Depending on your state, the turkey season may run anywhere from early March to the end of May. While southern hunters are finishing up for the year, others to the north are just getting started. Most turkey hunters are in a rush to fill a tag, but some of the best days in the woods come throughout the month of May, including the end of the month. Late-season hunting, however, often requires some special considerations.
By Jay Anglin
Dial it Down
The old notion that turkeys get weird during the late-season is only partly true. Sure, they’re worn out from the stresses of breeding and can act a little funky, but as hens start to spend more time on their nests and ignore toms, the boys become increasingly desperate for companionship. Much like a rutting whitetail buck, they make uncharacteristic mistakes. This vulnerability gives savvy hunters an edge, as many longbeards will be on the prowl looking for love in the mid-morning through early afternoon.
Assuming proper concealment and calling are employed, cruising toms will often approach in a workmanlike manner. These dudes are on a mission. Check common areas and open lanes between known strut zones and keep your ears open. This is a great time to pattern a bird that you’ve seen on the way home from a morning hunt and get out in front of him the next day.
However, late-May gobblers tend to vocalize less and might not move very far from the security of their late-spring roosts. They still go through the motions for an hour or two every morning, but are prone to petering out much quicker. It’s important to capitalize on these birds early before they shut down for the day. This is particularly true during hot, muggy weather.
This situation creates a conundrum for hunters, as the potential to work a bird is whittled down to only a brief amount of time each day. While hunters need to be somewhat aggressive with movement and adjustments, these studs have seen it all and have successfully avoided hunters throughout the season; push too hard and you won’t see him again until next spring.
Finding the right balance is a matter of taking each gobbler’s particular traits into account and then applying that intel to your game plan. Don’t rush it. This is one of those times when hunters establish their rank in the elite turkey killer club.
As turkey season progresses some spots will turn on, while others languish. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is hunting pressure. The best way to figure out where birds are located is to skip the fly down every few days and go on a listening “milk run”. Birds can be difficult to see when the land is well vegetated, so listening for vocalizations is key. The other option is to try and shock gobble at dusk. Randomly roosting birds is by no means definitive, but it can often reveal the presence of unknown birds.
During the late season, winter wheat, alfalfa and hay is often tall and dense enough that turkeys will avoid it. This is especially true when the crops are wet with dew in the morning or on rainy days. The birds may roost in the same general areas, but they’ll head to stubble fields or freshly plowed dirt. Keep in mind—depending on the long-term weather pattern—farmers might cut hay at any time during May. Turkeys will often reappear in those fields immediately following haying activity. Want to find out when farmers on the land you hunt or adjacent properties will be cutting? Ask them.
With the exception of nesting hens, birds will often vacate woodlots with excessive brush and heavy understory after foliage fully develops. Use these cues to your advantage and look for clean forested areas adjacent to relatively bare ground such as pastures and cut hay fields.
Hunt Crummy Weather
During wet weather, hens will leave nests briefly in the morning and afternoon to forage and stretch. Though breeding efforts have largely subsided, dominant toms with harems of hens will strut with the ladies dutifully—until they leave him standing at the aisle when they race back to keep their clutch warm and dry. If you are prepared for this scenario, and have the patience to wait him out in the crummy conditions, it’s a good bet he will finish perfectly to a hen decoy or two.
One of the best investments a turkey hunter can make is a packable rain suit or waterproof camo clothing. Hunting from a blind is by far and away the best option when dealing with inclement weather but many hunters enjoy slinking through turkey country on wet, windy days when gobblers tend to stand in the open. The noise and distraction of the wind and rain offers an unusual opportunity for hunters to move unnoticed behind lush spring foliage. Slipping nearly into range and using light, subtle calling can yield great results. Gobblers may move slower in such conditions, but will often investigate and approach other turkeys or decoys.
Avoid the Bugs
While many turkey hunters around the country enjoy relatively insect-free hunts, others know that going after a big longbeard in the swamps of the Midwest can mean a nightmarish experience with biting flies and mosquitoes. Tick-borne disease has become a major problem as well. Don’t take chances; protect yourself from this onslaught by tucking your shirt and pant legs in to keep the creepy crawlies off your skin.
You can’t kill a turkey if you don’t win the battle with the bugs. Many hunters consider a Thermacell device a must for mid to late-season turkey hunting. At a minimum, use aerosol or roll-on repellent but avoid exposing calls and camo gun finishes, as the chemicals may damage them.
Lock Your Spots
Toward the end of turkey season, many hunters are worn-out from the grind of early wake-up calls and balancing life and work with hunting. It’s a bit of a relief when it comes to an end, as the siren song of turkey hunting subsides virtually overnight. But, there are a lot of tasks that are best handled when turkey hunting is still fresh on our minds.
Follow-up with landowners and thank them for the privilege or allowing you to hunt their ground. A certificate to the local diner or a gift of some kind is always welcomed. I have goose and venison processed into hunter sticks or summer sausage or make some turkey jerky and deliver it to landowners to thank them personally. It’s easy to text or call, but face-to-face smiles and handshakes go a long way in assuring they know how much it means to us.
As the season progresses, many hunters keep a list of new properties and destinations that catch their eye. Pull out the map and start the process now for next year’s season and travel. Make a note in the calendar for any permit application deadlines and start communicating with outfitters or friends in other regions. It’s likely they are still thinking about it too, and many guides will be booked well in advance of the season. Finally, knock on new doors and start getting to know additional local landowners who can unlock new ground close to home next season.
Lastly, take the time to organize all of your turkey hunting gear. Tune your calls, wash those stinky clothes and make sure the decoys are properly stored so they don’t look like they have a broken neck when you pull them out next year. Plano’s large Sportsman’s Trunks are durable, affordable and stackable, and represent the perfect solution for organizing and storing one’s turkey-hunting gear.