Strategy for the Four Stages of a Gobbler’s Spring Behavior
above: Bart w/ Osceola pic.- “Bart With a Mature Florida Osceola Using An Old Jake 1-Hander Turkey Call and a Jacob Underhammer 20ga. Muzzleloader”
Like the bugle of an elk at first light, the gobble of the turkey in the middle of the woods is one of the greatest sounds mother nature has given us.
In 1966 the wild turkey was reintroduced into Vermont after over a century-long absence. In 1973 the population had boomed to a point to allow a lottery only spring season to hunt this amazing bird. This conservation success story is considered to be one of the greatest and was the road map to re-introducing the turkey across the country. My father, Bart Jacob, was an avid outdoorsman and his favorites were anything that had to do with calling, bugling elk, decoying & calling ducks, etc. Turkey hunting became his passion. By 1976 he had established a company named Old Jake Products, by 1982 he had been awarded two game call patents, by 1984 he had successfully called in 100 birds to his gun and countless number of birds for outdoor celebrities and statesmen. Bart wrote a book in 1985 titled “The Grand Spring Hunt” it was the first time anyone had written about the different stages during the tukey’s breeding season. Below is one of many chapters that will be reprinted on “Wild Surroundings.”
The Grand Spring Hunt
Chapter 9: Strategy for the Four Stages of a Gobbler’s Spring Behavior
As humans we have a highly developed brain and reasoning power. Skilled psychiatrists can predict fairly closely our behavior under given circumstances. Turkeys have small, undeveloped brains. The only thing predictable about their behavior is that they are unpredictable. For this reason any statements about turkey behavior made in this book can be wrong as well as right. A successful turkey hunter must be a lucky turkey hunter. However, some understanding of what takes place can help stack the deck in your favor.
Across the nation spring gobbler hunting spans three months. Thus, you may find yourself hunting a gobbler during one of several stages of spring behavior. We know, for instance, that the change in hours of light as opposed to darkness is what triggers the biological mechanism controlling breeding. But this is altered to some extent by climate conditions. A cold, wet spring can delay mating; a warm, dry spring, may hasten it.
Local conditions can also be a factor. One year in April I hunted Merriam’s in a five-mile long, north-south running Wyoming canyon. There was snow in the north end but just a few patches in the south end. The turkeys in the north end were still in mixed flocks; those in the south end had split up, a gobbler on the head of each side canyon strutting with his hens.
The gobblers would not be hunted in the canyon’s north end the same way as those in its south end. Different tactics are used in hunting gobblers in mixed flocks; hunting gobblers gathering hens; hunting gobblers with harems; and hunting gobblers after the hens have left and are sitting on their nests.
Rio grande turkey TX pic #1- “Rio Grande Turkeys in Stage One, Congregated in Large Flocks Just Starting to Establish Pecking Order”
Seldom in the East, but often in the West, you will be hunting gobblers during the first stage or in mixed flocks. Merriam’s and Rio Grande flocks can be made up of 50 to 100 birds. I hunted Merriam’s when there were at least 12 mature gobblers in a flock. With a flock like this, you may see this many strutting birds on one hillside. When turkeys are in flocks it takes more scouting and roosting to find them than when they are spread out over an area.
Western flocks also tend to cover a lot of ground in a day. I once followed a flock of Merriam’s up and down one steep-sided canyon after another until I quit only to find them back in the same roost that night. For this reason it is always feast or famine when hunting turkey flocks. Once you locate the flock you will find the gobblers do not respond the way you would hope. They are gobbling and strutting but are reluctant to come to you when they are surrounded by hens.
The gobblers are not yet driving off jakes and pay little attention to other mature gobblers except for the long-since established pecking order. Also, they are not interested in gathering more hens as they are already overwhelmed by them. Before the flock splits up there may be as many as 100 hens in it. Thus, normal calling does little more than evoke gobbles and only then when it is done a little louder than the real hens are doing or is done during a quiet spell.
The flock is usually very vocal at this time, particularly during the first few hours of the day, and this gives you a chance to get close or even get in a position ahead of it.
Once the flock is in your vicinity, the trick is not to try enticing the gobbler but to call in a group of hens. The hens are very gregarious at this time; for the most part, they have lived together as a flock since birth. Also, they have established a pecking order. When you hear a group of them yelping, try to imitate them and yelp back, but do it more often and louder than they. If when they answer back a “run of yelps” gets raspier and more urgent try to do the same. When hens are heard clucking, you cluck. And, when because of your refusal to join them, their clucks get sharper and more annoyed you do the same. In either case the chances are they will head your way either to settle things or out of obedience. Where they go one or more gobblers will follow, strutting. All the turkey talk will definitely hold his attention.
I have had good luck with both yelps and clucks in both circumstances. Earlier in the book we mentioned the two mature gobblers fighting it out over their dead comrade. It happened like this: I found a flock of Merriam’s and got above them. Hidden at the base of a pine, I watched several groups of gobblers and hens cross below me. When I yelped, they gobbled, but gave no other sign of interest. When the next group showed up, I started imitating them—yelping on a Perfection Raspy D mouth call. When I got an answer I just kept up a steady series of urgent raspy yelps, filling in with some clucks on my 1-Hander Slate. It didn’t take long for six hens, gobbler in tow, to head up the hill toward me. I continued non-stop yelping even after they went out of sight in a shallow ravine and only quit when they came up over the edge opposite me. I sat still as the hens walked and pecked their way by me, splitting up either side of where I sat. After they passed I had only to raise my gun and shoot as the gobbler’s head appeared over the edge.
With the shot he dropped out of sight, but the range was only 10 to 15 yards and I heard him flop. I ran over and stood on the edge of the ravine looking down at him flopping in the bottom. And there beside him were two more mature gobblers, who, after giving him a peck or two, started going at each other in earnest to see who would inherit his share of the hens.
A later hunt found me in the same situation. I heard the flock and crept to the top of the rimrock outcropping overlooking the area where the birds were gobbling. I sneaked through an opening and sat down between a pine on my left and the outcropping on my right. There were turkeys all around. A large gobbler strutted on a hillside about 70-80 yards away. He was being copied by four or five other mature birds I could see spread out in the area. None were within range.
I then heard hens clucking down in the bottom to my left, I started to do the same on my 1-Hander slate call. We clucked back and forth for a while and finally one old boss hen decided to let me have it with a series of sharp, annoyed clucks. I did the same and soon heard them heading for me. I heard them walking just the other side of the pine on my left when a nice gobbler came strutting around the corner not 20 feet below me. With the shot he flopped to bottom as the others gobbled at every flop. I let the now alerted flock work its way out of sight and went down and retrieved my turkey.
I certainly can’t say this method always works, nor is it the only way, but calling up the hens of a mixed flock works for me.
We will talk about calling hens again, but you don’t have to think of it when the next stage of spring gobbler behavior occurs, the gathering of hens.
Because of the gobbling activity, this is one of the two times you can really enjoy hunting. Also, you often get to hunt all gobblers North, South, East, and West at this stage. Sometimes it only takes one or two days for the gobblers to go from stage one to stage two. Biologists talk about the two peaks of gobbling activity and this is the first of these.
The gobbler is trying to attract, round up and contain his own group of hens. He may take hens from the flock and choose the territory he will dominate or he may leave the flock, pick a territory and try attracting hens there. This new territory will now contain him and his hens in an area limited generally to the area where nesting will take place. Therefore, the wide-ranging Western birds will no longer travel much farther than what is needed for food and water and nesting habitat. And the dominant gobbler in the given area, either Eastern or Western, will stay in the area no matter how much pressure is put on him until he has been killed or the hens have left him and are incubating.
Osceola Turkey FL pic #2- “Osceola Turkeys in Stage Two, Dominate Toms Starting to Gather Hens”
During this stage the gobbler is trying his best to attract hens. This is the peak of gobbling activity and gobbling may continue all day. To a gobbler, any hen sounds are worth investigating in hopes it will add to the harem. Sometimes you find a gobbler looking for his first hen and his actions at this time would label him as “hot.” A “hot” gobbler can be called in with little experience. Often these birds seem to abandon all caution and so called “wildness.” However, older birds at this time of temporary foolishness can still prove difficult to call. These birds, often Eastern or Florida gobblers that have lived through heavy hunter pressure, can still challenge the best.
Generally speaking, the more experienced the bird the subtler the calling must be and the more careful the selection of a calling spot must be. This is why most of the long, sharp, hook-spurred gobblers are only taken by the best of hunters no matter what stage the spring hunt is in.
Because of their constant gobbling, the males are obviously easier to find at this stage and in some cases they will go to great efforts to find you.
Merriam’s Turkey Black Hills pic #3- “Merriam’s Turkey in Stage Three, Flock Separation is Complete and the Toms Have Their Hens”
One day I was working along the top of the rimrock of a Black Hills canyon. I stopped every 100 yards or so yelping loudly on my tube. In the canyon bottom a friend of mine, David Baldinger, was waiting beside his pickup and heard me calling. Also, unknown to me, he heard a gobbler responding far up the canyon. As I worked my way up, the gobbler was coming down answering my calls. According to David, he watched this gobbler fly across three side canyons in his effort to get to me. I finally heard him and was able to work him in across a small clearing atop the rimrock. Sometimes, however I fail to call a Vermont bird across a shallow ditch.
Gobblers may also have one or two hens with them at this stage and still be seeking more, or at least have an interest in hen sounds he hears. If he doesn’t come in readily, you may have to change your position. This is best done after you stop calling for a while to see what he will do. Often, stopping your calling and being perfectly quiet will make him come in to see where you have gone. He was interested but, having one or two hens with him, was not going to go out of his way as long as he knew you were still around. If you move on him without waiting you may hear him sound off again at your old position.
Eastern Turkey Green Mountains pic #4- “Eastern Turkey in Stage Four, Hens Have all Left to Incubate and The Gobbler is Now Waking Up Alone”
One spring I heard a Vermont bird open up late in the morning. He was at the head of an overgrown pasture in the middle of which a ravine led to a brook. Large timber grew on the edges and banks of the ravine. Brush and a few old apple trees stood in the pasture but there was little cover to conceal a moving hunter.
I called and got answers from the gobbler and a hen he was with. He walked back and forth in the heavy timber. Since I seemed unable to lure him out, I decided to circle and come up the brook into the ravine. I got there and heard the hen yelping and cutting like crazy so I set-up on the other side of the ravine. I was just about to call when I heard a gobble back across the pasture where I had just been. I figured there were now two hens on my side so I mimicked the hen’s yelps and cuts. The gobbler answered, but still stayed over there looking for the new hen. Every time I called, the real hen wandered over to the edge of the ravine. Not wanting her in my lap, I would quit calling. Finally, she decided to come over anyway and I had to wait until she went out of sight in the ravine bottom. I then opened up for all I was worth, but the gobbler was taking his own sweet time coming back. The hen repaired and walked right up to my feet. I didn't dare move; I had my gun pointing across the ravine. Finally, she made me out and without moving off, started to putt. I saw the old gobbler’s head poke through the “hard hack” as he tried to see what was going on but I never got a shot. I would have had him all to myself if I had stayed long enough where I started.
For the most part, however, gobblers gathering hens provide at least half the classing hunts described in the stories you hear and articles you read.
Gobblers, however, at stage three, with their hens as they have become a unit, can be very difficult to hunt. Because of the apparent lack of gobbling and interest by gobblers, many hunters quit hunting, feeling the gobbling season has ended. Of course, this is not a prime hunting time, but success can be had, particularly if you know a little about what is happening and have a few tricks to try.
The gobbler has now settled in with his harem of two to six or more hens and has little interest in more. He is with them all day, has bred each at least once and except for one or more of them sneaking off for a short while to lay an egg she is back, and he has never learned to count. She will be with him until roosting time and then she will be there all night with the other hens just a few trees away. At dawn he can tell by their soft yelps and clucks that they are there and he may gobble once on the roost before flying down to let them know where he is or he may not even bother to gobble.
They know each other well and fly down and move off together usually over the same path day after day. Little talk is necessary to keep in touch. The hens can be heard scratching and walking and occasionally making soft whiney yelps and soft clicks and purrs. The gobbler struts his stuff and seldom gobbles. If he does gobble, and if he is an old bird, he may gobble so softly it cannot be heard much more than 100 yards. It's all that is needed to keep in touch with his hens.
Once I had one of these gobblers strutting on the opposite bank no more than 45 yards away. When he gobbled I wasn't sure if it was him or another bird that was out of sight. If I hadn't seen him gobble I would not have known. The first time this happened to me I thought the old bird had some shot in his tonsils but I have seen it enough now to realize they often do this.
When turkeys are in this stage the most important thing you can do is have an idea of their daily pattern which we discussed earlier. If you know this pattern you have several ways of trying for the big bird.
The first is to call him off the roost before his hens can get to him. This requires knowledge of where he roosts and where he usually flies down to. One spring, a large Vermont gobbler gave fits to the farmer who owned the roadside cornfield where he strutted with his for hens each morning. Hunter after hunter asked permission to hunt this bird. Several of us hunted him unsuccessfully for the first few days of the season. The gobbler was just not interested. He gobbled tantalizing on his roost, but when he gobbled after flying down he did it so softly we couldn't figure out where he was. The third day I tried him I found his roost. In the dark, I moved in close and set-up against a maple top at the base of a ledgy hillside overlooking the cornfield.
The old bird and his hens were roosting in some trees in the ledges from where they could glide down into the field. Just a few yards of woods and a stone wall separated me from this field. Shortly after setting-up I made a cluck or two and the old bird gobbled. I made no further sound but he continued to gobble. Then I heard someone coming. The gobbler stopped and a hunter walked by. After all settled down again I clucked and to my joy he opened up again. A little while later I heard the beating of wings and the gobbler glided over my head toward the field. Before his feet hit the ground I made quick series of three yelps on a Quaker Boy “Old Turk” mouth call.
It worked because he immediately ran in my direction. Over the wall he came and into the pattern of my 3-inch magnum. At the shot, four hens flew from their roost above me. But on the ground lay a beautiful Vermont gobbler weighing 22 pounds and sporting an exceptionally thick 9½-inch beard and spurs 1¼-inches long. Mounted, he adorns my office.
The second method is to “wait him out.” At some time during the morning the hens will leave to lay an egg. Eventually, some will leave to incubate her eggs and not return. Depending on the number of hens with the gobbler, there are periods when he is left alone for a while. When alone, he is receptive, but it is difficult for you to be in the right place at the right time. What you can do, however, is let him know in advance you are around. He’ll remember you when he is alone. This is best done near his roost as the following story reveals.
I tried calling in a New York gobbler several days in vain, but I found where he roosted and I knew where he went during the morning. However it was almost impossible to get near the roost in the dry leaves without the chance of spooking him. He roosted just over the eastern side of a low open hardwood ridge and upon flying down assembled with his hens on top of the ridge then traveled west down the other side across and then out a long parallel ridge.
I moved as close as I dared and then set-up but did no calling. He gobbled several times on the roost then flew down, gathered up his two hens and headed west. As soon as I could I moved to the assembly area and made one loud, short cackle. There was no answer, I made myself comfortable for the long wait.
About 8:30 I heard a gobble way out on the other ridge. He had probably just lost one, or maybe both, hens. At 9:10 he gobbled again. This time he was on his way back. I answered with a snappy series of yelps. Soon I saw him strutting down the other side of the brook, heading for me. A few more clucks on my slate had him gobbling and strutting in earnest only about 50 yards away. Just then out of the corner of my eye I saw two turkeys running in my direction. “His hens coming back,” I thought. But no, it was a pair of jakes trying to get to me ahead of the old boy. They were successful and after running me down started putting in alarm. I was left with the choice of a jake or nothing at all so I shot a jake. (The old gobbler would have been mine though, and all because he remembered that hen in the bush he left behind when the birds in hand had left him.)
The third method that we touched on before is “calling in the hens.” As previously related in the account in the chapter on Turkey calls, hens will come to a sharp clucking. I don’t believe they react to any form of yelping at this point in the season as well as they do to a sharp clucking or cutting. Yelps can be used to fill in occasionally, though. Again you must be in their immediate area.
Whether they come to throw out the intruder (hens are territorial), or to join a friend, I don’t know If you hear one hen making more noise than the others, a hen making louder yelps, sometimes coarser at the end, or sharper clucks, there is a good chance that she is a “boss” or dominant hen. I have found that if I imitate her I usually get an immediate reaction on her part as she aggressively approaches.
I’ve called up hens with gobblers, but I’ve also called up hens that for some reason were alone. I know that in one instance the gobbler was killed the previous day. I have kept lone hens around for quite a while, hoping all the chatter would attract a gobbler. I use a lot of clucks or a continuous cluck-and-purr sequence. If I start to lose the hen, a couple of nasal sounding yelps used in combination with the other calls often renews their interest.
The last method is to “challenge” the gobbler. There are only two occasions when you should gobble: the first, already discussed, is when you gobble to locate or roost a turkey; the other is to challenge a dominant turkey on his home grounds.
Any other time you make a gobble while turkey hunting you are inviting potential danger from turkey stalkers. Also, the gobble tells jakes or non-dominant gobblers in the area that they are not welcome.
A challenge must be made in the boss gobbler’s territory and preferably close in. If you work a turkey enough to know he has hens with him and is not interested in gathering more, you should also know where he goes with those hens. Set-up in his area and if you hear the birds or think they are there, try your gobble. If you get an answer, follow it with another gobble immediately. This constitutes the challenge. Each time the turkey gobbles, answer with your gobble and get ready. He should show up, at one time puffed up in display and at the next with his head high looking for the upstart on his grounds. His hens will probably be tagging along to watch the action. This can be as exciting as any confrontation with a game animal.
Challenging a gobbler is like challenging a bugling bull elk, which can result in a fighting mad animal emitting his wild, natural sounds and coming to do battle. It can stir the calmest soul. Also, it is a very effective method to lure a gobbler, as you will read in a later chapter.
The last stage in the spring behavior of the boss gobbler is when the last hen has gone to sit on her nest, not to return, and he, for the first time in many days, is alone. The first morning he wakes up and realizes the hens were not roosting with him, he usually goes crazy, spending the day running from place to place looking for them. That night he’s back on the roost, hoping it was all a bad dream.
For the next few days he’ll gobble a great deal both on the roost and on the ground. This is the second peak of gobbling activity. If he is an inexperienced bird he will again be “hot.” In this case he will be a sucker to any hen sounds he hears and may run over the hunter in foolish abandon.
However, an older more experienced bird, although he may gobble often, uses extreme caution in his approach. And if he has become “call shy” from all the season’s activity may even run from a perfectly executed, though wrong, call.
I’ve seen gobblers during this phase turn tail at a loud yelp. You are better off in the late season sticking to clucks and soft calls even if the old boy is gobbling up a storm. Sometimes, though, even soft calls don’t work. I ran into a bird in New York state that while he was doing lots of gobbling, disappeared at the sound of any call. He did, however, respond to the sound of my careful footsteps in the leaves and my attempts to scratch in the leaves like a turkey.
Also, patience becomes a virtue because one of these old gobblers will be very wary and time-consuming in their approach. They spend many exasperating minutes standing absolutely still, head erect, observing every inch of the woods before taking another step or going into a strut. But there are enough inexperienced gobblers and enough experienced hunters around to make this the second most productive time for taking gobblers.