Hunting: Spring Gobbler

By Judd Cooney

hunting turkey


Opening Day Spring Gobbler

By Judd Cooney

Late snow the week before Colorado’s spring turkey opener may have upset the locals who were tired of the white stuff, but it helped with my preseason scouting.

I’d already made several stops in predawn darkness, listening in vain for a vocal gobbler in a huge tract of U.S. Forest Service land. The spring storm had shut them down, but when I saw fresh turkey tracks crossing the snowy road, I was back in the hunt—literally.

It didn’t take long to park the truck and backtrack the birds a quarter-mile up a ridge to a small clearing on a flat knoll that was tromped down with turkey tracks and wing drag marks. It looked like a primary strutting area, and hopefully an oft-used morning congregation area.

Backtracking the trail next led me across a small valley to the top of an adjacent ridge, where the tracks stopped. That had to be the fly-down landing zone, and it was easy to ascertain that the turkeys most likely roosted in the nearby ponderosa pines.

Mountain-roaming Merriam’s tend to cover more ground than their Eastern turkey cousins, which can make preseason scouting even more critical. Finding that well-used strutting area in the snow was a definite bonus.

A few mornings later, I returned to listen from the road and heard several vocal toms sounding off from the vicinity of the strutting area. Opening morning, well before daylight, I was set up against the root wad of a blowdown with a jake decoy in the middle of the strutting area and two hen decoys closer to me, a favorite setup.

Sure enough, as the sky went from black to gray, turkeys started sounding off. Every hen’s tree call was answered with gobbles, and from the sounds of it, the gobblers were closer to me than the hens. Well before fly-down time, I started matching the hens call for call, infusing as much “sex appeal” as I could muster with a diaphragm call and a custom Paul’s box call.

It was barely shooting light when I caught movement through the trees and a pair of longbeards hit the ground in a flurry of snow and leaves. Both went into full strut a few yards beyond the jake decoy, gobbling stridently.

It took a moment to get over the jolt of that dramatic touchdown. But the gobblers never showed the slightest awareness of my presence as I eased the double-barrel muzzleloader into position and cocked the hammer on the left barrel. A dense charge of No. 6 shot met the dominant bird head on.

Opening day of spring turkey season can range from gratifying to exasperating, and which way it goes often depends on the thoroughness of your preseason preparation. I’m a believer that the harder you work, the luckier you get.

Most hunters follow the same preseason regimen as I did when I first started hunting spring gobblers. The week before the opener, they drive the forests and back roads early mornings and evenings, listening for gobbles or maybe trying to elicit them with owl hoots. Maybe they glass a few meadows, trying to locate feeding birds.

Opening morning usually finds them moving in on a located bird, and in many cases, this minimal preparation is adequate. The fortunate hunter calls in a gobbler and makes a clean kill.

However, as any experienced turkey hunter can also tell you, reality doesn’t always follow the imagined script that closely. Little things like spring snowstorms, unanticipated hunting competition, coyotes and those damnable hens all have a way of spoiling the best laid plans. Hunters who guide other hunters for a portion of their living always have a Plan A, then a Plan B, and finally a general contingency plan to cover all of the rest. And these plans are always based on what they found during the preseason scouting.

I outfit turkey hunters in Iowa and Nebraska and also hunt them myself in my home state of Colorado and every other state I can. Along the way, I encounter all of the problems listed above—often in combination.

For me, preseason scouting has become a year-round program of locating turkeys, ferreting out the roosts, strutting, feeding and loafing areas and also the travel routes that link them. Thorough understanding of the birds’ habits, travel patterns and daily routines—in conjunction with a thorough knowledge of the surrounding area—goes a long way to assuring early season success.

A few spring seasons ago, I located a huge Merriam’s tom on the Omaha Indian reservation in Nebraska. I spent the next several mornings and evenings listening to him sound off as he moved from the roost and then back to it in the evening. I also spent time glassing from afar, noting his movements, where he fed, strutted and loafed with the hens and subordinate toms.

For such a fine gobbler, I wanted to hedge my bets a bit. So, I spent the last afternoon just roaming the surrounding ridges, to get completely familiar with the territory. This turned out to be time well spent, and in the process, I also called in and shot two coyotes.

A lot of my preseason turkey scouting is done incidental to fall deer and winter predator hunting. This time it was the other way around. I took the coyotes as targets of opportunity while on a scouting mission.

I roosted the bird where expected the evening prior to the opener, and I felt the goose (or in this case the turkey) was as good as cooked.

But when I arrived in the dark on opening morning, another vehicle was parked a bit down the road. Although I had seen no sign of another hunter in the vicinity, and the area wasn’t hunted hard, apparently I wasn’t the only one after that special gobbler.

I’d planned on setting up at the edge of a clearing some 200 yards from the roost, where I had watched the gobbler and his harem cross on their morning forays.

Evidently, my competitor had much the same idea as I watched his light bobbing through the dark woods, heading in that same general direction.

As my second option for later on opening morning, I had planned on setting up decoys in an alfalfa field within 300 yards of the roosted birds, where I had glassed them feeding in midmorning. I may have had to work the birds longer, but I felt they would sooner or later head for the alfalfa, and there I would have a good chance to call the gobbler within shotgun range.

However, another unanticipated hunter in the woods ahead of me changed the game plan. Instead, I drove farther down the road and then took a faint jeep trail that brought me to a valley opposite where I had planned to set up.

During my walk-about, I’d located a small but well-used strutting zone on top of a knoll within 200 yards of where the gobbler and hens roosted. This would have been my first choice for a setup except I would have to pass within sight of the roosted turkeys to reach it, or climb the steep slope behind them.

I gathered shotgun and gear then started climbing, thankful I had got off to such an early start.

The gobblers were still on the roost when I crawled into position at the edge of the strutting area. I crawled out to the center of the little clearing, planted a jake decoy then unfolded two photo-realistic hen silhouettes.

When using these one-dimensional decoys, I always set two opposing each other such that one will be visible however a gobbler approaches. When I first started using the decoys, I noticed gobblers stopping as they circled, and with a little checking, realized the one-dimensional silhouettes literally disappeared when seen from the side.

There was little wind, so I didn’t waste time staking the tail of the jake as I normally would.

I eased back under a drooping cedar and waited for shooting light. Long before that light, I heard my competitor working his call for all it was worth, several gobblers answering him sound for sound. But to my way of thinking, he was calling way too much. Rather than piquing their interest, he was letting them zero in on his exact location.

The Merriam’s is generally more vocal than its Eastern counterpart, and these birds were filling the still mountain air with tree calls, sleepy clucks and soft yelps.

Since I was much closer than my competitor, I waited until the birds were about to fly down. Then I used a canvas flapper to imitate a bird flying down, made an excited fly-down cackle followed quickly by several soft but excited clucks.

I got a full-throated response from a nearby gobbler, and a minute later, beating wings broke the stillness. The boss gobbler landed on the far edge of the strutting area, a little over 30 yards away.

I was ready with the gun at my shoulder. The moment he stretched his head up for a serious look at the decoys, I settled the Day-Glo sights on the base of his head and put final pressure on the trigger.

I have no idea how that impacted my competitor’s morning, though I doubt it was good. Regardless, the boss went home with me, and he tasted great deep fried.

Had I not dedicated that last afternoon to scouting the area, my competitor might have walked away with the prize, or neither one of us.

As often as unexpected hunting competition shows up on opening morning, an even more common scenario is to find the gobblers “henned up,” and then it can be extremely difficult to entice one away from real live female companionship. I find it especially difficult to talk a henned-up gobbler into backtracking into any area he already has checked out.

No, the best way to seduce such a bird is to anticipate where he’s going next and then set up along this anticipated route of travel. It’s not that difficult to get a henned-up tom to veer a short distance off his intended path, to leave his harem momentarily to check out nearby seductive calling.

But the crux of making this work is thorough knowledge of the birds and also the country they are working so you can predict direction of travel with as much accuracy as possible. The more time you spend prior to the season studying the turkeys’ daily habits, the better you will get at this.

Hunters also have a tendency to give it their all for only a few hours during the early morning, even on opening day. Then they head for the nearest cafe for breakfast, an early lunch, or maybe just a warming cup of coffee. There, they may share tales of woe about the call-shy super birds that flummoxed their morning hunts.

But in states where spring turkey hunting is allowed all day long, midday can be a deadly time to work gobblers. I’ve watched many a flock feed and then move into the shade for a mid-morning siesta. The aroused gobblers wander around the nearby area looking for one more hen, and they can be extremely susceptible to calling.

If a gobbler answers midday or afternoon calling just two times, I can usually get him to come all the way in.

The final key to thorough preseason preparation is patterning the turkey gun with the exact load you will use while hunting. Most of my clients’ opening day misses—and a few of my own—may be attributed to oversight in this area. Nowadays, I generally insist turkey clients arrive in camp early enough to put a couple of shots on paper.

It certainly helps to know right where the gun is shooting, and if you do this shooting well in advance, you may try different loads to find the best pattern possible. I start with No. 5 plated shot as that typically patterns with sufficient density and also delivers lethal penetration at a bit more than 40 yards.

I also have those clients take a couple of shots from their off-shoulder, just so they will know how to get off a shot without undue movement should a gobbler come in on their bad side. Every spring, one or more of them kills his gobbler shooting from the off-shoulder, and then they always wonder why they didn’t learn this long ago.

Opening day success is almost always due to that kind of preseason preparation—and don’t you forget it.

bagged a big turkey