During my long outdoor-writing career, I’ve been blessed to be able to venture into the spring woods with some of the best turkey hunters in the nation. Two of those elite turkey hunters, Ron Jolly and Larry Norton, I’ll rank right up there with anybody as far as woodsmanship, calling and just anticipating what a turkey will do.
With spring arriving at an earlier than usual date this year (the earliest since 1896 according to scientific publications), understanding turkey tendencies is important for the remainder of the season.
“It was wide open opening day for us,” said Norton, a two-time World Champion turkey caller from Pennington, Ala. “We heard 10 turkeys gobble on opening morning. We heard more than that, but there were 10 gobbling strong.
“I knew it was going to be that way because I’ve got some pictures of a youth turkey hunt where I called up a turkey for a kid the first year they had the youth seasons on the Wildlife Management Areas, which was something like 17 or 18 years ago. We were taking pictures in the mother’s front yard, which was the weekend before turkey season came in, and her azaleas were in full bloom. This is the first year I’ve seen that since then. The dogwoods were actually blooming before turkey season came in.”
Norton said he heard turkeys gobbling the last week of deer season this year as they were starting to gather hens.
“That same year [of the aforementioned youth hunt] I was coming out of the woods at Bent Creek the last week of turkey season, and I actually saw a hen with nine little ones that were bigger than quail,” he said. “So they had already laid, sat and hatched. That was the last week of April and she sat on the nest for 28 days, so she started laying in February.”
Norton suggests turkey hunters stock up on insect repellent because the mosquitoes and gnats are going to be bad for the rest of the season.
“You’d better try to get your limit in a hurry because you’re just about not going to be able to stand it the last two weeks of the season,” he said. “Eight o’clock to 12 o’clock is probably going to be your best time to hunt. That’s when the satellite turkey is going to be out trying to find a hen. He’s not going to gobble a whole lot because he’s scared he’s going to get whipped. But if you can get one to answer you once or twice, just sit there. You’re probably going to hear more drumming than gobbling.”
Norton predicts that a little later in the season, most of the hens will be sitting on nests and laying heavily. With the current hunting conditions, the hens will likely fly down and head straight to a clear-cut or wherever their nests are located.
“I’ve done this a thousand times,” he said. “If that turkey answers you on the limb or he answers you after he hits the ground, don’t go anywhere. You may hear him gobbling going away from you. All he’s doing is following those hens, and they’re going to lose him when they go to lay. Just as soon as they lose him, he’s going to go back to where he heard that yelping. All you’ve got to do is yelp him one time to let him know you’re still there. Then you’d better get your safety off, because he’s coming.
“When I was guiding, I’d have that happen so many times. When the gobbler would start walking away, I’d pull my mask down and take a break. The customer would say, ‘Let’s go down and try to head him off.’ I’d say, ‘No, he’ll be back in 20 or 30 minutes as soon as the hens get rid of him.’ They’d be sitting there griping at me, thinking we needed to go somewhere else. I told them he’s going to gobble right out there. About 30 minutes later, sure enough, he’d gobble. I’d tell them to get their masks back on and I’d yelp one time. He’d cut me off, and within 30 seconds to a minute, you’d see him coming.”
Norton says if you do hunt turkeys at daylight, you’d better be between the gobblers and the hens’ nesting grounds.
“If he answers you, even though he’s going away from you, just stay put,” he said. “He will come back. You’re not going to have a lot of run-and-gun hunting like when the gobblers are trying to get with those first hens of the spring. This is when the patience part of turkey hunting pays off in early springs like this. We were in mid-season when the season opened this year.”
Jolly, a longtime outdoors videographer who lives in Tuskegee, said he had his best opening weekend ever in Alabama because the season is way ahead of a normal schedule. He bagged a gobbler each of the two days and witnessed two other turkeys reduced to bag.
“Usually on opening weekend, you’re dealing with turkeys covered up with hens, covered up with hens, covered up with hens,” Jolly said. “Because spring is so early, I saw four turkeys die the opening weekend, and only two of them had hens. Those two had two hens each, and he left them to come to me. One flew a creek to come to me. Long story short, you start hunting them like it’s the end of the April at the first of April. You go figure out where a gobbler has a strut zone set up or where the hens are going to nest. You just hang around and hunt in the middle of the day.”
Jolly confirmed with his renowned wildlife photographer wife, Tes, that the turkey activity is far advanced from a normal year.
“Tes is with them every day,” Ron said. “She said they are absolutely three weeks ahead of normal. Here’s what happens now. In a regular year, the turkey gobbles his head off on the roost and when he flies down he hushes up. He may crank up and gobble here and there, but you’re not going to hear him go on a tear because he’s got all those hens around him.
“Now if he gobbles and hushes that means a hen or two have come to him, but I can promise you they ain’t staying, so hang out with that turkey. When that hen gets a chance, she’s going to get away from him. All of a sudden, he’s standing there alone. He’s going to crank back up trying to find another hen. That’s when they’re very, very vulnerable.”
Jolly said he was doing a video shoot south of Montgomery last week in a fairly populated area with several small farms scattered around when he heard a familiar sound.
“At 9 o’clock a turkey started gobbling his head off, and he never moved,” he said. “He gobbled no less than every two minutes until 11:20. He was begging for somebody to come shoot him. When you find that turkey gobbling now, he’s alone. He will come to your calling.”
Jolly expects by the last week of April the mating activity is going to be pretty much done. That’s not to say you can’t kill a turkey, he said, but you’re going to have to change tactics.
“If this heat persists, get in the shade to hunt,” Jolly said. “These gobblers aren’t doing anything in the middle of the day. The gobblers are getting in the shade to do their strutting and waiting until it cools off in the afternoon. So you’re going to have to do the same.”
Photos by author