The fact that my March Madness bracket has been broken for weeks won’t stop me from making more predictions. But this time I’ll turn to a topic I actually understand something about. That is, wild turkeys and the somewhat predictable nature of their breeding cycle – and therefore when and how we should hunt them.
As an opening salvo this morning I spotted a Stutterer seriously trying his best to impress a small flock of hens nearby. These jennys’ postures gave away the fact that they weren’t interested, but the cat was undaunted and continued to bend over and pose and twirl in circles that he obviously thought were sexy. If I had some cover and calls in the truck, I could have yelled at that stutterer and killed him with a stick. Except the season here in Minnesota is still three weeks away from opening. Sigh.
But it got me thinking, some days turkeys are just in the mood to play the game – and when they’re not, you’d swear they don’t even exist. Almost 40 seasons in the spring woods have taught me that it’s far better to focus on the few days when the hunt is burning and spend the rest of the time trout fishing or deer scouting or catching up on sleep. Of course, the weather and the insane unpredictability of turkey behavior can mess up even my finely tuned forecasts, so I asked for a little help by putting some of the top turkey hunters in the country on the spot. You have nothing to lose as we offer the same full refund as last year. Still, I think you’ll have better luck collecting a big spring tom if you just follow our advice and go to the turkey forest on these 7 important dates.
Strut #1 Best Day: April 2nd
These lucky Florida folks have been chasing birds for a few weeks, but for hunters across much of the South, openers have been scaled back to give the turkey a longer breeding window without hunting pressure. This is in response to generally lower bird numbers but rest assured there are still plenty of feeders to hunt and it is a good idea to start hunting as early as possible.
That’s the route Grand National Champion caller Ricky Joe Bishop plans to take for the season opener in Georgia. “We’ve traditionally opened at the end of March, but this year’s opening day on April 2 should be really good,” says Bishop. “Our populations have been declining a bit, so not only have they lowered our baggage limit to two birds, but they’ve also pushed the season dates up a bit. The timing doesn’t bother me one bit as I think things are going to be perfect weather wise. In March we get some nice warm ups but these are punctuated by cold and rainy spells which can stifle bird activity. I expect the opener will be the perfect window when the weather is consistent and things are just picking up steam with feeders talking a lot, keeping an eye out for other turkeys and being active throughout the day.”
Strut #2 Best Day: April 10th
If you can catch opening-day or early-season toms munching and stalking after unresponsive chickens, that’s always a good bet. But almost as good is the window a little later, when the hens have been raised a little and are seriously spending time each day laying an egg and staying close to the nest. This can be early to mid-April in the south, or much further north by mid-May. And when it happens in that part of California that call maker and seasoned hunter Joe Slaton calls home, he’s a lucky hunter.
“I’ve actually thought about it a lot,” he says. “If I had to pick a week, it would be any time from April 7th to April 15th, with my favorite day falling right in the middle. Breeding has been going on here for a while now so the eaters are really in that groove where they wake up right away and start looking for a hen, but enough hens are starting or already sitting on nests that they normally aren’t running to eaters like they are have done earlier. So the toms have to work a bit, and they’re usually very loud. Also, the weather is almost always perfect here, so it’s just a nice time of year to be outside.”
Strut #3 Best Day: April 18th
In mid-April, a number of states in and around the middle of the country are beginning to open up. You can hunt early further north, where the chickens might give the tomcats a little cold shoulder. If you move south, the chickens might run to some toms, but that will still leave many others vulnerable, according to Phillip Vanderpool, who lives in Arkansas and hosts the TV show The Virtue.
Vanderpool, who has been hunting eaters in the Ozark Mountains near his home for decades, loves the opener. Although bird numbers are low in his state, lower densities place an even greater emphasis on being first out of the gate. While mature hens focus on dominant feeders, this only means younger males may be ripe for appeal.
“Assuming we have good weather, the opener is time to go,” he says. “I really like it because subdominant birds will still be in small flocks, in addition to looking for chickens that don’t get attention from a boss feeder. They like to mix it up. It just means that aggressive calling from a string of calls can equal success.”
Strut #4 Best Day: May 2nd
Weather can affect the success of turkey hunting just as much as any influence exerted by the breeding cycle. Not only are turkeys more active on nice days, but it’s easier for us to exert ourselves to hunt them when the sun is shining, the temperatures are pleasant, and the wind isn’t howling. Remember that Gobbler breeding season has its ups and downs, with multiple, brief windows of opportunity. When the weather is good we just have a better chance of being out there to take advantage of it.
That consideration prompts Mark Scroggins, marketing director for Woodhaven Game Calls and head guide at Rush Creek Guide Service, to vote for his top time in Texas and Oklahoma in early May. “I’m often asked if I have to pick a week to hunt during the season and my answer is always the same; the first week of May in Oklahoma and the first two weeks of May in Texas. By then the weather has usually stabilized and you have consistently warm weather. Also, there are definitely more hens perched on nests at this time of year. It is true that the birds have experienced more hunting pressure at this time of the season but I have found that I would still prefer to hunt late season birds without hens who had some pressure over grazed eaters early in the season that had no pressure at all. In my country, the chickens control everything!”
Strut #5 Best Day: May 6th
Eaters are funny, in the most ironic sense of the word. In the first blush of the season, they’re often so eager to breed that they’ll run to a phone call. Then, when the brood reaches its peak and they realize that willing hens will run to them, they hardly seem to move. This luxury seems to overtake them, even when the hens nest and show little to no interest in them. But if you wait, sometimes just a few days, the tide turns and the circle closes.
That’s why Tad Brown, Missouri designer and turkey expert, likes the end of the three-week season in Missouri. “Sure, some eaters have been killed, so I know I’ll be hearing fewer eaters than earlier in the season,” says Brown. “The difference is, now if I get a glutton to talk, I know there’s a better chance they’ll come to a call. Most of our hens are now serious about nesting and they just won’t let eaters run to them like they used to. There’s a couple of days window when Toms just don’t get it – that if they want to raise a hen they have to move their feet a bit and that can be quite frustrating. But usually this period is over by our last weekend. If you can get someone to answer, they will come.”
Best Strut #6 Day: May 10th
Some of the best turkey hunters I keep it really simple now. And one of the simplest pieces of advice I’ve ever heard that any hunter in any part of the country can apply is this: Birds behave better when the weather is nice. Sure, there are those nice days when you can’t buy anything. But by and large, that’s true, and that’s exactly what led to Kansas leader Tim Clark of Red Dog Outfitters picking May 10 as one of the best days of the quest.
“I don’t think there’s a bad time to kill a turkey around here; it’s just a matter of patience and pattern,” he says. “So for me it comes down to things like the weather and in the period just after the first week of May it’s really nice here. Early in the season (we open mid-April) you can have snow and all sorts of inconveniences, and later in May we can have some violent thunderstorms and even tornadoes boiling up in the afternoon. But, man, around the 10th of May it’s usually just beautiful and the turkeys are behaving right. It’s the perfect window.”
Strut #7 Best Day: May 31st
It’s not uncommon for hunters to berate chickens and their often annoying influence on feeding behavior, and many days we wonder how good the hunt would be if chickens went away. The answer, of course, is that it can be really, really good, provided your state is open long enough for hunters to enjoy this captive breeding season.
New York callmaker and videographer Tyler Breen enjoys just that luxury in his home state, where the turkey season stays open until the end of May. “If I could really pick my favorite day it would be anywhere in June, but that would eliminate most states, including mine,” laughs Breen. “We had some of the best promotions of the year in Maine in early June, but most states are closed until then. So I will go as late as possible in May. The hens are definitely nesting, and unless a single hen breeds, the eaters will regroup. If you find one that acts like a brood turkey — gorging, strutting, even walking around with a red and white head — you could kill your biggest and oldest eater of the season.”