walnut stock?
Savvy gobblers will trick you. Make you think your uncovered face or glossy gun has no impact on hunting. Wise birds will detect you, slowly turn their back and melt into the underbrush. Some hunters make the mistake of thinking the gobbler did not see them but in most cases their sharp eyes have detected movement, noticed black bottomed boots, made out your human outline. Hunt smart gobblers will ease away from you; melt into the woodlands, convince you they are just switching directions when they are actually desperately slithering out of sight. They use brush, terrain, trees and obstacles as a block between you and them and in a few seconds they vanish from sight.
The mating ritual of wild turkeys is an interesting dance. Certainly it begins with the gobbler displaying for hens. Out of the mix a receptive hen will parade close to her suitor. She will circle him, get his attention and once he becomes interested the two become locked in a beautiful ballet. When a big gobbler is in breeding mode he is fully on lockdown, uncallable, will ignore decoys and all his attention is directed toward his hot little girlfriend. He will pursue her, circle, fan, display and eventually she will approach and get kissin’ close. That’s when the gobbler becomes super excited, blood rushes to his extremities and he eventually wiggles behind her. It is actually the hen that initiates the actual breeding act. She will seductively wiggle her tail in front of the old boy and then lay down on her tummy. That’s when the gobbler approaches from the back, climbs on her and initiates breeding. The act only takes a minute or so and after climax the gobbler will step off her back and stand next to his partner. The hen will shake her feathers, sort of move away from the gobbler but quickly return, get in front of him and lay down for round two.
Once in Isabella County while hunting turkeys with Ed Reihl from Beal City, we spotted a breeding pair on private property and watched through binoculars as the pair mated several times in an open field. We drove away but came back in the afternoon and saw the same pair almost exactly in the same location. They were locked up in a love dance that occupied their entire day and the duo seemed unaware of anything going on around them. Since then I’ve witnessed breeding pairs several times and when a gobbler is actually breeding he puts all his effort and complete concentration on the act. The dance begins with birds circling each other, but as the breeding time arrives the circle dwindles and the birds stay in a relatively small area, say the size of your yard.
While Michigan’s DNR recommends you do not stalk turkeys I say they have little understanding about deadly hunting strategies that work. Their concern is about safety and they don’t want hunters stalking decoys. No turkey hunter has ever been shot in this state because another was moving in on decoys. Actually when gobblers are locked up in love you can sneak up and shake their tail feathers. When gobblers are actually breeding they are not looking for predators and are fully concentrating on having sex. On one occasion I used rolling terrain and large trees to slip within 15 yards of a breeding pair. On another occasion I belly crawled across an open cow pasture in Jackson County to get up close to a mating pair. The trick is to stay low, use obstacles and terrain to block your approach. For this brand of hunting you need to leave decoys in the truck along with turkey vest, calls and strip down to lightweight stalking clothing.
It is my opinion most hunters are detected because turkeys see them. Turkeys can detect movement 10 times better than adult bucks and they have the capability of zooming in on anything that looks suspicious. Most hunters make the common mistake of not matching their apparel with the hunting terrain. Early season in upper Michigan you can wear deer hunting camo. But soon as green up occurs and grasses grow and leaves pop out you need to use some kind of greenish camo. I buy woodland camo army fatigues and spray paint the black and brown with green to match the environment. Same holds true for my gloves, face mask, boots, hat and most importantly gun or crossbow. The trick is to blend in with the environment, become a part of nature, and appear like grass or fresh budding spring trees. It’s not that birds are aware many hunters are clad in brown camo; it’s all about becoming the complete predator and matching your surroundings so birds simply do not recognize you as a threat. Hey, I can guarantee you that I’m the only outdoor writer that goes to the extent of camo spray painting expensive telephoto equipment. But the results are impressive and you will increase your chances of close encounters with wary adult birds if you camo up. Oh, same holds true for slipping close to wary bucks and other wildlife.
Few thrills in life are more exciting than crawling up on wild turkeys. The strategy is simple, don’t let them see you, move slow as molasses in winter and stay low to the ground. I love sneaking up on wild turkey gobblers with telephoto lens in spring when they are concentrating on hens. Eventually they spot the huge blackish glass, become alert and run or fly from the scene at lightning speed. More often than not the breeding gobbler will ignore the lens but the hen on the other hand is a different story. During breeding hens remain more vigilant, seem alert and 99% of the time blow ideal photo opportunities because they spot you. Once the hen gives the alarm putt you have been made and it’s game over. The gobbler will snap out of his love sick spell, suddenly become alert and immediately follow the alarmed hen. However, he does not leave her side and will follow her wherever she runs or flies. On one occasion in Kalamazoo County I slipped kissin’ close to breeding birds in a tall grass field. The hen spotted me, flew to a pine forest nearby with gobbler in tow. But the gobbler made a left turn and landed a hundred yards from his girl. That’s when I exchanged camera for Benelli and slipped between the pair. I sat next to a huge white pine, made some soft hen yelps and in less than five minutes harvested the big bird in search of his lost mate.
Another great opportunity arrived when I spotted a group of 6 gobblers hot on the trail of a young hen. I marked the direction they were headed, circled through the woods and set up in a ravine. In a few minutes gobblers responded to hen purrs on a slate call. What surprised me was the entire troop popped over the crest of a hill and headed directly at me. Half way down the hill a large gobbler got into a fight with a smaller bird and soon all the gobblers were running, helter-skelter chasing each other, pecking, flopping wings and trying to spur suitors. I held my gun at ready for the longest time but eventually the cock fight came to an end and a curious old gobbler stumbled my way desperately seeking the source of the subtle hen purrs.
Now, you know I love chasing big ‘ole monster gobblers with 10-inch or larger trophy beards. I refuse to take a jake or harvest a young gobbler with less than an impressive beard. Years of hunting Michigan wild turkeys have offered literally hundreds of shooting opportunities and the last few years I’ve noticed I seldom harvest a large gobbler unless a hot hen is involved. Oh sure, once in a while a single longbeard offers a shot but the vast majority of spring hunts involve a hen along with the big gobbler. I’ve also noticed many times trophy gobblers, especially those that have been hunted, are very difficult to call. Most stay close to hens and refuse to break off in search of another sweet talkin’ female. Actually, come to think of it, my biggest toms have always been harvested with hens nearby. Guess I’d have to say that I’m convinced if you want a longbeard of a life time you need to develop strategies that are deadly on henned up gobblers. The secret to success often hinges on understanding gobbler mating rituals.