WHEELER COUNTY — It was April Fools’ Day.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
The warbling gobbles seemed to resonate from every nook and cranny of the dim early morning, echoing near and far in the chilly breeze on an outing several years ago. What had been a subdued start to the day quickly gave way to a humming wave of chirps and cackles that overpowered everything within earshot. There’s no doubt there were a few turkeys in this part of the world, but the question remained whether they felt like cooperating or not.
The first birds that meandered by after getting off the roost were some curious hens that made a beeline to the cottonwood tree underneath which I was sitting. They stopped about 30 yards away after following a livestock path, checking out what was what in the low light. They didn’t spook, but simply moved off into a dusty clearing adjacent to the motte of trees and weathered laydowns. The next feathered bunch to come passing through was a dozen or so jakes that seemed to be able to talk the talk but not quite walk the walk. They tried to strut and put on airs for all the ladies to see, but they didn’t seem to have the dominant behavior of an old boss yet.
Finally, a half-dozen blue- and white-headed mature toms made their way into the arena, cutting up whenever Quincy Weatherly of Salt Fork Outfitters would play the striker eloquently along his slate call behind me. As usual, the hens and jakes gravitated closer than the older gobblers, and the entire bunch eventually headed out into an open field where they hung out for close to an hour.
Every scratch along the slate soon after would elicit some kind of vocalization, but the turkeys seemed to be lukewarm to the whole idea of running in to check out those “other” birds over there that were constant in their ruckus.
After the birds had moved off, Weatherly and I talked turkey.
“Did you see that tom that came down the fence line behind us?” he said. “I heard a poof’ and looked over and he was right there. He didn’t say a word, but his head was beat white and he was all strutted up. He looked like he was about to pass out.”
All I could do was chuckle on my first hunt of a spring turkey season.
Such is the quandary hunters face when chasing after turkeys during the beginning of the spring season: The body is willing, but the heart isn’t quite there for our loquacious quarry.
This year again signals a change from when there was a single statewide season. In the southern part of the state, the Rio Grande turkey season began this weekend, while in northern counties it begins two weeks later. This year’s seasons run the same amount of time, they were just scheduled to hit the “peak” of when gobblers become more active and birds separate from their larger winter flocks to carry out their breeding cycle. Though many hunters in southern counties likely will be scratching their heads about a delay of gobbling activity, there likely will be the same percentage in northern portions of the state who wonder the same thing as their season creeps along.
When it comes to turkeys, there’s no set time when they turn on and start coming to hunters’ calls. And since weather and range and forage conditions also can play a big factor in the breeding cycle, it often can be hit-or-miss for many hunters looking to attach a tag to a mature bird in early April. There likely will be no shortage of young hens and jakes in most places, making this season one that may not be as solid, but one that likely will set a great foundation for coming years.
That’s probably not what most turkey hunters would like to hear, but there are still going to be some better birds out there that will start acting right and coming to calls in the next month. That might be as early as this week or as late as the end of next month.
The only way to know for sure is to get out and park yourself near a roost tree or staging area. The birds will let you know if they’re interested in your mechanical musings. If they’re not, there’s not a whole lot you can do other than try to set up an ambush along a travel route while waiting the birds out.
As the season progresses, your chances of cutting out an amorous gobbler and bringing him closer to you certainly go up, but the apex of activity also diminishes with each passing day.
With that in mind, here are some quick tips that have helped in the past when turkeys proved fickle.
Use the terrain to your favor. Turkeys often don’t go through tall or thick brush and utilize alleys along heavier cover. If you can figure out frequented lanes, it will make bringing in an obliging tom somewhat easier.
Use decoys wisely. Sometimes a decoy will bring a bird right in, while other times it can act as a deterrent. If birds stay bunched up and don’t respond well to a decoy in the morning, you might not want to stick it out on an afternoon sit.
Stay inside the box. A box call can be an effective tool for many hunters since it is easier to cut out a loud series of cackles than other calls. Especially in windy conditions, it can be the edge you’re looking for if the birds don’t want to play by your rules.
Stay alert. If birds aren’t responding well, you never know when your calls may bring in a silent turkey that was interested but didn’t feel like letting his presence be known.
This year’s spring turkey seasons are shaping up to be a little tougher when it comes to locating and calling in a mature gobbler. I’ve got a reason for my first hunt during that previous season, but honestly, turkeys don’t care what the date might be.
They can make fools out of us any day of the week.