Focus on the hens and the food to find spring gobblers

Spring turkey season is here and thousands of hunters throughout New York and Pennsylvania will be up before dawn in order to be in the woods to hear that first gobble. I’m going to be one of them.

Hearing a turkey and getting a turkey are two different things and I know just about every hunter has a personal strategy for hunting turkeys when they come right off the roost. If these strategies worked every time, we’d all be tagging toms before sunrise. Truth be told, however, most times the birds will get together and move off to feed in some unknown location and the hunter will hear nothing but crickets the rest of the day.

So what’s a hunter to do?

Toms will be concerned about mating, of course, but the hens early in the season will be intent on feeding and toms won’t be far behind. It seems to follow then that a hunter stands a better chance for calling a tom into shooting range if he can be where the hens want to go. Part of my early spring scouting trips is to take the time to familiarize myself with where the turkeys are likely to feed on the properties I hunt, and sometimes – but not always – I’m ahead of the game when it comes to knowing when and where to set up for possible success.

In the fall, mast – especially beech nuts – are the go-to food source for the birds, and these same areas shouldn’t be overlooked in the spring. In the fall, berries of all sorts are consumed, especially those of sumac, dogwood and even poison ivy. In the spring, just because the seeds of grapes, blackberries, apples or cherries may appear to be gone, turkeys will continue to scratch around those plant locations to get any seeds that may remain.

In May, fresh shoots begin to appear along with forbs and farm crops like corn, rye and wheat, and when they do, turkeys will quickly turn their attention to those. I once killed a big tom whose crop was full of sprouted corn – I couldn’t hold all of it in two hands. Since then I always check newly planted corn fields, especially at mid-morning. This is also the time of year when insects will begin to play a big part in a turkey’s diet, and they are yet another nutritious food source.

When walking through the woods, I’m always on the alert for turkey signs, and it’s not always the scratching that lets me know a flock or even a lone tom may be nearby. Toe tracks along muddy trails or other soft areas can be good indicators of turkeys, as well as fresh droppings, and they’re just as good as a gobble for betraying silent toms.

If I encounter any of these signs late in the morning, I take a position and call softly. If the hens have left the tom and he hears the soft clucks and hen yelps, he may sneak in looking for the lone hen. This is where stealth and patience will work to kill a tom. Too many hunters get discouraged and don’t give a spot enough time before moving and this is often a mistake.

Feeding hens may hear the calls and feed their way to the hunter, and the tom won’t be far behind. Even if the hens have left the tom, he may still slowly work his way to the hunter, feeding as he goes. As an old turkey hunter once told me, “Find the food and you’ll find the turkeys.”

It’s advice I’ve never forgotten.

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