Even in the pre-dawn darkness, the West Texas air was muggy and warm. A faint glow was just cresting the eastern sky when a chorus of gobbles broke the stillness. I announced my own presence with a few faint tree calls, then waited for daylight.
When shooting light finally came, I served the birds a fly-down cackle, and they lobbed back another round of gobbles. Then I switched to some loud yelping, and our volley continued for several minutes. Finally, the birds pitched down and seemed to be headed my way. I hammered out some cutts and yelps, eliciting more gobbles.
Then things took a turn for the worse. My next calls were cut off by several aggressive hens, which intercepted the toms and led the flock away from me. I thought about trying to out-maneuver the birds by getting ahead of them and cutting them off. But, I reasoned, I’d still have those hens to compete with. Instead, I opted to stay put.
During the next several hours, I listened to the flock as it traveled farther and farther away, eventually drifting out of hearing distance. Another hour passed before I heard distant gobbling again, and it sounded as if the birds were coming back. This time, however, there was no yelping and cackling; the toms were alone.
With no competition, the birds came to my calling eagerly, and it wasn’t long before I spied two red heads bobbing through the mesquite scrub behind my blind. A couple soft purrs was all it took to turn them my way, and when the first tom stepped out into the open I leveled him with my muzzleloading shotgun. He turned out to be a real limb-hanger, with a rope for a necktie, and two long, needle-sharp spurs.
Earlier in my turkey hunting career I might have tried to make a move on those birds, or given up altogether and called it a morning. While I still prefer hunting turkeys early in the day and early in the season, I’ve learned that you don’t necessarily need to be in the woods on opening day, or at the crack of dawn to succeed. Hunting turkeys late in the day and late in the season might be tougher, and slower, but if you do bag a bird there’s a better chance it will be a good one.
Hunting wild turkeys early in the season can be a double-edged sword. The birds are still naïve at this time, having not been hunted, and subordinate 2-year-olds might come to the call with reckless abandon. Dominant birds, meanwhile, have what they’re most desirous of at this time of year—hens—and can seem downright stubborn. However, there’s a chink in their armor.
By the time most spring turkey seasons begin, the turkey mating season is well under way. Hens and toms often roost together, or congregate at dawn. Shortly after fly-down, the hens begin their morning ritual of feeding, while the toms follow behind, strutting, spitting and drumming to entice a hen to breed. One by one, as the morning wears on, the hens begin dropping out of the flock to visit their nests.
By mid- to late morning, the flocks have shrunk considerably in size. The hens are gone, but the toms are still looking for love. Seeing no takers, they redouble their efforts, and in so doing, become vulnerable.
While a turkey’s brain is scarcely the size of a walnut, I firmly believe they have excellent memories. Those Texas toms remembered where they’d heard hens earlier that morning. And once their harem dispersed, they headed back to pick up the strays.
You don’t necessarily need to stay out of the woods during the early morning hours, though. When I encounter troublesome, henned-up toms, I’ll often make a mental note of their location, then wander off in search of easier pickings. If nothing materializes, I’ll try to get back to where I heard the toms by 10 a.m.-11 a.m.
During slow days, I also do a lot of trolling, slowly walking along and rapping on a box call every so often. If I don’t get a response by mid-morning, I’ll backtrack my route. I’ve struck birds on my back trail enough times to believe it’s no coincidence. They were coming to calls they’d heard earlier in the morning.
Growing up in the Northeast, I never had an opportunity to wild hunt turkeys during the afternoon. It wasn’t until I began traveling around the country to hunt them that my eyes were opened to a whole new realm of turkey hunting opportunities.
One of my best afternoon birds came while I was hunting with Brad Harris in Kansas. We’d finished lunch and were driving back to camp when he stopped and decided to take a walk. It was more for scouting than hunting, but he advised me to bring my gear—just in case.
We ended up getting pinned down by a hen that was lazily feeding along a brushy river corridor, and were trying to decide our next move when I spied two longbeards on the far side of an open field. Harris barked out an order and we dove for cover. Though he got no response, Harris continued calling for the next 20 minutes, and the toms eventually silently sauntered into gun range.
Since then I’ve found that scenario wasn’t at all uncommon. Midday is a very lazy time for wild turkeys. They preen, dust and might even roost or doze. By mid-afternoon they’re back on the move again. And just like during the late morning, lonely toms are looking to re-unite with their girlfriends.
This is where patience and soft, sporadic calling are often the best hunting tactic. The toms might not gobble back, but they’ll hear you, and because there’s not much else happening, they’ll be more inclined to come over for a peek. While there are no guarantees in hunting, if you can get a tom to gobble, your odds of killing him are often much better during the afternoon.
Scouting is always important, but it can be especially important for tagging late-day limb-hangers. The birds will often roost together, but sometimes you’ll get one of those hermetic old longbeards that’ll leave the flock just before roosting in his own favorite tree.
I learned this lesson while hunting with my good friend K.C. Nelson in Alabama. We’d been hunting a particularly cagey tom for several days, but we came up short at every turn. He always had hens with him during the morning, and wouldn’t come to a call during the afternoon.
Then inspiration struck Nelson. He knew where the old boy roosted, and figured we might be able to intercept him. We set up at 2:30 in the afternoon, and called sparingly every half-hour or so. It was 6:45 p.m. when the tom came in slowly and silently. He never made it to his roost.
Given a choice, I’ll always take the early season, particularly if my goal is to bag any longbeard. But in turkey hunting, things don’t always work out as planned, and I’ve often found myself hunting during the late season, more by circumstance than choice. I know doing so won’t be easy, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that trophy toms sometimes come easier at the end of the season.
Hunting the late season is a lot like hunting the tail end of the whitetail rut, and older toms are like mature bucks. They’ve been through a few hunting seasons—and as such, they’ve learned how to avoid hunters—so they don’t come easily to the call. And like dominant bucks, they’re also typically the dominant birds in the flock, and do most of the breeding—as long as hens are still available.
By late season, however, most of the hens are sitting on clutches nearly full time. Those dominant toms are still in the mood, and finding themselves suddenly alone, they sometimes make tracks to find a mate.
Another factor working in your favor is there’s less hunting pressure during late season because most folks have either tagged out or given up. This gives you a chance to take your time and work birds more subtly, which is sometimes what it takes to coax in a wise old gobbler.
One of my best late-season birds came off a heavily hunted state management area of Massachusetts. I was doing a little “windshield scouting” one afternoon when I spotted him strutting for a single hen. How the old boy had made it through nearly 3 weeks of hunting was beyond me, but there he was, and I quickly formulated a plan.
The next morning, I found the tom roosted by himself in a big oak tree. Normally, I carry three decoys, but this time I had only one, which I propped out in an open field. Then I nestled in to what little cover there was available along the field edge. For the next 20 minutes or so, I’d call and he’d gobble.
Things were looking good until he pitched out of the oak. Instead of coming straight to me, he glided uphill to the other end of the field. He hesitated for a moment, but the decoy was too tempting. He puffed up, then slowly made his way down the field. I had one big tree in front of me for cover and when he disappeared behind it, I drew my bow. Leaning around the other side of the tree, I spied him in full strut. I squeezed my release and T-boned him at 25 yards.
If you don’t score during the first hour of daylight, the first day of the season or even the first week of the season, don’t give up hope. There will still be plenty of birds out there. You just might need to modify your hunting technique a little, by sticking it out and hunting those tardy toms.