Changing times in the turkey woods
Ok, let’s see: chalk, check. Seat cushion, check. New diaphragm calls, check. Shells, water bottle, owl hooter, license, check, check, check and check. Looks like I’m ready for the beginning of the spring turkey season and like most other passionate spring turkey hunters I can’t wait.
By all accounts turkey numbers are down this spring but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Back in the late '60s and early '70s when spring turkey hunting was in its infancy it’s not a stretch to say the toms gobbled all morning long. Back in the day, if I went more than 30 minutes without hearing a gobble something was wrong. Things were that good. Now, when toms don’t gobble I hear hunters offering all kinds of reasons for the behavior. “They’re all done mating.” “They’re all henned up.” Too many pre-season callers.” “The youth hunt has got the toms all stirred up.” Those are just a few of the comments I’ve heard from other hunters but, other than being “henned up,” I’m not buying into any of the other theories.
I remember the great Ben Rogers Lee saying he loved to come to New York and Pennsylvania to hunt because, as he put it, “turkeys gobbled all morning long.” When I first heard that statement I thought it was odd because gobbling toms seemed to be everywhere and they let everything in the woods know it. I had no idea of the significance of what Lee was saying, but I soon learned.
Back then, there were far fewer turkeys than there are now and toms gobbled to attract hens that seemed to be few and far between. As turkey numbers grew, the toms seemed to gobble less frequently because they no longer had to look for hens; they were roosted with them or at least very near them. Now, on a good morning, a tom may gobble a few times and then the woods are devoid of turkey talk for the rest of the morning. Lately, on some mornings – make that many mornings – I don’t hear a single tom sound off on the roost and it’s not a deep mystery as to why this may be so.
Quite a few years ago I had the opportunity to learn firsthand why turkeys don’t gobble after fly down. Long before dawn I gingerly walked up a long, muddy path to the base of a hill and got comfortable under a large hemlock tree. Above me the hill leveled off into a bench before getting steeper again. It was a good location to start the day and one where I killed several toms over the previous years. As dawn approached I heard a distinctive “cluck” and there was no doubt it was a turkey. That cluck was eventually followed by several others and I realized I had turkeys roosted in trees all around me and I was sitting in the midst of them. The setup was perfect, or so I thought. Because of the hens, I reasoned a tom would be near and I was right. I nearly choked on the call I had in my mouth when a thundering gobble broke the otherwise still woods. He was right above me in a tall ash tree about 10 feet from where I was sitting. Needless to say I remained motionless and waited for events to unfold. Although I knew they were there, not another sound was to be heard from that bunch of birds.
Eventually, I saw the first hen pitch down and land halfway up the hill about 60 yards away. Five others followed and I could see them milling about for a minute or two until they began feeding uphill toward the bench. That tom knew the hens were there and never made another sound. He simply waited until he saw the hens and then he, too, pitched down to join them. Needless to say, I sat there watching the show and no amount of calling on my part was able to sway that group to turn my way. One gobble and that was it. Anyone arriving even a few minutes late wouldn’t have heard it and would swear there was no gobbling that morning.
Now, if I don’t hear any gobbling I don’t get discouraged. Instead my technique is to dig in and wait them out. It’s kind of like hunting deer. You sit and wait and when you think you’ve waited enough, you wait some more. I’ve lost count on the number of toms that have come in totally silent to my call. Some I’ve killed and some took me by surprise and lived to gobble another day. Even though I don’t hear a bird at daybreak, I still have a big advantage. I know they are there but they don’t know that I am. Yes, it’s fun to hear a bird gobble and then to have him come in to your calls gobbling all the way, but sometimes you have to take a different approach. Nowadays, patience is a virtue because they don’t all come running.