1. KNOW HOW SEASON DATES AFFECT BIRD BEHAVIOR
For spring break this year my good friend, Jake Ayers, and I decided to hunt eastern turkey in Northern Mississippi. To give a little context to this conversation, we are from Oklahoma and are used to hunting Rio Grande Turkey. Rios are generally a more aggressive bird in the way they react to calling, the presence of other toms and the way the interact with hens. We decided to hunt the northern half of Mississippi for the duration of our trip. We ended up in Mississippi because it was within 8 hours of Oklahoma and their season opened 3 weeks earlier than ours. Something we didn’t consider when planning this trip was the variation in turkey breeding behavior from the southern part of the state to the northern part. Since the southern part of the state warms up quicker the birds would likely be a couple weeks ahead in their breeding cycle. What this means to hunters is that the birds are more than likely actively searching and breeding hens in the start of the season instead of just gathering them in the morning to mill around together for the duration of the day. The toms that we focused in on where not interested in leaving their packs of multiple hens for our single hen decoy. Although our soft calling and subtle decoy intrigued the toms, they weren’t fired up enough to commit. This in large is due to the fact this early in the season hens are not bred. As a result, this means that the hens aren’t leaving their toms in the late morning to go nest. Typically, toms would be looking for more hens to breed during the middle of the day, but due to the timing of our trip we didn’t get to see any gobbling activity apart from the mornings. The key take away is that you need to understand how the season dates affects the birds that your hunting. It will save you a lot of time and money if you know these things before making cross multiple states to hunt silent, passive turkey.
2. UNDERSTAND THE GOBBLING AND ROOSTING HABITS OF EASTERNS
While hunting Mississippi during mid-March, hearing frequent gobbles was not our reality. Growing up hunting Oklahoma Rio’s, you grow accustomed to turkey’s putting on a show. Gobbling the entire way in to the decoy was more common than not, but not with these Mississippi easterns. The entirety of their gobbling habits this early in the season were limited to the first 30 minutes of daylight. When we realized that our opportunity to locate birds was going to be extremely limited in the early minutes of sun rise we had to readjust our strategy. Most wildlife management areas have access roads that are used by biologists and game wardens to access deep into the areas where hunters are not allowed to drive. We walked these roads to get deep into the hardwoods. That’s where we would sit down for the morning to listen in silence for the first gobble. Jake and I knew we weren’t promised a second gobble, so we took immediate action based on the location of where the Tom sounded off from. OnX mapping became our best friend on this trip. The locals gave us some great insight into where the birds would be working after getting off the roost and they couldn’t have been more correct. Directly from the roost, these easterns would pick a hardwood bottom and work up it for the entirety of the day. One the 4th morning we slipped down into a hardwood bottom and laid silently waiting for the gobbling toms to appear. Two blown up eastern toms worked all the way into 37 yards. After hours of waiting and subtle calling they were within shooting distance, but our guns were barely competent out to 40 yards. The two adjacent hens busted and the toms were gone. We walked away with a good lesson learned. The 1000+ miles of driving and 7 days committed to this trip was become an expensive taste of humility. After hunting these birds for a week in Mississippi, we began to refer to them as ghosts. The gobbles in the early morning only provided a glimmer of hope that quickly faded as the sun rose.
3. CHANGE YOUR CALLING HABITS
The age old saying of “less is more” could not more accurate. Over calling is a big issue when hunting turkey of all species. I’ve witnessed hunters call every 30 seconds desperately trying to get a group of toms to work to them across the field. This often leaves the birds scurrying off in the opposite direction. Eastern birds, in my experience, typically are more call shy than other subspecies. A mix of soft yelps, clucks and purrs when they get in close seem to be the most effective sequence. Instead of calling every 5 minutes try calling every 15-20 minutes or just enough to peak the bird’s curiosity. He is going to be much more inclined to check you out if your call sounds realistic and not desperate. One unique habit I picked up on while hunting them in Mississippi was that they tend to go silent when they are working in close. They would gobble all the way in to about 150 yards and go completely silent. This will leave you wondering if you called too much, if the birds busted or changed directions, but most of the time it means they are coming on a string. This is where patience comes into play. Often, we sat wondering for 30+ minutes after hearing the last gobble. Suddenly out of the shadows, a dark chocolate fan would come creeping up the hardwood bottom very alertly. Not uttering a single word, these eastern toms would seek to locate the bashful hen we were emulating with our slate call. When you’re hunting pressured, quiet birds I would try to call as little as necessary. These tips aren’t going to work in every scenario because hunting is extremely situational and variable, but I know they will serve as a good rule of thumb.
4. KNOW WHAT HABITAT TO LOOK FOR
Unfortunately, not all turkey species roost on the edge of Agricultural fields. If that were the case, life as a turkey hunter would be much simpler, and we would yield a higher success rate holistically. The best advice that I received from the locals in Mississippi was to look for turkey sign in hardwood bottoms. When you’re in a climate that doesn’t have a plethora of agriculture fields, it can be tougher to locate birds. Even though they can be tough to locate, there often are key anchoring points such as private ag fields. In my experience while hunting eastern turkey they love to mill around for bugs, scratch leaves and walk around in the shade of flat hardwood bottoms. A nice canopy will keep them out of the heat and the rain and allow them perfect seclusion as they go about their day. Although it is difficult to intercept them in these bottoms, the few early morning gobbles can be a key indicator of where those gobblers are going to work. If you can focus on these hardwood bottoms that turkey are going to be using throughout the day, it’s going to save you a lot of time and will also save you from putting unfruitful miles on the boots. Knowing what habitat to look for is going to ensure that you will spend more time hunting and less time scouting areas that are not ideal for turkey.
5. PUT THE TIME IN
If you’re going to be hunting high-pressure public ground for turkey, there is no better differentiator of success than putting the miles on the boots. Being a competent caller, a great shot or an incredible woodsman will help but sometimes even that is not enough. Walking many miles can be very grueling at first, but throughout the process you will start to recognize patterns in where the birds want to be. Once you pin point those drainages, ag fields, or hardwood bottoms, you will spend less time walking and a lot more time hunting. Do not get discouraged if you don’t locate birds in the first couple of days either. Jake and I hunted 7 straight days in Mississippi and put over 64 miles on the boots in that time frame. We didn’t have a single encounter until the 4th morning despite consistently hearing birds in the morning and spending most of the day in the woods. While you’re lying in your tent or hotel room exhausted from 12+ mile days, don’t forget that your days in the turkey woods are limited. It can be a grind but try to enjoy the process. Don’t let the temptation of hitting that snooze button become reality in the mornings after long days of hiking and scouting. It’s easier to avoid this when you hunt with a friend to keep you accountable. In conclusion, enjoy your time in the woods and don’t be afraid to put the work in. If for some reason after your hard work, you still don’t harvest a bird, at least you have experienced some functional fitness and prepared yourself better for your next adventure.
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